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Results 26 - 50 of 286
26. There are more ways than one to be thunderstruck

By Anatoly Liberman

On 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an ironic comment by Peter Maher on the use of the word stunning. While rereading that short essay, I decided that I had not done justice to the third verb of the series (stun) and left out of discussion a few other items worthy of consideration. The interested readers may look upon this post as Part 2, a continuation of the early one.

Astonish and astound, despite the troublesome suffix -ish in the first of them and final -d in the second, are close cognates. Both go back to a Romance form reconstructed as ex-tonare. Latin tonare meant “to thunder”; tone, intone, and tonality contain the same root. To quote Ernest Weekley, “Some metaphors are easy to track. It does not require much philological knowledge to see that astonish, astound, and stun all contain the idea of ‘thunder-striking’, Vulgar Latin *ex-tonare.” (The asterisk designates an unattested form reconstructed by linguists.) Those lines saw the light in 1913. A century later “philological knowledge” has reached such a stage among the so-called general public that people’s readiness to draw any conclusions about the history of language should be taken with caution. But as regards the content, Weekley was right: the idea behind astonish ~ astound is indeed “thunderstruck.”

Thor, the thunder god   (Bronzestatue „Christ or Þor“ aus dem isländischen Nationalmuseum, Photo by L3u, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Thor, the thunder god (Bronzestatue „Christ or Þor“ aus dem isländischen Nationalmuseum, Photo by L3u, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Weekley did not explain how a-s-toun- and thun-der are related.  The hyphenation above shows that a- is a prefix. The root stoun- has a diphthong because the original vowel was long. Likewise, down, house, now, and many other words with ou (ow) had “long u” (the vowel of poo) in Middle English. The change is regular. Initial s- in stoun- is what is left of the prefix ex-; Old French already had estoner (Modern French lost even the last crumb: étonner). A Germanic correspondence of Latin t is th, as in tres ~ three, pater ~ father, and so forth; hence thunder (d has no claim to antiquity). All this is trivial. However, there are two suspicious details in our story: German staunen “to be amazed” and Engl. stun.

In my 2013 post, I followed old sources and called staunen a respectable relative of astonish and stun. However, its respectability and even relatedness to the English group has been rejected by modern scholars, so that an explanation is in order. (I am “astonished” that no one offered a correction. Usually the slightest misstep on my part—real or imaginary—arouses immediate protest.) Staunen, a verb borrowed by the Standard from Swiss German, originally meant “to stare” and has been compared with several words like stare that have nothing to do with thunder. “Stare; look dreamily” yielded, rather unexpectedly, the modern sense “to be amazed.” The recorded history of staunen “to be amazed” and erstaunen “amaze” cannot be questioned, but their etymology looks a bit strained, and I wonder whether some foreign influence could contribute to the similarity between astound and staunen.

A much thornier question concerns the history of Engl. stun. Old English had the verb stunian “crash, resound, roar; impinge; dash.” It looks like a perfect etymon of stun. Skeat thought so at the beginning of his etymological career and never changed his opinion. He compared stunian with a group of words meaning “to groan”: Icelandic stynja, Dutch stenen, German stöhnen, and their cognates elsewhere. Those are almost certainly related to thunder. Apparently, the congeners of tonare did not always denote a great amount of din.

The presence of s- in stenen and the rest is not a problem. This strange sound is like a barnacle: it attaches itself to the first consonant of numerous roots, though neither its function nor its origin has been explained in a satisfactory way. Such a good researcher as Francis A. Wood even mocked those who believed in its existence. Only a good name for this “parasite” exists (s mobile), and it has become a recognized linguistic term. S mobile disregards linguistic borders: doublets abound in the same language, as well as in closely and remotely related languages and outside it. For instance, the German for sneeze is niesen. Similar examples can be cited by the hundred.

This is not a phenomenon that happens only in old languages: in modern dialects, such doublets are also common. That is why some scholars who, in the past, tried to discover the origin of the word slang believed that they were dealing with French langue and s mobile; compare the modern jocular blend slanguage. (A convincing etymology of slang, which does not depend on s mobile, has been known for more than a hundred years, but dictionaries are unaware—fiction writers and journalists like to say blissfully unaware—of this fact.) Consequently, s-tun can be related to thunder—that is, if we recognize the existence of the capricious s mobile, an entity of the type “now you see it, now you don’t.”

However, stun “daze, render unconscious” surfaced in texts only in the early fourteenth century, while stunian “crash, etc.” does not seem to have survived into Middle English; only stonien “make a noise” has been recorded. The first edition of the OED stated cautiously that stun goes back to Old French estoner. (This word has yet to be revised for the new edition on OED Online.) The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology gives the solution endorsed by Murray and Bradley as certain. The Century Dictionary followed Skeat but admitted confusion with the French verb that yielded astonish and astound. Other respectable sources hedge, copy from their great predecessors, and prefer to stay noncommittal.

I have returned to my old post for one reason only. In investigating the history of stun, astound, and its look-alikes, we encounter the well-known difficulty: a word resembles another word in the same or another language, and it is hard to decide where, in making a connection, we hit the nail on its proverbial head and where we are on a false tack.

In 2013, I mentioned an old hypothesis according to which stun is related to stone. This hypothesis cannot be defended: at present we have sufficient means to disprove it. (In etymology it is usually easier to show that some conclusion is untenable than that it is true.) But in two other cases we may or should hesitate. Astound and staunen are so much alike in sound and sense that rejecting their affinity unconditionally may be too hasty. The situation is even more complicated with stun. Tracing it to Old French without a footnote produces the impression that ultimate clarity has been attained, but it has not. In etymology, the door is only too often open for legitimate doubt.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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27. Children learning English: an educational revolution

By Fiona Copland and Sue Garton

Did you know that the introduction of languages into primary schools has been dubbed the world’s biggest development in education? And, of course, overwhelmingly, the language taught is English. Already the world’s most popular second language, the desire for English continues apace, at least in the short term, and with this desire has come a rapid decrease in the age at which early language learning (ELL) starts. From the kindergartens of South Korea to classes of 70+ in Tanzania, very young children are now being taught English. So is it a good idea to learn English from an early age? Many people believe that in terms of learning language, the younger the better. However, this notion is based on children learning in bilingual environments in which they get a great deal of input in two or more languages. Adults see children seemingly soaking up language and speaking in native-like accents and think that language learning for children is easy. However, most children do not learn English in this kind of bilingual environment. Instead, they learn in formal school settings where they are lucky if they get one or two hours of English tuition a week. In these contexts, there is little or no evidence that an early start benefits language learning. Indeed, it has been argued that the time spent teaching English is better spent on literacy, which has been shown to develop children’s language learning potential.

So why are children learning from so young an age? One answer is parent power. Parents see the value of English for getting ahead in the global world and put pressure on governments to ensure children receive language tuition from an early age. Another answer is inequality. Governments are aware that many parents pay for their children to have private tuition in English and they see this as disadvantaging children who come from poorer backgrounds. In an attempt to level the playing field, they introduce formal English language learning in primary schools. While this is admirable, research shows that school English is not generally effective, particularly in developing countries, and in fact tends to advantage those who are also having private lessons. Another argument for sticking to literacy teaching?

Student teacher in China

Of course, government policy eventually translates into classroom reality and in very many countries the introduction of English has been less than successful. One mammoth problem is the lack of qualified teachers. Contrary to popular belief, and despite representations in film and television programmes, being able to speak English does not equate to an ability to teach English, particularly to very young children. Yet in many places unqualified native English speaking teachers are drafted into schools to make good the shortfall in teacher provision. In other countries, local homeroom teachers take up the burden but may not have any English language skills or may have no training in language teaching. Other problems include a lack of resources, large classes and lack of motivation leading to poor discipline. Watch out Mr Gove — similar problems lie in store for England in September 2014! (When the new national curriculum for primary schools launches, maintained primary schools will have to teach languages to children, and yet preparation for the curriculum change has been woefully inadequate.)

Why should we be in interested in this area of English language teaching when most of it happens in countries far away from our own? David Graddol, our leading expert on the economy of English language teaching, suggests that the English language teaching industry directly contributes 1.3 billion pounds annually to the British economy and up to 10 billion pounds indirectly through English language education related activities. This sector is a huge beneficiary to the British economy, yet its importance is widely unacknowledged. For example, in terms of investigating English language teaching, it is extremely difficult in England to get substantial funding, particularly when the focus is on countries overseas.

From the perspective of academics interested in this topic, which we are, the general view that English language teaching is not a serious contender for research funding is galling. However, the research funding agencies are not alone. Academic journals rarely publish work on teaching English to young learners, which has become something of a Cinderella subject in research into English language teaching. There are numerous studies on adults learning English in journals of education and applied linguistics, but ELL is hardly represented. This might be because there is little empirical research or because the area is not considered important. Yet as we suggest, there are huge questions to be asked (and answered). For example, in what contexts are children advantaged and disadvantaged by learning English in primary schools? What are the most effective methods for teaching languages to children in particular contexts? What kind of training in teaching languages do primary teachers need and what should their level of English be? The list of questions, like the field, is growing and the answers would support both the UK English language industry and also our own approach to language learning in primary schools, where there is very little expertise.

ELT Journal is a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca. The journal links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, education, psychology, and sociology. A Special Issue of the ELT Journal, entitled “Teaching English to young learners” is available now. It showcases papers from around the world that address a number of key topics in ELL, including learning through online gaming, using heritage languages to teach English, and the metaphors children use to explain their language learning.

Fiona Copland is Senior Lecturer in TESOL in the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University, Birmingham, UK, where she is Course Director of distance learning MSc programmes in TESOL. With colleagues at Aston, Sue Garton and Anne Burns, she carried out a global research project titled Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners which led to the production of a book of language learning activities called Crazy Animals and Other Activities for Teaching English to Young Learners. She is currently working on a project investigating native-speaker teacher projects. Sue Garton is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL and Director of Postgraduate Programmes in English at Aston University. She worked for many years as an English language teacher in Italy before joining Aston as a teacher educator on distance learning TESOL programmes. As well as leading the British Council funded project on investigating global practices in teaching English to young learners, she has also worked on two other British Council projects, one looking at the transition from primary to secondary school and the other, led by Fiona Copland, on investigating native-speaker teacher schemes. They are editors of the ELT Journal Special Issue on “Teaching English to young learners.

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Image: Student teacher in China by Rex Pe. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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28. Why metaphor matters

By James Grant

Plato famously said that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. But with respect to one aspect of poetry, namely metaphor, many contemporary philosophers have made peace with the poets. In their view, we need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:

selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine.  Science advances by the use of metaphors – of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language. Plato condemned poets for claiming to provide knowledge they did not have. But if these philosophers are right, there is at least one poetic use of language that is needed for the communication of many truths.

In my view, however, this is the wrong way to defend the value of metaphor. Comparisons may well be indispensable for communication in many situations. We convey the unfamiliar by likening it to the familiar. But many hold that it is specifically metaphor – and no other kind of comparison – that is indispensable. Metaphor tells us things the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ never could. If true, this would be fascinating. It would reveal the limits of what is expressible in literal language. But no one has come close to giving a good argument for it. And in any case, metaphor does not have to be an indispensable means to knowledge in order to be as valuable as we take it to be.

Metaphor may not tell us anything that couldn’t be expressed by other means. But good metaphors have many other effects on readers than making them grasp some bit of information, and these are often precisely the effects the metaphor-user wants to have. There is far more to the effective use of language than transmitting information. My particular interest is in how art critics use metaphor to help us appreciate paintings, architecture, music, and other artworks. There are many reasons why metaphor matters, but art criticism reveals two reasons of particular importance.


Take this passage from John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin describes arriving in Venice by boat and seeing ‘the long ranges of columned palaces,—each with its black boat moored at the portal,—each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation’, and observing how ‘the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation’.

One thing Ruskin’s metaphors do is describe the waters of Venice and the Ducal palace at an extraordinary level of specificity. There are many ways water looks when breezes blow across its surface. There are fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into many pieces. And there are still fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into pieces forming a rich mosaic with the colours of Venetian palaces and a greenish tint. Ruskin’s metaphor communicates that the waters of Venice look like that. The metaphor of the Ducal palace as ‘flushed with its sanguine veins’ likewise narrows the possible appearances considerably. Characterizing appearances very specifically is of particular use to art critics, as they often want to articulate the specific appearance an artwork presents.

A second thing metaphors like Ruskin’s do is cause readers to imagine seeing what he describes. We naturally tend to picture the palace or the water on hearing Ruskin’s metaphor. This function of metaphor has often been noted: George Orwell, for instance, writes that ‘a newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image’.

Why do novel metaphors evoke images? Precisely because they are novel uses of words. To understand them, we cannot rely on our knowledge of the literal meanings of the words alone. We often have to employ imagination. To understand Ruskin’s metaphor, we try to imagine seeing water that looks like a broken mosaic. If we manage this, we know the kind of look that he is attributing to the water.

