Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Language

10 things you may not know about the making of the OED (Part 1)

The Oxford English Dictionary is recognized the world over, but much of its history isn’t so widely known: as with a respected professor or an admired parent, it’s all too easy simply to make use of its wisdom and authority without giving much thought to how it was acquired. Read on for some interesting nuggets of information about the history of this extraordinary project that you may not have encountered elsewhere.

Read More

Tom, Dick, Harry, and other memorable heroes

Why Tom, Dick, and Harry? Generic names? If so, why just those? From Suffolk to Yorkshire people speak about some Laurence and some Lumley, whose fame rests only on the fact that both have alliterating lazy dogs (as lazy as L.’s dog, as laid him down to bark). Other farmers had worse luck.

Read More

On language and defiance: a Q & A with Ilan Stavans

“The Trump Administration has taken down from the White House official website all references to Spanish. This to me is another symptom of its anti-globalist views.” We caught up with Ilan Stavans, Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies, to discuss his recent New York Times editorial, the use of the Spanish language in the United States, and why Spanish isn’t a foreign language in the US.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for February 2017

From time to time people share with me their versions of Spelling Reform. I rarely respond to such letters, because, unfortunately, I have little to say. The problem, as I see it, is not the ideal version of the reform but the reality of its implementation. The choir is happy, and we keep preaching to it.

Read More

The eternal Cheshire cat

Unlike Alice, who was advised to begin at the beginning and stop only when she came to an end, I’d rather begin at the end. The English-speaking world is interested in the Cheshire cat only because Lewis Carroll mentioned it. The origin of the proverbial grin has never been explained, so that, if you hope to receive an enlightening answer from this post, you can very well stop here.

Read More

How to write dialogue

I’m sitting at my computer early in the morning and my wife walks in. “Good morning,” she says. “Is there any more coffee?” I nod. “Do you want some?” I answer. “I’ll get it,” she says. “What are you working on?” “A blog post on dialogue,” I reply sleepily. “Good luck,” she laughs, heading for the kitchen. That’s pretty bad dialogue. It has no apparent purpose and too many words: adverbs like sleepily, redundant dialogue tags like answer, reply, and laughs, and nothing that really advances a plot or develops a character.

Read More

Face to face with brash: part 2

James Murray showed great caution in his discussion of the Modern English words spelled and pronounced as brash (see Part I of this essay). It remains unclear how many of them are related. One of the homonyms seems to go back to French, but even that word is of Germanic origin.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for January 2017

One of the queries I received was about the words dimple, dump, dumps, and a few others sounding like them. This is a most confusing group, the main reason being the words’ late attestation (usually Middle and Early Modern English). Where had they been before they came to the surface? Nowhere or just in “oral tradition”? Sometimes an association emerges, but it never goes too far.

Read More

Taking liberties with the text: reflections of a translator

If you have ever tried to learn another language you already know that, even for beginners, translation is never simply a matter of looking the “foreign” words up in a dictionary and writing them down. The result is gibberish, because no two languages work in exactly the same way at the level of grammar (what the rules are) and syntax (how the sentence puts them to work).

Read More

Grammar for the ages: a royal intervention

The history of English grammar is shrouded in mystery. It’s generally thought to begin in the late sixteenth century, with William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar (1586)—but where did Bullokar’s inspiration come from? In these times, the structure and rules of English grammar were constructed and contrasted with the Latin.

Read More

Face to face with brash: part 1

Lat week, I discussed the hardships endured by an etymologist who decides to investigate the origin of English br- words, and promised to use that post as an introduction to the story of brash. Today, I’ll try to make good on part of my promise.

Read More

Approaching “brash”

Two weeks ago, I promised to deal with the word brash, but, before doing so, I would like to make it clear that we are approaching a minefield. Few people, except for professional etymologists, think of words in terms of phonetic or semantic groups.

Read More

From good wine to ivy

Last week’s post was about the proverb: “Good wine needs no bush,” and something was said about ivy as an antidote to good and bad wine. So now it may not be entirely out of place to discuss the origin of the word ivy, even though I have an entry on it my dictionary.

Read More

On not taking Trump literally

Donald Trump has always had a rocky relationship with the truth. The fact that his pronouncements often fail to align with reality has now simply become an accepted fact. In earlier times candidates who spoke this way would have quickly fallen off the map. Why not Trump? One interesting take on this is the claim that his statements should not be taken literally. What exactly does it mean to not take something literally?

Read More

The language of chess

The dust has barely settled on last year’s world chess championship match in New York: Norway’s Magnus Carlson defended his title again the tough challenger Sergei Karjakin, in a close match. The event got me thinking about the language of chess strategy and tactics and the curious history and multicultural origins of chess terminology.

Read More