Questions about the history and trends of the English language

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257
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6answers
76k views

Did English ever have a formal version of “you”?

From the top of my head, Danish "De" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "您", French "vous", Spanish "usted" are a formal way of addressing someone, especially if one isn't familiar with ...
156
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8answers
7k views

What is the factual basis for “pirate speech”? (Did pirates really say things like “shiver me timbers”?)

The "pirate speech" we hear/see/read, for example, on the website Talk Like A Pirate Day consists of a rhotic dialect characterized by phrases like "shiver me timbers," "ooh arh me hearties," and so ...
106
votes
3answers
4k views

Where were “should”, “shall”, and “must” in the 18th Century?

According to the following Google Ngram, in the U.K. the modals should, shall, and must were virtually missing from English writing during the 18th Century (I've added will for a comparison modal ...
82
votes
1answer
5k views

Did English ever have a word for 'yes' for negative questions?

The Germans have doch and the French have si as a word that means "yes" in response to a negative question, such as: Don't you want some ice-cream? Yes [I do]! In English, we only have yes (as ...
57
votes
5answers
13k views

If the letter J is only 400–500 years old, was there a J sound that preceded the design of the letter?

I understand that the letter "J" is relatively new — perhaps 400–500 years old. But since there has long been important names that begin with J, such as Jesus, Joshua, Justinian, etc., and which ...
53
votes
4answers
9k views

How did Americans greet each other before “Hi”?

I had assumed that "hi" was a somehow abbreviated form of "hello," but though both of these words appear to have originated from a noise to attract attention, hi actually predates hello. These words ...
47
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7answers
3k views

Why does legal English continue to remain archaic?

Perhaps this is a question for Law.SE if one exists, but I am asking here as there are other nice questions on English history. There is some historical development account presented in Wikipedia, ...
47
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5answers
5k views

What we've gelost — why doesn't English use the prefix “ge-”?

The Germanic languages that I'm familiar with all use a prefix similar to ge- on past participles: German: Ich habe mir den Fuß gebrochen. Dutch: Ik heb mijn voet gebroken. But English ...
44
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7answers
34k views

What did “google” mean in the 1900s?

I know that Google got its name from the word googol (10100), and that Google/google referring the search engine/using the search engine are recent additions to the dictionary. Their definitions are ...
42
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6answers
6k views

When did it become correct to add an “s” to a singular possessive already ending in “‑s”?

According to my grammar book, but at variance to the answer to this question, the correct singular possessive if a word ends in ‑s is: James’s car The grammar book allows exceptions for ...
40
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4answers
3k views

Who is Jesus H. Christ?

When used as an expletive, the name Jesus Christ often gets an H inserted into the middle of it for some reason. I've heard lots of guesses about what the H stands for, the most popular one being ...
40
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5answers
2k views

What did we say before “clockwise”?

Before there were clocks, what did people say to describe the clockwise and anti/counter-clockwise directions? Whilst we're on the subject, when was the word "clockwise" first used?
35
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6answers
4k views

How did “Jew” become pejorative?

For some reason, the word Jew often carries a pejorative or offensive connotation, which the related adjective Jewish does not carry. This is most obvious when either word is used as an attributive: ...
34
votes
6answers
2k views

Pronunciation of the English alphabet

Why are there inconsistencies in the pronunciation of the consonants of the alphabet? For example: 'b' is pronounced like 'bee' but 'm' is pronounced as 'em' rather than 'me'. The pronunciation of 'h' ...
32
votes
3answers
26k views

Why use the word “copy” in “do you copy that”?

I notice "do you copy that?" is used in movies to ask for confirmation in telephone/interphone conversation. I only know copy means make things duplicated, so why use it in "do you copy that"? Is ...
31
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5answers
4k views

During the “Cold War”, did Americans/Westerners call it such?

I am old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union, but not old enough to have had any interest in world affairs in the times before. Did Americans/Westerners refer to the "Cold War" by that ...
29
votes
6answers
21k views

What is “won't” a contraction of?

