Words for Granted - An etymology and linguistics podcast
Words for Granted is a podcast that looks at how words change over time. Host Ray Belli uses etymology and historical linguistics as a way of investigating larger changes in history, culture, religion, and more.
info_outline Episode 84: Break a Leg 03/25/2020
Episode 84: Break a Leg The etymology of "break a leg" is disputed, but some theories hold up better than others. In today's episode, we look at a handful of plausible explanations for how "break a leg" became theater slang for "good luck" and also bust a few etymological myths surrounding the idiom. Today's episode is brought to you by Yabla. Click for your risk-free 15-day trial.
info_outline Episode 83: Apple of the Eye 02/24/2020
Episode 83: Apple of the Eye As we all know, the idiomatic meaning of "apple of the eye" has nothing to do with apples. As it turns out, the origins of the idiom also have nothing to do with apples. In this episode, we look at how the English translation of an old Hebrew expression found in the Old Testament unintentionally defined our modern sense of the idiom "apple of the eye."
info_outline Episode 82: In a Pickle 02/05/2020
Episode 82: In a Pickle "In a pickle" is one of the oddest sounding idioms in English. It means "in a predicament or bad situation," but it's not clear what pickles have to do with anything. In this episode, we look at the origins of both the phrase and the word "pickle" itself.
info_outline Episode 81: Idioms (General Overview) 01/13/2020
Episode 81: Idioms (General Overview) This episode begins a new series on the etymology of English idioms. In this general overview of idioms, we discuss why idioms are syntactically and semantically peculiar, how idioms emerge, how idioms fossilize archaic grammar, and more. Today's episode is brought to you by Yabla. To try Yabla 15-day free trial of Yabla, click .
info_outline Episode 80: Cannibal 12/31/2019
Episode 80: Cannibal This episode is brought to you by Yabla. Language immersion with authentic video. For your risk-free 15-day trial, sign up . The word "cannibal" comes to us by way of a familiar historical figure: Christopher Columbus. The word is ultimately a Hispanicization of the name of an indigenous American group today known as the Caribs. Through Columbus' unreliable portrayal of the Caribs in his travel log, "cannibal" came to refer to "a person who eats human flesh." In this episode, we explore the evolution of the meaning of "cannibal" in Columbus' own journal and how that single word impacted the colonial history of the Americas.
info_outline Episode 79: Philistine 12/14/2019
Episode 79: Philistine In common usage, a "philistine" is a derogatory term for an anti-intellectual materialist. The word derives from the ancient Middle Eastern Philistines, a people best known as an early geopolitical enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. The historical Philistines were far from "philistines" (note the lowercase P). The circumstance by which the latter derives from the former can be traced back to a murder in the 17th century German city of Jena. (Yes, actually.) For a free 10-day trial of Simple Contacts, click .
info_outline Episode 78: Bohemian 11/17/2019
Episode 78: Bohemian As a common noun, "bohemian" describes an artistic, carefree lifestyle usually marked by poverty and unorthodoxy. The word is borrowed from "Bohemia," a region in the modern Czech Republic, but its semantic connection to actual Czechs is nearly nonexistent. In this episode, we trace the long history of "Bohemian" from its origins as an ancient Celtic homeland to the present.
info_outline Episode 77: Gothic 10/20/2019
Episode 77: Gothic As someone who came of age during the late 90’s, my first encounter with the word “gothic” was through alternative music and fashion. However, the word was originally the name of a Germanic tribe most famous for sacking the Roman Empire. The journey of the word “goth” through the last two millennia is a classic story of linguistic appropriation and misunderstanding.
info_outline Interview with Steve Kaufmann, Polyglot & Co-founder of LingQ 09/17/2019
Interview with Steve Kaufmann, Polyglot & Co-founder of LingQ In today's episode, I interview Steve Kaufmann. Steve is a polyglot and co-founder of He also hosts a popular language learning under the name LingoSteve. Our conversation covers a range of language-related topics such as language learning myths, how language learning has changed with new technology, the relationship between language and culture, and more.
