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An exercise in etymological bodybuilding

To an etymologist the names of some organs and body parts pose almost insoluble problems. A quick look at some of them may be of interest to our readers. I think that in the past, I have discussed only the words brain and body (21 February 2007: brain; 14 October 2015: body). Both etymologies are hard, for the words are local: brain has a rather inconspicuous German cognate, and the same holds for body. I risked offering tentative suggestions, which were followed by useful, partly critical comments. As usual, I see no reason to repeat what I said in the past and would like to stress only one idea. Etymologists, when at a loss for a solution, often say that the inscrutable word could enter Indo-European or Germanic, or Romance from some unknown, unrecorded language (such languages are called substrates).

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Women in China, past and present

As we celebrate the lives and accomplishments of women around the world as part of Women’s History Month, we offer a brief look at changing gender roles in different periods of China’s past, and at a group of contemporary activists pushing for greater equality between men and women in the current era. In two excerpts on women from their forthcoming book, China in the 21 Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom place events that have taken place since Xi Jinping took power into a long-term historical perspective.

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What is biblical archaeology? [Extract]

“These were some of the original questions in biblical archaeology that intrigued the earliest pioneers of the field. They still resonate today but are far from being answered.” In the following excerpt from Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Eric H. Cline explains the interests of biblical archaeologists, and explores the types of questions that those in the field set out to answer.

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The origin of so long

So long, a formula at parting (“good-bye”) is still in use, unlike mad hatter and sleeveless errand, the subjects of my recent posts, and people sometimes wonder where it came from. I have little of substance to say about the formula’s origin, but, before I say it, I would like to make the point I have made so many times before.

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How to spot ambiguity

Not long ago, a colleague was setting up a meeting and suggested bringing along spouses to socialize after the business was done. Not getting a positive reply, she emailed: “I’m getting a lack of enthusiasm for boring spouses with our meeting.” A minute later, a second, clarifying email arrived indicating that she “meant boring as a verb not an adjective.” She had spotted the ambiguity in the first message.

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Etymology gleanings: February 2018

Everybody’s path to etymology: From time to time I receive questions about etymology as a profession. Not long ago, someone from a faraway country even expressed the wish to get a degree in etymology. I can refer to my post of April 2, 2014. This month, a correspondent asked me to say something about why I became an etymologist. The history of my career cannot be interesting to too many of our readers, so I’ll be brief and rather tell a story.

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Facts about Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems

Of all Shakespeare’s great plays his most frequently published work in his lifetime his erotic poem, Venus and Adonis. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems may often feel less familiar than his plays, but they have also seeped into our cultural history. Within them, they reveal much about the Bard himself and include a number of surprises. Here are a few lesser known facts about Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems.

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An’t please the pigs

My database on please the pigs is poor, but, since a question about it has been asked by an old and faithful correspondent, I’ll say about it what I can. Perhaps our readers will be able to contribute something to the sought-for etymology. When a word turns out to be of undisclosed or hopelessly obscure origin, we take the result more or less in stride, but it comes to many as a surprise to hear that the circumstances surrounding the emergence of an idiom are beyond reconstruction.

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The economic relationship between Mexico and the United States

Mexico and the United States share a highly integrated economic relationship. There seems to be an assumption among many Americans, including officials in the current administration, that the relationship is somehow one-sided, that is, that Mexico is the sole beneficiary of commerce between the two countries. Yet, economic benefits to both countries are extensive.

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Freemasonry and the public sphere in the UK

Freemasonry once again hit the headlines of UK media on New Year’s Eve 2017, revealing the contentious nature of the place of secrecy in public life. Just having concluded the celebration of its tercentenary anniversary year, the United Grand Lodge of England found itself at the center of controversy. How far can membership in a masonic lodge be regarded as incompatible with the exercise of a public office?

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Questions and answers: January 2018 etymology gleanings

The most ancient roots: The question concerned the root rō- that is said to underlie the English words oar and row. Where did the root come from? This question is almost equal to the more basic one, namely: “How did human language come into being?” The concept of the root is ambiguous. When we deal with living languages, we compare words like work, works, worked, rework, worker, and the rest and call their common part their root.

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Saving Butch Cassidy’s charitable legacy

Paul Newman died in 2008, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of films and philanthropy. Of his many iconic movie roles, my favorite is Butch Cassidy. Unfortunately, Mr. Newman’s death in real life triggered a tax problem which now threatens his charitable bounty. Congress almost solved this problem in the new tax law passed in December 2017 but, at the last minute, failed to do so.

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Beware the thesaurus

Someone recently asked me if I knew another word for entertaining. “What’s the context?” I replied, wondering if the writer was looking for an adjective like enjoyable or interesting or a gerund like wining and dining or possibly even a verb like pondering. “Use it in a sentence.” “Never mind,” she said, “I’ll just use the thesaurus button.” The what?

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Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 2

Odds and ends: I am delighted to say that in January I received unusually many questions. When this blog came into existence, the idea was that I would be flooded by “notes and queries,” as happens to word columnists who work for newspapers. That is why the last week of every month was reserved for answers. But all these years the traffic has been modest, and sometimes my replies were limited to what I had read in the comments. January and the beginning of February 2018 have been an exception; hence the extended “gleanings.”

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Can you pick up the ‘core’ of ten languages in a year?

I previously wrote about how Scientific English is a specialized form of language used in formal presentations and publications. It is rich in ‘rare’, or extremely low frequency words, and the colocations that define them (i.e. we ‘sequence a genome’ or ‘stretch of ‘DNA’). Learning to comprehend the meaning of such formal language requires considerable exposure and writing it well truly exercises one’s knowledge of the ‘long tail’ of vocabulary.

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