Where Do English Words Come From?

A recent thread on this site’s discussion forum got me thinking about the borrowing of foreign words into English, a language with a reputation for indiscriminately appropriating words from other languages. Etymology books and websites, including this one, often highlight the diversity of languages that English draws its vocabulary from, but how much of this reputation is deserved? Does English really borrow that many words? And does English really filch a lot of words from many different languages? The answers may be a bit surprising, but when you look at the data in light of history, they make a lot of sense.

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Nate Silver Takes on Baby Names

The website fivethirtyeight.com, best known for its data-driven political and sports analysis, has a rather good post on the popularity of baby names in the United States.

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Swa meaht me bannan

As part of a rather inspired class assignment, students at Grinnell College in Iowa translated Carly Rae Jepsens’ song Call Me Maybe into Old English and produced a video:

It’s a rather faithful translation of Jepsen’s modern English lyrics, with a few alterations to accommodate anachronisms. For example, pennies and dimes becomes penning ond sceattas (pennies and wealth), jeans becomes brec (trousers), baby becomes loflice (praiseworthy one), and my number becomes min nama (my name).

The translation doesn’t use Old English prosody, using rhyme instead of alliteration. That’s a valid artistic choice and makes the Old English version of the song instantly recognizable, although creating an alliterative version would have been a cool exercise.

I also wince at the faux medieval/Harry Potter motif in the video. But then, the subject of Jepsen’s song is distinctly not Anglo-Saxon, so strict cultural adherence isn’t really possible.

Still, it’s a very clever and fun class project.

What is a Photocopier?

The New York Times is running this video, a dramatization of an actual legal deposition. The words are verbatim from the transcripts, but the actors were given license to perform them as they saw fit, so the video is not necessarily a true representation of what happened.

It’s a brilliant video that shows how much we rely on general categories and definitions when we speak and the pitfalls encountered when trying to pin a concept down precisely. Watch all the way to the end for a stunning demonstration of genericization of a trademark.

(Follow-up: According to Kevin Underhill of Lowering the Bar (a hilarious blog of legal humor, BTW), at issue in the case is whether copying onto a CD-ROM is “photocopying.” Ohio law allows the county clerk’s office to charge $2 per page for photocopies of public legal documents—pricey, but not totally unreasonable when you consider staffing costs. But the county clerk’s office took the position that it could charge $2 for each page of material copied onto a CD-ROM. One law firm saw its monthly bill for photocopies jump from around $1,000 to $100,000. Hence the man’s unwillingness to say what was meant by “photocopy.” If he gave the obvious answer, he’d be providing evidence against his employer and costing the county a boatload of money. But he didn’t want to look like an idiot either.)

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Digitizing Manuscripts

A short video from the Bodleian Library that provides an overview of what digitizing library materials entails.

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breaking bad

The popular U. S. television show Breaking Bad (2008–13) is about a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer and with the assistance of an ex-student turned failed drug dealer, begins to cook and sell crystal meth. While the show has been popular with both audiences and critics, the title has baffled many. What does breaking bad mean? Where does the phrase come from?

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truthiness

What does comedian Stephen Colbert have in common with a nineteenth-century English female writer, nineteenth-century Scottish pundit, and a turn-of-the-twentieth-century translator of Basque? In a word, truthiness.

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triumph

The word triumph comes to us from Latin, but its usual meaning in that language is not the one we commonly give to it in English. To the ancient Romans, a triumphus was a parade celebrating a great military victory. The victorious general would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome to the steps of the Senate, a slave standing beside him holding a crown of laurels over his head. The general’s army would follow, leading the defeated enemy commander, captured slaves, and great wagons of spoils from the victory. The day was a holiday and the entire city would turn out to cheer, to feast, and to drink. Roman poets also used the word triumphus to refer to the victory itself, as did later prose writers in Imperial Rome. But this second sense was relatively rare in Latin, and the word usually referred only to the processional and accompanying celebrations.

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Who We Are

Dave Wilton

Dave Wilton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, working on a dissertation that examines how metaphors in Old English literature can explicate Anglo-Saxon ideas and conceptions of the mind, agency, and free will. Dave has an M.A. from George Washington University in National Security Policy Studies and a B.A. from Lafayette College in Government and Law. He is also the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004).

In past lives, Dave has worked as a marketing writer/editor and as a product manager for 3D graphics and digital television technologies at NVIDIA and OpenTV, for Science Applications International Corporation as a manager of programs that dismantled the nuclear stockpiles of the former Soviet Union, and as an arms control negotiator for the Pentagon.


Lila

Lila is the staff assistant here at Wordorigins.org. Her duties include reception and greeting of visitors, multiple daily perambulations, self-defenestration, mastication of assorted objects, and olfactory investigations.

Christian

Christian doesn’t have a particularly surprising or unusual etymology, but it is a good example of the care one must take when consulting a dictionary. If one looks up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and then takes a casual read of the entry, one may be deceived into thinking that the word’s use in English is surprisingly recent, dating only to the sixteenth century, and begin to wonder what English Christians called themselves before that time. Dictionaries are sophisticated references, and one must understand how the one you are using is edited before drawing conclusions.

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