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Words for Granted - An etymology and linguistics podcast
Words for Granted is a podcast that looks at how words change over time. Host Ray Belli uses linguistic evolution as a way of understanding larger historical and cultural changes.
3 days ago
Episode 89: Cheese
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.
Aug 16, 2020
Episode 88: Egg
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 the look into the etymology of "egg" and some of its cognates. (What's with the "egg" in the idiom "to egg on," you ask? Yeah, we cover that too.)
Jun 29, 2020
Proto Indo-Europeans with Kevin Stroud of The History of English Podcast
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're thinking racist, pseudoscientific scholarship that led to the concept of the Aryan race during World War II might be to blame, we think so too. For the video of our conversation, follow this link: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/intelligentspeech/40
Jun 7, 2020
Episode 87: Dead Ringer
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.
May 17, 2020
Episode 86: Red Herring
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.
Apr 26, 2020
Episode 85: The Proof Is in the Pudding
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. Listen to Words for Granted on Lyceum, a new app that curates and builds community around great educational audio.
Apr 11, 2020
Interview with Simon Horobin, Author of "Bagels, Bumf, and Buses"
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. Click here 25% off your first order with Literati. Listen to Words for Granted on Lyceum, a curated podcast app featuring educational podcasts.
Mar 24, 2020
Episode 84: Break a Leg
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. Today's episode is brought to you by Yabla. Click here for your risk-free 15-day trial.
Feb 23, 2020
Episode 83: Apple of the Eye
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."
Feb 4, 2020
Episode 82: In a Pickle
"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.
Jan 13, 2020
Episode 81: Idioms (General Overview)
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. Today's episode is brought to you by Yabla. To try Yabla 15-day free trial of Yabla, click here.
Dec 30, 2019
Episode 80: Cannibal
This episode is brought to you by Yabla. Language immersion with authentic video. For your risk-free 15-day trial, sign up here. The word "cannibal" comes to us by way of a familiar historical figure: Christopher Columbus. The word is ultimately a Hispanicization of the name of an indigenous American group today known as the Caribs. Through Columbus' unreliable portrayal of the Caribs in his travel log, "cannibal" came to refer to "a person who eats human flesh." In this episode, we explore the evolution of the meaning of "cannibal" in Columbus' own journal and how that single word impacted the colonial history of the Americas.
Dec 14, 2019
Episode 79: Philistine
In common usage, a "philistine" is a derogatory term for an anti-intellectual materialist. The word derives from the ancient Middle Eastern Philistines, a people best known as an early geopolitical enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. The historical Philistines were far from "philistines" (note the lowercase P). The circumstance by which the latter derives from the former can be traced back to a murder in the 17th century German city of Jena. (Yes, actually.) For a free 10-day trial of Simple Contacts, click here.
Nov 17, 2019
Episode 78: Bohemian
As a common noun, "bohemian" describes an artistic, carefree lifestyle usually marked by poverty and unorthodoxy. The word is borrowed from "Bohemia," a region in the modern Czech Republic, but its semantic connection to actual Czechs is nearly nonexistent. In this episode, we trace the long history of "Bohemian" from its origins as an ancient Celtic homeland to the present.
Oct 20, 2019
Episode 77: Gothic
As someone who came of age during the late 90’s, my first encounter with the word “gothic” was through alternative music and fashion. However, the word was originally the name of a Germanic tribe most famous for sacking the Roman Empire. The journey of the word “goth” through the last two millennia is a classic story of linguistic appropriation and misunderstanding.
Sep 17, 2019
Interview with Steve Kaufmann, Polyglot & Co-founder of LingQ
In today's episode, I interview Steve Kaufmann. Steve is a polyglot and co-founder of LingQ. He also hosts a popular language learning Youtube channel under the name LingoSteve. Our conversation covers a range of language-related topics such as language learning myths, how language learning has changed with new technology, the relationship between language and culture, and more.
Sep 1, 2019
Episode 76: Wife
In Old English, the word "wife" meant "woman." In fact, the word "woman" derives from the word "wife!" Today's episode is not only an exploration of the word "wife," but also of a handful of woman-related words whose etymologies and usages share a confusing, intertwined history. We also try to solve the mystery of "wife's" ultimate etymology, but, spoiler alert, we fail.
