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

Category: English in use

Burns suppers: neeps, tatties, and A Toast to the Lassies

Burns supper

January 25th is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, when Burns suppers are held in commemoration of the Scottish poet and lyricist. Despite being the national bard of Scotland, his influence spreads much further than those national borders, and his works have been translated into many languages including Russian and Czech. There are […]

Why do we call false sentiment ‘crocodile tears’? Can crocodiles really cry?

crocodile

To shed crocodile tears is to put on an insincere act of being sad. The expression is very old, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. An account of the life of Edmund Grindal, the sixteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, quotes him as saying, ‘I begin to fear, lest his humility . . . be a counterfeit […]

It’s a quotation! It’s a proverb! It’s a phrase!

A leopard can't change his spots

Superman himself would often have problems deciding whether a saying is a quotation, a proverb, or a phrase. The lines are blurred: a proverb can be defined as ‘a short, well-known pithy saying’, but a quotation is ‘a group of words repeated by someone other than the original author’ and in any case a phrase […]

The life of slang… dot com

Slang wordle

At my son’s recent tenth birthday party, I was struck by differences in the slang used between two groups of friends from different schools. We tend to think of slang as ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Australian’ or perhaps as belonging to sub-groups like teenagers or rappers, but it isn’t really that simple because individual social networks […]

Martin Luther King, Jr., Rhetorically Speaking

Martin Luther King, Jr

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a national holiday in the U.S., we commemorate the birthday of the eponymous leader and activist, and reflect on his significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King’s legacy, while forged in the midst of a tumultuous time in U.S. history, transcends categorical […]

Which words do we love to hate?

Banned

Every year since 1976, Lake Superior State University in Michigan has released a small list of select words – those that they have decided should be banished from everyday use of English. The list is released on the first day of the year, and is composed of words submitted by the public that are thought […]

From warring rutabagas to human beef: the wonderful world of typos

Error

Years ago I learned a valuable twofold editorial lesson: respect the precision of a good keyboarder, and don’t get cute in the margins. The project was an encyclopedia of Japan, and it was back in the era of editing only on paper. One morning, I sat down with the freshly typed arts entries and my […]

What is a caucus, anyway?

What is a caucus, anyway?

On January 3, America’s quadrennial race for the White House begins in earnest with the Iowa caucuses. If you find yourself wondering precisely what a caucus is, you’re not alone. The Byzantine process by which the US political parties choose their presidential nominees has a jargon all its own. Below is a brief guide to […]

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