What is JacketFlap

  • JacketFlap connects you to the work of more than 200,000 authors, illustrators, publishers and other creators of books for Children and Young Adults. The site is updated daily with information about every book, author, illustrator, and publisher in the children's / young adult book industry. Members include published authors and illustrators, librarians, agents, editors, publicists, booksellers, publishers and fans.
    Join now (it's free).

Sort Blog Posts

Sort Posts by:

  • in

Suggest a Blog

Enter a Blog's Feed URL below and click Submit:

Most Commented Posts

In the past 7 days

Recent Comments

JacketFlap Sponsors

Spread the word about books.
Put this Widget on your blog!
  • Powered by JacketFlap.com

Are you a book Publisher?
Learn about Widgets now!

Advertise on JacketFlap

MyJacketFlap Blogs

  • Login or Register for free to create your own customized page of blog posts from your favorite blogs. You can also add blogs by clicking the "Add to MyJacketFlap" links next to the blog name in each post.

Blog Posts by Tag

In the past 7 days

Blog Posts by Date

Click days in this calendar to see posts by day or month
<<February 2017>>
new posts in all blogs
Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Dictionaries, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 26 - 50 of 311
26. Celebrating Scotland: St Andrew’s Day

30 November is St Andrew’s Day, but who was St Andrew? The apostle and patron saint of Scotland, Andrew was a fisherman from Capernaum in Galilee. He is rather a mysterious figure, and you can read more about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. St Andrew’s Day is well-established and widely celebrated by Scots around the world. To mark the occasion, we have selected quotations from some of Scotland’s most treasured wordsmiths, using the bestselling Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.


There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.
J. M. Barrie 1860-1937 Scottish writer


Robert Burns 1759-96 Scottish poet


From the lone shielding of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas –
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!
John Galt 1779-1839 Scottish writer


O Caledonia! Stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 Scottish novelist


Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978 Scottish poet and nationalist


O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again,
that fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen
and stood against him, proud Edward’s army,
and sent him homeward tae think again.
Roy Williamson 1936-90 Scottish folksinger and musician


I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,
She’s as pure as the lily in the dell.
She’s as sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin’ heather –
Mary, ma Scotch Bluebell.
Harry Lauder 1870-1950 Scottish music-hall entertainer


Robert Crawford 1959– Scottish poet


My poems should be Clyde-built, crude and sure,
With images of those dole-deployed
To honour the indomitable Reds,
Clydesiders of slant steel and angled cranes;
A poetry of nuts and bolts, born, bred,
Embattled by the Clyde, tight and impure.
Douglas Dunn 1942– Scottish poet


Who owns this landscape?
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Norman McCaig 1910–96 Scottish poet


The Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations fifth edition was published in October this year and is edited by Susan Ratcliffe. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations seventh edition was published in 2009 to celebrate its 70th year. The ODQ is edited by Elizabeth Knowles.

The Oxford DNB online has made the above-linked lives free to access for a limited time. The ODNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language, lexicography, word, etymology, and dictionary articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about the Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations on the  
View more about the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations on the

0 Comments on Celebrating Scotland: St Andrew’s Day as of 11/30/2012 6:45:00 PM
Add a Comment
27. Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’?

By Anatoly Liberman

Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.

The sound designated in spelling by the letter r differs widely from language to language. Even British r is unlike American r, while German, French, and Scots r have nothing in common with Engl. r and one another. All kinds of changes occur in vowels and consonants adjacent to r. Those who know Swedish or Norwegian are aware of the peculiar pronunciation of the groups spelled rt, rd, rn, and rs. In some Germanic languages, postvocalic r tends to disappear altogether. In British English, it seems to have merged with preceding vowels some time later than the beginning of the seventeenth century, because most dialects of American English have preserved postvocalic r; in their speech, father and farther, pause (paws) and pours are not homophones.

In principle, nothing of any interest happened to Engl. r before s. But when we comb through the entire vocabulary, we occasionally run into puzzling exceptions. Thus, a common word for the waterfall is foss, an alteration of force. This force, unrelated to force “strength, might” (of French descent), is a borrowing from Scandinavian. Old Norse had fors, but in Old Scandinavian the spelling foss already turned up in the Middle Ages, and this is why I mentioned the treatment of rs (among other r-groups) in Swedish and Norwegian. Today in both of them rs sounds like a kind of sh to the ear of an English-speaker. Therefore, one could have expected Engl. fosh rather than foss. Forsch did occur in Middle Low (= northern) German, but the extant English form is only foss.

A similar case is the fish name bass. (I am very happy to return to the fish bowl.) All its cognates have r in the middle: Dutch baars, German Barsch, and so forth. The word is allied to bristle. Apparently, r was lost before s in Old Engl. bærs (æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. ban) but not without a trace, for the previous vowel was lengthened and developed into a diphthong, as in bane and its likes. In the name of the game prisoner’s base (a kind of tag with two teams, as probably everybody knows), base may go back to bars. If so, bass, the bristly fish, and base, the game in which participants find themselves behind “bars,” had a similar history. But the fish name is spelled bass instead of base, and this is one of the strangest spellings even in English (imagine lass and mass pronounced as lace and mace).

A bust of a ruler whose empire went bust.

To be sure, we have another bass “low voice,” also pronounced as base, but at least there is an explanation of that oddity. Italian basso was (quite correctly) identified with base “of low quality” and pronounced like that adjective, with the written image of the noun remaining intact. But why bass, the fish name? I could not find any discussion of this minor problem and will venture a conjecture. We have seen that in fors r was lost, and yet the preceding vowel did not undergo lengthening. Perhaps, once bærs shed r, it existed in two forms, with a short vowel (as happened in foss, from fors) and with a long one. The outcome of the compromise was to pronounce the word according to one form and to spell it according to the other. That is why English spelling is such fun. (Compare heifer: the written image reflects its development in the dialects in which the diphthong has been preserved, but the Standard form sounds heffer.)

Another fish name is dace, from Old French dars. Among the fifteenth-century English spellings we find darce and darse. It may not be due to chance that the loss of r before s occurs in words belonging, among others, to fishermen’s vocabulary and children’s lingo. Analogous cases are known from hunters’ usage. The phonetic change in question looks like a feature of unbuttoned and professional speech, for who would control the sounds of the “lower orders” and of the hunters’ jargon? The Standard treated it as vulgar. But fighting the street is a lost cause, though language does not develop from point A to B, C, and all the way to Z. It rather resembles an erratic pendulum; the norm of today may be rejected tomorrow, so that the conservative variant may prevail.

