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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What does a linguist do?

Linguists get asked that question a lot. Sometimes by family members or potential in-laws. Sometimes by casual acquaintances or seatmates on a plane (for those who still fly). Sometimes from students or their families. Sometimes even from friends, colleagues, or university administrators. It turns out that linguists do quite a lot and quite a lot […]

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Harlequin’s tricky name

I am picking up where I left off last week. In the post for August 26, 2020, I discussed some words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page. He ended up among harlots, harangues, and the harrowing of hell. I also touched on the possible origin of some European words for “war,” and in a […]

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Harlequin’s environment

Marley was dead, to begin with, as all of us know. Likewise, the origin of the word Harlequin is controversial, to begin with. Henry Cecil Wyld’s excellent dictionary, to which I often refer, says that all ideas about the etymology of Harlequin are mere speculations. This is not true and was not quite true even […]

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English idioms about family life and conjugal felicity

Several friendly comments urged me to continue the series on English idioms I started last week (see the post for August 12, 2020). That post was devoted to naval phrases. The comments suggested all kinds of topics, sewing and cooking among them. However, not all subjects are equally easy to tackle. Though in the shoreless […]

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Whatever happens, the Oxford Etymologist will never jump ship!

One does not have to be a linguist to know that English is full of naval metaphors and phrases. How else could it be in the language of a seafaring nation?! Dozens, if not hundreds of metaphors going back to sailors’ life and experience crop up in our daily speech, and we don’t realize their origin. Nor should we, for speakers are not expected to think of the etymology of the words and collocations they use.

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Etymology gleanings for July 2020

Thanks everybody for the questions, comments, and suggestions!

The state of Spelling Reform

The six most promising schemes of reformed spelling, with summaries, can be found on the Society’s website (The English Spelling Society). The second (virtual) session of the International English Spelling Congress will probably take place in November. If you are interested in the fate of Spelling Reform, please register (it is free).

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Conjunction dysfunction

Everyone of a certain age remembers the FANBOYS of Conjunction Junction fame: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.  In the lyrics of the 1973 song, we mostly hear about and, but and or with a brief mention of or’s pessimistic cousin nor.  A conjunction’s function is to “hook up words and phrase and clauses” […]

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Exploring hypothetical thinking

What is hypothetical thinking? We do it continually. Consider making a decision, from choosing what to eat to choosing what to do about a dangerous disease. In deciding between options, you have to consider each of them, working out what’s likely to happen if  you take it, then compare the results. A natural human way to […]

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“Scram” and its ungainly kin

On April 18, 2012, while discussing the etymology of shrimp, I wrote that I had once looked up the word scrumptious, to find out its origin. Much to my surprise, I read that scrumptious is perhaps sumptuous, with -cr- added for emphasis. On May 2, 2012, I attacked shrew. My romance with shr- ~ scr-words abated, but I never forgot it. Today, I’ll continue those two stories and again look at shr- and scr-.

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Dry and thirsty, part 2: “dry”

The beginning of this story appeared a week ago, on July 15, 2020 (Cut and dried, Part 2), and we found out that the Old Germanic languages had two words for “dry”: thur-s- (from which Modern English has the noun thirst; thor-s is the Gothic form) and dreag-, the parent of dry. Seeing how concrete and unambiguous the idea of dryness is, we wondered why Germanic needed two synonyms for this word.

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Cut and dried, part 2: “dry”

The murky history of the verb cut was discussed two weeks ago (June 24, 2020). Now the turn of dry has come around. When people ask questions about the origin of any word, they want to know why a certain combination of sounds means what it does. Why cut, big, den, and so forth?

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Etymology gleanings for June 2020

Response to some comments: The verb cut. The Middle Dutch, Dutch, and Low German examples (see the post for July 1, 2020) are illuminating. Perhaps we are dealing with a coincidence, because such monosyllabic verbs are easy to coin, especially if they are in at least some way expressive.

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Don’t vote for the honeyfuggler

In 1912, William Howard Taft—not a man known for eloquence—sent journalists to the dictionary when he used the word honeyfuggle.  Honey-what, you may be thinking. It turns out that honeyfuggler is an old American term for someone who deceives others folks by flattering them.  It can be spelled with one g or two and sometimes with an o replacing the u.  To honeyfuggle is to […]

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Cut and dried

A less common synonym of the idiom cut and dried is cut and dry, and it would have served my purpose better, because this essay is about the verb cut, and two weeks later the adjective dry will be the subject of a post. But let us stay with the better-known variant.

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The blunt edge of “knife”

The word knife came up in one of the recent comments. I have spent so much time discussing sharp objects (adz, ax, and sword) that one more will fit in quite naturally. The word that interests us today turned up in late Old English (cnīf) and is usually believed to be a borrowing of Old Norse knífr (both ī and í designate a long vowel, as in Modern Engl. knee)

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Why we should revive dead languages

Approximately 7,000 languages are currently spoken worldwide. The majority of these are spoken by small populations. Approximately 96% of the world’s population speaks around 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building […]

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