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

Category: Word origins

Red, White, and Blue: the international origins of our favorite Independence Day words

Red, White, and Blue: the international origins of our favorite Independence Day words

Today, many millions of citizens of the United States will engage in a number of rituals all centered on the marking of a historic event that occurred almost two hundred and fifty years ago – namely, the ratification by the Second Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence (not the voting that passed that document, […]

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Surprising word stories: Mr Punch, Dr Murray, and the first tonk

Surprising word stories: Mr Punch, Dr Murray, and the first tonk

Many sports fans will be familiar with the verb tonk, which is widely used to describe the action of giving a ball a good firm hit. Less familiar, but common enough, is the noun tonk describing the same action. Both are of course in the Oxford English Dictionary, with histories traced back to the early […]

Hold on to your tin foil hat: the origin of the UFO

Hold on to your tin foil hat: the origin of the UFO

2 July is World UFO Day, a chance for us all to think about UFO sightings, and, for this blog, to take a journey from clay pigeons to the mysterious habits of abbreviations. Is this a saucer I see before me? On 24 June 1947 Kenneth Arnold, an American businessman, was flying towards Mount Rainier […]

From CAPTCHA to morphogen: how Alan Turing has influenced modern English

Alan_Turing_Memorial

23 June 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, 20th century mathematician and computer scientist. Turing is most famous today for his cryptanalysis work during World War II in which he and others at Bletchley Park broke the German Enigma ciphers and created the first electronic computers. But his influence stretches far […]

Ach crivens! The language of Discworld

Discworld

If you’re not familiar with the Discworld, the fantasy world created by author Sir Terry Pratchett which has featured in 39 bestselling novels, then you’ve certainly been missing out. For the uninitiated, Discworld is a flat world balanced on the backs of four giant elephants standing on the shell of the star turtle Great A’Tuin […]

Don’t get honey-fuggled, you doughnut! And other inventive uses of food in English

Doughnut

A few Fridays ago, it was National Doughnut Day. Did you celebrate or did it completely pass you by in the way that most of these days probably do? At least with this particular festivity, there would appear to be an appropriate way to celebrate. The same might not be said for, say, National Stapler […]

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: […]

Boomerang vocabulary: words that return to their origins

Boomerang vocabulary

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” may have been good advice for Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it isn’t practical for a language. English is both an avid borrower (ballet, schmooze, wok) and a generous lender: consider German das Baby, French le week-end, and Japanese aisu kuriimu (‘ice cream’—try saying it out loud). Occasionally, […]

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