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How far can a flea jump?

Stinging and gnawing insects are not only a nuisance in everyday life; they also harass etymologists. Those curious about such things may look at my post on bug for June 3, 2015. After hovering in the higher spheres of being (eat, drink, breathe: those were the subjects of my most recent posts), I propose to return to earth and deal with low, less dignified subjects.

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“Breath” and “breathe”

I decided to make good on my promise to complete a series devoted to a few words referring to the most basic functions of our organism. The previous posts dealt with eat, drink, and throat. Now, as promised, a story of breath is coming up. The basic word here is the noun breath; it already existed in Old English and had long æ.  The verb breathe is a later derivative of the same root; it also had a long vowel.

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Etymology gleanings for December 2019

Once again, my thanks are to everybody who read this blog in 2019 and commented on its fifty two posts. However, I still have to wave a friendly goodbye to the ghost of the year gone by and do some gleaning on the frozen field of December.

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Why scientists should be atheists

My friend and colleague George asked me, “Do you think a scientist can be an atheist?” I replied, “Not only can a scientist be an atheist, he should be one.” I was teasing because I knew what response George wanted to hear and this was not it. Sure enough, he shook his head. The only logical position that a scientist can take, he said, is to be an agnostic because we can never know the answer to the question of whether God exists or not.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2019

I agree: no voice should be silenced, but it does not follow that every voice deserves equal respect. I called the previous two posts “Etymology and Delusion” and deliberately did not emphasize such words as madness, lunacy, and derangement, for perfectly normal people can also be deluded. In etymology, the line separating amateurs from professionals is in most cases easy to draw.

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“To lie doggo,” an idiom few people seem to know

Last week (November 6, 2019), in passing, I mentioned my idea of the origin of the word dog and did not mean to return to this subject, but John Cowan suggested that I consider an alternative etymology (dog as a color word). I have been aware of it for a long time, but why is my idea worse?

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Monthly gleanings for October 2019

I received a question about the origin of French adieu and its close analogs in the other Romance languages. This question is easy to answer. The word goes back to the phrase à Dieu “to God,” which is the beginning of the longer locution à Dieu commande, that is, “I commend (you) to God” or, if we remain with French, “je recommande à Dieu.” The European parting formulas are of rather few types.

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An etymological aid to hearing

As promised, I am continuing the series on senses. There have already been posts on feel and taste. To show how hard it may be to discover the origin of some of our most basic words, I have chosen the verb hear. Germanic is here uniform: all the languages of this group have predictable reflexes (continuations) of the ancient form hauzjan.

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Our five senses: taste

Having discussed the origin of the verbs smell (“The sense and essence of smell”) and feel (“Fingers feel, or feel free”), I thought that it might be worthwhile to touch on the etymology of see, hear, and taste. Touch, ultimately of onomatopoeic origin, has been mentioned, though briefly, in one of the earlier posts. I’ll begin the projected series with taste.

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Feeling fingers

This will be a story of both protagonists mentioned in the title: the verb feel and the noun finger. However, it may be more profitable to begin with finger. In the year 2000, Ari Hoptman brought out an article on the origin of this word (NOWELE 36, 77-91). Although missed by the later dictionaries, it contains not only an exhaustive survey of everything ever said about the etymology of finger but also a reasonable conjecture, differing from those he had found in his sources, both published and unpublished.

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Sweet (and sour)

The post on the origin of the word smell has been read by more people than any other in recent months. On the wave of this unexpected popularity, I decided to write an essay or two on related themes. If they arouse enough interest, I may continue in the same vein.

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The last shot at American Idioms

The use of metaphors is relatively late in the modern European languages; it is, in principle, a post-Renaissance phenomenon. The same holds for the idioms based on metaphors. No one in the days of Beowulf and perhaps even of Chaucer would have coined the phrase to lose one’s marbles “to become insane,” even if so long ago boys were as intent on collecting marbles as was Tom Sawyer.

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Monthly gleanings for August 2019

As is known, glamour is a spelling variant of glamor even in American English. The question I received was about the connection between glamour and grammar. The word glamour appeared in printed books only in the 18th century.  It occurred in Scottish ballads and meant “magic, enchantment.”

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Enoch Powell and the rise of neo-liberalism

The Conservative politician Enoch Powell is best known for his outspoken opposition to immigration, but he also adopted distinctive positions on a range of other prominent issues in the post-1945 era. Indeed, he was the most prominent early exponent of neo-liberalism, the free-market perspective linking economic and political freedom in British politics. Yet there has […]

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Flatterers and bletherskites

Almost exactly twelve years ago, on August 2, 2006 (see this post), when the world and this blog were much younger, I mentioned some problems pertaining to the etymology of the verb flatter. Since that time, I have written several posts on kl– and sl-words and discussed sound symbolism more than once. There is little […]

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Some American phrases

This is a continuation of the subject broached cautiously on July 17, 2019. Since the comments were supportive, I’ll continue in the same vein. Perhaps it should first be mentioned that sometimes the line separating language study from the study of history, customs, and rituals is thin.

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