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Etymologies in bulk and in bunches

Two things sometimes come as a surprise even to an experienced etymologist. First, it may turn out that such words happen to be connected as no one would suspect of having anything in common. Second is the ability of words to produce one another in what seems to be an arbitrary, capricious, or chaotic way, so that the entire group begins to resemble an analog of a creeping plant.

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Five things you need to know about pronouns

First off, there are more pronouns than you might think. Personal pronouns get most of the attention nowadays, especially the widely accepted singular they and other non-binary pronouns. But personal pronouns are just one group among several.

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Putting my mouth where my money is: the origin of “haggis”

Haggis, to quote the OED, is “a dish consisting of the heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep, calf, etc. (or sometimes of the tripe and chitterlings), minced with suet and oatmeal, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions, etc., and boiled like a large sausage in the maw of the animal.”

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Going out on a limb

Etymologists often deal with a group of words that seem to be related, and yet the nature of the relationship is hard or impossible to demonstrate. Such groups are particularly instructive to investigate. I have long been interested in a possible connection between “limp” (adjective), “limp” (verb), and “lump.”

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Monthly gleanings for March 2021

In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist responds to readers’ queries, discussing “evil”, “wicked”, “sward”, “hunt”, “thraúō”, “trash”, and “tomorrow”.

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Wallowing deeper and deeper in the garbage can (part three)

In the series on “trash” and its synonyms, I called attention to Spitzer’s hypothesis on the origin of English “rubbish” and now I have unearthed Verdam’s idea that Dutch “karwei” may have something in common with English “garbage.” Resuscitating valuable ideas buried in the depths of old journals is an important part of etymologists’ work. Convincing refutation is as valuable as agreement.

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The ABCs of modal verbs

Modals are a special group of helping verbs, e.g. “can” and “could.” The distinction between dynamic, epistemic, and deontic uses of modal verbs is one of the most puzzling pieces of the verb system. For me, the easiest way keep things straight is with the mnemonic ABC: for ability, belief, and canon. So when you encounter a modal, ask how it is being used. Is it A, B, or C?

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From “trash” to “rubbish” and back to “trash” (part two)

In the beginning, words for things wasted or thrown away tend to denote some concrete refuse and only later acquire a generic meaning. Yet, when several synonyms share the field, they are seldom fully interchangeable. Thus, trash, rubbish, junk, offal, and garbage either refer to different kinds of discarded objects or have different stylistic overtones. One also notices with some surprise that in Modern English, all such words are borrowings.

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The future is in the past

“Not everybody may know that ‘yesterday’ is one of the most enigmatic formations in the Indo-European language family.” In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist explores the history of the adverb ‘yesterday’ and how the same word acquired two incompatible senses: ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow.’

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OUP Libraries

The Librarian Reserve Corps: fighting COVID-19 with mediated information

Librarians have always been at the forefront of information needs and have provided critical assistance to patrons, public officials, and decision makers during uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception and has created an urgent, unprecedented demand for access to knowledge that is accurate, reliable, and timely.

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Reading for words

I grew up in the golden era of standardized reading tests. We were taught to read for information, and our progress was tracked by multiple choice tests asking us “What is the main point of the passage?” In retrospect, it was bad training for reading (and for writing), and it took me a long time to change my habits.

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