"Don't", "wouldn't", "couldn't" and "isn't" are all contractions of "do not", "would not", "could not" and "is not"... So what's "won't" a contraction of? It appears to be "will not", but if so, why ...
28
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4answers
3k views

Why did only English undergo the Great Vowel Shift, making pronunciation stray so far from spelling?

Lots of people have wondered why English seems to be one of very few languages with such irregular spelling, far from its pronunciation. The answers include the Norman invasion, and the Great Vowel ...
28
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5answers
2k views

What are the historical processes of preposition coining in English?

RegDwight's excellent answer showing the historical usage of despite got me thinking about the processes by which new prepositions are coined. Prepositions are generally considered a closed class, and ...
27
votes
6answers
8k views

Hip Hip Hooray!

I am looking for the etymology and history of the cheer “Hip Hip Hooray”. I’m curious due to its interesting entry in Wikipedia, which reads thusly: The call was recorded in England in the ...
26
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5answers
3k views

Why are knobs called “pots” by some sound designers?

I was recently introduced to the term "pots" to mean "dials" or "knobs" in the field of sound design and audio engineering. (It rather took me by surprise; I had no idea what the sound designer was ...
26
votes
2answers
11k views

Use of “f ” instead of “s” in historic, printed English documents

I was at a museum in London yesterday, and one of the items on exhibit is a document from the eighteenth century. It uses the letter f a lot where s should be used—for example, in Majefty. Did the ...
26
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2answers
1k views

What is the name for the process which turned “iced cream” into “ice cream”?

There are several words (mostly related to food) which are shortenings of their historical forms. For example, the cold treat ice cream was originally known as iced cream in the 1680s. The -ed ending ...
25
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3answers
1k views

Is there a historical trend towards shorter sentences?

From my own reading of older books (eg. 18th, 19th century) in various styles (novels, philosophical treatises, scientific publications), it seems that sentences were longer back then. Is there good ...
25
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5answers
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How and in what way did the Danes come to influence English?

I was looking for some insight into the farewell greeting ta on The Urban Dictionary just now, and came across this mostly excellent top-ranked answer (adapted slightly, emphasis mine): A slang ...
25
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3answers
3k views

Why “daily” and not “dayly”?

Checking how adjectives related to time are created, I see: year → yearly month → monthly week → weekly day → daily Why has “day” derivated into “daily” with an ‘i’ instead of “dayly” with a ‘y’? ...
25
votes
2answers
4k views

What causes the pronunciation “nucular”

What is the name of the phonetic shift behind the common mispronunciation of the word nuclear (nucular)? Or, if the answer is "none", then I would appreciate learning the origin of the pronunciation.
23
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2answers
3k views

How and when did American spelling supersede British spelling in the US?

Considering that Webster published his first dictionary in 1806, is there a recognised tipping point (year, decade, etc.) that marked the move from traditional British spelling to Webster's American? ...
23
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8answers
3k views

Why have the subjunctive and indicative converged in Modern English?

It is to me a curious fact that the subjunctive mood of verbs in English has so nearly disappeared in modern times. In fact, even the correct form and usage of the subjunctive in Modern English barely ...
22
votes
2answers
3k views

Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 words?

I am having a discussion with colleagues about a recent news article relating to new words in the dictionary (cleggmannia? really?) and got onto the subject of evolution of language, and how many ...
22
votes
3answers
8k views

Why doesn't “its” have an apostrophe?

I know that its is the possessive and it's is the contraction, and know when to use them. But why doesn't the possessive have an apostrophe? "The bear's eating a fish." [contraction] "The bear's ...
21
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2answers
2k views

Why do written English vowels differ from other Latin-based orthographies?

Written English vowels differ from other Latin-based orthographies. Consider what the written vowels in the romance languages represent. Also, for example, consider this simple comparision between a ...
21
votes
1answer
3k views

What are the historical reasons for the conventional sequence of footnote symbols?

