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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Looking “askance”

By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names.

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Three recent theories of “kibosh”

By Anatoly Liberman
The phrase put the kibosh on surfaced in texts in the early thirties of the nineteenth century. For a long time etymologists have been trying to discover what kibosh means and where it came from. Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Gaelic Irish, and French have been explored for that purpose.

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Alphabet soup, part 2: H and Y

By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of the names of two letters. Appreciate the fact that I did not call it “A Tale of Two Letters.” No other phrase has been pawed over to such an extent as the title of Dickens’s novel.

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Monthly etymological gleanings for July 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
As always, I am grateful to our correspondents for their questions, suggestions, and corrections. Occasionally I do not respond to their queries because I have nothing to say and keep trying to find a quotable answer.

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Alphabet soup, part 1: V and Z

By Anatoly Liberman
It is common knowledge that an average page of an English dictionary contains at least twice as many borrowed as native words, even though come, go, see, sit, stand, do, make, man, woman, in, on, and other similar heavy duty words go back to Old English.

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How courteous are you at court?

By Anatoly Liberman
“Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to look at the Queen,/ Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there?/ I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Evidently, our power of observation depends on our background and current interests.

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Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”).

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When it rains, it does not necessarily pour

By Anatoly Liberman
Contrary to some people’s expectation, July has arrived, and it rains incessantly, that is, in the parts of the world not suffering from drought. I often feel guilty on account of my avoiding the burning questions of our time.

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Monthly etymological gleanings for June 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
One cannot predict which posts will interest the public and which will leave them indifferent. I hoped that my “revolutionary” hypothesis on the origin of Old Nick would result in a tidal wave (title wave, as some of my students write), but it did not produce as much as a ripple, whereas the fairly trivial essay on the letter y aroused a lively discussion.

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Multifarious Devils, part 4. Goblin

By Anatoly Liberman
Petty devils are all around us. Products of so-called low mythology, they often have impenetrable names. (Higher mythology deals with gods, yet their names are often equally opaque!) Some such evil creatures have appeared, figuratively speaking, the day before yesterday, but that does not prevent them from hiding their origin with envious dexterity (after all, they are imps). A famous evader is gremlin.

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Multifarious Devils, part 2. Old Nick and the Crocodile

By Anatoly Liberman
In our enlightened age, we are beginning to forget how thickly the world of our ancestors was populated by imps and devils. Shakespeare still felt at home among them, would have recognized Grimalkin, and, as noted in a recent post, knew the charm aroint thee, which scared away witches. Flibbertigibbet (a member of a sizable family in King Lear), the wily Rumpelstilzchen, and their kin have names that are sometimes hard to decipher, a fact of which Rumpelstilzchen was fully aware.

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Monthly etymological gleanings for May 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
Language controlled by ruling powers?
Very much depends on whether the country has a language academy that decides what is correct and what is wrong. Even in the absence of such an organization, a committee consisting of respected scholars and politicians sometimes lays down the law. Spelling is a classic case of “ruling the language.”

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Multifarious devils, part 1: “bogey”

By Anatoly Liberman
As has often happened in the recent past, this essay is an answer to a letter, but I will not only address the question of our correspondent but also develop the topic and write about Old Nick, his crew, and the goblin. The question was about the origin of the words bogey and boggle. I have dealt with both in my dictionary and in passing probably in the blog.

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The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y”

By Anatoly Liberman
I could have spent a hundred years bemoaning English spelling, but since no one is paying attention, this would have been a wasted life. Not every language can boast of useless letters; fortunately, English is one of them. However, it is in good company, especially if viewed from a historical perspective. Such was Russian, which once overflowed with redundant letters.

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Panning for etymological gold: “aloof”

By Anatoly Liberman
It may not be too widely known how hard it is to discover the origin of even “easy” words. Most people realize that the beginning of language is lost and that, although we can sometimes reconstruct an earlier stage of a word, we usually stop when it comes to explaining why a given combination of sounds is endowed with the meaning known to us.

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