Aug 11, 2019
Episode 75: Grandmother/Grandfather
What makes your parents' parents so ... grand? In today's episode, we trace the etymology and emergence of the French-influenced kinship prefix "grand." We also look at Old English words for "grandparents" and "grandchildren" before the "grand" prefix became conventional. Just for good measure, we also take a look at the kinship prefix "great." To claim your 1-month free trial of the Great Courses Plus, click here.
Jul 28, 2019
Episode 74: Sibling
Today, "sibling" is one of the most basic kinship terms. However, it wasn't introduced into the language until 1903 by a pair of scientists working on genetics. More accurately, "sibling" was reintroduced into the language after 1,000 years of dormancy. In this episode, we look at "sibling" in its Old English context and explore its Indo-European roots. Furthermore, we look into the etymology of "brother" and "sister." For your free 1-month trial of The Great Courses Plus, click here.
Jul 12, 2019
Episode 73: Papa/Dada/Father
In today's episode, we explore the origins of some of the universal characteristics of nursery father terms in languages from around the world. For a 1-month free trial of the Great Courses Plus, click here.
Jun 30, 2019
Episode 72: Mama/Mom
"Mama" is a mysterious word. In the vast majority of languages around the world, the word for "mama" sounds something like ... "mama." In today's episode, we uncover the reason for this peculiar universality. Spoiler alert: It has something to do with babies. For a free 1-month trial of The Great Course plus, click here.
Jun 15, 2019
Episode 71: Noah Webster’s Dictionary
Noah Webster is best known as the father of the first trust American dictionary. However, the success of Webster’s dictionary faced an uphill struggle during his lifetime. In today’s episode, we examine some of these struggles alongside the things that made Webster’s dictionary so different from the English dictionaries that preceded it. Click here to sign up for you free one-month trial of The Great Courses Plus.
May 26, 2019
Episode 70: Noah Webster (Early Works and Spelling Reforms)
Noah Webster is best known for his "all-American" dictionary, but in today's episode, we take a look at Webster's earlier works including The Grammatical Institute of the English Language and Dissertations on the English Language. In these works, Webster lays the groundwork for his future dictionary, revealing his political motivations for his spelling reforms and advocation of "American English." Be sure to go to www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/words to get a one-month free subscription to The Great Courses Plus!
May 5, 2019
Episode 69: OK
"OK" is both the most spoken and written word in the entire world. It's such a fundamental part of modern communication that it's hard to imagine the world without it, yet in spite of its ubiquity and compact versatility, "OK" is under two hundred years old. Today's episode tells the story of the word's origins in 19th century America. If the leading theory is correct, then OK might just be the most successful inside joke of all time.
Apr 13, 2019
Episode 68: Yankee
The most popular usage of the word “Yankee” today is in the name of the baseball team, but etymologically, “Yankee” has nothing to do with baseball. “Yankee” is an elusive word whose definitive etymology is unknown and whose connotations change depending on who’s using the term. In today’s episode, we explore the word’s most likely etymology and consider the its implications from various points of view and time periods.
Mar 31, 2019
Episode 67: The American Pronunciation of R (Rhoticity)
One of the most defining characteristics of the Standard American English accent is “rhoticity,” or the pronunciation of the letter R. Unlike Standard British English, Standard American English always pronounces the letter R regardless of its position within a word. In today’s episode, we trace the origins and evolutions of this feature of Standard American English. (Spoiler alert: The prevalence of American rhoticity has ebbed and flowed over time.)
Mar 11, 2019
Episode 66: The Emergence of the American Lexicon
The English spoken in America began to diverge from the English spoken in Britain shortly after British settlers first arrived in the New World. In today’s episode, we look at several ways how “Americanisms” began to form and how English speakers on the other side of the pond reacted to them.
Mar 3, 2019
Interview with Lynne Murphy, Author of "The Prodigal Tongue"
In today's episode, I interview linguist, professor, blogger, and author Lynne Murphy about her book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. We talk about topics such as the British media's take on "Americanisms," nonsensical prescriptivism, national attitudes toward language, and so much more. Lynne's blog, Separated by a Common Language: https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/ To purchase The Prodigal Tongue: https://theprodigaltongue.com/
Feb 19, 2019
Episode 65: Dialect vs. Language
"American English" is the variety of English spoken in the United States of America ... obviously. But is American English a language unto itself or a dialect of British English? In this episode, we discuss the differences between dialects and languages (if indeed there are any at all) from a linguistic point of view. Part 1 in a series on American English.
