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

Category: Word origins

In a nutshell, cutting the mustard by the skin of your teeth: popular idioms explained

In a nutshell, cutting the mustard by the skin of your teeth: popular idioms explained

Why do good things ‘cut the mustard’? The word mustard has been used to mean something excellent or superlative for almost a hundred years—the phrase ‘keen as mustard’ draws on the same idea of added piquancy and zest. ‘Hot stuff’, in other words. In America, to say something was ‘the proper mustard’ in the early […]

Remacadamize? Hybrid words and the development of the English language

Remacadamize hybrid words

I’ve recently noticed a trend for recipes to insist that I absolutely must use unsalted butter. Now I love the creamy taste of locally produced organic butter as much as the next person, it tastes much nicer with honey on bread than the salted sort. Nevertheless I just don’t get why, when I’ve melted my unsalted […]

Of heffalumps and hunny: the language of Winnie-the-Pooh

Of heffalumps and hunny: the language of Winnie-the-Pooh

November 6, 2012 marks 88 years since the world was first introduced to one of the most famous characters in children’s literature, Winnie-the-Pooh. When We Were Very Young, A. A. Milne’s first collection of children’s poems was published on this day in 1924, and was written for his three-year-old son, Christopher Robin. When We Were […]

Particularly excellent fireworks

Particularly excellent fireworks

As anyone who has read on will know, Gandalf the Grey has bigger fish to fry (dragons to down, necromancers to neutralize, etc.), when he arrives at Bag End at the start of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but in Hobbiton it is for his fireworks that the wizard is most fondly remembered. As […]

British, American, and both: a history of Halloween words

British, American, and both: a history of Halloween words

The holiday of Halloween has its roots in the British Isles; the word itself (short for All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1), originated in Scotland. Nonetheless, it was in North America that disparate regional customs were amalgamated into the celebration we recognize today. The vocabulary of the holiday reflects […]

The birth of disco

The birth of disco

It was this month in 1959 when a nightclub opened its doors in the quiet city of Aachen, West Germany, and a small revolution in music took place. The Scotch-Club was similar to many restaurant-cum-dancehalls of the time, with one exception: rather than hire a live band to provide the entertainment, its owner decided instead […]

How many Chaucers does it take to change a language?

How many Chaucers does it take to change a language?

After 600 years, what do we think of when we hear the name Geoffrey Chaucer? The straightforward, factual answer – that he was the son of London wine merchant, born sometime in the 1340s, who spent his life, after youthful forays to the French wars and diplomatic missions, working as a civil servant and building up […]

Glissandos and glissandon’ts

Glissandos and glissandon’ts

“GLISSANDO. A term unfortunately used by composers anywhere but in Italy to indicate a rapid glide over the notes of a scale on keyboard instruments and the harp, as well as a slur with no definite intervals on strings and on the trombone. Italians do not use it for the simple reason that it is […]

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