The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures.
Amid Fourth of July parades and fireworks, I found myself asking this: why do we call this day ‘Independence Day’ rather than ‘Revolution Day?’ The short answer,of course, is that on 4 July, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a day that has been commemorated since 1777.
Have you ever noticed that many of our swear words sound very much like German ones and not at all like French ones? From vulgar words for body parts (a German Arsch is easy to identify, but not so much the French cul), to scatological and sexual verbs (doubtless you can spot what scheissen and ficken mean, English and German clearly draw their swear words from a shared stock in a way that English and French do not.
Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad.
Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages.
Slang—mocking, sneering, casting a jaundiced eye on the world’s proprieties—is by its nature sour. It finds approval hard, congratulation challenging, and affection almost impossible. Yet even if slang’s oldest meaning of “sugar” is money, and the second oldest a euphemism for the most common term for defecation, slang, for all its skepticism, cannot resist the tempting possibilities of “sweet.”
Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice.
Our earliest etymologists did not realize how much trouble the adjective bad would give later researchers. The first of them—John Minsheu (1617) and Stephen Skinner (1671)—cited Dutch quaad “bad, evil; ill.” (Before going on, I should note that today quad is spelled kwaad, which shows that a civilized nation using the Roman alphabet can do very well without the letter q.)
In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots.
Early summer in London is heralded by the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.
Since publishing Sorry About That a year ago, I’ve been trying to keep track of apologies in the news. Google sends me a handful of news items every day. Some are curious (“J.K. Rowling issues apology over slain ‘Harry Potter’ character”), some are cute (“Blizzard 2015: Meteorologist apologizes for ‘big forecast miss’”), and some are sad (“An open apology to my kids on the subject of my divorce”).
James Brown was famously introduced by Lucas ‘Fats’ Gonder at the Apollo Theater in the early 1960s as ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’, an epithet that stuck with Brown for his entire life. It is a fitting term for the word hip–the hardest working word in the lexicon of American slang. For more than 110 years, hip has found a prominent place in our slang, reshaping and repurposing itself every few decades to carry itself forward, from the early 20th century’s hip to today’s hipster movement.
As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question.
In the literature on language death and language renewal, two cases come up again and again: Irish and Hebrew. Mention of the former language is usually attended by a whiff of disapproval. It was abandoned relatively recently by a majority of the Irish people in favour of English, and hence is quoted as an example of a people rejecting their heritage. Hebrew, on the other hand, is presented as a model of linguistic good behaviour: not only was it not rejected by its own people, it was even revived after being dead for more than two thousand years, and is now thriving.
Often described as ‘business in front, party in the back,’ most everyone is familiar with this infamous hairstyle, which is thought to have been popularized in the 1980s. How, then, could the term have originated as early as 1393, centuries before David Bowie ever rocked it? We embarked on an etymological journey, figuratively traveling back in time to answer what seemed like a simple question: What, exactly, is a mullet? And does it really mean what we think it means?
Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.