Feb 1, 2019
Episode 64: France
The name of “France” derives from the name of a Germanic tribe called the “Franks.” In addition to “France,” the name of the “Franks” also produced a handful of other common English words, such as frank, franchise, and Franklin, among others. Today, these words have little to do with France, but as we investigate their etymologies, subtle connections begin to emerge.
Jan 13, 2019
Episode 63: Turkey
In today’s episode, we explore the etymological connection between Turkey the country and turkey the bird. Even though turkeys are native to North America, thanks to sixteenth century trade routes, they’re mistakenly named after a country on the other side of the world. We also explore how these trade routes influenced the words for “turkey” in other European languages.
Jan 4, 2019
Episode 62: Cincinnati
The American city of "Cincinnati" derives a patriotic fraternal organization called "The Society of Cincinnati." The society itself is named after Cincinnatus, a legendary figure in Ancient Roman history. Revolutionary Americans saw Cincinnatus as an idealized epitome of political virtue. In today's episode, we explore Cincinnatus' life from the point of view of early American idealism. More specifically, we consider the parallels between the life of Cincinnatus and that of George Washington.
Dec 17, 2018
Episode 61: Names of Germany
There are more names for Germany than there are for any other European country. This is due to a long history of disunity among Gemanic tribes and the geographical location of the Germanic homeland smack dab in the middle of Europe. In today’s episode, we explore the history and linguistic distribution of the etymological roots of Germany’s many international names.
Dec 2, 2018
Episode 60: Wales
The English name for the country of "Wales" is not native to Wales itself. It was named by AngloSaxon settlers in Britain as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Celtic neighbors on the island. The word "Wales" has cognates in all of the Germanic languages, yet most of these cognates have nothing to do with the modern country of Wales. In general, these cognates are associated with speakers of Romance languages throughout Europe. In today's episode, we connect the dots among these various cognates across languages.
Nov 16, 2018
Episode 59: Proper Place Names (General Overview)
Today's episode kicks off a new series on "toponymy," or the study of place names. In this general overview, we take a look at some of the historical and etymological trends that most often impact place names, such as colonialism and the commemoration of important individuals.
Oct 30, 2018
Episode 58: Gymnasium
Nowadays, a “gym” is a place for fitness and exercise. It’s a shortening of the word “gymnasium,” which derives from the Greek word gymnasion. In the Ancient Greek world, a gymnasion was not only a place for exercise, but also a hub for philosophical study and learning. Today’s episode explores the evolution of the “gymnasium” as a cultural institution and also looks at how some of the word’s cognates in other lanaguges differ in meaning.
Oct 15, 2018
Episode 57: Category
In the court system of Ancient Athens, the kategoria was a formal accusation. However, when the philosopher Aristotle borrowed the word kategoria to enumerate his “categories of being,” he intended it to mean the “highest order of classification.” Over the course of this episode, we explore the subtle link between an “accusation” and “categorization,” in addition to the philosophical side of Aristotle’s “Categories.”
Sep 30, 2018
Episode 56: Apology
The Modern English word "apology" derives from the Ancient Greek word "apologia." However, in the Ancient Greek work "Plato's Apology," Plato doesn't "apologize" for anything, at least not in the modern sense. That's because an "apology" was originally a "self-defensive" manner of speech. In this episode, we look at how this rhetorical technique developed into an expression of sincere regret.
Sep 12, 2018
Episode 55: Sophisticated
In Modern English, "sophistication" is a desirable characteristic. However, the word derives from "sophistry," an Ancient Greek intellectual movement with a historically bad reputation. In today's episode, we consider this bad reputation from various perspectives and how it has impacted the development of "sophistic" words over the course of history.
Sep 2, 2018
Episode 54: Philosophy
In the pre-modern world, "philosophy" referred to all forms of intellectual knowledge. Today, the discipline of "philosophy" is just one aspect of the traditional field of philosophia, or "love of knowledge."
