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

Category: Word origins

From lamingtons to sandwiches: looking at eponymous foods

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For some, Anna Pavlova is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers in history. For others, her legacy lives on in the form of the dessert she inspired. We celebrate her birthday on 31 January (by the Old Style of dating; her actual birthday according to the Gregorian calendar would be 12 February), and in […]

Word stories: ‘rum’

Word stories: 'rum'

The word rum is first recorded in 1654 in the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, where it is mentioned along with another of its names kill-devil: Berbados Liquors, commonly called Rum, Kill Deuill, or the like. The word itself is of obscure origin, being somehow related to rumbullion and rumbustion, words whose origins […]

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Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and Cockney rhyming slang

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and cockney rhyming slang

In the phrase ‘under the auspices of ’, what are auspices? The root of auspices and the more familiar adjective auspicious are closely linked. If something is auspicious it bodes well, giving promise of a favourable outcome. In Roman times, people tried to predict future events by watching the behaviour of birds and animals. An […]

Bathtub gin, blind tigers, and bootleggers: the language of the speakeasy

Bathtub gin, blind tigers, and bootleggers: the language of the speakeasy

We’ve a lot invested in the idea of Prohibition as an era of wild drunkenness, all-night parties and lawlessness. And such language! Back in the day – in this case from early 1920 to late 1933 – it became increasingly fashionable in urban areas for celebrities and the upper-middle classes to get dolled up in […]

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Skivers, scroungers, and Lapwings

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Jonty Langley takes a closer look at the usage of ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’ in our latest opinion article. *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * Bloody Lapwings. Running around the countryside with their stupid haircuts, messing around while the rest of us […]

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A definition of ‘hobbit’ for the OED

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. . . What’s a hobbit and how did J.R.R. Tolkien come by this word? Was it invented, adapted, or stolen? To celebrate the release of The Hobbit film and renewed interest in J.R.R Tolkien‘s work, we’ve excerpted this passage from The Ring of Words: Tolkien […]

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Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Why do we call hooligans yobs? Yob is a good example of ‘back-slang’—a form of slang in which words are spelt backwards as a code so that others (usually parents) are unable to understand them. ‘Yob’ is simply ‘boy’ spelt backwards; the ‘backward’ element seems appropriate in the definition of retrograde behaviour. Why do we […]

Tolkien’s etymologies

Tolkien's etymologies

I’m tremendously excited about the film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit that’s coming out in the UK this week. As a child, my favourite film was the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi. When I say it was my favourite, I suppose I mean that it […]

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