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.

patient zero

The term patient zero is an epidemiological term for the person who transmits an infection into a population that had been free of it. The OED records the first published use of the term being in Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, a book about the early years of the AIDS pandemic. Shilts identified a French-Canadian flight attendant by the name of Gaëtan Dugas as patient zero, the man who introduced AIDS into North America. But, it turns out, Shilts was dead wrong. Not only was Dugas unfairly blamed for being the source of the disease, the term itself arose out of a misinterpretation of nomenclature used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Read the rest of the article...

What English Will Sound Like In 100 Years

An online article by Michael Erard discusses the possible phonetic changes that English might go through in the coming decades and centuries. The best part of the article are three sound files of the opening lines of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, read in Old English, in modern Received Pronunciation, and in what English might sound like in a century’s time.

The article provides a good summary of the influences on English pronunciation and what kind of sound changes we might expect. But take any predictions, including the one in the audio file, with a grain of salt. While we know that English pronunciation will change, and we know what phonemes are more likely or less likely to change, we really have no clue what will actually change.

The other thing to consider is it is almost certain that there will be no single pronunciation for English. There will be hundreds of different varieties of English. English may not go the way of Latin and split into multiple, distinct dialects (i.e., French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), but even if it remains a global, mutually intelligible language, there will be considerable variation, just like there is today. There will be no single pronunciation of English in centuries time.

[Discuss this post]

Debunked: Students Can’t Write Anymore

I’m teaching four sections of first-year English composition this semester, so this subject is near and dear to my heart. Two Stanford researchers, Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, have conducted a longitudinal study of college freshman writing, comparing the results from students in 2006 with earlier studies from 1917, 1930, and 1986, and the results are quite surprising.

Read the rest of the article...

950 Years Ago On This Date…

Her forðferde Eaduuard king, ך Harold eorl feng to ðam rice ך heold hit XL wucena ך ænne dæg, ך her com Willelm ך gewann Ængla land.

—The Parker Chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS. 173)

(In this year King Edward died, and the nobleman Harold succeeded to the kingdom and held it forty weeks and a day, and in this year William came and conquered England.)

[Discuss this post]

The Laureation of Bob Dylan

A colleague of mine from the University of Toronto, Chet Scoville, has written an excellent piece on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I want to expand on what he says.

Read the rest of the article...

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Green, Jonathan. Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang is the crowning achievement of a scholar who dedicated his career to the research of slang terms. It may be the finest slang dictionary available. It is, unfortunately, far to expensive for anyone who is not a library. But the good news is that the dictionary is available online for free, although the free version does not include access to the citations of use. If you want those, you have to subscribe. The online version contains updates from the print version.

There is another version of the dictionary that has been online since 2011 at Oxford Reference. This is a digital copy of the print version and does not contain the updates since that version was published. I don’t know if Oxford will continue to make this version available or if it will eventually contain the updates.

Chomsky Rebutted

Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello have penned a rather thorough take down of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar in Scientific American. While highly critical, it’s also one of the clearest explanations of Chomsky’s work that I’ve seen.

[Discuss this post]

A New Type of Turing Test

In 1950, computer pioneer Alan Turing formulated his famous test for determining whether or not a computer was true artificial intelligence (AI). It involved discourse between humans and a computer, and if the humans could not tell whether they were speaking to a another person or to a machine, then the machine was “intelligent.” A neat idea, but when put in to practice it’s been found to be too easy to fake.

Over the years various improvements to the Turing test have been suggested, and one recent AI challenge used a rather nifty linguistic approach, outlined by this article in the Neurologica blog. At its core, the test, known as the Winograd schema, asks the AI to determine the referent of an pronoun in a sentence. The pronoun would be ambiguous except for one word that provides the necessary context. For example:

The trophy would not fit in the brown suitcase because it was too big.

What does it refer to, the trophy or the suitcase?

In the sentence, big can be replaced with small, which alters the context and the identity of the referent. Humans have no difficulty getting the correct answer (it refers to the trophy when the adjective is big and the suitcase when the adjective is small), but in the challenge the AI performed dismally, with only the best scores equal to chance guessing.

While I suspect that there are probably as many issues with the Winograd schema as there are with the original Turing test, it’s a neat use of language to test reasoning ability.

[Discuss this post]

10K Twitter Followers

Wordorigins.org now has over 10,000 followers on Twitter. (We actually broke that barrier some time ago, but I’m in the midst of moving to Texas, so I’ve been slow in conveying the news.)

The site’s Twitter handle is @wordorigins. I generally post when I’ve added an article to the site, an entry to the Big List, or when a new topic arises in the discussion forums. If you’re old school and follow us via the site’s RSS or Atom feeds, the Twitter feed would be a duplication.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton