The name of the city in which I currently live is from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “trees standing in the water.” The name is a good example of how place names can shift geographically. It is not unusual for a name to start in one place and, over time, move to eventually become associated with a different place entirely. It also has a long-standing false etymology attached to it.

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If you look at terrific, the origin is rather obvious. The form, or morphology, of the word gives it away, although from its meaning you would never guess where it comes from. Terrific is from the Latin terrificus, meaning frightening. Despite it coming from classical Latin, terrific doesn’t enter English use until the early modern era. The first writer known to use it is John Milton in his 1667 Paradise Lost. Milton uses it in the sense of frightening as he describes the creation and lists many of the animals that God has created:

The Serpent suttl’st Beast of all the field,
Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes
And hairie Main terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call. (7.495–98)

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Something that is tawdry is cheap and gaudy. The word dates to the seventeenth century, and was also a noun, meaning “cheap, showy finery,” although only the adjective is much used today. In his 1676 play The Plain Dealer, William Wycherley writes of

taudry affected Rogues, well drest.

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Words come into and go out of fashion. Sometimes, a particular word will catch a wave of popularity and become overused to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless and is used primarily to show that the speaker is fashionable and up on the latest trends. Such words are buzzwords, and you often see them in business writing, as firms indicating through their language that they are on the cutting edge of their field by using cutting edge language. A good example of a buzzword is synergy. The word hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s. It is still common, but perhaps not as overused as it once was.

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Speed is a word with a rather straightforward etymology, but one with several archaic meanings that may be surprising to some. It is from the Old English word sped, which, among other senses, carried the meaning of quickness, swiftness that we are familiar with today.

In Old English the sense of quickness was a secondary and rarer sense of the word. In the extant literature it only appears in the dative plural form spedum and is used adverbially to mean speedily. (In Old English the dative plural of a noun can function as an adverb.) For example, there are these lines from the Old English poem Genesis, 2033–35:

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Our current senses of sophisticated, meaning either refined, cultured or highly developed, complicated, are surprisingly recent. The application of the word to people meaning experienced, refined can only be dated to 1895, when it appears in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure:

Though so sophisticated in many things she was such a child in others that this satisfied her.

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Books Read, 2013

As I posted for 2011 and 2012, here is a list of books I’ve read over the past year.

Asterisks mark those that are re-reads.

Ælfric, various homilies and hagiographies

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virus, viral

Virus is a word that has evolved alongside the evolution in medical knowledge; before the twentieth century a virus was something quite different from the microorganisms we assign the name to today, and even more recently the word has broken the bounds of biology and infected the realm of silicon and circuits.

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55 Canadianisms

An interesting survey of fifty-five different Canadianisms. The results are not statistically valid, but probably roughly align with reality.

Since I’ve lived in Toronto for three-and-a-half years now, I thought it would be interesting to tally up the words that I’m familiar with. I’ve heard about half of them. Some of the unfamiliar may be due to the fact that I live in Toronto and not Canada proper. Others may be due to not having traveled in wider social circles (e.g., back in my younger drinking days, I probably would have known what a forty-pounder was). And of course due to diegogarcity, over the next week I’m sure to hear many of the ones I had thought were unfamiliar.

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A recent episode of the radio show and podcast A Way With Words made mention of the slang term keener, citing it as a Canadianism for someone who is enthusiastic about something. I had noticed the word since coming to the University of Toronto three years ago, where my fellow graduate students use it to describe the enthusiastic, and usually top-performing, undergraduate students in their classes. Phrases like “I assigned extra reading, knowing that only the keeners would actually do it” are common in our discussions among ourselves. We graduate students are ambivalent about the keeners here at U of T. On the one hand, we appreciate their enthusiasm, but on the other that same enthusiasm can become tiresome, and their behavior sometimes verges on the sycophantic. (The joy of having a bright, motivated student who is destined to get an A wears off after the seventh frantic email on the night before an essay is due.)

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