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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Understanding un-

Recently I had occasion to use the word unsaid, as in what goes unsaid. Looking at that phrase later, I began to ponder the related verb unsay, which means something different.

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The ubiquitous whelp

Two types of hypotheses compete in etymology. One is learned and the other disconcertingly simple, so that an impartial observer is sometimes hard put to it to choose between them. English whelp resembles the verb yelp, obviously a sound-imitative word, like yap and yawp. Is it possible that such is the origin of whelp?

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A zoological kindergarten

The first, perhaps surprising, thing about the words I’ll address below is that language rarely associates the names of adult animals with the names chosen for their progeny. Yet the same is true of humans!

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A year of listening to books

The COVID crisis has led me to rethink a lot that I’ve taken for granted. One the saving graces helping to get me through long days of remote teaching and evenings of doom-scrolling was the opportunity to take long walks.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2020

Why is there no “master key” to the closet hiding the origin of language and all the oldest words?
Historians deal with documents or, when no documents have been preserved, with oral tradition, which may or may not be reliable. The earliest epoch did not leave us any documents pertaining to the origin of language.

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Bizarre the world over

The posts for the last two weeks dealt with the various attempts to trace (or rather guess) the origin of the word bizarre, and I finished by saying that the word is, in my opinion, sound-imitative. In connection with this statement a caveat is in order…

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Bizarre is who bizarre does: part two

This post continues the discussion of “bizarre.” After the Basque etymology of this Romance adjective was rejected on chronological grounds, “bizarre” joined the sad crowd of “words of unknown (disputable, uncertain, undiscovered) origin.” However, several good scholars have tried to penetrate the darkness surrounding it. Each offered his own solution, a situation, as we will see, that does not bode well.

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Etymology gleanings for October 2020

It is better to be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb. The proverb has a medieval ring, but it was first recorded in 1678. The context is obvious: since the punishment is going to be the same (hanging), it pays off to commit a greater crime and enjoy its benefits while you are alive.

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How did the passive voice get such a bad name?

Many grammatical superstitions and biases can be traced back to overreaching and misguided language critics: the prohibitions concerning sentence-final prepositions, split infinitives, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, or using contractions or the first person.

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Modern Brazil: A Very Short Introduction

A change in Brazil’s national populist government

As we approach 15 November, a national holiday marking the end of the Brazilian Empire and proclamation of the Brazilian Republic in 1889, and also a day of municipal elections, many Brazilians may be contemplating what has happened to their country and where it might be heading.

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A “baker’s dozen” and some idioms about food

I decided to write this post, because I have an idea about the origin of the idiom baker’s dozen, and ideas occur so seldom that I did not want this opportunity to be wasted. Perhaps our readers will find my suggestion reasonable or refute it. I’ll be pleased to hear from them.

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Harlots all over the place

Harlot turned up in English texts in the thirteenth century, acquired its present-day sense (“prostitute”) about two hundred years later, and ousted all the previous ones. Those “previous ones” are worthy of recording…

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On the same page: Harlequin, harlots, and all, all, all

Next comes harness, first recorded in English around 1300 with the sense “baggage, equipment; trappings of a horse.” But around the same time, it could also mean “body armor; tackle, gear,” as it still does in German (Harnisch). The route is familiar: from Old French to Middle English.

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How to write a byline

A while back, I wrote a post on How to Write a Biography, with some tips for long-form writing about historical and public figures. However, that’s not the only kind of biographical writing you might be called upon to do. You might need to write about yourself.

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