the cultural background to ‘the Swan of Avon’

an epithet for William Shakespeare, born at Stratford-upon-Avon, on the River Avon—first used by Ben Jonson in the earliest collected edition (1623) of Shakespeare’s plays—but this use of ‘swan’ for a bard, a poet, is rooted in a tradition going back to antiquity

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‘ultracrepidarian’, coined to denigrate a specific person

UK, 1819—specifically invented to qualify the English poet and critic William Gifford with reference to the fact that he had been a shoemaker’s apprentice—alludes to the proverb ‘let the cobbler stick to his last’ from Pliny’s Natural History (AD 77)

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‘pupil’: one’s own reflection in somebody’s eye

A diminutive of ‘pūpa’ (‘a girl’, in transferred use also ‘a doll’), the Latin feminine noun ‘pūpilla’ came to also denote ‘the pupil of the eye’ on account of one’s own reflection seen when looking into somebody’s eye—the same metaphor underlies ‘to look babies in somebody’s eyes’.

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How ‘magazine’ came to denote a periodical publication.

‘Magazine’ (= ‘storehouse’) came to denote a book providing information on a specified subject (17th c.). This gave rise to the sense ‘periodical magazine (= ‘repository’) of the most interesting pieces of information published in the newspapers’ (18th c.).

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‘Atlantic’ originally referred to Mount Atlas in North Africa.

‘Atlantic’ originally referred to Mount Atlas in North Africa, on which the heavens were fabled to rest; it was hence applied to the sea near the western shore of Africa, and afterwards extended to the whole ocean lying between Europe and Africa on the east and America on the west.

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‘Glamour’ was originally a Scottish alteration of ‘grammar’.

‘Glamour’ was originally a Scottish alteration of ‘grammar’: this article explains how it came to denote an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing.   GLAMOUR BABY Jackie Watson, “Glamour Baby” of Alfred Esdaile’s new autumn revues, “Folies de Minuit” and “Revue d’Elegance,” at the London Casino, for which Gordon Courtney […]

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British and French Twelfth-Day traditions

Twelfth Day denotes the twelfth day after Christmas, i.e. 6th January, on which the festival of the Epiphany is celebrated, and which was formerly observed as the closing day of the Christmas festivities. (Epiphany denotes the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi; via Old-French and Anglo-Norman forms such as epyphane (Modern […]

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the changing identities of the doryphore

Greek ‘δορυϕόρος’ (‘doruphόros’) meant ‘spearman’; in French, ‘doryphore’ denotes the Colorado beetle and the German occupying forces during WWII; in English, it denotes a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic.

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folk-etymological origin of ‘squirrel’

Greek ‘skíouros’, ultimate origin of ‘squirrel’: folk-etymologically interpreted as meaning ‘shadow-tailed’ because when the animal sits erect, it raises its tail up against its back and over its head as if to shade itself

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