This is what happened in the history of the word first. In the pronunciation of many eighteenth-century speakers (in England), first was indistinguishable from fust- in fustian. Fust for first is not uncommon in today’s American English, but it is “substandard.” Also in the eighteenth century, nurse, purse, and thirsty occurred even in the language of the educated as nus, pus, and thustee. Shakespeare once has goss for “gorse,” and the idiom as rough as a goss has been recorded in the modern Warwickshire dialect. The devil is always worsted, but the fabric worsted is “wusted.” The place name Worstead is only for the locals to pronounce correctly. Those who are not afraid to be lost in this jungle may compare Worcester (UK), Worchester in Georgia and Massachusetts, and Wooster, Ohio. Rejoice that you are not reading a 1721 ad: “Thust things fust.”

This is then what happened to cuss and bust. Cuss, from curse, never left the low (base?) register, though everybody understands cussed and cussedness without a dictionary. Bust fared better (or worse, depending on the point of view). First (fust), its descent from burst isn’t always clear to the uninitiated, so that it became a word in its own right, rather than a shadow cast by burst. Second, although mildly slangy in the phrase go bust, it won a decisive victory in its derivative buster. (Do many people still remember that Theodore Roosevelt was called Trust Buster?) The word’s popularity was reinforced by Buster Brown, the character and the shoes. The “street” scored an important point — so much so that blockbuster is no longer slang. It may perhaps be called colloquial, but it has no synonym of equal value. A blockbuster is a blockbuster.

Perhaps someone is interested in the origin of bust, as in sculpture or in the ads for those women who suspect that their bust is inferior to that of Mrs. Merdle of Little Dorrit fame. It is a borrowing of Italian busto, a word, I am happy to report, of highly debatable etymology.

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 here, 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 posts via email or RSS.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Image credit: 17th century marble bust, from Florence, Italy, of Vespasian, (9-79), first roman emperor of the flavian dynasty, on display at Château de Vaux le Vicomte, France. Photo by Jebulon, 2010. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

0 Comments on Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’? as of 9/5/2012 9:51:00 AM
Add a Comment
28. Finding the right word

How do you choose the right word? Some just don’t fit what you’re trying to convey, either in the labor of love prose for your creative writing class, or the rogue auto-correct function on your phone.

Can you shed lacerations instead of tears? How is the word barren an attack on women? How do writers such as Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester weigh and inveigh against words?

We sat down with Katherine Martin and Allison Wright, editors of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, to discuss what makes a word distinctive from others and what writers can teach you about language.

Writing Today, the Choice of Words, and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Click here to view the embedded video.

Reflections in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Use and Abuse of a Thesaurus

Click here to view the embedded video.

Katherine Martin is Head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Allison Wright is Editor, US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

Much more than a word list, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a browsable source of inspiration as well as an authoritative guide to selecting and using vocabulary. This essential guide for writers provides real-life example sentences and a careful selection of the most relevant synonyms, as well as new usage notes, hints for choosing between similar words, a Word Finder section organized by subject, and a comprehensive language guide. The third edition revises and updates this innovative reference, adding hundreds of new words, senses, and phrases to its more than 300,000 synonyms and 10,000 antonyms. New features in this edition include over 200 literary and humorous quotations highlighting notable usages of words, and a revised graphical word toolkit feature showing common word combinations based on evidence in the Oxford Corpus. There is also a new introduction by noted language commentator Ben Zimmer.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language, lexicography, word, etymology, and dictionary articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

0 Comments on Finding the right word as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
29. What’s so super about Super PACs?

By Katherine Connor Martin

Back in January we published a short glossary of the jargon of the presidential primaries. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, here is our brief guide to some of the most perplexing vocabulary of this year’s general election.

Nominating conventions

It may seem like the 2012 US presidential election has stretched on for eons, but it only officially begins with the major parties’ quadrennial nominating conventions, on August 27–30 (Republicans) and September 3–6 (Democrats). How can they be called nominating conventions if we already know who the nominees are? Before the 1970s these conventions were important events at which party leaders actually determined their nominees. In the aftermath of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, however, the parties changed their nominating process so that presidential candidates are now effectively settled far in advance of the convention through a system of primaries andcaucuses, leaving the conventions themselves as largely ceremonial occasions.

Purple states, swing states, and battleground states

These three terms all refer to more or less the same thing: a state which is seen as a potential win for either of the two major parties; in the UK, the same idea is expressed by the use of marginal to describe constituencies at risk. The termbattleground state is oldest, and most transparent in origin: it is a state that the two sides are expected to actively fight over. Swing state refers to the idea that the state could swing in favor of either of the parties on election day; undecided voters are often called swing votersPurple state is a colorful metaphorical extension of the terms red state and blue state, which are used to refer to a safe state for the Republicans or Democrats, respectively (given that purple is a mixture of red and blue). Since red is the traditional color of socialist and leftist parties, the association with the conservative Republicans may seem somewhat surprising. In fact, it is a very recent development, growing out of the arbitrary color scheme on network maps during the fiercely contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Electoral vote

What really matters on election day isn’t the popular vote, but the electoral vote. The US Constitution stipulates that the president be chosen by a body, theelectoral college, consisting of electors representing each state (who are bound by the results of their state election). The total number of electors is 538, with each state having as many electors as it does senators and representatives in Congress (plus 3 for the District of Columbia).  California has the largest allotment, 55. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, all of the states give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state on a winner-takes-all basis, and whichever candidate wins the majority of electoral votes (270) wins the election. This means it is technically possible to win the popular vote but lose the election; in fact, this has happened three times, most recently in the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush was elected president.


The choice of a party’s candidate for vice president is completely in the hands of the presidential nominee, making it one of the big surprises of each campaign cycle and a topic of endless media speculation. The perceived jockeying for position among likely VP picks has come to be known colloquially as theveepstakes. The 2012 veepstakes are, of course, already over, with Joe Biden and Paul Ryan the victors.

Super PAC

If there is a single word that most characterizes the 2012 presidential election, it is probably this one. A super PAC is a type of independent political action committee (PAC for short), which is allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to coordinate directly with candidates. Such political action committees rose to prominence in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and related lower-court decisions, which lifted restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and unions. Advertising funded by these super PACs is a new feature of this year’s campaign.


