Archive for September, 2014

My friend and colleague Pete Bowers will be delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of Everyone Reading Illinois, formerly the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, in Schaumburg this October. I’ll be there too at the LEX table.

As a special treat, Pete will be returning to Central Illinois with me for a joint workshop, Word Scientists. Join us both on Saturday, October 25th, and stay for a half day Q&A session with me.

Register online, or email/mail/fax in the form below. Register early, space is limited.

141025 Word Scientists



141025 Word Scientists 2

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LEX is pleased to announce a new LEXinar this fall featuring Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary. Doug and I have enjoyed joint live seminars for the past two years (affectionately known as WordStock I and WordStock II), and now we’re taking our act online.

This Etymology LEXinar will be scheduled for five, 90-minute evening sessions this fall. Our plans look something like this:

Installment I: Etymology~a brief history
Installment 2: Cognates
Installment 3: Historical roots 1
Installment 4: Historical roots 2
Installment 5: A Holler Up The Well

Dates for the inaugural sessions will be finalized and posted shortly, and a registration link will be included on the LEXinar page and on the LEX Facebook page.

Join us and learn more about how to seek and use information in The Online Etymology Dictionary. Practice tracing the pathways of English words back in time, and learn how words are related within English and across languages. And a couple of times along the way, we might even make you laugh.

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On the Radio, Whoa-oa-oa-oa

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my work and about words on a radio show with the Dyslexia Training Institute. Have a listen!

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A Multitude of Sins

Sometimes the light of language shines so bright as to blind a person.

This week I’ve had cause to encounter the sentence I am a sinner a few times, and it’s been twirling in my head for much of the day today. There are a handful of I am statements that have some meaningful resonance for me and for a lot of other people: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the heart of Cartesian rationalism; Ich bin ein berliner, John F. Kennedy’s much-maligned effort to form a Teutonic bond; I am woman, hear me roar, that estrogenic anthem of 2nd wave feminism.

But it wasn’t the I am part of this sentence that got caught in my thinker; it was the sinner part. That word — sin — causes all kinds of upset among all kinds of people no matter what they believe or don’t believe about it. So I decided to have a look.

It turns out that saying I am a sinner is, etymologically speaking, a bit pleonastic. The word sin derives ultimately from the same historical root as the words am, is, and are. German sein, sind, and ist, Spanish ser, soy, somos, eres, and es, and French être, suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, and sont are all cognate — all forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Other English relatives include essence, entity, interest, represent, and yes. The derivation of sin from its proto-forms involved the acknowledgment of guilt: I am (guilty) or It is (a true sin).

Look, my perspectives are not impeccable, and perhaps my suggestions herein are more than peccadillos. Certainly it’s not the case that every language’s word for ‘sin‘ is related to ‘being.’ Latinate languages, for example, have words for ‘sin‘ that are historically related to foot, pedal, podiatrist, fetter, impede, and impeach: etymologically, speaking, our feet are as likely to stumble as they are to walk; from the time we first stood upright, we began to fall.

Transgression is the human condition, or at least a big part of it. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes negligently. Mostly we apologize and try to make it right. We may not agree about what sin is, but we can all be confident that if any one of us does it, we all do it. I’m no theologian, but the etymology is pretty provocative: to be is to sin; to sin is to be. With all due respect to René Descartes, pecco, ergo sum.


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