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

When W (yes, W) marked the end of the Dictionary

OED

On 19 April 1928 the final section, or fascicle, of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Perhaps surprisingly, it covered the words in the range Wise to Wyzen; the fascicle dealing with X, Y, and Z had been published as long ago as 1921. This was because, for many years, there […]

A ‘smidget’ of regional terms: from ‘squirrel load’ to ‘whoopity scoot’

Squirrel

There are some things I love to an unhealthy degree, such as The Shield, Russian imperial stouts, George Carlin’s comedy, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and Evil Dead 2. My heart beats equally fast for the Dictionary of American Regional English, which recently published its long-awaited final volume. I wrote about euphemisms from DARE—which documents […]

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Which words came to life 100 years ago? New words in 1912 from ‘ambivalence’ to ‘jazz’

Jazz

On April 15, 1912, readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their papers to the headline “The World’s Greatest Steamship Wrecked.” Less than two weeks earlier, they had read something else of historical note, at least to etymologists: the April 2 edition contained the earliest citation yet found for the word jazz. At that time, […]

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Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

Horse racing

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close […]

Dishonesty or coincidence? The origin of the word ‘gasoline’

Gasoline

New research, published in the March 2012 update of the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that gasoline might have its origins not in gas as has long been thought (it is a liquid after all) but rather in the name of a London publisher. It then reached something close to its present form in the murky […]

Bacterias, bacteriae, bacteriums? Sorting out the ignoramuses from the cognoscenti (and other ‘borrowed’ plurals)

Bacteria

Cast your eyes over the headline above: which of the three plurals of bacterium is the correct one? Read on, I’ll enlighten you soon… Are you already awarding yourself a pat on the back for knowing the right answer? With English spelling and grammar setting a fair few traps for the unwary, it’s a reason […]

Sound and fury: cockney ducks and mimicking politicians

Cow in Glastonbury

Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among […]

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