Imagining a thing is often needed to appreciate that thing. Knowing facts about it is often not enough by itself. Accurately imagining Hopkins’s despondency, or the experience of arriving in Venice by boat, gives us some appreciation of these experiences. By enabling us to imagine accurately and specifically, metaphor is exceptionally well suited to enhancing our appreciation of what it describes.

James Grant is a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of The Critical Imagination.

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Image credit: Hermann Herzog: Venetian canal, by Bonhams. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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29. Monthly etymology gleanings for July 2014

By Anatoly Liberman

Since I’ll be out of town at the end of July, I was not sure I would be able to write these “gleanings.” But the questions have been many, and I could answer some of them ahead of time.

Autumn: its etymology

Our correspondent wonders whether the Latin word from which English, via French, has autumn, could be identified with the name of the Egyptian god Autun. The Romans derived the word autumnus, which was both an adjective (“autumnal”) and a noun (“autumn”), from augere “to increase.” This verb’s perfect participle is auctus “rich (“autumn as a rich season”). The Roman derivation, though not implausible, looks like a tribute to folk etymology. A more serious conjecture allies autumn to the Germanic root aud-, as in Gothic aud-ags “blessed” (in the related languages, also “rich”). But, more probably, Latin autumnus goes back to Etruscan. The main argument for the Etruscan origin is the resemblance of autumnus to Vertumnus, the name of a seasonal deity (or so it seems), about whom little is known besides the tale of his seduction, in the shape of an old woman, of Pomona, as told by Ovid. Vertumnus, or Vortumnus, may be a Latinized form of an Etruscan name. A definite conclusion about autumnus is hardly possible, even though some sources, while tracing this word to Etruscan, add “without doubt.” The Egyptian Autun was a creation god and the god of the setting sun, so that his connection with autumn is remote at best. Nor do we have any evidence that Autun had a cult in Ancient Rome. Everything is so uncertain here that the origin of autumnus must needs remain unknown. In my opinion, the Egyptian hypothesis holds out little promise.

Vertumnus seducing Pomona in the shape of an old woman. (Pomona by Frans de Vriendt "Floris" (Konstnär, 1518-1570) Antwerpen, Belgien, Hallwyl Museum, Photo by Jens Mohr, via Wikimedia Commons)

Vertumnus seducing Pomona in the shape of an old woman. (Pomona by Frans de Vriendt “Floris” (Konstnär, 1518-1570) Antwerpen, Belgien, Hallwyl Museum, Photo by Jens Mohr, via Wikimedia Commons)

The origin of so long

I received an interesting letter from Mr. Paul Nance. He writes about so long:

“It seems the kind of expression that should have derived from some fuller social nicety, such as I regret that it will be so long before we meet again or the like, but no one has proposed a clear antecedent. An oddity is its sudden appearance in the early nineteenth century; there are only a handful of sightings before Walt Whitman’s use of it in a poem (including the title) in the 1860-1861 edition of Leaves of Grass. I can, by the way, offer an antedating to the OED citations: so, good bye, so long in the story ‘Cruise of a Guinean Man’. Knickerbocker: New York (Monthly Magazine 5, February 1835, p. 105; available on Google Books). Given the lack of a fuller antecedent, suggestions as to its origin all propose a borrowing from another language. Does this seem reasonable to you?”

Mr. Nance was kind enough to append two articles (by Alan S. Kaye and Joachim Grzega) on so long, both of which I had in my folders but have not reread since 2004 and 2005, when I found and copied them. Grzega’s contribution is especially detailed. My database contains only one more tiny comment on so long by Frank Penny: “About twenty years ago I was informed that it [the expression so long] is allied to Samuel Pepys’s expression so home, and should be written so along or so ’long, meaning that the person using the expression must go his way” (Notes and Queries, Series 12, vol. IX, 1921, p. 419). The group so home does turn up in the Diary more than once, but no citation I could find looks like a formula. Perhaps Stephen Goranson will ferret it out. In any case, so long looks like an Americanism, and it is unlikely that such a popular phrase should have remained dormant in texts for almost two centuries.

Be that as it may, I agree with Mr. Nance that a formula of this type probably arose in civil conversation. The numerous attempts to find a foreign source for it carry little conviction. Norwegian does have an almost identical phrase, but, since its antecedents are unknown, it may have been borrowed from English. I suspect (a favorite turn of speech by old etymologists) that so long is indeed a curtailed version of a once more comprehensible parting formula, unless it belongs with the likes of for auld lang sine. It may have been brought to the New World from England or Scotland and later abbreviated and reinterpreted.

“Heavy rain” in languages other than English

Once I wrote a post titled “When it rains, it does not necessarily pour.” There I mentioned many German and Swedish idioms like it is raining cats and dogs, and, rather than recycling that text, will refer our old correspondent Mr. John Larsson to it.

Ukraine and Baltic place names

The comment on this matter was welcome. In my response, I preferred not to talk about the things alien to me, but I wondered whether the Latvian place name could be of Slavic origin. That is why I said cautiously: “If this is a native Latvian word…” The question, as I understand, remains unanswered, but the suggestion is tempting. And yes, of course, Serb/Croat Krajna is an exact counterpart of Ukraina, only without a prefix. In Russian, stress falls on i; in Ukrainian, I think, the first a is stressed. The same holds for the derived adjectives: ukrainskii ~ ukrainskii. Pushkin said ukrainskaia (feminine).

Slough, sloo, and the rest

Many thanks to those who informed me about their pronunciation of slough “mire.” It was new to me that the surname Slough is pronounced differently in England and the United States. I also received a question about the history of slew. The past tense of slay (Old Engl. slahan) was sloh (with a long vowel), and this form developed like scoh “shoe,” though the verb vacillated between the 6th and the 7th class. The fact that slew and shoe have such dissimilar written forms is due to the vagaries of English spelling. One can think of too, who, you, group, fruit, cruise, rheum, truth, and true, which have the same vowel as slew. In addition, consider Bruin and ruin, which look deceptively like fruit, and add manoeuver for good measure. A mild spelling reform looks like a good idea, doesn’t it?

The pronunciation of February

In one of the letters I received, the writer expresses her indignation that some people insist on sounding the first r in February. Everybody, she asserts, says Febyooary. In such matters, everybody is a dangerous word (as we will also see from the next item). All of us tend to think that what we say is the only correct norm. Words with the succession r…r tend to lose one of them. Yet library is more often pronounced with both, and Drury, brewery, and prurient have withstood the tendency. February has changed its form many times. Thus, long ago feverer (from Old French) became feverel (possibly under the influence of averel “April”). In the older language of New England, January and February turned into Janry and Febry. However powerful the phonetic forces may have been in affecting the pronunciation of February, of great importance was also the fact that the names of the months often occur in enumeration. Without the first r, January and February rhyme. A similar situation is well-known from the etymology of some numerals. Although the pronunciation Febyooary is equally common on both sides of the Atlantic and is recognized as standard throughout the English-speaking world, not “everybody” has accepted it. The consonant b in February is due to the Latinization of the French etymon (late Latin februarius).

Who versus whom

Discussion of these pronouns lost all interest long ago, because the confusion of who and whom and the defeat of whom in American English go back to old days. Yet I am not sure that what I said about the educated norm is “nonsense.” Who will marry our son? Whom will our son marry? Is it “nonsense” to distinguish them, and should (or only can) it be who in both cases? Despite the rebuke, I believe that even in Modern American English the woman who we visited won’t suffer if who is replaced with whom. But, unlike my opponent, I admit that tastes differ.


Another question I received was about the origin of the verb wrap. This is a rather long story, and I decided to devote a special post to it in the foreseeable future.

PS. I notice that of the two questions asked by our correspondent last month only copacetic attracted some attention (read Stephen Goranson’s response). But what about hubba hubba?

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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30. How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones

By David J. Peterson

My name is David Peterson, and I’m a conlanger. “What’s a conlanger,” you may ask? Thanks to the recent addition of the word “conlang” to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I can now say, “Look it up!” But to save you the trouble, a conlanger is a constructed language (or conlang) maker — i.e. one who creates languages.

Language creation has been around since at least the 12th century, when the German abbess Hildegard von Bingen created her Lingua Ignota — Latin for “hidden language” — an invented vocabulary she used for writing hymns. In the centuries that followed, philosophers like Leibniz and John Wilkins would create languages that were intended to serve as grand classification systems, and idealists like L. L. Zamenhof would create languages intended to simplify international communication. All these systems focused on the basic utility of language — its ability to encode and convey meaning. That would change in the 20th century.

Tolkien: the father of modern conlanging

Before crafting the tales of Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was a conlanger. Unlike the many known to history who came before him, though, Tolkien created languages for the pure joy of it. Professionally, he became a philologist, but he continued to work on his own languages, eventually creating his famous Lord of the Rings series as an extension of the linguistic legendarium he’d been crafting for many years. Though his written works would become more famous than his linguistic creations, his conlangs, in particular Sindarin and Quenya, would go on to inspire new generations of conlangers throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Due to the general obscurity of the practice, many conlangers remained unknown to each other until the early 1990s, when home internet use started to become more and more common. The first dedicated meeting place for conlangers, virtual or otherwise, was the Conlang Listserv (an online mailing list). Some list members came out of interest in Tolkien’s languages, as well as other large projects, like Esperanto or Lojban, but the majority came to discuss their own work, and to meet and learn from others who also created languages.

Since the founding of the original Conlang Listserv, many other meeting places have sprung up online, and through a couple of decades of regular conlanger interaction, the practice of conlanging has evolved.

Game of Thrones dragon

Conlang typology

Conlangs have been separated into different types since at least the 19th century. First came the philosophical languages, as discussed, then the auxiliary languages like Esperanto (also known as auxlangs), but with Tolkien emerged a new type of language: the artistic language, or artlang. At its most basic, an artlang is a conlang created for artistic purposes, but that broad definition includes many wildly divergent languages (compare Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik to Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen). Finer-grained distinctions became necessary as the community grew, and so emerged the naturalistic conlang.

This is where the languages of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Syfy’s Defiance come in. The languages I’ve created for the shows I work on come out of the naturalist tradition. The goal with a naturalistic conlang is to create a language that’s as realistic as possible. The realism of a language is grounded in the reality (fictional or otherwise) of its speakers. If the speakers are more or less human (or humanoid) and are intended to be portrayed in a realistic fashion, then their language should be as similar as possible to a natural language (i.e. a language that exists here on Earth, like Spanish, Tagalog, or Cham).

The natural languages we speak are large, but also redundant and imperfect in a uniquely human way. Conlangers have gotten pretty good at emulating them over the years, usually employing one of two different approaches. The first, which I call the façade method, is to create a language that looks like a modern natural language by replicating the various features of a modern natural language. Thus, if English has irregular plurals, such as mouse~mice, then the conlang will have irregular plurals, too, by targeting certain nouns and making their plurals irregular in some way.

The historical method: making sense of irregular plurals in Valyrian

Game of Thrones DaenerysA contrasting approach is the method that Tolkien pioneered called the historical method. With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution. The process takes a lot longer, but in some ways it’s simpler, since irregularities will naturally emerge, rather than having to be created by hand. For example, in Game of Thrones, the High Valyrian language Daenerys speaks differs from the Low Valyrian the residents of Slaver’s Bay speak. In fact, the latter evolved from the former. As the language evolved, it produced some natural irregularities. Consider the following nouns and their plurals from the Valyrian spoken in Slaver’s Bay:

hubre “goat” hubres “goats”
dare “queen” dari “queens”
aeske “master” aeske “masters”

Given that the singular forms all end in ‘e’, one has to say at least two of the plurals presented are irregular. But why the arbitrary differences in the plural forms? It turns out it’s because the three nouns with identical singular terminations used to have very different forms in the older language, High Valyrian, as shown below:

hobres “goat” hobresse “goats”
dāria “queen” dārī “queens”
āeksio “master” āeksia “masters”

Each of these alternations is quite regular in High Valyrian. In the simulated history, a series of sound changes which simplified the ends of words produced identical terminations for each of the three words in the singular, leaving later speakers having to memorize which have irregular plurals and which regular.

Conceptualizing time

Simulated evolution applies to both grammar and the lexicon, as well. For example, natural languages often derive terminology for abstract concepts metaphorically from terminology for concrete concepts. Time, for instance, is an abstract concept that is frequently discussed using spatial terminology. How it’s done differs from language to language. In English, events that occur later in time occur after the present (where “after” derives from “aft,” a word meaning “behind”), and events that occur earlier in time occur before the present. Thus, time is conceptualized as a being standing in the present, facing the past, with the future behind them.

In Irathient, a language I created for Syfy’s Defiance, time is conceptualized vertically, rather than horizontally. The word for “after”, in temporal terms, is shei, which derives from a word meaning “above”; “before”, on the other hand, is ur, which also means “below” or “underneath”. The general metaphor that the future is up and the past is down bears out throughout the rest of the language, where if one wanted to say “Go back to what you were saying before”, the literal Irathient translation would be “Go down to what you were saying underneath”.

Ultimately, what one hears on screen sounds and feels like a natural language, regardless of whether or not one knows the work that went on behind the scenes. Since the prop used on screen is a language, though, rather than a costume or a piece of the set, the words can be recorded and analyzed at any time. Consequently, a conlang needs to be real in a way that a throne or a 700 foot wall of ice does not.

