Hwæt You Say? (Redux)

Back in November, George Walkden published a paper on the Old English word hwæt and how it is used in in Old English poetry, most famously in the opening lines of Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

My previous post summarizing Walkden’s article is here. But in a nutshell, Walkden says that instead of translating hwæt as an independent interjection “Listen!” “Lo!”, as is usually done, that it is part of a larger exclamative phrase, “How have we heard the glory...” Walkden uses statistical analysis of the word’s use in four works, three Old English and one Old Saxon, to make his case.

In his blog, Phenomenal Anglo Saxons, Peter Buchanan has challenged Walkden’s statistics, saying that his results are insufficient to draw a general conclusion about how the word is used in Old English. For anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend Peter’s blog post. And if you’re not especially interested in the Old English, but want to know what the heck a p-value is, you should also give it a read. It’s one of the clearest explanations of statistical significance that I’ve seen. Not only does Peter walk through the mathematical process for determining p-value, but he explains exactly how the measure should and shouldn’t be used.

[Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine, who finished up his PhD here at Toronto last year. We share the same dissertation advisor.]

[Discuss this post]


Tidy is one of those words whose origin seems unfathomable, but when you learn it suddenly becomes patently obvious. 

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The name of the city in which I currently live is from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “trees standing in the water.” The name is a good example of how place names can shift geographically. It is not unusual for a name to start in one place and, over time, move to eventually become associated with a different place entirely. It also has a long-standing false etymology attached to it.

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If you look at terrific, the origin is rather obvious. The form, or morphology, of the word gives it away, although from its meaning you would never guess where it comes from. Terrific is from the Latin terrificus, meaning frightening. Despite it coming from classical Latin, terrific doesn’t enter English use until the early modern era. The first writer known to use it is John Milton in his 1667 Paradise Lost. Milton uses it in the sense of frightening as he describes the creation and lists many of the animals that God has created:

The Serpent suttl’st Beast of all the field,
Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes
And hairie Main terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call. (7.495–98)

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Something that is tawdry is cheap and gaudy. The word dates to the seventeenth century, and was also a noun, meaning “cheap, showy finery,” although only the adjective is much used today. In his 1676 play The Plain Dealer, William Wycherley writes of

taudry affected Rogues, well drest.

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Words come into and go out of fashion. Sometimes, a particular word will catch a wave of popularity and become overused to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless and is used primarily to show that the speaker is fashionable and up on the latest trends. Such words are buzzwords, and you often see them in business writing, as firms indicating through their language that they are on the cutting edge of their field by using cutting edge language. A good example of a buzzword is synergy. The word hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s. It is still common, but perhaps not as overused as it once was.

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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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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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