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

Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man’s face sideburns?

General Ambrose Burnside

An American general of the nineteenth century, by the name of Ambrose E. Burnside, was immediately recognizable from his mutton chop whiskers and moustache, combined with (unusually) a clean-shaven chin. Thanks to his trend-setting, and from the 1870s onwards, people were calling this style a Burnside. The whims of fashion meant that the moustache was […]

Could -boat be the new -gate?

Swift boat

Word in the news: Romney-boated On New Year’s Day this year, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, expressing frustration at negative ads being run by pro-Romney groups, said “I feel Romney-boated”, coining a phrase and – just maybe – launching a new combining form. Gingrich’s neologism uses the second element in swift-boating, a term which dates […]

What is a caucus, anyway?

What is a caucus, anyway?

On January 3, America’s quadrennial race for the White House begins in earnest with the Iowa caucuses. If you find yourself wondering precisely what a caucus is, you’re not alone. The Byzantine process by which the US political parties choose their presidential nominees has a jargon all its own. Below is a brief guide to […]

First feet, black buns, and hansels: the language of Scottish New Year’s traditions

First-footing

Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers, And dinna think that we are beggars; For we are bairns come out to play, Get up and gie’s our hogmanay My grandma taught me this ditty longer ago than I care to remember, and it served as my first introduction to the word Hogmanay. Nowadays, many people […]

Birds of a feather feel dread together

Birds of a feather feel dread together

For some reason things of bird-interest seem to flock to me—seriously. One of the first big book projects I worked on was The Sibley Guide to Birds and right around that time I met my now husband who was a self-proclaimed birder. I didn’t even know what a birder was at the time. This particular […]

Shrapnel, Plimsoll, Joule, Boole: eponyms in science and invention

Leylandii

You have to feel sorry for Christopher Leyland. Having inherited his father’s Northumberland country estate in 1889, Leyland dedicated his life to its improvement, paying particular attention to the gardens and the cultivation of trees. By his death in 1926 the estate boasted (among many other things) a palm house, an arboretum, and a menagerie […]

It is better to give than to receive

present

So, the Christmas season is well and truly upon us, something that tends to either warm the cockles of one’s heart, or bring about a blinding depression. For many people the cause of holiday angst is the entire hullabaloo made about gifts and shopping – there is an increasing complaint that the gift-giving (or commercial) […]

Chinese lanterns

How difficult is it to learn Chinese?

When other English speakers find out that I’m learning Chinese, they often admit that they are too daunted to even try. But just how difficult is it for the average English speaker to learn Chinese? The answer is, surprisingly, that it’s not that difficult if you’re willing to commit to learning a new language. As […]

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