Tolkien’s Beowulf

When I heard the news that J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was to be published, edited by his son Christopher, I was excited. (Counting this one, I own nine different editions of the poem.) Tolkien, most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was also a noted scholar of Old English, so an edition of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem by him carries some rather high expectations. But when I learned that it was a prose translation he completed in 1926, I became somewhat more cautious in my expectations.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014, hardcover, $21.17*

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If We Won

This ad for Newcastle Brown Ale plays off the differences between American and British swearing. The analysis is, as you might expect from a beer commercial, anything but deep, but it makes you think about how Americans might talk if the British had won the war for independence. (Actually, probably not all that differently. After all, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders don’t sound British.)

This video is NSFW for mild British swearing.

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undermine, mine

To undermine something is to destroy it through some surreptitious means, to subvert it, and undermine is one of those words whose etymology is readily apparent by examining its constituent elements, under + mine, a reference to the military tactic of digging under the walls of a fortification in order to collapse them. But the word is first recorded in its figurative sense in the South English Legendary, a medieval collection of saint’s lives. The manuscript in which it appears was copied prior to 1325 and the particular version was written around 1280:

ȝif þe hosebonde wiste þe tyme [...] Whanne þe þeof wolde come, wake he wolde ffor to him ffounde And nolde him soffry nou3t his hous to vndermyne.

(If the husband knew the time [...] when the thief would come, he would wake to find him. And he would not suffer his house to be undermined.)

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mine

See undermine.

redskin, red man

Redskin, a now disparaging term for a Native American, is nearly two and a half centuries old. It is first recorded in a transcript of a speech given by Chief Maringouin, an Indian of the Illinois people, on 26 August 1769. It was interpreted by a Frenchman from the Illinois language and transcribed and translated into English by William Johnson:

I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life.

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WWI Vocabulary

Cooties, doughboys, and foxholes. Jonathan Lighter has a rather good article on CNN.com on the words spawned during the First World War, which began one hundred years ago next month.

If there is a complaint about the article it’s that Lighter only scratches the surface. There are many, many other terms that could have been mentioned, like tank, over the top, and storm troop. But there is only so much that can be included in an article such as this, and the ones that Lighter includes are a good representational sample.

(CNN gives the date of the war’s start as 4 August, which is the date Britain entered the war, but hostilities had started on 28 July 1914 between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. I wonder if, as the anniversary approaches, if there will be quibbling in the press as to the “true” date.)

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Business Jargon Tumblr

I’ve just discovered Use Sparingly, a tumblr that is a Devil’s Dictionary of business jargon.

Rather amusing.

[Tip o’ the hat to Lowering the Bar]

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Are You Using the Wrong Dictionary?

James Somers wrote a blog post on dictionaries a week or so ago, in which he extols older, more poetic dictionary definitions, criticizing modern dictionaries for being flat and uninspiring. He uncovers a very useful technique for punching up writing, one favored by famed, non-fiction writer John McPhee, but in the process Somers falls into a trap that many non-linguists do, ascribing to the myth that when it comes to language authority older is better. To put it bluntly, Somers is probably using the wrong dictionary.

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Why English Has Gendered Pronouns

Linguist Gretchen McCullough tells the interesting, but very convoluted story.

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