info_outline Episode 76: Wife 09/01/2019
Episode 76: Wife In Old English, the word "wife" meant "woman." In fact, the word "woman" derives from the word "wife!" Today's episode is not only an exploration of the word "wife," but also of a handful of woman-related words whose etymologies and usages share a confusing, intertwined history. We also try to solve the mystery of "wife's" ultimate etymology, but, spoiler alert, we fail.
info_outline Episode 75: Grandmother/Grandfather 08/11/2019
Episode 75: Grandmother/Grandfather What makes your parents' parents so ... grand? In today's episode, we trace the etymology and emergence of the French-influenced kinship prefix "grand." We also look at Old English words for "grandparents" and "grandchildren" before the "grand" prefix became conventional. Just for good measure, we also take a look at the kinship prefix "great." To claim your 1-month free trial of the Great Courses Plus, click .
info_outline Episode 74: Sibling 07/29/2019
Episode 74: Sibling Today, "sibling" is one of the most basic kinship terms. However, it wasn't introduced into the language until 1903 by a pair of scientists working on genetics. More accurately, "sibling" was reintroduced into the language after 1,000 years of dormancy. In this episode, we look at "sibling" in its Old English context and explore its Indo-European roots. Furthermore, we look into the etymology of "brother" and "sister." For your free 1-month trial of The Great Courses Plus, click .
info_outline Episode 72: Mama/Mom 06/30/2019
Episode 72: Mama/Mom "Mama" is a mysterious word. In the vast majority of languages around the world, the word for "mama" sounds something like ... "mama." In today's episode, we uncover the reason for this peculiar universality. Spoiler alert: It has something to do with babies. For a free 1-month trial of The Great Course plus, click .
info_outline Episode 71: Noah Webster’s Dictionary 06/15/2019
Episode 71: Noah Webster’s Dictionary Noah Webster is best known as the father of the first trust American dictionary. However, the success of Webster’s dictionary faced an uphill struggle during his lifetime. In today’s episode, we examine some of these struggles alongside the things that made Webster’s dictionary so different from the English dictionaries that preceded it. Click to sign up for you free one-month trial of The Great Courses Plus.
info_outline Episode 70: Noah Webster (Early Works and Spelling Reforms) 05/26/2019
Episode 70: Noah Webster (Early Works and Spelling Reforms) Noah Webster is best known for his "all-American" dictionary, but in today's episode, we take a look at Webster's earlier works including The Grammatical Institute of the English Language and Dissertations on the English Language. In these works, Webster lays the groundwork for his future dictionary, revealing his political motivations for his spelling reforms and advocation of "American English." Be sure to go to to get a one-month free subscription to The Great Courses Plus!
info_outline Episode 69: OK 05/05/2019
Episode 69: OK "OK" is both the most spoken and written word in the entire world. It's such a fundamental part of modern communication that it's hard to imagine the world without it, yet in spite of its ubiquity and compact versatility, "OK" is under two hundred years old. Today's episode tells the story of the word's origins in 19th century America. If the leading theory is correct, then OK might just be the most successful inside joke of all time.
info_outline Episode 68: Yankee 04/13/2019
Episode 68: Yankee The most popular usage of the word “Yankee” today is in the name of the baseball team, but etymologically, “Yankee” has nothing to do with baseball. “Yankee” is an elusive word whose definitive etymology is unknown and whose connotations change depending on who’s using the term. In today’s episode, we explore the word’s most likely etymology and consider the its implications from various points of view and time periods.
info_outline Episode 67: The American Pronunciation of R (Rhoticity) 03/31/2019
Episode 67: The American Pronunciation of R (Rhoticity) One of the most defining characteristics of the Standard American English accent is “rhoticity,” or the pronunciation of the letter R. Unlike Standard British English, Standard American English always pronounces the letter R regardless of its position within a word. In today’s episode, we trace the origins and evolutions of this feature of Standard American English. (Spoiler alert: The prevalence of American rhoticity has ebbed and flowed over time.)
info_outline Episode 66: The Emergence of the American Lexicon 03/12/2019
Episode 66: The Emergence of the American Lexicon The English spoken in America began to diverge from the English spoken in Britain shortly after British settlers first arrived in the New World. In today’s episode, we look at several ways how “Americanisms” began to form and how English speakers on the other side of the pond reacted to them.
