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One-sided etymology

There is a feeling that idioms resist interference. A red herring cannot change its color any more than the leopard can change its spots. And yet variation here is common. For instance, talk a blue streak coexists with swear (curse) a blue streak. One even finds to swear like blue blazes (only the color remains intact). A drop in the bucket means the same as a drop in the ocean. We can cut something to bits or to pieces, and so forth.

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Pidgin English

There will be no revelations below. I owe all I have to say to my database and especially to the papers by Ian F. Hancock (1979) and Dingxu Shi (1992). But surprisingly, my folders contain an opinion that even those two most knowledgeable researchers have missed, and I’ll mention it below for what it is worth. Several important dictionaries tell us that pidgin is a “corruption” of Engl. business, and I am not in a position to confirm or question their opinion.

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The gleaner continues his journey: June 2018

My discussion of idioms does not rest on a solid foundation. In examining the etymology of a word, I can rely on the evidence of numerous dictionaries and on my rich database. The linguists interested in the origin of idiomatic phrases wade through a swamp. My database of such phrases is rather rich, but the notes I have amassed are usually “opinions,” whose value is hard to assess. Sometimes the origin of a word is at stake.

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Monthly gleanings for June 2018

The post on pilgarlic appeared on 13 June 2018. I knew nothing of the story mentioned in the comment by Stephen Goranson, but he always manages to discover the sources of which I am unaware. The existence of Pilgarlic River adds, as serious people might say, a new dimension to the whole business of pilgarlic. Who named the river? Is the hydronym fictitious? If so, what was the impulse behind the coinage? If genuine, how old is it, and why so called? What happened in 1883 that aroused people’s interest in that seemingly useless word?

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Full of fear: really dreadful

Fear is a basic emotion in all living creatures, because it makes them recognize and avoid danger. It is therefore no wonder that so many words for it have been coined. Language can describe fear by registering the physical reaction to it, for instance, shaking and trembling (quite a few words for “fear” in the Indo-European languages belong here) or trying to flee from the source of danger, as in Greek phobós, known from the suffix -phobe and all kinds of phobias (phébomai “I fear; I flee from”; its Russian cognate beg- designates only “running”).

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The Oxford Etymologist waxes emotional: a few rambling remarks on fear

It is well-known that words for abstract concepts at one time designated concrete things or actions. “Love,” “hatred,” “fear,” and the rest developed from much more tangible notions.  The words anger, anguish, and anxious provide convincing examples of this trend. All three are borrowings in English: the first from Scandinavian, the second from French, and the third from Latin. In Old Norse (that is, in Old Icelandic), angr and angra meant “to grieve” and “grief” respectively.

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The amorous and other adventures of “poor pilgarlic”

The word pilgarlic (or pilgarlik and pilgarlick) may not be worthy of a post, but a hundred and fifty years ago and some time later, people discussed it with great interest and dug up so many curious examples of its use that only the OED has more. (Just how many citations the archive of the OED contains we have no way of knowing, for the printed text includes only a small portion of the examples James A. H. Murray and his successors received.) There is not much to add to what is known about the origin of this odd word, but I have my own etymology of the curious word and am eager to publicize it.

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Etymology gleanings: May 2018 [Part 2]

With one exception, I’ll take care of the most recent comments in due time. For today I have two items from the merry month of May. The exception concerns Italian becco “cuckold.” I don’t think the association is with the word for “beak; nose.” Becco “cuckold” is probably from becco “male goat.” If so, the reference must be to the horns, as discussed in the previous post.

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Etymology Gleanings: May 2018

Still with the herd: Man, as they say, is a gregarious animal, and wearing horns could become the male of our species, but etymology sometimes makes unpredictable leaps. I of course knew that Italian becco means “cuckold” (the image is the same in all or most of the Romance languages, and not only in them), but would not have addressed this sensitive subject, had a comment on becco not served as a provocation. So here are some notes on cuckoldry from a linguistic point of view.

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Spick and span: a suspicious hybrid

Etymology is a peaceful area of study. But read the following: “Spick and Span.—These words have been sadly tortured by our etymologists—we shall, therefore, do our best to deliver them from further persecution. Tooke is here more than usually abusive of his predecessors; however, Nemesis, always on the watch, has permitted him to give a lumbering, half Dutch, half German, etymology; of ‘shining new from the warehouse’—as if such simple colloquial terms were formed in this clumsy round-about way.

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Embracing the cattle

A story that keeps recycling the same episodes tends to become boring.  So today I’ll say goodbye to my horned friends, though there is so much left that is of interest. In dealing with cows, bulls, bucks, and the rest, an etymologist is constantly made to choose among three possibilities: an ancient root with a transparent etymology (a rare case), a migratory word, or a sound-imitative formation. Like cattle breeders, words are nomads, but some are more sedentary than the others.

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In the cattle world Part 2: Mostly bucks and bulls

The buck stops nowhere: it has conquered nearly all of Eurasia. The Modern English word refers to the stag. At one time, it was a synonym of he-goat, or Billy goat. But Old Engl. buc “stag” seems to have coexisted with bucca “Billy goat.” Perhaps later they merged. German Bock is a rather general designation of “male animal,” such as “ram” (or “wether”; wether is a nearly forgotten word, though still recognizable in bellwether), “stag,” and others; it is a common second element of compounds like Schafbock (Schaf “sheep”).

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An interdisciplinary view of cows and bulls. Part 1: cow

When people began to domesticate the cow, what could or would they have called the animal? Ideally, a moo. This is what children do when they, Adam-like, begin to invent names for the objects around them. However, the Old English for “cow” was cū, that is, coo, if we write it the modern way, not mū. Obviously, cows don’t say coo. Pigeons do. Therefore, we are obliged to treat this word in the traditional way, that is, to look for the cognates, reconstruct the most ancient form, and so on.

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Etymology gleanings for April 2018

Part 1: A Turning Point in the History of Spelling Reform? On 30 May 2018 the long-awaited International Spelling Congress will have its first online meeting. “The Congress is intended to produce a consensus on an acceptable alternative to our current unpredictable spelling system. The goal is an alternative which maximizes improved access to literacy but at the same time avoids unnecessary change.

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Next lane please: the etymology of “street”

As long as there were no towns, people did not need the word street. Yet in our oldest Germanic texts, streets are mentioned. It is no wonder that we are not sure what exactly was meant and where the relevant words came from. Quite obviously, if a word’s meaning is unknown, its derivation will also remain unknown. Paths existed, and so did roads. Surprisingly, the etymology of both words (path and road) is debatable.

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Are you of my kidney?

It is perfectly all right if your answer to the question in the title is “no.” I am not partial. It was not my intention to continue with the origin of organs, but I received a question about the etymology of kidney and decided to answer it, though, as happened with liver (see the post for 21 March 2018), I have no original ideas on this subject.

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