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Were ancient ‘wives’ women?

By Anatoly Liberman
When we deal with the origin of ship and boat (the names of things pertaining to material culture), problems are almost predictable. Such words may have been borrowed from an unknown language (or from an attested language, but definitive proof of the connection is wanting) or coined in a way we are unable to reconstruct, but wife? Yet its etymology is no less obscure. My proposal will add to the existing stock of conjectures, and the future will show whether it has any chance of survival, let alone acceptance.

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From ship to boat

By Anatoly Liberman
The history of boat is no less obscure than the history of ship. Britain was colonized by Germanic-speakers in the fifth century CE from northern Germany and Denmark. It is hard to imagine that the invaders, who became known to history as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes and who must have known a good deal about navigation, stopped using boats after they crossed the Channel. But a cognate of boat has not turned up in any modern dialect spoken on the southern coast of the North Sea.

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Monthly Gleanings: September 2011

By Anatoly Liberman
Ingle is usually derived from Celtic. The Scots form is the same as the English one, while Irish Gaelic has aingeal. The Celtic word is a borrowing of Latin ignis “fire” (cf. Engl. ignite, ignition). Therefore, some etymologists derive Engl. ingle directly from the Latin diminutive igniculus; ingle nook gives this derivation some support. Be that as it may, no path leads from ingle to inkling.

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The undiscovered origin of frigate

I decided to stay at sea for at least two more weeks. The history of the word frigate is expected to comfort Germanic scholars, who may not know that, regardless of the language, the names of ships invariably give etymologists grief. In English, frigate is from French, and in French it is from Italian, so that the question is: Where did Italian fregata come from? Naturally, nobody knows. Although the literature

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A journey through spin

By Lynda Mugglestone
Spin is one of those words which could perhaps now do with a bit of ‘spin’ in its own right. From its beginnings in the idea of honest labour and toil (in terms of etymology, spin descends from the spinning of fabric or thread), it has come to suggest the twisting of words rather than fibres – a verbal untrustworthiness intended to deceive and disguise. Often associated with newspapers and politicians, to use spin is to manipulate meaning, to twist truth for particular ends – usually with the aim of persuading readers or listeners that things are other than they are.

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Ship and the rings it leaves in etymological waters
(Part 2)

By Anatoly Liberman
Alongside Old Icelandic skip “ship,” we find the verb skipa “arrange; assign.” It is tempting to suggest that the unattested meaning of this verb was either “arrange things on a ship; prepare a ship for a voyage; make it secure and shipshape” or even “board a ship, travel by ship,” because the connection between skip and skipa can hardly be doubted. However, not improbably, the earliest meaning of ship was simply “thing made, artifact,” rather than “vessel,” with skipa reminding us of that sense.

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Ship and the rings it leaves in etymological waters
(Part 1)

By Anatoly Liberman
We are in deep waters here. A first puzzle is that ship has exact cognates in Frisian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and Gothic, but nowhere outside Germanic. The ancient Indo-Europeans called their floating vessel something else, and we know what they called it. The modern echo of that word can be seen in Latin navis (from whose root we have navigation; and remember Captain Nemo’s Nautilus “little ship” and the Argonauts?), as well as in several other languages. So why ship?

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New words are great for back to school

By Dennis Baron
It’s back to school, and that means it’s time for dictionaries to trot out their annual lists of new words. Dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster released a list of 150 words just added to its New Collegiate Dictionary for 2011, including “cougar,” a middle-aged woman seeking a romantic relationship with a younger man, “boomerang child,” a young adult who returns to live at home for financial reasons, and “social media” — if you don’t know what that means, then you’re still living in the last century.

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Monthly Gleanings: August 2011

By Anatoly Liberman
One of our most faithful correspondents writes: “According to the Wall Street Journal, Indiana now outlawed teaching script in schools, so the kids can concentrate on their typing.” He was saddened by the news, and so was I. He asked me about non-cursive writing in old times, especially in the days of Chaucer. Here is a

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Professor Wright and Professor Skeat

By Anatoly Liberman
From time to time I mention the unsung heroes of English etymology, but only once have I devoted a post to such a hero (Frank Chance), though I regularly sing praises to Charles P.G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary. Today I would like to speak about Joseph Wright (1855-1930). He was not an etymologist in the strict sense of this term, but no article on the origin of English words can do without consulting The English Dialect Dictionary he edited.

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Defining our language for 100 years

By Angus Stevenson
Since the publication of its first edition in 1911, the revolutionary Concise Oxford Dictionary has remained in print and gained fame around the world over the course of eleven editions. This month heralds the publication of the centenary edition: the new 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary contains some 400 new entries, including cyberbullying, domestic goddess, gastric band, sexting, slow food, and textspeak.

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Tennis

By Anatoly Liberman
Suggestions on the origin of tennis go back to the beginning of English etymological lexicography, and one can teach a semester-long course by using only the attempts to discover who, where, when, and why called the game this. The game of tennis is not called tennis in any other language, unless a borrowing from English is used (as happened to hockey and football among others), and some people thought this was reason enough to insist on the English origin of the word. They asked questions like: “Why should we go

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Kneading bread for the needy

By Anatoly Liberman
In those rare cases in which people ask my advice about good writing, I tell them not to begin (to not begin?) their works with epigraphs from Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde, for the rest will look like an insipid anticlimax, and, disdainful of ground-to-dust buzzwords and familiar quotations, I also suggest that people avoid (naturally, like the plague) such titles as “A Tale of Two Friendships/ Losses/ Wars,” etc. and resist the temptation to

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Not an inkling

By Anatoly Liberman
Inkling: English is full of such cozy, homey words. There is the noun inkle “linen tape or thread” and the verb inkle “to whisper.” The noun is still listed as current, while the verb, which was extremely rare in the past, has survived only in dialectal use. Both, as well as inkling, were first recorded in Middle English, but little can be said about them. Winkle, twinkle, and crinkle shed no light on their past. Inkle “tape” and inkle “whisper” don’t seem to belong together. Dutch has enkel “simple,” and Swedish has enkel “single.”

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Bludgeoning oneself into a corner

By Anatoly Liberman
When asked about the origin of a certain word, I often answer: “I have no idea” (in addition, of course, to “I don’t remember” and “I have to look it up in a good dictionary”). Sometimes, after consulting a dictionary, I add: “No one knows.” The questioners express surprise: a doctor should be able to diagnose patients, a plumber is called to fix the leak, and etymologists are evidently paid for explaining the origin of words. There may or might be a fat living in

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