It isn’t often that an obscure provision of the tax code enters the general lexicon, but discussions of Super PACS often involve references to 501(c)(4)s. These organizations, named by the section of the tax code defining them, are nonprofit advocacy groups which are permitted to participate in political campaigns. 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors. This, combined with the new Super PACs, opens the door to the possibility of political contributions which are not only unlimited but also undisclosed: if a Super PAC receives donations through a 501(c)(4), then the original donor of the funds may remain anonymous.

The horse race

As we’ve discussed above, what really matters in a US presidential election is the outcome of the electoral vote on November 6. But that doesn’t stop commentators and journalists from obsessing about the day-to-day fluctuations in national polls; this is known colloquially as focusing on the horse race.

The online magazine Slate has embraced the metaphor and actually produced an animated chart of poll results in which the candidates are represented as racehorses.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Katherine Connor Martin is a lexicographer in OUP’s New York office.

Oxford Dictionaries Online is a free site offering a comprehensive current English dictionary, grammar guidance, puzzles and games, and a language blog; as well as up-to-date bilingual dictionaries in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The premium site, Oxford Dictionaries Pro, features smart-linked dictionaries and thesauruses, audio pronunciations, example sentences, advanced search functionality, and specialist language resources for writers and editors.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language, lexicography, word, etymology, and dictionary articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

0 Comments on What’s so super about Super PACs? as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
30. Monthly Etymology Gleanings for March

By Anatoly Liberman

I have received many questions, some of which are familiar (they recur with great regularity) and others that are new and will answer a few today and the rest in a month’s time.

Nostratic Hypothesis. Our correspondent Mr. Steve Miller asked me whether I ever treat the topic of language evolution and, if I do, what I think of the Nostratic hypothesis. This is also a question I have once tackled in the past, but there is no reason to assume that everybody remembers everything I have ever written. With age the idea of one’s place in the world undergoes a noticeable change. Decades ago (I will coyly suppress the numeral before decades), I used to feel slighted on discovering that somebody had not read my poems, articles, or even books. Now I am surprised to meet those who have not missed them.

The Nostratic hypothesis revived the age-old idea, according to which all languages go back to the same protolanguage, and attempts to reconstruct the phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary of that language. It was advanced by a scholar of exceptional talent and developed by a group of his able followers. Like all grand theories of evolution — whether the subject is language, religion, oral tradition, or art (I will leave out the laws of nature) — it runs into serious, partly insurmountable difficulties. In principle, the idea of monogenesis (development from a single center) is more attractive that the idea of polygenesis, for language, as it seems, must have evolved once (no one knows how it happened, where, and when), but God is in the details, and numerous details refuse to conform to the Nostratic idea. However, the work done in this direction has been useful and stimulating. Its main thesis can never be proved to everybody’s satisfaction, but such is the fate of all distant reconstruction. We are not on the last page of an Agatha Christie novel or at 221B Baker Street. Compare the negative (in my opinion, justified) reception of Joseph Greenberg’s picture of the Amerindian languages and the unsettled questions of the the earliest forms of the Indo-Europeans and of their homeland.

Fillers in Present Day English. Mr. Jon Lockerby defends the use of like and you know because they perform a certain function. Indeed, those fillers emerged to express hesitation, uncertainty, polite detachment, and other shades of meaning subsumed under what linguists call modality. (There is a sizable body of literature on this subject: blogs, articles, chapters in books, and monographs. See, for instance, Gisle Andersen, Pragmatic Markers and Sociolinguistic Variation, Amsterdam, 2001.) I will reproduce part of Mr. Lockerby’s letter. He quoted the invented sentence I told her what her boyfriend did and she was, like, no way, and I was, like yeah, way, and she was like, oh my God and commented: “No one really talks like that, not even teenagers (unless they’re trying to irritate you, because they know good and well how irritating it is).” “Put the gun down,” he continues, is final. But in conversational speech, people are more likely to say: “I was, like, put the gun down.”

31. Name that cloud

By Storm Dunlop

World Meteorology Day marks a highly successful collaboration under the World Meteorological Organization, involving every country, large or small, rich or poor. Weather affects every single person (every living being) on the planet, but why do people feel meteorology is not for them? Why do they even find it so difficult to identify different types of cloud? Or at least they claim that it is difficult. The average person, it would seem, looks at the sky and simply thinks ‘clouds’. (Just as they look at the night sky and think nothing more than ‘stars’).

What type of clouds are these?

Is it because they think there are so many — too many to remember? Yet there are just ten major types, and most people can recognize ten different makes of cars, ten different dogs, or ten different flowers. Can’t they? Perhaps not. Some people do have poor visual discrimination: my father for one. Show him a piece of oak and a piece of pine, and he would not know, by sight, which was which. To him, it was ‘wood’. Then some people apparently suffer from a difficulty in transferring what they see in a photograph or illustration to the real world. I can think of an experienced amateur astronomer who cannot match a photograph of the night sky that he has taken to the actual constellations above his head.

There is the old philosophical argument about whether one can even think about an object or concept, without having a name for it in one’s head. Surely, however, one can have a mental image of a physical object, such as (say) a sea-cucumber, without knowing that it is called a sea-cucumber or even a holothurian? As an author, my brain functions with words, not images. I suppose that conversely, perhaps if people are unable to hold a mental image of a cumulonimbus cloud, they cannot assimilate its name.

Or is it the words themselves that put them off? Luke Howard in his seminal work On the Modification of Clouds (1802) introduced Latin terms, following the tradition set by Linnaeus. Scientifically, that was (and remains) perfectly sensible. But is that the root of the problem? It seems to be a modern myth that all Latin is ‘difficult’, and the hoi polloi — sorry, that’s Greek! — (‘the masses’) avoid it in all forms. Perhaps this fear arises because it is no longer taught widely, no longer a requirement for university entrance, and no longer (for Catholics) heard in the Latin mass. But it is at the root of so many languages and so many scientific terms that this phobia is deeply regrettable.

The words for clouds themselves are hardly difficult: terms such as nimbostratus are hardly pronounceable mouthfuls. Do people worry that, like Silas Wegg in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, who turned the Greek historian Polybius into the Roman virgin Polly Beeious, they will get even these wrong? I suppose I am fortunate, because I did learn Latin at school, and I speak and read various languages, so words, from whatever source, don’t frighten me. And I like to get any pronunciation right. I also have to admit that if I know a word, I tend to use it. That may be why people look at me a bit oddly w

0 Comments on Name that cloud as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
32. The Seasons, part 2. From three to four, summer.

