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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Fink, a police informer

Specialists and amateurs have long discussed fink, and the main purpose of today’s post is to tell those who are not versed in etymology what it takes to study the origin of an even recent piece of slang and come away almost empty-handed.

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Title cover of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President from Washington to Trump" by Edwin L. Battistella, published by Oxford University Press

The word on arithmetic

When we think of genre, it is often in the sense of literature or film. However, rhetoricians will tell us that genre is a concept that includes any sort of writing that has well-defined conventions, such as business memos, grant proposals, obituaries, syllabi, and much more.

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My word of the year: hostages

I have never been able to guess the so-called word of the year, because the criteria are so vague: neither an especially frequent word nor an especially popular one, we are told, but the one that characterizes the past twelvemonth in a particularly striking way. To increase my puzzlement, every major dictionary has its own favorite, to be named and speedily forgotten.

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Dab-dab and a learned idiom

I receive questions about the origin of words and idioms with some regularity. If the subjects are trivial, I respond privately, but this week a correspondent asked me about the etymology of the verb loiter, and I thought it might be a good idea to devote some space to it and to its closest synonyms.

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Title cover of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President from Washington to Trump" by Edwin L. Battistella, published by Oxford University Press

In search of the MacGuffin

I considered opening this post in the style of Dashiell Hammett: Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.

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Unscheduled gleanings and a few idioms

I receive questions about the origin of words and idioms with some regularity. If the subjects are trivial, I respond privately, but this week a correspondent asked me about the etymology of the verb loiter, and I thought it might be a good idea to devote some space to it and to its closest synonyms.

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Walter W. Skeat and the Oxford English Dictionary

For many years, I have been trying to talk an old friend of mine into writing a popular book on Skeat. A book about such a colorful individual, I kept repeating, would sell like hotcakes. But he never wrote it. Neither will I (much to my regret), but there is no reason why I should not devote another short essay to Skeat. In 2016, Oxford University Press published Peter Gilliver’s book The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work of incredible erudition.

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Do American family names make sense?

Do names really mean anything, even when they seem to? Individuals in present day America called Smith, Jackson, Washington, or Redhead are not usually smiths, sons of Jack, residents in Washington, or red-haired.

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From “frog” to “toad”

I did not intend to write an essay about toad, because a detailed entry on this word can be found in An Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology (2008), but a letter came from our correspondent wondering whether the etymology of toad is comparable with that of frog (the subject of the previous two posts), and the most recent comment also deals with both creatures.

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An etymological plague of frogs

Last week, I discussed a few suggestions about the origin of the English word frog. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes in the Greek name of this animal. My negligence is puzzling, because the play by Aristophanes lay open near my computer.

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A jumping frog and other creatures of etymological interest

Our readers probably expect this post to deal with Mark Twain’s first famous story. Alas, no. My frog tale is, though mildly entertaining, more somber and will certainly not be reprinted from coast to coast or propel me to fame. In the past, I have written several essays about animal names.

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Why decolonization and inclusion matter in linguistics

As sociolinguists, we have centered social justice in our research, teaching, and administrative work for many years. But as with many other academics, this issue took on renewed collective urgency for us in the context of the events of 2020, from toxic politics and policies at the federal level, to state-sanctioned anti-Black violence and the ensuing racial reckoning, to the Covid-19 pandemic and the many inequities it exposed and heightened.

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Chewing the cud and ruminating on word origins

The history of cud may be more exciting than it seems at first sight. Initially (long ago!), I was intrigued when I read the statement by Henry Cecil Wyld, an outstanding language historian, that the origin of cud is unknown.

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Title cover of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President from Washington to Trump" by Edwin L. Battistella, published by Oxford University Press

Rhetorical “um”

“Uh” and “um” don’t get much respect. What even are they? Toastmasters International calls them “crutch words.”

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