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

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 […]

An etymological trip around the USA

Waldorf Salad

This past month saw the publication of the fifth volume (Si-Z) of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English, an ongoing lexicographic project that has, over the past five decades, been tracking down and cataloging the seemingly infinite varieties of American English. DARE concerns itself with many words and terms that might not appear in […]

chess

Words are wind – the language of Game of Thrones

Somehow A Song of Ice and Fire, the colossal fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, had escaped my notice until the critically acclaimed TV series hit our screens last year, prompting me to buy the first book in the series. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would spend Christmas continually […]

Read more »

March Madness: we have a winner!

Cricket ball

With only five votes separating victory from grim defeat, the sport expression that has claimed the championship title in the Oxford Dictionaries Bracket Challenge is: butterfingers. The champ Who would have guessed that clumsiness would be a winning trait in a sports competition? This slightly ironic turn of events might be deemed less so if […]

What sound does a French duck make? (Or onomatopoeia in different languages)

Duck

Hearing is important for humans to understand the world around them and it lies in our nature to want to describe what we hear. To do this, we frequently make use of onomatopoeias. But what exactly is an onomatopoeia? It is ‘the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named’. Examples […]

What is the origin of the word ‘serendipity’?

Origin of serendipity?

The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]

Tweets