By Anatoly Liberman

The ancient Indo-Europeans lived in the northern hemisphere (see the previous post), but, although this conclusion is certain, it does not follow that they divided the year into four seasons. Our perception of climate is colored too strongly by Vivaldi, the French impressionists, and popular restaurants. At some time, the Indo-Europeans dominated the territory from India to Scandinavia (hence the name scholars gave them). They lived and traveled in many climate zones, and no word for “winter,” “spring,” “summer,” and “autumn” is common to the entire family; yet some cover several language groups.

It is rather probable that the worldview of the earliest Indo-Europeans was in part determined by a tripartite model of the universe. Julius Caesar must have divided Gaul into three parts almost instinctively. He grew up knowing three main gods: Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. The terrible hell dog Cerberus had three heads. An echo of the old beliefs is still distinct in epic poetry and fairy tales. The story usually revolves around three brothers or three sisters. The protagonist performs three difficult tasks. The Scandinavian gods often travel in three’s company, and so do Russian warriors. Heaven, our earthly habitat, and the underground kingdom make up another familiar triad. At some time, the “Indo-European year” may have consisted of (1) spring and summer, (2) summer and autumn, and (3) winter.

But the speakers of Greek, Latin, Slavic, and Germanic already knew four seasons. At least some of their names are still clear to us. Gothic asans (a word recorded in the fourth century, like the rest of Gothic) glossed Greek théros and meant “harvest” and “summer; heat” (English has many therm- words from this root). Its Slavic cognate (for example, Russian osen’) means “autumn, fall.” Thanks to Gothic, the Slavic word becomes transparent: not “autumn,” but “harvest.” German Ernte “harvest” and Engl. earn are related to asans ~ osen’. Perhaps gathering a crop was called simply “work”; then from “work (in the field)” to “harvest” and “autumn.” German Herbst “autumn, fall” corresponds to Engl. harvest (see again last week’s post); here English sheds light on German. It is of course more natural to associate harvest with the fall than with summer, but all depends on when summer ends and autumn begins. According to the conventional division of the year, spring consists of March, April, and May. However, “real” spring comes to us on March 23, which pushes summer to June 23, and so on.

Été by Alphonse Mucha, 1896.

Summer and its cognates dominate the Germanic languages: compare German Sommer, Dutch zomer, Old Icelandic sumar ~ sumarr, and so forth. If Armenian amarn “summer” (the transliteration has been simplified) is related to it, we get a glimpse of another sense of summer, because the Armenian word is a derivative of am “year”; summer emerges as “(time of) year.” The identification of one season with the whole year is not uncommon. In Germanic, people counted years by winters (more about it will be said in the

0 Comments on The Seasons, part 2. From three to four, summer. as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
33. Monthly Gleanings, February 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

The Infamous C-Word. This is the letter I received soon after the publication of the post devoted to our (formerly) most unpronounceable word: “…I am writing to ask you if you have run across it [this word] as a nautical term. I am a former sailing ship mariner (a.k.a. “tall ships”) and sailmaker and currently maritime historian/editor for the National Maritime Historical Society. I have always understood that the word c**t in our slang usage comes from the nautical term for the groove between the twisted strands that make up rope. That groove is called a cuntline or just cunt for short. I used to teach undergraduates maritime history and literature aboard wooden traditionally rigged sailing ships on semester-at-sea programs, and they were always shocked to learn that cunt was a legitimate nautical term to use. It gets worse because when you teach slope splicing, you have to show them how to insert a wooden fid between the cunt to open up the strands. You can just imagine their faces. In any case, I did not see this come up in your column and thought that, if there is a chance you hadn’t heard this variation, you might like knowing about it.”

I am aware of another nautical term, and, if it has anything to do with the one under discussion, its etymology stops being a riddle. Cunt may have begun its life in English as cant. Under cant, The Century Dictionary lists “a ship’s timber or frame near the bow or stern whose plane makes an acute angle with the vertical longitudinal plane of the vessel” (hence also a corresponding verb). The OED gives a slightly different definition: “A piece of wood laid on the deck of the vessel to support the bulkheads, etc.” Apparently, this cant also has a variant rhyming with runt rather than rant. Alongside cuntline, there is cantline, though here again the senses do not match. Cantline “the space between the sides or ends of barrels where they are stowed side by side.” Cantline, also spelled contline, has a synonym cutline. Is it possible that we are dealing with two descendants of the same etymon? Cant “ship’s timber” goes back to cant “edge, border,” a borrowing from Middle Low (= northern) German or Dutch. In case cunt “splice cut” also descends from German kant (Kant), the term retained its original German pronunciation in sailors’ language either because this way it kept its distance from all other borders or because the association evoked by thrusting the fid into the splice cut was too obvious to miss. I am sorry if I found myself in a position described in Mark Twain’s short story “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper.” Be that as it may, cunt “splice cut” is not the source of its much older homophone meaning “vagina”; it must have been the other way around.

For my database I have screened the entire run of The Mariner’s Mirror. To the best of my knowledge, the word c**t has not turned up in any of its numerous articles and notes on the origin of special terms. As to the students’ embarrassment, I can draw on my own experience. For many years I taught English to foreigners. Adults were not sure whether to laugh or feign indifference when they came across poop “the stern of a ship,” while schoolchildren blushed vigorously at learning the words male screw and female screw, especially those who also knew the meaning of the verb screw.

Another correspon

0 Comments on Monthly Gleanings, February 2012, part 2 as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
34. Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman

There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.

Etymology as an occupation for a breadwinner does not exist. There are no departments of etymology (and most people never learned the difference between etymology and entomology). Unlike other linguists, etymologists do not meet at special conferences and congresses. I even doubt that a dissertation devoted to etymology can nowadays be recommended (books are fine, but not dissertations). When Colonel Pickering asked Professor Henry Higgins whether there was a living in phonetics, Higgins answered: “Oh yes. Quite a fat one.” This cannot be said about etymology.

Those who study and “profess” it are specialists in something else — usually, unless they are journalists, in the history of language and, if they are so lucky as to have an academic job, teach Classical Greek or Latin, or Old English, or any other old language. Although great dictionaries need someone who from time to time updates their current etymologies, they either hire consultants or assign this task to a knowledgeable member of their staff burdened with many other duties. The only exception is the OED (it has a permanent group of etymologists), but one cannot expect to become a Ph.D. and get a position there, just as even a good singer will probably not end up at the Met or La Scala. Popular books on etymology, especially those published by presses with good marketing departments, sell reasonably well, but living on royalties for such books is out of the question.

