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  • Language

English, Chinese, and all, all, all

I think I should clarify my position on the well-known similarities between and among some languages. In the comment on the March gleanings (April 1, 2020), our correspondent pointed to a work by Professor Tsung-tung Chang on the genetic relationship between Indo-European and Chinese. I have been aware of this work for a long time, but, since I am not a specialist in Chinese linguistics and do not know the language, I never mentioned my skeptical attitude toward it in print or in my lectures.

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Keeping social distance: the story of the word “aloof” and a few tidbits

It is amazing how many words like aloof exist in English. Even for “fear” we have two a-formations: afraid, which supplanted the archaic afeard, and aghast. Aback, aboard, ashore, asunder—a small dictionary can be filled with them (but alas and alack do not belong here). The model is productive: consider aflutter and aglitter. One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively. Indeed, an asunder man and an astride rider do not exist.

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Why war stories could reinjure those affected

When my mother was born, the Federal Republic of Nigeria was less than one year old. Language barriers, and eventually death, prevented me from asking my grandparents what life under the colonial rule of the Royal Niger Company had been like, their fates twisted and tugged by the company’s board of directors in London. I […]

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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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What good writers do

In his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez writes: Florentino Ariza moved through every post during thirty years of dedication and tenacity in the face of every trial. He fulfilled all his duties with admirable skill … but he never won the honour he most desired, which was to write one, just […]

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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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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.

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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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The architectural tragedy of the 2019 Notre-Dame fire

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic loss for us to realize how important historic architecture and cityscapes are to our lives. For instance, repairs are still ongoing following a 2011 5.8 magnitude earthquake that caused more than $30 million dollars’ worth of damage to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  And on 15 April 2019 a […]

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How academics can leave the university but stay in academia

When “quit lit,” the trend of disillusioned PhDs writing personal essays about their decision to leave academia, hit its peak around 2013, I was just finishing my own PhD coursework. It seemed that every day, as I revised my dissertation proposal and worked on recruiting potential field sites, there was another column about the scarcity of tenure-track […]

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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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