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

Putting the accent on English

Putting the accent on English

A recent article in the New York Times describes a somewhat controversial (and no longer current) program that was run in public schools in the state of Arizona for nearly a decade – sending monitors to judge whether English teachers had an accent. If a teacher was thought to have too strong an accent, he […]

Of moms and men: what two small words reveal about big social changes

Of moms and men

The Oxford English Dictionary’s evidence files reveal an interesting trend: in recent years, the number of phrases designating types of mothers (on the model of [X] mother) has grown much faster than the number of comparable terms for fathers. Since 1990, OED has tracked roughly 40% more maternal terms than their paternal counterparts. But why […]

Flannel trousers are not English!

Celtic cross

One of the facets of English that makes a job working with dictionary data so interesting is its readiness to appropriate loanwords from other languages – seeing the etymology of a familiar word such as ‘ketchup’ for example, and finding it probably has its origins in Chinese. Everybody needs good neighbours We see plenty of […]

It’s all about the nuance – synonyms and the Oxford English Corpus

It’s all about the nuance

There are few words that share an exact set of definitions – it is almost a guarantee that there will be some subtle differences between one word and its synonym.  Sometimes these nuances are so subtle that they can be difficult to articulate fully in a definition, and only become apparent through examining usage. Oxford […]

The poetry of autumn

The poetry of autumn

I do not grieve the passing of summer the way some folks I know do. Indeed, I grew up in a household where the turning leaves evoked a collective sigh of dismay, as if the ungreening of foliage were signaling another inevitable death march into darkening afternoons and mornings too cold to bear. As the […]

Truly. Madly. Deep.

Truly. Madly. Deep.

A few years ago, I became unusually vocal over a particular bit of linguistic abuse. Unusually, because the lexicographical instinct is to be descriptive of language change at all times, and sanguine about those bugbears that others decry. But this particular trend had me sufficiently riled that I wrote an article entitled ‘The Adverb is […]

When worlds collide: science or science fiction?

Science or science fiction?

The discovery, reported this week, of a faster-than-light neutrino shows just how easily the line between science and science fiction can become blurred. Equally, to the uninitiated, the language of science can be indistinguishable from the language of science fiction. We all know, alas, that Superman does not really exist, but how about the kryptonite […]

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Does being ostracized have anything to do with the behaviour of ostriches?

Ostrich

It’s a nice idea, but the two words are in fact quite separate. Ostrich comes from an Old French word ostruce, dating right back to the twelfth century. The Latin term for the bird was struthiocamelus, meaning a ‘sparrow camel’, a word coined after the first encounters with ostriches, probably because of the animal’s long […]

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