Etymologists study the origin of words. People have been wondering for millennia why certain combinations of sounds have certain meanings. Why man, tree, eat, red? This quest need not always take us to the beginning of human speech. For example, there is a book about the origin of the phrase hot dog. The now well-known name for a sausage in a bun was coined by some wits in the United States, not by dog worshipers at the dawn of civilization, who, on dog days, sacrificed their hounds to the eye of heaven. That much is clear, and hot does not puzzle us, but why dog?

To find out, one needed endless patience rather than expertise in a dozen foreign languages. Sometimes a dedicated amateur without any familiarity with the intricacies of historical linguistics can solve such riddles. However, there is no certainty: looking through hundreds of old magazines, newspapers, and ads may not yield any worthwhile results. This is the trouble with the profession of an etymologist: convincing answers are never guaranteed, which is bad for dissertations and grant proposals. No one will fund a project titled “In Search of the Proto- Hot Dog.” The explorer who will find the ancestor of all hot dogs, the primordial hot puppy, will be rewarded with thank you and sometimes with an article in a popular magazine (for example, the researcher who traced OK to its beginnings became a minor celebrity), but this is as far as it goes. Etymology is the least lucrative occupation in the world.

This brings me to m

0 Comments on Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1 as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
35. Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? OED Editor responds

We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. Richard Bailey, author of Speaking American, argues that it comes from the West African language Efik. Here OED editor Dr. Katrin Thier argues that the origin isn’t quite so clear.

By Dr. Katrin Thier

The origin of the word buckaroo is difficult to establish and is still a matter of debate. In the sense ‘cowboy’ it first appears in the early 19th century, written bakhara in the earliest source currently known to us, but used alongside other words of clearly Spanish origin. Later variants include baccaro, buccahro, and buckhara. On the face of it, a derivation from Spanish vaquero ‘cowboy’ looks likely, especially as the initial sound of the Spanish word is essentially the same as b- in English. The stress of the English word was apparently originally on the second syllable, as in Spanish, and only shifted to the final syllable later.

However, there is evidence from the Caribbean for a number of very similar and much earlier forms, such as bacchararo (1684), bockorau (1737), and backaroes (1740, plural), used by people of African descent to denote white people. This word then spreads from the Caribbean islands to the south of the North American continent. From the end of the 18th century, it is often contracted and now usually appears as buckra or backra, but trisyllablic forms such as buckera still occur in the 19th century. This word was brought from Africa and derives from the trisyllabic Efik word mbakára ‘white man, European’. Efik is a (non-Bantu) Niger-Congo language spoken around Calabar, a former slave port in what is now southern Nigeria.

Given the multi-ethnic and multilingual make-up of the south of the United States, it seems conceivable that similar words of different origin could meet and interact, influencing each other to generate new forms and meanings. However, a number of difficulties remain in explaining the change of sense and also the varying stress pattern if the word of Efik origin is assumed to be the sole origin of buckaroo ‘cowboy’.

This is a word that we look forward very much to researching in detail for the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary currently in progress. We would welcome any earlier examples of the word in the meaning ‘cowboy’, if any readers know of any.

Dr. Katrin Thier is Senior Etymology Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.

0 Comments on Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? OED Editor responds as of 2/24/2012 7:07:00 AM
Add a Comment
36. Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? Richard Bailey writes

We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. In an excerpt from Richard Bailey’s Speaking American, he argues that it comes from the West African language Efik (pages 52-54). A response from OED editor Dr. Katrin Thier will follow.

Not all Barbadians were brutish planters tyrannizing over those unfortunate enough to be in their power. In 1684, Thomas Tryon published some Friendly Advice in support of the conversion of slaves to Christianity. (The practical problem was that Christians might seek emancipation, and it was thus in the planters’ interest to keep these evangelizing efforts from being successful.) Tryon presented his argument in the form of a dialogue between a slave and his master, though without doing much to give an air of authenticity to the conversation:

SLAVE: I desire first you would lay that frightful Cudgel a little further off, and then begging Pardon for the Presumption, since this is the Day you observe to serve God in, I would crave leave to be a little instructed touching that Service, and wherein it consists.

MASTER: Why? It consists in being Christians, as we are — But what should I talk to such a dark ignorant Heathen, scarce capable of common Sense, much less able to understand things of such an high and mysterious Nature.

SL. I confess we are poor silly dark ignorant Creatures, and for ought I find, so many of the Bacchararo’s too, as well as we; but that you may not grudge your Time or Pains, I will assure you, that I will attend very seriously to what you say, and possibly may prove somewhat more docile than some of our Complexion; For I was the Son of a Phitisheer, that is, a kind of Priest in our Country and Way; he was also a Sophy, and had studied the Nature of things, and was well skill’d in Physick and natural Magick …. (Tryon 1684 , 150–51)

Tryon inserted a note to explain Bacchararo’s: “So the Negro’s in their Language call the Whites.” This publication (and the note) provide the first evidence of the word that in its modern spelling is rendered backra or buckra (Craigie and Hulbert 1938-44; Cassidy and LePage 1980; Allsopp 1996; Collymore 1957).

Buckra is very much an indicator word revealing the Barbadian connection to South Carolina. Today, according to The Dictionary of American Regional English, the word is found “chiefly” in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, though it is well known in many regions of the United States (Cassidy and Hall 1985). In the Caribbean, it has been employed in various compounds, though early evidence is lacking for many of them: backra fire ‘electricity,’ backra-johnny ‘poor white,’ backra missy ‘daughter of a planter,’ backra nigger ‘light-skinned person of mixed black and white ancestry,’ backra pickney ‘white child.’

Buckaroo persisted in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. In the 1970s, two investigators examined nicknames of people in the region and noted that the given names were often of English origin and the nicknames of African. The person bearing the nickname buckaroo was, they reported, especially skilled in the management of farm animals, and they asserted that the name was derived from vaquero ‘cow hand’ (< Spanish vaca ‘cow’). More likely, however, is the explanation that it was the special skill rather than the animals that accounted for the nickname (Baird and Twining 1991).

0 Comments on Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? Richard Bailey writes as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
37. Oh Dude, you are so welcome

By Anatoly Liberman

I borrowed the title of this post from an ad for an alcoholic beverage whose taste remains unknown to me. The picture shows two sparsely clad very young females sitting in a bar on both sides of a decently dressed but bewildered youngster. I assume their age allows all three characters to drink legally and as much as they want. My concern is not with their thirst but with the word dude. After all, this blog is about the origin of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, rather than the early stages of alcoholism.

