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

Category: Word origins

What makes Christmas merry? A brief history of yuletide adjectives

What makes Christmas merry?

From Happy Easter to Happy Halloween to countless Happy Birthdays, our felicitations hardly vary from one celebration to the next. Christmas is the notable exception, with the dominant descriptor being Merry. We wish our friends a Merry Christmas but a Happy New Year. Is there any difference? Not everyone’s Christmas is merry. Happy Christmas has […]

Sing a song of Christmas

Sing a song of Christmas

A change is not as good as a rest Christmas brings out the conservative in us all, especially in children. This summer we dismantled a ridiculously large stone clad shelf that was built in the sixties to support a weighty cathode ray tube. Now there’s a space beside the fire which would be, I suggested, […]

thunder

Why do we talk about stealing someone’s thunder?

This idiom, defined as using the ideas devised by another person for your own advantage, has a gratifyingly literal story behind it. It is quite rare for etymologists to pinpoint the very first use of a word or phrase. In this case, however, the eighteenth-century actor and playwright Colley Cibber, in his Lives of the […]

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The Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower

Having undertaken . . . a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends […]

More than just moccasins: American Indian words in English

More than just moccasins

A menagerie of words Most English speakers could easily identify words like tomahawk, moccasin, or tepee as having Amerindian origins (from Virginia Algonquian, Powhatan, and Sioux, respectively), but indigenous American languages have given English many other words which have now become so fully naturalized that their roots often go unrecognized. In fact, fully half of […]

Our words remember them – language of the First World War

Poppies

In July 1917, after three years of bloody war, anti-German feeling in Britain was reaching a feverish peak. Xenophobic mutterings about the suitability of having a German on the throne had been heard since 1914. The fact that the Royal family shared part of its name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, with the Gotha bombers responsible for the devastating […]

The prime minister in your teapot, the hero on your plate: eponyms in Oxford Dictionaries

Cup of tea

If you were asked to think about the link between real-life people and English language dictionaries, the connection you’d probably make is lexicographers—people like the great Dr Johnson or the OED’s founder James Murray, who compiled those mighty reference works on which we rely for information and enjoyment. And you’d be right, up to a […]

The language of Downton Abbey: what is a ‘weekend’?

The language of Downton Abbey

As some of us still dry our tears and reel from the shocking cliffhanger ending to the second series of Downton Abbey, others have been doing a double take at the supposed anachronisms of language being uttered by a number of the characters. A few seemingly modern phrases that have been singled out in the […]

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