Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Word Origins

Noises off? A guarded tribute to onomatopoeia and sea-sickness

While trying to solve etymological riddles, we often encounter references to sound-imitation where we do not expect them, but the core examples hold no surprise. It seems that nouns and verbs describing all kinds of noises should illustrate the role of onomatopoeia, and indeed, hum, ending in m, makes one think of quiet singing (crooning) and perhaps invites peace, while drum, with its dr-, probably evokes the idea of the noise associated with this instrument.

Read More
Word Origins

The word “condom”

For a long time, the word “condom” was unprintable. Neither the original OED nor The Century Dictionary featured the word. Several venues for discovering the origin of “condom” have been tried. It surfaced in texts at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but we cannot be sure that the word was coined in England.

Read More
Word Origins

On mattocks and maggots, their behavior and origin

The mattock, a simple tool, has a name troublesome to etymologists even though it has been known since the Old English period. In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist explores a new hypothesis for the origins of “mattock”.

Read More
Word Origins

Etymology gleanings for August 2022

The history of “cheek by jowl” and especially the pronunciation of “jowl” could serve as the foundation of a dramatic plot, says the Oxford Etymologist in this week’s blog post.

Read More
Word Origins

Cheek by jowl

The history of “cheek by jowl” and especially the pronunciation of “jowl” could serve as the foundation of a dramatic plot, says the Oxford Etymologist in this week’s blog post.

Read More
Word Origins

Pulling the whole length of one’s leg

Today, most English speakers will recognize the idiom: to pull one’s leg means “to deceive playfully, to tease.” Its origin has not been discovered. I usually stay away from guesswork, but in a blog, vague conjectures may not do anyone any harm.

Read More
Word Origins

Long-delayed gleanings

No one doubts that “bachelor” came to Middle English at the end of the thirteenth century from Old French and meant “a young knight.” Most conjectures about the etymology of this mysterious word were offered long ago.

Read More