Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Series & Columns

Cut and dried

A less common synonym of the idiom cut and dried is cut and dry, and it would have served my purpose better, because this essay is about the verb cut, and two weeks later the adjective dry will be the subject of a post. But let us stay with the better-known variant.

Read More

The history of Canada Day

Because they raise difficult questions about who we are and who we want to be, national holidays are contested. Can a single day ever contain the diversity and the contradictions inherent in a nation? Is there even a “we” and an “us”? Canada Day is no exception. Celebrated on 1 July, it marks the anniversary […]

Read More

Why transforming higher education can promote racial equality

I was very active politically in the 1960s, 70s, and the early 80s. Life became more difficult in the late 1980s with the arrival of a third child, and as I focused to publish enough to get tenure in a large Midwestern university. Today, as I look back on that time, I struggle with two […]

Read More

The blunt edge of “knife”

The word knife came up in one of the recent comments. I have spent so much time discussing sharp objects (adz, ax, and sword) that one more will fit in quite naturally. The word that interests us today turned up in late Old English (cnīf) and is usually believed to be a borrowing of Old Norse knífr (both ī and í designate a long vowel, as in Modern Engl. knee)

Read More

Black studies for everyone

It is a sad commentary on the state of education in this society that educators hesitate to include a subject in the curriculum because students want to learn about it. —Armstead Robinson In 1968, Yale University hosted the Black Studies in the University symposium. A product of the student activism of Yale’s Black Student Alliance, the symposium would be important for […]

Read More

Etymology gleanings for May 2020

I promised not to return to Spelling Reform and will be true to my word. The animated discussion of a month ago (see the comments following the April gleanings) is instructive, and I’ll only inform the contributors to that exchange that nothing they wrote is new. It is useful to know the history of the problem being discussed, for what is the point of shooting arrows into the air?

Read More

Everyone and their dog

A writer friend of mine posted a social media query asking for advice on verb choice.   The phrase in question was “… since everyone and his poodle own/owns a gun…” Should the verb be in the singular or the plural? More than fifty people weighed in.  Some reasoned that there was a compound subject […]

Read More

The history of the word “sword”: Part 2

Last week (May 27, 2020), I discussed two attempts to solve the etymology of sword. The second of them would not have deserved so much attention if Elmar Seebold, the editor of the best-known German etymological dictionary, had not cited it as the only one possibly worthy of attention. His is a minority opinion, which does not mean it is wrong, though I believe it is.

Read More

Returning to the cutting edge: “sword” (Part 1)

Those who have read the posts on awl, ax(e), and adz(e) (March 11, 18, and 25, 2020) will find themselves on familiar ground: once again “origin unknown,” numerous hypotheses, and reference to migratory words. This is not surprising: people learn the names of tools and weapons from the speakers of neighboring nations (tribes), adapt, and domesticate them. Dozens of such names have roots in the remotest prehistory.

Read More

“The devil to pay” and more devilry

It is amazing how often the Devil is invoked in English idioms: he has certainly been given his due. Some phrases must go back to myths. The Devil and his dam reminds us of the ancient stories in which two monsters play havoc with human lives. A famous example is Grendel and his mother (Beowulf), but folklore is full of similar examples.

Read More

The words of the day

The readers of newspapers will have noticed the deadening repetition of the same words (I don’t mean pandemic, virus, distance, or opening—those are probably unavoidable). No, everybody nowadays hunkers down (the activity formerly reserved for the greatest leaders at their secret meetings), while many admire Sweden, where people trust their government.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for April 2020

I have read two comments on my post of April 29, 2020 and John Cowan’s post and came to the expected conclusion: even those who favor the idea of the Reform will never agree on what should change and in what order changes should be instituted. Every suggestion makes sense.

Read More

Figuring out phrasal verbs

English contains a bewildering number of so-called phrasal verbs: two- or three-word compounds that seem to consist of a verb and a preposition—things like bring up, fill in, give away, pay back, work out, and many more. The Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary lists 6,000 of them in its 2016 edition. Native speakers of English learn these naturally in the course […]

Read More

Spelling reform: not a “lafing” matter

I keep receiving letters explaining to me the futility of all efforts to reform English spelling and even extolling the virtues of the present system. I will spend minimal time while rehashing what has been said many times and come to the point as soon as possible. The seemingly weighty but not serious objections are three. 1) If we reform spelling, we’ll lose a lot of historical information. Quite true, but spelling is not a springboard to an advanced course on etymology.

Read More

Who is Dr. Doddipol? Or, idioms in your back yard

Would you like to be as learned as Dr. Doddipol? Those heroes of our intensifying similes! Cooter Brown (a drunk), Laurence’s dog (extremely lazy), Potter’s pig (bow-legged), Throp’s wife (a very busy person, but so was also Beck’s wife)—who were they? I have at least once written about them, though in passing (see the post for October 28, 2015). They show up in sayings like as drunk as…, as lazy as…, as busy as…, and so forth. Many people have tried to discover the identity of those mysterious characters.

Read More