The word triumph comes to us from Latin, but its usual meaning in that language is not the one we commonly give to it in English. To the ancient Romans, a triumphus was a parade celebrating a great military victory. The victorious general would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome to the steps of the Senate, a slave standing beside him holding a crown of laurels over his head. The general’s army would follow, leading the defeated enemy commander, captured slaves, and great wagons of spoils from the victory. The day was a holiday and the entire city would turn out to cheer, to feast, and to drink. Roman poets also used the word triumphus to refer to the victory itself, as did later prose writers in Imperial Rome. But this second sense was relatively rare in Latin, and the word usually referred only to the processional and accompanying celebrations.

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Who We Are

Dave Wilton

Dave Wilton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, working on a dissertation that examines how metaphors in Old English literature can explicate Anglo-Saxon ideas and conceptions of the mind, agency, and free will. Dave 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 Her duties include reception and greeting of visitors, multiple daily perambulations, self-defenestration, mastication of assorted objects, and olfactory investigations.


Christian doesn’t have a particularly surprising or unusual etymology, but it is a good example of the care one must take when consulting a dictionary. If one looks up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and then takes a casual read of the entry, one may be deceived into thinking that the word’s use in English is surprisingly recent, dating only to the sixteenth century, and begin to wonder what English Christians called themselves before that time. Dictionaries are sophisticated references, and one must understand how the one you are using is edited before drawing conclusions.

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Hwæt You Say? (Redux)

Back in November, George Walkden published a paper on the Old English word hwæt and how it is used in in Old English poetry, most famously in the opening lines of Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

My previous post summarizing Walkden’s article is here. But in a nutshell, Walkden says that instead of translating hwæt as an independent interjection “Listen!” “Lo!”, as is usually done, that it is part of a larger exclamative phrase, “How have we heard the glory...” Walkden uses statistical analysis of the word’s use in four works, three Old English and one Old Saxon, to make his case.

In his blog, Phenomenal Anglo Saxons, Peter Buchanan has challenged Walkden’s statistics, saying that his results are insufficient to draw a general conclusion about how the word is used in Old English. For anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend Peter’s blog post. And if you’re not especially interested in the Old English, but want to know what the heck a p-value is, you should also give it a read. It’s one of the clearest explanations of statistical significance that I’ve seen. Not only does Peter walk through the mathematical process for determining p-value, but he explains exactly how the measure should and shouldn’t be used.

[Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine, who finished up his PhD here at Toronto last year. We share the same dissertation advisor.]

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Tidy is one of those words whose origin seems unfathomable, but when you learn it suddenly becomes patently obvious. 

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The name of the city in which I currently live is from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “trees standing in the water.” The name is a good example of how place names can shift geographically. It is not unusual for a name to start in one place and, over time, move to eventually become associated with a different place entirely. It also has a long-standing false etymology attached to it.

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If you look at terrific, the origin is rather obvious. The form, or morphology, of the word gives it away, although from its meaning you would never guess where it comes from. Terrific is from the Latin terrificus, meaning frightening. Despite it coming from classical Latin, terrific doesn’t enter English use until the early modern era. The first writer known to use it is John Milton in his 1667 Paradise Lost. Milton uses it in the sense of frightening as he describes the creation and lists many of the animals that God has created:

The Serpent suttl’st Beast of all the field,
Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes
And hairie Main terrific, though to thee
Not noxious, but obedient at thy call. (7.495–98)

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Something that is tawdry is cheap and gaudy. The word dates to the seventeenth century, and was also a noun, meaning “cheap, showy finery,” although only the adjective is much used today. In his 1676 play The Plain Dealer, William Wycherley writes of

taudry affected Rogues, well drest.

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Words come into and go out of fashion. Sometimes, a particular word will catch a wave of popularity and become overused to the point where it becomes essentially meaningless and is used primarily to show that the speaker is fashionable and up on the latest trends. Such words are buzzwords, and you often see them in business writing, as firms indicating through their language that they are on the cutting edge of their field by using cutting edge language. A good example of a buzzword is synergy. The word hit its peak of popularity in the early 1980s. It is still common, but perhaps not as overused as it once was.

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Speed is a word with a rather straightforward etymology, but one with several archaic meanings that may be surprising to some. It is from the Old English word sped, which, among other senses, carried the meaning of quickness, swiftness that we are familiar with today.

In Old English the sense of quickness was a secondary and rarer sense of the word. In the extant literature it only appears in the dative plural form spedum and is used adverbially to mean speedily. (In Old English the dative plural of a noun can function as an adverb.) For example, there are these lines from the Old English poem Genesis, 2033–35:

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