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.

sur-

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

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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.

Tip o’ the hat to Languagehat.

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The Last Punchcutter

A delightful, short film about a dying art…

And a short article on the film.

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What Did Old Norse Sound Like?

My Old Norse expertise doesn’t extend to pronunciation so I can’t comment on the accuracy of this video, but Jackson Crawford’s academic credentials are quite respectable, so I’ll take his word for it. Plus, the image of a man in a cowboy hat reading Old Norse poetry is too good to pass up:

Tip o’ the hat to Jim Wilton for pointing me to this video.

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American Dialect Society Word of the Year (ADS WOTY)

The American Dialect Society (ADS) has decided upon its Word of the Year for 2016 and that word is dumpster fire, meaning “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation.” The term was commonly heard in reference to last year’s presidential election. It won in a run-off vote against woke, an African-American slang term that has been making its way into white speech meaning “socially aware or enlightened.” The full ADS press release is here.

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waive, waif

To waive something is to voluntarily give up the right to that thing or to refrain from enforcing a rule or regulation, and a waif is an orphaned or abandoned child. But the two words are very much related etymologically. Both date to the thirteenth century and come into English from Norman French. The ultimate root is probably Scandinavian in origin, as there are Old Norse cognates, but the history of the word before the Norman Conquest is quite fuzzy.

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waif

See waive, waif.

2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year (WOTY)

Up until now, I’ve resisted jumping on the Word of the Year (WOTY) bandwagon. (I did come up with lists of significant words back in 2007 and 2008, but discontinued the practice.) Words of the Year have no linguistic relevance and are mostly marketing stunts pulled by the organizations that promulgate them. But I’ve noticed two problems with most of the other WOTY lists. First, they purport to come up with words or phrases to represent the entire year, but their selection is heavily weighted toward terms associated with events that occurred in October and November, within easy memory of the list compilers. Second, the lists start coming out in early November. I’m sorry, but you can’t legitimately select a WOTY when you’ve got 20% of the year yet to run. (Besides, it’s crass, like putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.)

So for this not-quite-first-ever Wordorigins.org WOTY, I’m doing things a bit differently. I’ve selected twelve terms, one for each month. Hopefully, this list will provide something of a more chronologically balanced review of 2016. And I’m publishing this in late December, so a selection for this month is possible. The list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and now a Texan to boot), them’s the breaks.

I’m interpreting word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily new, but they are (mostly) associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention during it or associated with some event that happened then.

So without further ado, here are the 2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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In Defense of Puns

This is about a year and a half old, but I just discovered it:

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