Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Language

From the life of words, part 2

I am picking up where I left off last week. At first sight, nothing could be more straightforward than the adjective still. It has always meant “fixed, not moving.” We sit still, come to a standstill, and enjoy still lifes (that is, pictures of living things in a state of rest).

Read More

From the life of words, part 1

From time to time, various organizations invite me to speak about the history of words. The main question I hear is why words change their meaning. Obviously, I have nothing new to say on this subject, for there is a chapter on semantic change in countless books, both popular and special.

Read More

At bay: where is that bay?

To keep somebody or something at bay means “to keep a dangerous opponent at a distance; to hold off, ward off a disaster, etc.” The very first interpreters of this idiom guessed its origin correctly. They stated that bay here means “to bark” and that at bay refers to hunting.

Read More

Monthly gleanings for April 2017

The previous post on Nostratic linguistics was also part of the “gleanings,” because the inspiration for it came from a query, but a few more tidbits have to be taken care of before summer sets in.

Read More

How apostrophes came to confuse us

A colleague of mine recently retired from teaching. As she began her last semester, she announced to her students that she hoped they would finally be the class where no one confused “its” and “it’s.” Her wish did not come true. The apostrophe rules of English are built to confuse us. Not intentionally. But they have evolved in a way that can confuse even the most observant readers and writers.

Read More

The unprecedented difficulty of B(e)

A dictionary is in indeed a collection of stories and each word entry has a unique tale to tell. If we choose the verb ‘be’, we encounter a special insight into English, and into the society and thought that has shaped it over the past 1,500 years.

Read More

Two posts on “sin”: a sequel

The colleague who wrote me a letter is a specialist in Turkic and a proponent of Nostratic linguistics. He mentioned the Turkic root syn-, which, according to him, can mean “to test, prove; compete; prophesy; observe; body, image, outward appearance,” and wondered whether, within the framework of Nostratic linguistics, this root can be compared with the root of Engl. sin.

Read More

Sleeveless errand

The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books published at the end of the nineteenth century.

Read More

Intercultural communication and considering a different perspective

With the ever-increasing rise of globalization, the need to communicate more effectively across cultures becomes all the more important. In a hyper-connected world, we need to learn how to better understand the perspectives of others, and how to make accommodations in conversations that support both parties being on the same page. Simply put, different cultures see things differently.

Read More

Still sinning, part 2

Today I am beginning where I left off last week. As we have seen, Old Icelandic sannr meant both “true” and “guilty.” Also, the root of this word can be detected in the word for “being” (Latin sunt, etc.).

Read More

How green became green

The original Earth Day Proclamation in 1970 refers to “our beautiful blue planet,” and the first earth day flag consisted of a NASA photo of the Earth on a dark blue background. But the color of fields and forests prevailed, and today when we think of ecology and environmentalism, we think green not blue.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for March 2017

Many thanks for the comments. One of the questions was about the dialect that could be used for the foundation of a new norm. No spelling can reflect the pronunciation of all English speakers.

Read More

For want of a comma

The Oxford Comma, so named because it first appeared in the 1905 Oxford University Press Style Guide, is the comma that comes before the word and in a series of three or more listed items. Also known as the serial comma, it’s the often ironic rallying cry of a certain type of language aficionado. And it’s in the news after a federal appeals court mentioned it in a court decision recently.

Read More