Category Archives: Etymology

We’re moving! Go to “The Life of Words”!

For the last two and more years, I’ve been posting here on topics related to poetry, dictionaries, computers, and so on. Over 100 posts later, it’s time for a new home. As of June 15, 2014, I’ll be posting at my new project site: The Life of Words http://thelifeofwords.uwaterloo.ca I hope you’ll visit us there […]

Poetry and Happenstance at Cambridge

Notes and thoughts from “Poetry and Happenstance”, a day-long symposium at Cambridge University, which took place last Friday, 4th April. There were eight papers in all: Anne Stillman – “What appears to be yours” In the opening talk, Stillman expressed some unease about what was really meant by the symposium’s key title word, happenstance. This […]

Is Empson responsible for “ambiguity” uptick?

A quick addendum to yesterday’s post on the increase of metpahor and ambiguity in the Google books corpus. A faithful correspondent writes that at the time Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor (La metaphore vive) came out in 1978 (1975), it seemed everyone was all of a sudden talking about metaphor. For once, the case-sensitivity […]

“Metaphors,” which to scholars cause pain and woe

I’ve recently been tracing out the history of a relation between two particular ideas in English culture, which I would call a metaphorical relation: one idea being described in terms of the other. In tracing it back, I’ve noticed that in the 19thC texts I’m reading, it is only rarely referred to as a metaphor […]

Lightening Poles

I’ve come across a pair of definitions for lightening (n.) which, while not antonymous (or antagonymous) nonetheless represent a kind of polarity. And not any old polarity–the polarity, probably. The first definition comes from the Oxford American Dictionary: A drop in the level of the uterus during the last weeks of pregnancy as the head […]

Sappho, not a poetess – THE Poetess

The poetry world is all a twitter with the news that two new poems by Sappho have been discovered. And the Twitter world is spreading the news, chiefly linking to this write up in The Daily Beast: Many tweeters simply reproduce the headline, with a link. But some are evidently annoyed by the term poetess […]

“Graduate” or “be graduated”? Graduation on the active/passive divide

On the radio tonight I heard a person use passive “graduate” in a sentence: She was graduated a year early, because she was a top student I’m aware of this usage, and vaguely aware that it can be cited as “correct” usage by mavens. But while I’ve heard the transitive active form (e.g. “the school […]

“Fail, n.” #NOTWOTY

The social media are in the midst of a brief kerfuffle over “selfie”, Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year”, hashtag #WOTY. And “hashtag”, of course, was last year’s #WOTY, as chosen by the competing #WOTY-maker, the American Dialect Society. ADS chose “tweet” in 2009, and “app” in 2010, both of which seem to have more […]

O hell-kite! All? – Antedating verse coinages

In case you thought any of the top eleven most common words invented in verse were actually invented in verse, it’s worth following up with an illustration of the inherent contingency in any lexicographical record. As everyone knows, the OED is in the midst of its first complete revision. My list of poetic neologisms was […]

Top Eleven Most Common Words Invented in Verse

Poetry and lexicography, buzzfeed style. Having recently ranked the neologisms of prolific poetic word-coiners, I decided to look at all verse-coined words in OED [*caveat], and rank them according to their frequency in British National Corpus. Only words first attested after 1500 are included, on the basis that a large proportion of the lexicographical record […]

Unremarkable Poetic Neologisms

The word soulmate is by now at least verging on cliché, if not well in that category, which is why it was somewhat surprising and refreshing to learn that the OED lists Coleridge as the first user of the word. It was a reminder that common words can have uncommon origins–and that the coiner loses […]

Soulmate, Yokemate, Housemate, Helpmate

Today’s Facebook brings a thread that does most of the legwork for a regular P&C-type post: In OED2, soul-mate was listed under soul, n., along with other compounds, such as soul carrier, -curer, -thief, and -twister. The new OED3 Online gives it its own headword, soulmate, n. and updates the Coleridge quotation to what you […]

Of Wingnuts and Moonbats

It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines. In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. […]

New words for new words

What do you call a newly invented word if you don’t already have a word for newly invented words? Here is OED’s record of the earliest evidence for various words for new words, the making of new words, and the using of new words. Not all of these authors would be pleased to find that […]

Boehner’s Eking Along

Did John Boehner have John Clare’s 1829 ode on “Autumn” on the mind this afternoon when he said: At a time when the economy is barely eking along, wages aren’t increasing, new jobs aren’t available, and what are we doing? [source] The normal idiom in English is eking out, usually with “… a living” or […]

“Create”, “Creative”, “Creativity”

What have you created recently? Or, what have your various possessions let you create? In the comments to my post on the rise of “lets you”, it emerged that the third most common thing you can be let to do is “create.” And in fact, since “lets you know” is operating differently from the others, […]

Inter (and Intra-) necine?