According to @Mahnax's answer to this question, the Chicago Manual of Style Online states that the correct sequence of footnote symbols is as follows: * (asterisk; but do not use if p values occur ...
20
votes
3answers
1k views

Old English instead of Latin in early Britain

For almost 400 years, Britain was a Roman province. During that period, naturally, Latin was an important language in the region. When the Germanic tribes invaded the British Isles (around the 5th ...
20
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3answers
2k views

Why do so many newspapers use the word “Times” in their names?

It seems that the word itself doesn't mean news or newspapers, but many newspapers use it in their names. Is there a historic reason?
19
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3answers
3k views

What were nightmares called before “nightmare” was used in that sense?

Apparently the word "nightmare" has only been used in the sense of "bad dream" since c. 1829. Before then the term referred to the agent causing the dreams—a mare < mera, mære 'goblin, ...
19
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1answer
4k views

Why don't English nouns have grammatical gender?

English nouns — other than those with natural gender, e.g. people or animals — do not generally have grammatical gender, and so are referred to as 'it' rather than 'he' or 'she'. However, modern ...
18
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8answers
21k views

Why did English become a universal language and when?

As we all know, English is the universal communication medium. Now we know how powerful it is to convey our thoughts. When did it become a common language? Why did they opt for this language?
18
votes
1answer
898 views

In old books, why is the first word of the next page printed at the bottom of this page?

In old books from the 16th to 18th centuries, the first word from the next page is often printed right justified on its own, at the end of the current page. It's not in every book of this period, but ...
18
votes
3answers
4k views

“How come” vs “Why?”

What are the differences between the terms "How come ... we eat breakfast?" and "Why ... do we eat breakfast?" The words phrase based in how seems really awkward to me, and I don't understand this ...
18
votes
2answers
280 views

“Fire” a weapon before firearms existed?

Did the verb “fire a weapon” exist before the actual introduction of firearms on battlefields? More specifically, does it make sense for a creative work to have archers (or whatever ranged weaponry) ...
17
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6answers
905 views

Paucity of words for relationships

Please refer the following questions asked elsewhere on this site: Is there a word that means "the wife of one's brother"? What is the relationship name of my wife's brother to me? ...
16
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4answers
1k views

How did English get the “What is your name?” construction?

As a dabbling polyglot, I've found myself learning the basics of several languages over the course of my lifetime. One of the first things that is taught in any language is personal introductions. I ...
16
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3answers
7k views

How does the “be-” prefix change the words to which it is applied? How did it come about?

What does the be- prefix change when applied to adjectives and verbs? There are many such words that seemed to be coined of this process, for example: behold, beget, befallen, beridden, ...
16
votes
7answers
21k views

Why is a woman's purse called a “pocketbook”?

It's not a book, and it doesn't fit in anyone's pocket. Why does my brother-in-law insist on calling his wife's purse a pocketbook? I'm interested in the etymology, and in the chronological and ...
15
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2answers
1k views

Why is there a distinction between “its” and “it's”?

While I know technically the English language has a distinction because when there's a conflict between the possessive form and a contraction, the contraction wins. That is: Its is the possessive ...
15
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4answers
4k views

Origin of “Put up your dukes”

This link claims that one cannot be sure of origin of this phrase. Three explanations are given here, but they are not very convincing (I am not a native speaker). In one of our newspapers, ...
15
votes
4answers
991 views

Are the verbs that are conjugated to end in “-n” in the past related?

There are many words that in English are conjugated in the past tense to end in "-n": grow goes to grown, sew goes to sewn, throw goes to thrown, etc.. I'm guessing it was probably the regular ...
15
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5answers
3k views

Why does the letter ‘o’ appear in the word ‘people’?

My two daughters demanded to know this. I speculated that it was artificially inserted, perhaps in the 17th-18th century, perhaps to make the word look more like populus, somewhat similar to the way ...
15
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8answers
2k views

Are there any archaic words in older strands of English that approximate the modern term “badass”?

The reason I ask is that the feeling evoked by the term badass feels to me like a human universal, so ought to have synonyms in any era. Trying to confirm my hypothesis, I hunted through the Online ...