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.
Mook is an American slang term for a dull-witted or otherwise person of low status. It’s recorded as far back as February 1930 when it appears in The Judge magazine in an article by S. J. Perelman:
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Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.
A New Scrabble Champion
One may wonder at the detail and effort that fivethirtyeight.com put into this article on the national Scrabble championship, but really it’s no more silly than the amount of analysis that goes into football (soccer or the other one), baseball, or hockey.
Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad
I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.
Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.
In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.
Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.
This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.
The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.
Or you can download it from here.
In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…
We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.
Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat
zero gravity, zero g, microgravity
Zero gravity is one of those words that appears in science fiction before science and engineering had an actual need for it. Zero gravity, also called zero g or microgravity, is the state of weightlessness experienced in outer space (and, as we shall see, at the center of the earth).Read the rest of the article...
In modern English the word yard has two primary meanings: 1) a unit of linear measurement; 2) an open area near a house or other building. These are both yards, and they both come from Old English, the language spoken in England prior to the Norman conquest, but the two senses are different words with different origins.Read the rest of the article...
weapon of mass destruction / conventional weapon
Most people became aware of the term weapon of mass destruction during the run up to the first Gulf War in 1990–91. And it again entered the public consciousness during the second war with Iraq which started twelve years later. Both times Saddam Hussein had been thought to have developed these nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, an assessment that was only correct the first time. But the term is much older than widespread public awareness of it.Read the rest of the article...
conventional weapon / weapon of mass destruction
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