Gleanings of winter etymology | OUPblog

When this blog came out in March 2006, the idea was that I would be inundated with letters, comments and questions that I would answer once a month. The flood did not materialize; yet a net has never dried up. In recent weeks, even comments have become scarce. I guess the horror of COVID and the political climate around the world does not foster people’s interest in historical linguistics, although whenever I speak on the radio or by Zoom, large crowds gather to listen to the “news” (the origin of obscure words, the vagaries of modern usage, spelling reform, or whatever). Our regular readers may have noticed that my gleanings have become scarce. Still, a few questions and comments reach me, and as the year draws to a close, I’ve decided to inspect my archives and post the last gleanings of 2021.


An occasional contributor in Minneapolis StarTribune (I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and subscribe to the largest local newspaper) I have often received letters regarding the misuse of the apostrophe. It’s an old hat, but some of the examples are slightly funny. CEO reminds store workers to pay their rights. Some companies advertise Tacos. Similarly, many of my students never learned the difference between his and it’s. A long, long time ago we were told that grammar is not FUN, and as a result, we are offering the world rights and Tacos. We often read that the language changes and that only old fogs resist progress. Quite true. “Me and him are going on a ski trip to Colorado”, “This is a gift for you and me”, and so on. Since the days of king alfred, English has lost almost all of its morphology. Why not lose the little that is left? I only accept and refuse to be the standard bearer of progress, just as I refuse to say and write: “President Joe Biden is wrong. hope now…. »Whether he is wrong or whether he is right to harbor hopes, I keep saying to be or not to be, rather than to be or not to be.

Serving an enlightened population
Images: (left) © Copyright Neil Theasby (CC BY-SA 2.0), (right) Brian Kelly (CC BY 2.0)

I would like to reproduce a comment from my colleague Dr Ari Hoptman and ask if there are any other opinions on this point. He writes: “Apparently, a few generations ago, a 50 dollars good and a of them vacation weeks were normal. [My spellchecker asks me whether I want the noun to be in the singular or in the plural. It also inquires whether I need week’s or weeks’. It is a very particular spellchecker.] For some reasons, two weeks vacation always sounds a little more OK than a fine of 50 dollars. I don’t think you can ever say a five dollar bill. “Likewise, he adds, a five minute walk and one Three anniversary weeks became a five minute walk and a three week birthday. Its usage is consistent with mine, but it is curious to read nineteenth and twentieth century grammars, both British and American, on this point. Comments, as noted, are welcome.

Likewise, I often get complaints about the excessive use of buzzwords. Weeds are ineradicable. If I’m not mistaken, the ubiquitous phrase you know practically disappeared (“I came, you know, and he said, you know, ‘Well, you know, all the people!’”. PhD consisted of you know; I forget the other half: it was pretty trivial.) Now it’s As (“I came, like, half an hour before the start, and, like, there wasn’t a single vacant spot.”). One of my students always says As before the first word: it is As clear his throat. At a recent linguistic conference, a speaker was invited with a presentation on the depth of this phenomenon. As an intelligent nineteenth-century author wrote on another occasion: “The futile pastime of misguided insight.

There’s no, like, a free space here
Image by Jim Bahn via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a short list of those newspaper clichés. When two heads of state meet, they stick together Where squat down to discuss. The invariable European context for Donald Trump was: “In Germany, where he is deeply unpopular… ”Tragic situations start to sound mundane because the same worn-out words are used to describe them. After a long battle with cancer, a person dies, shocks pass through the community (Where the community is stunned). Counselors come in and teach people deal with mourning, after what the process of healing begin. “Tired of all this, for a peaceful death I cry”: no counselors, no adaptation, no post-mortem healing. My list of hackneyed words is endless. This vocabulary is particularly annoying, as journalists are trained to avoid everyday words and stun the audience with exotic synonyms, just to show off (talkative for eloquent Where casual and stuff like that).


On October 20, 2021, I wrote an article on the origin of the word scare. In a commentary, a Dutch scholar offered its etymology. He derived the word from the root of early modern Dutch speak “Reflect” and noted that the Dutch scare also formerly meant “omen”. According to him, the word owes its existence to the concept of divination. The Indo-European root would have meant “to see, to look, to observe”. This may be a correct etymology, but, like mine, it has some weaknesses. Ghosts have no obvious connection with fortune telling, but have everything to do with scaring people and leading them astray. Also in this context I would stay away from Icelandic spá-kona “Showy”, because here a special pleading is necessary to justify the good correspondence. After all our efforts, scare will remain a word of “unknown origin”, but each new effort may be a step in the right direction. (And in response to another comment: yes, h in ghost owes its existence to Caxton.)

The Hardy-Weinberg principle, or pay attention to your p’s and q’s (suggested by a geneticist and a friend of the Oxford etymologist)
Image by Johnuniq via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Distant etymologies

I am in regular correspondence with two people. One is the Romanian etymologist Ion Carstoiu, the name of the other that I will not reveal, but he allowed me to post his letter. After some of my essays he suggests a Hebrew-Yiddish origin of the word I’m talking about. Here is the letter.

The etymology published for nickel-pump (in etymonline, for example) is too ridiculous to be disputed. I suspect he has a Yiddish origin.

It was bread first eaten by the “common people”, not by the elite. The word borrowed in Hebrew for the public is PuMBi. This bread was and often is still made with fermented dough, generally called leaven. The word Ferment has been borrowed from both Hebrew and Yiddish. And NicKeL looks like a reversal of LeKheM (bread), a Hebrew word any Yiddish speaker would know. But (RN) iKeL may be a reversal of Yiddish meL Ka (RN) = rye flour. And PuMBi can also be a turnaround since the MB has become a deputy.

In other words, it looks like bread made with fermented rye flour and that’s exactly what it is.

I am in awe of his ingenuity but I try to save my approach. Why is it so easy to find such solutions? Mr. Constantinos Ragazas continues to insist that many English words are not parents related words in Greek but borrowings from very old Greek nouns and verbs. In “my” etymology, every step is staggering, while in “theirs” everything is fully convincing. I’m starting to lose ground. Are we back in the Middle Ages? Made Rasmus rask and Jacob Grimm never live? On the other hand, Mr Carstoiu does not have a historic “agenda” and, as far as I can tell, he is not a supporter of Nostratic linguistics. Yet he has compiled numerous lists which show that all over the world, words for a certain object are similar. These words are rarely expressive, as are those of Wilhelm oehlthe lists of. For example, words for “earth” tend to start with the syllable D. Why are they doing? He asks me: “Are these many coincidences due to chance?” Food for thought, isn’t it?

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