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

Scarecrows: those anthropomorphic (not avian) symbols of the season

Scarecrow

The vestiges of Halloween linger in various front yards and on the occasional porch step, but mostly by now the skeletons and witches have retreated into storage along with the gossamer spider webs, howling mummies, and detached body parts that adorned our neighborhoods so cheerfully in our annual salute to October 31. A contraction of […]

Mr_Mrs

What are ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ short for?

  The abbreviations Mr and Mrs are in common use, and are straightforward to pronounce when we see them written down:  an approximation would be ‘mister’ and ‘missus’. But what are they abbreviations of? We seldom, if ever, write them out in full – and most of us probably never stop to think what the full […]

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Are you sitting comfortably?

Furniture

Regular readers of this blog may remember a recent poll in which we posed the following question: What do you call the piece of furniture pictured below? Sofa Couch Settee Other The results were as follows: 58% were in favour of sofa, 29% plumped for couch, settee was chosen by 9%, and 4% of respondents […]

Witches, warlocks, and werewolves: an interactive Halloween timeline

Interactive Halloween timeline

Halloween conjures up lots of lovely childhood memories for me. We didn’t go trick or treating, we went guising, but the basic premise was the same – we would dress up and visit neighbouring houses, but in order to be rewarded with sweets or small amounts of money, we had to sing for our supper […]

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A Trojan Horse in the Tardis: it’s all an allusion…

Tardis

At the beginning of October the Guardian newspaper published a survey of the best independent bookshops in the UK. Two were described in strikingly similar terms: ‘A Tardis among bookshops, [it] appears narrow at first glance, but packs a lot inside’ in one case, and ‘The Tardis-like bookshop is beautiful, with a stained-glass window depicting […]

Is it true that the word ‘tragedy’ originally meant ‘goat-song’?

Grinning goat

It is absolutely true. Many theories have been offered to explain it. One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat. The contests were part of worship to Dionysus, involving chants and dances in his honour. The Romans knew Dionysus later as Bacchus, god […]

Swaggering bullies, strutting models, and parading bands

Swaggering bullies, strutting models, and parading bands

He marched forward on to the lectern with the possessive insouciance of a hoodie swaggering on to his sink estate. [Guardian 5 October 2011] This evocative description of British PM David Cameron as he stepped up to address the recent Conservative Party Conference prompted me to think about the verb ‘swagger’ and how it’s often […]

Wednesday’s child is full of woe, and Thursday’s child is … who knows?

Pile of words

Corpora studies – what they can and cannot tell us Corpora studies (examining large bodies of text for evidence on how language is used) are a relatively recent thing, born in the 19th century. Small corpora were used early in the century, but one of the first to use a significant number of words was […]

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