You probably have used, or heard used, the word internecine. But what could the word intranecine mean? Either you have an intuition regarding this or you don’t (even if you’ve never encountered the word). If you do have an intuition about intranecine, take a minute to examine it–what basis can you come up with for […]

Word and Sense Creation in OED

Look up a common word in the OED, and chances are you’ll find it was first recorded in English over 700 years ago. Every word in the previous sentence is at least that old, with an average (mean) age of 1,022 years. So it stands to reason that, all other things being equal, the farther […]

“Chicken scratch”, coined by Shakespeare in 1909?

In “Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur” I conjectured that T. W. Higginson might have been riffing on the idiom chicken-scratch when he described Emily Dickinson’s handwriting as resembling the “famous fossil bird-tracks” of Amherst. Now I’m not so sure. Higginson published his essay in 1891. But chicken scratch  and variants aren’t in OED2 or OED3, nor  […]

Dies Caniculares

Lines against lines in summer:   Though I in Prochyta with greater ease Could live, than in a street of palaces. What scene so desert or so full of fright, As towering houses, tumbling in the night, And Rome on fire beheld by its own blazing light? But worse than all the clattering tiles, and […]

How to get “D’oh!” and “Bullshit” into the OED

I’ve been writing about missing links in chains of quotation evidence in OED. In the first case [redress] I think it’s likely OED staff came across the word in The End of the Poem and didn’t think it necessary to chase down the full referential context (which would have been fairly evident from about one […]

Chains of OED Evidence

Derek Attridge writes, in a comment to my post on OED quotation loops ["Smithers, Redress the Hounds!" 5.6.13]: W. H. Auden boasted to me that he had got a word — “plain-sewing” in the sense of “mutual masturbation” — into the OED by using it in print for the first time; but the OED now […]

Pejorative Eponyms – “Quétaine”

As often happens, today I was looking at something on the internet when my running internal commentary snarked, quétaine! People from Quebec grow up knowing this very useful word, which describes a thing, style or behaviour which is simultaneously lame, camp, kitschy, corny, and contemptible. Here is a site devoted to photographic evidence of it. […]

Ambivalent Toponyms

Today Facebook suggested I play a game called Cityville, where you can “build the city of your dreams.” Presumably you have to come up with a better name for the city of your dreams than “Cityville.” “City City” would be a terrible choice [although this guy is pretty happy with his Cityville creation, which he […]

Serendipity & Contingency

In the latest lecture to be posted online [http://media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/engfac/poetry/2013-03-21-engfac-poetry-hill-2.mp3], the Oxford Professor of Poetry tells us: Because I don’t go online in any way, I think and work almost entirely by serendipity. Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that […]

Oil has poise(s)

One for the science and metaphor files? From “The Thermodynamics of Glass“: A liquid has viscosity, a measure of its resistance to flow.  The viscosity of water at room temperature is about 0.01 poises.  A thick oil might have a viscosity of about 1.0 poise. Now, OED lets us know that “poise, n.1″ is originally […]

Shitepoke

From Choate’s American Bird Names: Shite poke. An attempt to render more delicate by a change in spelling a name for the bird derived from its habit of ejecting effluent when making a startled departure. In America applied indiscriminately to the Black-crowned Night Heron, the Green-backed Heron and the bittern. Poke, now E. dialect, “bag”, […]

Poetry and the Dictionary Conference – Oxford 2013

The CFP for this summer’s conference in Oxford has been posted. I expect to be there discussing some aspect of the OED and poetry. This symposium will be held at St Peter’s College, Oxford, on 15 June, 2013, with a view to opening up and exploring connections between poetry and the dictionary. Proposals for papers […]

Longest Etymologies

One of the most important improvements to the ongoing OED3 revision is occurring in the etymology sections, which are being greatly expanded. Yesterday’s Languagehat discusses two such expanded etymologies – those of ‘admiral’ and ‘to be’. The second is claimed by the current editors to be the longest etymology in OED3, coming in at 1,765 9,672* […]

Electronic OED, Poetry and Intertextuality :: DH2012 Presentation Slides

Here are the slides for my presentation today at Digital Humanities 2012 in Hamburg: PDF: Electronic OED, Poetry and Intertextuality [de-linked*] At the moment this is for reference or information only, and is presented here without the necessary context and discussion in my conference paper (to be posted at a later date). An abstract with […]

More Common: ‘Foot’ or ‘Etymologically’?

The OED’s etymology sections are jammed full of technical terms like ‘aphetic’, ‘stem’, and ‘neut.’; commonish words that are overrepresented here because of context, like ‘whence’, ‘obscure’, ‘adoption’, and ‘origin’; and generally very common words like ‘the’, ‘of’, and ‘is’. So what is the most common root sense in OED2 (1989)? It may be ‘stone’, […]