Book review: The Story of “Be” by David Crystal

’Tis the season for ’tis the season, that yuletide cliché stuffing headlines and ad copy like so many Christmas stockings.

This season, though, I got to thinking about ’tis itself, that old-timey-sounding contraction of it is. In one of his latest books, The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language (Oxford University Press, 2017), the great and prolific David Crystal explains:

For students of English literature, the usage that probably most attracts attention is the combination of is with a preceding reduced form of it, to produce ’tis. There are over 1,400 instances in Shakespeare, for example. The spelling varies, especially in the use of the apostrophe (t’is, ti’s), and often showing no apostrophe at all. In Middle English, the pronoun is sometimes used twice: as it tis.

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From wedges to windfalls: the origin of “coin”

In one of my recent Weekly Word Watches for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I highlighted bitcoin, the cryptocurrency whose valuation continues to skyrocket.

As I explain in the article, the bit in bitcoin – a coinage attributed to its mysterious creator(s) Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 – was shortened from binary digit in 1948. Binary digits are those 1’s and 0’s that make our computers work.

And thanks to the success of bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies have also branded themselves as coins, such as Dogecoin and Peercoin, suggesting -coin is becoming a productive combining signifying a digital currency.

But what of the word coin itself? Its origins transports us back to some of the earliest days of writing.

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Not an actual bitcoin. (Pixabay)

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“Calling to mind” the roots of the word “monument”

As Confederate monuments are coming down across American cities, President Trump is taking action to cut back national monuments in the American wilderness. This week, he announced efforts to slash the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

The move is meeting with demonstrations and admonitions from environmentalists and Native Americans, among others, as well as legal challenges in court. But the two sides do have one thing in common: monument, demonstration, and admonition all come from the same Latin root.

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Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the nation’s first. (Pixabay)

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Why are moments called watershed?

On Thursday, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand commented on the ongoing allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in politics and entertainment, notably including Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor just this week:

I think we are in a watershed moment where it’s going to be an important change for our women, for our daughters, for men and for society about what we deem is acceptable. And in the world we live in today, we won’t tolerate abuse of power and position in any form from anyone.

Across chambers, and across the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed Gillibrand’s sentiments and language to National Public Radio: “We are having a watershed moment in this country. I think this is a defining moment in this country. And I think it needs to be a defining moment in this country.”

We so often describe “defining moments” of “important change” as “watershed moments.” But what it so pivotal about a watershed?

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Which way will the water go? (Pixabay)

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“Slur”: an etymology dragged in mud

At a White House event yesterday honoring Navajo code talkers, President Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” as he has on many past occasions. Native American leaders, among so many others, are rightly decrying the disparaging remarks as a racial slur, as it drags native peoples into the mud—and literally so, if we look to the etymology of slur.

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Slur is something you may have originally encountered on the farm. (Pixabay)

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Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl

Mashed Radish is taking the week off for the US holiday of Thanksgiving, though I may sprinkle in a little etymology here and there as time permits.

In the meantime, enjoy the latest episode of the award-winning educational podcast, Grammar Girl. Its host and creator, the incredible Mignon Fogarty, reads an article I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries on the many side words in the English language. The episode opens with the fascinating roots of bailiwick, to boot. 

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Reams of “ream”

Sexual assault scandals, mass shootings, military coups, tax cuts for the rich, trophy elephants, the impending devastation of climate change, the looming threat of nuclear war—there are reams and reams of heavy news right now.

So, I think we could use something that brings us all together. Sorry, I don’t have any puppy videos, but I do have the next best thing: etymology. Let’s allow ourselves a nice, distracting break from the news with the globe-trotting roots of ream.

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A ream of paper. Count ’em out, all 500 sheets. (Pixabay)

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Talk, talked. Sing…sang?

What are all those letters we don’t say doing in the word knight? Why is talked the past tense of talk but sang is the past tense of sing? What’s up with m in whom and how come we eat beef but raise cow?

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(Image from Urbo.com)

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Persian pleasure gardens, the Christian afterlife, and tropical tax havens: the origins of “paradise”

The 13.4 million-file leak called the Paradise Papers are exposing the offshore, tax-avoiding dealings by some of the world’s richest companies and people, from Facebook to the Queen of England. Boosted by alliteration and allusion to last year’s Panama Papers, the BBC explains the paradise name: 

The Paradise Papers name was chosen because of the idyllic profiles of many of the offshore jurisdictions whose workings are unveiled, including Bermuda, the HQ of the main company involved, Appleby. It also dovetails nicely with the French term for a tax haven—paradis fiscal.

But why do we call tropical islands like Bermuda paradise?

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For the etymological paradise, we need to look to different sands. (Pixabay)

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The cutthroat origin of “massacre”

Another day, another mass shooting in the US. The latest massacre—by the latest man wielding an assault weapon—claimed the lives of 26 worshippers at a church in a small town in Texas. Today, as we try to make sense of another needless tragedy, let’s make sense of the etymology of this grisly word, massacre.

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