It’s still extraordinary to me that in less than 25 years, we came from a time when many conlangers were not aware that there were other conlangers to a time where our work is able to add to the authenticity of some of the best productions the big and small screen have to offer. The addition of the word “conlang” to the OED is a fitting capper to an unbelievable quarter century.

David J. Peterson is a language creator who works on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s Defiance, and Syfy’s Dominion. You can find him on Twitter at @Dedalvs or on Tumblr.

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Images: Game of Thrones Season 3 – Dragon Shadow Wallpaper and Game of Thrones Season 3 - Daenerys Wallpaper. ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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31. Colloquialisms

Colloquialisms are words or phrases that we use in conversation or informal situations. 

An example would be the different ways people refer to carbonated beverages: cola, soda, soda pop, and pop.

Another example is cooked batter: pancake, griddle cake, flap jack, Johnny cake, and short stack.

They can be words (gonna), phrases (hang on), or aphorisms (when the going gets tough, the tough get going).

A few examples of colloquialisms include: 

  • bat out of hell 
  • beating a dead horse 
  • bigger than a barn 
  • bump on a log 
  • couldn't care less 
  • crazy as a loon 
  • deader than a doornail 
  • dumb as stump 
  • drunk as a monkey 
  • happy as a pig in shit 
  • hell for leather 
  • hotter than hell 
  • knocked into next week 
  • like flies on shit 
  • like white on rice 
  • meaner than a snake 
  • neat as a pin 
  • not the brightest crayon 
  • older than dirt 
  • one fry short of a happy meal 
  • piece of cake 
  • shut your pie hole 
  • slow as molasses 
  • tighter than a banjo string 
Colloquialism, clichés, and slang are close cousins and hard to differentiate. In general, colloquialisms are limited to a specific geographic location (the southern states) and slang is more widespread (America).

It isn't important for the sake of revision to worry about the finer points of distinction. We aren't in English class anymore. The important point is to use them wisely.

Both colloquialisms and slang can be used as a dialogue plant and payoff: a phrase repeated two or three times at critical points in the story between two characters.

Creating unique colloquialisms and slang for your fantasy world can add a dash of spice. Don't over do it.

Getting the historical slang wrong will earn you e-mails pointing out that the phrase was not used until _____. Nitpickers love this stuff.

Both can add color to your prose and dialogue. Sprinkled throughout a manuscript, they are fine. A few sprinkled in a paragraph is considered overdoing it.

Revision Tips
? Turn on the Clichés, Colloquialisms, and Jargon option in the toolbox in Word. These items will be marked for you. As you read through your draft, decide which to keep and which to kill. Have you used the cliché intentionally?
? Can you twist it or make it fresh?
? Have you committed colloquialism abuse? Should you trim them?
? Does the languge fit the time and place?
? Does the languge fit the background and personality of the character uttering it?

For all of the revision tips on colloquialisms and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 

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32. Which witch?

By Anatoly Liberman

To some people which and witch are homophones. Others, who differentiate between w and wh, distinguish them. This rather insignificant phenomenon is tackled in all books on English pronunciation and occasionally rises to the surface of “political discourse.” In the thirties of the past century, an irritated correspondent wrote to the editor about “the abuse of such forms as what, when, which, wheel, and others”: “Dictionaries in vain lay down the law that the h should be heard in such words. If heard at all it will probably come from the lips of Scotsmen, as they do give full value to the h. In this way the difference of a nationality can, as a rule, be detected. Long ago I had to be present at King’s College when the prizes were given away. A Mr. Wheeler was a winner of the Elocution prize; but he was called out as Mr. Weeler by, save the mark, the Professor of Elocution himself.” We’ll save the mark and go on.

In Old English, many words began with hl-, hn-, hr-, and hw-. In the beginning, the letter h stood for ch, as in Scots loch or gh as in the family name McLaughlin. Later it was weakened to h and lost. The same change occurred in the other Germanic languages, except Icelandic and, if I am not mistaken, Faroese. Sounds seldom disappear without a trace. Thus, when h was shed, it devoiced the consonant after it. In Icelandic, voiceless l, n, and r can easily be heard, but elsewhere they merged with l, n, and r in other positions. Only hw developed differently. It either stayed in some form or devoiced w.

It has never been explained why consonants tend to disappear before l, n, r, and w. A classic example of this process, not related to the subject being discussed here, is the fate of kn- and gn-, as in knock and gnaw. One can of course say that such groups are rare and inconvenient for pronunciation. But such an explanation is illusory, because it presents the result of the change as its cause. Outside English, kn- and gn- cause speakers no trouble. Besides, the loss of k- and g- happened at a certain time. Why did it “suddenly” become inconvenient to articulate the groups that had not bothered the previous generations? We will accept the history of hw as we find it and leave it to others to account for the change.

The reverse spelling (wh- for hw-) goes back to Middle English and can only confuse those who believe that modern spelling is a good guide to etymology. The letter writer, whose displeasure with dictionaries we have just witnessed, made no mistake. The speakers of London, where in the late Middle Ages the Modern English norm was being forged, lost h before w and accepted voiced w (this happened as early as the end of the fourteenth century), while northern England, Scotland, Ireland, and, to some extent, American English have either hw or voiceless w.

Yet some authorities who taught as late as the first half of the eighteenth century insisted on the necessity to enunciate h before w. They may have trusted the written image of the words in question. In 1654 and the subsequent decades, such opinions could no longer be heard. After voiced w had won the victory in southern speech, the “true” (historical) pronunciation was often recommended as correct and returned to solemn recitation and sometimes even to everyday speech. Such cases are not too rare. Consider the pronunciation often and fore-head, which owe their existence to modern spelling. Some people believe that the more “letters” they pronounce, the more educated they will sound. “Ofen” and “forid,” rhyming with soften and horrid, strike them as slipshod.

It is instructive to look at some Modern English words beginning with wh-. Quite a few, including when, where, what, and why, did once have hw- at the beginning. As a result, southerners have homophones like which ~ witch, when ~ wen, whither ~ wither, whale ~ wail, and so forth. (Shakespeare could not know that woe and wail are related, but his ear and instinct made him write the unforgettable alliterating line in Sonnet 30: “And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”)

The pernicious habit of writing wh, sometimes for no obvious reason, resulted in the creation of several unetymological spellings. Whore, from Old English hore (a common Germanic noun), is akin to Latin carus “dear” (Italian caro, etc.). The Old English for whole was hal (with a long vowel). According to the OED, the spelling with wh-, corresponding to a widespread dialectal pronunciation with w, appeared in the sixteenth century. But why should this dialectal pronunciation have prevailed to such an extent that the spelling of an old and very common word was affected? Home also has a dialectal variant whoam, but, luckily, we still stay at home, rather than at whome. Equally puzzling is whelk (from weolc); here the influence of welk “pimple” has been pressed into service. Whig traces, though in a circuitous way, to a verb meaning “to drive”. Its wh- has no justification in history. Naturally, whim was bound to cause trouble, the more so as its earliest attested meaning is “pun”; no record of whim predates the seventeenth century. Then there is whiffler “an attendant armed with a weapon to keep the way clear for a procession,” from wifle “javelin” (Od Engl. wifel).

The consonant group hw- must always have made people think of blowing and light sweeping motions. Whistle, whisper, and whisk are rather obvious sound-imitating words (which does not mean that whisky ~ whiskey, from Gaelic, should have wh-; whisker, however, is derived for whisk, and its original sense was “brush”). Whir and whirl seem to belong with other onomatopoeic formations. Whew, an exclamation of astonishment, is an onomatopoeia pure and simple. Wheedle is late and has an obscure history.

Inglewhite, Lancashire.  (Cowfield. Grazing south of Langley Lane. Photo by Chris Shaw. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Inglewhite, Lancashire. (Cowfield. Grazing south of Langley Lane. Photo by Chris Shaw. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

By way of conclusion, I may mention several thw- words in which thw- once alternated with hw-. Today we remember only the verb thwart, but the adjective thwart “obstinate, perverse” also existed, and over-hwart has been attested. Another archaic word thwite “to cut” is a cognate of whittle. Thwack and whack used to alternate, and thwack is a synonym of dialectal thack. Apparently, thw- too had a sound-imitative value. In the place name Inglewhite (Lancashire), the second element was thwaite “meadow.” The last name Applewhite goes back to the place name Applethwaite in Cumberland. The change of thwaite to white is a product of folk etymology.

All this is very interesting, except that wh- is often an unnecessary embellishment. For the benefit of those who like learned words I may say that this group is sometimes otiose.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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33. If You Were Me and Lived in … Portugal: An Introduction to Learning About Other Cultures | Dedicated Review

Discover the western European country of Portugal with award-winning author and former social studies teacher Carole P. Roman.

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34. Whose Word Crimes?

Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes", a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.

I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.

But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?

Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer"
"Don't be a moron"
"You dumb mouthbreather"
"Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"
"you write like a spastic"
"Go back to preschool"
"Get out of the gene pool"
"Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?

It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?

Usage pedantry is not harmless fun. It is ego balm that stokes a sense of righteous superiority. Typically, it's indulged in by people who don't have a deep interest in the history of language or the complexities of linguistics; instead, they like rules, because rules allow them to set themselves apart from the people who don't follow the rules. Usage pedants enjoy living in an intellectual gated community. Some will even refer to themselves as "Grammar Nazis", thus unreflectively siding with one of the most evil systems in the history of humanity. (And these people say they care about language! By the way, if you want to vomit, do a Google Image search for "grammar nazi".)

Typically, too, usage pedants are white people, and these days often ones who in some way or another identify with nerd culture. One of the commenters on Jay Smooth's Facebook page linked to Tim Chevalier's post "Can Geekiness Be Decoupled from Whiteness", which makes a number of useful points, including:
I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. ... But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.

Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”
Pedants need to feel superior, and displaying their (often inaccurate) opinions of grammar, usage, style, and spelling is a way to access such feelings of superiority. My life might suck, but at least I'm not one of those horrible people who splits infinitives or uses numbers in words!

There are crimes of language, but they are not the crimes the pedants police — they are the crimes of obfuscation and propaganda, the crimes that lead us to dehumanize each other, to exploit each other, to oppress each other, to hurt and kill each other.

Pedants don't typically get to those crimes. Indeed, often, by proclaiming their unwavering devotion to tradition, they perpetuate such crimes.

The stuff the pedants denounce may be violations of standard English. Or stylistic preferences. Or pet peeves. Talking about such things and discussing our particular perspective on them can be clarifying and can lead to more precision in communication and more knowledge of how language works. But we need to be aware of the assumptions underneath our prescriptions, the motivations for our pedantry. In my courses, I encourage students to abide by proofreading guidelines, but I also try in those guidelines to justify why I require them, and I work hard to undermine any sense of those guidelines being either eternal or immutable. They are guidelines for the situation that is our class, and are useful information for students who are adjusting their writing to the audience that is me, the guy who grades each student at the end of the term.

If you feel the need for rules, though, here's one for you, a famous one from Kurt Vonnegut:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—

"God damn it, you've got to be kind."

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35. Living in a buzzworld

By Anatoly Liberman

A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.

The trouble with buzzwords and euphemisms is that they tend to lose their force and turn into inanities. A wonderful lady has been appointed president of a community college. This is the way she was characterized: “…an inclusive, transparent and collaborative leader with proven commitment to the success of all students.” I have no doubt she is, for she goes from one high post to another every two years, and such mobility needs a talent for collaboration and glass-like transparency. Yet I felt that something was missing in the recommender’s encomium, though I could not put my finger on it. Luckily, I read a review of his own performance and found that he is “a visionary leader who cares passionately for our students and works tirelessly on their behalf.” That’s it! The new president, I am sure, is also a visionary and cares passionately for the students at every college at which she was inclusive and transparent. How could those qualities be overlooked? (No one has plans any longer; we only “articulate visions”: a two-year vision, a five-year vision.) And the tireless leader, the author of the recommendation, is certainly a Renaissance man. Nowadays Leonardos are a dime a dozen.

A visionary.     (Lenin  making a speech in the Red Square at the unveiling of a temporary monument to Stepaz Razin in 1919. Photo by G.P.Goldshtein. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A visionary. (Lenin making a speech in the Red Square at the unveiling of a temporary monument to Stepaz Razin in 1919. Photo by G.P.Goldshtein. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Stale, flat, and unprofitable are our official speeches. They have become like excerpts from reviews used as ads. Here are two quotations from central newspapers (both deal with ballets): “Riveting and exhausting, fascinating and relentless, brilliant and tedious… a mesmerizing exploration of…”; “tackling arduous roles…with degrees of energy, scale, detailed nuance, and musical sophistication seldom found anywhere.” (Are they paid per epithet?) I once read a review of a thoroughly mediocre performance of The Swan Lake. “The best performance I have seen,” the reviewer assured us. I suspect that it was the first he had ever seen, so he must have been telling the truth. It is with praise as with standing ovations; in our climate of rapturous overstatement to applaud sitting looks like an offence.

