Questions about the history and trends of the English language

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55
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4answers
11k 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 ...
5
votes
4answers
1k views

Were “devil” and “damned” really offensive words in Victorian times?

I've been reading Trollope's The Way We Live Now, and have noticed a little stylistic quirk; that the words devil and damned appear blanked out, as d----- and d------. They appear in sentences like... ...
2
votes
4answers
1k views

nebula and nebulous - a question of origin

While looking up nebulous, I noticed the origin of the word is dating back to 14th century. Surprised since the nebulae wasn't discovered at that time, I checked nebula to find that its origin dates ...
3
votes
4answers
522 views

What exactly does “my grandfather built this house” mean?

When someone says that "my grandfather built this house", say now or even 20-30 years ago, do they mean their grandfather literally built that house from ground up? Foundation, framing, wiring, ...
5
votes
2answers
1k views

Etymology of “German” and “germane”

"German" is an adjective referring to anything from Germany. However, I recently stepped across this word "germane". "Germane" means to be "closely related". Being interested, I looked up its history, ...
11
votes
5answers
54k views

What is the origin and history of the word “motherf---er”?

I'm not a native English speaker, but I would like to know how and why people started using mother fucker. Today it seems it has lost its meaning because people use it all the time, but was there a ...
1
vote
2answers
581 views

The history of the use of “man” [closed]

The pronoun 'he' used generically, as well as a lot of words including "man-kind" or generic "man" are sex-biased and are not acceptable. However, not so long ago, they were the proper used terms for ...
27
votes
3answers
10k 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, ...
41
votes
4answers
4k 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 ...
14
votes
2answers
3k views

Why did 'y' disappear as an internal vowel in English spelling?

Why did the character 'y' disappear in favor of 'i' in English spelling? I've often noticed this replacement when merchants try to sell or advertise something as archaic or old-timey, writing wife as ...
5
votes
6answers
25k views

What is the origin of the saying, “faint heart never won fair lady”?

Having heard the phrase, "faint heart never won fair lady" for the third time in very short span, I'm determined to find out its origin. Unfortunately, when I Google, I'm getting a bunch of ...
7
votes
3answers
1k views

Was what happened to the pronunciation of the word “church”, as compared to the Scots-English “kirk”, a general phenomenon in Middle English?

The other day, I was reading a history of the Norman and Angevin kings, and came across the word kirk in an ecclesiastical context, which I had to look up, having no clue of its meaning. The Online ...
10
votes
5answers
8k views

Where does the phrase “get crackin'” come from?

"There's a lot of work to be done, so we'd better get crackin'" I've often used this expression, but I have no idea what we might have been cracking, originally? Any insight?
34
votes
3answers
35k 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 ...
12
votes
2answers
2k views

Is the history of h-dropping in English in any way related to the silent h of French?

I was reading up on Richard the III, and his exploits just now in Wikipedia — as is the nature of Wiki, that further me led to stumble to Stafford, Duke of Buckingham's page, where I learned ...
52
votes
6answers
6k 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 ...
7
votes
2answers
190 views

Monsters! another question about what-was-it-then

Etymonline has the original meaning of monster as c.1300, "malformed animal, creature afflicted with a birth defect" but I am curious to know the term used at that time -- and even earlier -- for ...
26
votes
3answers
14k 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 ...
14
votes
5answers
6k views

Etymology of “Easter”

I’ve heard claims that the word Easter has the same Bronze Age root as east, Ishtar, Astarte, and ultimately star. Is this the correct etymology of the word Easter?
7
votes
4answers
600 views

When and why did the em-dash and the hyphen supplant the semicolon?

It seems to me that semicolons are rarely used today in ordinary English writing - even in newspapers and books. They appear to have been replaced, in many cases, by em-dashes and hyphens (the hyphen ...
12
votes
3answers
4k views

What does the “right” in the “The Right Honourable” mean? Why is it there?

I don't think the right in the "The Right Honourable" means "correct", because I can't see how that makes sense in context. I considered right as a British slang intensifier that means "really", but ...
15
votes
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 ...
4
votes
3answers
419 views

Which meaning of “to conceive” came first?

"To conceive" has two primary meanings to give birth to originate (an idea) Either one could be a metaphor for the other. MW just gave the etymology of the Latin parts without giving a history ...
6
votes
3answers
2k views

Where does “hot damn!” come from?

