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

Category: English in use

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and Cockney rhyming slang

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and cockney rhyming slang

In the phrase ‘under the auspices of ’, what are auspices? The root of auspices and the more familiar adjective auspicious are closely linked. If something is auspicious it bodes well, giving promise of a favourable outcome. In Roman times, people tried to predict future events by watching the behaviour of birds and animals. An […]

Appointment with Words: where does Agatha Christie feature in the OED?

Appointment with Words: where does Agatha Christie feature in the OED?

Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the death of Agatha Christie, a doyenne of the whodunnit, or as the celebrated humourist Ogden Nash put it, a murdermongress. In a career spanning 50 years, she wrote over 60 detective novels, as well as collections of short stories and plays. In addition, she indulged her romantic side by […]

An underground railway by any other name: seven subway monikers explained

An underground railway by any other name: seven subway monikers explained

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the world’s very first underground railway, in London. As this revolutionary mode of transport caught on across the globe, locals dubbed their underground railways with unique titles.From the Tube in London, to the clockwork orange in Glasgow, find out more about the reasons behind these […]

Who cares about English? Part 1

Who cares about English? Part 2

We at the Oxford English Dictionary recently partnered with the British Council to host a panel discussion entitled ‘Who cares about English?’ The panel was chaired by John Knagg, Head of English Research at the British Council, and consisted of: John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED Romesh Gunesekera, Booker prize shortlisted novelist Henry Hitchings, […]

A definition of ‘hobbit’ for the OED

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. . . What’s a hobbit and how did J.R.R. Tolkien come by this word? Was it invented, adapted, or stolen? To celebrate the release of The Hobbit film and renewed interest in J.R.R Tolkien‘s work, we’ve excerpted this passage from The Ring of Words: Tolkien […]

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Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Why do we call hooligans yobs? Yob is a good example of ‘back-slang’—a form of slang in which words are spelt backwards as a code so that others (usually parents) are unable to understand them. ‘Yob’ is simply ‘boy’ spelt backwards; the ‘backward’ element seems appropriate in the definition of retrograde behaviour. Why do we […]

Chaucer in the House of Fame

Chaucer in the House of Fame

By the time Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he had been living for almost a year in obscurity in a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, and on his death he was buried in a modest grave in the church’s south transept. The poet’s last few months had not been his happiest. At the […]

What do you call the man in the red suit?

What do you call the man in the red suit?

  Last year on the OxfordWords blog, we posted a picture of a rather rotund gentleman, with a white beard and moustache, and some fetching white faux-fur trimmings on his red suit and hat. We asked ‘Who is this?’ and gave you a choice of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Santa, Saint Nick, Santy, Kris Kringle, […]

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