Everybody’s path to etymology: From time to time I receive questions about etymology as a profession. Not long ago, someone from a faraway country even expressed the wish to get a degree in etymology. I can refer to my post of April 2, 2014. This month, a correspondent asked me to say something about why I became an etymologist. The history of my career cannot be interesting to too many of our readers, so I’ll be brief and rather tell a story.
My database on please the pigs is poor, but, since a question about it has been asked by an old and faithful correspondent, I’ll say about it what I can. Perhaps our readers will be able to contribute something to the sought-for etymology. When a word turns out to be of undisclosed or hopelessly obscure origin, we take the result more or less in stride, but it comes to many as a surprise to hear that the circumstances surrounding the emergence of an idiom are beyond reconstruction.
The most ancient roots: The question concerned the root rō- that is said to underlie the English words oar and row. Where did the root come from? This question is almost equal to the more basic one, namely: “How did human language come into being?” The concept of the root is ambiguous. When we deal with living languages, we compare words like work, works, worked, rework, worker, and the rest and call their common part their root.
Odds and ends: I am delighted to say that in January I received unusually many questions. When this blog came into existence, the idea was that I would be flooded by “notes and queries,” as happens to word columnists who work for newspapers. That is why the last week of every month was reserved for answers. But all these years the traffic has been modest, and sometimes my replies were limited to what I had read in the comments. January and the beginning of February 2018 have been an exception; hence the extended “gleanings.”
My most recent post (mad as a hatter) aroused a good deal of criticism. The reason is clear: I did not mention the hypothesis favored in the OED (mercury poisoning). Of course, when I quoted the medical explanation of long ago, I should have written the last set of hypotheses… instead of the last hypothesis. I find all medical explanations of the idiom untenable, and I should have been explicit on this point, rather than hiding behind polite silence.
About every well-known English idiom one can nowadays find so much interesting material on the Internet that almost nothing is left for an ambitious etymologist to add. Mad as a hatter has been discussed especially often, and my detailed database contains nearly nothing new. Yet I decided to join the ranks of the researchers of […]
Not too long ago, one of our constant correspondents proposed the etymology of Greek koupí “oar.” I do not know the origin of that word and will probably never know. Koupí did not show up in my most detailed dictionary of Classical Greek, and I suspect that we are dealing with a relative late coinage. By way of compensation, I decided to write something about the origin of Engl. oar and about some other words connected with it.
From time to time I receive questions too long for my monthly gleanings. The same happened last week. A reader wanted to know the origin of the eena, meena (or eenie, meenie) rhyme. Although not much can be said with certainty about this matter, a few facts have been established. The Internet devotes a lot of space to this “jingle.”
I seldom, if ever, try to be “topical” (I mean the practice of word columnists to keep abreast of the times and discuss the words of the year or comment on some curious expression used by a famous personality), but the calendar has some power over me. The end of the year, the beginning of the year, the rite of spring, the harvest—those do not leave me indifferent.
At the end of December, it is natural to look back at the year almost spent. Modern etymology is a slow-moving coach, and great events seldom happen in it. As far as I know, no new etymological dictionaries have appeared in 2017, but one new book has. It deals with the word kibosh, and I celebrated its appearance in the November “Gleanings.”
Many things are new. The vocabulary of the Germanic languages shows its great potential when new objects have to be described. Even to characterize people wearing shiningly new clothes English has a picturesque phrase, namely, he/she has come (or stepped) out of the bandbox.
This post is in answer to a correspondent’s query. What I can say about the etymology of job, even if condensed, would be too long for my usual “gleanings.” More important, in my opinion, the common statement in dictionaries that the origin of job is unknown needs modification. What we “know” about job is sufficient for endorsing the artless conclusions drawn long ago. It would of course be nice to get additional evidence, but there is probably no need to search for it and no hope to dig it up.
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See the previous posts with the same title. We are approaching the end of the drama. It will be a thriller without a denouement, a tragedy without catharsis, but such are most etymological dramas. Putting the kibosh on the origin of a hard word or phrase is an almost impossible endeavor. Heraldry for etymologists and a note on unlikely candidates – It has been said, and for good reason, that, whenever people played cards, every man whose unpopularity made him hated by the people and bearing as arms nine lozenges could be referred to as the curse of Scotland.
A time-consuming kibosh – Long ago (19 May 2010), I wrote a post on the origin of the mysterious word kibosh, part of the idiom to put the kibosh on “to put an end to something.” The discussion that followed made me return to this subject in 28 July 2010, and again three years later (14 August 2013). Since that time, the word has been at the center of attention of several researchers, and last month a book titled Origin of Kibosh by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little appeared (Routledge Studies in Etymology.
Battles, butchers, and tyrants – CULLODEN. The battle of Culloden took place on 16 April 1746 between the forces of the Catholic “Young Pretender” Charles Edward Stuart, who was at the head of the Jacobites, and those of the government, led by Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland.