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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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Society was to blame for the letters, not twisted psychologies

In complex ways, social inequalities create the conditions for people to feel that writing anonymously might be useful for them. On top of this, social crises create anxious contexts, when the receipt of a threatening, obscene, or libellous anonymous letter might seem especially hazardous.

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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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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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American Exchanges: Third Reich’s Elite Schools

In the summer of 1935, an exchange programme between leading American academies and German schools, set up by the International Schoolboy Fellowship (ISF), was hijacked by the Nazi government. The organization had been set up in 1927 by Walter Huston Lillard, the principal of Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. Its aim was to foster better relations between all nations through the medium of schoolboy exchange.

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Conversations with Dostoevsky

The first time I visited St Petersburg, nearly thirty years ago, I stayed not far from the area in which Dostoevsky set the action of Crime and Punishment. The tenement blocks were, for the most part, those that Dostoevsky himself would have seen—indeed, one friend lived at Grazhdanskaya 19, a possible location for the coffin-like garret inhabited by Raskolnikov, the novel’s homicidal anti-hero.

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Beyond God and atheism

One of the most remarkable findings of recent science is that the fundamental constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of life. Some think the fine-tuning of physics points to a God, who set the numbers to ensure life comes about. Others think it points to a multiverse: if there are enough universes with enough variety in their laws of nature, then it becomes statistically likely that at least one with be right for life. I think there are big problems with both these options, and we may need more radical solutions.

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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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A four-forked etymology: curfew

It appears that the etymology of curfew has been solved. In any case, all modern dictionaries say the same. The English word surfaced in texts in the early fourteenth century, but a signal to people to extinguish their fires is much older.

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“Indian summer” and other curious idioms

The Internet is full of information about the origin of the phrase Indian summer. Everything said there about this idiom, its use, the puzzling reference to Indian, as well as about a desired replacement of Indian by a word devoid of ethnic connotations and about the synonyms for the phrase in the languages of the world, is correct.

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Intractable words

In my correspondence with the journalist who was curious about the origin of caucus, I wrote that we might never discover where that word came from.

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