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

Die, my dear Doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do!

Famous last words

‘Famous last words’ in the literal sense means someone’s final remarks before they die, but the phrase is often said as an ironic comment on an overconfident assertion that may later be proved wrong. A classic example of the two senses combined is the case of the Union general John Sedgwick, whose last words immediately […]

Hibernating words and linguistic cicadas

Cicada

Most words develop along fairly predictable paths. They may be quotidian words, such as set, which accrue new shades of meanings along the course of a very long life, and which end up with so many dozens of definitions that it is extremely difficult to see where one begins and another ends. Some words may […]

That’s ell oh ell

LOL

‘Out shopping. There’s a bird going cheep’. I text this to my daughter, and then, because I’m crossing the generational gap, I add ‘lol’. At some point, probably towards the end of the 80s, someone felt the need to signal, probably while emailing, that something was funny. Perhaps they wrote out the whole thing, ‘laughing […]

From ‘trousers’ to ‘Tories’: unexpected Irish words in English

Unexpected Irish words in English

Most English speakers would not be surprised to hear that words like banshee or shamrock have their origins in Irish, the Celtic language (also known as Gaelic) which is still spoken in the parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht. After all, most recognizable Irish words encountered in English have obvious connections to Ireland, like […]

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

Cat lying down large

Lie or lay? Laying down the law on some puzzling verbs

Can you declare, hand on heart, that you always use the verbs lie and lay correctly? You don’t say? Does that go for all the tenses and forms of those verbs? There’s an abundance of evidence in every type of writing, from journalism to legal reports, that many English speakers are all at sea when […]

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A poetic tribute to Dr Seuss

A poetic tribute to Dr Seuss

Last week saw the 108th birthday of Dr Seuss, the pen-name of Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–1991). An American writer of hugely successful books for children, he was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937) introduced Seuss’s iconic visual and verbal style. This was further extended in the […]

Word trends: digital

Digital

The word digital is one which has become very much associated with the modern world. However, it is not a modern word. The OED’s entry for digital actually contains evidence for the word as far back as the 15th century with the sense, ‘designating a whole number less than ten’. Another early sense referred to […]

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