Tag: English in use

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

Jolly Roger

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]

The language of the beautiful game (just don’t mention the S-word)


If being reminded of how long it is since your country won the World Cup makes you sick as a parrot, you’re not alone – and you’d be using one of the many clichés with a long and glorious tradition in football, regardless of where your footballing loyalty lies. Words of two halves Some quintessentially […]

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‘If you want anything said, ask Mrs Thatcher’

10 Downing Street

In May 1979 the United Kingdom elected its first female Prime Minister, in spite of her own comment ten years earlier: ‘No woman in my time will be Prime Minister or Chancellor or Foreign Secretary—not the top jobs. Anyway I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. You have to give yourself 100%’. A few years […]

solar system

Who’s in charge of the English language?

‘Watson’, says Holmes, ‘when you lie here and see all those stars what do you think?’ ‘Well, Holmes,’ says Watson. ‘All that grandeur and majesty. I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t someone in charge. How about you?’ ‘Me?’ says Holmes, ‘I think: Who’s pinched the tent?’ Venus and Jupiter have been extra-bright recently and […]

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Gutbucket, hamfatter, and chops: the language of jazz

Jazz musician

Today is International Jazz Day and to celebrate we’ve delved into the language of this musical movement to bring you our favourite words and terms. From bebop to vocalese via the more unexpected gutbucket and hamfatter, you don’t need to be a jive-talking hepcat to enjoy the language associated with this popular musical genre. barrelhouse:  […]

birth of words

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

Open for longer It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used […]

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Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

Horse racing

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close […]


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

‘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 […]

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