Category: Word origins

A.A. Milne

Not just heffalumps and woozles: the words of A.A. Milne

If you’ve heard of A.A. Milne, there is almost certainly one reason for that – and that reason is a Bear of Very Little Brain, otherwise known as Winnie-the-Pooh. It was on 14 October 1926 that his eponymous story collection was first published (although he had already made an appearance in the poetry book When […]

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Chicken or egg

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

There are two famous riddles about chickens. One investigates the reasoning behind the chicken’s desire to cross the road (“to get to the other side”), while the other poses the ontological quandary: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We shan’t attempt to answer the question in a philosophical or biological manner, but we […]

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Sheet Music

Foreign words and musical notes

Anyone who’s ever had to learn to read sheet music will know what I mean when I say that it can sometimes literally be like learning another language. Besides parsing those tricky lines, dots, tails, and bars, there are also the snatches of foreign languages – mostly Italian, along with the occasional word of French, […]

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All told

Telling all about ‘all told’

What is it we tell when things are all told? It’s a common enough expression.  A newspaper observes of a political candidate that “All told, [she] has taken some $19,650 in campaign contributions.” Of a moment in a Miley Cyrus concert a magazine writes, “All told, it was one of the most arresting moments of […]

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Aviation

Winged words: the language of aviation

Ever since we first gazed up to the skies and envied the glorious freedom of birds, many of us have yearned to join them (appropriately, aviation derives from avis, which means ‘bird’ in Latin). Some of mankind’s earliest myths (including that of the Greek craftsman Daedalus and his son Icarus) are testament to our deep-rooted […]

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Stock market report with bull and bear

Bulls, bears, and the other business animals of Wall Street

The finance world famously has almost a language all of its own, ranging from complex financial jargon to the playful slang of the stock market. What that means is that within the thicket of terms like VaR, backwardation, contango, tranche, and junk bond, we find some familiar animal friends — although often in some strange […]

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chess

The language of chess

Although the game itself may be viewed as the domain of grandmasters, child geniuses, and computer boffins, the language of chess has infiltrated everyday parlance in a number of ways. Any game or debate that ends in a draw may be said to have resulted in a stalemate, while check can refer to any form of […]

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tightrope

Tightrope walking and ambulances: what do they share in common?

In the early hours of 7 August 1974, after six years of planning and months of subterfuge, Philippe Petit stepped out onto a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. A crowd of thousands gathered to watch the breathtaking 45 minute display, as Petit walked, danced, and even […]

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