Archive for etymology

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

From Fawney to Phoney

Cathlin Berndt

Image by Caio Resende from

Phoney, which today means “Fake, sham, counterfeit; false; insincere” (OED s.v. phoney, sense 1), seems like a pretty straightforward word. However, that is not the case. This word, according to Cohen, has been a debated topic for over 100 years (Cohen 1). Phoney (or phony) is an interesting word. It looks like the word phone but has absolutely nothing to do with phones. There is evidence that the word phoney originated from the word fawney which means “A finger-ring” and is an Irish slang word (OED s.v. fawney, sense 1). The earliest form of fawney is in relation to fawney-rig which was a con game where someone would drop a ring in front of the person they were trying to con. They would then attempt to sell them the ring claiming that it was being sold at a way cheaper value than what it should have been, when in reality, they were making about ten times as much as the ring was worth (OED s.v. fawney, sense 2)

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Friday, March 13th, 2020

Gaelic Loanwords in Early Modern English

Mae McDonald

Dunquaire Castle near Kinvarra in the County of Galway. Image: (c) Tammy McDonald.

With Ireland and Scotland close to parts of England, loanwords from Gaelic were bound to enter the English language in some way. Loanwords began to really pop up around the 14th century and slowly increased until the 20th century where there was a large drop. Focusing on the 16th century, there is a commonality in the types of loanwords. A large chunk of the most used words that came from Gaelic in this time period were words that described landscape features or had to do with agriculture. I didn’t go into a specific dialect of Gaelic, in order to keep it open to both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Most of the words I’m planning on looking at are under the Goidelic branch of Celtic. Because of this, there are only a few words that have about a medium frequency and must have been universal throughout the Gaelic dialects.

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Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Uncleftish Beholding: An Uploosening of English Cleanness

Alexei Muzyka

Many English words are directly borrowed from, or take influence from many other languages. Loanwords can fill lexical gaps, increase the ways people can say what they want to, and increase the precision of communication in a language. English has borrowed so many foreign words that it might seem impossible that the complex ideas of today’s world could be communicated without loans. However, doing so can show one where English receives new words from, which languages contribute heavily to certain word categories, and how loans are more helpful than harmful.

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Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

“What’s a skill?”: A Look at the Etymology of Skill

Sam  Campling

Throughout my childhood, I was a competitive figure skater, and as with most other competitive athletes, I fought to be the winner at every competition. However, there was always someone who was better than me, hence why I am not presently a competitive skater. When someone beat me, I found myself wondering; are they naturally gifted at this sport? Or, did they work tirelessly to become the best? I mostly just told myself they paid off the judges, even though that was obviously false. Many people are lucky enough to be proficient in an activity naturally. Some people are not as lucky, but at least have a work ethic strong enough to push through and become proficient in an activity of choice. Either way, these people who are proficient have what you would call a skill.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889). One of his most popular paintings.

In the present, the term skill refers to the “capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness. Also, an ability to perform a function, acquired or learned from practice”. (Oxford English Dictionary) As examples, Sidney Crosby is skilled in the sport of hockey, Vincent Van Gogh was skilled in the art of drawing and painting, and Shania Twain is skilled in the art of singing. These three mentioned excel in their respective activities.

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Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Fact: Humans have been using technology for a lot longer than you have been alive.

Yin Liu

Fallacy: Technology is the latest electronic gadgetry.

One of my favourite forms of technology. Image: (cc) Andrew Taylor.

I’m going to save myself some extra work here and simply direct you to a blog post on my research project website: . Here’s an excerpt:

So this is a plea to hold on to that broader definition of technology and that broader view of technology. The screen on which you are reading these words is the product of modern technology, but the forms of the letters themselves are a product of medieval technological design (most modern roman fonts are based on a medieval script, Caroline minuscule), and writing itself is surely one of the most powerful technologies that humans have ever invented. To understand whatever form of electronic gadgetry happens to be trending next, we need to understand technology.