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

Why do some words have two opposite meanings?

Janus words

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: […]

Props to the cats – the lifespan of slang

Life of Slang

My students are mostly white, middle-class, and female, but their slang is heavily influenced by rap culture. They chillax with their bloods and homies, dissing the skanky hos, expressing props to the players and pimping up their whips. Comparison with hippy slang suggests that it’s only a matter of time before they’re not the only […]

Summertime, and the words are too easy

Sunflowers

Memorial Day has come and gone, bringing with it the unofficial beginning of the summer in the northern hemisphere. These days, summer evokes such plebeian terms as barbecue, vacation (or, even worse, staycation), or timeshare. Yet if we scratch even the surface of English vocabulary, we quickly find that there is a wealth of more […]

‘The glory of my crown’: royal quotations past and present

Crown

With the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in full swing, it is perhaps a good moment to look back at some other long-serving monarchs of the British Isles. Inevitably, those who rule for a long time come to the throne early: Queen Victoria was 18 at her accession, and was described by Thomas […]

Lol or pulchritudinous: which words do children really use in their writing?

Creative writing

’Twas a caliginous night. . . Fingers on your buzzers, please. Which of the following would you expect children today to use in their writing: gr8, lol, apotropaic, caliginous, cerulean? Yes, that’s right, the last three. This is just one of the happy findings from the BBC Radio 2 500 Words short story competition, run […]

When south is north and right is left

When south is north

Last week I drove north from Oxford for two whole days and arrived at the beautiful south. This is not because I’d done a Francis Drake but because one of the very most northerly parts of the island where I live is called ‘south land’ or ‘Sutherland’. I’d have called it something less confusing but […]

Kapow! The language of comics

Kapow

Chances are, if asked to think of the language of comics, terms like kapow!, blam!, and zap! wouldn’t be far from your mind. This is largely thanks to pop art and the Adam West Batman TV show, which emblazoned these terms across our screens, often accompanied by shrill trumpets blaring madly. I used to cringe […]

The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

Changing meaning of socialist

On May 6, France held their presidential elections, picking François Hollande over the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande is a socialist (a member of the French Socialist Party), a word that on occasion apparently confuses a large number of Americans, as many use it in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with its intended meaning. Hence, a […]

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