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Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 2

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.”

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Can you pick up the ‘core’ of ten languages in a year?

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.

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Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 1

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.

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Mad as a Hatter

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 […]

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Catalan language, identity, and independence

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.

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First person pronouns and the passive voice in scientific writing

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.

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An oar in every man’s boat

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.

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A brief history of libel

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.

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Catching someone by the toe

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.”

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What you can learn at a writing retreat

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.

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First things first

I seldom, if ever, try to be “topical” (I mean the practice of word columnists to keep abreast of the times and discuss the words of the year or comment on some curious expression used by a famous personality), but the calendar has some power over me. The end of the year, the beginning of the year, the rite of spring, the harvest—those do not leave me indifferent.

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Etymology gleanings for December 2017

At the end of December, it is natural to look back at the year almost spent. Modern etymology is a slow-moving coach, and great events seldom happen in it. As far as I know, no new etymological dictionaries have appeared in 2017, but one new book has. It deals with the word kibosh, and I celebrated its appearance in the November “Gleanings.”

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English usage guides

My own collection of usage guides. I’ve collected quite a few of them since the start of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project in 2011. The aim of the project is to study usage guides and usage problems in British and American English, as well as attitudes to disputed usages like the split infinitive, the placement of only, the flat adverb, and many more.

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The word “job” and its low-class kin

This post is in answer to a correspondent’s query. What I can say about the etymology of job, even if condensed, would be too long for my usual “gleanings.” More important, in my opinion, the common statement in dictionaries that the origin of job is unknown needs modification. What we “know” about job is sufficient for endorsing the artless conclusions drawn long ago. It would of course be nice to get additional evidence, but there is probably no need to search for it and no hope to dig it up.

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Revitalizing culture through the remnants of colonization

In the summer of 1791, Thomas Jefferson sat with three elderly women of the Unkechaug tribe of Long Island. Convinced that these women were among the last living speakers of Unkechaug, Jefferson transliterated a list of Unkechaug words on the back of an envelope alongside the English translation.

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