My experience confirms the observations of several people who have published on dude: it has become an all-purpose form of address among young men. Surveys show that college age women also use it, but my notes contain no examples. In future, dude may develop like guy. You guys is now unisex; one day, you dudes may become equally “cool.” A very full overview of the history of dude can be found in the journal Comments on Etymology 23/1, 1993, 1-46. Not surprisingly, the origin of dude is unknown. Monosyllables beginning and ending with b, d, g (and even with p, t, k) are the dregs of etymology. Consider bob, bib, gig, gag, and tit (exchange tit for tat if you care). I believe that kick is a borrowing from Scandinavian, but its Icelandic etymon is merely “expressive” and shares common ground with bib, bob, and their ilk.

Dude is a member of a small but happy family: dod “cut off, lop, shear,” dud, duds, and dad. Only did has an ancestry any word can be proud of; the same is partly true of agog, but then agog is not a monosyllable. The OED (in an entry first published in 1897) called dude a factitious slang term. This statement inspired a rebuff from one of our best experts in the history of slang: “There is not a shred of evidence that dude arose factitiously, i.e., somehow artificially. OED simply should have said: ‘Origin unknown’.” Yet a non-artificial origin of dude is hard to come by. I never miss an opportunity to refer to Frank Chance and Charles P.G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, a sadly underquoted, undercited work (among the greats only Skeat seems to have recognized its value). This is what Scott wrote about dude:

“A slang term which has been the subject of much discussion. It first became known in colloquial and newspaper use at the time of the so-called ‘esthetic’ movement in dress and manners in 1882-3. The term has no antecedent record, and is prob. one of the spontaneous products of popular slang. There is no known way, even in slang etymology, of ‘deriving’ the term, in the sense used, from duds (formerly sometimes spelled dudes…), clothes in the sense of ‘fine clothes’; and the connection, though apparently natural, is highly improbable.”

It will be seen that Scott and the OED had a similar attitude toward dude.

Perhaps both the OED’s editor James A.H. Murray and Scott were right. Yet one point should be made in connection with their opinion. The history of slang words deserves as much attention as that of more genteel words. Quite often even good dictionaries, in the etymological parts of their entries, confine themselves to the “explanation” slang, as though saying that a word had at one time was “low” sheds ligh

0 Comments on Oh Dude, you are so welcome as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
38. Golf

By Anatoly Liberman

Before we embark on the etymology of golf, something should be said about the pronunciation of the word.  Golf does not rhyme with wolf (because long ago w changed the vowel following it), but in the speech of some people it rhymes with oaf, and “goafers” despises everyone who would allow l to creep in between o and f.  Here is part of a letter to the editor dated November 1893: “Among the old players of the game it is called goff.  ‘Caddies’ at St. Andrew’s and such places call it gowff.  I have heard respectable individuals call it goaf (like loaf).  Golf (the l being sounded) is unknown in Scotland.  What boots it that one old gentleman of Blackheath renown should say golf (sounding the l)?  He is simply wrong.”  Nothing is more important than knowing the ultimate truth.  (St. Andrew’s is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club St. Andrew’s, founded in 1754.  It occupies a most imposing building.  If my never-to-be-fulfilled dream to organize a center for English etymology came true, I would be overjoyed to have a fiftieth part of such an edifice at my disposal.  Blackheath, 1608, is the seat of the oldest golf club in England.)  As far as etymology is concerned, the rift between the two schools boots not at all.  Scots golf, though unrecorded, must have preceded gowf or goff.   In English, including its northernmost varieties, l was lost between a vowel and a consonant, as in folk, walk, talk, chalk, half, calf, rather early (oaf itself is derived from Olaf, a doublet of alf “elf”) but inconsistently.  Dutch has gone much further along this path.  Since in Scotland people played golf before it became a favorite sport in England, we may assume that golf is the bookish (spelling) pronunciation, while goff ~ gouf(f) reflects the popular norm.

Some old ideas on the origin of golf should be disregarded.  According to one of them, the etymon of golf is Swedish golv “floor.”  But why should a lawn game that has never been played on the floor, and in medieval Sweden not played at all, be called “floor”?  And the Swedish for “golf” is golf, not golv!  There are only two viable possibilities: the word is either Dutch or Scots.  The Dutch hypothesis has a strong foundation, whereas in Scots we have only gouf(f) “to strike,” an onomatopoeia, a “sound gesture” accompanying a blow, unless (which is more likely) it was coined on analogy with the noun golf.  Middle Dutch kolv meant “club, bat.”  Calling a game by its main implement is possible.  Evidently, this happened in the history of cricket (compare Flemish cricke(e) “stick”).  The lack of consensus about the origin of golf stems from Oxford’s negative (or, let us say, extremely cautious) attitude toward the word’s Dutch descent.  This is what the OED says: “[N]one of the Dutch games have been convincingly identified with golf, nor is it certain that kolv was ever used to denote the game as well as the implement, though the game was and is called kolven (the infinitive of the derived v[er]b).  Additional difficulty is caused by the absence of any Scottish forms with initial c or k and by the fact that golf is mentioned much earlier than any of the Dutch sports.”  Few people are prepared to contest the OED.  Yet in light of the latest research there is no need to doubt the Dutch or Flemish origin of golf.  The chronological diffic

0 Comments on Golf as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
39. Club ‘cudgel’

By Anatoly Liberman

Where there is golf, there are clubs; hence this post.  But club is an intriguing word regardless of the association.  It surfaced only in Middle English.  Since the noun believed to be its etymon, namely klubba, has been attested in Old Icelandic, dictionaries say that club came to English with the Vikings or their descendants.  Perhaps it did.  In Icelandic, klubba coexists with its synonym klumba, and the opinion prevails that bb developed from mb, which later became mp.  (The near synonymous lump is not related.  Its cognates are Engl. limp and German Lump(en) “rag”; however, the history of the limp-lump group is even harder to trace than that of club and its evasive kin.)  Although Engl. clump surfaced only in the 17th century, it has a respectable Old English antecedent and may, but need not be, of Scandinavian descent.  To wed clump to club, it is asserted that club emerged with the original sense “something pressed tightly together; clump.”  This sense will also haunt us next week.  At the moment, we can’t help wondering about the main thing:  Is a cudgel “a substance beaten into a mass, something pressed together”?  A cudgel is rather destined to beat its victim into such a mass.  Those who attempt to save the situation say that a club got its name from thickening toward the end; allegedly, it was visualized as having a knob (a lump).

