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.

National Grammar Day

I don’t celebrate National Grammar Day. I think the idea is silly and anathema to true language lovers, and I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned it on this website before.

But Dennis Baron at the University of Illinois has a blog post that I think perfectly captures the true meaning of National Grammar Day.

[Discuss this post]

Early English Text Society

Here is a nice blog post about the 150th anniversary of the Early English Text Society. EETS publishes scholarly editions of Old and Middle English texts which are an invaluable resource to anyone studying medieval language and literature. (I just did a count, and I have seventeen EETS volumes on my shelves.) Without EETS most of these works would never be found outside of manuscripts held in a handful of libraries in Europe. The EETS web site is here.

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enthusiasm, enthuse

The meanings of words change over time. Sometimes words become more specialized; the Old English deor was used to refer to any kind of wild beast, but by the end of the thirteenth century had started to be used specifically to refer to the creature we now call a deer. Other words become more general; one such is enthusiasm.

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Grammatical Superpendantry

An excellent refutation of an all-too-common problem.

[Tip o’ the Hat to Languagehat]

[Discuss this post]

callow

Callow is a word that dates back to the beginnings of the English language, but it has shifted in meaning significantly over the past eleven-hundred years. Today it means ‘inexperienced, green,’ and it often appears in the phrase callow youth. But way back when it was associated with aging, for in Old English the word calu meant ‘bald.’

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chauvinism

Today we associate chauvinism with sexism, the belief that men are superior to women, but this is a relatively recent development in the word’s history. The original sense of the word was superpatriotism, the blind, bellicose, and unswerving belief that one’s country is always in the right.

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blitz

Blitz is a clipping of blitzkrieg, the German word meaning lightning war, which referred to the high-speed, offensive tactics used by the German army in the opening months of World War II. In English, blitz originally referred to a sudden, violent military attack, especially one by air, or as a verb to conduct such an attack. And the blitz refers to the German air raids on London during 1940.

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awesome, awful

When I type awesome into the search box on urbandictionary.com,* the first definition that pops up is “something Americans use to describe everything,” and the second is “a ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabularies. It is one of the three words which make up most American sentances [sic]. The American vocabulary consists of just three words: Omygod, awesome and shit.” Both these definitions date to 2006, and presumably both are from Britons. (The second is written by the aptly named “Spleenvent.”) In addition to demonstrating the validity of McKean’s Law, which states that any criticism of another’s language will itself contain at least one error, these definitions are pretty good, if highly informal, descriptions of how the word is used today.  You have to go to the third entry to find a “real” definition: “formidable, amazing, heart-stirring, wonderful. Veronica Mars fans are awesome.” But this state of affairs was not always so. 

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awful, awesome

See awesome, awful.

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