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.

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.

Chomsky Rebutted

Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello have penned a rather thorough take down of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar in Scientific American. While highly critical, it’s also one of the clearest explanations of Chomsky’s work that I’ve seen.

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A New Type of Turing Test

In 1950, computer pioneer Alan Turing formulated his famous test for determining whether or not a computer was true artificial intelligence (AI). It involved discourse between humans and a computer, and if the humans could not tell whether they were speaking to a another person or to a machine, then the machine was “intelligent.” A neat idea, but when put in to practice it’s been found to be too easy to fake.

Over the years various improvements to the Turing test have been suggested, and one recent AI challenge used a rather nifty linguistic approach, outlined by this article in the Neurologica blog. At its core, the test, known as the Winograd schema, asks the AI to determine the referent of an pronoun in a sentence. The pronoun would be ambiguous except for one word that provides the necessary context. For example:

The trophy would not fit in the brown suitcase because it was too big.

What does it refer to, the trophy or the suitcase?

In the sentence, big can be replaced with small, which alters the context and the identity of the referent. Humans have no difficulty getting the correct answer (it refers to the trophy when the adjective is big and the suitcase when the adjective is small), but in the challenge the AI performed dismally, with only the best scores equal to chance guessing.

While I suspect that there are probably as many issues with the Winograd schema as there are with the original Turing test, it’s a neat use of language to test reasoning ability.

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10K Twitter Followers

Wordorigins.org now has over 10,000 followers on Twitter. (We actually broke that barrier some time ago, but I’m in the midst of moving to Texas, so I’ve been slow in conveying the news.)

The site’s Twitter handle is @wordorigins. I generally post when I’ve added an article to the site, an entry to the Big List, or when a new topic arises in the discussion forums. If you’re old school and follow us via the site’s RSS or Atom feeds, the Twitter feed would be a duplication.

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Who We Are

Dave Wilton

Dave Wilton has a PhD in medieval English Literature from the University of Toronto and teaches writing at Texas A&M University. His research focus is cognitive approaches to Old English lit, and his dissertation examines how metaphors in Old English literature can explicate Anglo-Saxon ideas and conceptions of the mind, agency, and free will. Dave also has an M.A. from George Washington University in National Security Policy Studies and a B.A. from Lafayette College in Government and Law. He is also the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004).

In past lives, Dave has worked as a marketing writer/editor and as a product manager for 3D graphics and digital television technologies at NVIDIA and OpenTV, for Science Applications International Corporation as a manager of programs that dismantled the nuclear stockpiles of the former Soviet Union, and as an arms control negotiator for the Pentagon.


Lila is the staff assistant here at Wordorigins.org. Her duties include reception and greeting of visitors, multiple daily perambulations, self-defenestration, mastication of assorted objects, and olfactory investigations.

Spelling Reform

Anatoly Liberman is one of the leading etymologists out there, author of Word Origins and How We Know Them and the Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology. I did not know until recently, however, that he is also an advocate of English spelling reform. Linguist John McWhorter recently interviewed him regarding that subject for Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast.

Now there is no denying that English spelling is a mess. There an S in island for no phonological or etymological reason. Whole and hole are pronounced the same but spelled differently, and even the most skilled writers occasionally slip when it comes to lead / led and principle / principal. It would be nice if we could fix English spelling, but is such a project possible? And even if we could reform it, would it be worth the effort. The answer, to my mind, is no.

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