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Review: Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words

I’ve been a bit leery of The Great Courses , a line of products that offers downloadable lectures by university professors. The idea combines two things that I have problems with: the whole massive open online course (MOOC) idea and paying for internet content.

MOOCs, or at least the way they’ve been touted as the savior of higher education, are problematic for a lot of reasons, but none of them apply to The Great Courses. One thing that MOOCs are good for is offering course content to those who simply want to learn—an open university. As to the second, I listen to a lot of audio podcasts—when I’m walking the dog or riding the subway into work. And there’s a lot of great audio content that is free (that is offered at no charge by the creator; I’m not talking about pirated stuff), so paying for content seems wasteful. And to one living on a grad student’s stipend, free is important. But it’s not just a personal problem; The Great Courses offerings are expensive, often running $200 or more for a course. 

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OxfordWords Blog: Jazz & Baseball

I’ve done a piece on the OxfordWords Blog on the origins of jazz and the word’s connection to baseball. There is no new breakthrough or original contribution here—I’m standing on the shoulders of giants—but if you’re not familiar with how jazz got its name, it should be of interest.

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The word gospel has a rather straightforward etymology. It’s an alteration of the Old English godspell, a compound of god (good) + spell (news, account). In Old English usage the meaning was not restricted to the four books of the Christian Bible that detail the life of Christ—although it was used in that restricted sense too—but the word could also be used to refer to the body of texts that professed Christian doctrine. And even though the word is made up entirely of Germanic roots, the word was influenced by Latin and Greek.

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Maundy Thursday

The day before Good Friday is often called Maundy Thursday, but that term is a bit mysterious to most modern English speakers. Outside of the name of the holiday, maundy isn’t a word we much use anymore. The word comes to us from the Anglo-Norman, the dialect of French spoken in post-Conquest England, mandet or mandé, and ultimately from the Latin mandatum (commandment).

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Good Friday

Good Friday is the day that Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, which leads many people to ask “what’s so ‘good’ about it?” That’s a fair question, and the answer is that good has been used to designate a number of religious holidays. In Old and Middle English, the adjective god (good) could mean ‘pious, devout, morally perfect,’ so the good in Good Friday is a linguistic relic meaning ‘holy.’

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Fæhða Gemyndig: Hostile Acts vs. Enmity

This article of mine was published in the journal Neophilologus in March 2015 (online; print publication date is TBA). It’s behind a paywall, but the copyright conditions allow me to make an earlier draft available, which can be downloaded here.

The topic is pretty esoteric and will probably not be of interest to most of you, but if you’re so inclined to read it, knock yourselves out.


This article systematically examines all sixty-seven instances of the word fǣhþ in the Old English corpus and proposes that instead of the traditional definition of “feud, hostility, enmity,” the word more usually means (1) a specific hostile act or offense, especially homicide, (2) the punishment inflicted for such an offense, or (3) general violence or mayhem. It also examines the lexicographic history of the word and why the traditional definition has lingered despite being problematic. The analysis begins with the word’s use in Anglo-Saxon law codes, where it has a more concrete and precise definition than in poetry and because in poetic works fǣhþ is often used with verbs commonly found in legal usage, such as stǣlan (to accuse, charge with a crime). From the legal codes the analysis moves on to other prose and poetic works, where the word is often used more figuratively, encompassing concepts such as sin—offenses against God—and other unsavory acts. This re-examination of fǣhþ’s meaning usefully checks the impulse to translate it as “feud” in contexts that do not support the idea of perpetual or ongoing hostility, while still allowing translators to deliberately choose to use “feud” or “enmity” where the context justifies it. Recognition that fǣhþ usually means “hostile act” also opens new interpretations of its poetic uses, such as how a connotation of crime affects the view of characters who commit it, the emphasis on injury it introduces, and the legal associations the word brings into the poems.

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An End for DARE?

It seems that the Dictionary of American Regional English is once again on the chopping block. The project narrowly escaped that fate two years ago, but is once again on the brink of ending.

That in a country as wealthy as the United States, that a scholarly project so important, and so relatively inexpensive, as DARE could go without funding is a crime.

The print dictionary has been published, but that ‘s not the end of the project. The web site needs to be maintained and the data, originally collected on paper, needs to be digitized. And then there is the updating for new editions as American English changes.

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SCOTUS and the Adverbial “Way”

Lowering the Bar is one of my favorite blogs. But since it deals primarily with legal humor, I don’t mention it much.

Yesterday, however, Kevin Underhill, the blogger and lawyer, posted a review of the history of the adverbial way in legal opinions. In a recent opinion, Justice Kagan wrote:

Moreover, Omnicare way overstates both the looseness of the inquiry Congress has mandated and the breadth of liability that approach threatens.

Underhill points out that this is not is not the first time Kagan has used the word in a Supreme Court opinion. Back in 2013 she wrote:

Amex has put Italian Colors to this choice: Spend way, way, way more money than your claim is worth, or relinquish your Sherman Act rights.

Lower courts have used way in this fashion since 1998, or 1992 if you count cases where the way was placed in quotation marks. And the OED records it in general usage back as far as 1941.

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National Grammar Day

I don’t celebrate National Grammar Day. I think the idea is silly and anathema to true language lovers, and I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned it on this website before.

But Dennis Baron at the University of Illinois has a blog post that I think perfectly captures the true meaning of National Grammar Day.

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