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How the OED Got Shorter

Ben’s column this week looks at the fascinating history of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. He explains how the OED, quite possibly OUP’s most important book (well, series of books), got trimmed to a manageable two volumes and why this development was important.

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Harlots all over the place

Harlot turned up in English texts in the thirteenth century, acquired its present-day sense (“prostitute”) about two hundred years later, and ousted all the previous ones. Those “previous ones” are worthy of recording…

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As daft as a brush and its kin

Some similes make sense: for example, as coarse as hemp (or heather). Hemp and heather are indeed coarse. But cool as a cucumber? Many phrases of this type exist thanks to alliteration. Perhaps at some time, somewhere, cucumbers were associated with coolness, but, more likely, the simile was coined as a joke: just listen to coo-coo in it!

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Harlequin’s black mask

This is the conclusion of the sequence begun three weeks ago: see the post for September 2, 2020. Last week’s gleanings delayed the climax. In 1937, Hermann M. Flasdieck, an outstanding German philologist, brought out a book on Harlequin. It first appeared as a long article (125 pages) in the periodical Anglia, which he edited. […]

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Harlequin’s tricky name

I am picking up where I left off last week. In the post for August 26, 2020, I discussed some words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page. He ended up among harlots, harangues, and the harrowing of hell. I also touched on the possible origin of some European words for “war,” and in a […]

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Harlequin’s environment

Marley was dead, to begin with, as all of us know. Likewise, the origin of the word Harlequin is controversial, to begin with. Henry Cecil Wyld’s excellent dictionary, to which I often refer, says that all ideas about the etymology of Harlequin are mere speculations. This is not true and was not quite true even […]

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English idioms about family life and conjugal felicity

Several friendly comments urged me to continue the series on English idioms I started last week (see the post for August 12, 2020). That post was devoted to naval phrases. The comments suggested all kinds of topics, sewing and cooking among them. However, not all subjects are equally easy to tackle. Though in the shoreless […]

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Whatever happens, the Oxford Etymologist will never jump ship!

One does not have to be a linguist to know that English is full of naval metaphors and phrases. How else could it be in the language of a seafaring nation?! Dozens, if not hundreds of metaphors going back to sailors’ life and experience crop up in our daily speech, and we don’t realize their origin. Nor should we, for speakers are not expected to think of the etymology of the words and collocations they use.

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“Scram” and its ungainly kin

On April 18, 2012, while discussing the etymology of shrimp, I wrote that I had once looked up the word scrumptious, to find out its origin. Much to my surprise, I read that scrumptious is perhaps sumptuous, with -cr- added for emphasis. On May 2, 2012, I attacked shrew. My romance with shr- ~ scr-words abated, but I never forgot it. Today, I’ll continue those two stories and again look at shr- and scr-.

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Cut and dried

A less common synonym of the idiom cut and dried is cut and dry, and it would have served my purpose better, because this essay is about the verb cut, and two weeks later the adjective dry will be the subject of a post. But let us stay with the better-known variant.

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“The devil to pay” and more devilry

It is amazing how often the Devil is invoked in English idioms: he has certainly been given his due. Some phrases must go back to myths. The Devil and his dam reminds us of the ancient stories in which two monsters play havoc with human lives. A famous example is Grendel and his mother (Beowulf), but folklore is full of similar examples.

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The words of the day

The readers of newspapers will have noticed the deadening repetition of the same words (I don’t mean pandemic, virus, distance, or opening—those are probably unavoidable). No, everybody nowadays hunkers down (the activity formerly reserved for the greatest leaders at their secret meetings), while many admire Sweden, where people trust their government.

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Keeping social distance: the story of the word “aloof” and a few tidbits

It is amazing how many words like aloof exist in English. Even for “fear” we have two a-formations: afraid, which supplanted the archaic afeard, and aghast. Aback, aboard, ashore, asunder—a small dictionary can be filled with them (but alas and alack do not belong here). The model is productive: consider aflutter and aglitter. One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively. Indeed, an asunder man and an astride rider do not exist.

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