Aug 20, 2018
Episode 53: They
The pronoun "they" was borrowed into English from Old Norse. It's an odd borrowing because within a given language, the words for pronouns tend to remain consistent over time. In today's episode, we explore the entire history of "they," from its roots as Proto-Germanic demonstrative adjective to its modern usage as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in English.
Jul 31, 2018
Episode 52: Linguistic Subjectification (Very, Really, Literally, etc.)
Subjectification is a unique linguistic process by which a word evolves to reflect the subjective viewpoint of the speaker using it. For example, the word "very" used to mean "true," but over time, it lost its objectivity and merely became a way of emphasizing subjective points of view. In this episode, we explore this process in a broad sense and look at a few more examples. Further reading: https://web.stanford.edu/~traugott/resources/TraugottDavidseIntersbfn.pdf http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1028.5275&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Jul 16, 2018
Episode 51: The
The word "the" is the sole definite article in the English language. It's also the most common word in our language. However, for such a grammatically fundamental word, its history isn't as straightforward as one might think. Old English had a whopping twenty different forms of the definite article, all of which collapsed into the single, versatile word "the" by the time of Modern English. We discuss some of these older forms and their evolutions.
Jul 6, 2018
*Crossover Episode w/ Steve Guerra from The History of the Papacy Podcast*
In this crossover episode, Steve and I discuss the linguistic influence of the King James Bible and some common English idioms that have Biblical etymologies.
1 hr 2 min
Jun 30, 2018
Episode 50: -ly (Adverbial Suffix)
The -ly suffix is a contraction hiding in plain sight. It is cognate with the word "like," and indeed, it literally means "like." "Sadly" is sad-like. "Madly" is mad-like. Amazingly, both "like" and "-ly" derive from a root word meaning "body or corpse." Over the course of this episode, we try to make sense of this semantic evolution.
Jun 14, 2018
Episode 49: To Be
To be or not to be? Well, if you're conjugating the verb, you're most likely using a form that does not sound like "to be." "To be" is the most irregular verb in the English language, and in today's episode, we explore why this is the case from historical and technical linguistic viewpoints.
Jun 3, 2018
Episode 48: History of English Grammar (General Overview)
Grammar is one of the defining features of language. In today's episode, we look at some of the fundamentals of grammar in general, and then take a brief tour through the historical evolution of English grammar itself. Part 1 in a five-part series.
May 5, 2018
Episode 47: Secular
Today's episode serves as an "epilogue" to the series on Biblical etymology. "Secular," of course, means "unaffiliated with religion," but originally, it was a word used to describe the measurement of long spans of time. Roughly equivalent to a century, the "saeculum," as it was known in Ancient Rome, was celebrated with pagan rituals, theater, and games. Pagan rituals ... how ironic. Over the course episode, we trace its development from antiquity to the 19th century philosophical movement.
Apr 24, 2018
Episode 46: God (and His Biblical Names)
The word "God" is not derived from the original Biblical texts. It was a term originally used in Germanic paganism that was adapted to Christianity many centuries after it had already been in use. In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, "God" is called by many names, and these diverse titles don't necessarily translate clearly into English. In today's episode, we dissect a handful of Hebrew terms for "God" that are used in the original Hebrew of the Bible.
Mar 31, 2018
Episode 45: Hell
In the Bible, the word "Hell" is a common English translation of three main Greek and Hebrew words, and the meanings of those three words hardly resemble that of Hell we know today. In addition to the etymology of "hell" itself, this episode explores the implications of those original Biblical terms.
Mar 5, 2018
Episode 44: Letter J
The letter J is a direct descendent of the letter I. Based on their dissimilar sounds, it's an unlikely genetic connection, and today's story explores how this development took place. To keep the theme of Biblical etymology going, it uses this story as a way of examining the evolution of the pronunciation of "Jesus."
Feb 20, 2018
Episode 43: Demon
Greek gods. Dead, Golden Age heroes. Conscience. Guardian angel. Evil spirits. All of these things and more were once associated with the word daimon, the Ancient Greek predecessor of the Modern English "demon." Originally a neutral term that did not imply good or bad, today's episode looks at how this pagan Greek term became the embodiment of evil spirits.
