TIME, emoji, and the unusual “with-” in “withdraw”

This past week, TIME magazine’s talented Katy Steinmetz interviewed me for a fantastic piece on the challenges of using words that have offensive histories, such as bulldozer. (Steinmetz also interviewed me back in 2016, you may recall, about the fascinating Japanese linguistics behind words like Pokémon and karaoke.)

Catch up on my writing for the wonderful Emojipedia, too. This month, I wrote about 😏, or Smirking Face emoji, ever smug and suggestive in its many applications in our digital communication.

The verb smirk, for its part, dates back to the Old English smearcian, which was the go-to word for smile until the latter took over in Middle English. Smirk survived, but with a connotation of self-satisfaction. Cognates to smirk are not found in other Germanic languages, but smirk and smile do appear to be related in some way.

Smirking Face emoji (John Kelly/Emojipedia)

And quoth is not some old-fashioned form of quote, as I explain for Oxford Dictionaries. It  comes from the Old English cweðan, “to say” or “speak” and related to bequeath. Quote is from Latin; its root also provides quotient.

Recent news has thrust incel and pansexual into the spotlight. Read about what these unusual-seeming words are in my Weekly Word Watch while you’re on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

From “against” to “together”

Finally, I leave with you some original, if short, etymological tidbits, as a busy schedule and some life changes have disrupted my normal posting routine. (This post comes to you from a cottage in the proper countryside in County Sligo).

Following some scandalous allegations, White House doctor Ronny Jackson notably withdrew his nomination as Secretary of he Department of Veterans Affairs.

The with- in withdraw, a verb not firmly attested until the 1300s, means “away” or “back,” making withdraw “to draw back.”  And indeed, the preposition with originally meant “against” in Old English—the exact opposite of what it came to mean in Middle English when it shifted to senses of “union” or “accompaniment.”

In Old English, mid served the function of the modern with, surviving in midwife (literally “a with-woman”) and ousted by with due to some interference from Old Norse and Latin words, apparently.

Outside withdraw, the “against” sense of with also remains in withhold and withstand. Etymologists think that withdraw could be a calque (loan translation) of the Latin retrahere (literally “draw back,” source of retract), withhold for retinere (“hold back,” retain), and withstand for resistere (“stand back,” resist).

I hope to be back on schedule soon. In the meantime, my other work should give you plenty of etymological content to tide you over.

m ∫ r ∫

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