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Imagine you’re the latest appointee to the Supreme Court of the United States, and you’ve been called on to give your very first judgment. Part of the case rests on the meaning of an everyday word. With hundreds of dictionaries and thousands of definitions at your fingertips, how do you choose which book to pick […]more
If there’s one thing we can say about men, it’s that they love to make laws. I’m not referring to the laws that get royal assent; these laws are common aphorisms that have entered into everyday parlance. More often than not, when we use these phrases, we understand what the law metaphorically represents, but not […]more
Amnesia, disguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit. At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpa, culpable, exculpate, and the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.” One would suspect that culprit is the same, yet we should never be […]more
For 20 years, 14 of those in England, I’ve been giving lectures about the social power afforded to dictionaries, exhorting my students to discard the belief that dictionaries are infallible authorities. The students laugh at my stories about nuns who told me that ain’t couldn’t be a word because it wasn’t in the (school) dictionary […]more
There has been a lot on British minds recently, with horsemeat and obesity coming high on the list of preoccupations. But amid the furore over such unpalatable subjects, it was a different headline altogether that caught my eye. ‘Diamond heist at Brussels airport nets gang up to £30m in gems’, was the Guardian’s version, while […]more