Category: Word origins

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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Georgette Heyer, zaftig, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Georgette Heyer, zaftig, and the Oxford English Dictionary

“My name is Claire Etty. And I am a reader of historical novels.” Apologies for the AA-style confession. But every time my boyfriend spots a Georgette Heyer open on the coffee table he sneers (from behind his New Statesman): “Exercising the grey cells again?” It usually is Georgette Heyer. I’m aux anges over her books, […]

Making a marque: Automotive etymologies

Making a marque: automotive etymologies

On a recent cloudy Sunday afternoon I found myself shepherding the truck-crazy young son of a friend of mine round the crowded arena of a retro and classic truck show at a motor museum in the English Midlands. There were hundreds of trucks of all ages and manufacturers neatly parked in rows and we walked […]

What is the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone?

What is the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone?

  I can only give a very subjective answer, but I’ll start with a few nominations. Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. A study of them in a historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which charts chronologically the story of a word […]

Oktoberfest: mapping the beers of Europe

Oktoberfest: mapping the beers of Europe

How many styles of beer can you name? Or for those old enough to do so legally, how many have you tasted? According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, there are well over 100 styles from all over the world. With the start of Oktoberfest, the annual German festival with a tradition of celebrating all […]

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Pleb or snob?

Pleb or snob?

An altercation between a politician and some policemen featured heavily in the UK press this week and prompted thousands of extra hits on the Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘pleb’: Plebeian first appeared in English in 1533 with reference to Roman history, meaning ‘a Roman commoner’, or ‘a member of the plebs’. The plebs were the […]

From sock puppets to astroturfing: the language of online deception

From sock puppets to astroturfing: the language of online deception

Who am I? It’s a question I often ask myself when waking up. This isn’t (to my knowledge) because I’m trapped in a high-concept thriller when my brain is wiped every night when I fall asleep. It’s more because I’m not really a morning person. Personal identity is not just a problem for me before […]

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