Category Archives: Etymology

‘Poetical’ Etymologies?

This post is more about how the term ‘poetical’ tends to be used pejoratively, and how it corresponds to the term ‘etymologies’, rather than about any actually poetical etymologies, or etymological poetry, both of which I do think exist. This morning’s Language Log brings us a post called ‘Poetical Etymologies‘, which reproduces this Wondermark cartoon:

Literally Etymologically

Etymologically, ‘literal’ means ‘Of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet’. To be precise about what I mean by ‘etymologically’ here, I’m referring to the earliest English use of word as recorded in OED3 (John Trevisa, a1398). I don’t mean the prior senses of Middle French literal, […]

Literally Truly

Or, whence the Literalville Contradiction? In the comments to LL’s repost of my “Literally Metaphorically” , Jeff Carney writes: D-AW has missed the boat here. Don’t think I like Rush, but nowhere in the transcript we’re linked to does he contrast being literal with being figurative. He seems to equate being literal with being true. […]

The OED in Poetry

Some poems mention looking etymologies up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Paul Muldoon’s “Cows” does this, near-rhyming ‘protestations of O.E.D.’ with ‘fade’ and ‘jade’ (the rhyme works best if you lexicalize the acronym and pronounce it with its preposition, like ‘of owed’). His “Hedge School” remembers ‘tracing the root of metastasis‘ in the New Shorter […]

“Obsession” on the active-passive divide?

Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Of Commerce and Society: 4” has received critical attention from almost everyone (partial list: Sherry, Knottenbelt, O’Neill, Robinson, Wainwright, Hart, Bloom, Ricks, and me). So I was surprised recently when I had (what I think is) a brand new thought about it.

Poetical Lexicography

The OED was conceived as a dictionary ‘on historical principles’. The practice employed from the beginning was to illustrate the several sense definitions of a word over time with quotations from published material across the lifespan of that sense. Currently I’m engaged in trying to quantify the extent of poetical sense illustration in the OED.  […]

Poems in the OED

Computer scientists at the University of Waterloo were responsible for digitizing the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2), in the late 1980s. Initially available on CD-ROM, this eventually became the OED Online. The database has quickly replaced the printed dictionary as a first point of call for the word-curious, primarily because the extensive mark-up of […]


In 2011-13, I’m investigating questions about poetry, value, and accident, in the context of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, intended to ‘enable the development of new research questions, as well as experimentation with new methods, theoretical approaches and/or ideas’. The questions and methods I’m exploring all have something to do with why contingency, or accident, […]