Category: English in use


Holiday traditions: what’s so magical about mistletoe?

Mistletoe is special. Every culture that comes across the plant mythologizes it and no wonder. To see mistletoe in England at this time of year, a ball of perfect green life suspended in barren branches, it seems a mysterious, even an other-worldly presence: healthy in the teeth of winter, seemingly without roots or any contact […]

Dewey unbound

Dewey unbound

Melvil Dewey, born to thrifty, parsimonious parents in upstate New York on December 8, 1851, could almost be said to have been destined to devise the classification system used by 200,000 libraries around the world today. He was a man devoted to efficiency, and was an enemy of waste. At sixteen, having taught himself bookkeeping, […]

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John Milton: living at this hour?

John Milton: living at this hour?

The freedom of the press is under threat. At Westminster, politicians are making decisions that could severely curtail the ability of writers and printers to publish what they like, when they like. While parliament has all the power to enact statutory regulation and control of the press, there is at least one man ready to […]

Mars: A lexicographer's perspective

Mars: A lexicographer’s perspective

The planet Mars might initially seem an odd choice for Place of the Year. It has hardly any atmosphere and is more or less geologically inactive, meaning that it has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. 2012 isn’t much different from one million BC as far as Mars is concerned. However, here on Earth, […]

The Christmas Table

The Christmas table

Described by John Ayto as ‘steaming fragrant black cannonballs’ in his newly published The Diner’s Dictionary, it is not hard to see why Christmas pudding is a luxury afforded only once a year. The rich combination of suet, raisins, currants, spices, eggs, and brandy often leaves diners in a food-induced stupor at the end of […]

Collecting my thoughts on collecting

Collecting my thoughts on collecting

While enjoying a recent browse at one of my favorite antique stores, I stopped to admire a display of thimbles. I have no personal interest in thimbles, but I was for several minutes entranced by them. Arranged on a velvet-lined shelf and locked inside a glass case, they left me a tad breathless. Not quite […]

Rigger-jiggers, feathers, and crabs: the language of rowing

Rigger-jiggers, feathers, and crabs: the language of rowing

Every November Oxford’s Isis river is overrun with novice crews and coxes trying to win their first race, the Christ Church Regatta. Rowing is a huge part of student life here, underlined rather explicitly in this apt quotation which features in the entry for rowing in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Rowing was more than a […]

Words we're thankful for

Words we’re thankful for

Here on the OxfordWords blog we’re constantly awed and impressed by the breadth and depth of the English language. As this is a great week to be appreciative, we’ve asked some fellow language-lovers which word they’re most thankful for. From quark to quotidian, ych a fi to robot, here’s what they said: stillicide Of incredible […]