Some euphemisms the listeners remembered from their family tradition are truly mesmerizing and captivating, especially for their detailed nuance. One of them is gentleman cow for “bull.” Others are old and well-known but still funny, such as I have to see a man about a dog (horse), that is, “excuse me, I have to go to a toilet.” (Toilet itself has fallen victim to countless replacements, from restroom to john.)

Euphemisms and taboo words are perennial. People were afraid to pronounce the name of the bear; hence our word bear (its etymological meaning is “brown”; the Indo-European word for “bear” is hidden in Engl. Ursa, from Latin, and Arctic, from Greek). One of the listeners wrote: “I hate passed away/passed on/passed. What’s wrong with dead?” Euphemisms for death and dead may have the same origin as those for bear (fear); it is better not to call a terrible thing by its real name, for it will hear, understand, and come. But today we are not so superstitious, so that our passed and passed away are mere signs of sham gentility. On the other hand, the rude phrase death tax has almost supplanted estate tax in everyday speech. You never know!

Then, naturally, embarrassing actions need sweet names. This is true not only of urinating and defecating but also of begging and extorting money. No one says pay up or get lost; people ask for “donations.” Aren’t service fee, seat fee, and convenience fee among the most precious verbal treasures we have? Conversely, we despise the filthy rich, usually out of envy. But wealth also commands respect. This is how the neutral term job creator became a synonym of “rich”: sounds business-like, even laudatory in our “trickle-down economy.” Doctors are among the main perpetrators of euphemisms, and we are happy to follow their usage. “Can blindness be the result of the surgery?” Answer: “The surgery may affect your vision.” “During the procedure you will experience slight discomfort.” It intends to mean “sharp, stabbing pain.” Sex has produced two tendencies. Our wonderful liberation allows everyone from early age to use the F-word. On the other hand, in polite conversation have intercourse is the limit. Most will prefer to say she sleeps with X, they made love on their first date, and the like.

It is a joy to watch verbal dances around old age. There is of course no need to call a spade a bloody shovel and say that old geezers have a 10% discount, but we feel queasy even about pronouncing the adjective old. “When I was pregnant with my third child, the doctor kept saying ‘Because of your advanced age…’.” Of course: not blind (only suffering from impaired vision), not too old but only of advanced age. Then the noble word seniors came up, and it is certainly here to stay. Seniority plays an important role in our fight for survival.

As one of the listeners put it: “What’s fun about a euphemism is what it tells us about a culture and about a user.” Indeed, but it is sometimes moderate fun. We are obsessed with offending someone, especially when it comes to ethnicity and gender. As a lecturer, I constantly dread “creating a hostile environment.” My audience may miss the content of the entire talk but will notice a poisoned sting in the most innocent joke. Everybody is supersensitive. Jew’s harp—shouldn’t we change the name, considering that the instrument has nothing to do with Jews? Because of the late connotation of spade (an ethnic slur), why not abolish the phrase call a spade a spade? On the Internet, I found a long essay that answers someone’s question about the phrase. Fortunately, it explains that in this case we have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet when you come to think of it, isn’t bloody shovel safer after all? Most of us still remember the uproar caused by the use of the adjective niggardly (which, of course, has nothing to do with the slur). The noun niggard seems to be of Scandinavian origin, but some people may feel hurt by its use.

In Minnesota, Asian carp has been replaced with invasive carp. Very wise. Why offend people of Asian descent? Not that they have been offended (though I may have missed something), but what if someone explains to them that the term is an outrage on their heritage? Our barbarous past has burdened us with Dutch uncle, French kiss, and many other shocking idioms. And don’t forget French fries ~ freedom fries. One of the listeners called my attention to such horrors as English sole (I will add: what if someone takes it for English soul?), German measles, Irish setter, Japanese beetle, Spanish fly, French letter, and Russian roulette—all highly inappropriate. I agree.

Let us work together on improving our language, and many thanks to those who participated in my talk show.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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36. Idioms

Idioms are colloquial metaphors. They say one thing but mean another and cannot be taken literally.

If a couple breaks up, that means they stop seeing each other, not that body parts go flying. 

There are thousands of idioms that enrich our language. The trouble begins when a child, foreign person, or alien takes one of our idioms literally.

"We'll have you for dinner," does not mean the person will be eaten by cannibals.

There isn’t room here to list the busload of idioms, but I offer a few examples:

  • at length
  • burn off
  • by the way
  • chin up
  • common touch
  • fly away
  • in step with
  • lay aside
  • leaf through
  • no less than
  • put down
  • put in the way of
  • run along
  • slap on the wrist
  • take a lick at
  • think tank
Here are a few of the many sites listing idioms. Make your own list. Highlight your favorite bugaboos and prune them.




?  Have you used idioms intentionally?
? Have you committed idiom prose abuse?
? Does the usage fit the situation, era, or time frame? You might want to check the date it was first used.
? If uttered in dialogue, does the idiom fit the background and personality of the character uttering it?

For all of the revision tips on verbs and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 

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37. Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2014, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

The terrible word slough
Some time ago, in my discussion of English spelling, I touched on the group ough, this enfant terrible of our orthography; slough figured prominently in it. One slough, the verb meaning “shed the skin,” rhymes with enough. The other is problematic and had a tortuous history. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (the last quarter of the eighteenth century), made the Slough of Despond famous. He was not sure of the word’s written image, and in his book we find They drew near to a very Miry Slough…. The name of the Slow was Despond. It is not for nothing that rough and bough look so much alike. The group ough could develop into a diphthong (many people say dipthong—a habit worth “sloughing”) or yield uff. Someone who has never seen the word clough “ravine” will not know whether is rhymes with bough, cough, or through.

If I am not mistaken, in Standard British English, slough “mire” (and the surname Slough) rhymes with bough, but in American English it rhymes with through. I am not sure because I never hear this word and can rely only on the evidence of dictionaries. The Century Dictionary, published in the United States around the year 1900, says that slough “a hole full of deep mud or mire; a quagmire of considerable depth and comparatively small depth of surface” rhymes with bough, while when it has the sense “a marshy hollow; a reedy pond; also, a long and shallow ravine, or open creek, which becomes partly or wholly dry in summer [Western U.S.],” it is spelled slue, slew, or sloo and rhymes with through. Other dictionaries either state that the variants are interchangeable or give only one pronunciation, namely sloo. Sloo is well-known in British dialects, from where it came to the New World. As usual, it will be interesting to read the comments of our readers from different parts of the English-speaking world. One thing is clear: a snake “sluffs” its skin.

The pronunciation sloo could not be immediately predicted from the noun’s past. In such words, the usual variants are “uff” (rough, tough, and so forth) or “ow” (bough); cough is regular but exceptional. Occasionally both variants coexist, as in enough ~ enow or sough “rushing or murmuring of the sea,” which some people rhyme with enough and others with enow. Sloo goes back to sloh (with a long vowel in Old English). For some reason, final h in this noun could be lost, and, when it was, slo developed like school and other words with long o (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. awe). The only analog of sloo I can think of is through, but prepositions are usually unstressed, so that in through the loss of final h in Middle English causes no surprise.

An authentic cluck-ma-doodle. (An impish face carved on St. Mary's 14th century font, Knaith. Photo by Richard Croft. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

An authentic cluck-ma-doodle. (An impish face carved on St. Mary’s 14th century font, Knaith. Photo by Richard Croft. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

How old is the now common British pronunciation foiv for five and the like?
In London, this pronunciation is not very old. At the end of the nineteenth century, Skeat noted that in his youth no one heard it. Dickens’s characters like Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp (Sairey Gamp), the ultimate Cockney speaker in Martin Chuzzlewit, do not say noin and foiv, though Oi for I turns up in many Victorian novels. It is often contended that Dickens was not a reliable observer of Cockney speech. This accusation cannot be taken seriously: Dickens’s ear for sounds was splendid, as, among many other things, his reproduction of American speech in the same novel and of the Yorkshire accent in Nicholas Nickleby shows. Incidentally, he himself never quite got rid of some peculiarities of Cockney. Foiv for five is undoubtedly dialectal, but it came to London relatively late, probably around the time of Dickens’s death (1870) and is not an ancient feature of Cockney. Its adoption by educated speakers is amazing, but people do not hear what they say, and most are sure that their pronunciation is the same as that of their grandparents. (In my memory, British oh no has turned almost universally into eu neu.)

Ukraine once more.
The place name Ukraine cannot be a cognate of Latvian Ukris, if Ukris is a native word. Ukraina, related to Russian okraina, has a prefix (u- ~ o). The root is krai- “region,” n is a suffix, and -a the ending of a feminine noun. In Ukris, as I understand, ukr- is the root.

Fighting against who? or whom?
I keep cutting out sentences in which writers try desperately to decide whether they should say who or whom. But this is like speaking a foreign language: one can never be absolutely certain that the chosen variant is correct. A caption:

“J.J., right, with sister S., who she had been visiting in XX.”

Someone writing for the Associated Press and quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (in an English translation):

“The key to toning down the situation in our view is ending military operation against protesters. Then, I am convinced, these people who you call separatists will take reciprocal action.”

And now to the most sacrosanct source of them all, The New York Times:

“The government has offered amnesties before that did not lead to the release of the tens of thousands of people whom human rights advocates say have been detained or imprisoned during the unrest in the country.”

The last sentence is the worst of them all.

To be sure, if the writers had studied a language like German or Russian, or Latin, all of which have cases, they would have understood that there are such things as the nominative, the genitive, the dative, and the accusative. It would have become clear to them that despite the erosion of the who-whom distinction in American English, the educated norm still requires the nominative who and the oblique case whom, except when the Standard has abolished the difference (Who are you referring to?). Or they may have compared he/him with who/whom. But grammar is not fun, as has been repeated many times. So we meet people whom we thought were dead and meet people who we try to avoid.

Folk etymology at large
In my book on word origins, I devoted a few pages to words like frigmajig “a toy; a trifle; anything that moves or works about.” Last week, I ran into a letter to the editor published in 1930. It was about a self-recording barometer with the words click ma doodle on it. According to a story told at Elderline, the inhabitants found washed ashore a body of a man with a watch in his pocket, still going. None of them had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Finally, a wise man residing in the district arrived. He too was ignorant of the object but did not want to confess it and shouted “It’s a Click-ma-doodle! Kill it!” And it was smashed with stones. This is allegedly the origin of the trademark (many seaside towns had or still have barometers with the same words). I am sure that click ma doodle was coined on the model of other dialectal words like frigmajig, but the story (a hundred percent apocryphal?) is not devoid of interest as a record of human ingenuity when it comes to word origins.

Unless I receive many queries and comments before 15 July, read the next “gleanings” on 24 September 2014.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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38. The first rule of football is… don’t call it soccer

By Fiona McPherson

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language – a phrase commonly attributed to Shaw sometime in the 1940s, although apparently not to be found in any of his published works. Perhaps another way of looking at it is to say that they are two countries separated by a different ball – a sentiment that is particularly apt when football’s World Cup comes around.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that. For years we’ve heard how football is becoming ever more popular in the USA. Major League Soccer’s profile continues to build, and indeed, the US even hosted the World Cup in 1994, and has twice won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But despite this, football pales into insignificance compared with other big US sports. The National (American) Football League brought in 9 billion dollars in revenue in 2013, whereas Major League Soccer earned only about half a billion; even the National Hockey League earned over 3 billion. If you’re one of those Americans who hasn’t yet become a diehard fan, here’s a potted (and tongue) guide to bluffing your way into sounding knowledgeable about the beautiful game.

Soccer balls

The first rule of football is…

…don’t call it soccer, certainly not within earshot of someone who thinks of it as ‘proper’ football. This is probably the most crucial element in giving the impression that you’ve been into this game for decades. Naturally this can be difficult if you are trying to differentiate between two different sports (in the UK it is easy – American football v football). Soccer, the word, comes from an abbreviation for Association (from Association Football, the ‘official’ name for the game) plus the addition of the suffix -er. This suffix (originally Rugby School slang, and then adopted by Oxford University), was appended to ‘shortened’ nouns, in order to form jocular words. Rugger is probably the most common example, but other examples included in the Oxford English Dictionary are brekker (for breakfast), bonner (for bonfire), and cupper (a series of intercollegiate matches played in competition for a cup).

Apart from its origins being decidedly British, you will find plenty of examples of soccer being used by British people over the decades. But in terms of the history of the language, it’s something of a 19th-century johnny-come-lately: by contrast, football has been used since the 1400s. In modern usage, in order to blend in with the diehard fans, it’s preferable to stick to football – and, when speaking to these fans, never, ever call it Association Football.

A quick reference to sound like a football native:

Match vs game

Match is used in relation to football, but game (used in American Football) is actually the older sense. Game, meaning a competitive activity governed by rules of play, is found in Old English – while match in a similar sense dates to the 16th century. (The word match is also found in Old English, with reference to spouses or people of equal standing.)

Pitch vs field

Pitch, meaning ‘the area of play in a field game’ and used in football, is quite a recent addition to English — currently first found in the late 19th century — and field (with a similar definition, used for American football) predates it by over 150 years. Yet fashions change, and you should refer to a football pitch if you want to be accepted by aficionados in Britain. 

