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  • Author: Anatoly Liberman

Etymology gleanings for July 2021: tending my flock

This week’s blog post concerns the origin of English “flock”, as in a flock of gulls and a tuft of wool. The two flocks are not related and the origin of the first is unknown. I am unable to unravel this knot, but I can perhaps explain how the problem originated and venture a precarious hypothesis.

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The decay of the art of lying, or homonyms and their kin

I have been meaning to write about homonyms for quite some time, and now this time has come. Here we are interested in one question only, to wit—why so many obviously different words are not distinguished in pronunciation, or, to change the focus of the enquiry, why language, constantly striving for the most economical and most perfect means of expression (or so it seems), has not done enough to get rid of those countless ambiguities.

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On tokens, beacons, and finger-pointing

Token is a Common Germanic word. The forms are Old English “tāc(e)n”, Old High German “zeihhan”, etc. The English noun combined the senses “sign, signal” and “portent, marvel, wonder.” German “Zeichen” and Dutch “teken” are still alive but mean only “indication, sign.”

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Now in the field with a fieldfare

Last week, I wrote about the troublesome origin of heifer. The oldest recorded form of heifer is HEAHFORE. I promised to return to the equally enigmatic- fore. I even wrote that perhaps the etymology of the bird name “fieldfare” would throw additional light on heifer. Birds often follow herds of cattle for sustenance, so that my idea is, on the face of it, not unreasonable. Just for those who may be not quite sure what bird a fieldfare is, let me explain: it is a thrush.

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Still plowing with my heifer

Twenty-five years ago, quite by chance, I looked up the etymology of heifer in a dictionary and discovered the statement: “Origin unknown.” Other dictionaries were not much more informative, and I decided to pursue the subject. Thanks to this chance episode, etymology became my profession.

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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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Eric Partridge as an etymologist

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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Etymologies in bulk and in bunches

Two things sometimes come as a surprise even to an experienced etymologist. First, it may turn out that such words happen to be connected as no one would suspect of having anything in common. Second is the ability of words to produce one another in what seems to be an arbitrary, capricious, or chaotic way, so that the entire group begins to resemble an analog of a creeping plant.

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Putting my mouth where my money is: the origin of “haggis”

Haggis, to quote the OED, is “a dish consisting of the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep, calf, etc. (or sometimes of the tripe and chitterlings), minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions, etc., and boiled like a large sausage in the maw of the animal.”

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Going out on a limb

Etymologists often deal with a group of words that seem to be related, and yet the nature of the relationship is hard or impossible to demonstrate. Such groups are particularly instructive to investigate. I have long been interested in a possible connection between “limp” (adjective), “limp” (verb), and “lump.”

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Monthly gleanings for March 2021

In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist responds to readers’ queries, discussing “evil”, “wicked”, “sward”, “hunt”, “thraúō”, “trash”, and “tomorrow”.

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