Tag: etymology

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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drunk

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

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birth of words

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

Open for longer It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used […]

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Which words came to life 100 years ago? New words in 1912 from ‘ambivalence’ to ‘jazz’

Jazz

On April 15, 1912, readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their papers to the headline “The World’s Greatest Steamship Wrecked.” Less than two weeks earlier, they had read something else of historical note, at least to etymologists: the April 2 edition contained the earliest citation yet found for the word jazz. At that time, […]

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gasoline

Dishonesty or coincidence? The origin of the word ‘gasoline’

New research, published in the March 2012 update of the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that gasoline might have its origins not in gas as has long been thought (it is a liquid after all) but rather in the name of a London publisher. It then reached something close to its present form in the murky […]

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US trip

An etymological trip around the USA

This past month saw the publication of the fifth volume (Si-Z) of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English, an ongoing lexicographic project that has, over the past five decades, been tracking down and cataloging the seemingly infinite varieties of American English. DARE concerns itself with many words and terms that might not appear in […]

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clouds

What is the origin of the word ‘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 […]

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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 […]

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