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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The blessing of Babel

I am in Palermo, sitting on the floor of the puppet museum with a circle of teenagers. Around us hang gaudy, dormant marionettes of characters from the Orlando Furioso: the valiant Orlando and his horse Brigliadoro, his rival Rinaldo, his beloved the beautiful Angelica. Their stories are amazing, the stuff of epic and romance; but in fact the teenagers around me, all boys, have been through adventures no less extraordinary, though harsh and real.

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Blessing and cursing, part 3: curse (conclusion)

The verb curse, as already noted, occurred in Old English, but it has no cognates in other Germanic languages and lacks an obvious etymon. The same, of course, holds for the noun curse. The OED keeps saying that the origin of curse is unknown.

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Learning about lexicography: A Q&A with Peter Gilliver (Part 2)

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this two part Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him to write a book on the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Etymology gleanings for October 2016

Mr. Madhukar Gogate, a retired engineer from India, has written me several times, and I want to comment on some of his observations. He notes that there is no interest in the reform in Great Britain and the United States. I have to agree.

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Learning about lexicography: A Q&A with Peter Gilliver (Part 1)

Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by OUP. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this two part Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him.

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Blessing and cursing, part 2: curse

Curse is a much more complicated concept than blessing, because there are numerous ways to wish someone bad luck. Oral tradition (“folklore”) has retained countless examples of imprecations. Someone might want a neighbor’s cow to stop giving milk or another neighbor’s wife to become barren.

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The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, or does it?

Do you have a tattoo to care for? If not, shouldn’t you ask yourself, why not? Butterflies on calves, angel wings on shoulders, Celtic crosses across chests of law-abiding citizens have superseded anchors and arrow-pierced hearts on biceps of the demimonde. The size of your body surface area is the limit, because, “YAS, this gives you life!”

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Will print die?: When the inevitable isn’t

Mark Twain is reputed to have quipped, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Such hyperbole aptly applies to predictions that digital reading will soon triumph over print.
In late 2012, Ben Horowitz (co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz Venture Capital) declared, “Babies born today will probably never read anything in print.” Now four years on, the plausibility of his forecast has already faded.

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How to write a grant proposal

Whatever its scale or ambition, a grant proposal aims to do two things: to show that a particular project needs to be supported by a funder and to show why some individual, group or organization is the right one—the best one—to carry out the project. Showing the “need” is largely an exercise in argumentative writing. It’s argumentative not in the hostile, red-faced, fist-shaking sense but in the classical sense of establishing a claim

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Sticking my oar in, or catching and letting go of the crab

Last week some space was devoted to the crawling, scratching crab, so that perhaps enlarging on the topic “Crab in Idioms” may not be quite out of place. The plural in the previous sentence is an overstatement, for I have only one idiom in view. The rest is not worthy of mention: no certain meaning and no explanation. But my database is omnivorous and absorbs a lot of rubbish. Bibliographers cannot be choosers.

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Ryan Lochte’s “over-exaggerating”

If there were an Olympics for making an apology, swimmer Ryan Lochte wouldn’t qualify. After being outed for his fake claim that he was robbed by men identifying themselves as Brazilian police officers, he took to social media for damage control. His Instragram apology on August 19 went this way

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Esperanto, chocolate, and biplanes in Braille: the interests of Arthur Maling

The Oxford English Dictionary is the work of people: many thousands of them. In my work on the history of the Dictionary I have found the stories of many of those people endlessly fascinating. Very often an individual will enter the story who cries out to be made the subject of a biography in his or her own right; others, while not quite fascinating enough for that, are still sufficiently interesting that they could be a dangerous distraction to me when I was trying to concentrate on the main task of telling the story of the project itself.

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“Clown”: The KL-series pauses for a while

Those who have followed this series will remember that English kl-words form a loose fraternity of clinging, clinking, and clotted-cluttered things. Clover, cloth, clod, cloud, and clout have figured prominently in the story.

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Protecting our children from profanity

We adults are careful about swearing around our kids. We don’t want bad language to confuse or corrupt or otherwise harm them. As Steven Pinker says in passing while talking about profanity in The Stuff of Thought (2007), “if some people would rather not explain to their young children what a blow job is, there should be television channels that don’t force them to,” and there are. We have every right to be protective of our children even if we don’t have a reason.

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Etymology gleanings for August 2016

There was a desperate attempt to find a valid Greek cognate for cloth, but such a word did not turn up. One way out of the difficulty was to discover a Greek noun or verb beginning with sk- and refer its s to what is known as s-mobile (“movable s”). Movable s is all over the place. For instance, the English cognate of German kratzen is scratch (the same meaning).

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