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Cubs galore

The time has come to find out where cub came from. “Cub,” which surfaced in English texts only in the early sixteenth century, turned out to be an aggressive creature: it ousted whelp, and later the verb “to cub” came into existence. The constant suppression of old words by upstarts is a process worth noticing.

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A mild case of etymological calf love

As far as I can judge, the origin of “calf”, the animal, contains relatively few riddles, and in this blog, I prefer not to repeat what can be found in solid dictionaries and on reliable websites. But there is a hitch in relation to the frolicsome calf, the lower leg. That is why I decided to give calf a chance…

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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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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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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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As daft as a brush and its kin

Some similes make sense: for example, as coarse as hemp (or heather). Hemp and heather are indeed coarse. But cool as a cucumber? Many phrases of this type exist thanks to alliteration. Perhaps at some time, somewhere, cucumbers were associated with coolness, but, more likely, the simile was coined as a joke: just listen to coo-coo in it!

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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. […]

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