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

From cherub to jubilee: Hebrew’s influence on today’s English

Hamantaschen

If you’ve ever noshed on a bagel with your schnoz stuck in a schmaltzy novel, or schlepped to a party to schmooze with the mavens and machers, you know all about the influence of Yiddish on modern English. But what about Hebrew? Thanks to English translations of the Bible, Hebrew-derived words have been playing their […]

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 […]

What gets leapt in a leap year?

Calendar February 2012

2012 is a leap year in the Gregorian calendar, making it an appropriate time to consider the origin of this rather puzzling term. After all, leap implies that something is being skipped over, but a leap year has an extra day, making it longer than an ordinary year, not shorter. Where is the metaphorical leap […]

Lights, camera, lexicon: the language of films in the OED

Film Projector

Film, that great popular art form of the twentieth century, is a valuable window on the evolving English language, as well as a catalyst of its evolution. Film scripts form an important element of the Oxford English Dictionary’s reading programme, and the number of citations from films in the revised OED multiplies with each quarterly […]

“The Dickens, reminiscent of Charles”: Boz and the language of hip-hop

Ghetto blaster

“As the plot thickens, it gives me the dickens, reminiscent of Charles…” So unfolds the narrative in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, from OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, a cornerstone of late 90s southern hip-hop and one of my favorites. Last week, I listened to Andre utter these lyrics once again, and I wondered, what does it really mean to […]

Six obsolete endearments for old-fashioned romantics

Long-eared bat

Some terms of affection, like darling, have endured in the English language from the outset, while others have come and gone in less than a century. The language of love thrives on metaphor, but precisely what connotes affection has changed over time. Some endearments employed by love poets in centuries past, like sparling (a type […]

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Where the dickens did that word come from?

Oliver Twist

Did you know that when you get ‘the creeps’, ‘clap eyes’ on someone, or find yourself ‘flummoxed’, you are recalling expressions first used by the novelist Charles Dickens? Dickens has long been famous for coining some of the most creative character names in English literature (the Fezziwigs, the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, Chevy Slyme, Mrs Spottletoe, […]

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Was a parting shot once a real bullet?

Bullet hole

A parting shot, a phrase used to mean a final remark, usually pointed or cutting, made by a person at the moment of leaving, started out as something quite different: a ‘Parthian shot’. And it was indeed both live and dangerous. The Parthians were an ancient race living in southwest Asia; they were skilled warriors […]

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