Jan 26, 2018
Episode 42: Church
On average, the word "church" appears in English bibles 115 times. However, "kuriakon" the word from which "church" derives, only appears in the original Greek text twice, and its usage has nothing to do with a place of worship. The word "church" is a translation of "ekklesia," a different Greek word meaning "assembly." In this episode, we examine the long and complex history of how the translation of how "ekklesia" was codified as "church" and how this translation probably isn't correct.
Jan 14, 2018
Episode 41: Thou
Up until Modern English, the English language distinguished between its singular and plural second person pronouns: "Thou" was the singular, and "ye" was the plural. Today, these have been replaced by a single pronoun, "you." "Thou" and "ye" are common Biblical pronouns in English, and there's more to their usage than just preserving an old linguistic tradition. In today's episode, we examine the semantic implications of these archaic pronouns in English translations of the Bible.
Dec 30, 2017
Episode 40: Biblical Etymology (General Overview)
Today's episode serves as an introduction to an extended series on Biblical etymology. In it, we discuss the difficulties of translating ancient texts--particularly holy texts--into modern languages. Over the course of this series, we will gain insight into the overall development and evolution of Judaism and Christianity from the unlikely perspective of etymology.
Dec 14, 2017
Episode 39: Eleven/Twelve
When compared to the other numbers between ten and twenty, "eleven" and "twelve" stick out like a sore thumb. If they followed the construction of the rest of the teen numbers, they'd be called one-teen and two-teen, respectively, but of course, this isn't the case. In today's episode, we uncover what "eleven" and "twelve" are all about.
Dec 1, 2017
Episode 38: Algebra/Algorithm
The emergence of the words "algebra" and "algorithm" can be traced back to the life of one man, an Arabic mathematician named Al-Kworizmi. Today's episode looks at the history of Al-Kworizmi's works and their impact on the Western world, particularly on European languages.
Oct 27, 2017
Episode 37: Chemistry
"Chemistry" as we know it is a rational science. However, both the word "chemistry" and the science itself evolved out of the pre-scientific practice of "alchemy." In today's episode, we look at the origins of alchemy, a few theories regarding its etymology, and how medieval Arabic plays into Europe's inheritance of this word. Finally, we consider the circumstances under which "alchemy" became "chemistry" as we know it today.
Oct 10, 2017
Episode 36: Serendipity
Unlike most Arabic loanwords, the word "serendipity" was not borrowed from a foreign language, but invented by an eighteenth century Englishman. It's based on "Serendip," an old Arabic word for the nation of Sri Lanka, and was inspired by an Italian folk tale originally composed in Persian. The odd coinage of "serendipity" is an international story that spans many cultures, languages, and time periods.
Sep 24, 2017
Episode 35 (Bonus Episode): Arabic Linguistics (Intro to Arabic Loanwords in English)
Today's episode serves as an intro to a miniseries on the influence of Arabic on the English language. As a Semitic language, Arabic is very foreign to English. We take a look at some of the basic linguistic and cultural features of Arabic that make it stand apart from the rest of the languages discussed on this podcast thus far.
Sep 11, 2017
Episode 34: Saturday/Sunday
At last, the finale in the Words for Granted miniseries on the days of the week! We conclude with a investigation of "Saturday" and "Sunday." "Saturday" comes from a root that literally means "day of Saturn." Unlike the rest of the English names for the days of the week, it is a direct etymological descendent of the original Latin name for Saturday. "Sunday," of course, comes from a root that literally means "day of the sun." In this episode, we also compare and contrast these English names with their Romance language equivalents.
Aug 19, 2017
Episode 33: Thursday/Friday
Part four of the Days of the Week miniseries! This time, we investigate "Thursday" and "Friday," or "Thor's Day" and "Frigg's Day." Like the other days of the week we've discussed thus far, the names "Thursday" and "Friday" are loan translations of the Latin names for the days of the week.
Aug 2, 2017
Episode 32: Wednesday
In Old English, the word for "Wednesday" was Wodnesdaeg, which literally meant "Woden's day." It comes from a loan translation of the Latin dies mercurii, which literally meant "day of Mercury," because Woden was the Germanic god associated with the Roman god mercury. This much is for certain. But how did the /o/ in Wodnesdaeg shift to the /e/ in "Wednesday?" This is a bit of a linguistic mystery, and we discuss some of the possibilities.
