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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Which witch?

By Anatoly Liberman
To some people which and witch are homophones. Others, who differentiate between w and wh, distinguish them. This rather insignificant phenomenon is tackled in all books on English pronunciation and occasionally rises to the surface of “political discourse.”

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Living in a buzzworld

By Anatoly Liberman
A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.

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Marquises and other important people keeping up to the mark

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of titles have curious sources and often become international words. The history of some of them graces student textbooks. Marshal, for instance, is an English borrowing from French, though it came to French from Germanic, where it meant “mare servant” (skalkaz “servant, slave”). Constable meant “the count of the stable.”

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
I will begin with a short summary of the previous post. In English texts, the noun baron surfaced in 1200, which means that it became current not much earlier than the end of the twelfth century. It has been traced to Semitic (a fanciful derivation), Celtic, Latin (a variety of proposals), and Germanic. The Old English words beorn “man; fighter, warrior” and bearn “child; bairn” are unlikely sources of baron.

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long.

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Fishing in the “roiling” waters of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Those who will look up the etymology of roil and rile will have to choose between two answers: “from Old French” or “of uncertain origin.” Judging by my rather extensive and constantly growing database, roil and rile have attracted little attention

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2014

Anatoly Liberman responds to this month’s letters. He discusses the hotly contested issue of spelling reform, historical semantics, why words change meaning, the modern usage of the words ‘unique’ and ‘decimate’, ‘agreement the American way’, and explains how university administrators write.

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Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”

By Anatoly Liberman
There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period.

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Little triumphs of etymology: “pedigree”

By Anatoly Liberman
If I find enough material, I may tell several stories about how after multiple failures the ultimate origin of a common English word has been found to (almost) everybody’s satisfaction. The opening chapter in my prospective Decameron will deal with pedigree, which surfaced in English texts in the early fifteenth century.

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Casting a last spell: After Skeat and Bradley

By Anatoly Liberman
I think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if the answer is yes, what should we do? Conversely, if no, why no? 

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Monthly etymology gleanings for April 2014

Anatoly Liberman’s etymological thoughts and correspondences for April; regarding ‘old languages and complexity’, the origins of the word ‘brothel’, why ‘selfie’ is not such a new term after all, ‘to whom it may concern’, unintentional wolf puns, and the amusing revenges of time.

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Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Henry Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the details. For instance, Skeat lamented the use of the letter c in scissors and Bradley defended it.

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Henry Bradley on spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote about Henry Bradley’s role in making the OED what it is: a mine of information, an incomparable authority on the English language, and a source of inspiration to lexicographers all over the world

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Unsung heroes of English etymology: Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

By Anatoly Liberman
At one time I intended to write a series of posts about the scholars who made significant contributions to English etymology but whose names are little known to the general public. Not that any etymologists can vie with politicians, actors, or athletes when it comes to funding and fame, but some of them wrote books and dictionaries and for a while stayed in the public eye.

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