Questions about the history and trends of the English language

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4
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1answer
412 views

What a pluperfect a##hole

From The Silence of the Lambs (1988): "Marilyn Sutter saw it upstairs. Chilton was blowing off about "The Search for Billy Rubin." Then he went to dinner with a television reporter. That's ...
19
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7answers
44k 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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5answers
4k views

Rhyme in Elizabethan sonnets

In sonnets from the Elizabethan period, "move" rhymed with "love" although they don't today. Recognizing that changes in spelling rarely keep up with changes in pronunciation, how were "move" and "...
14
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2answers
56k views

Why is the plural of “deer” the same as the singular?

Why is the plural version of deer identical to the singular version? If mouse became mice, then why did the singular deer not change to something else in the plural?
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3answers
6k views

Why (and since when) is prostitution called “the world's oldest profession”? [closed]

According to Wikipedia, the phrase the world's second oldest profession is "spying" and the world's oldest profession is prostitution. I was always raised with the understanding that prostitution was ...
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6answers
4k views

How come 'ou' was reduced to 'o' in the US?

Americans write color and favorite, when others say colour and favourite. How/why did this happen?
20
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2answers
1k views

Why is a w a “Double u”, but an m is not a “Double n”?

My 4 year old son just asked me this, and I have to say I am totally stumped. I hate not telling him things, so here's hoping you guys can dig me out of this hole. You can't fault his logic!
11
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3answers
1k views

Where did the practice of using apostrophes for possessive nouns but not pronouns originate?

Where did the practice of using apostrophes for possessive nouns but not pronouns originate? For example, possessive nouns (both proper and common) are written with a apostrophe before the final s: ...
8
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1answer
562 views

Diminutive forms in English.

In many languages, formation of diminutives by adding suffixes is a productive part of the language. Many languages apply a grammatical diminutive to nouns, a few—including Dutch, Italian and Russian ...
5
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1answer
1k views

Flexibility of English: Always so?

The other day I read a question about nouns being used as verbs. An answer informed that in English any word can be used as a verb, but that it is not so in other languages. Beyond verbs, English is a ...
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5answers
503 views

How dangerous is the acceptance of common usage on traditional English?

I mean how far should we flow on with the current called "common usage"? Is there a fear that the real English is going do disappear someday? By the way, as for me, I like common English myself. :)
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5answers
1k views

History/connection/origin of using names as verbs/nouns?

There are a good few words in English that come from names: To jimmy a lock is to break it. To jack someone is to rob them. To peter out is to become tired. A john is a bathroom, or one who buys the ...
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8answers
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When did the term “flip flop” displace the term “thong” in North America for a type of sandal?

To Australians like me "thong" means a kind of sandal such as recently repopularized by the Havaianas brand but we know it means a kind of G-string in other English-speaking parts of the world. To ...
12
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5answers
34k views

Where does “ta!” come from?

Where does the expression "ta" come from? Wikipedia has only this to say: "ta!", slang, Exclam. Thank you! {Informal}, an expression of gratitude but no additional information or links about ...
12
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2answers
7k views

Researching the real origin of SNAFU

I know the wiki origin puts SNAFU as appearing during WWII as the first in a long line of military slang, BUT, years ago I recollect reading in an electronics magazine, likely 'Wireless World' from 60'...
11
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2answers
6k views

Why is “gauge” spelled with a 'u'?

I was rather old before I realized "gauge" is pronounced (and sometimes spelt) "gage". The etymology doesn't reveal too much: mid-15c., from Anglo-Fr. gauge (mid-14c.), from O.N.Fr. gauger, from ...
10
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4answers
5k views

“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” [closed]

With Neil Armstrong's death today, many news sites are posting articles that quote Neil Armstrong as "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.". My question is, does the quote ...
9
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2answers
576 views

Why “thanks” Can Never Be Singular as a Noun?

While looking at the part of speech of the noun "thanks" in an online dictionary I noticed that it was a plural noun and wondered if it could be used in singular form. Glancing at the origin it ...
9
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5answers
1k views

Has “dilemma” ever been restricted to two options?

I was surprised to discover my dictionary had this entry for dilemma: a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones The ...
8
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4answers
1k views

Last names that are English words with an extra 'e'

I noticed that there are a lot of last names that have an 'e' at the end. The pronunciation usually isn't changed from that of the base word. Poole Steele Browne Clarke Why do English words not ...
6
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2answers
4k views

Why is “can” such an odd verb?

The English verb can is very strange for several reasons: It drops the to on any infinitive verb forms that follow it. That is, unlike in the verb want in the sentence I want to eat, you would not ...
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3answers
7k views

Etymological origin of “deosil” and “widdershins”

I've been hearing the words "deosil" used for clockwise and "widdershins" for anticlockwise, but where do they come from? I'm told that "widdershins" is from a Scottish term meaning "against the way",...
4
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6answers
20k views

What does “everything's gone pear-shaped” mean?

