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

Category: Word origins

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, […]

Time to get ill: Beastie Boys lyrics in the Oxford English Dictionary

Beastie Boys

Like many folks of my generation, upon hearing about the death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, I’ve spent the last few weeks revisiting my Beastie Boys’ albums. At one point during my listen, I began to wonder about their lyrics and what kind of mark they’ve made on the English language. Is it possible that […]

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

Jolly Roger

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]

The language of cocktails

Gin Rickey

People and places Biographical details of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey are sparse and difficult to track down, but those we have offer a fascinating sketch of an eclectically talented American. Born in 1842 and variously employed as a soldier, politician, and entrepreneur, Rickey’s name stands out in an age of pioneers and frontiers for one […]

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What inspired the language of A Clockwork Orange?

Clockwork Orange

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. His dystopian novel, set sometime in the near-future, tells the story of teenage anti-hero Alex and his gang of friends, and their violent escapades. Tea-drinking and toast-munching Or put another way, it tells the story of Alex and his […]

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

Beer

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

New words

Open for longer It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used […]

Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

Horse racing

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close […]

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