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The last shot at American Idioms

The use of metaphors is relatively late in the modern European languages; it is, in principle, a post-Renaissance phenomenon. The same holds for the idioms based on metaphors. No one in the days of Beowulf and perhaps even of Chaucer would have coined the phrase to lose one’s marbles “to become insane,” even if so long ago boys were as intent on collecting marbles as was Tom Sawyer.

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Celebrating banned books week

Book banning is not a new phenomenon. The Catholic Church’s prohibition on books advocating heliocentrism lasted until 1758. In England, Thomas Bowdler lent his name to the practice of expurgating supposed vulgarity with the 1818 publication of The Family Shakespeare, edited by his sister.

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Monthly gleanings for August 2019

As is known, glamour is a spelling variant of glamor even in American English. The question I received was about the connection between glamour and grammar. The word glamour appeared in printed books only in the 18th century.  It occurred in Scottish ballads and meant “magic, enchantment.”

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The sense and essence of smell

This post owes its existence to a letter from our correspondent, who was surprised to discover that dictionaries call the origin of the word smell unknown. Not that two and a half pages later this origin will become “known,” but the darkness around it may become less impenetrable.

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Flatterers and bletherskites

Almost exactly twelve years ago, on August 2, 2006 (see this post), when the world and this blog were much younger, I mentioned some problems pertaining to the etymology of the verb flatter. Since that time, I have written several posts on kl– and sl-words and discussed sound symbolism more than once. There is little […]

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Racial biases in academic knowledge

The word of racism evokes individual expressions of racial prejudice or one’s superiority over other races. An outrageous yet archetypical example is found in the recent racist tweets made by the President Donald Trump, attacking four congresswomen of color by suggesting that they go back to the countries where they are originally from if they criticize America. […]

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Some American phrases

This is a continuation of the subject broached cautiously on July 17, 2019. Since the comments were supportive, I’ll continue in the same vein. Perhaps it should first be mentioned that sometimes the line separating language study from the study of history, customs, and rituals is thin.

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How to construct palindromes

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same way forwards and backwards, like kayak or Madam, I’m Adam. The word comes to us from palindromos, made up of a pair of Greek roots: palin (meaning “again”) and dromos (meaning “way, direction”).

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Monthly gleanings for July 2019

As always, many thanks to those who left comments and to those who sent me emails and asked questions. Rather long ago, I wrote four posts on the etymology and use of the word brown (see the posts for September 24, October 1, October 15, and October 22, 2014). The origin of the animal name beaver was mentioned in them too. Here I’ll say what I know about the subject.

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Mangling etymology: an exercise in “words and things”

We read that Helgi, one of the greatest heroes of Old Norse poetry, sneaked, disguised as a bondmaid, into the palace of his father’s murderer and applied himself to a grindstone, but so bright or piercing were his eyes (a telltale sign of noble birth, according to the views of the medieval Scandinavians) that even a man called Blind (!) became suspicious.

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Did Caravaggio paint Judith Beheading Holofernes?

A disconcerting exclusion of alternative views and scholarship has marked the very carefully choreographed two-year long build-up toward the most controversial sale of a seicento picture this year—that of the so-called Toulouse Judith Beheading Holofernes, ascribed to Caravaggio. The arguments presented in its favour look compelling. A contemporary document refers to it in Naples in 1607; a copy of it by Louis […]

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Idioms: the American heritage

Idioms, especially if we add proverbs and familiar quotations to them, are a shoreless ocean. Especially numerous are so-called gnomic sayings (aphorisms) like make hay while the sun shines, better safe than sorry, and a friend in need is a friend indeed. Their age is usually hard or even impossible to determine. Since most of them reflect people’s universal experience, they may be very old.

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From rabbits to gonorrhea: “clap” and its kin

Three years ago, I discussed the origin of several kl– formations, all of which were sound-symbolic: kl- appeared to suggest cleaving, cluttering, and the like. In this context, especially revealing is the etymology of cloth. The problem with such consonant groups is that there is rarely anything intrinsically symbolic in them.

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Etymology gleanings for June 2019

Like every journalist (and a blogger is a journalist of sorts), I have an archive. Sometimes I look through the discarded clippings and handwritten notes and find them too good to throw away. Below, I’ll reproduce a few rescued tidbits.

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Connecting performance art and environmentalism

For many of us, the reality of global warming and environmental crisis induces an overwhelming sense of hopelessness because there seems to be a lack of real solutions for ecological catastrophes. The looming sense of crisis is the reason why people came out in droves to the Derwent River on an overcast day in June 2014 to participate in Washing the River, artist Yin Xiuzhen’s performance event in Hobart, Tasmania.
Audience members took brushes and mops to engage in a ceremonial act, taking part in the symbolic cleansing of a monumental stack of 162 frozen blocks of dark brown ice made from the water of the Derwent River.

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