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Word Origins And How We Know Them

An etymologist fidgets on a bad bed. Part 1: “Bed.”

As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question.

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The ‘mullet’ mystery – Episode 23 – The Oxford Comment

Often described as ‘business in front, party in the back,’ most everyone is familiar with this infamous hairstyle, which is thought to have been popularized in the 1980s. How, then, could the term have originated as early as 1393, centuries before David Bowie ever rocked it? We embarked on an etymological journey, figuratively traveling back in time to answer what seemed like a simple question: What, exactly, is a mullet? And does it really mean what we think it means?

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Bugs: a postscript

Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2015

In the United States everything is planned very long in advance, while in Europe one can sometimes read about a conference that will be held a mere three months later. By that time all the travel money available to an American academic will have been spent a millennium ago. In the United States, we have visions rather than short-range plans.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Putting one’s foot into it

Last week, I wrote about the idiom to cry barley, used by children in Scotland and in the northern counties of England, but I was interested in the word barley “peace, truce” rather than the phrase. Today I am returning to the north, and it is the saying the bishop has put (or set) his foot in it that will be at the center of our attention.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

The barrage continues with “barricade” and ends with an appeal for peace

To finish the bar(r)-series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively little controversy. However, all is not clear, and two theories about the origin of barricade still compete. According to one, the story begins with words like Italian barra and French barre “bar” (barricades bar access to certain places), while, according to the other, the first barricades were constructed of barrels filled with earth, stones, and the like, so that the starting point should be French barrique or Spanish barrica.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

On barrels from East to West

The post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but their source in the Romance-speaking world remains a matter of unending debate.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

An embarrassment of riches

A priest can be defrocked, and a lawyer disbarred. I wonder what happens to a historical linguist who cannot find an answer in his books. Is such an individual outsourced? A listener from Quebec (Québec) asked me about the origin of the noun bar. He wrote: “…we still say in French barrer la porte as they still do (though less and less) on the Atlantic side of France.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2015, Part 2

Many thanks for comments, questions, and reprimands, even though sometimes I am accused of the sins I have not committed. If I were a journalist, I would say that my remarks tend to be taken out of context. Of course I know what precession of the equinoxes is and italicized e, to point out that it is indeed the right form (precession, not procession).

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2015

One should not be too enthusiastic about anything. Wholly overwhelmed by the thought that winter is behind, I forgot to consult the calendar and did not realize that 25 March was the last Wednesday of the month and celebrated the spring equinox instead of providing our readership with the traditional monthly gleanings.

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Oxford Dictionaries

Where does the word cyber come from?

Does the word cyber sound dated to you? Like the phrases Information Superhighway and surfing the Web, something about the word calls one back to the early era of the Internet, not unlike when you ask a person for a URL and they start to read off, ‘H-t-t-p, colon, forward slash…’

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

While dancing around a bonfire, beware of analogy

This is the week of the spring equinox, but I decided not to wait until June and write a post about the solstice. For a change, bonfire is “a word of (fairly well-)known origin,” so don’t expect revelations. However, it is always instructive to observe people beating about the bush long after it has burned up. The image of beating about the bush suggested the title of this post.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Ossing is bossing

If you know the saying ossing comes to bossing, rest assured that it does not mean the same as ossing is bossing. But you may never have heard either of those phrases, though the verb oss “to try, dare” is one of the favorites of English dialectology.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Shooting one’s bolt from North to South

I was twelve years old when I first read Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, and it remained my favorite book for years. Few people I know have heard about it, which is a pity. Jack London was a superb story teller, but his novels belong to what is called politely the history of literature—all or almost all except Martin Eden.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Keys and bolts

I received a question whether I was going to write about the word key in the series on our habitat. I didn’t have such an intention, but, since someone is interested in this matter, I’ll gladly change my plans and satisfy the curiosity of our friend.

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