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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The dwarfs of our vocabulary

I receive all kinds of questions about etymology. Unless they are responses to my posts, they usually concern slang and exotic words. No one seems to care about and, as, at, for, and their likes. Conjunctions and prepositions are taken for granted, even though their origin is sometimes obscure and their history full of meaning.

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Mid-June etymology gleanings

John Cowan pointed out that queer “quaint, odd” can be and is still used today despite its latest (predominant) sense. Yes, I know. Quite intentionally, I sometimes use the phrase queer smile. It usually arouses a few embarrassed grins. My students assume that a man in the winter of his days is so un-cool that he does not know what this adjective now means.

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English idioms and The British Apollo

In 1708, London witnessed the appearance of The British Apollo, or Curious Amusements for the INGENIOUS. To which are Added the most Material Occurrences Foreign and Domestick. Perform’d by a Society of GENTLEMEN. VOL. I. Printed for the Authors, by F. Mayo, at the Printing-Press, against Water-Lane in Fleet-Street.

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From the life of words, part 2

I am picking up where I left off last week. At first sight, nothing could be more straightforward than the adjective still. It has always meant “fixed, not moving.” We sit still, come to a standstill, and enjoy still lifes (that is, pictures of living things in a state of rest).

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From the life of words, part 1

From time to time, various organizations invite me to speak about the history of words. The main question I hear is why words change their meaning. Obviously, I have nothing new to say on this subject, for there is a chapter on semantic change in countless books, both popular and special.

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At bay: where is that bay?

To keep somebody or something at bay means “to keep a dangerous opponent at a distance; to hold off, ward off a disaster, etc.” The very first interpreters of this idiom guessed its origin correctly. They stated that bay here means “to bark” and that at bay refers to hunting.

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Monthly gleanings for April 2017

The previous post on Nostratic linguistics was also part of the “gleanings,” because the inspiration for it came from a query, but a few more tidbits have to be taken care of before summer sets in.

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Two posts on “sin”: a sequel

The colleague who wrote me a letter is a specialist in Turkic and a proponent of Nostratic linguistics. He mentioned the Turkic root syn-, which, according to him, can mean “to test, prove; compete; prophesy; observe; body, image, outward appearance,” and wondered whether, within the framework of Nostratic linguistics, this root can be compared with the root of Engl. sin.

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Sleeveless errand

The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books published at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Still sinning, part 2

Today I am beginning where I left off last week. As we have seen, Old Icelandic sannr meant both “true” and “guilty.” Also, the root of this word can be detected in the word for “being” (Latin sunt, etc.).

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Etymology gleanings for March 2017

Many thanks for the comments. One of the questions was about the dialect that could be used for the foundation of a new norm. No spelling can reflect the pronunciation of all English speakers.

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Why bother?

Yes, there is every reason to bother. Read the following: “One of the most common expressions in everyday life, and one which is generally used by all classes, is the expression ‘Don’t bother me!’ and the origin of the word bother has so frequently bothered me that I have spent some time in tracing its etymology.

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Tom, Dick, Harry, and other memorable heroes

Why Tom, Dick, and Harry? Generic names? If so, why just those? From Suffolk to Yorkshire people speak about some Laurence and some Lumley, whose fame rests only on the fact that both have alliterating lazy dogs (as lazy as L.’s dog, as laid him down to bark). Other farmers had worse luck.

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