Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Bring—brought—brought

Soon after the previous gleanings (February 26, 2020) were posted, a correspondent asked me to clarify the situation with the “prefix” br- in breath and bring (see the post on breath for January 22, 2020). I mentioned this mysterious prefix in connection with Henry Cecil Wyld, who accepted its existence in bring but doubted its validity in breath. From a historical point of view, we have two different components, even if both go back to Indo-European bhrē-. James A. H. Murray thought that br- in breath is a remnant of the root meaning “burn,” as in breed ~ brood, while br- in bring traces allegedly to the zero grade of the verb bear (zero grade is a term of ablaut; in this case, no vowel stands between b and r in br-; hence, “zero”); so Wyld, though, as we will see, the idea was not his. By contrast, in the full grade, as in bear, from Old Engl.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

“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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for December 2019

Once again, my thanks are to everybody who read this blog in 2019 and commented on its fifty two posts. However, I still have to wave a friendly goodbye to the ghost of the year gone by and do some gleaning on the frozen field of December.

Read More

Some of our basic verbs: “drink”

Last week, I discussed the origin of the verb eat, which probably has the same root as the ancient Indo-European name of the tooth. Time will tell whether my idea to devote a few posts to such basic verbs will arouse any interest, but I decided to try again. So today the story will be devoted to the verb drink.

Read More

Some of our basic verbs: “eat”

Whoever the Indo-Europeans were and wherever they lived several thousand years ago, by the time they began to write, they had produced a word for “eat” that sounded nearly the same all over the enormous territory they occupied. In Latin, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Sanskrit, and beyond, the verb for devouring food resembles Engl. eat.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for November 2019

I agree: no voice should be silenced, but it does not follow that every voice deserves equal respect. I called the previous two posts “Etymology and Delusion” and deliberately did not emphasize such words as madness, lunacy, and derangement, for perfectly normal people can also be deluded. In etymology, the line separating amateurs from professionals is in most cases easy to draw.

Read More

Etymology and delusion, part 2

Last week (November 20, 2019), I discussed one aspect of etymological lunacy. Looking for a (or even the) protolanguage is a sound idea, even though specialists’ efforts in this direction have been both successful and disappointing. The existence of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic can hardly be doubted; yet many crucial details remain unknown.

Read More

Etymology and delusion, Part 1

In 1931, Ernest Weekley, the author of a still popular English etymological dictionary and many excellent books on the history of English words, brought out an article titled “Our Early Etymologists.” It appeared in Quarterly Review 257. In our fast-paced, Internet-dominated world, few people are inclined to leaf through old periodicals.

Read More

“To lie doggo,” an idiom few people seem to know

Last week (November 6, 2019), in passing, I mentioned my idea of the origin of the word dog and did not mean to return to this subject, but John Cowan suggested that I consider an alternative etymology (dog as a color word). I have been aware of it for a long time, but why is my idea worse?

Read More

Monthly gleanings for October 2019

I received a question about the origin of French adieu and its close analogs in the other Romance languages. This question is easy to answer. The word goes back to the phrase à Dieu “to God,” which is the beginning of the longer locution à Dieu commande, that is, “I commend (you) to God” or, if we remain with French, “je recommande à Dieu.” The European parting formulas are of rather few types.

Read More