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Last Build Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 10:30:17 +0000

 



Next lane please: the etymology of “street”

Wed, 18 Apr 2018 11:30:56 +0000

As long as there were no towns, people did not need the word street. Yet in our oldest Germanic texts, streets are mentioned. It is no wonder that we are not sure what exactly was meant and where the relevant words came from. Quite obviously, if a word’s meaning is unknown, its derivation will also remain unknown. Paths existed, and so did roads. Surprisingly, the etymology of both words (path and road) is debatable.

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Are you of my kidney?

Wed, 11 Apr 2018 11:30:53 +0000

It is perfectly all right if your answer to the question in the title is “no.” I am not partial. It was not my intention to continue with the origin of organs, but I received a question about the etymology of kidney and decided to answer it, though, as happened with liver (see the post for 21 March 2018), I have no original ideas on this subject.

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Etymology gleanings for March 2018: Part 2

Wed, 04 Apr 2018 11:30:41 +0000

Thanks to all of our readers who have commented on the previous posts and who have written me privately. Some remarks do not need my answer. This is especially true of the suggestions concerning parallels in the languages I don’t know or those that I can read but have never studied professionally. Like every etymologist, I am obliged to cite words and forms borrowed from dictionaries, and in many cases depend on the opinions I cannot check.

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Etymology gleanings March 2018

Wed, 28 Mar 2018 11:30:35 +0000

One of the questions I received was about dent, indent, and indenture. What do they have in common with dent- “tooth,” as in dental and dentures? Dent, which surfaced in texts in the 13th century, meant “stroke, blow” (a noun; obviously, not a derivative of any Latin word for “tooth”) and has plausibly been explained as a variant of its full synonym or doublet dint.

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Digging into the innards: “liver”

Wed, 21 Mar 2018 11:30:34 +0000

Etymological bodybuilding is a never-ceasing process. The important thing is to know when to stop, and I’ll stop soon, but a few more exercises may be worth the trouble. Today’s post is about liver. What little can be said about this word has been said many times, so that an overview is all we’ll need. First, as usual, a prologue or, if you prefer, a posy of the ring.

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An exercise in etymological bodybuilding

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 11:30:06 +0000

To an etymologist the names of some organs and body parts pose almost insoluble problems. A quick look at some of them may be of interest to our readers. I think that in the past, I have discussed only the words brain and body (21 February 2007: brain; 14 October 2015: body). Both etymologies are hard, for the words are local: brain has a rather inconspicuous German cognate, and the same holds for body. I risked offering tentative suggestions, which were followed by useful, partly critical comments. As usual, I see no reason to repeat what I said in the past and would like to stress only one idea. Etymologists, when at a loss for a solution, often say that the inscrutable word could enter Indo-European or Germanic, or Romance from some unknown, unrecorded language (such languages are called substrates).

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The origin of so long

Wed, 07 Mar 2018 12:30:28 +0000

So long, a formula at parting (“good-bye”) is still in use, unlike mad hatter and sleeveless errand, the subjects of my recent posts, and people sometimes wonder where it came from. I have little of substance to say about the formula’s origin, but, before I say it, I would like to make the point I have made so many times before.

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Etymology gleanings: February 2018

Wed, 28 Feb 2018 12:30:40 +0000

Everybody’s path to etymology: From time to time I receive questions about etymology as a profession. Not long ago, someone from a faraway country even expressed the wish to get a degree in etymology. I can refer to my post of April 2, 2014. This month, a correspondent asked me to say something about why I became an etymologist. The history of my career cannot be interesting to too many of our readers, so I’ll be brief and rather tell a story.

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An’t please the pigs

Wed, 21 Feb 2018 12:30:51 +0000

My database on please the pigs is poor, but, since a question about it has been asked by an old and faithful correspondent, I’ll say about it what I can. Perhaps our readers will be able to contribute something to the sought-for etymology. When a word turns out to be of undisclosed or hopelessly obscure origin, we take the result more or less in stride, but it comes to many as a surprise to hear that the circumstances surrounding the emergence of an idiom are beyond reconstruction.

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Questions and answers: January 2018 etymology gleanings

Wed, 14 Feb 2018 12:30:57 +0000

The most ancient roots: The question concerned the root rō- that is said to underlie the English words oar and row. Where did the root come from? This question is almost equal to the more basic one, namely: “How did human language come into being?” The concept of the root is ambiguous. When we deal with living languages, we compare words like work, works, worked, rework, worker, and the rest and call their common part their root.

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Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 2

Wed, 07 Feb 2018 12:30:25 +0000

Odds and ends: I am delighted to say that in January I received unusually many questions. When this blog came into existence, the idea was that I would be flooded by “notes and queries,” as happens to word columnists who work for newspapers. That is why the last week of every month was reserved for answers. But all these years the traffic has been modest, and sometimes my replies were limited to what I had read in the comments. January and the beginning of February 2018 have been an exception; hence the extended “gleanings.”

