Articles, quizzes, and grammar tips for word-lovers everywhere

Susie Dent

Articles by Susie Dent


Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

Was a parting shot once a real bullet?

Bullet hole

A parting shot, a phrase used to mean a final remark, usually pointed or cutting, made by a person at the moment of leaving, started out as something quite different: a ‘Parthian shot’. And it was indeed both live and dangerous. The Parthians were an ancient race living in southwest Asia; they were skilled warriors […]

Why do we call false sentiment ‘crocodile tears’? Can crocodiles really cry?

crocodile

To shed crocodile tears is to put on an insincere act of being sad. The expression is very old, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. An account of the life of Edmund Grindal, the sixteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, quotes him as saying, ‘I begin to fear, lest his humility . . . be a counterfeit […]

Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man’s face sideburns?

General Ambrose Burnside

An American general of the nineteenth century, by the name of Ambrose E. Burnside, was immediately recognizable from his mutton chop whiskers and moustache, combined with (unusually) a clean-shaven chin. Thanks to his trend-setting, and from the 1870s onwards, people were calling this style a Burnside. The whims of fashion meant that the moustache was […]

thunder

Why do we talk about stealing someone’s thunder?

This idiom, defined as using the ideas devised by another person for your own advantage, has a gratifyingly literal story behind it. It is quite rare for etymologists to pinpoint the very first use of a word or phrase. In this case, however, the eighteenth-century actor and playwright Colley Cibber, in his Lives of the […]

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011: ‘squeezed middle’

Squeezed middle

You’d think that choosing the standout word of the year would be a contentious affair. So many possibilities, you’d guess, and so many linguistic loves, hates, and indifferences to deal with amongst those who debate it. The truth is that, normally, choosing the word of the year is a slam dunk. Take ‘bling’, the obvious […]

Is it true that the word ‘tragedy’ originally meant ‘goat-song’?

Grinning goat

It is absolutely true. Many theories have been offered to explain it. One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat. The contests were part of worship to Dionysus, involving chants and dances in his honour. The Romans knew Dionysus later as Bacchus, god […]

Truly. Madly. Deep.

Truly. Madly. Deep.

A few years ago, I became unusually vocal over a particular bit of linguistic abuse. Unusually, because the lexicographical instinct is to be descriptive of language change at all times, and sanguine about those bugbears that others decry. But this particular trend had me sufficiently riled that I wrote an article entitled ‘The Adverb is […]

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