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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Man Vs. Marine

The Washington Post reports that the U. S. Marine Corps is eliminating the word man from nineteen of its job titles. An infantryman will now be called an infantry marine, and what was once a field artillery man is now a field artillery marine. Some job titles are retaining the man, however. A marine can still be a rifleman. (How a rifleman differs from an infantry marine I don’t know. Perhaps someone with experience in the Corps can enlighten us.) But manpower officers and marksmanship instructors keep their existing titles.

The move is a result of combat arms positions becoming open to women and is in line with similar shifts in civilian nomenclature that happened decades ago, like policeman to police officer and fireman to firefighter. The changes are quite sensible and in a reasonable world would be uncontroversial. Even the retention of man in some job titles generally follows a logic: retained where it is part of a larger term with no clear gender-neutral replacement (e.g., marksmanship, unmanned) or in places where man is used to refer to staffing (e.g., manpower). Rifleman remains the anomaly. Perhaps it’s being retained for historical and cultural reasons—the identity of the rifleman is so central to the Corps’ vision of itself that it would be anathema to change the word. Or perhaps it was a bureaucratic sop thrown to those on the committee that resisted the changes.

The move is not without its detractors, though. The Post article includes the usual complaints about political correctness, but I haven’t seen any reasoned responses against the move. They all seem to be kneejerk reactions against change. And if anything, by replacing man with marine, the Corps is further strengthening its aura of being a breed apart. You’re not just a man, you’re a marine.

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Woody Words

This classic popped up on my Facebook feed today:

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The sense of rap meaning a blow or strike is probably echoic in origin. Much like tap and clap, it represents the sound of the blow. The earliest citation in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary is from the poem Roland and Vernagu, found in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 19.2.1), which was copied c. 1330. The passage depicts a battle between the knight Roland and the giant Vernagu:

Þai gun anoþer fiȝt,
And stones togider þrewe.
Gode rappes for þe nones,
Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones,
That sete swithe sore.

(They began another fight, and together threw stones. For the moment, they gave good raps with the stones very violently in that place.)

The verb appears a few decades later.

This basic sense of a blow has spawned three metaphorical senses that are in common use today. (There are lots of different senses, but I’m focusing on these three that are probably of the most interest.) A rap can also be a criminal charge or accusation, a discussion, or a genre of music.

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Blue Letter Bible

A website for exploring the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.

Diccionario Etimológico

A Spanish etymological dictionary.

Deutsches Wörterbuch (Grimm)

Grimm’s dictionary of German (1854–1961) is available online through the University of Trier.

American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots

The Indo-European roots appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary is available as a separate volume. A solid, yet inexpensive resource if you want to trace an etymology to the earliest possible source.


Brigham Young University hosts a number of searchable corpora of English usage. The site is an invaluable resource for determining how words and phrases are used in different genres and registers, regions, and dates.

Corpora on the site include:

Newspapers on the Web (NOW) Corpus, 2.8 billion words, 2010–present

Global Web-Based English, 1.9 billion words, 2012–13

Wikipedia Corpus, 1.9 billion words, up to 2014

Hansard Corpus (British Parliament), 1.6 billion words, 1803-2005

Corpus of Contemporary American English, 520 million words, 1990–2015

Corpus of Historical American English, 400 million words, 1810–2009

TIME Magazine Corpus, 100 million words, 1923–2006

Corpus of American Soap Operas, 100 million words, 2001–12

British National Corpus, 100 million words, 1980–93

Strathy Corpus (Canada), 50 million words, 1970–2010

Corpus of Online Registers of English (CORE), 50 million words, up to 2014

Corpus del Español, 100 million words, 1200–2000

Corpus do Português, 45 million words, 1300–2000

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