Two things sometimes come as a surprise even to an experienced etymologist. First, it may turn out that such words happen to be connected as no one would suspect of having anything in common. Second is the ability of words to produce one another in what seems to be an arbitrary, capricious, or chaotic way, so that the entire group begins to resemble an analog of a creeping plant.
First off, there are more pronouns than you might think. Personal pronouns get most of the attention nowadays, especially the widely accepted singular they and other non-binary pronouns. But personal pronouns are just one group among several.
Haggis, to quote the OED, is “a dish consisting of the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep, calf, etc. (or sometimes of the tripe and chitterlings), minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions, etc., and boiled like a large sausage in the maw of the animal.”
Etymologists often deal with a group of words that seem to be related, and yet the nature of the relationship is hard or impossible to demonstrate. Such groups are particularly instructive to investigate. I have long been interested in a possible connection between “limp” (adjective), “limp” (verb), and “lump.”
In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist responds to readers’ queries, discussing “evil”, “wicked”, “sward”, “hunt”, “thraúō”, “trash”, and “tomorrow”.
In the series on “trash” and its synonyms, I called attention to Spitzer’s hypothesis on the origin of English “rubbish” and now I have unearthed Verdam’s idea that Dutch “karwei” may have something in common with English “garbage.” Resuscitating valuable ideas buried in the depths of old journals is an important part of etymologists’ work. Convincing refutation is as valuable as agreement.
Modals are a special group of helping verbs, e.g. “can” and “could.” The distinction between dynamic, epistemic, and deontic uses of modal verbs is one of the most puzzling pieces of the verb system. For me, the easiest way keep things straight is with the mnemonic ABC: for ability, belief, and canon. So when you encounter a modal, ask how it is being used. Is it A, B, or C?
In the beginning, words for things wasted or thrown away tend to denote some concrete refuse and only later acquire a generic meaning. Yet, when several synonyms share the field, they are seldom fully interchangeable. Thus, trash, rubbish, junk, offal, and garbage either refer to different kinds of discarded objects or have different stylistic overtones. One also notices with some surprise that in Modern English, all such words are borrowings.
Successful word-coinages—those that stay in lingual currency for a good, long time—tend to conceal their beginnings. In “The Hidden History of Coined Words,” author and word sleuth Ralph Keyes explores the etymological underworld of terms and expressions and uncovers plenty of hidden gems. Take our quiz and see how many hidden histories you know!
It is amazing how many words English has for things thrown away or looked upon as useless! The origin of some of them is transparent. Obviously, “offal” is something that falls off. Not all stories are so transparent. A case in point is “trash,” the subject of today’s blog post.
“Not everybody may know that ‘yesterday’ is one of the most enigmatic formations in the Indo-European language family.” In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist explores the history of the adverb ‘yesterday’ and how the same word acquired two incompatible senses: ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow.’
I grew up in the golden era of standardized reading tests. We were taught to read for information, and our progress was tracked by multiple choice tests asking us “What is the main point of the passage?” In retrospect, it was bad training for reading (and for writing), and it took me a long time to change my habits.
Latin “forum” referred not only to a marketplace but also to a place of assembly for judicial and other business. Hence “forensic” meaning “pertaining to the forum or courts of law.”
The German for “to give a shot, to vaccinate” is “impf-en.” “Impf-” is an exact cognate of English “imp.” How can it be? This week, the Oxford Etymologist explores the language connection between vaccines, mischievous children, and Icelandic elves.
What is the origin of the name Louvre? Dictionaries and websites say unanimously that the sought-for etymology is unknown or uncertain. Perhaps so, but we will see.
Is English “skin” related to Greek “skēnē”? The story of “skin” and some other words, partly synonymous with it, is worthy of attention.