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

Category: English in use

From ‘amigo’ to ‘ven’: a mapping of ‘friend’ around the world

friend map_small

If you’ve ever travelled to a country in which you don’t speak the language, you’re probably aware that there are always a few key vocabulary words and phrases travel guides recommend you stock up on. I don’t speak [insert language]… Where is the restroom?… Help… Thank you. We would offer an additional word to learn—one […]

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Mae West’s linguistic legacy

MaeWest

Maritime safety and early-Hollywood sex symbols may not seem to have much in common, but the etymology of the Mae West life jacket manages to connect these two very different worlds. 17 August is the birthday of Mae West, the American actress whose controversy and fame help to explain the many ways in which she […]

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We need to talk about literally

Literally

Hold the front pages, literally. Or not. There has been much excitement this week over the discovery that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has recorded a sense of the word literally that seems to cause particular irritation. I am speaking of its use in a sentence like “I literally died laughing and had to run […]

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Poll results: fount or font of knowledge?

fount of knowledge

There are few things more likely to cause fierce argument between language-lovers than variant spellings of everyday expressions, especially if one is celebrated by language traditionalists and the other by the linguistic vanguard. You may remember the heated arguments that arose over the topic of pronouncing scone (some friendships have never truly recovered) – well, […]

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Love triangles and cliffhangers: soap operatic language

soap

As my family have long since learnt, it’s never worth trying to call me between the hours of 5.30-6pm or 7-7.30pm. That is when the rest of the world is as nothing to me, earthquakes and hurricanes would not disrupt me, for I am watching my soaps. (Neighbours and Emmerdale, since you ask.) Since soap […]

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The language of Jersey: little toads and the glove of a Queen

Jersey Island

There was one thing I wanted to know as the plane touched down: were we actually abroad? On the one hand, everyone was driving on the left, paying in pounds, and speaking in English (albeit with what sounded like a faintly South African accent). On the other, everything was the wrong colour: yellow telephone boxes, […]

Language play in noms de plume and stage names, from Bono to the Brontës

noms de plume

With the discovery that mystery writer Robert Galbraith and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling are one and the same, the massively successful novelist has become one of many known popular fiction writers—including Stephen King and Anne Rice—to employ a nom de plume, or pen name, masking the true identity behind their work. There are several […]

Everyday expressions and their poetic origins

albatross

Our impression of “poetic” language as distinct from “everyday” language is unsurprising. At first glance, the flourishes of ornate, pre-1900 verse seem incompatible with common speech, either by virtue of their conspicuously high diction or the maudlin matters they seemingly address. One might hesitate, for instance, to liken a romantic interest to a lovely and […]

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