Jul 13, 2017
Episode 31: Monday/Tuesday
In today's episode, we begin our investigation of the individual etymologies of each day of the week. Both "Monday" and "Tuesday" are ultimately loan translations of the Latin word dies lunae (Luna's day) and dies martis (Mars's day), respectively. Luna, the Roman moon goddess, was identified with Mani, the Germanic moon god, and Mars, the Roman god of war, was identified with Tiw, the chief deity in the original Germanic pantheon. But that's just scratching the surface. Both "Monday" and "Tuesday" contain unexpected stories that reveal to us the cultures of our linguistic ancestors.
Jul 5, 2017
Episode 30: Days of the Week (General Overview)
The days of the week are part of the core vocabulary of any language. However, their etymologies are rooted in ancient, pagan mythologies. In this episode, we trace the history of our modern calendar back to ancient Rome, particularly the seven-day week. As the seven-day week was transmitted from the Romans to the Germanic tribes that would eventually produce the English language, a series of loan-translations took place.
Jun 13, 2017
Episode 29 (Bonus Episode): How Does a Single Root Word Produce So Many Derivatives?
In today's episode, we look at the evolution of a single Latin verb, secare, meaning "to cut," into its many English derivatives, including "section," "sector," "insect," and others. In doing so, we answer question fundamental to the study of etymology: "What EXACTLY is a root word?" In attempt to understand the answer to this question as deeply as possible, we cover also cover the technical linguistic topics of morphology and semantics.
May 29, 2017
Episode 28: Scene
Historically, the word "scene" has had close ties to the theater, but it did not always refer to "subdivisions within in a play." The Greek word skene originally meant "tent or booth." It's an odd etymology, and today's episode explores multiple theories that seek to explain where this sense may have come from.
May 15, 2017
Episode 27: Comedy
Today, "comedy" is a genre of entertainment that makes us laugh. However, this was not always the case. The word derives from a Greek compound that most likely meant "revel song," and it's culturally rooted in a ancient festival called the ... penis parade? Yes, the penis parade. Yet humor was not always the main component of "comedy" as it is today. Covering topics as disparate as Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Punch and Judy puppet shows, this episode covers a condensed yet extensive history of the genre of comedy.
Apr 20, 2017
Episode 26: Tragedy
The word "tragedy" is rooted in Greek theater. It's a dramatic form that stills exists today, but where does the word etymologically come from? Suffering? Despair? Heartache? No, no, and no. It most likely comes from a Greek word meaning "goat-song." In today's episode, we look at a few theories that explain this oddball etymology.
Apr 7, 2017
Episode 25: Tyrant (Ft. Ryan Stitt from The History of Ancient Greece Podcast)
The word "tyrant" is steeped in the political history of Ancient Greece. However, it didn't always refer to cruel rulers. Originally, a "tyrant" was a morally neutral term for someone who usurped the throne and took over leadership on his own terms. Most of the early Greek tyrants were actually lauded by their subjects. Joining me in the historical exploration of "tyrants" and "tyranny" is Ryan Stitt from the History of Ancient Greece. (Let's just say he knows a lot more about the details of Ancient Greek history than I do!) You can find a link to his website below. http://www.thehistoryofancientgreece.c
Mar 25, 2017
Episode 24 (Bonus Episode): Ethnic Suffixes (-an, -ian, -ean, -ish, -ese, -i)
English uses many different suffixes to indicate ethnicities. Each suffix entered the language independently, and each suffix has a story to tell. This episode attempts to elucidate the geopolitical distribution of the four main categories of ethnic suffixation in English: -an (including -ian and -ean), -ish, -ese, and -i.
Mar 10, 2017
Episode 23: Filibuster
Today's episode looks at the evolution of the modern political sense of the word "filibuster." Ultimately borrowed from a Dutch word meaning "pirate," "filibuster" originally referred to Americans who organized unauthorized military invasions of Spanish colonies in Central America and the West Indies seeking political power and wealth.