There is the exclamation "hot damn", which one might use, in certain contexts, similar to " All right!", or "Excellent!" (American English, as far as I know.) Google ngrams says it doesn't see it ...
10
votes
3answers
1k views

Evolution of the meaning of “to dwell”

The Old English meaning of "to dwell" (dwellan) is to mislead. Can we trace the gradual shift from this original sense to that of Modern English: to reside, to inhabit ?
25
votes
5answers
7k views

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 ...
35
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' ...
16
votes
2answers
2k views

Why did Old Testament scholars choose to employ “to know” in a sexual sense?

For those of us not familiar, the verb to know once had an archaic sexual sense, often found in the Old Testament, and as illustrated in the following story found in Genesis 19: 4 But before they ...
2
votes
3answers
3k views

Different ways to pronounce “augh”

In the word laugh, it is pronounced "aff". In the word naught, it is pronounced "aw". Are there any other ways to pronounce "augh"? Bonus points for etymology explaining from where these ...
5
votes
5answers
9k views

Can one say “I should like” rather than “I would like”? Is the former grammatical?

My focus here is on the should in the sentence fragment "I should very much like...". Why is it there in place of would? It seems strange that should is used in the subjunctive mood there -- is it ...
12
votes
1answer
443 views

Ordering of English sound changes in verbal morphology

As we all know, the Early Modern English 3sg verbal ending -eth has become -s in Modern English. This presumably happened in two steps: Elision of the unstressed e in the final syllable Changing ...
13
votes
3answers
4k views

Why do we say “honeymoon” instead of “honeymonth”?

I was curious about the etymology of the word honeymoon and found out that its sense was partially literal (serving honey for the couple), and partially metaphorical (sweet and happy times). But I ...
1
vote
1answer
382 views

History of “System” in English language

When was the word "system" used for the first time in English? What was the usage of the word in that time? (in English) Does it have special meaning in Music? If yes, is the word widely used by ...
5
votes
1answer
575 views

History of “Asian American” / “African American” nomenclature

Why are some Americans named to indicate their ancestry? It is not common to say, German Americans, or Russian Americans; however, African American, and Asian American are accepted nomenclatures. Even ...
6
votes
2answers
2k views

Why is most North American speech rhotic?

Most North American speech is rhotic—why is that? Does it come from the early English settlers or perhaps from the Irish settlers?
1
vote
2answers
1k views

The grammatical strangeness of “done me wrong” and “did me service”

Why are "done me wrong" and "did me service" established phrases instead of the more standard "He wronged me" and "He serviced [helped] me"? EDIT: I just realized whatever connection I saw with ...
1
vote
2answers
220 views

In older variations of English in history, how much evidence of written language samples are needed to define the grammar and usage of that period?

In older variations of English in history, how much evidence of written language samples are needed to accurately define the grammar and usage of that period? For example, if we want to define how ...
21
votes
3answers
4k 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, ...
3
votes
3answers
584 views

Why is it “either . . . or” and “neither . . . nor”?

Do we say it this way because of some connection with French and the "ne . . . pas," "ne . . . ni" constructions? I'm thinking that it might be a direct importation from Old French by the Normans, or ...
10
votes
7answers
10k views

Where did the idiom “giving a heads up” come from?

I know giving heads up means to inform someone, but how does that relate to the literal meaning i.e. giving heads up? What's the background? Where did it come from?
15
votes
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 ...
7
votes
1answer
790 views

Did the underscore character exist before modern computers? [closed]

I've noticed that in computer programming, underscores are used extensively to create names that are technically one word long but consist of several different words. For example, C++ has ...
8
votes
4answers
954 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 ...
19
votes
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?
1
vote
2answers
9k views

Origin and meaning of “damn straight”

The phrase "damn straight" is now used as a way to emphatically agree with a statement, but where does it come from, and what did it mean originally?
3
votes
4answers
379 views

When was “antimatter” first used?

When was antimatter first used? Who was the person that used it?
8
votes
2answers
741 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 ...
5
votes
1answer
3k views

Which of these meanings for the word “pet” came first?

The word "pet" has a few different definitions (my own paraphrase): n: An animal kept for companionship. v: To affectionately caress. My question is, which of these usages originated first? Do we ...
6
votes
3answers
638 views

Did “et cetera” gain its popularity from “The King and I”?

Is it possible that et cetera gained its popularity thanks to the 1956 movie The King and I? Since I wasn't around before 1956, I'm not sure how common "et cetera" was in day to day speech. Or was it ...
13
votes
2answers
2k views

What is the history of adding the a- prefix to form words?

I have always found the a- prefix to words (as in anew, ajar, aside, awake, afoot, a-hunting, etc.) fascinating. The NOAD says on this topic: a- 2. prefix •to; toward : aside | ashore. ...