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

Category: Word origins

An etymological trip around the USA

Waldorf Salad

This past month saw the publication of the fifth volume (Si-Z) of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English, an ongoing lexicographic project that has, over the past five decades, been tracking down and cataloging the seemingly infinite varieties of American English. DARE concerns itself with many words and terms that might not appear in […]

What is the origin of the word ‘serendipity’?

Origin of serendipity?

The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]

March Madness: Championship Final

Championship Final

This is it, folks. We’ve reached the main event: the winner-takes-all championship final of the Oxford Dictionaries Bracket Challenge. After three rounds of brutal takedowns, white-knuckled anticipation, and not a little bit of hyperbole, only two worthy contenders are left to complete for the title of Favorite Sport Expression. Saved by the bell Defined in […]

Mad Men, the culture of consumerism, and the language of advertising

Madison Avenue

Mad Men, the ’60s-era drama about the men and women working in a New York advertising agency, makes its long-awaited return this weekend after a 17-month long hiatus. Although less obvious than the stellar art direction and costume design in transporting viewers into a specific time, language plays an important role in creating the lived-in […]

From ‘trousers’ to ‘Tories’: unexpected Irish words in English

Unexpected Irish words in English

Most English speakers would not be surprised to hear that words like banshee or shamrock have their origins in Irish, the Celtic language (also known as Gaelic) which is still spoken in the parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. After all, most recognizable Irish words encountered in English have obvious connections to Ireland, like […]

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

Slappers and dumb blondes: why we should care about language

Gender

With International Women’s Day being celebrated today, and US talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s controversial description of women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ still causing uproar, journalist and writer Anne Sexton looks at the long and inglorious history of the word ‘slut’, and explains why gender-neutral language is still a hot topic. Is […]

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From cherub to jubilee: Hebrew’s influence on today’s English

Hamantaschen

If you’ve ever noshed on a bagel with your schnoz stuck in a schmaltzy novel, or schlepped to a party to schmooze with the mavens and machers, you know all about the influence of Yiddish on modern English. But what about Hebrew? Thanks to English translations of the Bible, Hebrew-derived words have been playing their […]

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