Questions about the history and trends of the English language

learn more… | top users | synonyms

50
votes
6answers
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 ...
7
votes
2answers
187 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 ...
25
votes
3answers
12k 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
565 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
3k 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
398 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
998 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
6k 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 ...
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' ...
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
2k 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
8k 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
431 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
3k 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
349 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
563 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
979 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
218 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
564 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
9k 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
759 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
934 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
373 views

When was “antimatter” first used?

When was antimatter first used? Who was the person that used it?
8
votes
2answers
679 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
2k 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
620 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. ...
15
votes
3answers
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 ...
6
votes
2answers
322 views

Why are “he”, “she”, and “it” distinct in the singular, but all “they” in the plural?

Other languages have gender-specific third-person plural pronouns (e.g., ellos and ellas in Spanish). English does not, despite the masculine/feminine/neuter distinction being obligatory in the ...
7
votes
7answers
1k views

What are some of the most influential or obscure phrases and literary constructions drawn from the Bible?

I was reading through some English L & U SE questions, and happened across one asking about the origin of the phrase "Through a Glass, Clearly / A Scanner Darkly / In a Mirror, Darkly / ...
5
votes
1answer
5k views

Where does “three line whip” come from?

In parliament a three line whip is said to be applied when a party seeks to ensure every MP turns up and votes the party line. But why the term "three line" whip? And is there such a thing as a one ...
5
votes
3answers
332 views

Are there any cases of a word that originated in English replacing another word in English in common usage?

I'm curious if there's any cases of a word that originated in English (didn't come from a foreign source) replacing another word in every day usage?
15
votes
5answers
19k views

Is “from whence” correct? Or should it be “whence”?

I just saw a parody on the Lord of the Rings, where one of the characters says: it must be cast back in the fire from whence it came! This struck me as odd, since I expected them to say "whence ...
10
votes
6answers
1k views

Adjectives with Latin etymology when noun has non-Latin etymology

As a non-native English speaker, I always wondered why, for example, you say moon, but then you say lunar (same goes for side and lateral, hand and manual and so forth): in some cases, the noun is not ...
9
votes
10answers
1k views

Has technology slowed or stopped the development of the core English language?

What follows is a hypothesis of mine. I'm wondering if there's historical merit for my hypothesis. It seems the English language has a much bigger change between the documents produced in the early ...
9
votes
1answer
2k views

How did an apostrophe plus the letter “s” come to indicate possession? [duplicate]

Possible Duplicate: Origins of possessive pronouns How did English come to use "apostrophe s" to indicate possession, when it seems to me that few (if any!) other languages do (or do ...
13
votes
5answers
2k views

Was the word “nigger” an expletive in Mark Twain's day?

Was the word "nigger" a deliberately derogatory and offensive word in Mark Twain's time, or was it just a normal word to describe an ethnicity in those days? Background: I'm curious as to whether ...
278
votes
6answers
79k 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 ...
11
votes
4answers
8k views

What is the origin of the phrase “'til the cows come home”?

What is the origin of the term 'til the cows come home? While discussing this with friends tonight, the group had two possible explanations: Cows return to their barn for milking at a given time ...
16
votes
7answers
25k 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 ...
11
votes
4answers
4k views

Is it true that the 100 most common English words are all Germanic in origin?

There is an oft-quoted statement that the 100 most common (frequently used) words in the English language are entirely Germanic/Anglo-Saxon in origin. (Also sometimes said is that ~80% of the 1000 ...
12
votes
3answers
13k views

Were contractions less common in olden days?

We just viewed the new movie True Grit. The language of the characters was more formal sounding than we are used to, largely because of the absence of contractions. Is this historically accurate? Do ...