Feb 23, 2017
Episode 22: Candidate
Part two of the Words for granted politics-themed miniseries! In this episode, we explore the origins of the word "candidate." It derives from candidus, the Latin word for "white," which describes the typical attire worn by Roman politicians running for office. We also examine some unlikely cognates derived from this same root word.
Feb 11, 2017
Episode 21: Inauguration
The presidential inauguration is a tradition inherited from the Ancient Romans. The word "inauguration" is rooted in "augury," the Ancient Roman practice of interpreting omens based on the flight patterns of birds. Over the course of today's episode, we discuss how how this unlikely religious tradition gave us the sense of "inauguration" used today.
Jan 27, 2017
Episode 20 (Bonus Episode): Letter C
The letter C has split personalities. Sometimes it has a hard "K" sound, sometimes it has a soft "S" sound, and some other times, it's a part of letter combinations whose pronunciations vary from word to word. The cause of these split personalities is rooted in a complicated history, both in the writing and pronunciation of the letter. Today's episode explores the long term evolution of "C" from its origins in ancient Phoenicia to its role in Modern English.
Jan 15, 2017
Episode 19: Tea
There are two main etymological categories for "tea": te-derived and cha-derived. Both are ultimately derived from different dialects of Chinese. Based on the geographical distribution of these two etymological categories, we can learn a lot about the history of the tea tea trade itself. The etymology of "tea" in any language is an indication of who was trading with whom.
Jan 3, 2017
Episode 18: Culture
According to literary critic Raymond Williams, "culture" is "one of two or three most complicated words in the English language." After putting this episode together, I couldn't agree more. "Culture" is really many words rolled into one. Today's narrative traces the word's unexpected origins as a farming term to its anthropological usage today. Along the way, we'll encounter and explore many different opinions about what culture is. For your free Audible Trial, click here.
Dec 21, 2016
Episode 17: Two
The spelling of the word "two" is wildly un-phonetic. Today's episode explores the origins of that silent W and the circumstances that eroded its pronunciation. Along the way, Ray discusses some less-than-obvious derivatives of the word "two" and the technical characteristics of vowels. For your free Audible trial, click here.
Dec 10, 2016
Episode 16: Cologne
Men's perfume known as "cologne" takes its name from the German city in which it was invented. But if Cologne is a German city, why does the perfume have a distinctly French name? Why does German spell the city with a "K," while English spells it with a C? And where does the name of the city itself ultimately come from? Today's episode tackles the answers to these questions and more.
Nov 25, 2016
Episode 15: Sinister
Today's episode explores the etymological and cultural connections between the words "sinister" and "left," as in, "left-handed." In the world of ancient Rome, the left hand was surrounded by an unlucky superstition. Though the superstition has faded away, the original word denoting this connection--"sinister"--has not. While the evolution of "sinister" is the focus of today's episode, it fits into a larger theme of etymological biases against the left hand found in languages around the world. For your free Audible trial, click here.
Oct 11, 2016
Episode 14 (Bonus Episode): Calqued Words
"Calques" are loan translations. Basically, these are words or phrases whose meanings have been literally translated from one language into another. Words such as "flea market," "skyscraper," and "translation" all came into English this way. Today's episode looks at a number of words that have been calqued into English and out of English.
Oct 9, 2016
Episode 13: Beg the Question
What is the "true" meaning of the idiomatic expression "to beg the question?" Well, it depends on what one means by "true." Today, "to beg the question" most commonly is used as a synonym for "to raise the question," but historically, "to beg the question" had a very different meaning. It involved neither "begging" nor a "question," but rather, a philosophical fallacy of circular reasoning. The expression--or rather, the meaning of the expression--can be traced back to Aristotle. Over the course of about two thousand years, a series of mistranslations and semantic corruptions have resulted in "beg the question's" modern "misusage."
