Category: Word origins

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, […]

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 […]

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