Tag: English usage

Grisly or grizzly? It's not a grisly bear, though they may do grisly deeds.

Grisly bear or grizzly bear?

Most of us would agree that English spelling can be a minefield: one reason for this is that there are numerous words which sound the same when you say or hear them but which are spelled differently and which have completely different meanings: a few examples are pour/pore, flower/flour, and sight/site. Such words are known […]

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union jack

Jack and the Flagpole: what do you call the British national flag?

Travelling around Britain, as I’ve been doing this week, I have been struck, as anyone would be, by the profusion of national flags. Not only are they to be found draped on cars and pinned in bedroom windows this year, the British flag is also being displayed on civic flagpoles, high-street lamp-posts, and pub-signs, and […]

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Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, and the Oxford English Dictionary

Virginia Woolf was a prolific writer whose successes include works of fiction, biography, and essay. Her contributions to the English language are certainly not to be overlooked; indeed, she is among the top 1000 most cited sources in the Oxford English Dictionary, and had a predilection for coining terms—mostly phrasal adjectives—herself. Descriptions of “heavy-lidded” eyes, […]

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Men playing basketball in a park.

Hip-hop and the word ‘baller’

The other day I had an earworm stuck in my head, an old rap song which goes:  Wanna be a baller, shot-caller, 20-inch blades on the Impala…  [N.B. 20-inch blades are wheels, and the Impala is a type of car] After mouthing that line to myself for a few hours, it occurred to me that […]

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Summertime, and the words are too easy

Sunflowers

Memorial Day has come and gone, bringing with it the unofficial beginning of the summer in the northern hemisphere. These days, summer evokes such plebeian terms as barbecue, vacation (or, even worse, staycation), or timeshare. Yet if we scratch even the surface of English vocabulary, we quickly find that there is a wealth of more […]

drunk

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

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cockney duck

Sound and fury: cockney ducks and mimicking politicians

Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among […]

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cemetary

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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