Boots vs cleats / shoes

The distinction between boots (used in football) and shoes (in American football) isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the use of cleats is more intriguing. It’s actually an example of synecdoche: the part is used to represent the whole. This becomes clear if you realize that cleats are the projections on the sole of a shoe, designed to prevent the wearer losing their footing (which are commonly called studs in British English). 

Extra time vs overtime

As the name suggests, extra time is a further period of play in football, added on to a game if the scores are equal and the match must be decided (not to be confused with injury time, added to compensate for time lost dealing with injuries). Overtime describes the same event in North American games, drawing on the older sense of ‘time worked in addition to one’s normal working hours’. The first use of both terms is currently dated to the early 20th century, with extra time coming first. 

To mark vs to guard vs to cover

Guarding in basketball, and marking in a variety of British games including football, means keeping close to an opponent in order to prevent them from getting or passing the ball. To add to the international confusion, in Australian Rules Footballmarking a ball means catching it from a kick of at least ten metres and is to be celebrated – whereas, unless you’re the goalkeeper (or in the crowd), catching the ball at all in football is a handball and a foul. In American football, a defensive player will cover an offensive player. 

Kit vs uniform

uniform (worn for American sports) may sound more militaristic than a kit (worn in football), but the latter actually has fairly regimental (albeit more informal) origins – the sense comes from kit as the equipment of a solider (also known as articles of kit). This sense, in turn, relates to an earlier sense of kit as a container for carrying commodities – from the Dutch kitte, a wooden vessel made of hooped staves.

There’s no other way

In American Football, there are numerous ways to score. In football, there is only one. If the ball ends up in the back of the net (provided there has been no infringement of the rules), it’s a goal. Whether scored by a header, from the penalty spot, a volley, route onescissor kick, after a glorious mazy run from one end of the pitch to the other, or even if it hits a defending player on the bottom/knee/shoulder and deflects past the goalkeeper into the goal, it’s just a goal, and only counts for one point.

0-0 can be exciting

It’s probably a bit of an urban myth that Americans bemoan the fact that it’s perfectly possible to sit through 90 minutes of football, and for the end result to be 0-0. Meaning that no one scored. While any self-respecting football fan will have witnessed the dourest of dour games which end up as a goalless draw, there are action-packed games which inexplicably end up goalless due to one or more goalies playing a blinder. You’ll just have to believe us on this. While you can’t immediately tell from the numbers written as symbols, that ‘0-0’ is nil-nil rather than zero-zero. A good way to expose your ignorance amongst football fans is to refer to a result being two-zero, as the 0 is always termed nil in football. Nil is a contraction of the Latin nihil, meaning ‘nothing’, and also to be found in the word nihilism (the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence).

And last, but not least, don’t worry too much about explaining the offside rule. Plenty of people can’t.

A version of this post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Fiona McPherson is a Senior Editor with the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Image: Soccer Balls Net 7-22-09 1 by Steven Depolo. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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39. Rhetorical fireworks for the Fourth of July

By Russ Castronovo

Ever since 4 July 1777 when citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary of American independence with a fireworks display, the “rockets’ red glare” has lent a military tinge to this national holiday. But the explosive aspect of the patriots’ resistance was the incendiary propaganda that they spread across the thirteen colonies.

Sam Adams understood the need for a lively barrage of public relations and spin. “We cannot make Events; Our Business is merely to improve them,” he said. Exaggeration was just one of the tricks in the rhetorical arsenal that rebel publicists used to “improve” events. Their satires, lampoons, and exposés amounted to a guerilla war—waged in print—against the Crown.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While Independence Day is about commemorating the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the path toward separation from England relied on a steady stream of lies, rumor, and accusation. As Philip Freneau, the foremost poet-propagandist of the Revolution put it, if an American “prints some lies, his lies excuse” because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but the dissemination of inflammatory material.

In place of measured discourse and rational debate, the pyrotechnics of the moment suited “the American crisis”—to invoke the title of Tom Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense—that left little time for polite expression or logical proofs. Propaganda requires speed, not reflection.

Writing became a rushed job. Pamphlets such as Tom Paine’s had an intentionally short fuse. Common Sense says little that’s new about natural rights or government. But what was innovative was the popular rhetorical strategy Paine used to convey those ideas. “As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain,” he wrote, playing upon the sensational language found in popular seduction novels of the day.

The tenor of patriotic discourse regularly ran toward ribald phrasing. When composing newspaper verses about King George, Freneau took particular delight in rhyming “despot” with “pisspot.” Hardly the lofty stuff associated with reason and powdered wigs, this language better evokes the juvenile humor of The Daily Show.

The skyrockets that will be “bursting in air” this Fourth of July are a vivid reminder of the rhetorical fireworks that galvanized support for the colonists’ bid for independence. The spread of political ideas, whether in a yellowing pamphlet or on Comedy Central, remains a vital part of our national heritage.

Russ Castronovo teaches English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications.

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40. If You Were Me and Lived in Russia, by Carole P. Roman | Dedicated Review

If You Were Me and Lived in Russia is the latest installment to a great picture book series that showcases diversity and encourages children to explore the world.

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41. Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2014, part one

By Anatoly Liberman

Baron, mark, and concise.
I am always glad to hear from our readers. This time I noted with pleasure that both comments on baron (see them posted where they belong) were not new to me. I followed all the references in Franz Settegast’s later article (they are not yet to be found in such abundance in my bibliography of English etymology) and those in later sources and dictionaries, and, quite naturally, the quotation from Isidore and the formula in which baron means “husband” figure prominently in every serious work on the subject. No one objected to the hypothesis I attempted to revive. Regrettably, Romance etymologists hardly ever read this blog. In any case, I have not heard their opinion about bigot, beggar, bugger, and now baron. On the other hand, when I say something suspicious or wrong, such statements arouse immediate protest, so perhaps my voice is not lost in the wilderness.

Thus, in one of the letters sent to Oxford University Press I was told that my criticism of the phrase short and concise “is not well taken,” because legal English does make use of this tautological binomial, along with many more like it, in which two synonyms—one English and one French—coexist and reinforce each other. What our correspondent said is, no doubt, correct, and I am aware of numerous Middle English legal compounds of the love-amour type. However, I am afraid that some people who have as little knowledge of legalese as I do misuse concise and have a notion that this adjective is a synonym of precise. Perhaps someone can give us more information on this point. I also want to thank our correspondent who took issue with my statement on the pronunciation of shire: my rule was too rigid.

As for mark, our old correspondent Nikita (he never gives his last name) is certainly right. Ukraine (that is, Ukraina) means “borderland.” In the past, the word was not a place name, and other borderlands were also called this. Equally relevant are the examples Mr. Cowan cited. I don’t know whether Tolkien punned on myrk-, but Old Icelandic myrk- does mean murk ~ murky, as in Myrk-við “Dark Forest” (so a kind of Schwarzwald) and Myrk-á “Dark River.”

Spelling and general intercourse.
I suspect that Mr. Bett (see his comments on the previous gleanings) is an advocate of an all-or-nothing reform. I’d be happy to see English spelling revolutionized, and my suggestion (step by step) is based on expedience (politics) rather than any scholarly considerations. When people speak of phonetic spelling, they usually mean phonemic spelling, so this is not an issue. But I would like to remind everyone that the English Spelling Society was formed in 1908. And what progress has it made in 116 years? Compare the two texts given below.

To begin with, I’ll quote a few passages from Professor Gilbert Murray’s article published in The Spectator 157, 1936, pp. 983-984. At that time, he was the President of the Simplified Spelling Society.

“There are two plain reasons for the reform of English spelling. In education the work of learning to read and write his own tongue is said to cost the English child [I apologize for Murray’s possessive pronoun] a year longer than, for example, the Italian child, and certainly tends to confuse his mind. For purposes of commerce and general intercourse, where the world badly needs a universal auxiliary language and English is already beginning in many parts of the world to serve this purpose, the enormous difficulty and irrationality of English spelling is holding the process back.…”

He continued:

“Now nearly all languages have a periodic ‘spring cleaning’ of their orthography. English had a tremendous ‘spring cleaning’ between the twelfth and the fourteenth century.… It is practically Dryden’s spelling that we now use, but few can doubt that the time for another ‘spring cleaning’ is fully arrived… It must not be supposed that the reformers want an exact phonetic alphabet…. What we need is merely a standard spelling for a standard language…. The ‘spring cleaning’ which my society asks for is, I think, quite certain to come; though the longer it is delayed the more revolutionary is will be. It may come, as Lord Bryce, when President of the British Academy, desired, by means of a Royal Commission or a special committee of the Academy. It may, on the other hand, come through the overpowering need of nations in the Far East, and perhaps in the North of Europe, to have an auxiliary language, easy to learn, widely spoken, commercially convenient, and with a great literature behind it, in a form intelligible to write and to speak.”

All this could be written today, even though with a few additions and corrections. English is no longer beginning to serve the purpose of an international language; it has played this role since World War II. We no longer believe that the desired “cleaning” is sure to come: we can only hope for the best.

Let us now listen to Mr. Stephen Linstead, the present Chair of the English Spelling Society, who said to The Daily Telegraph on 23 May 2014 the following: “The spelling of roughly 35 percent of the commonest English words is, to a degree, irregular or ambiguous; meaning that the learner has to memorise these words.” A need to memorize irregularity, he explains, “costs children precious learning time, and us—as a nation—money…. A study carried out in 2001 revealed that English speaking children can take over two years longer to learn basic words compared with children in other countries where the spelling system is more regular.”

We can see that our educational system is making great strides: what used to take one year now takes two. Mr. Linstead says other things worth hearing of which I’ll single out the proposal. It concerns the formation of an international English Spelling Congress “made up of English speakers from across the world who are open to the possibility of improving English spelling and who would like to contribute to the difficulty of mastering our spelling system.” As I understand it, the reformers plan to pay special attention to organizational matters, rather than arguing about the details of English spelling. This looks like a rational attitude. The public is not interested in the reform. Nor did it show any enthusiasm for it in 1936. There were two letters to the editor in response to Professor Gilbert’s article, but both came from the members of the Society, that is, from the “choir.” If the Congress materializes, it should include a lot of very influential people (what about Lord Bryce’s idea?). Otherwise, we will keep talking for another one hundred and six years without any results.

Busy as a bee.
The public, as I said above, does not care about the reform, but it is greedy, covets monetary prizes, and sends children to a torture known as spelling bee. The hive originated in 1925. Here is a case of a bright thirteen year old boy. He speaks English (and to some extent two other languages, one of them learned at home) and is an avid reader. He made it to the semifinals but misspelled ananke (a useful word that reminds even the gods that doom is unavoidable—just what a young boy should keep in mind). I don’t know what he did wrong. Probably he assumed that the word was Latin and spelled it with a c, but alas and alack, it is Greek. For eight weeks a coach (another young student) used to work with the boy three times a week. What a waste! The boy said: “I was really nervous, because you really don’t know what word you were going to get. I wanted to make it farther. [However,] I was really pleased with how I did and how I placed.” I am afraid he will grow up knowing several hundred words he will never see in books and using really three times in two lines. Remembering the spelling of ananke will be the only reward for his efforts.

A snake in the slough of despond

A snake in the slough of despond. Image credit: A Cantil (Agkistrodon bilineatus) with a shed skin nearby at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo. Photo by Jonathan Crowe. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via mcwetboy Flickr.

I think society (society at large, not the Spelling Society) should do what administrators, masters of a meaningless jargon, call sorting out priorities, stop abusing children, forget the fate of the gods, and concentrate on the misery of the  mortals who try to make sense of bough, cough, dough, rough, through, and the horrors of the word slough.

To be continued next week.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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42. The role of communication at work

By François Cooren, Eero Vaara, Ann Langley, and Haridimos Tsoukas

“Communication matters in organizations!”

We all know this catchphrase. Both employees and managers experience problems daily with coordination, and when news (good or bad) is released about their organization. There is, however, a different way of studying communication at work, a way that does not merely reduce it to the transfer of information, but also explores its constitutive aspects: how communicative events literally constitute what organizations are all about.

Connect communication to the very processes, activities, and practices that constitute organizations or organizational phenomena. This echoes what Phillips and Lawrence (2012) recently labeled “the turn to work” in organization studies. These authors referred to notions such as “identity work,” “institutional work,” and “boundary work” as part of a trend in which scholars have been highlighting “the role of actors in socially constructing elements of work and organizations that were previously seen as either ‘natural’ or beyond the control of individual actors.”

Phenomena such as identity, routines, boundaries, or organizations themselves are thus seen as communicative processes, which means that ongoing “work” is implicated in the construction, maintenance, and adaptation of organizational identities, boundaries, and operations. Communication is the essential way through which much of this “work” takes place, whether or not conscious intentions lie behind it.

Depart from abstract and static considerations to concentrate on communicational activities and practices that constitute the daily life of organizations, or capture the ways in which they change over time. These types of study focus on cultural, artifactual, ideological, or technological aspects of work, and systematically scrutinize and highlight the communicational dimension of these activities, whether from a theoretical or empirical perspective.

