This curious expression is one of many similar sayings for something that is the acme of excellence. We are all familiar with the cat’s whiskers (or the cat’s pyjamas, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s nuts), which originated in the roaring 1920s and which might well have been the first of its kind—it is said […]
The short answer is no one. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve. Indeed English has never been under the administrative rule of a language academy. A keeper of English, according to the eighteenth-century […]
As so often in cases like these, there are numerous contenders for the role of McCoy in this phrase, which has been with us since at least the 1850s. Part of the problem facing researchers is that McCoy is a fairly common surname. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the earliest versions […]
Single words that have two contradictory meanings are known as contronyms. The number of contronyms in English is small, but they are significant. Examples include: dust: 1 to remove dust. 2 to cover with dust. hysterical: 1 frightened and out of control. 2 funny. nervy: 1 showing nerve or courage. 2 excitable and volatile. moot: […]
The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]
There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]
Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among […]
The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]
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