Words with Friends: the language of a sitcom

New York skyline

Having been one of the most-watched programmes on television for 236 episodes over ten years from 1994-2004, it was inevitable that Friends would leave its mark on the linguistic landscape, both in its native USA and elsewhere. From Chandler’s distinctive vocal inflections – “could I be any more sorry?” – to Joey’s “How you doin’?” […]

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Broad Stripes and Bright Stars: notes on the anniversary of America’s anthem

American flag

On September 13th, 1814, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key dined as a guest on a British warship, where he had been sent to negotiate the release of American prisoners. The ship, the H.M.S. Tonnant, was moored in Chesapeake Bay, off Baltimore, which the British forces intended to attack later that day. Key was […]


If roses were called stench-blossoms, would they smell as sweet?

In reference to the family name of her soon-to-be beau, 13-year-old Juliet Capulet once told nobody in particular that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. But would it? As the Simpson men convincingly rebut: Bart: Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms. Homer: Or crapweeds. Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen […]

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A day in the life of an OED researcher


As the New York researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ve been hailed as a hero (hipster poets love me), gotten the rock star reception (by research librarians), and been dismissed with derision, thought possibly to be deranged – this by college classmates at a recent reunion: rock-ribbed Wall Street sorts, who haven’t yet heeded […]


Extra sausages, tap-dancing bears, and idiomatic tomatoes

What makes idioms so wonderful is that they make communication easier and, in my opinion, add an element of fun to language. By definition, an idiom is a figure of speech where the ‘meaning [is] not deducible from those of the individual words’. Thus, if you’re not a member of a certain ‘language club’, the […]

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What do you call your grandparents?

When Prince George of Cambridge was born on 22 July 2013, much of the press speculation centred around what name would be given to the 3rd in line to the British throne. Once that matter was settled, discussion moved on as to what familiar names might be given to the grandparents, fuelled partly by Camilla, […]

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Fearfully great creeping reptiles: the naming of dinosaurs

The names of dinosaurs seem to resonate, almost magically, with youngsters. Once they have seen a skeleton in a museum, or a vivid reconstruction of one of these animals in a book, even a three year old rapidly learns to identify each one pretty reliably (much to their parents or grandparents amazement and occasional befuddlement). […]

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Virtual reality: can a PDF be a hard copy?

Computer code

Recently I was asked to “send a hard copy” of a document to a colleague in New York. I am in Oxford, and knew they didn’t want me to send it by Airmail, but instead just wanted the PDF forwarding. This, however, struck me as strange—a hard copy is usually specifically a paper version of […]

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