The study of language and communication at work could prove to be a fruitful way to study organizational life in all its aspects (meetings, speeches, routines, operations, expeditions, etc.). Organizations should not only be viewed as ‘things made’ but also as what Hernes (2007) calls “processes in the making,” whether we want to study reproduction, development, or change. If analyzing and conceiving of processes is indeed a difficult thing to do, it is, we believe, the price we need to pay to study organizational matters in a very concrete and incarnated manner.


If organizations are dynamically constituted, we thus need to start thinking processually, that is, we need to invent new ways of studying and conceiving of these “works in process” we call companies, firms, businesses, institutions, NGOs, and associations. In keeping with Derrida’s (often misunderstood) concept of differance, this processual way of thinking leads us to study any organizational course, sequence, or practice in terms of both its passive and active dimensions, i.e. in terms of what leads it to be what it is, but also in terms of what it produces, enacts, and contributes. Studying processes indeed means that there cannot be an absolute point of origin and that we need, as analysts, to always pay attention to what is ongoing.

Methodologically speaking, this could have serious consequences, as thinking and analyzing the organizational world processually will also lead us to rely more and more on actual recordings of activities, conversations, and practices. Although interviews certainly remain relevant ways to access what is taking place in organizational settings, they seem poorly equipped to study processes per se, as they rely on post-hoc reconstructions that cannot always do justice to what really happens ‘in the making’ (except, of course, if the interviews themselves are analyzed processually). Whether video or audio recordings, the detailed study of communication at work seems to require that we “pay our due” to the phenomena themselves.

But studying processually means that we also have to develop tools and methodologies that allow us to not only make some gains in terms of details, but also in terms of longitudinality. The detailed study of processes indeed implies, by definition, that we follow them through time and space, a methodological requirement that often seems hard to reconcile with the thoroughness of detailed analyses. It is, we believe, in this uncomfortable tension that the future of process studies might lay.

François Cooren is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Université de Montréal; Eero Vaara is Professor of Management and Organization at Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki; Ann Langley is Professor of Management at HEC Montréal; and Haridimos Tsoukas is Professor of Strategic Management and Professor of Organization Studies at University of Cyprus, and at Warwick Business School. Their book Language and Communication at Work. Discourse, Narrativity and Organizing was published May, 2014.

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43. What is a book? (humour edition)

As the Amazon-Hachette debate has escalated this week, taking a notably funny turn on the Colbert Report, we’d like to share some funnier reflections on books and the purposes they serve. Here are a few selections from the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Fifth Edition.

“Book–what they make a movie out of for television”
Leonard Louis Levinson 1904-74: Laurence J. Peter (ed) Quotations for our Time (1977)

“If you don’t find it in the Index, look very carefully through the entire catalogue.”
Anonymous: in Consumer’s Guide, Sears, Roebuck and Co. (1897); Donald E. Knuth Sorting and Searching (1973)

“Books and harlots have their quarrels in public.”
Walter Benjamin 1892-1940 German philosopher and critic: One Way Street (1928)

“My desire is … that mine adversary had written a book.”
Bible: Job

“The covers of this book are too far apart.”
Ambrose Bierce 1842-c.1914 American writer; C.H. Grattam Bitter Bierce (1929)


“When the [Supreme] Court moved to Washington in 1800, it was provided with no books, which probably explains the high quality of early opinions.”
Robert H. Jackson 1892-1954 American lawyer: The Supreme Court in the American System of Government (1955)

“One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”
Benjamin Jowett 1817-93 English classicist: Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell (eds.) Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett (1897)

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Dorothy Parker 1893-1967 American critic and humorist: R.E. Drennan Wit’s End (1973)

“A thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.”
Mark Twain 1835-1910 American writer: Alex Ayres The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (1987)

“An index is a great leveller.”
George Bernard Shaw 1856-1950 Irish dramatist: G.N. Knight Indexing (1979); attributed, perhaps apocryphal

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;–they are the life, the soul of reading;–take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them.”
Laurence Sterne 1713-68 English novelist: Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

“In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.”
Oscar Wilde 1854-1900 Irish dramatist and poet: attributed

Writer, broadcaster, and wit Gyles Brandreth has completely revised Ned Sherrin’s classic collection of wisecracks, one-liners, and anecdotes. With over 1,000 new quotations throughout the media, it’s easy to find hilarious quotes on subjects ranging from Argument to Diets, from Computers to the Weather. Add sparkle to your speeches and presentations, or just enjoy a good laugh in the company of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Joan Rivers, Kathy Lette, Frankie Boyle, and friends. Gyles Brandreth is a high profile comedian, writer, reporter on The One Show and keen participant in radio and TV quiz shows.

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44. A globalized history of “baron,” part 1

By Anatoly Liberman

Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long. One incontestable thing is that baron arose in Old French and through Anglo-French reached Middle English. At present, baron is the lowest rank in hereditary peerage, but “[t]he original meaning of baron in feudal times was one of a class of tenants holding his lands by military service from the king, or other superior lord. The term was soon restricted to king’s barons who were summoned by writ to the council. The practice grew up that those once summoned had a right to attend, and the honour and privilege became hereditary” (The Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld). The question is how this title happened to get the meaning recorded in Old French.

Early lexicographers were bold people: they formulated hypotheses and fearlessly proclaimed them, for nothing worse could happen to them than running afoul of a different politely formulated conjecture: no ridicule, no rebuke for violating phonetic laws (those had not yet been discovered) or missing an important publication (the few main books on the subject were widely known and always consulted). A look at the guesses by our distant predecessors is not devoid of interest, for some of them had a long life and are still with us.

The syllable bar occurs in many languages and not infrequently has a meaning that fits, at least to a certain extent, the meaning of baron. The first lexicographers noticed Hebrew bar “son,” recognized today even by those who have no knowledge of any Semitic language from bar mitzvah. Since for some time people traced all words to Hebrew, the alleged language of Paradise before Adam and Eve were banished from it, the tie between bar and baron seemed obvious. Then there was Old Irish bar “wise man, sage; leader; overseer.” For some reason, it frequently occurred in glossaries but did not turn up in any text, literary or legal. Such words occur in many old languages and look like learned concoctions. Still this bar, whatever its origin, has been attested, so probably it is not a figment, as James Murray suspected. Charles Mackay, whose etymologies are fanciful but forms invariably correct, mentioned the obsolete Irish Gaelic bar “a man, a learned man” and baran “a great man.” He hardly knew them from living speech.

Then there is Old Engl. beorn “man; hero; warrior,” which may be the same word as one of the Old Germanic names of the bear (this is uncertain; yet the alternative derivation from the verb bear is less likely). Bestowing the names of ferocious animals (bears and boars, for instance) on doughty fighters and esteemed chiefs was common practice. Old Germanic poetry is full of relevant examples. Next to it we find Old Engl. bearn “child, bairn,” an unquestionable cognate of the verb beran “to bear.” Beorn and bearn suggest a Germanic origin of baron, even though the details of the development are unclear.

We can now turn to Latin vir “man, husband,” often proposed as the source (etymon) of baron. Vir has respectable cognates in Old English and Gothic (nearly the same form and the same meaning). The alternation v ~ b poses problems, but they are not insurmountable. It is the suffix (or what looks like a suffix) -on that defies an explanation if we begin with vir. However, some of the best etymologists of the first half of the nineteenth century ignored the “suffix” and had no doubts about vir being the etymon of baron. Vir is not the only v-word that surfaced in the etymological explanations of baron. Latin varus “knock-kneed, bow-legged” and vara “a forked pole,” a cognate of varus, have also been referred to. The connection between them and baron is tenuous at best.

369px-Lex_Salica_VandalgariusMore promising is the Latin noun baro (genitive baronis, accusative baronem), which looks like a possible source of baron. However, the history, and not only the etymology, of baro is another hornets’ nest. The most baffling fact is that there seemingly were two Latin words baro. One had length on both vowels and is usually glossed as “fool; simpleton.” This is the meaning Cicero and at least one more author knew. The other baro, which is given in the most authoritative dictionaries of Latin with a short root vowel, meant “a free man” (that is, not a serf), but it emerged late, in a law code known as Lex Salica “Salian Law.” The code was put together at the beginning of the sixth century, in the reign of Clovis I, though no manuscripts antedating the eighth century have come down to us. The code regulated the life of the Salian Franks. The etymology of the name Salian is debatable and should not concern us. We only need to know that the Salian Franks were different from the so-called Ripuarian Franks and that later the same laws governed all of them. The Franks were a conglomeration of Germanic tribes.

Although Lex Salica was written in Latin, the word baro could be a Latinized German word. Untranslatable native terms regularly appeared in medieval Latin texts unchanged (occasionally -us would be added to them, and Alemannic barus has been recorded). If the word is German, we find ourselves on familiar ground (compare bearn and beorn mentioned above), but if it is Latin, we have to decide whether it has anything to do with baro “fool; simpleton” and ideally account for its origin. Baro “fool” has a well-known continuation in the Modern Romance languages. Italian barone means both “baron” and “rogue,” and many similar-sounding nouns with various suffixes have related meanings, “urchin” among them. “Simpleton,” let alone “fool,” could not develop into “a king’s man” or something similar. Most modern dictionaries state that baro1 and baro2 have nothing to do with each other, but the German linguist Franz Settegast thought differently and made an attempt to overthrow this conclusion.

Settegast showed that in some Latin books baro designated a strong (muscular) or an unpolished man, a hillbilly, a man from the boondocks, as we might say. His findings have never been refuted, but the question remains which sense is original and which is derived, that is, whether the path was from “fool” to “a strong man” or from “a strong man” to “fool.” Also, some etymologists say that Italian barone “rogue” and barone “baron” are different words (homonyms) and cite plausible sources for both, while others try to connect them. As could be expected, the definitive answer does not exist, but the situation may not be quite hopeless, and next week I’ll say what I think about it.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Manuscrit de la loi salique datant de 793, bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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45. Eighteenth-century soldiers’ slang: “Hot Stuff” and the British Army

By Jennine Hurl-Eamon

Britain’s soldiers were singing about “hot stuff” more than 200 years before Donna Summer released her hit song of the same name in 1979. The true origins of martial ballads are often difficult to ascertain, but a song entitled “Hot Stuff” can be found in print by 1774. The 5 May edition of Rivington’s New York Gazetteer attributes the lyrics to sergeant Edward Bothwood of the 47th Regiment during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

This text leaves little doubt that “hot stuff” held similar sexual connotations to its eighteenth-century crooners that it does today. Alluding to the famous generals on the battlefields of Quebec, the final verse describes the soldiers invading a French convent (or possibly a bawdy house, since the terms were synonymous among soldiers). The sexual element in “hot stuff” is abundantly clear:

With Monkton and Townshend, those brave Brigadiers,
I think we shall soon knock the town ‘bout their ears;
And when we have done with the mortars and guns,
If you please, madam Abbess, — a word with your Nuns:
Each soldier shall enter the Convent in buff,
And then, never fear, we will give them Hot Stuff.

The Oxford English Dictionary has not previously recognized the use of “hot stuff” as a term to denote sexual attractiveness in the mid eighteenth century; the earliest such usage claimed by the current edition only dates back to 1884 and I have alerted the editors of this earlier example.

William Hogarth 007

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It should not be surprising that the expression “hot stuff” had its origin in military circles. Britain’s common soldiers were immersed in a counter-culture of which language was an important signifier. Men in uniform have long been known for having a greater propensity to swear, for example. This is borne out by the literature of the time. As early as 1749, Samuel Richardson referred to the popular expression of swearing “like a trooper” in his novel Clarissa. Characters in Robert Bage’s 1796 novel, Hermsprong, held profanity to be “as natural to a soldier as praying to a parson,” and worried that “if soldiers and sailors were forbidden it, their courage would droop.” It transcended the boundaries of rank and gender.

Folklore anthologist Roy Palmer uncovered a reference to a pensioner’s wife who swore compulsively, yet was considered a good soul whose coarse language was simply an indelible imprint of army life. One of the most famous of these military wives, Christian Davies — who followed her husband disguised as a soldier and later traveled with the troops as a sutler — commented on an officers’ ability to “curse,” noting one particular lieutenant who “swore a round hand.”

Martial language went beyond swearing, however. Francis Grose proudly named “soldiers on the long march” as one of the “most classical authorities” in the preface of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (first published in 1785). Having served in the army himself, Grose had first-hand knowledge of military slang. His dictionary referred to terms such as “hug brown bess” meaning “to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier;” “fogey” for “an invalid soldier;” and “Roman” for “a soldier in the foot guards, who gives up his pay to his captain for leave to work.”

Though Grose arguably provides the best evidence of military slang in the eighteenth century, other records offer hints. One soldier testified at the Old Bailey in 1756 that it was common for military men to use the term “uncle” to mean “pawnbroker,” for example. The contemporary resonance of terms like “hot stuff” and “fogey” are evidence that some, though not all, eighteenth-century soldiers’ patter eventually found its way into the civilian lexicon.

