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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.

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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.

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Moby Dick Oxford World's Classics

Moby-Dick is the answer. What is the question?

In December 2021, I was a contestant on the popular American quiz show Jeopardy! Every Jeopardy! game has a brief segment in which contestants share anecdotes about themselves, and I used my time to proselytize reading Moby-Dick. I talked about my work on the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel, and emphasized that Melville’s novel is unexpectedly weird, moving, and hilarious despite its monumental reputation.

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Bachelors and bachelorettes

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.

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A “neat” etymology

Where do you find the origin and, if necessary, the meaning of never say die, never mind, and other phrases of this type? Should you look them up under never, say, die, or mind? Will they be there?

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Title cover of "Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President from Washington to Trump" by Edwin L. Battistella, published by Oxford University Press

Off with their prefixes

I was teaching the history of the English Language and had just mentioned that, following the English Civil War, Charles I had been convicted of treason and beheaded.

A question came from the back of the classroom: “Why do we say beheaded and decapitated, not the other way around?”

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