"OK" is both the most spoken and written word in the entire world. It's such a fundamental part of modern communication that it's hard to imagine the world without it, yet in spite of its ubiquity and compact versatility, "OK" is under two hundred years old. Today's episode tells the story of the word's origins in 19th century America. If the leading theory is correct, then OK might just be the most successful inside joke of all time.
The most popular usage of the word “Yankee” today is in the name of the baseball team, but etymologically, “Yankee” has nothing to do with baseball. “Yankee” is an elusive word whose definitive etymology is unknown and whose connotations change depending on who’s using the term. In today’s episode, we explore the word’s most likely etymology and consider the its implications from various points of view and time periods.
One of the most defining characteristics of the Standard American English accent is “rhoticity,” or the pronunciation of the letter R. Unlike Standard British English, Standard American English always pronounces the letter R regardless of its position within a word. In today’s episode, we trace the origins and evolutions of this feature of Standard American English. (Spoiler alert: The prevalence of American rhoticity has ebbed and flowed over time.)
The English spoken in America began to diverge from the English spoken in Britain shortly after British settlers first arrived in the New World. In today’s episode, we look at several ways how “Americanisms” began to form and how English speakers on the other side of the pond reacted to them.
In today's episode, I interview linguist, professor, blogger, and author Lynne Murphy about her book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. We talk about topics such as the British media's take on "Americanisms," nonsensical prescriptivism, national attitudes toward language, and so much more.
Lynne's blog, Separated by a Common Language:
To purchase The Prodigal Tongue:
"American English" is the variety of English spoken in the United States of America ... obviously. But is American English a language unto itself or a dialect of British English? In this episode, we discuss the differences between dialects and languages (if indeed there are any at all) from a linguistic point of view. Part 1 in a series on American English.
The name of “France” derives from the name of a Germanic tribe called the “Franks.” In addition to “France,” the name of the “Franks” also produced a handful of other common English words, such as frank, franchise, and Franklin, among others. Today, these words have little to do with France, but as we investigate their etymologies, subtle connections begin to emerge.
In today’s episode, we explore the etymological connection between Turkey the country and turkey the bird. Even though turkeys are native to North America, thanks to sixteenth century trade routes, they’re mistakenly named after a country on the other side of the world. We also explore how these trade routes influenced the words for “turkey” in other European languages.
The American city of "Cincinnati" derives a patriotic fraternal organization called "The Society of Cincinnati." The society itself is named after Cincinnatus, a legendary figure in Ancient Roman history. Revolutionary Americans saw Cincinnatus as an idealized epitome of political virtue. In today's episode, we explore Cincinnatus' life from the point of view of early American idealism. More specifically, we consider the parallels between the life of Cincinnatus and that of George Washington.
There are more names for Germany than there are for any other European country. This is due to a long history of disunity among Gemanic tribes and the geographical location of the Germanic homeland smack dab in the middle of Europe. In today’s episode, we explore the history and linguistic distribution of the etymological roots of Germany’s many international names.
The English name for the country of "Wales" is not native to Wales itself. It was named by AngloSaxon settlers in Britain as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Celtic neighbors on the island. The word "Wales" has cognates in all of the Germanic languages, yet most of these cognates have nothing to do with the modern country of Wales. In general, these cognates are associated with speakers of Romance languages throughout Europe. In today's episode, we connect the dots among these various cognates across languages.
Today's episode kicks off a new series on "toponymy," or the study of place names. In this general overview, we take a look at some of the historical and etymological trends that most often impact place names, such as colonialism and the commemoration of important individuals.
Nowadays, a “gym” is a place for fitness and exercise. It’s a shortening of the word “gymnasium,” which derives from the Greek word gymnasion. In the Ancient Greek world, a gymnasion was not only a place for exercise, but also a hub for philosophical study and learning. Today’s episode explores the evolution of the “gymnasium” as a cultural institution and also looks at how some of the word’s cognates in other lanaguges differ in meaning.
In the court system of Ancient Athens, the kategoria was a formal accusation. However, when the philosopher Aristotle borrowed the word kategoria to enumerate his “categories of being,” he intended it to mean the “highest order of classification.” Over the course of this episode, we explore the subtle link between an “accusation” and “categorization,” in addition to the philosophical side of Aristotle’s “Categories.”
The Modern English word "apology" derives from the Ancient Greek word "apologia." However, in the Ancient Greek work "Plato's Apology," Plato doesn't "apologize" for anything, at least not in the modern sense. That's because an "apology" was originally a "self-defensive" manner of speech. In this episode, we look at how this rhetorical technique developed into an expression of sincere regret.
In Modern English, "sophistication" is a desirable characteristic. However, the word derives from "sophistry," an Ancient Greek intellectual movement with a historically bad reputation. In today's episode, we consider this bad reputation from various perspectives and how it has impacted the development of "sophistic" words over the course of history.
In the pre-modern world, "philosophy" referred to all forms of intellectual knowledge. Today, the discipline of "philosophy" is just one aspect of the traditional field of philosophia, or "love of knowledge."
The pronoun "they" was borrowed into English from Old Norse. It's an odd borrowing because within a given language, the words for pronouns tend to remain consistent over time. In today's episode, we explore the entire history of "they," from its roots as Proto-Germanic demonstrative adjective to its modern usage as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in English.
Subjectification is a unique linguistic process by which a word evolves to reflect the subjective viewpoint of the speaker using it. For example, the word "very" used to mean "true," but over time, it lost its objectivity and merely became a way of emphasizing subjective points of view. In this episode, we explore this process in a broad sense and look at a few more examples.
The word "the" is the sole definite article in the English language. It's also the most common word in our language. However, for such a grammatically fundamental word, its history isn't as straightforward as one might think. Old English had a whopping twenty different forms of the definite article, all of which collapsed into the single, versatile word "the" by the time of Modern English. We discuss some of these older forms and their evolutions.
In this crossover episode, Steve and I discuss the linguistic influence of the King James Bible and some common English idioms that have Biblical etymologies.
The -ly suffix is a contraction hiding in plain sight. It is cognate with the word "like," and indeed, it literally means "like." "Sadly" is sad-like. "Madly" is mad-like. Amazingly, both "like" and "-ly" derive from a root word meaning "body or corpse." Over the course of this episode, we try to make sense of this semantic evolution.
To be or not to be? Well, if you're conjugating the verb, you're most likely using a form that does not sound like "to be." "To be" is the most irregular verb in the English language, and in today's episode, we explore why this is the case from historical and technical linguistic viewpoints.
Grammar is one of the defining features of language. In today's episode, we look at some of the fundamentals of grammar in general, and then take a brief tour through the historical evolution of English grammar itself. Part 1 in a five-part series.
Today's episode serves as an "epilogue" to the series on Biblical etymology. "Secular," of course, means "unaffiliated with religion," but originally, it was a word used to describe the measurement of long spans of time. Roughly equivalent to a century, the "saeculum," as it was known in Ancient Rome, was celebrated with pagan rituals, theater, and games. Pagan rituals ... how ironic. Over the course episode, we trace its development from antiquity to the 19th century philosophical movement.