When we turn to German, we find Kolben “butt of a rifle; piston; retort.”  Where English, or rather Scandinavian, has k-l-vowel-b, German has k-vowel-l-b.  Are club (from klumb?) and Kolben related?  Among the cognates of Kolben (which goes back to the older form kolbo), we find Old Icelandic kylfa “cudgel” and kolfr “bolt; metal bar; blunt spear; the tongue of a bell” (a later form is kólfr, but ó is simply o lengthened before lf).  German etymologists hedge and say that Kolben may be related to the club group and Keule, another word for “thick stick.”  Now, Keule appears to be related to German Kugel “bullet” and Engl. cudgel.  The sense “bullet” reinforced the conclusion that cudgels are things with knobs, bullet-like lumps, at their end.  The semantic bridge is shaky.  It rests on too many comparisons and hardly accounts for how klu-b is related to kol-b.  However, if these words are old, the situation can be rescued.  Compare the English verbs kn-ow (with kn pronounced as in acknowledge) and ken “to know.”  A root is often represented by a form with a vowel and a form without it.   A similar alternation can be seen in the reconstructed root gel- “to roll together; stick” and its variant gl-, as in Latin globus “globe”, literally “a round thing.”  It won’t do to say that in Kolben the vowel and l were simply “transposed,” for other languages also have words with the same order of sounds: compare Icelandic kolfr and kylfa, mentioned above.  Additionally, in German itself, alongside Kolben, with its reference to things thickening or widening toward the end, we find Kloben “log,” and the two may be related.

Dictionaries list numerous Germanic cognates of globe, including cleave “split” and the already familiar clump.  With regard to cleave I’ll quote a sta

0 Comments on Club ‘cudgel’ as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
40. Bludgeoning oneself into a corner

By Anatoly Liberman When asked about the origin of a certain word, I often answer: “I have no idea” (in addition, of course, to “I don’t remember” and “I have to look it up in a good dictionary”). Sometimes, after consulting a dictionary, I add: “No one knows.” The questioners express surprise: a doctor should be able to diagnose patients, a plumber is called to fix the leak, and etymologists are evidently paid for explaining the origin of words. There may or might be a fat living in

0 Comments on Bludgeoning oneself into a corner as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
41. That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

By Dennis Baron Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn't like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England "in battalions." He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films. Engel’s tirade against the American “faze, hospitalise, heads-up, rookie, listen up” and “park up” got several million page views

0 Comments on That ugly Americanism? It may well be British. as of 8/5/2011 5:52:00 AM
Add a Comment
42. Defining our language for 100 years

By Angus Stevenson Since the publication of its first edition in 1911, the revolutionary Concise Oxford Dictionary has remained in print and gained fame around the world over the course of eleven editions. This month heralds the publication of the centenary edition: the new 12th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary contains some 400 new entries, including cyberbullying, domestic goddess, gastric band, sexting, slow food, and textspeak.

0 Comments on Defining our language for 100 years as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
43. Woot woot–get ready to retweet this breaking news.

Due to the incredible response to Angus Stevenson's morning post, we've decided to share a little bit more about the brand new Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which is celebrating its 100th birthday. This fully updated 12th edition contains more than 240,000

0 Comments on Woot woot–get ready to retweet this breaking news. as of 8/18/2011 10:53:00 AM
Add a Comment
44. Professor Wright and Professor Skeat

By Anatoly Liberman From time to time I mention the unsung heroes of English etymology, but only once have I devoted a post to such a hero (Frank Chance), though I regularly sing praises to Charles P.G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary. Today I would like to speak about Joseph Wright (1855-1930). He was not an etymologist in the strict sense of this term, but no article on the origin of English words can do without consulting The English Dialect Dictionary he edited.

0 Comments on Professor Wright and Professor Skeat as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
45. New words are great for back to school

By Dennis Baron It's back to school, and that means it's time for dictionaries to trot out their annual lists of new words. Dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster released a list of 150 words just added to its New Collegiate Dictionary for 2011, including "cougar," a middle-aged woman seeking a romantic relationship with a younger man, "boomerang child," a young adult who returns to live at home for financial reasons, and "social media" -- if you don't know what that means, then you're still living in the last century.

0 Comments on New words are great for back to school as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
46. School Tools and Brain Ticklers

By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 2, 2011

From Dictionaries to a grammar guide to a book of homographs, the following list of books features some of our favorite school tools and brain ticklers…

Scholastic Children’s Dictionary

by Scholastic

Reading level: Ages 8 and up

Hardcover: 800 pages

Publisher: Scholastic Reference; New edition (July 1, 2010)

Source: Publisher

Publisher’s synopsis: The bestselling Scholastic Children’s Dictionary is brand new for 2010! Some of the outstanding new features include: brand new cover and interior design, more than 1,000 all new photographs and illustrations, and double the current number of word histories and sample sentences. New entries and definitions have been written by prominent lexicographers and reviewed by an advisory board of educators and librarians. Bonus material includes a thesaurus and specially commissioned endpaper maps.

With exciting new features, accessible definitions, and helpful illustrations and photographs throughout, the new Scholastic Children’s Dictionary is an essential resource that belongs in every home, classroom, and library.

Add this book to your collection: Scholastic Children’s Dictionary

Scholastic Guide to Grammar

by Marvin Terban

Reading level: Ages 8 and up

Paperback: 256 pages

Publisher: Scholastic Reference; Student edition (August 1, 2011)

Source: Publisher

Publisher’s synopsis: The ultimate resource for proper grammar.

The SCHOLASTIC GUIDE TO GRAMMAR is an easy-to-use, color-coded, tabbed guide packed full of information, examples, and tips for English language arts success. Write a paper, meet new people, apply for a job, and more, with perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Join “Professor Grammar” on this guided journey through the intricacies of the English language.

Add this book to your collection: Scholastic Guide to Grammar

Clifford’s Big Dictionary

by Scholastic

Reading level: Ages 4 and up

Hardcover: 128 pages

Publisher: Cartwheel Books (July 1, 2011)

Source: Publisher

Publisher’s synopsis: The perfect back-to-school reference book for the early elementary set!

From Scholastic, the most trusted name in learning (R), comes this picture dictionary featuring America’s favorite big red dog, Clifford!