Captain Francisa Grose, FSA

Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Historians who have studied military slang for other armies tend to have a narrow scope that stresses the distinctive nature of the time and place under observation. Thus, a scholar of the American Civil War theorizes that the “custom of independently making up words” came at least in part from the fact that “the Civil War was fought by Jacksonian individualists.”

Tim Cook’s exploration of the colourful idioms of the Canadian troops in the First World War suggests that they served simultaneously to distinguish the Canadians from the other British forces and to help a disparate body of recruits develop a unified identity that separated them from their civilian counterparts. Although many of his insights could be applied to other armies in other wars, Cook limits his observations of language to its role in helping soldiers “endure and make sense of the Great War.”

I would suggest, instead, that linguistic liberties are a common characteristic to all Anglo armies from the eighteenth century onward. More needs to be done to determine whether the phenomenon is broader in geographic and temporal scope, and to understand precisely why military culture tends to take this particular shape.

At the very least, the British soldiers singing bawdily about “hot stuff” in the mid-eighteenth century probably found their shared slang helped to bond them to one another. Language operated similar to the uniform in separating military men from civilians and transforming them into objects of fascination (both positive and negative). Set beside Donna Summer, these raucous soldiers take their proper place at the forefront of popular culture.

Jennine Hurl-Eamon is associate professor of History at Trent University, Canada. She has published several articles and book chapters on aspects of plebeian marriage and the interactions between the poorer classes and the lower courts. She is the author of three books, Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 (2005), and Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2010) and Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century (OUP, 2014).

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Image credit: William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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46. When is a book a tree?

By Philip Durkin

The obvious answer to ‘when is a book a tree?’ is ‘before it’s been made into a book’ – it doesn’t take a scientist to know that (most) paper comes from trees – but things get more complex when we turn our attention to etymology.

The word book itself has changed very little over the centuries. In Old English it had the form bōc, and it is of Germanic origin, related to for example Dutch boek, German Buch, or Gothic bōka. The meaning has remained fairly steady too: in Old English a bōc was a volume consisting of a series of written and/or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading, or the text that was written in such a volume, or a blank notebook, or sometimes another sort of written document, such as a charter.


By Bruce Marlin. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The argument for…

The pages of books in Anglo-Saxon times were made out of parchment (i.e. animal skin), not paper. But nonetheless a long-standing and still widely accepted etymology assumes that the Germanic base of book is related ultimately to the name of the beech tree. Explanations of the semantic connection have varied considerably. At one point, scholars generally focused on the practice of scratching runes (the early Germanic writing system) onto strips of wood, but more recent accounts have placed emphasis instead on the use of wooden writing tablets.

Words in other languages have followed this semantic development from ‘material for writing on’ to ‘writing, book’. One example is classical Latin liber meaning ‘book’ (which is the root of library). This is believed to have originally been a use of liber meaning ‘bark’, the bark of trees having, according to Roman tradition, been used in early times as a writing material. Compare also Sanskrit bhūrjá- (as masculine noun) ‘birch tree’, and (as feminine noun) ‘birch bark used for writing’.

The argument against…

This explanation has troubled some scholars. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the words for ‘book’ and ‘beech’ in the earliest recorded stages of various Germanic languages belong to different stem classes (which determine how they form their endings for grammatical case and number), and the word for ‘book’ shows a stem class that is often assumed to be more archaic than that shown by the word for ‘beech’.

Secondly, in Gothic (the language of the ancient Goths, preserved in important early manuscripts) bōka in the singular (usually) means ‘letter (of the alphabet)’. In the plural, Gothic bōkōs does also mean ‘(legal) document, book’, but some have argued that this reflects a later development, modelled on ancient Greek γράμμα (gramma) ‘letter, written mark’, also in the plural γράμματα (grammata) ‘letters, literature’ (this word ultimately gives modern English grammar), and also on classical Latin littera ‘letter of the alphabet, short piece of writing’, also in the plural litterae ‘document, text, book’ (this word ultimately gives modern English literature).

In light of these factors, some have suggested that book and its Germanic relatives may show a different origin, from the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit bhāga- ‘portion, lot, possession’ and Avestan baga ‘portion, lot, luck’. The hypothesis is that a word of this origin came to be used in Germanic for a piece of wood with runes (or a single rune) inscribed on it, used to cast lots (a practice described by the ancient historian Tacitus), then for the runic characters themselves, and hence for Greek and Latin letters, and eventually for texts and books containing these.

However, many scholars remain convinced that book and beech are ultimately related, and argue that the forms and meanings shown in the earliest written documents in the various Germanic languages already reflect the results of a long process of development in word form and meaning, which has obscured the original relationship between the word book and the name of the tree. For some more detail on this, and for references to some of the main discussions of the etymology of book, see the etymology section of the entry for book in OED Online.

This article first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Philip Durkin is Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English.

Language matters. At Oxford Dictionaries, we are committed to bringing you the benefit of our language expertise to help you connect with your world.

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47. A globalized history of “baron,” part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

I will begin with a short summary of the previous post. In English texts, the noun baron surfaced in 1200, which means that it became current not much earlier than the end of the twelfth century. It has been traced to Semitic (a fanciful derivation), Celtic, Latin (a variety of proposals), and Germanic. The Old English words beorn “man; fighter, warrior” and bearn “child; bairn” are unlikely sources of baron. Latin vir “man; husband” would not have become baron for phonetic reasons. The same holds for some other proposed Latin v-words. However, in Latin, baro1 “fool; simpleton” and baro2 “a free man” have been attested. As the putative etymons of baron both pose problems. Baro1 meant “fool” and “a strong, muscular man; a man lacking polish, someone from a province,” while baro1 emerged only in the Frankish law code (Lex Salica) known from early medieval manuscripts. The laws, even though they codified the life of a Germanic tribe, were written in Latin, so that there is no certainty that baro2 is a genuine Latin noun: it could be a Latinized Germanic legal term the scribes preferred to leave untranslated. It is hard to decide whether in dealing with Latin baro1 we have two different words (“fool” and “a strong, unpolished man”) or two meanings of the same word. If the second treatment of baro is to be preferred, then what was the way of development: from “fool” to “a strong man” or from “a strong man” to “fool”? The German linguist Franz Settegast believed that only the second alternative should be considered and derived baron from baro1, but he said nothing definite on the history of its Germanic homonym. In his opinion, baro of Lex Salica might be a different word. This is approximately where I left off last week.

As regards the fortunes of Classical Latin baro, Settegast’s idea is reasonable. He believed that, although thanks to Cicero “fool” is the best-remembered sense of baro, it is not the original one. More probably, he suggested, the word arose with the meaning “a strong man” and later acquired the negative connotations “hillbilly, rough person,” as opposed to someone who learned good manners in the capital, was urbane, and depended on his intellect rather than physical strength. Some analogs Settegast cited missed the point, but for his main argument one can find ample confirmation. Thus, in animal folklore, brawn never goes together with brain. The trickster of animal tales is usually a smart weakling: the cat, the coyote, Brer Rabbit, and the rest. Even the fox, though certainly not a puny creature, is smaller and weaker than the wolf and the bear. The trickster’s dupes are the wolf and the bear.

The Gipsy baron of Johann Strauss

The Gipsy baron of Johann Strauss

As usual in such cases, Settegast had to depend on one or more missing links. He assumed that baro developed in two ways: in one direction it allegedly went from “a strong man” to “fool” and in the other to “*fighter, *warrior, *man” and further to “baron.” The senses I marked with asterisks have not been recorded. Yet many influential specialists in the history of Latin and the Romance languages accepted Settegast’s reconstruction. Despite the consensus the pendulum soon swung in the opposite direction, and etymologists returned to the idea that baron could not be related to a word meaning “fool; simpleton” and traced it to Old High German baro, as we know it from Lex Salica. To support this derivation, one had to offer a plausible etymology of German baro, and Settegast’s opponents came up with the following. There is an Old Icelandic verb berja “to strike,” a cognate of Latin ferio “to strike; kill”; its reflexive form berja-sk means “to fight” (that is, “to exchange blows”). Old High German baro emerged in this scheme as “fighter,” an ideal semantic etymon of baron. However, Icelandic did not have the noun bero “fighter.” Only Old High German bero is known, but it is related to the verb beran “bear; carry” and means “carrier, porter.” It has nothing to do with Icelandic berja ~ berjask. Baro “fighter” ended up with the single support of the nonexistent noun bero “fighter” and nouns like Icelandic bardagi “battle.”

The derivation of baron from Germanic found the support of practically all later etymologists except, predictably, Settegast, who mounted a spirited defense of his old idea, but this time his voice was not heard. His reconstruction did not illuminate every dark corner (remember the asterisked forms, cited above!), but the Germanic reconstruction fares even worse. Settegast refuted the main objection to his theory (“baron” cannot go back to “fool”; of course, it cannot), so that there is no need to repeat the same seemingly crushing counterargument again and again. If Latin baro yielded not only “fool” but also “fighter,” from “a strong man,” then baro, as it occurs in Lex Salica, is a Latin noun.

In my rejection of the Germanic etymology of baron from berjask I am not quite alone. Pierre Guirot, a French etymologist who supports many untraditional solutions, returned to the idea that baron originated in Latin. Regrettably, he offered his opinion without offering detailed proof. Harri Meyer, a distinguished linguist but another maverick of Romance philology, tended to agree with Guirot. Clearly, the tide has not turned. But it does not follow that we have only two choices: either to derive baron from Latin baro or to trace it to Germanic berjask. There is at least one more possibility.

Etymology is a tale of eternal return. Old conjectures tend to resurface in a new light and make us look at forgotten or discarded ideas with interest and even respect. In the early sixties of the nineteenth century, the question was asked whether baron could be a continuation of some word like German Wehrmann “soldier.” Obviously, -on in baron and -mann in Wehrmann are not related. But what about Wehr “defense”? About seventy years later George G. Nicholson had an idea that returned him to Wehr, though, of course, he had no knowledge of an old exchange in Notes and Queries. He paid special attention to the common use of Old French baron with the genitive (“the baron of…”), for example, in li bon baron de France “the good defender, protector of France.” The English equivalent of the Latin phrase barones quinque portuum (which alternated with custodes quinque portuum) is Wardens of the Cinque Ports. In Old French, the word baron was applied to the king, saints, and even Jesus Christ, so that the sense “protector, defender” cannot be called into question.

Nicholson analyzed Old High German words whose English cognates are aware, beware, warn, ward, and warden (their root is war-), and derived baron from the reconstructed Romance form waronem-. The Romance languages did borrow the Germanic root war-, as testified, among others, by guardian, a doublet of warden. Waronem- “protector” would explain the well-attested sense of baron “man.” As mentioned in the previous post, the alternation w/v- ~ b- poses no insurmountable difficulties. Even the native Latin speakers noticed it, and a doublet of Spanish baron is varón “man, male.” The Portuguese form is similar.

Nicholson’s etymology invites serious consideration. Settegast was probably right in not considering “fool” the original sense of Latin baro, but he had a hard time of tracing the path from “a muscular man” to “fighter,” “man; husband,” and, finally, to “baron.” We may also concur with him that Italian barone “rogue” and barone “baron” continue the same Latin etymon. The association between baron and the cognates of Icelandic berjask does not look promising, and one should treat without much confidence the often-repeated statement that Latin had the word baro before the arrival of the Franks. It probably did not. More likely, baron is a Romance adaptation of Germanic waronem-. And couldn’t this coinage (baron) spread to the Celtic-speaking world? Old Irish bár “wise man, sage; leader; overseer,” especially “overseer,” resembles “protector,” the more so because one of the glosses of barons was Latin custodes (the plural of custos). In Ireland, the word might enjoy a shady existence as a legal foreignism, and, presumably, that is why it never occurred in native literature. If such was the state of affairs, barons emerged as protectors and “custodians.” The way from “protector” to “man; husband; fighter” is short. Thus, baron may be, after all, a Germanic word, but going back to an etymon quite different from the one mentioned in our dictionaries.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Alexander Girardi, austrian actor; seen in Johann Strauss II: The Gypsy Baron. Portrait Collection Friedrich Nicolas Manskopf at the library of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. ID: S36_F08653. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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48. How social media is changing language

By Jon Reed

From unfriend to selfie, social media is clearly having an impact on language.  As someone who writes about social media I’m aware of not only how fast these online platforms change, but also of how they influence the language in which I write.

The words that surround us every day influence the words we use. Since so much of the written language we see is now on the screens of our computers, tablets, and smartphones, language now evolves partly through our interaction with technology. And because the language we use to communicate with each other tends to be more malleable than formal writing, the combination of informal, personal communication and the mass audience afforded by social media is a recipe for rapid change.

From the introduction of new words to new meanings for old words to changes in the way we communicate, social media is making its presence felt.

New ways of communicating

An alphabet soup of acronyms, abbreviations, and neologisms has grown up around technologically mediated communication to help us be understood. I’m old enough to have learned the acronyms we now think of as textspeak on the online forums and ‘Internet relay chat’ (IRC) that pre-dated text messaging. On IRC, acronyms help speed up a real-time typed conversation. On mobile phones they minimize the inconvenience of typing with tiny keys. And on Twitter they help you make the most of your 140 characters.

