For decades the English-speaking world has been wondering where the word nerd came from. The Internet is full of excellent essays: the documentation is complete, and all the known hypotheses have been considered, refuted, or cautiously endorsed. I believe one of the proposed etymologies to be convincing (go on reading!), but first let me say something about nut.
Last week, we looked at the history of the conjunction if, and it turned out that the Dutch for if is of. The fateful question asked “at dawn,” when “Scheherazade” had to stop her tale, was: “Are English if and of related?”
The post of 21 June 2017 on the “dwarfs of our vocabulary” was received so well that I decided to return to them in the hope that the continuation will not disappoint our readers. Those dwarfs have a long history and have been the object of several tall tales.
First of all, I would like to thank our readers for their good wishes in connection with the 600th issue of The Oxford Etymologist, for their comments, and suggestions. In more than ten years, I must have gone a-gleaning about 120 times.
Like the history of some other words denoting numbers, the history of hundred is full of sticks and stones. To begin with, we notice that hundred, like dozen, thousand, million, and billion, is a noun rather than a numeral and requires an article (compare six people versus a hundred people); it also has a regular plural (a numeral, to have the plural form, has to be turned into a noun, or substantivized, as in twos and threes, at sixes and sevens, on all fours, and the like).
The reason for such a strange topic will become clear right away. The present post is No. 600 in the career of “The Oxford Etymologist.” I wrote my first essay in early March 2006 and since that time have not missed a single Wednesday.
The scourge of the Middle Ages was leprosy. No other disease filled people with equal dread. The words designating this disease vary. Greek léprā is a substantivized feminine adjective (that is, an adjective turned into a noun—a common process: compare Engl. the blind and blinds, with two ways of substantivization).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.