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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

My word of the year: hostages

I have never been able to guess the so-called word of the year, because the criteria are so vague: neither an especially frequent word nor an especially popular one, we are told, but the one that characterizes the past twelvemonth in a particularly striking way. To increase my puzzlement, every major dictionary has its own favorite, to be named and speedily forgotten.

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Messy, messy masculinity: The politics of eccentric men in the early United States

For every weirdo one finds while researching the past’s forgotten personalities, there are probably two or three more just a stone’s throw away whom time did not preserve. Ben Bascom (Feeling Singular: Queer Masculinities in the Early United States) assembles a collection of once neglected but now deeply curious stories that offer the underside to more popular narratives about the founding of the U.S and what it meant—and means—to be masculine.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

Dab-dab and a learned idiom

I receive questions about the origin of words and idioms with some regularity. If the subjects are trivial, I respond privately, but this week a correspondent asked me about the etymology of the verb loiter, and I thought it might be a good idea to devote some space to it and to its closest synonyms.

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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

In search of the MacGuffin

I considered opening this post in the style of Dashiell Hammett: Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

Unscheduled gleanings and a few idioms

I receive questions about the origin of words and idioms with some regularity. If the subjects are trivial, I respond privately, but this week a correspondent asked me about the etymology of the verb loiter, and I thought it might be a good idea to devote some space to it and to its closest synonyms.

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“Unparalleled research quality”: An interview with Tanya Laplante, Head of Product Platforms

As part of our Publishing 101 blog series, we are interviewing “hidden” figures at Oxford University Press: colleagues who our authors would not typically work with but who make a crucial contribution to the success of their books. Tanya explains how, as research behaviours have changed, we use digital platforms to ensure that our authors’ books reach readers worldwide.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

Walter W. Skeat and the Oxford English Dictionary

For many years, I have been trying to talk an old friend of mine into writing a popular book on Skeat. A book about such a colorful individual, I kept repeating, would sell like hotcakes. But he never wrote it. Neither will I (much to my regret), but there is no reason why I should not devote another short essay to Skeat. In 2016, Oxford University Press published Peter Gilliver’s book The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work of incredible erudition.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

From “frog” to “toad”

I did not intend to write an essay about toad, because a detailed entry on this word can be found in An Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology (2008), but a letter came from our correspondent wondering whether the etymology of toad is comparable with that of frog (the subject of the previous two posts), and the most recent comment also deals with both creatures.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

An etymological plague of frogs

Last week, I discussed a few suggestions about the origin of the English word frog. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes in the Greek name of this animal. My negligence is puzzling, because the play by Aristophanes lay open near my computer.

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Title cover of "Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology" by Anatoly Liberman

A jumping frog and other creatures of etymological interest

Our readers probably expect this post to deal with Mark Twain’s first famous story. Alas, no. My frog tale is, though mildly entertaining, more somber and will certainly not be reprinted from coast to coast or propel me to fame. In the past, I have written several essays about animal names.

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Chewing the cud and ruminating on word origins

The history of cud may be more exciting than it seems at first sight. Initially (long ago!), I was intrigued when I read the statement by Henry Cecil Wyld, an outstanding language historian, that the origin of cud is unknown.

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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

Rhetorical “um”

“Uh” and “um” don’t get much respect. What even are they? Toastmasters International calls them “crutch words.”

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