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

Tag: etymology

Zebra crossings: what zonkeys tell us about our love of hybrid words

Zonkey

Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the royal baby born last week, some media outlets found time to report on another notable birth: that of Italy’s rare donkey-zebra hybrid, Ippo, which is being called a zonkey. Zonkey, it turns out, is only one of several words for the semi-striped offspring of zebras and other equine mammals. […]

Spellbinding: the classical roots of magical spells in Harry Potter

Magic book

It is no secret that the Harry Potter series is heavily influenced by the classics. JK Rowling studied Latin as a subsidiary subject at the University of Exeter, and often draws upon classical myth, rhetoric, and nomenclature in her writing. In particular, Rowling usually draws her magical words from classical Latin, and many of the […]

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Die wunnerbaare Sprooch: Pennsylvania German

Pennsylvania German

As a native eastern Pennsylvanian, I tend to get a little misty-eyed when dreaming of shoo-fly pie or spotting a hex sign – such as the ones on the barn in the picture above. However, shoo-fly pie and hex signs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the culture and tradition […]

Surf’s up at the OED

surfing

As International Surfing Day takes place on 20 June this year, it is a good time to put on a favourite ‘Hawaiian shirt’ (currently first recorded in 1955) and take a look at some of the surfing terms in the Oxford English Dictionary. Early surf reports The vocabulary of surfing in the English language has […]

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The Hanging Garden – remarks on the use of ancient languages

9780199662265

A fruitful line of research for my book on the Hanging Garden of Babylon was analysis of Babylonian words. They were written in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, which is very different from an alphabet. Most alphabets have about 30 letters, and C, for instance, is always C even if it is pronounced in a variety […]

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Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of The Beatles

Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of the Beatles

The Beatles are regarded by many – including me – as the greatest band of all time, and few would doubt the significance of their impact on popular music. Their impact on the lexicon is less clear, though, since using the word ‘na’ 217 times in the lyrics of Hey Jude really doesn’t count. (Incidentally, […]

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H. P. Lovecraft and the Northern Gothic Tongue

H. P. Lovecraft

There is a very specific language of Gothic and horror literature that has its roots buried deep in the history of English: doom has been around since Old English; dread carries over from Middle English; eerie, that sense of vague superstitious uneasiness, enters Middle English through Scottish. The adjectives are harsh and guttural: moons are […]

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Footprints in the butter: an homage to elephants in the English language

Footprints in the butter: an homage to elephants in the English language

On April 13, 1796, an elephant set foot on American soil for the first time. Although accounts vary, this elephant has been identified with Old Bet, who became a national sensation as the main attraction of Hackaliah Bailey’s circus. Outside the Elephant Hotel in Somers, N.Y., built by Bailey and named after his star performer, […]

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