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Feeling my oats for the last time this year

Having sown my wild oats (see the post for December 12, 2018), I can now afford the luxury of looking at the origin of the word oat. It would be unfair to introduce the holiday season by discussing a word of unknown etymology. A Christmas carol needs a happy end, and indeed I have something reassuring to say.

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The evolution of the word “terror”

Terror comes into English in the late fourteenth century, partly from Middle French terreur, and partly directly from Latin terror. The word means both “the state of being greatly frightened” and “the cause of that state,” an ambiguity that is central to its future political meanings. In Early Modern English, terror comes to stand for a state of fear provoked on the very edge of the social.

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Sowing one’s etymological oats

For many years I have been studying not only the derivation and history of words but also the origin of idioms. No Indo-European forms there, no incompatible vowels, not consonant shifts, but the problems are equally tough.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2018

I used to post my “gleanings” on the last Wednesday of every month, but it is perhaps more practical to do it on the first Wednesday of the month following, for, given this schedule, I can also answer the most recent questions. Plants and the home of the Indo-Europeans I used gorse in the previous […]

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The secrets of newspaper names

A few years ago, two colleagues of mine traveled around the country documenting what was going on in the newspaper industry, talking to editors, reporters, and publishers in all 50 states. Reading their book, Practicing Journalism: The Power and Purpose of the Fourth Estate, I was struck by the great passion of journalists and their commitment to public service.

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Travels with “gorse” in search of its kin

In the long history of this blog, I have rarely touched on the origin of plant names, but there have been posts on mistletoe (December 20, 2006) and ivy (January 11, 2017). Some time ago, a letter came with a question about the etymology of gorse, and I expect to devote some space to this plant name and its two synonyms.

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The politics of “political” – how the word has changed its meaning

Over the course of history, the word “political” has evolved from being synonymous with “public sphere” or “good government” to meaning “calculating” or “partisan.” How did we get here? This adapted excerpt from Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary explains the evolution. The problems posed by political result from a combination of the term’s semantic shift over the last several centuries and the changing face of post-national politics that have become so important since mid-twentieth century.

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Plant lore: gorse

In the long history of this blog, I have rarely touched on the origin of plant names, but there have been posts on mistletoe (December 20, 2006) and ivy (January 11, 2017). Some time ago, a letter came with a question about the etymology of gorse, and I expect to devote some space to this plant name and its two synonyms.

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Why We Fall for Toxic Leaders

The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team debates over a selection of candidates for Word of the Year, choosing the one that best captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. The 2018 Oxford Word […]

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Attacking a loaf of bread

This post returns to loaf, noun, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with loaf, verb (but see the picture)! Since loaf, from hlaif-, appears to be a more ancient word for “bread” (as noted in the posts for October 17 and October 24), people must have coined bread, to designate the product that was different from the old one.

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A fresh look at clichés

Recently a friend gave me a copy of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés by lexicographer Orin Hargraves. I was intrigued to read it because I had been wondering about clichés for some time.

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Etymology gleanings for October 2018

I have received a letter with a query about whether kibosh might be a borrowing from Hebrew. Both the Hebrew and the Yiddish hypotheses on kibosh are discussed in detail in the book by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little on this intractable word (Routledge, 2018).

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Returning to our daily bread [Part II]

Bread may not be a very old word, but it is old enough, and, whatever its age, its origin has not been discovered. However, the harder the riddle, the more interesting it is to try to solve it. Even if the answer evades us, it does not follow that we have learned nothing along the way.

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Not by “bread” alone [Part I]

Two recent posts (part 1 and part 2) were devoted to the origin of the word bride, and it occurred to me that a quick look at a few other br-words might be of some use. Breed, brood, and bread have been more than once invoked in trying to explain the etymology of the troublesome Germanic noun. […]

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The bride all dressed in white bows out [Part II]

So where did the word bride come from? Granted, the initial meaning of bride is not entirely clear, but neither is it hopelessly opaque. Whatever the interpretation, the bride has always been a woman who will soon become a wife, and the mystery surrounding the sought-after etymology comes as a surprise, regardless of whether the initial sense of the noun was “the woman to be married,” “the woman after the consummation of the marriage rite,” or even “daughter-in-law” ~ “a new female member of the adopting family.”

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