Category: Word origins

Groundhog

Groundhog etymology: from whistle pigs to woodchucks

On 2 February, we celebrate the Pennsylvania German custom of groundhog divination, which dates back to the 18th century and the European weather lore of Candlemas. According to folklore, on a sunny day, the groundhog will see its shadow and head back in its burrow, signaling six more weeks of more winter. If the weather […]

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Lord Byron in the OED

Lord Byron, one of Britain’s greatest poets, was born on this day in 1788, so we thought this might be a good opportunity to trace his influence on the English language. We have consulted the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and discovered more about Byron’s innovative use of language. While all the words listed below existed […]

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Onolatry - Worship of the donkey or ass, onolatry has also come to refer in extended use to “excessive admiration for or devotion to foolishness or a foolish thing.”

Beyond basic idolatry: other forms of worship

Rejected by several of the world’s religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, idolatry refers to the practice of worshiping an image or representation of a god rather than the true god. Many are probably familiar with idolatry due to its inclusion in the Ten Commandments, which state that a believer should not make an image […]

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beer

Drinking through the ages: a timeline of synonyms for drunk

In the timeline above, explore how the English language has developed over time through the lens of a crucial social function: the consumption of alcohol. Taken from David Crystal’s book Words in Time and Place, which is based on research in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the timeline covers over 35 synonyms […]

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10 words that came to life 100 years ago

As 2014 draws to a close, we thought we’d take a look at some of the words celebrating their 100th birthday this year. While some of these may be antedated if older examples are found, the earliest evidence currently in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for each of the words below is 1914. So, join […]

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Twelve words of Christmas

Christmas comes but once a year, as some celebrants are wont to say, as do many of the words special to the season. Like so many Christmas lights, let’s untangle some holiday word histories–twelve, fittingly enough–to see what they might illuminate. Rudolph A number of animals give us their season’s greetings during Christmastime. Perhaps the most famous is Rudolph the […]

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From mistletoe to noisy birds: the origins of Christmas words

Mistletoe encounters can be very hit-or-miss. My own experiences usually involve kissing a definite non-target rather than the person I’d been lingering beneath the foliage for. It was therefore with some satisfaction that I discovered that the literal meaning of mistletoe is ‘dung-on-a-twig’, the inspiration of the Anglo-Saxons who realized that the plant is fertilized […]

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Ethel Franklin Betts Annie illustration

Orphants to foster kids: a century of Annie

One of the best-known musicals of the 20th century is Annie, which tells the story of a plucky orphan girl who warms the hearts of all around her, and eventually finds a loving family of her own. The tale will be carried into the 21st century when the newest film adaptation (produced by Jay-Z and […]

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