speed

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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sophisticated

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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keener

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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whole nine yards, the

Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the phrase, the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The origin of the phrase has long been a mystery, but recently researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake has uncovered the phrase’s origin, or at least gotten as close to the origin as anyone is likely to get. And in what may be a surprise to many (but perhaps not to those with long experience researching slang terms), the phrase doesn’t refer to anything in particular. The “nine” doesn’t seem to hold any significance, nor does “yards” measure anything in particular.

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slim

When we say someone is slim, we usually mean that they are slender or thin, although the word has some other, less common, meanings. English use of the adjective dates to at least 1657,
We shall see, however, that the word may be older. Slim is borrowed from Dutch and comes from the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German slim or slem, where the word meant slanting or crooked. And oddly, English use of the word has always been “gracefully slender,” with a positive connotation. While in Dutch the word has both positive and negative connotation, and in modern German, its counterpart schlimm means bad or wicked.

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Dictionary of Medieval Latin Completed

After one hundred years in the making, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has been completed. The sixteenth and final volume will be officially published on 11 December. The dictionary, which has over 58,000 entries, includes words used in Anglo-Latin from 540–1600 C.E.

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shrewd, shrew

When we say someone is shrewd, we are saying that they are clever, astute, and exhibit a practical intelligence and insight, but this was not always so. Some seven hundred years ago, a shrewd person was an evil or malicious one.

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