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How to do fact checking

The actor Cary Grant once said of acting that, “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” That’s true for writing as well—concrete details can paint a picture for a reader and establish credibility for a writer. Details can be tricky, however, and in the swirl of research and the dash of exposition, it is possible to get things wrong: dates, names, quotes, and facts.

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Happy Chinese New Year!

This year, the Chinese New Year begins today, February 5th, and people all around the world will be ringing in the year of the Pig.  Oxford Chinese Dictionary editor, Julie Kleeman, shares some insight into the traditions associated with the Chinese New Year celebrations.

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The last shot at “robin”

What else is there to say about robin? Should I mention the fact that “two Robin Redbreasts built their nest within a hollow tree” and raised a family there?

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A possible humble origin of “robin”

Some syllables seem to do more work than they should. For example, if you look up cob and its phonetic variants (cab ~ cub) in English dictionaries, you will find references to all kinds of big and stout things, round masses (lumps), and “head/top.”

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The robin and the wren

In Surrey (a county bordering London), and not only there, people used to say: “The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen” (as though the wren were the female of the robin, but then the wren is indeed Jenny). In Wales, the wren is also considered sacred.

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On Robin and robin

“Then the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake scuffled down from the bank and said: ‘My young friend, if you do not now, immediately and instantly, pull as hard as ever you can, it is my opinion that your acquaintance in the large-pattern leather ulster’(and by this he meant the Crocodile) ‘will jerk you into yonder limpid stream before you can say Jack Robinson’.

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How to use the passive voice

Writing instructors and books often inveigh against the passive voice. My thrift-store copy of Strunk and White’s 1957 Element of Style says “Use the Active Voice,” explaining that it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.” And George Orwell, in his 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language,” scolds us to “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

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Feeling my oats for the last time this year

Having sown my wild oats (see the post for December 12, 2018), I can now afford the luxury of looking at the origin of the word oat. It would be unfair to introduce the holiday season by discussing a word of unknown etymology. A Christmas carol needs a happy end, and indeed I have something reassuring to say.

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The evolution of the word “terror”

Terror comes into English in the late fourteenth century, partly from Middle French terreur, and partly directly from Latin terror. The word means both “the state of being greatly frightened” and “the cause of that state,” an ambiguity that is central to its future political meanings. In Early Modern English, terror comes to stand for a state of fear provoked on the very edge of the social.

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Sowing one’s etymological oats

For many years I have been studying not only the derivation and history of words but also the origin of idioms. No Indo-European forms there, no incompatible vowels, not consonant shifts, but the problems are equally tough.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2018

I used to post my “gleanings” on the last Wednesday of every month, but it is perhaps more practical to do it on the first Wednesday of the month following, for, given this schedule, I can also answer the most recent questions. Plants and the home of the Indo-Europeans I used gorse in the previous […]

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The secrets of newspaper names

A few years ago, two colleagues of mine traveled around the country documenting what was going on in the newspaper industry, talking to editors, reporters, and publishers in all 50 states. Reading their book, Practicing Journalism: The Power and Purpose of the Fourth Estate, I was struck by the great passion of journalists and their commitment to public service.

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Travels with “gorse” in search of its kin

In the long history of this blog, I have rarely touched on the origin of plant names, but there have been posts on mistletoe (December 20, 2006) and ivy (January 11, 2017). Some time ago, a letter came with a question about the etymology of gorse, and I expect to devote some space to this plant name and its two synonyms.

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The politics of “political” – how the word has changed its meaning

Over the course of history, the word “political” has evolved from being synonymous with “public sphere” or “good government” to meaning “calculating” or “partisan.” How did we get here? This adapted excerpt from Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary explains the evolution. The problems posed by political result from a combination of the term’s semantic shift over the last several centuries and the changing face of post-national politics that have become so important since mid-twentieth century.

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Plant lore: gorse

In the long history of this blog, I have rarely touched on the origin of plant names, but there have been posts on mistletoe (December 20, 2006) and ivy (January 11, 2017). Some time ago, a letter came with a question about the etymology of gorse, and I expect to devote some space to this plant name and its two synonyms.

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