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.

ADS Word of the Year: #blacklivesmatter

The American Dialect Society has voted on its Word of the Year for 2014, choosing the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, which became the rallying cry on Twitter and other social media outlets for those protesting the failure to obtain indictments against the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. It is the first time the ADS has chosen a hashtag as its Word of the Year. The word hashtag itself was the society’s choice for 2012.

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merry, God rest you merry

It wasn’t even yet 7 am on New Year’s Day when I debunked my first word myth of the year. A friend sent me a newspaper article in which a university professor claims that the merry in the title of the Christmas carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen actually meant mighty or strong. “The word ‘merry’ means strong or mighty, as in ‘merry old England,’ and the word ‘rest’ means to keep or make. So the title translates to ‘God keep you mighty, gentlemen,’ and refers to the lamplighters and additional men hired to patrol during the holidays,” said the professor, who will remain nameless here out of my desire not to embarrass him for his slipshod research techniques.

The first stop for any inquiry into the English language should always be the OED. And had the professor done that, he would have discovered that God rest you merry is a catchphrase meaning may “God grant you peace and happiness,” and it dates to at least 1534. Besides the Christmas carol, its second most famous appearance is in Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (And one need not go to the OED. Wikipedia gets it right and even debunks the false meaning of merry.)

Where the idea that merry means strong or mighty comes from is a mystery, but as the Wikipedia entry testifies the mistaken idea has some currency. Merry has never been used to mean such. The modern word is from the Old English mirige, which meant pleasant, joyful, or sweet. No dictionary that I know of records merry as having a definition of strong or mighty at any time from the Old English period right up through the present.


Sources:

“merry, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2001.

“miri(e (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2013.

“mirige, adj.,” Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898.

“rest, v.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2010.

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God rest you merry, merry

See merry, God rest you merry

Strong Language

There’s a new blog in town, one aimed at “language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts.” Specifically, the blog Strong Language is all about vulgarities.

Strong Language is the brainchild of linguist James Harbeck and editor Stan Carey, who each have their own excellent language blogs. The blog also features contributions from other writers about language.

Posts in the first week of the blog’s existence have included a discussion of some of Francis Grose’s more salacious notes that never made it into any of the print editions of his eighteenth-century slang dictionary, a piece by Ben Zimmer on the shit-ins of the 1960s, and a post on dog excrement in medieval Ireland.

So if you like words and aren’t easily offended, check it out.

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English 3.0

Joe Gilbert has created English 3.0, a twenty-minute documentary on the state of the English language, featuring the likes of Tom Chatfield, David Crystal, Robert McCrum, Fiona McPherson and Simon Horobin.

English 3.0 from Joe Gilbert on Vimeo.

It’s quite good. One comment mentioned by several of those interviewed that I have my doubts about concerns the “revolution” in language due to the internet. The claim is that the language is changing faster than ever. I’m not so sure that is true. Rather, we may simply be noticing the change more. People are coining (and abandoning) new words at the same rate they always have. But now with the internet, we see them, where before the new coinage was confined to a small coterie of the coiner’s friends and acquaintances. The impact on lexicography is the danger that these words will be ephemeral and the dictionary will become filled with obsolescent coinages that had a brief flash of existence—words that never would have risen to the attention of lexicographer fifty years ago because they died too quickly.

(Tip o’ the Hat to Stan Carey over at the Sentence First blog.

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reeve, sheriff

I’ve lived in Toronto for over four years now, and still differences between how English is spoken here and how it is spoken down south in the States keep surprising me. Today I was reading one of my favorite blogs (Lowering the Bar, a blog on legal humor) and saw a reference to the reeve of Hanover, Manitoba. The blog helpfully defined reeve as “mayor.”

Now I’m a medievalist, and I’m familiar with the word—one that is primarily known from Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales—but I had no idea the term was still in use other than in historical contexts. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Canadian political lexicon has several such fossilized terms; another being riding, or a Canadian voting district. Reeve is just another example.

The word comes from the Old English gerefa, a title for a local official or magistrate, often one who supervises the financial affairs of a shire, county, or estate. The -ref root is of unknown origin. The phonological shift from /f/ to /v/ is a common one and in this word can be seen as early as the late Old English/early Middle English period.

In modern use, reeve is mainly a historical term, used to reference medieval officials, but it still survives up here in parts of Canada and in certain pockets of England as a title for modern officials. But the modern use that is probably most familiar is the word sheriff , which comes from the Old English scirgerefa, or shire-reeve.


Source:

“reeve, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2009.

“sheriff, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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