info_outline Interview with Lynne Murphy, Author of "The Prodigal Tongue" 03/04/2019
Interview with Lynne Murphy, Author of "The Prodigal Tongue" In today's episode, I interview linguist, professor, blogger, and author Lynne Murphy about her book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. We talk about topics such as the British media's take on "Americanisms," nonsensical prescriptivism, national attitudes toward language, and so much more. Lynne's blog, Separated by a Common Language: To purchase The Prodigal Tongue:
info_outline Episode 65: Dialect vs. Language 02/20/2019
Episode 65: Dialect vs. Language "American English" is the variety of English spoken in the United States of America ... obviously. But is American English a language unto itself or a dialect of British English? In this episode, we discuss the differences between dialects and languages (if indeed there are any at all) from a linguistic point of view. Part 1 in a series on American English.
info_outline Episode 64: France 02/01/2019
Episode 64: France The name of “France” derives from the name of a Germanic tribe called the “Franks.” In addition to “France,” the name of the “Franks” also produced a handful of other common English words, such as frank, franchise, and Franklin, among others. Today, these words have little to do with France, but as we investigate their etymologies, subtle connections begin to emerge.
info_outline Episode 63: Turkey 01/14/2019
Episode 63: Turkey In today’s episode, we explore the etymological connection between Turkey the country and turkey the bird. Even though turkeys are native to North America, thanks to sixteenth century trade routes, they’re mistakenly named after a country on the other side of the world. We also explore how these trade routes influenced the words for “turkey” in other European languages.
info_outline Episode 62: Cincinnati 01/05/2019
Episode 62: Cincinnati The American city of "Cincinnati" derives a patriotic fraternal organization called "The Society of Cincinnati." The society itself is named after Cincinnatus, a legendary figure in Ancient Roman history. Revolutionary Americans saw Cincinnatus as an idealized epitome of political virtue. In today's episode, we explore Cincinnatus' life from the point of view of early American idealism. More specifically, we consider the parallels between the life of Cincinnatus and that of George Washington.
info_outline Episode 61: Names of Germany 12/17/2018
Episode 61: Names of Germany There are more names for Germany than there are for any other European country. This is due to a long history of disunity among Gemanic tribes and the geographical location of the Germanic homeland smack dab in the middle of Europe. In today’s episode, we explore the history and linguistic distribution of the etymological roots of Germany’s many international names.
info_outline Episode 60: Wales 12/02/2018
Episode 60: Wales The English name for the country of "Wales" is not native to Wales itself. It was named by AngloSaxon settlers in Britain as a way of distinguishing themselves from their Celtic neighbors on the island. The word "Wales" has cognates in all of the Germanic languages, yet most of these cognates have nothing to do with the modern country of Wales. In general, these cognates are associated with speakers of Romance languages throughout Europe. In today's episode, we connect the dots among these various cognates across languages.
info_outline Episode 59: Proper Place Names (General Overview) 11/16/2018
Episode 59: Proper Place Names (General Overview) Today's episode kicks off a new series on "toponymy," or the study of place names. In this general overview, we take a look at some of the historical and etymological trends that most often impact place names, such as colonialism and the commemoration of important individuals.
info_outline Episode 58: Gymnasium 10/30/2018
Episode 58: Gymnasium Nowadays, a “gym” is a place for fitness and exercise. It’s a shortening of the word “gymnasium,” which derives from the Greek word gymnasion. In the Ancient Greek world, a gymnasion was not only a place for exercise, but also a hub for philosophical study and learning. Today’s episode explores the evolution of the “gymnasium” as a cultural institution and also looks at how some of the word’s cognates in other lanaguges differ in meaning.
info_outline Episode 57: Category 10/15/2018
Episode 57: Category In the court system of Ancient Athens, the kategoria was a formal accusation. However, when the philosopher Aristotle borrowed the word kategoria to enumerate his “categories of being,” he intended it to mean the “highest order of classification.” Over the course of this episode, we explore the subtle link between an “accusation” and “categorization,” in addition to the philosophical side of Aristotle’s “Categories.”