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

Category: Word origins

Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man’s face sideburns?

General Ambrose Burnside

An American general of the nineteenth century, by the name of Ambrose E. Burnside, was immediately recognizable from his mutton chop whiskers and moustache, combined with (unusually) a clean-shaven chin. Thanks to his trend-setting, and from the 1870s onwards, people were calling this style a Burnside. The whims of fashion meant that the moustache was […]

Shrapnel, Plimsoll, Joule, Boole: eponyms in science and invention

Leylandii

You have to feel sorry for Christopher Leyland. Having inherited his father’s Northumberland country estate in 1889, Leyland dedicated his life to its improvement, paying particular attention to the gardens and the cultivation of trees. By his death in 1926 the estate boasted (among many other things) a palm house, an arboretum, and a menagerie […]

It is better to give than to receive

present

So, the Christmas season is well and truly upon us, something that tends to either warm the cockles of one’s heart, or bring about a blinding depression. For many people the cause of holiday angst is the entire hullabaloo made about gifts and shopping – there is an increasing complaint that the gift-giving (or commercial) […]

Plain unlucky! From hapless hunters to unfortunate accidents

Four-leaf clover

Dog Shoots Man: … Man Recovering from Gunshot Wound Caused by Pet … The hapless hunter was setting up decoys in the water when the mishap occurred. The above Huffington Post story caught my eye for two reasons: after I’d stopped smiling at the image of a dog shooting his master in the posterior (no […]

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 […]

Read more »

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 […]

Tweets