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Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 1

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 11:30:10 +0000

My most recent post (mad as a hatter) aroused a good deal of criticism. The reason is clear: I did not mention the hypothesis favored in the OED (mercury poisoning). Of course, when I quoted the medical explanation of long ago, I should have written the last set of hypotheses… instead of the last hypothesis. I find all medical explanations of the idiom untenable, and I should have been explicit on this point, rather than hiding behind polite silence.

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Mad as a Hatter

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 11:30:51 +0000

About every well-known English idiom one can nowadays find so much interesting material on the Internet that almost nothing is left for an ambitious etymologist to add. Mad as a hatter has been discussed especially often, and my detailed database contains nearly nothing new. Yet I decided to join the ranks of the researchers of […]

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An oar in every man’s boat

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 12:30:38 +0000

Not too long ago, one of our constant correspondents proposed the etymology of Greek koupí “oar.” I do not know the origin of that word and will probably never know. Koupí did not show up in my most detailed dictionary of Classical Greek, and I suspect that we are dealing with a relative late coinage. By way of compensation, I decided to write something about the origin of Engl. oar and about some other words connected with it.

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Catching someone by the toe

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 12:30:48 +0000

From time to time I receive questions too long for my monthly gleanings. The same happened last week. A reader wanted to know the origin of the eena, meena (or eenie, meenie) rhyme. Although not much can be said with certainty about this matter, a few facts have been established. The Internet devotes a lot of space to this “jingle.”

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First things first

Wed, 03 Jan 2018 12:30:22 +0000

I seldom, if ever, try to be “topical” (I mean the practice of word columnists to keep abreast of the times and discuss the words of the year or comment on some curious expression used by a famous personality), but the calendar has some power over me. The end of the year, the beginning of the year, the rite of spring, the harvest—those do not leave me indifferent.

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Etymology gleanings for December 2017

Wed, 27 Dec 2017 12:00:44 +0000

At the end of December, it is natural to look back at the year almost spent. Modern etymology is a slow-moving coach, and great events seldom happen in it. As far as I know, no new etymological dictionaries have appeared in 2017, but one new book has. It deals with the word kibosh, and I celebrated its appearance in the November “Gleanings.”

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The New Year is approaching. What else is new? Or a chip off the old block

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 12:30:39 +0000

Many things are new. The vocabulary of the Germanic languages shows its great potential when new objects have to be described. Even to characterize people wearing shiningly new clothes English has a picturesque phrase, namely, he/she has come (or stepped) out of the bandbox.

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The word “job” and its low-class kin

Wed, 13 Dec 2017 12:30:11 +0000

This post is in answer to a correspondent’s query. What I can say about the etymology of job, even if condensed, would be too long for my usual “gleanings.” More important, in my opinion, the common statement in dictionaries that the origin of job is unknown needs modification. What we “know” about job is sufficient for endorsing the artless conclusions drawn long ago. It would of course be nice to get additional evidence, but there is probably no need to search for it and no hope to dig it up.

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Three millennia of writings – a brief history of Chinese literature

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 12:30:06 +0000

Chinese scholars traditionally have considered the Han fu-rhapsody, Tang shi-poetry, Song ci-song lyrics, and Yuan qu-drama, as the highest literary achievements of their respective dynasties. However, Chinese literature embraces a far wider range of writing than these four literary genres. Explore a treasure trove that offers rich information about Chinese society, thought, customs, and social and political movements

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Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts. Act 2, Scene 2

Wed, 06 Dec 2017 12:30:04 +0000

See the previous posts with the same title. We are approaching the end of the drama. It will be a thriller without a denouement, a tragedy without catharsis, but such are most etymological dramas. Putting the kibosh on the origin of a hard word or phrase is an almost impossible endeavor. Heraldry for etymologists and a note on unlikely candidates - It has been said, and for good reason, that, whenever people played cards, every man whose unpopularity made him hated by the people and bearing as arms nine lozenges could be referred to as the curse of Scotland.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2017

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 12:30:27 +0000

A time-consuming kibosh - Long ago (19 May 2010), I wrote a post on the origin of the mysterious word kibosh, part of the idiom to put the kibosh on “to put an end to something.” The discussion that followed made me return to this subject in 28 July 2010, and again three years later (14 August 2013). Since that time, the word has been at the center of attention of several researchers, and last month a book titled Origin of Kibosh by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little appeared (Routledge Studies in Etymology.

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Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts: Act 2, Scene 1

Wed, 22 Nov 2017 12:30:48 +0000

Battles, butchers, and tyrants - CULLODEN. The battle of Culloden took place on 16 April 1746 between the forces of the Catholic “Young Pretender” Charles Edward Stuart, who was at the head of the Jacobites, and those of the government, led by Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland.

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Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts: Act 1

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:30:02 +0000

The origin of this mysterious phrase, "nine of diamonds," has been discussed for over two hundred years. Nor are surveys wanting. I cannot say anything on this subject the world does not know, and I have no serious preferences for any of the relatively promising hypotheses.

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Etymology gleanings for October 2017

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 11:30:24 +0000

Singular versus plural. What feel(s) like failed relationships…. The dilemma is as old as the hills: English speakers have always felt uncertain about the number after what. An exemplary treatment of this problem will be found in the old editions of H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (the entry what 2).

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