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.
Kryptonite in the OED
The latest additions to the OED Online includes an entry for kryptonite. Definition:
In the fictional world of the comic book hero Superman: a substance that renders Superman weak and powerless. Hence in figurative or allusive use: something that can weaken or damage a particular person or thing; an Achilles heel.
And the dictionary includes the following note:
Kryptonite is most commonly depicted as a green mineral that came to earth from Krypton, Superman’s home planet, following its destruction. Other types have appeared in various comic books, films, etc., each having different properties.
Kryptonite first appears on the Superman radio program in 1943. It’s comic book appearance dates from 1949. The earliest figurative use cited by the OED is from 1965.
The Word The Internet Didn’t Know
The word parbunkells got a flurry of press coverage starting a few days ago, such as this piece from Popular Mechanics. Artist Julia Weist rented a billboard in Queens to feature the word, claiming that it was a forgotten seventeenth-century word that did not appear on the internet. Gizmodo declared the word to be “dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.” Weist was trying to make a point about how information is shared over the internet, telling Gizmodo:
The word has also become a shortcut to a portrait of meaning making and content production on the Internet, both human and non-human, in the sense that you can search for it and see spools of information, reaction, conversation, re-context- ualization and response. In that sense it’s all or nothing, and now that word has been used, the more usage the better.
But she chose a bad example to make her point, and the mainstream media covering the story got a lot wrong.Read the rest of the article...
The Economist’s Prospero blog has a post on the necessity of teaching different registers of speech. It uses Portuguese as an example, which I can’t speak to, not knowing the language, but the fundamental point the article makes is a good one: “Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing.”
It’s a good point. Students are smart, and they instinctively know how to switch registers—they do it all the time in their own speech. The only thing that needs to be done is make them aware that they do it. It’s not a difficult concept.
Depicting World Languages
A neat visualization of the twenty-three most popular languages, depicted proportionally by the number of speakers.
The graphic was created by Alberto Lucas Lopéz for the South China Morning Post.
Data like this is always a bit suspect, but this chart is based on the information at Ethnologue.com, which is generally pretty good. The biggest problem is that it represents only the top twenty-three languages, leaving out the other six thousand or so. It also only captures L1, or first-language users. The total number of English speakers, for example, is much larger. It also fails to capture dialectal differences; for example Chinese is not as unified as the chart makes it out to be. Still, it’s a useful visualization in many ways.
For me, the most surprising thing in the image is the realization that French has relatively few speakers. There are some 87 million additional L2 speakers, but that’s still not a lot compared to the other languages on the chart. I would have guessed that it would have been much higher. Still, in the rankings of all world languages, French is in the top one percent.
Book Review: The Language Myth
Vyvyan Evans’s The Language Myth is something of a polemic. In the book Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in the UK, takes on the dominant paradigm of twentieth century linguistics, the universal grammar of Noam Chomsky, especially as popularized by Steven Pinker in books like The Language Instinct. Evans’s book is, to say the least, controversial, and I am not fully qualified to judge its merits. (But this being the internet, I’m going to anyway.)Read the rest of the article...
The word Luddite presents an interesting case of a word. It’s a word that was used for over a century, albeit rather rarely, to refer to a specific historical series of events. Then, in the late 1950s use of the word’s exploded, but with a subtle shift in its original meaning.Read the rest of the article...
A Tawdry Comic
Dinosaur Comics is one of my favorites, often riffing on linguistic issues. Today we get a double bonus: etymology and Anglo-Saxon history.
The short answer is that we don’t know for sure where the word dog comes from. Canis may be familiarus, but its name is something of a mystery.
The word docga does go back to Old English, but it appears only three times in the extant corpus of pre-Conquest writing, once in a gloss, and three times as part of a place name. The genitive plural form docgena glosses the Latin canum, and is used twice in the description of property boundaries in a charter: doggene ford (dog’s ford) and doggene berwe (dog’s hill). The place name doggiþorn (dog-thorn) appears in another charter. In the twelfth century, the surname Dogheafd (Doghead) is recorded, and several other surnames that use dog as an element date to the post-Conquest era.Read the rest of the article...
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton