Robots are a staple of science fiction and increasingly an important part of life in our present-day world. The word comes from the Czech robota, a word literally meaning forced labor, but which is also used figuratively to mean drudgery, hard work. Robota has cognates in several Slavic languages, and the use of robot in English to refer to the system of serfdom in Eastern Europe dates to the early nineteenth century.

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America’s First Book

The Old South Church in Boston has sold one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book for $14.2 million dollars, making it the most expensive printed book in history. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is the first book printed in North America. Eleven copies of the first edition are extant. While this is the highest price fetched for a printed book, it’s not the the most expensive book ever; a handwritten notebook of Leonardo da Vinci sold for $30.8 million in 1994.

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Dinosaur Comics on Overmorrow

Dinosaur Comics does it again.

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quick, quicksilver

The meaning of words change over time. But when a particular sense of a word falls out of general use, sometimes the old meaning sticks around in idiomatic and stock phrases. Such is the case with quick, which did not always mean fast, rapid.

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12 Grammar Myths

Jonathan Owen over at the Arrant Pedantry blog has a list of twelve mistakes that people tend to make when opining about “grammar.” It’s a comprehensive and sensible encapsulation. (I’ve been trying to compile a similar list for the past few years, but keep getting distracted.)

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pork, pork barrel

If you watch the Sunday morning political talk shows or 24-hour cable TV news, you will inevitably hear talk of pork, government funds dispensed by politicians to win favor from their constituents. But why pork? Where does the term come from?

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Video: The Making of a Book, 1925

Running eighteen minutes, this film is a bit long, but it’s a must see for anyone interested in the history of publishing. The 1925 silent film documents the entire process of creating a book, from creating the type to loading the volumes on a truck for distribution. It features Oxford’s Clarendon press and at some points you see the Oxford English Dictionary being printed and bound.

Tip o’ the Hat to Lexicon Valley

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It is quite common for a word with a specific and literal meaning to develop figurative or metaphorical meanings that are related to the literal one. And sometimes we can see this same change across multiple languages. Such is the case with polite. The Latin verb polire means to smooth, to polish, and its past participle, politus, and adverbial form, polite, came in that language to mean cultured or refined, a metaphorical polish.

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Hwæt you say?

The opening line of Beowulf has always posed a bit of problem for translators:

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

The problem is exactly what the word hwæt is doing. Hwæt is the etymological ancestor of the modern what, but the Old English word’s semantic and grammatical functions are not the same as the modern word’s. Most translators have treated it as an exclamation, along the lines “listen!” or “lo!” rendering the line as something along the lines of:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the folk-kings of the Spear-Danes in days past, how the noble ones performed acts of courage.

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Occupy is a verb with many shades of meaning, but these senses fall into two broad categories. The word comes from the Anglo-Norman and Old French verb occupier or occuper, meaning to keep busy or to hold, and these two meanings remain the two broad categories in use today. 

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