Archive for the ‘Etymology’ Category

English without the letter G

Posted on September 30th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, Etymology | Leave a Comment »

What would the English language be like without the letter G?

An intriguing article at explores this question. The letter C used to represent the sounds of both ‘g’ and ‘c’. It was only after the invasion of William the Conqueror and the adoption of French as the lingua franca that the two were represented by different letters.

Both G and C have their origin in the Phoenician letter gimel, which meant “camel,” and looked something like an upside-down V (think of a camel’s hump—which, some believe may have been the inspiration for the letter’s shape). The Phonecians used gimel to indicate a sound that is equivalent to our present-day G (like the sound in “got”).

The Greeks borrowed gimel from the Phoenicians and renamed it gamma. Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks used the letter to represent the guttural G sound. When the Romans adopted gamma from the Greeks, however, they made a significant change. (Source:

Could we go back to having no ‘g’? What do you think?

Nonsense words game

Posted on September 25th, 2012by Michelle
In Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

I enjoy playing word games, and recently came across this one on Sporcle.

You’ve got 10 minutes to try and match 26 ‘nonsense’ words to their definition or etymology.

I got a fairly dismal 11 in 3 minutes; can you do better?

English words borrowed from India

Posted on July 13th, 2012by Michelle
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Have you ever heard of the Hobson-Jobson dictionary?

Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell began work on it in 1872. The dictionary started as a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India, and hasn’t been out of print since it was first published. It’s much more than a dictionary though:

“It’s a madly unruly and idiosyncratic work,” says poet Daljit Nagra.

“Not so much an orderly dictionary as a passionate memoir of colonial India. Rather like an eccentric Englishman in glossary form.”

Take the entry for the Indian word dam. The dictionary defines it as: “Originally an actual copper coin. Damri is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say: ‘No, I won’t give a dumree!’ with but a vague notion what a damri meant.”

That is the etymology of dam. But Yule and Burnell have more to say.

“And this leads to the suggestion that a like expression, often heard from coarse talkers in England as well as in India, originated in the latter country, and that whatever profanity there may be in the animus, there is none in the etymology, when such an one blurts out ‘I don’t care a dam!’ in other words, ‘I don’t care a brass farthing!’” (Source: BBC News)

Some words we use that have Indian origins:

Avatar, cashmere, guru, loot

Gaelic words used in English

Posted on June 28th, 2012by Michelle
In Culture, English, Etymology, Irish | Leave a Comment »

Despite having met many Irish people, I’ve yet to visit the Republic of Ireland. It seems that some Irish words may have crept into my speech anyway!

The Oxford English Dictionary has been researching words with Gaelic origins; the research even featured on Countdown! David Cameron and friends might be interested to find that the word “Tory” actually derives from the Irish word “tóraidhe”.

According to OED lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin, the oldest borrowing from Irish into English is “mind”. This is from the Irish “mionn”, “an obsolete term for a type of ornament attested in Old English”.

The most recent imports from Irish to English are “craic”, “punt” and “fleadh”.

“There was a steady trickle of Irish loanwords into English from the 15th through 18th centuries, but this increased to a flood during the 1800s,” said Ms Connor Martin.

“Oddly enough, this apex of Irish imports in English coincided with a period of steep and decisive decline for the Irish language itself.

“The 19th century was also a period of mass emigration, during which Irish immigrants streamed to the rest of the UK and to North America, taking their distinctive vocabularies with them.” (Source: Irish Examiner)

David Crystal’s English in 100 Words

Posted on April 20th, 2012by Michelle
In English, Etymology | 1 Comment »

Last October, I highlighted the linguist David Crystal’s new book, The Story of English in 100 Words.

It appears the book has just come out in America, as Crystal has given a fairly lengthy interview to NPR. You can listen to the interview and read some extracts over at NPR’s website. My favourite extract is this, about the origins of ‘OK’.

On the origins of ‘OK’

“One of the reasons why I love it is because of the point that Roger has made, and that is that it has had so many guesses for its origins. I stopped counting at 50.

“I think we do now know where OK comes from. There was a great American lexicographer called Allen Walker Read, who many years ago did a huge study and found out that the word ‘OK’ first appeared in the 1830s … in a newspaper in Boston. Because at the time, there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters.

“And OK came, at that point in time, from ‘oll korrect,’ … O-L-L for ‘all,’ and K-O-R-R-E-C-T for ‘correct.’ Now, there were dozens of other abbreviations in the Boston newspaper at the time, and most of them had disappeared. But this one didn’t. OK stayed. And the reason is it had a completely fresh boost of life the following year, when it began to be used as a slogan in the U.S. elections in 1840.”

