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.
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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.
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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.
This episode begins a new series on the etymology of English idioms. In this general overview of idioms, we discuss why idioms are syntactically and semantically peculiar, how idioms emerge, how idioms fossilize archaic grammar, and more.