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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Ice: a forlorn hope

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.

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The hedging henchman and his hidden horse

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 […]

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The henchman’s dilemma

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”.

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The proverbial ninepence

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.

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Word namesakes, also known as homonyms

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.

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How to chide according to rule, or the thin edge of the wedge

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.

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Etymology gleanings for July 2021: tending my flock

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.

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The decay of the art of lying, or homonyms and their kin

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.

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On tokens, beacons, and finger-pointing

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.”

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Now in the field with a fieldfare

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.

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Still plowing with my heifer

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.

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