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

Category: Word origins

SOS

The origins of SOS and Mayday

S.O.S became the worldwide standard distress signal (particularly in maritime use) on 1 July 1908, having first been adopted by the German government three years earlier. It has since entered the awareness of those who are unlikely ever to summon help at sea – appearing in contexts as varied as the title of songs by […]

Read more »
Nautical terms

Sailing the seas of nautical language

I recently endured a weekend of mini-disasters (and it was supposed to be a relaxing Bank Holiday, too!). When I related the catalogue of catastrophettes to my father, his first response was ‘Well, worse things happen at sea!’. Though I was piqued, as he clearly didn’t think my weekend ranked high on the scale of […]

Read more »
ladybird

Ladybirds, ladybugs, and… cows?

When this article was in the brainstorming stage, it started with the simple intention of pointing out that a ladybird was neither a bird nor a lady (I don’t mean to impugn the ladybird’s reputation; I am speaking of the definition rather than the insect’s moral character). Along the way we thought we’d point out […]

Read more »
Beech

When is a book a tree?

The obvious answer to ‘when is a book a tree?’ is ‘before it’s been made into a book’ – it doesn’t take a scientist to know that (most) paper comes from trees – but things get more complex when we turn our attention to etymology. The word book itself has changed very little over the […]

Read more »
peterpan

Peter Pan collars and other literary eponyms

Any avid reader has their favourite characters, whether they be from classic fiction, much-loved children’s literature, or contemporary novels. Quite a few characters have given their names to words relating to their traits or appearance – Eeyoreish, for instance, appears in our dictionaries as an adjective meaning pessimistic or gloomy, based on Eeyore from A.A. […]

Read more »
railway track

Word histories: conscious uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (better known as an Oscar-winning actress and the Grammy-winning lead singer of Coldplay respectively) recently announced that they would be separating. While the news of any separation is sad, we can’t deny that the report also carried some linguistic interest. In the announcement, on Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop, the pair […]

Read more »
caesar

Beware the Ides of March! Get up to your elbows in the language of Julius Caesar

Tomorrow is the Ides of March, a day made infamous by the prophetic soothsayer from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With a “Tongue shriller then all the Musicke,” he warns the skeptical emperor to “Beware the Ides of March” at the top of Act One.  Eight scenes later, the Ides arrives and (spoiler alert) Caesar is […]

Read more »
tea

All the tea in China: English words of Chinese origin

An extract from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins Chinese civilization stretches back at least to the 3rd millennium BC. It is the source of many of the world’s great inventions, including paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing, not to mention china (porcelain) itself. But maybe the greatest contribution that the country and its language have […]

Read more »

Tweets