How to name a volcano

Posted on June 2nd, 2010by Michelle
In Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

Back in April I posted about how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull, the troublesome Icelandic volcano.

A friend sent me this amusing cartoon from The Oatmeal, so I thought I’d share.


*Oops, the image doesn’t seem display fully, so go check it out over on The Oatmeal’s website.

The Atlas of True Names

Posted on January 13th, 2010by Michelle
In English, Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

The Atlas of True NamesWe know that all words have origins, and place names probably have some of the most interesting origins.

When I attended school in London as a child, we learned about the history of the city partly through place and street names – Pudding Lane for example, was where the Great Fire of London started, and Rotten Row is a corruption of ‘route du roi’ (road of king). (If you’re interested in this subject, check out this website).

The Atlas of True Names is a set of world maps where the traditional names of cities, countries and geographical features have been replaced with words showing their origins and literal meanings. The results are surprising and intriguing, with London renamed the somewhat less substantial “Unfordable River Town” and Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, becoming “Sibling Love”.

As some language commentators have pointed out though, it’s best not to take the map too seriously – some of the etymology may be disputed or incorrect. As a way to look at the world in a different light and discover the fun of words though, it’s a great resource. And as the cartographers say:

“We wanted to let the Earth tells its own story,” Stephan Hormes, who produced the maps together with his wife Silke Peust, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The names give you an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children. Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw.” (Source: Der Spiegel)

Take a look at a slideshow of the maps here.


Posted on September 28th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Etymology, Language acquisition, Words | Leave a Comment »

Phantom maskI came across an interesting article in the New York Times about words that look as though they mean one thing but mean another – the author suggested they be named phantonyms.

These words crop up so often in the English language that their ‘new’ meanings are becoming more and more accepted. Here are some examples from the article:

Disinterested is occasionally used as if it means uninterested — indifferent or bored. For example, a Times article in February 2008 described Senator Joseph Lieberman as “so disinterested in the Democratic presidential candidates” that he didn’t vote in the primary. Nine out of 10 American Heritage Dictionary authorities would reject that usage. The favored definition is unbiased or impartial, as in Adam Liptak’s article in The Times in March 2008 about foreign judges: “Punishments, they say, should be meted out only by the criminal justice system . . . and disinterested prosecutors.”

Enervated. Appearances can be deceiving, as when an NPR commentator described the men fighting a fire in Nevada as tired but enervated by their progress. The word, a phantonym of energized, in fact means weakened.

Fortuitous looks like lucky, as it did to an official at N.Y.U. when Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accepted an appointment as a professor: “It was so fortuitous,” she said. But the word means “happening by chance,” says The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage. “It does not mean fortunate.”

Can you think of any other phantonyms?

Lexpionage and other new words

Posted on July 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

WordspyOne of my favourite sites on the web is Word Spy, “the word lover’s guide to new words”.

The site’s been running since at least the mid-90’s, as far as I can tell, and provides an interesting historical glance of buzzwords through the times. If you click on the link ‘Top 100 posts’ for example, it gives you a rundown of the top hundred most-visited words from the past seven days. When I checked, such diverse notions as “Wikipedia kid” (added June 30 2009), “tankini” (March 23 2000) and “nanny-cam” (March 5 1996) appeared on the list.

Clicking on the word will give you a definition, example citation and earliest citation, as well as a list of related words and categories. Whilst I would say that a lot of the words on the site appear to be more trendy than useful and will most likely disappear from usage as quickly as they have appeared, it’s definitely amusing to see what writers will come up with.

Perhaps one of my favourite words from the site is from its founder, whose bio on his Twitter page states: “Word Spy is devoted to “lexpionage,” the sleuthing of new words and phrases”. “Lexpionage”. Brilliant.

A very large book

Posted on July 17th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English DictionaryHaving posted previously about dictionaries, now it’s the turn of the dictionary companion – the thesaurus.

Oxford University Press has announced that the world’s largest thesaurus is due to be published in the autumn. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, to give it the full name, contains 800,000 meanings in over 230,000 categories, with the project taking over forty years to complete. Started in 1965, the Press originally used classifications from Roget’s, but the authors had to start a new system when it became obvious this was not detailed enough.

The thesaurus has an interesting history, having survived fire and funding problems, along with the above mentioned new classification system. Not to mention all the new words that have been added to the English language since 1965… One of the co-authors, Professor Christian Kay, has been with the project almost since the beginning – starting work when she was 27, she is now 69 and has survived several of the project’s founders.

Apparently the aim is to link the thesaurus to the online Oxford English Dictionary, but no date has yet been set for this – let’s hope it doesn’t take another 40 years! In the meantime, if you’d like to buy your own copy of the thesaurus, it’s a snip at just £250.

See the full article from the BBC here.