Reports

Ping-Pong Words

September, 2021 Word Stories

In researching the etymological evolution of words, it’s taken for granted that we’ll see them passed down from one language to the next. Today’s Word Stories instalment is a little different. Every once in a while, a word that has been passed from one language to another can find itself passed right back, like a serve returned in a game of ping-pong. The etymological notes below shine a spotlight on this curious phenomenon, by showing how the game can be played out between English and French.

Periods: The End of the Line?

August, 2021 Language Matters

Few punctuation marks require less explanation than the period. As English’s default symbol of final punctuation, it tends to cause far fewer linguistic headaches than commas, semicolons or em-dashes. The fact that periods mark the end of a sentence is easy to grasp and has rarely been the subject of debate. Straightforward and uncontroversial though they are, nowadays, people end their sentences with periods a little less often than they used to.

Plot Twists: Words that Have Taken Sharp Turns

July, 2021 Word Stories

In today’s instalment, we look at some words that have stretched and drifted in directions so unpredictable they’ve rotated a full 180 degrees away from their original connotations.

Same Land, Different Brand: Investigating Variation in Place Names

June, 2021 Language Matters

Place names, or toponyms, are said to be one of the stablest aspects of language, with many toponyms carried down through generations and surviving immense transformations in the civilizations that inhabit them. And yet, there are times when a location changes its toponym or has more than one. For example, should we prefer Eswatini or Swaziland; Czech Republic or Czechia? This Language Matters article investigates why toponyms sometimes compete or change over time.

Tangled Roots

May, 2021 Word Stories

Modern English is the result of a grand linguistic experiment in creative packaging, in that the roots of its grammar are characteristically Germanic, but its vocabulary is dominated by the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. It’s been a long time since English-speaking children learned Greek and Latin in school, but the effects of traditional “Western” classical education are still all around us. Greek and Latin have shaped about half the words English speakers use today, including almost all of our technical and scientific terminology. This Word Stories instalment looks at what can happen when this profusion of Greek and Latin roots gets tangled up in English, for example in the popular temptation to use Latin endings for words that look Latin, like octopus.

The (Norse) Epic of the English Plural S

April, 2021 Language Matters

At first glance, pluralizing words in English might look trivially easy. All you need to do is add -s: one word, two words. There are plenty of irregular plural forms too, though, like one child, two children and one mouse, two mice. This Language Matters instalment asks why the final -s is the dominant way to mark plural nouns, but not the only one.

Invisible Influences

March, 2021 Word Stories

In the modern world, astrology is often treated as a hobby, hovering somewhere between self-help and light entertainment. As the English language shows, though, the possibility that heavenly bodies might shape earthly life was a deadly serious concern for our ancestors.

How Do New Words Enter the Dictionary?

February, 2021 Language Matters

Neologisms (new words, senses or expressions) are added to living languages all the time, through coinages, borrowings or revivals, and many do not stay relevant for long. Faced with the near-infinite potential of lexical creativity, lexicographers (the people tasked with creating dictionaries) can include only a selection of new words.

Words That Like to Talk About Themselves

January, 2021 Word Stories

Autological words are words that describe themselves—as opposed to all the heterological words that don’t. The adjective pentasyllabic is autological, for example, since it has five syllables. Monosyllabic, on the other hand, is heterological, since it has far more than one.

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