The meanings of "parabola" and "parable" have very little to do with one another, yet these words are etymological doublets of a single Greek work, parabole, which meant "a throwing aside". In this episode, we explore how this literal meaning connects to the literary and mathematical developments of this Greek word.
This month's bonus episode explores the syntax of predicate adjectives. Become a member on Patreon.com for to every WFG bonus episode.
Before Google was the name of one of the world's biggest tech companies, "googol" was an obscure math term that meant "ten to the one hundredth power". Five decades before the founding of Google, the word "googol" emerged spontaneously out of a conversation between an American mathematician and his nephew.
Click here to listen to this month's FREE bonus episode on Patreon.
The word "average" has anything but an average etymology. If the leading theory is correct, "average" ultimately derives from an Arabic word meaning "defect". In this episode, we explore how this Arabic word made its way into European languages through sea trade and how, given this unlikely origin, its mathematical sense emerged over time.
English may be spoken by a whopping 1.5 billion ESL speakers around the world, but that doesn't mean it's an "easy" language to learn. For native English speakers, it's easy to take for granted just how irregular the English language is. In this interview episode, I chat with Arika Okrent about her new book, Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language.
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In many English works printed before the late 19th century, a letter unfamiliar to us today, ſ, is often used in place of the letter S. However, that unfamiliar f-looking letter is actually just an archaic form of the letter S called "long s". In this episode, we explore the origins and decline of this odd orthographical relic. As a coda to our series on lost letters, we also explore the history of the ampersand (&), which up until the late 19th century was often listed as the 27th letter of the alphabet.
Examples from the episode:
1. Us'd, Clos'd
2. Always puffs, offset, satisfaction; never puffſ, offſet, satiſfaction
3. 17th century: mask, disbelief; 18th century maſk, diſbelief
4. Confuſ-ed, diſ-appearance
If you've ever encountered the ligatures æ and œ in old texts, you may have wondered: what are they called? Where do they come from? How exactly are they pronounced? Why don't we use them any more? The ligatures ash and ethel are rare in English writing today, but in previous centuries, they were common. (In Old English, the sound we today associate with "short A" was actually not represented by the letter A, but by æ!)
F*ck. Sh*t. C*ck. These are some of the most profane words in the English language, but what exactly makes them profane? Is there something about profanities that makes them different from ordinary vanilla words? In this interview, I speak with John McWhorter, preeminent linguist and author of Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever.
Before the letter W was invented, the rune wynn was borrowed into the Latin AngloSaxon alphabet as a way of representing the /w/ sound. The letter yogh evolved out of Insular G, an Irish variation of the traditional letter G. The phonetic value of yogh varied. It could represent the /y/ sound, the guttural /x/ sound as in the Scottish "loch," and others. Many Modern English words spelled with GH digraph (laugh, though, night, etc.) were once spelled with the letter yogh.
Interested in taking part in our virtual Latin 101 course this summer taught by Harvard PhD candidate Rebecca Deitsch? Learn more here: https://www.wordsforgranted.com/latin-course
In Modern English, we use the TH digraph to represent the voiced and voiceless dental fricative sounds. However, English previously had two unique letters that did this same job: eth and thorn. In this episode, we look at the origin and decline of eth and thorn in English in addition to some places outside of the English alphabet where these ancient letters have survived. Also, check out these links:
Ticket link to Intelligent Speech 2021: https://www.intelligentspeechconference.com/
The International Phonetic Alphabet interactive chart: https://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/
Ticket link to Intelligent Speech 2021: https://www.intelligentspeechconference.com/
The International Phonetic Alphabet interactive chart:
You can't have the English language without the ABC's, right? Wrong. In this overview episode, we look at the history of the alphabet and the many changes it has undergone from its Phoenician origins to today. We also consider the significance of the runic alphabet known as futhorc, the first alphabet used to write English. Two of the lost English letters, thorn and wynn, were directly adapted from this older Germanic script.
Lingthusiasm Episode 52: Writing is a Technology
Runic alphabet (futhorc):
‘Pasta’ is first attested in English during the 1800's, which is later than one might expect. However, in prior centuries, a handful of its closely related cognates such as ‘paste,’ ‘pastry,’ ‘pastel,’ and others were borrowed into English. We consider how these words relate historically and etymologically to the beloved Italian food. We also examine the semantic relationship between the words pasta, macaroni, and noodle.