I've recently heard this phrase spoken twice on a British television show, and I assume it means something along the lines of, "everything's fallen apart," generally meaning, things are bad right now. ...
4
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3answers
293 views

Why is this a hyperbaton?

According to Wikipedia, this is a hyperbaton: "Whom god wishes to destroy, he first makes mad" — Euripides Is that right, and if so, why? My native language is Swedish, but I speak English ...
4
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2answers
11k views

“John Doe”, “Jane Doe” - Why are they used many times?

I posted a question ( http://programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/92215/john-doe-jane-doe-why-are-they-used-many-times ) and they told me to post that question here. So I'm doing it. I received ...
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2answers
1k views

Why is there “Black English” but not “White English”?

African American Vernacular English is shortened to a less precise phrase "Black English". Also, Black English is used in a broader sense: Black English is a term used for both dialects of English ...
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4answers
13k views

Do we ask for check or cheque in restaurants?

I know there is a related question asked here. But its slightly different than it and seeking more information. I live in India, I have been to America couple of times. In my first trip it was ...
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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 ...
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3answers
2k 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 ...
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8answers
40k 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?
60
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8answers
18k views

If cow = beef, pig = pork, and deer = venison, then where is the word for human = [flesh as food source]?

Maybe it's the season of Halloween, because it's kind of a grim question, but I have seriously wondered from a language point of view - is there a word for human as 'food-meat', or has there ever been,...
46
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5answers
4k 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?
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3answers
2k views

When and why did the letter “u” begin being called [ju]?

We pronounce the name of the twenty-first letter of the alphabet homophonically with the word you. Was this what the letter was always called (ever since the analogous letter in Latin), or did it at ...
13
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2answers
845 views

Can an English sentence have a 'dative subject'?

I have been thinking about this for a while. It seems to me that, sometimes, the subject plays a dative role in that it is the recipient of something. Take the following active sentence. He gave ...
8
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4answers
1k views

What is the historic process for converting vulgar words into simply rude words?

I have noticed a pattern involving vulgarities where the previous generation's evil words become accepted as merely off-color or rude in the following generation. Is this merely each generation's ...
58
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4answers
18k 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 ...
25
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4answers
2k 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 ...
10
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2answers
15k views

what is the origin of the phrase “a penny for your thoughts”?

Googling for the origin of "A penny for your thoughts," I have only found the origin of a likely-related phrase "my two cents" and simple dictionary entries for "a penny for your thoughts." What is ...
6
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1answer
310 views

Jackson = $$son: pun or topical reference

Alfred Bester's short story The Demolished Man (the original version serialized in Galaxy magazine in 1952, not the novel published in 1963) may have been the first instance of SMS-speak, featuring ...
17
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4answers
1k 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 ...
16
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5answers
33k views

Why “hoist” in “Hoist with one's own petard”?

He was hoist with his own petard is one of my father's favorite phrases. As a child I had developed a vague understanding of the idiom in which petard was a kind of flag, which is why it was hoist, ...
13
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3answers
709 views

What is the first recorded appearance of the mistranslation “Red Square”?

Does anybody know when the mistranslation "Red Square" made its first recorded appearance? Have there been any noteworthy attempts at establishing the correct translation "Beautiful Square" at some ...
13
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4answers
6k views

Quotation ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

There is a cottage industry in the United States of manufacturing quotations and ascribing them to the American Founding Fathers. A recent one, "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to ...
11
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2answers
1k views

Are there or were there any other conjoined pronoun-verb combinations like “methinks” in English?

And why was this ever considered grammatically correct? Why not "Ithinks"? Edit: When I ask "why," I'm wondering for example, whether or not "me" has always been the first-person objective case in ...
10
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1answer
635 views

English Subjunctive: An Imposition from Latin?

Often English grammar (as well as Koinê Greek, e.g "deponent", and probably others), has often been ruled by what I call "totalitarian grammarians" who impose Latin structures on it rather than doing ...
10
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4answers
5k views

Why do common swear words have four letters?

As a non-native speaker I always wondered why most (common) swear words have four letters. I know this is shifting and more words are araising and traditional swear words lose their "harshness", but ...
9
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1answer
748 views

When did it become incorrect to use apostrophes with possessive pronouns?

I'm reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and I notice that she invariably uses an apostrophe with possessive pronouns — in a way that would be considered incorrect now. For example: (Elinor is ...
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2answers
1k views

History of the phrase “olden days”

When and where was the phrase olden days coined?
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3answers
391 views

“He rolled his toilet things into his housewife”

From C.S. Forester's Hornblower and the Hotspur: [The naval captain] rolled his toilet things into his housewife and tied the tapes. ODO does provide a second definition for housewife which ...
4
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2answers
21k views

Where did the slang usages of “cool” come from?

I see and hear two general slang usages of cool - one meaning great (illustrated by a and b below), and one meaning acceptable/okay (illustrated by c and d). The following are Dictionary.com's four (...