Oct 8, 2016
Episode 12: Ostracize
The word "ostracism" can be traced back to Ancient Athens. For the Ancient Athenians, an "ostracism" was not a sociological phenomenon, but an electoral vote that sought to protect the integrity of democracy. Today's episode provides a concise overview of Ancient Athenian society and looks at the details of the ancient ostracism vote. For a free Audible trial, go to: audibletrial.com/wordsforgranted
Oct 8, 2016
Episode 11: Amateur
Amateurs get a bad name. The professional/amateur dichotomy portrays them as inept, inexperienced, and at best, avocational. However, the word "amateur" was not always a part of this dichotomy. In fact, it's derived from the Latin word for "love." Today's episode explores the negative evolution of the word as a product of capitalist values. For a free Audible trial, follow the link below: audibletrial.com/wordsforgranted
Sep 13, 2016
Episode 10: Handicap
The etymology of "handicap" is the source of a myth that dates back to sixteenth century England. The myth claims that "handicap" is a mutated contraction of the expression "cap in hand," an old euphemism for begging. However, "handicap" is in fact a contraction of "hand in cap," a popular Medieval bartering game. Over the course of today's episode, we'll see how the word came to mean "a physical or mental disability" and why it's considered to be a politically incorrect term. Today's show is brought to you by Audible. Follow the link below to sign up with a free 30-day trial! www.audibletrial/wordsforgranted.com
Sep 6, 2016
Episode 9 (Bonus Episode): Mouse (and Why Its Plural Form Is "Mice")
In today's episode, we look at the etymology of mouse, but really, it's a springboard into a far more complicated topic: the word "mice," its irregular plural form. Why do we say "mice" and not "mouses" when referring to more than one mouse? The answer lies in the grammar of an ancient tongue that predates modern English by thousands of years. This is the most linguistic-heavy episode of Words for Granted yet, so first-time listeners, beware!
Aug 26, 2016
Episode 8: Cellular
The English language utilizes the word "cell" in a handful of contexts. We have prison "cells", brain "cells", battery "cells", and of course, "cell" phones. At first glance, these various applications of the word "cell" seem unrelated, but if we dig a little deeper into their etymological roots, we discover that they in fact originate from a single source: Medieval monasteries. In today's episode, we explore the unlikely historical relationship between the living quarters of Medieval Christian monks and the modern technology behind the cellular phone.
Aug 14, 2016
Episode 7: Digital
Today's episode begins a short mini-series that explores the origins of technology-themed words. Although digital technology didn't permeate our culture at large until the end of the twentieth century, the word "digital" has been around for centuries. If you're a tech nerd, you probably already know what the term refers to, but if you're not, then you're in for a surprise. Furthermore, we discuss why usage of the term may begin to wane in the upcoming years.
Aug 5, 2016
Episode 6: Comfort
The word "comfort" once described the spiritual consolation given by God to and an individual. Today, it describes commercialized products ranging from air conditioners to tennis shoes to sofas--a pretty drastic change, to say the least. How did this evolution take place? Today's episode looks at the impact of capitalism and consumerism on our ideas of "comfort".
Jul 23, 2016
Episode 5: Meat
The word "meat" once referred to all forms of solid food, not just animal flesh. In today's episode, Ray explores the ambiguities of the word "meat" as it appears in the King James Bible and debunks a certain myth surrounding meat-related words such as pork, beef, and veal, among others.
Jul 8, 2016
Episode 4 (Bonus Episode): Polysemous Words
Welcome to the first Words for Granted bonus episode! This episode explores polysemy, the phenomenon by which a single word can have multiple meanings. Why do we use the word "foot" in the compound word "footnote"? Why does the word "decimation" derive from the Latin word for "ten"? Will books eventually become extinct? Ray answers all of these questions and more, all through the lens of polysemy.
Jun 26, 2016
Episode 3: Weird
Today's episode looks at the Old English sense of the word "wyrd". It was not an adjective, but a noun that is commonly translated into Modern English as "fate". However, this oversimplified translation doesn't tell the word's full story. By comparing and contrasting etymological and cultural evidence, Ray makes the case that "wyrd" and "fate" are really not the same thing at all.
Jun 10, 2016
Episode 2: Nice
"Nice" has gone through more changes than almost any other word in the English language. Over the course of seven centuries, it has been used to mean "stupid", "promiscuous", "elegant", and "effeminate", among countless other things. In this episode, we're going to try to make sense of its perplexing evolution.
Jun 10, 2016
Episode 1: Villain
Welcome to Words for Granted! In this debut episode, we'll be looking at how villanus, the Latin word for "farmworker", became the Modern English word "villain". From Ancient Rome to Medieval England to modern superhero films, the meaning of "villain" has changed drastically over time.