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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The people of the mist

The true people of the mist are not the tribesman of Haggard’s celebrated novel but students of etymology. They spend their whole lives in the mist (or in the fog) and have little hope to see the sun.

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(All) my eye and Betty Martin!

The strange exclamation in the title means “Fiddlesticks! Humbug! Nonsense!” Many people will recognize the phrase (for, among others, Dickens and Agatha Christie used it), but today hardly anyone requires Betty Martin’s help for giving vent to indignant amazement. However, the Internet is abuzz with questions about the origin of the idiom, guarded explanations, and readers’ comments.

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Coming out of the fog

This is a postscript to last week’s post on fog. To get my point across, as they say, let me begin with a few short remarks on word origins, according to the picture emerging from our best dictionaries.

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“Fog” and a story of unexpected encounters

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,… Fog down the river….” This is Dickens (1852). But in 1889 Oscar Wilde insisted that the fogs had appeared in London only when the Impressionists discovered them, that is, they may have been around for centuries, but only thanks to the Impressionists, London experienced a dramatic change in its climate.

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Blessing and cursing, part 3: curse (conclusion)

The verb curse, as already noted, occurred in Old English, but it has no cognates in other Germanic languages and lacks an obvious etymon. The same, of course, holds for the noun curse. The OED keeps saying that the origin of curse is unknown.

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Etymology gleanings for October 2016

Mr. Madhukar Gogate, a retired engineer from India, has written me several times, and I want to comment on some of his observations. He notes that there is no interest in the reform in Great Britain and the United States. I have to agree.

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Blessing and cursing, part 2: curse

Curse is a much more complicated concept than blessing, because there are numerous ways to wish someone bad luck. Oral tradition (“folklore”) has retained countless examples of imprecations. Someone might want a neighbor’s cow to stop giving milk or another neighbor’s wife to become barren.

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Blessing and cursing, part 1: bless

Strangely, both bless and curse are rather hard etymological riddles, though bless seems to pose less trouble, which makes sense: words live up to their meaning and history, and bless, as everybody will agree, has more pleasant connotations than curse.

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Etymology gleanings for September 2016

As usual, let me offer my non-formulaic, sincere thanks for the comments, additions, questions, and corrections. I have a theory that misspellings are the product of sorcery, as happened in my post on the idiom catch a crab (in rowing). According to the routine of many years, I proofread my texts with utmost care.

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Sticking my oar in, or catching and letting go of the crab

Last week some space was devoted to the crawling, scratching crab, so that perhaps enlarging on the topic “Crab in Idioms” may not be quite out of place. The plural in the previous sentence is an overstatement, for I have only one idiom in view. The rest is not worthy of mention: no certain meaning and no explanation. But my database is omnivorous and absorbs a lot of rubbish. Bibliographers cannot be choosers.

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Our habitat: booth

This post has been written in response to a query from our correspondent. An answer would have taken up the entire space of my next “gleanings,” and I decided not to wait a whole month.

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“Clown”: The KL-series pauses for a while

Those who have followed this series will remember that English kl-words form a loose fraternity of clinging, clinking, and clotted-cluttered things. Clover, cloth, clod, cloud, and clout have figured prominently in the story.

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Etymology gleanings for August 2016

There was a desperate attempt to find a valid Greek cognate for cloth, but such a word did not turn up. One way out of the difficulty was to discover a Greek noun or verb beginning with sk- and refer its s to what is known as s-mobile (“movable s”). Movable s is all over the place. For instance, the English cognate of German kratzen is scratch (the same meaning).

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As black as what?

All words, especially kl-words, and no play will make anyone dull. The origin of popular sayings is an amusing area of linguistics, but, unlike the origin of words, it presupposes no technical knowledge. No grammar, no phonetics, no nothin’: just sit back and relax, as they say to those who fly overseas first class. So here is another timeout.

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