Category: Word origins

The Hanging Garden – remarks on the use of ancient languages

9780199662265

A fruitful line of research for my book on the Hanging Garden of Babylon was analysis of Babylonian words. They were written in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, which is very different from an alphabet. Most alphabets have about 30 letters, and C, for instance, is always C even if it is pronounced in a variety […]

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Speaking pukka

Speaking pukka

‘I cannot endure a swell, even though his whiskers are pucka’. G. O. Trevelyan The Dawk Bungalow (1863) The word pukka enjoys an unusual status in Britain both as a current slang term and a dusty relic of the Raj. As a London slang term, pukka means first-rate or excellent. The word rose to prominence […]

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Words must advertise: Dorothy L. Sayers in the OED

Words must advertise: Dorothy L. Sayers in the OED

13 June 2013 would have been the 120th birthday of Dorothy L. Sayers, born on that date in 1893. Detective novelist, Christian writer, Dante translator, and glorious wordsmith, she was a true daughter of Oxford, blood and bone: her father was chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral School, and she took first class honours in medieval […]

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Chasing the rainbow connection

Chasing the rainbow connection

Reflect and refract When was the last time you looked out the window and said, “Oh look! There’s a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water!”? Well – OK, if you said that last week then feel free to skip the next paragraph, but most of us refer to the sudden splash of colours […]

Beam me up, dictionary: Star Trek in the OED

Beam me up, dictionary: Star Trek in the OED

Star Trek is one of the most successful science-fiction franchises of all time: since the original TV series first aired in 1966, there have been four further live-action TV shows (plus an animated series), twelve films, and innumerable books. Only Star Wars and (particularly for the British) Doctor Who have achieved a comparable level of […]

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Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of the Beatles

Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of The Beatles

The Beatles are regarded by many – including me – as the greatest band of all time, and few would doubt the significance of their impact on popular music. Their impact on the lexicon is less clear, though, since using the word ‘na’ 217 times in the lyrics of Hey Jude really doesn’t count. (Incidentally, […]

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H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft and the Northern Gothic Tongue

There is a very specific language of Gothic and horror literature that has its roots buried deep in the history of English: doom has been around since Old English; dread carries over from Middle English; eerie, that sense of vague superstitious uneasiness, enters Middle English through Scottish. The adjectives are harsh and guttural: moons are […]

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Woman - or Suffragette?

Woman – or Suffragette?

In 1903, the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ was adopted by Emmeline Pankhurst as the slogan of the new Women’s Social and Political Union. This aimed above all to secure women the vote, but it marked a deliberate departure in the methods to be used. Over fifty years of peaceful campaigning had brought no change to […]

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