Tag: etymology

What is the origin of the word ‘serendipity’?

Origin of serendipity?

The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]

Hibernating words and linguistic cicadas

Cicada

Most words develop along fairly predictable paths. They may be quotidian words, such as set, which accrue new shades of meanings along the course of a very long life, and which end up with so many dozens of definitions that it is extremely difficult to see where one begins and another ends. Some words may […]

What is a lexicographer?

OED

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, famously defined a lexicographer as ‘A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge’. He also said, in the entry for dull, that ‘To make dictionaries is dull work’. Of course, his tongue was firmly in his cheek, noted wit that he was (he might also […]

That’s ell oh ell

LOL

‘Out shopping. There’s a bird going cheep’. I text this to my daughter, and then, because I’m crossing the generational gap, I add ‘lol’. At some point, probably towards the end of the 80s, someone felt the need to signal, probably while emailing, that something was funny. Perhaps they wrote out the whole thing, ‘laughing […]

From ‘trousers’ to ‘Tories': unexpected Irish words in English

Unexpected Irish words in English

Most English speakers would not be surprised to hear that words like banshee or shamrock have their origins in Irish, the Celtic language (also known as Gaelic) which is still spoken in the parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. After all, most recognizable Irish words encountered in English have obvious connections to Ireland, like […]

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

Slappers and dumb blondes: why we should care about language

Gender

With International Women’s Day being celebrated today, and US talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s controversial description of women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ still causing uproar, journalist and writer Anne Sexton looks at the long and inglorious history of the word ‘slut’, and explains why gender-neutral language is still a hot topic. Is […]

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From cherub to jubilee: Hebrew’s influence on today’s English

Hamantaschen

If you’ve ever noshed on a bagel with your schnoz stuck in a schmaltzy novel, or schlepped to a party to schmooze with the mavens and machers, you know all about the influence of Yiddish on modern English. But what about Hebrew? Thanks to English translations of the Bible, Hebrew-derived words have been playing their […]

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