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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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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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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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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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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Forgotten books and postwar Jewish identity

In recent years, Americans have reckoned with a rise in antisemitism. Since the 2016 presidential election, antisemitism exploded online and entered the mainstream of American politics, with the 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue marking the deadliest attack on American Jews.

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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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