Not long ago, a colleague was setting up a meeting and suggested bringing along spouses to socialize after the business was done. Not getting a positive reply, she emailed: “I’m getting a lack of enthusiasm for boring spouses with our meeting.” A minute later, a second, clarifying email arrived indicating that she “meant boring as a verb not an adjective.” She had spotted the ambiguity in the first message.
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.
China is playing an ever-increasing role on the world stage of international relations, and it is starting to bring its own vocabulary to the part. The terminology that comprises the core lexicon of international relations theory originates from Greek and Latin, and it was developed to describe and interpret the configurations of power that have been common in Western history. Chinese scholars are now actively mining the Chinese historical experience to develop new terms to apply both to their own past and to an ever-changing present.
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.
Someone recently asked me if I knew another word for entertaining. “What’s the context?” I replied, wondering if the writer was looking for an adjective like enjoyable or interesting or a gerund like wining and dining or possibly even a verb like pondering. “Use it in a sentence.” “Never mind,” she said, “I’ll just use the thesaurus button.” The what?
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.”
I previously wrote about how Scientific English is a specialized form of language used in formal presentations and publications. It is rich in ‘rare’, or extremely low frequency words, and the colocations that define them (i.e. we ‘sequence a genome’ or ‘stretch of ‘DNA’). Learning to comprehend the meaning of such formal language requires considerable exposure and writing it well truly exercises one’s knowledge of the ‘long tail’ of vocabulary.
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 […]
The Catalan sovereignty movement came to a head on 1 October 2017 in a beleaguered referendum declared illegal by the Spanish government, which sent in thousands of police and civil guard troops, used force against would-be voters, confiscated ballot boxes, and jailed civic leaders and elected officials on charges of sedition. The political crisis for the Spanish state as well as Catalonia continues.
Imagine you are explaining your research to a friend. You might say “I tested this factor” or “We examined that effect”. But when you later prepare a written version for a scientific journal, you would probably eliminate the “I” and “we” in favour of the passive voice, which, unfortunately, can sometimes present a challenge.
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.
At a Cambridge court hearing in 1584, Margery Johnson reported that she heard Thomas Wylkinson refer to “the said Jane Johnson thus ‘A pox of God on thee, bitch fox whore, that ever I knew thee.’” If Wylkinson indeed called down such a curse on Jane, he was guilty not of libel, but of slander, a verbal attack on another person. Libel, in contrast, is defined as defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures.
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.”
Recently I attended a writing retreat for faculty at my university. It was a three-day weekend break from email, grading and meetings. A dozen academic writers from a variety of disciplines gathered under the roof of a spacious rental home near a lake to talk about their projects, share strategies and concerns, and write for long stretches at a time.