Emoticons such as ;-) and acronyms such as LOL (‘laughing out loud’ — which has just celebrated its 25th birthday) add useful elements of non-verbal communication — or annoy people with their overuse. This extends to playful asterisk-enclosed stage directions describing supposed physical actions or facial expressions (though use with caution: it turns out that *innocent face* is no defence in court).

An important element of Twitter syntax is the hashtag — a clickable keyword used to categorize tweets. Hashtags have also spread to other social media platforms — and they’ve even reached everyday speech, but hopefully spoofs such as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s sketch on The Tonight Show will dissuade us from using them too frequently. But you will find hashtags all over popular culture, from greetings cards and t-shirts to the dialogue of sitcom characters.

Syntax aside, social media has also prompted a more subtle revolution in the way we communicate. We share more personal information, but also communicate with larger audiences. Our communication styles consequently become more informal and more open, and this seeps into other areas of life and culture. When writing on social media, we are also more succinct, get to the point quicker, operate within the creative constraints of 140 characters on Twitter, or aspire to brevity with blogs.

Social media

New words and meanings

Facebook has also done more than most platforms to offer up new meanings for common words such as friend, like, statuswallpage, and profile. Other new meanings which crop up on social media channels also reflect the dark side of social media: a troll is no longer just a character from Norse folklore, but someone who makes offensive or provocative comments online; a sock puppet is no longer solely a puppet made from an old sock, but a self-serving fake online persona; and astroturfing is no longer simply laying a plastic lawn but also a fake online grass-roots movement.

Social media is making it easier than ever to contribute to the evolution of language. You no longer have to be published through traditional avenues to bring word trends to the attention of the masses. While journalists have long provided the earliest known uses of topical terms — everything from 1794’s pew-rent in The Times to beatboxing in The Guardian (1987) — the net has been widened by the “net.” A case in point is Oxford Dictionaries 2013 Word of the Year, selfie: the earliest use of the word has been traced to an Australian Internet forum. With forums, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels offering instant interaction with wide audiences, it’s never been easier to help a word gain traction from your armchair.

Keeping current

Some people may feel left behind by all this. If you’re a lawyer grappling with the new geek speak, you may need to use up court time to have terms such as Rickrolling explained to you. And yes, some of us despair at how use of this informal medium can lead to an equally casual attitude to grammar. But the truth is that social media is great for word nerds. It provides a rich playground for experimenting with, developing, and subverting language.

It can also be a great way keep up with these changes. Pay attention to discussions in your social networks and you can spot emerging new words, new uses of words — and maybe even coin one yourself.

A version of this post first appeared on OxfordWords blog.

Jon Reed is the author of Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing and runs the website Publishing Talk. He is also on Twitter at @jonreed.

Image: via Shutterstock.

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49. Does learning a second language lead to a new identity?

By Arturo Hernandez

Everyday I get asked why second language learning is so hard and what can be done to make it easier. One day a student came up to me after class and asked me how his mother could learn to speak English better. She did not seem to be able to breakthrough and start speaking. Perhaps you or someone you know has found learning another language difficult.

So why is it so hard?

There are a lot of explanations. Some have to do with biology and the closing of a sensitive period for language. Others have to do with how hard grammar is. People still take English classes in US high schools up to senior year. If a language were easy, then native speakers of a language would not have to continue studying it to the dawn of adulthood.

But what if we took a different approach. Rather than ask what makes learning a second language so hard, let’s ask what makes it easier.

female student with friends on

One group of successful language learners includes those who write in a second language. For example, Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, wrote Heart of Darkness in English, a language he spoke with a very strong accent. He was of Polish origin and considered himself to be of Polish origin his entire life. Despite his heavy accent, he is regarded by many as one of the greatest English writers. Interestingly, English was his third language. Before moving to England, he lived in France and was known to have a very good accent in his second language. Hence, success came to Conrad in a language he spoke less than perfectly.

The use of English as a literary language has gained popularity in recent years. William Grimes, in a New York Times piece, describes a new breed of writers that are embracing a second language in literary spirit. Grimes describes the prototypical story that captures the essence of language learning, The Other Language from Francesca Marciano. It’s the story of a teenager who falls in love with the English language tugged by her fascination with an English-speaking boy. Interestingly, it turns out there is a whole host of writers who do so in their second language.

Grimes also considers the effects that writing in a second language has on the authors themselves. Some writers find that as time passes in the host country they begin to take on a new persona, a new identity. Their native land grows more and more distant in time and they begin to feel less like the person they were when they initially immigrated. Ms. Marciano feels that English allows her to explore parts of her that she did not know existed. Others feel liberated by the voice they discover in another language.

The literary phenomenon that writers describe is one that has been discussed at length by Robert Schrauf of Penn State University as a form of state-dependent learning. In one classic study of state-dependent learning, a group of participants was asked to learn a set of words below or above water and then tested either above or below water. Interestingly, memory was better when the location of the learning matched the testing, even when that was underwater, a particularly uncomfortable situation relative to above water. Similar explanations can be used to describe how emotional states can lead to retrieval of memories that are seemingly unrelated. For example, anger at a driver who cuts you off might lead to memories of the last time you had a fight with a loved one.

Schrauf reviews evidence that is consistent with this hypothesis. For example, choosing the same word in a first or second language will lead people to remember events at different times in their lives. Words in the first language lead to remembering things earlier in life whereas viewing a translation in a second language leads to memories that occurred later in life.

The reports of writers and the research done by Robert Schrauf and his colleagues help point to a key aspect that might help people learn their second language. Every time someone learns a new language they begin to associate this language with a set of new experiences that are partially disconnected from those earlier in life. For many this experience is very disconcerting. They may no longer feel like themselves. Where they were once fluent and all knowing, now they are like novices who are trying desperately to find their bearings. For others like Yoko Tawada, a Japanese native who now lives in Berlin and writes in German, it is the very act of being disconnected that leads to creativity.

Interestingly, the use of two languages has also served as a vehicle for psychotherapists. Patients that undergo traumatic experiences often report the ability to discuss them in a second language. Avoidance of the native language helps to create a distance from the emotional content experienced in the first language.

The case of those who write in their second language as well as those in therapy suggests that our identity may play a key role in the ability to learn a second language. As we get older new experiences begin to incorporate themselves into our conscious memory. Learning a second language as an adult may serve to make the differences between distinct periods in our lives much more salient. Thus, the report of writers and the science of autobiographical memory may hold the key to successful language learning. It may involve a form of personal transformation. For those that are unsuccessful it may involve an inability to let go of their old selves. However, for those who embrace their new identity it can be liberating.

It was precisely this point that I raised with the student in my class who sought advice for his mother. I explained that learning a second language will often involve letting go of our identities in order to embrace something new. But how do you get someone to let go of himself or herself? One way to achieve this is to start keeping a diary in an unfamiliar language. It is probable that writing may not only lead a person to develop better language skills but also carry other deeper consequences. Writing in a non-native language may lead someone to develop a new identity.

Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. You can follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Young female student with friends on break at cafe. © LuckyBusiness via iStockphoto.

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50. Marquises and other important people keeping up to the mark

By Anatoly Liberman

The names of titles have curious sources and often become international words. The history of some of them graces student textbooks. Marshal, for instance, is an English borrowing from French, though it came to French from Germanic, where it meant “mare servant” (skalkaz “servant, slave”). Constable meant “the count of the stable.” One of the highest officers in Norwegian courts was skutil-sveinn “cup-servant” (the hyphen in foreign compounds is here given for convenience). As everybody understands, only reliable people could be responsible for the king’s stable, cup, bed, or bottle (from bottle we have butler, not necessarily royal). Later, such words became titles divorced from their original meanings, while other people—if I am allowed to pursue the equine metaphor—continued to curry favor with the high and mighty. Herzog means approximately the same as duke, that is, “leader (of the army).” It may have been an independent Germanic coinage, not a “calque” (translation loan) of some Greek noun.

Titles tend to wander (compare marshal, above) and sometimes get entangled in a way baffling to a modern etymologist. There was an old German word gravo (with long a, which means with the vowel of Modern Engl. spa), the name of various royal administrators. Its continuation, Modern German Graf, sounds familiar to English speakers from landgrave (German Landgraf) and the name Palsgrave (from count palatine; palatine “pertaining to the palace”). Although the origin of gravo is not entirely clear, it need not delay us in this story. Alongside gravo, Old Engl. (ge)refa existed. In Anglo-Saxon times, it was the name of a high official having local jurisdiction. It has survived as reeve and can, with some effort, be recognized in the disguised compound sheriff, that is, shire reeve. (Many people mispronounce the word shire: it rhymes with hire, but as part of place names, for Instance, Cheshire or Yorkshire, it is a homophone of sheer.) In late Old Icelandic we find the title greifi, corresponding to German Graf. It could have been a borrowing of Old Engl. gerefa or, more likely, of some German reflex (continuation) of Old High German gravo. The uncertainty stems from a chance similarity of two unrelated nouns.

The most famous of all marquises: Madame (Marquise) de Pompadour.

The most famous of all marquises: Madame (Marquise) de Pompadour.

Titles may reflect jurisdiction over some territory, as is, from a historical point of view, the case with sheriff. This brings us to the origin of marquis, originally the ruler of a so-called march, or frontier district. Once again the word was taken over by English from French, but its homeland is Germanic. A synonym of marquis is margrave, or to use its obsolete form, markgrave (German Markgraf). Mar(k)grave reminds us of landgrave (German Landgraf). The central element in the story of marquis is mark, the source of French marque and a most important term in the legal system of the speakers of ancient Germanic. It meant “sign,” “boundary,” and, by extension, “district.”

Mark is English. When after a long stay on Romance soil it returned to Middle English, it had the form march. Mark and march, in so far as they mean “boundary,” are synonyms and etymological doublets. The verb march “to constitute a border” has limited currency, but it is a living word in some situations, especially when used about countries and estates. This is exactly where I, at that time an undergraduate, first encountered it. A character in Jane Austen says: “Our estates march.” I needed a dictionary to understand the sentence. Either because, in North America, there have never been estates of quite the British type or because fewer and fewer young people understand rare words, when I cite this usage in my courses on the history of English and German, it is always new to the students and causes surprise. In England it would probably, and in Scotland certainly, have been different.

The Old English for mark was mearc, and it appeared as the first element of numerous components. Historically, march is most familiar with reference to the boundaries between England and Scotland and England and Wales. Old Engl. Merce or Mierce were “people of the march,” or “borderers”; hence Mercia, the Medieval Latin name of their borderland. Its inhabitants were Mercians, and their dialect is called Mercian. Those who lived outside the “mark” were foreigners, aliens, as follows from the alja-markir on a rune stone (alja is related to Engl. else).  The use of the word mark in place names and the names of the people who live in such places is nothing out of the ordinary. The county of Mark (German Die Mark) in Westphalia offers a typical example; compare the Mark of Brandenburg. And there were Marcomanni, an old Germanic tribe, obviously, still other inhabitants of a borderland.

Mark “sign” and mark “border” are two senses of the same word. The Century Dictionary says: “The sense ‘boundary’ is older as recorded, though the sense ‘sign’ seems logically prevalent.” There has been some discussion about the order of those senses, but the opinion, just quoted, seems to carry more conviction, though Hjalmar Falk and Alf Torp, the authors of the great and excellent etymological dictionary of Norwegian, thought differently. Mark “sign” occurs also in the compound landmark.

The most miserable of all marchionesses: a poor abused servant in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop.

The most miserable of all marchionesses: a poor abused servant in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.

An unexpected sense development of the noun mark can be seen in the Scandinavian languages. One need not know any of them to notice the country name Denmark. Old Icelandic mörk (this is modernized spelling) meant “forest.” In present day Scandinavian languages, mark usually means “a piece of land; field,” but “forest” and “uncultivated land” have also been attested. Jacob Grimm believed that “forest” might be the earliest sense of mark, but it was probably not. Rivers, mountains, and wooded areas used to separate and still separate countries. Although a thick forest is a natural boundary, it is curious that Scandinavian had lost the sense so prominent elsewhere. Yet its close cognate turns up in compounds, such as Old Icelandic al-merki “common land held by the community; commons” and landa-merki “a boundary sign” (but landa-mark also existed!). Denmark may have acquired its name after the forests that covered its territory had been largely cleared. In any case, the same Scandinavian noun (mark) can mean both “forest” and “arable land.”

Some words hold great attraction to foreigners. Germanic mark- was borrowed not only by Romance but also by Finnish speakers: in Finnish, markku occurs in place names. Nor was it isolated when it was coined. Its obvious Latin cognate is margo “margin.” The other candidates for relationship with mark are less certain. The word’s ancient root may have meant “to divide.”

Here ends my story of the marquis, “captain of the marches,” a man presiding over a “mark.” As is well-known, his wife or widow is called marchioness.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Portrait of Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756. Alte Pinakothek. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Marchioness 1889 Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke). From “Character Sketches from Charles Dickens, Pourtrayed by Kyd”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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