Oxford University Press has a blog that deals with all sorts of subjects, and they’ve just added a language column by etymologist Anatoly Liberman: “His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday.” His first post, Etymology and the Outside World, discusses the decline in prestige of historical linguistics with the rise of structuralism in the early 20th century and celebrates the fact that the lay public has never lost interest:

Fortunately, the general public had no notion of what went on in the halls of Academia and retained its interest in word origins, an interest that is inborn in us. People have been asking where words came from since the beginning of recorded time. Etymology is rarely taught on our campuses, but the shelves of even small libraries are well stocked with books on “the loom of language” and “the romance of words.” Healthy instincts are ineradicable and pay no attention to fads and fashions. As an active etymologist I receive queries from all over the world. Even when predictable, they are thought provoking. Many people want to know the origin of their family names. They usually have an idea of what they will hear from me, but a second opinion never hurts. Another never-ceasing source of curiosity is the origin of slang. But there are many other things to ask about. Where did ain’t come from? What accounts for the odd spelling of women? Is the popular origin of posh right? Sometimes I know the answer or know where to find it, sometimes I have to concede defeat: “Origin unknown.” Knowledge, once it frees itself from charlatans’ grip, has its limits. What counts is not whether I am able to satisfy every correspondent, but that the fount feeding their letters never dries up. As long as it bubbles, etymology will remain in good shape.

Worth keeping an eye on, and I hope he keeps allowing comments, which are what bring a blog to life.


  1. Well, comments enabled and enabled commenters.

  2. Behind every word, behind every orthography, there are such fascinating true stories that amaze us by the amount of duration and wideness they can encompass. So I can’t but salute the initiative…

  3. I’m just waiting to hear what he has to say about the Finno-Dravidian theory.

  4. Actually the general public aren’t interested in etymology, they’re just interested in words and slang: they ask about “posh” or “the whole nine yards”. They’d see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, wine, unless it could be illustrated with lantern slides and anecdotes of Life in Roman Times.

  5. It’s interesting that they misspelled etymologist in both the page title and the URL.

  6. It is both interesting and mildly horrifying, now you mention it, Adjusting.

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