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 94: The Lost Letters of the English Alphabet (Overview) 02/13/2021
Episode 94: The Lost Letters of the English Alphabet (Overview) You can't have the English language without the ABC's, right? Wrong. In this overview episode, we look at the history of the alphabet and the many changes it has undergone from its Phoenician origins to today. We also consider the significance runic alphabet known as futhorc, the first alphabet used to write English. Two of the lost English letters, thorn and wynn, were directly adapted from this older Germanic script. Lingthusiasm Episode 52: Writing is a Technology Runic alphabet (futhorc):
info_outline Episode 93: Pasta 01/18/2021
Episode 93: Pasta "Pasta" is first attested in English during the 1800's, which is later than one might expect. However, in prior centuries, a handful of closely related cognates such as "paste," "pastry," "pastel," and others were borrowed into English, so we consider how these words relate historically and etymologically to the Italian food. We also examine the semantic relationship between the words "pasta," "macaroni," and "noodle."
info_outline Episode 92: Meals (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner) 12/27/2020
Episode 92: Meals (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner) In today's episode, we look at the etymologies of our meal words––not to mention "meal" itself. (As it turns out, "meal" has a long history of usage as a measurement word.) The meanings of our meal words have shifted over time in concert with the standard time at which these meals are eaten. Spoiler: "Dinner" was the original "breakfast," and etymologically, the two words mean almost the same thing. To support the show, go to: https://www.patreon.com/wordsforgranted
info_outline Interview with Tim Brookes, founder of Endangered Alphabets 12/08/2020
Interview with Tim Brookes, founder of Endangered Alphabets In this interview episode, I speak with Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Among many other things, we discuss why preserving endangered writing systems is so important to the cultures that use them, how writings systems become endangered in the first place, and Tim's fundraiser to raise awareness about the Mongolian script through an original board game. You can learn more about Tim and his work at the links below.
info_outline Episode 91: Artichoke 11/22/2020
Episode 91: Artichoke In ancient Greek botanical literature, there is a reference to a spiny plant called a kaktos. This word would pass into Modern English as "cactus," though the kaktos itself was certainly not a cactus as we know it. More likely, it was an undomesticated "artichoke," a plant whose name ultimately comes from Arabic. In this episode, we take a look at the intertwined history of these two words and the plants they designate.
info_outline Episode 90: Apple 10/25/2020
Episode 90: Apple In this episode, we explore the etymology of the most culturally ubiquitous fruit, the apple. Etymologically, the ubiquity of the apple is fitting, since it originally used to refer equally to "apples" as we know them and to "fruits" in general. We also explore the Latin and Greek words for "apple," the derivatives of which are hiding in plain sight in a handful of modern English fruit and vegetable words.
info_outline Episode 89: Cheese 09/27/2020
Episode 89: Cheese In the episode, we explore the etymology of "cheese," a Latin-derived word that entered the Germanic languages through trade long before the emergence of English. We also consider why the Italian and French words for cheese, formaggio and fromage, are not its cognates and how the adjective "cheesy" (meaning something lacking subtlety) evolved.
info_outline Episode 88: Egg 08/17/2020
Episode 88: Egg The word "egg" plays a part in one of the most famous anecdotes in the written record about the evolution of the English language. In this episode, we consider the implications of that story and the look into the etymology of "egg" and some of its cognates. (What's with the "egg" in the idiom "to egg on," you ask? Yeah, we cover that too.)
info_outline Proto Indo-Europeans with Kevin Stroud of The History of English Podcast 06/30/2020
Proto Indo-Europeans with Kevin Stroud of The History of English Podcast This episode features a conversation I had with Kevin Stroud of the History of English Podcast at this year's virtual Intelligent Speech conference. We discussed reasons why the history of the Proto Indo-Europeans - the linguistic ancestors of nearly half the world's population - remains obscure to the general public. If you're thinking racist, pseudoscientific scholarship that led to the concept of the Aryan race during World War II might be to blame, we think so too. For the video of our conversation, follow this link:
info_outline Episode 87: Dead Ringer 06/07/2020
Episode 87: Dead Ringer The idiom "dead ringer" comes down to us from horse-racing slang, but a widely believed folk etymology links the idiom's origins to being buried alive. In this episode, we debunk the myths and get down to the written evidence behind the emergence of this phrase. I'll be speaking with Kevin Stroud from the History of English podcast about the Proto Indo-Europeans at this year's Intelligent Speech Conference. To purchase tickets, follow this .
info_outline Episode 86: Red Herring 05/17/2020
Episode 86: Red Herring The idiom "red herring" is used to describe a distraction from the matter at hand. Literally, a "red herring" is a kipper––that is, a smoked and salted sliced fish––but why would such a fish become an expression for a distraction? In this episode, we debunk a popular myth surrounding the idiom's etymology by close reading a handful of selections from the written record and drawing on the most recent scholarship.
info_outline Episode 85: The Proof Is in the Pudding 04/26/2020
Episode 85: The Proof Is in the Pudding Of all places, why do we put the "proof" in the "pudding?" Like many idioms whose origins date back several centuries, the connection between the literal and figurative meanings of "the proof is in the pudding" is no longer clear in Modern English. "The proof is in the pudding" is actually a shortened corruption of the idiom "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," but that's still not the full story; in the 17th century when the idiom was first used, both "proof" and "pudding" had different meanings than they do today. Listen to Words for Granted on , a new app that curates and builds community around great educational audio.
info_outline Interview with Simon Horobin, Author of "Bagels, Bumf, and Buses" 04/12/2020
Interview with Simon Horobin, Author of "Bagels, Bumf, and Buses" In today's episode, I talk with Simon Horobin, Oxford professor and author of "Bagels, Bumf and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language," a book that explores the etymology of common words we encounter every day. In addition to discussing Simon's latest book, we discuss a range of language topics including the standardization of grammar, the history of spelling, and more. You can purchase "Bagels, Bumf, and Buses" . Click 25% off your first order with Literati. Listen to Words for Granted on , a curated podcast app featuring educational podcasts.
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.