anything that puzzles.
The origin of conundrum “anything that puzzles” is itself a conundrum! Though it resembles Latin, conundrum likely belongs to the same family of pseudo-Latin terms as hocus-pocus. The earliest clue to conundrum’s origins is a 1645 text that connects the term to Oxford University and appears to define it as “pun, wordplay.” However, conundrum predates this instance by several decades, appearing in 1596 as a derogatory term for another person and later, in the 1620s, with the sense of “whimsical notion.” One suggestion, that conundrum is connected to the Latin verb cōnārī “to try, attempt,” with an intended meaning of “thing to be tried,” does not reflect conundrum’s earliest attested senses. As stated above, conundrum was first recorded in English in the 1590s.
It’s one of the biggest puzzles in modern astronomy: Based on multiple observations of stars and galaxies, the universe seems to be flying apart faster than our best models of the cosmos predict it should. Evidence of this conundrum has been accumulating for years, causing some researchers to call it a looming crisis in cosmology. Now a group of researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope has compiled a massive new dataset, and they’ve found a-million-to-one odds that the discrepancy is a statistical fluke. In other words, it’s looking even more likely that there’s some fundamental ingredient of the cosmos—or some unexpected effect of the known ingredients—that astronomers have yet to pin down.
It was an epidemiological whodunnit. Was the “demographic structure” of a population the real factor? Were the disparities exaggerated by undercounting, with shoddy reporting systems hiding the real toll from public-health analysts? Was government response a critical variable? Or were other, less obvious factors at play? Perhaps any analysis would prove premature …. But as I started speaking with colleagues from around the world I found that my puzzlement was widely shared. For many statisticians, virologists, and public-health experts, the regional disparities in covid-19 mortality represent the greatest conundrum of the pandemic.
a spirit or personified natural power that works mischief, especially to children.
Erlking “a spirit that works mischief” is an adaptation of German Erlkönig “alder king.” However, the word erlking is not of ultimate German origin; Erlkönig is in fact a mistranslation, courtesy of 18th-century poet Johann Gottfried von Herder, of Danish ellerkonge, a variant of elverkonge “elf king.” Elf has an interesting history, one full of semantic shifts over time. In Middle English, elf could denote one of a multitude of supernatural entities, including fairies, goblins, incubi, succubi, and spirits in general. Cognates in other Germanic languages include German Alb “elf, nightmare” and Old Norse alfr “elf,” the latter of which was borrowed into English as oaf, and names derived from this “elf” root include Alfred, Alvin, Aubrey, Gandalf, Oberon, and even Oliver. Though the Indo-European origin of all these words is uncertain, the most promising hypothesis—based on a potential definition of “white apparition” or “white ghost”—is a connection to the Proto-Indo-European root albhos “white”; compare Latin albus “white” (as in albedo, albino, and Albus Dumbledore). Erlking was first recorded in English in the 1790s.
“My son, wherefore seek’s thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side! Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“Oh come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me! Full many a game I will play there with thee; On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
a word or phrase that is a seemingly logical alteration of another word or phrase that sounds similar and has been misheard or misinterpreted.
Eggcorn “a seemingly logical alteration of a misheard word or phrase” is a coinage by linguistics professor Geoffrey K. Pullum based on the word acorn. The logic here is that people unfamiliar with the term acorn (from Old English æcern) may mistake the word as a compound of egg and corn because of acorns’ size and shape. An eggcorn is a type of folk etymology based on an honest mistake, as we saw in the etymology for the recent Word of the Day armscye, which is often incorrectly believed to come from “arm’s eye,” after the location and shape of an armscye. What makes something an eggcorn is that, unlike folk etymology proper, which results in a change to a word or phrase based on a nearly universal misconception, eggcorns tend to reflect common mistakes at the individual level—no matter how widespread these mistakes may be—that do not change the spelling of the mistaken word or phrase. Also important is that eggcorns are based on logical misunderstandings, so not every gross misspelling on the average social media feed qualifies as an eggcorn. While eggcorn is attested as early as the early 19th century, its present sense dates from 2003.
Whether step foot in is, or originally was, an eggcorn has been hotly but inconclusively debated. However, no one argues that set foot in is anything other than standard English. So step foot in is one of those phrases that we’re probably better off not using even though there’s little reason to object if others use them.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote …. “the Congress we’re about to get will be its [predecessor’s] spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.” Spit and image? …. Did Bruni just drop an eggcorn in America’s journal of record? …. As Language Log points out, he didn’t drop (lay?) an eggcorn at all. In fact, “spit and image” is the older version of the expression. Both may be alterations of an earlier form, “spitten image.”
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