In today's episode, we look at the etymologies of our meal words––not to mention "meal" itself. (As it turns out, "meal" has a long history of usage as a measurement word.) The meanings of our meal words have shifted over time in concert with the standard time at which these meals are eaten. Spoiler: "Dinner" was the original "breakfast," and etymologically, the two words mean almost the same thing.
To support the show, go to: https://www.patreon.com/wordsforgranted
In this interview episode, I speak with Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Among many other things, we discuss why preserving endangered writing systems is so important to the cultures that use them, how writings systems become endangered in the first place, and Tim's fundraiser to raise awareness about the Mongolian script through an original board game.
You can learn more about Tim and his work at the links below.
In ancient Greek botanical literature, there is a reference to a spiny plant called a kaktos. This word would pass into Modern English as "cactus," though the kaktos itself was certainly not a cactus as we know it. More likely, it was an undomesticated "artichoke," a plant whose name ultimately comes from Arabic. In this episode, we take a look at the intertwined history of these two words and the plants they designate.
In this episode, we explore the etymology of the most culturally ubiquitous fruit, the apple. Etymologically, the ubiquity of the apple is fitting, since it originally used to refer to apples and all fruits in general. We also explore the Latin and Greek words for ‘apple,’ the derivatives of which are hiding in plain sight in a handful of modern English fruit and vegetable words.
In the episode, we explore the etymology of ‘cheese,’ a Latin-derived word that entered the Germanic languages through trade long before the emergence of English. We also consider why the Italian and French words for cheese, formaggio and fromage, are not its cognates and how the adjective ‘cheesy’ (meaning something lacking subtlety) evolved.
The word ‘egg’ plays a part in one of the most famous anecdotes in the written record about the evolution of the English language. In this episode, we consider the implications of that story and look into the etymology of ‘egg’ and some of its cognates. We also look into the ‘egg’ in the idiom ‘to egg on.’
This episode features a conversation I had with Kevin Stroud of the History of English Podcast at this year's virtual Intelligent Speech conference. We discussed reasons why the history of the Proto Indo-Europeans––the linguistic ancestors of nearly half the world's population––remains obscure to the general public. If you think it has something to do with racist, pseudoscientific scholarship that led to the concept of the Aryan race during World War II, we think so too.
For the video of our conversation, follow this link:
The idiom ‘dead ringer’ comes down to us from horse-racing slang, but a widely believed folk etymology links the idiom's origins to being buried alive. In this episode, we debunk the myths and get down to the written evidence behind the emergence of this phrase.
I'll be speaking with Kevin Stroud from the History of English podcast about the Proto Indo-Europeans at this year's Intelligent Speech Conference. To purchase tickets, follow this link.
The idiom ‘red herring’ is used to describe a distraction from the matter at hand. Literally, a ‘red herring’ is a kipper––that is, a smoked and salted sliced fish––but why would such a fish become an expression for a distraction? In this episode, we debunk a popular myth surrounding the idiom's etymology by close reading a handful of selections from the written record and drawing on the most recent scholarship.
Of all places, why do we put the ‘proof’ in the ‘pudding?’ Like many idioms whose origins date back several centuries, the connection between the literal and figurative meanings of ‘the proof is in the pudding’ is no longer clear in Modern English. ‘The proof is in the pudding’ is actually a shortened corruption of the idiom ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ but that's still not the full story. In the 17th century when the idiom was first used, both ‘proof’ and ‘pudding’ had different meanings than they do today.
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In today's episode, I talk with Simon Horobin, Oxford professor and author of "Bagels, Bumf and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language," a book that explores the etymology of common words we encounter every day. In addition to discussing Simon's latest book, we discuss a range of language topics including the standardization of grammar, the history of spelling, and more. You can purchase "Bagels, Bumf, and Buses" here.
Click here 25% off your first order with Literati.
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The etymology of ‘break a leg’ is disputed, but some theories hold up better than others. In today's episode, we look at a handful of plausible explanations for how ‘break a leg’ became theater slang for ‘good luck’ and also bust a few etymological myths surrounding the idiom.
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As we all know, the idiomatic meaning of ‘apple of the eye’ has nothing to do with apples. As it turns out, the origins of the idiom also have nothing to do with apples. In this episode, we look at how the English translation of an old Hebrew expression found in the Old Testament unintentionally defined our modern sense of the idiom ‘apple of the eye.’
"In a pickle" is one of the oddest sounding idioms in English. It means "in a predicament or bad situation," but it's not clear what pickles have to do with anything. In this episode, we look at the origins of both the phrase and the word "pickle" itself.