Category: English in use

“The Dickens, reminiscent of Charles”: Boz and the language of hip-hop

Ghetto blaster

“As the plot thickens, it gives me the dickens, reminiscent of Charles…” So unfolds the narrative in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, from OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, a cornerstone of late 90s southern hip-hop and one of my favorites. Last week, I listened to Andre utter these lyrics once again, and I wondered, what does it really mean to […]

Six obsolete endearments for old-fashioned romantics

Long-eared bat

Some terms of affection, like darling, have endured in the English language from the outset, while others have come and gone in less than a century. The language of love thrives on metaphor, but precisely what connotes affection has changed over time. Some endearments employed by love poets in centuries past, like sparling (a type […]

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Long to reign over us: the language of anniversaries

Diamond

On 6 February, 1952, Queen Elizabeth II began her reign as monarch of the United Kingdom. Although she would not be ceremonially crowned until 2 June 1953 (the same day that news reached London of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest), she was proclaimed queen of the Commonwealth upon the […]

Confessions of a pedant

Pedantry

We all know what a taxi is There are two big problems about working for a dictionary. The first is that everyone assumes you know the meaning of every word, which is setting the bar rather high. There are about 600,000 words and senses in the OED. Any one of them could crop up at […]

Spelling can be a hot potatoe

Spelling can be a hot potatoe

The 2012 presidential election is but a little more than nine months away, which means that there are a host of candidates all furiously vying for the attention of the public and the money of the donors. Many of these candidates are speaking extemporaneously a good deal, and as is inevitable in such cases, gaffes […]

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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 […]

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