Tag: etymology

Boomerang vocabulary: words that return to their origins

Boomerang vocabulary

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” may have been good advice for Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it isn’t practical for a language. English is both an avid borrower (ballet, schmooze, wok) and a generous lender: consider German das Baby, French le week-end, and Japanese aisu kuriimu (‘ice cream’—try saying it out loud). Occasionally, […]

The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

Changing meaning of socialist

On May 6, France held their presidential elections, picking François Hollande over the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande is a socialist (a member of the French Socialist Party), a word that on occasion apparently confuses a large number of Americans, as many use it in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with its intended meaning. Hence, a […]

Time to get ill: Beastie Boys lyrics in the Oxford English Dictionary

Beastie Boys

Like many folks of my generation, upon hearing about the death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, I’ve spent the last few weeks revisiting my Beastie Boys’ albums. At one point during my listen, I began to wonder about their lyrics and what kind of mark they’ve made on the English language. Is it possible that […]

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Why do we love to give people and places nicknames?

Nicknames

What’s in a nickname? Corruption, initially. Which is not to say that there is anything inherently dishonest about nicknames; the history of the word stems from an error. Originally “an eke-name”, meaning an additional name, “a neke name” formed out of an incorrect word division that blended the noun with its indefinite article. By the […]

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

Jolly Roger

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]

The language of cocktails

Gin Rickey

People and places Biographical details of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey are sparse and difficult to track down, but those we have offer a fascinating sketch of an eclectically talented American. Born in 1842 and variously employed as a soldier, politician, and entrepreneur, Rickey’s name stands out in an age of pioneers and frontiers for one […]

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Higher-cynths, lower-cynths, and Seeze Pyders: why Lear’s ‘nonsense’ language is more than just fun

Edward Lear

You’ve heard of a writer called Lear? His two hundredth birthday’s this year. They called him absurd But he wrote undeterred, That remarkable writer called Lear. If there were no other reason to remember Edward Lear with fondness (and there are, in fact, very many), his popularization of the limerick would be enough. Like so […]

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Solar System

‘Watson’, says Holmes, ‘when you lie here and see all those stars what do you think?’ ‘Well, Holmes,’ says Watson. ‘All that grandeur and majesty. I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t someone in charge. How about you?’ ‘Me?’ says Holmes, ‘I think: Who’s pinched the tent?’ Venus and Jupiter have been extra-bright recently and […]

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