Why is searching for the origin of “ice” a forlorn hope? Because all the Germanic-speaking people had the same word for “ice,” and yet we don’t know where it came from.
In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist discusses two slang idioms: “worth a Jew’s eye” and “to save one’s bacon”.
In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist dives into the lexicographical history of two puzzling English homonyms: “mother” and “haggard.”
This is the second and last part of the henchman tale, of which the first part appeared a week ago (August 25, 2021). The difficulties confronting an etymologist are two: 1) We don’t know exactly what the word henchman meant when it first surfaced in Middle English, and 2) the obscure Medieval Latin gloss used […]
I am aware of only two English words whose origin has provoked enough passion and bad blood to inspire a thriller. The first such word is “cockney” and the second is “henchman”.
The popularity of ninepence in proverbial sayings is amazing. To be sure, nine, along with three and seven, are great favorites of European folklore. No one knows for sure why just those numerals achieved such prominence.
Some homonyms are truly ancient: the words in question might sound alike or be nearly identical more than a millennium ago. But more often a newcomer appears from nowhere and pushes away his neighbors without caring for their well-being.
Chide remains a word “of unknown origin,” even though the Online Etymological Dictionary mentions the hypothesis suggested in my 2008 An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. Perhaps it might be interesting to some of our readers to know the history of research into the etymology of this verb.
This week’s blog post concerns the origin of English “flock”, as in a flock of gulls and a tuft of wool. The two flocks are not related and the origin of the first is unknown. I am unable to unravel this knot, but I can perhaps explain how the problem originated and venture a precarious hypothesis.
I have been meaning to write about homonyms for quite some time, and now this time has come. Here we are interested in one question only, to wit—why so many obviously different words are not distinguished in pronunciation, or, to change the focus of the enquiry, why language, constantly striving for the most economical and most perfect means of expression (or so it seems), has not done enough to get rid of those countless ambiguities.
Let me begin by saying that the best authorities disagree on the etymology of “beacon,” and my suggestion with which I’ll finish this essay is my own.
In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist responds to readers’ questions on “fieldfare,” “sparrow,” “heifer,” “snide,” and more.
Token is a Common Germanic word. The forms are Old English “tāc(e)n”, Old High German “zeihhan”, etc. The English noun combined the senses “sign, signal” and “portent, marvel, wonder.” German “Zeichen” and Dutch “teken” are still alive but mean only “indication, sign.”
Last week, I wrote about the troublesome origin of heifer. The oldest recorded form of heifer is HEAHFORE. I promised to return to the equally enigmatic- fore. I even wrote that perhaps the etymology of the bird name “fieldfare” would throw additional light on heifer. Birds often follow herds of cattle for sustenance, so that my idea is, on the face of it, not unreasonable. Just for those who may be not quite sure what bird a fieldfare is, let me explain: it is a thrush.
Twenty-five years ago, quite by chance, I looked up the etymology of heifer in a dictionary and discovered the statement: “Origin unknown.” Other dictionaries were not much more informative, and I decided to pursue the subject. Thanks to this chance episode, etymology became my profession.
A curious exchange on the word “harebrained” in the periodical Notes and Queries in the first half of 1880 began with the statement that the word owes its origin to the idiom “as mad as a march hare.” But are hares “madder” than other wild animals? Probably not.