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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Perfect Tenses in English

What could be simpler than grammatical tense—things happening now are in the present, things happening before are in the past, and things that haven’t happened yet are in the future. If only it were so easy. Consider the present tense. Its meaning often refers not to things happening right now but to some general state […]

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Donald Trump’s insult politics

Political commentators and satirists love to mock Donald Trump’s verbal gaffs, his simplified vocabulary and vague, boastful speech. But if you judge his oratory by its effect on the audience, Donald Trump’s rhetoric, particularly with large crowds of enthusiastic supporters, is undeniably effective. People have studied the art of rhetoric for millennia – so how […]

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Etymology gleanings for March 2020

Should it be business as usual with the Oxford Etymologist? Closing the blog until better days will probably not benefit anybody. The terrain is like a minefield, but I’ll continue gleaning.

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The story of “adz”

I am picking up where I left off last week. The word adz(e) was coined long ago and surfaced more than once in Old English texts. It had several local variants, and its gender fluctuated: adesa was masculine, while adese was feminine. Also, eadesa and adusa have come down to us. Apparently, the tool had wide currency.

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Some of our tools: “awl”

The names of weapons, tools, and all kinds of appurtenances provide a rare insight into the history of civilization. Soldiers and journeymen travel from land to land, and the names of their instruments, whether murderous or peaceful, become so called migratory words (Wanderwörter, as they are called in German: words errant, as it were). I […]

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Grammar in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll was a mathematically-inclined poet who published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass in 1872 as well a number of poems and math and logic texts. Last summer I saw an outdoor production of Alice in Wonderland and it reminded me of all the linguistics in the two books. Carroll touches on questions of […]

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Muddy waters

When a word is isolated, etymologists are in trouble. A typical example is Engl. hunt, discussed last week (the post for February 12, 2020). But often, the cognates are so numerous that researchers are lost, embarrassed by the riches they face. This is what happens when we begin to investigate the origin of the English word mud.

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An etymologist is not a lonely hunter

The posts for the previous two weeks were devoted to all kinds of bloodsuckers. Now the time has come to say something about hunters and hunting. The origin of the verbs meaning “hunt” can give us a deeper insight into the history of civilization, because hunting is one of the most ancient occupations in the world: beasts of prey hunt for food, and humans have always hunted animals not only for food but also for fur and skins.

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Etymological insecticide

This story continues the attempts of the previous week to catch a flea. Anyone who will take the trouble to look at the etymology of the names of the flea, louse, bedbug, and their blood-sucking allies in a dozen languages will discover that almost nothing is known for certain about it. . This fact either means that we are dealing with very old words whose beginnings can no longer be discovered or that the names have been subject to taboo (consequently, the initial form is beyond recognition), or, quite likely, both factors were in play.

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The language gap in North African schools

When children start school in an industrialized country, their native language is for the most part the one used by the teachers. Conversely, in many developing countries, the former colonial languages have been proclaimed languages of instruction within the classroom at the expense of native indigenous languages. A third scenario is something in-between: The language […]

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Usage issues—How are you doing?

When people talk about grammar problems, they often mean usage issues—departures from the traditional conventions for edited English and the most formal types of speaking. To a linguist, grammar refers to the way that language is used—by speakers of all types—and the way that it works—how it is acquired, how it changes, and so on.

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How far can a flea jump?

Stinging and gnawing insects are not only a nuisance in everyday life; they also harass etymologists. Those curious about such things may look at my post on bug for June 3, 2015. After hovering in the higher spheres of being (eat, drink, breathe: those were the subjects of my most recent posts), I propose to return to earth and deal with low, less dignified subjects.

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“Breath” and “breathe”

I decided to make good on my promise to complete a series devoted to a few words referring to the most basic functions of our organism. The previous posts dealt with eat, drink, and throat. Now, as promised, a story of breath is coming up. The basic word here is the noun breath; it already existed in Old English and had long æ.  The verb breathe is a later derivative of the same root; it also had a long vowel.

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Before you eat, drink, or breathe: “throat”

At the end of 2019, I wrote about the origin of the verbs eat and drink. The idea was to discuss a few other “basic” verbs, that is, the verbs referring to the most important functions of our organism. My next candidate is breathe, but, before I proceed to discuss its complicated history, it may be useful to look at the derivation of the names of the organs that allow us to inhale the air and get the food through.

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