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.

throw the book at

To throw the book at someone is to sentence them to the maximum penalty for a crime or offense. The term is an Americanism dating to the early years of the twentieth century. The “book” in question, however, is a bit uncertain.

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book, throw the b. at

See throw the book at.

Internet Quotes: Molly Ivins on Flag Burning

“I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag.”

This quotation, attributed to the late, great journalist Molly Ivins, has been making the rounds of the internet lately, in the wake of Donald Trump’s tweet about outlawing the burning of the U.S. flag. The quotation has all the hallmarks of greatness, it’s pithy and clever, and it uses a classic rhetorical device, antimetabole (repeating words in reverse order, another example of this device is “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”). Unfortunately, the quote doesn’t come from Ivins, at least not originally.

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patient zero

The term patient zero is an epidemiological term for the person who transmits an infection into a population that had been free of it. The OED records the first published use of the term being in Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, a book about the early years of the AIDS pandemic. Shilts identified a French-Canadian flight attendant by the name of Gaëtan Dugas as patient zero, the man who introduced AIDS into North America. But, it turns out, Shilts was dead wrong. Not only was Dugas unfairly blamed for being the source of the disease, the term itself arose out of a misinterpretation of nomenclature used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

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What English Will Sound Like In 100 Years

An online article by Michael Erard discusses the possible phonetic changes that English might go through in the coming decades and centuries. The best part of the article are three sound files of the opening lines of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, read in Old English, in modern Received Pronunciation, and in what English might sound like in a century’s time.

The article provides a good summary of the influences on English pronunciation and what kind of sound changes we might expect. But take any predictions, including the one in the audio file, with a grain of salt. While we know that English pronunciation will change, and we know what phonemes are more likely or less likely to change, we really have no clue what will actually change.

The other thing to consider is it is almost certain that there will be no single pronunciation for English. There will be hundreds of different varieties of English. English may not go the way of Latin and split into multiple, distinct dialects (i.e., French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), but even if it remains a global, mutually intelligible language, there will be considerable variation, just like there is today. There will be no single pronunciation of English in centuries time.

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Debunked: Students Can’t Write Anymore

I’m teaching four sections of first-year English composition this semester, so this subject is near and dear to my heart. Two Stanford researchers, Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, have conducted a longitudinal study of college freshman writing, comparing the results from students in 2006 with earlier studies from 1917, 1930, and 1986, and the results are quite surprising.

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950 Years Ago On This Date…

Her forðferde Eaduuard king, ך Harold eorl feng to ðam rice ך heold hit XL wucena ך ænne dæg, ך her com Willelm ך gewann Ængla land.

—The Parker Chronicle (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS. 173)

(In this year King Edward died, and the nobleman Harold succeeded to the kingdom and held it forty weeks and a day, and in this year William came and conquered England.)

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The Laureation of Bob Dylan

A colleague of mine from the University of Toronto, Chet Scoville, has written an excellent piece on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I want to expand on what he says.

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Green’s Dictionary of Slang

Green, Jonathan. Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang is the crowning achievement of a scholar who dedicated his career to the research of slang terms. It may be the finest slang dictionary available. It is, unfortunately, far to expensive for anyone who is not a library. But the good news is that the dictionary is available online for free, although the free version does not include access to the citations of use. If you want those, you have to subscribe. The online version contains updates from the print version.

There is another version of the dictionary that has been online since 2011 at Oxford Reference. This is a digital copy of the print version and does not contain the updates since that version was published. I don’t know if Oxford will continue to make this version available or if it will eventually contain the updates.

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