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No simplistic etymology of “simpleton”

By Anatoly Liberman
Simpleton is an irritating word. At first sight, its origin contains no secrets: simple + ton. And that may be all there is to it despite the obscurity of –ton. We find this explanation in the OED and in the dictionaries dependent on it.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many comments on the posts published in August and many questions. Rather than making these gleanings inordinately long, I have broken them into two parts. Today I’ll begin by asking rather than answering questions, because to some queries I am unable to give quotable (or any) answers.

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Looking “askance”

By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names.

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Alphabet soup, part 2: H and Y

By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of the names of two letters. Appreciate the fact that I did not call it “A Tale of Two Letters.” No other phrase has been pawed over to such an extent as the title of Dickens’s novel.

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Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”).

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Multifarious Devils, part 4. Goblin

By Anatoly Liberman
Petty devils are all around us. Products of so-called low mythology, they often have impenetrable names. (Higher mythology deals with gods, yet their names are often equally opaque!) Some such evil creatures have appeared, figuratively speaking, the day before yesterday, but that does not prevent them from hiding their origin with envious dexterity (after all, they are imps). A famous evader is gremlin.

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Multifarious Devils, part 2. Old Nick and the Crocodile

By Anatoly Liberman
In our enlightened age, we are beginning to forget how thickly the world of our ancestors was populated by imps and devils. Shakespeare still felt at home among them, would have recognized Grimalkin, and, as noted in a recent post, knew the charm aroint thee, which scared away witches. Flibbertigibbet (a member of a sizable family in King Lear), the wily Rumpelstilzchen, and their kin have names that are sometimes hard to decipher, a fact of which Rumpelstilzchen was fully aware.

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Panning for etymological gold: “aloof”

By Anatoly Liberman
It may not be too widely known how hard it is to discover the origin of even “easy” words. Most people realize that the beginning of language is lost and that, although we can sometimes reconstruct an earlier stage of a word, we usually stop when it comes to explaining why a given combination of sounds is endowed with the meaning known to us.

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No great shakes? You are mistaken

By Anatoly Liberman
I am saying goodbye to the Harlem Shake. The miniseries began two weeks ago withdance, moved on to twerk and twerp, and now the turn of the verb shake has come round. Reference books say little about the origin of shake. They usually list a few cognates and produce the Germanic etymon skakan (both a’s were short)

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The Harlem Shake and English etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
American schools dance nonstop. A wild display of “flailing arms and wriggling torsos,” known as the Harlem Shake, is the latest addition to our civilization. High school “kids” writhe eel-like on the floor, chairs, and tables, fall, sometimes break arms and legs, and have fun, which is the unassailable backbone of our educational system. At some places, teachers and principals dance with the kids and thus double the amount of fun.

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Out of Shakespeare: ‘Aroint thee’

By Anatoly Liberman
Dozens of words have not been forgotten only because Shakespeare used them. Scotch (as in scotch the snake), bare bodkin, and dozens of others would have taken their quietus and slept peacefully in the majestic graveyard of the Oxford English Dictionary but for their appearance in Shakespeare’s plays. Aroint would certainly have been unknown but for its appearance in Macbeth and King Lear.

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Wrenching an etymology out of a monkey

By Anatoly Liberman
Primates have given Germanic language historians great trouble. In the most recent dictionary of German etymology (Kluge-Seebold), the entry Affe “ape” is one of the most detailed. In the revised version of the OED, monkey is also discussed at a length, otherwise rare in this online edition. Despite the multitude of hypotheses, the sought-for solution is not in view.

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Drinking vessels: ‘goblet’

By Anatoly Liberman
One more drinking vessel, and I’ll stop. Strangely, here we have another synonym for bumper, and it is again an old word of unknown origin. In English, goblet turned up in the fourteenth century, but its uninterrupted recorded history began about a hundred years later. Many names of vials, mugs, and beverages probably originated in the language of drinkers, pub owners, and glass manufacturers. They were slang, and we have little chance of guessing who and in what circumstances coined them.

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Drinking vessels: ‘tankard’

By Anatoly Liberman
One drinks to the coming New Year, and one drinks while remembering the old one. Besides, some do it according to the Gregorian calendar, while others prefer the Julian one. As could be expected, the end of the world has been delayed and life continues. I was touched by the kind words from our regular correspondents; over time they have become my good friends.

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Don’t bank on it

By Beverley Hunt
With just over a week to go until Christmas, many of us are no doubt looking forward to the holidays and a few days off work. For those working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, writing the history of the language sometimes took precedence over a Christmas break.

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Drinking vessels: ‘bumper’

By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago, I devoted three posts to alcoholic beverages: ale, beer, and mead. It has occurred to me that, since I have served drinks, I should also take care of wine glasses. Bumper is an ideal choice for the beginning of this series because of its reference to a large glass full to overflowing. It is a late word, as words go: no citation in the OED predates 1677. If I am not mistaken, the first lexicographer to include it in his dictionary was Samuel Johnson (1755). For a long time bumper may have been little or not at all known in polite society.

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