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Etymology gleanings for September 2015

It so happened that I have been “gleaning” the whole month, but today I’ll probably exhaust the questions received during the last weeks. From a letter: “I have been told Norwegians would say forth and back rather that back and forth since it was logical for them to envision going away, then coming back.”

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Five years of discovery

The librarians at Bates College became interested in Oxford Bibliographies a little over five years ago. We believed there was great promise for a new resource OUP was developing, in which scholars around the world would be contributing their expertise by selecting citations, commenting on them, and placing them in context for end users.

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The 34 most popular OUPblog posts of the last ten years

Yesterday we shared 34 selections of the OUPblog’s best work as judged by sharp editorial eyes and author favorites. However, only one of those selections coincides with the most popular posts according to pageviews. Does Google Analytics know something that our editors do not? Do these articles simply “pop” (and promptly deflate)? Or are there certain questions to which people always demand an answer?

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The history of the word ‘bad’, Chapter 2

Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad.

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The lasting appeal of Great Expectations

According to George Orwell, the biggest problem with Dickens is that he simply doesn’t know when to stop. Every sentence seems to be on the point of curling into a joke; characters are forever spawning a host of eccentric offspring. “His imagination overwhelms everything”, Orwell sniffed, “like a kind of weed”.

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Bugs: a postscript

Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.

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An interview with the Editor of The Monist

Oxford University Press has partnered with the Hegeler Institute to publish The Monist, one of the world’s oldest and most important journals in philosophy. The Monist publishes quarterly thematic issues on particular philosophical topics which are edited by leading philosophers in the corresponding fields. We sat down with the Editor of The Monist, Barry Smith, to discuss the Journal’s history and future plans.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2015

In the United States everything is planned very long in advance, while in Europe one can sometimes read about a conference that will be held a mere three months later. By that time all the travel money available to an American academic will have been spent a millennium ago. In the United States, we have visions rather than short-range plans.

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The barrage continues with “barricade” and ends with an appeal for peace

To finish the bar(r)-series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively little controversy. However, all is not clear, and two theories about the origin of barricade still compete. According to one, the story begins with words like Italian barra and French barre “bar” (barricades bar access to certain places), while, according to the other, the first barricades were constructed of barrels filled with earth, stones, and the like, so that the starting point should be French barrique or Spanish barrica.

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The evolution of the word ‘evolution’

It is curious that, although the modern theory of evolution has its source in Charles Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species (1859), the word evolution does not appear in the original text at all. In fact, Darwin seems deliberately to have avoided using the word evolution, preferring to refer to the process of biological change as ‘transmutation’. Some of the reasons for this, and for continuing confusion about the word evolution in the succeeding century and a half, can be unpacked from the word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

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On barrels from East to West

The post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but their source in the Romance-speaking world remains a matter of unending debate.

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Guns, herbs, and sores: inside the dragon’s etymological lair

23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag. St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language; even the very word dragon hoards its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.

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An embarrassment of riches

A priest can be defrocked, and a lawyer disbarred. I wonder what happens to a historical linguist who cannot find an answer in his books. Is such an individual outsourced? A listener from Quebec (Québec) asked me about the origin of the noun bar. He wrote: “…we still say in French barrer la porte as they still do (though less and less) on the Atlantic side of France.

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Celebrating Saint John Muir’s birthday

John Muir practically glowed with divine light in the early 1870s. “We almost thought he was Jesus Christ,” the landscape painter William Keith exclaimed to an interviewer. “We fairly worshipped him!”

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Narrating nostalgia

The most recent issue of the Oral History Review will be zipping across the world soon. To hold you over until it arrives, we interviewed one of the authors featured in this edition, Jennifer Helgren, about her article, “A ‘Very Innocent Time’: Oral History Narratives, Nostalgia and Girls’ Safety in the 1950s and 1960s.”

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