Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Series & Columns

Children’s games and some problematic English spellings

Several years ago, I wrote a series of posts titled “The Oddest English Spellings.” Later, The English Spelling Society began to prepare a new version of the Reform, and I let a team of specialists deal with such problems. Yet an email from one of our regular correspondents suggested to me that perhaps one more […]

Read More

Idioms are fun

I have chosen this title for today’s post, because in our life everything is supposed to be fun. Grammar, as I have often noted, is no longer studied at our schools, because grammar is not fun. Neither are math and geography. I am happy to report that, according to my experience, idioms are fun. Even […]

Read More

Harlequin’s black mask

This is the conclusion of the sequence begun three weeks ago: see the post for September 2, 2020. Last week’s gleanings delayed the climax. In 1937, Hermann M. Flasdieck, an outstanding German philologist, brought out a book on Harlequin. It first appeared as a long article (125 pages) in the periodical Anglia, which he edited. […]

Read More

Etymology gleanings for August 2020

These gleanings should have been posted last week, but I wanted to go on with Harlequin. That series will be finished next Wednesday; today, I’ll answer the questions I have received. The idea of offering more essays on thematic idioms was received very favorably, and I am grateful for the suggestions. Yet let me repeat […]

Read More

Introducing Shakespeare to young readers

No one has a duty to like Shakespeare, just as no one is obliged to prefer coffee to tea, or classical music to pop, or soap operas to documentaries. On the other hand, just as it is highly inconvenient to know nothing about the internet, or how to boil an egg, so it is liable […]

Read More

What does a linguist do?

Linguists get asked that question a lot. Sometimes by family members or potential in-laws. Sometimes by casual acquaintances or seatmates on a plane (for those who still fly). Sometimes from students or their families. Sometimes even from friends, colleagues, or university administrators. It turns out that linguists do quite a lot and quite a lot […]

Read More

Harlequin’s tricky name

I am picking up where I left off last week. In the post for August 26, 2020, I discussed some words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page. He ended up among harlots, harangues, and the harrowing of hell. I also touched on the possible origin of some European words for “war,” and in a […]

Read More

Harlequin’s environment

Marley was dead, to begin with, as all of us know. Likewise, the origin of the word Harlequin is controversial, to begin with. Henry Cecil Wyld’s excellent dictionary, to which I often refer, says that all ideas about the etymology of Harlequin are mere speculations. This is not true and was not quite true even […]

Read More

English idioms about family life and conjugal felicity

Several friendly comments urged me to continue the series on English idioms I started last week (see the post for August 12, 2020). That post was devoted to naval phrases. The comments suggested all kinds of topics, sewing and cooking among them. However, not all subjects are equally easy to tackle. Though in the shoreless […]

Read More

Whatever happens, the Oxford Etymologist will never jump ship!

One does not have to be a linguist to know that English is full of naval metaphors and phrases. How else could it be in the language of a seafaring nation?! Dozens, if not hundreds of metaphors going back to sailors’ life and experience crop up in our daily speech, and we don’t realize their origin. Nor should we, for speakers are not expected to think of the etymology of the words and collocations they use.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for July 2020

Thanks everybody for the questions, comments, and suggestions!

The state of Spelling Reform

The six most promising schemes of reformed spelling, with summaries, can be found on the Society’s website (The English Spelling Society). The second (virtual) session of the International English Spelling Congress will probably take place in November. If you are interested in the fate of Spelling Reform, please register (it is free).

Read More

Conjunction dysfunction

Everyone of a certain age remembers the FANBOYS of Conjunction Junction fame: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.  In the lyrics of the 1973 song, we mostly hear about and, but and or with a brief mention of or’s pessimistic cousin nor.  A conjunction’s function is to “hook up words and phrase and clauses” […]

Read More

“Scram” and its ungainly kin

On April 18, 2012, while discussing the etymology of shrimp, I wrote that I had once looked up the word scrumptious, to find out its origin. Much to my surprise, I read that scrumptious is perhaps sumptuous, with -cr- added for emphasis. On May 2, 2012, I attacked shrew. My romance with shr- ~ scr-words abated, but I never forgot it. Today, I’ll continue those two stories and again look at shr- and scr-.

Read More

Five things to know about F. Scott Fitzgerald

Synonymous with the Jazz Age of the American 1920s which his novels did so much to define, F. Scott Fitzgerald hardly needs any introduction. Reading The Great Gatsby in school has become as much a rite of passage as first kisses and the furtive adolescent rebellion of drinking alcohol before coming of age. Much of […]

Read More

Dry and thirsty, part 2: “dry”

The beginning of this story appeared a week ago, on July 15, 2020 (Cut and dried, Part 2), and we found out that the Old Germanic languages had two words for “dry”: thur-s- (from which Modern English has the noun thirst; thor-s is the Gothic form) and dreag-, the parent of dry. Seeing how concrete and unambiguous the idea of dryness is, we wondered why Germanic needed two synonyms for this word.

Read More

Cut and dried, part 2: “dry”

The murky history of the verb cut was discussed two weeks ago (June 24, 2020). Now the turn of dry has come around. When people ask questions about the origin of any word, they want to know why a certain combination of sounds means what it does. Why cut, big, den, and so forth?

Read More