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.

rap

The sense of rap meaning a blow or strike is probably echoic in origin. Much like tap and clap, it represents the sound of the blow. The earliest citation in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary is from the poem Roland and Vernagu, found in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 19.2.1), which was copied c. 1330. The passage depicts a battle between the knight Roland and the giant Vernagu:

Þai gun anoþer fiȝt,
And stones togider þrewe.
Gode rappes for þe nones,
Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones,
That sete swithe sore.

(They began another fight, and together threw stones. For the moment, they gave good raps with the stones very violently in that place.)

The verb appears a few decades later.

This basic sense of a blow has spawned three metaphorical senses that are in common use today. (There are lots of different senses, but I’m focusing on these three that are probably of the most interest.) A rap can also be a criminal charge or accusation, a discussion, or a genre of music.

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Blue Letter Bible

A website for exploring the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.

Diccionario Etimológico

A Spanish etymological dictionary.

Deutsches Wörterbuch (Grimm)

Grimm’s dictionary of German (1854–1961) is available online through the University of Trier.

American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots

The Indo-European roots appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary is available as a separate volume. A solid, yet inexpensive resource if you want to trace an etymology to the earliest possible source.

Corpus.BYU.Edu

Brigham Young University hosts a number of searchable corpora of English usage. The site is an invaluable resource for determining how words and phrases are used in different genres and registers, regions, and dates.

Corpora on the site include:

Newspapers on the Web (NOW) Corpus, 2.8 billion words, 2010–present

Global Web-Based English, 1.9 billion words, 2012–13

Wikipedia Corpus, 1.9 billion words, up to 2014

Hansard Corpus (British Parliament), 1.6 billion words, 1803-2005

Corpus of Contemporary American English, 520 million words, 1990–2015

Corpus of Historical American English, 400 million words, 1810–2009

TIME Magazine Corpus, 100 million words, 1923–2006

Corpus of American Soap Operas, 100 million words, 2001–12

British National Corpus, 100 million words, 1980–93

Strathy Corpus (Canada), 50 million words, 1970–2010

Corpus of Online Registers of English (CORE), 50 million words, up to 2014

Corpus del Español, 100 million words, 1200–2000

Corpus do Português, 45 million words, 1300–2000

Urban Dictionary

An online compendium of slang. Urban Dictionary is crowd sourced with no apparent editorial supervision. Therefore, it cannot be taken as accurate or authoritative, but when used with care it can be a valuable source for information on recent slang that has yet to be recognized by more traditional references.

Wrong.

Journalists love to write articles on language. Not only, since they make their livings with words, do they have a professional interest in the topic, but language is a popular topic. People, at least those who read newspapers, love to read about it. The problem is that journalists often get it completely wrong.

A case in point is an article by Dan Bilefsky that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on 9 June about how use of the period, that staid and boring punctuation mark, is changing. In some forms of discourse, the period does not simply mark the end of a sentence, it conveys urgency or emotion. He gets the facts right, but Bilefsky utterly miscategorizes what is happening, framing the period as “going out of style” and “being felled.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

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