The 128-page dictionary

Add a Comment
47. A journey through spin

By Lynda Mugglestone Spin is one of those words which could perhaps now do with a bit of ‘spin’ in its own right. From its beginnings in the idea of honest labour and toil (in terms of etymology, spin descends from the spinning of fabric or thread), it has come to suggest the twisting of words rather than fibres – a verbal untrustworthiness intended to deceive and disguise. Often associated with newspapers and politicians, to use spin is to manipulate meaning, to twist truth for particular ends – usually with the aim of persuading readers or listeners that things are other than they are.

0 Comments on A journey through spin as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
48. The undiscovered origin of frigate

By Anatoly Liberman I decided to stay at sea for at least two more weeks. The history of the word frigate is expected to comfort Germanic scholars, who may not know that, regardless of the language, the names of ships invariably give etymologists grief. In English, frigate is from French, and in French it is from Italian, so that the question is: Where did Italian fregata come from? Naturally, nobody knows. Although the literature

0 Comments on The undiscovered origin of frigate as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
49. Dictionary droids write definitions untouched by human hands

By Dennis Baron

There’s a new breed of dictionary, untouched by human hands. The New York Times reports that teams of programmers have developed software that automates the making of dictionaries, eliminating the need for human lexicographers, who may favor some words and neglect others. These new dictionary droids comb the web, selecting words in context, defining them automatically based on that surrounding context, and tabulating the definitions and citations for subscribers to consult online. And they do it all faster than you can say Google.

The web has made possible a democratizing of the dictionary. There are no editors with their annoying biases to stand in the way, so with just a couple of clicks users can see words in their natural habitat and choose exactly which one best suits their purpose. To paraphrase the old New Yorker cartoon, on the internet, everybody’s a lexicographer.

No human dictionarian sifts through the massive online corpus to figure out the various senses and connotations of each word, its history, etymology, or pronunciation. This leaves users free to do the job of lexicography themselves. They can even assign a word to any part of speech they want, or make up a new part of speech entirely if they like. There are no usage labels warning that a particular word might not be national, current, or reputable, or that some readers might find it stuffy or offensive. And there’s no grammar nazi shaking a minatory finger and muttering, “dictionary droid ain’t a word.” I just used dictionary droid online. It will soon be collected by a dictionary droid. Ergo, dictionary droid is a word. And if you don’t know what dictionarian or minatory mean, you can find them in the OED, a dictionary compiled by all-too-fallible humans.

What would the old lexicographers think about the web’s new dictionary droids? Back in the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson’s ’net was “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” That definition sounds like it was created by a droid, and if Johnson actually had to define internet today, he’d probably come up with something equally convoluted.

The nineteenth-century lexicographer Noah Webster had his own word quirks. Webster preferred bridegoom to bridegroom because it comes from the Old English word guma, meaning ‘man,’ not groom, which refers to ‘someone charged with caring for horses,’ and he wanted to respell deaf as deef, to reflect how it was pronounced by his fellow New Englanders. So I imagine Webster would have changed lots of the spellings he found online and taken out all the dirty words, which is what he did when he translated the Bible after he finished making dictionaries. Finally, James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would probably give up the 3×5 slips on which he wrote each word, together with a context illustrating it, and make a PowerPoint stack for every word instead.

Above: Dr. Johnson’s definition of network, from his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Below: Noah Webster’s definition of bridegoom, from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). In 1833 Webster published his translation of the Bible, which used euphemisms instead of dirty words, “language which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decorum,” so that women and children could

0 Comments on Dictionary droids write definitions untouched by human hands as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment
50. Can you speak American?

A wide-ranging account of American English, Richard Bailey’s Speaking American investigates the history and continuing evolution of our language from the sixteenth century to the present. When did English become American? What distinctive qualities made it American? What role have America’s democratizing impulses, and its vibrantly heterogeneous speakers, played in shaping our language and separating it from the mother tongue? Bailey asked himself these questions, now it’s time to ask yourself how well you really know your American English. We’ve composed a quiz for some Friday fun. Now, can you speak American? –Alice & Justyna

What’s “the blab of the pave”?

a. A description of the talk of Okies and others moving west during the Great Depression, typically used by urbanites in a derogatory way
b. A popular expression for how young “delinquents” talked in Northern California during the 1950s
c. Walt Whitman’s description of the way New Yorkers speak
d. A description of the way cement settles in intense heat used in the South, particularly around New Orleans

Which great event determined whether Shakespeare should be performed in American or British English in the US?

a. American. The Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, which pitted actor Edwin Forrest (American) against actor William Charles Macready (English).
b. English. 1823 legislation, for which aristocratic Carolinians educated in England lobbied, that Shakespeare’s plays be performed “in the manner in which they were written.”
c. American. Competing theaters set each other alight during the Great Chicago Fire, but the Wicker Park neighborhood rallied to save the Liberty Theater, then staging an American English production of Hamlet.
d. English. Following the introduction of sound in the 1920s, MGM’s British English movie production of Romeo & Juliet out-earned its American English competitors, so all studioes switched to English actors for future Shakespeare productions.

Which of the following is true?

a. Alaska cotton is a species of grass growing in the Alaskan wetlands.
b. Alaska candy is strips of smoked salmon.
c. An Alaska divorce is liberating oneself from marriage by murdering the spouse.
d. Baked Alaska is a dessert in which a quickly baked meringue encases a blob of frozen ice cream.

Where does the word “buckaroo” come from?

a. Slang for ranch hands on the American frontier who were initially paid a dollar (“a buck”) to work for a rancher
b. Name given to young men at the stage of their equine apprenticeship when they would handle young male horses in the Colonial South
c. Buckra, meaning someone with power or knowledge in the Efik language of West Africa, which passed into American English via Barbados Creole
d. An invention of screenwriter and dime novelist John Grey for the silent western “Canyon of Fools”

What is “bisket”?

a. A Boston expression for unleavened bread made from flour, salt, and water
b. A Yiddish expression for dough, sometimes found in New York English
c. A Chinook expression for a day when it doesn’t rain during the winter months
d. An alternate spelling of “biscuit” found in rural Alabama and Mississippi

In the 1980s, the song “Valley Girl” about the singer’s teenage daughter and her affinity for Valspeak (a word blend of “San Fernando Valley” and “speak”), unintentionally lead to an enormous popularity for this style of English. Which singer

0 Comments on Can you speak American? as of 1/1/1900
Add a Comment

View Next 25 Posts