Category: English in use

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 […]

Zebra crossings: what zonkeys tell us about our love of hybrid words


Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the royal baby born last week, some media outlets found time to report on another notable birth: that of Italy’s rare donkey-zebra hybrid, Ippo, which is being called a zonkey. Zonkey, it turns out, is only one of several words for the semi-striped offspring of zebras and other equine mammals. […]

Aha! Alan Partridge in the OED


There are many places you might expect to find a quotation from Alan Partridge – perhaps on the North Norfolk Digital website or in the Norwich Evening News expressing his views on the pedestrianization of the city centre – but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is probably not the first place you’d look. However, quotations […]

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A Study in Sherlock: Holmesian homages for Benedict’s birthday

It’s the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch’s birthday today, so I’m told. Most recently seen on the big screen playing an iconic Star Trek baddie, Cumberbatch has enthralled viewers and theatre audiences as characters ranging from Vincent van Gogh and Stephen Hawking to Frankenstein’s monster and a Tolkienian dragon. But one of his most successful roles to […]

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“Intelligence Officer”: A gentleman and patriot, or a scoundrel seeking reputational refuge?

“Intelligence Officer”: a gentleman and patriot, or a scoundrel seeking reputational refuge?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives interesting examples of how the term intelligence officer has changed its meaning: An example from American usage in 1847 still conveys the eighteenth-century sense of a person who simply transmits information. Then there is a reference to the poet Rupert Brooke, who in the Great War served as an “intelligence […]

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Speaking Holden Caulfield’s language

Although it’s been 62 years since The Catcher in the Rye was first published, J.D. Salinger’s seminal coming-of-age novel doesn’t look a day over 16. What’s often remarked about The Catcher in the Rye is how universal experience seeps out of a deeply subjective narrative. The story is told from Holden Caulfield’s point-of-view, and so […]

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From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 2)

From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 2)

Following on from the first instalment about the word bear, today’s post looks at real bears, fictional bears, and (of course) teddy bears. A bear, or not a bear? That is the question. Most taxonomists agree that there are eight species of bear in five genera in the world today. However this does not include the koala, […]

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drunk tank pink1

Drunk tank pink? International Klein blue? Charting the outer-reaches of the colour spectrum

As Katherine Shaw noted in a rather colourful article for this blog, the origins of the English primary colour names are ultimately either non-referential, in that they aren’t derived from the colour of some previously known entity, or have such long histories that their origins are simply unknown. This, she notes, is in contrast with […]

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