Welcome to Wordorigins.org
Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.
Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online
The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, or DCHP-2, is an extremely valuable resource for studying any “word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada.” And it’s available online for free.
The second edition went live in March 2017 and is an update of the first, 1967 edition. The new edition not only includes words that have appeared since 1967, the editors have also cleaned up questionable entries for older words—for example, the DCHP-1 had separate entries for toque and tuque, which are now combined into one. As well, many entries have full color, photo illustrations and charts showing the term’s use across the provinces or through time.
Users of the DCHP must be aware, however, that the dictionary only includes citations from Canadian sources. So when a term is older in other dialects, the older citations will not appear. This editorial choice, while a valid and justifiable one, means that users cannot rely on the DCHP alone, but must use it conjunction with more comprehensive sources like the OED. Still, this isn’t going to be a serious limitation to most users. And the DCHP-2, unfortunately, continues a poor web-design choice from the first online edition, where users must click on each citation to see the bibliographic data, which is annoying and time consuming. One cannot take in the provenance of all the citations at a glance, as one can with the OED.
Still, even with these limitations, it’s a valuable addition to the lexicographic resources available on the web.
The first edition remains available online for those that want to compare how entries have changed.
The Oxford Comma and the Law
The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. The Oxford comma (serial comma) is the comma after the penultimate item in a list, as in me, myself, and I; the Oxford comma is the one after myself.
The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.Read the rest of the article...
Loo, the British word for a lavatory or toilet is one of those words that has generated endless speculation and myth about its origin. While we don’t know for sure where the word comes from, we do have a pretty good guess. It’s most likely from the French lieu, meaning place. The English loo doesn’t make an unambiguous appearance until 1940, but there is good evidence the term was in use since at least the late nineteenth century, and the use of the euphemism in French is much older.Read the rest of the article...
Old English Dictionaries
Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can be found on his blog, Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons. Buchanan’s description is framed as a reference for students at NMHU, but it’s useful for anyone who wants an introduction to the dictionaries.
Clark Hall contains brief entries and is chiefly useful as a quick reference for translators or readers. There is a version available online for free, although it’s an image scan and unwieldy to use. Bosworth Toller is comprehensive, but it’s nineteenth-century scholarship. It’s also available online for free with a good, searchable user interface. The DOE is the gold standard, but it’s a work in progress: only A–H has been published, and it’s a subscription service, although limited access is available on a trial basis. Buchanan’s page details how to get temporary access.
(Disclosure: Peter is a friend from my time at Toronto. Despite that dubious association, he’s an excellent scholar and all-around good egg.)
When examining the origins of a word one must be careful to distinguish between the word and the thing itself. The origin of the word is often quite different from the origin of the thing that it represents. Such is the case with baseball. In this case the word is much older than the game we today know by that name.Read the rest of the article...
Extreme vetting, or the detailed investigation into a person’s background, has been in the news of late as the term of art used by Donald Trump to describe what needs to happen to refugees seeking to enter the United States. Putting aside the fact that existing investigatory measures are already quite thorough and that Trump does not provide details on how he will change the process to make it extreme—this is a language blog, not an immigration one—the question arises where does the verb to vet come from?Read the rest of the article...
The other day I was wondering about the word surname. What is the sur-? prefix. The etymology, while perhaps not immediately obvious, is quite straightforward; the sur- is a French variation on the Latin super, meaning above or beyond. It comes to us, like many French roots, from the Normans. So a surname is one’s second or higher name, and the word dates to the fourteenth century.
But there are other sur- words, some like surname, borrowed whole from French (Anglo-Norman surnum, early fourteenth century), while others have been formed in English:
surcharge, an additional charge, originally a verb (1429) borrowed from the Old French surcharger and turned into a noun by 1601
survive, to live beyond or after (1473), from the Anglo-Norman survivre, which was formed from the Latin vivere, to live
surpass, to go over or beyond (1588), from the French surpasser.
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. sur-, prefix
A Dialect Coach Critiques Actors’ Accents
The topic of actors’ accents has arisen from time to time on our discussion boards. In this sixteen-minute film from Wired magazine dialect coach Erik Singer examines some accents from big Hollywood productions. Yes, Kevin Costner’s English accent in Robin Hood is really that bad, but I was surprised at some of the accents Singer considered good, such as Renée Zellweger’s accent in Bridget Jones’s Diary. But I’ll accept Singer’s judgment as this is what he does for a living.
I do have a few quibbles. I wish they had grouped the clips by regional accent, so we could, for example, hear all the Russian accents at once to make it easier to compare. And the medievalist in me bristles at evaluating Mel Gibson’s Scottish accent in Braveheart by the standard of modern-day Scottish as opposed to how they spoke in the thirteenth century. (Singer does discuss historical accents to great effect when examining Daniel Day Lewis’s performances.)
Sixteen minutes is a bit long for many, but this film is well worth the time.
The Last Punchcutter
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton