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

Lol or pulchritudinous: which words do children really use in their writing?

Creative writing

’Twas a caliginous night. . . Fingers on your buzzers, please. Which of the following would you expect children today to use in their writing: gr8, lol, apotropaic, caliginous, cerulean? Yes, that’s right, the last three. This is just one of the happy findings from the BBC Radio 2 500 Words short story competition, run […]

Boomerang vocabulary: words that return to their origins

Boomerang vocabulary

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” may have been good advice for Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it isn’t practical for a language. English is both an avid borrower (ballet, schmooze, wok) and a generous lender: consider German das Baby, French le week-end, and Japanese aisu kuriimu (‘ice cream’—try saying it out loud). Occasionally, […]

Kapow! The language of comics

Kapow

Chances are, if asked to think of the language of comics, terms like kapow!, blam!, and zap! wouldn’t be far from your mind. This is largely thanks to pop art and the Adam West Batman TV show, which emblazoned these terms across our screens, often accompanied by shrill trumpets blaring madly. I used to cringe […]

The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

Changing meaning of socialist

On May 6, France held their presidential elections, picking François Hollande over the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande is a socialist (a member of the French Socialist Party), a word that on occasion apparently confuses a large number of Americans, as many use it in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with its intended meaning. Hence, a […]

Time to get ill: Beastie Boys lyrics in the Oxford English Dictionary

Beastie Boys

Like many folks of my generation, upon hearing about the death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, I’ve spent the last few weeks revisiting my Beastie Boys’ albums. At one point during my listen, I began to wonder about their lyrics and what kind of mark they’ve made on the English language. Is it possible that […]

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 cocktails

Gin Rickey

People and places Biographical details of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey are sparse and difficult to track down, but those we have offer a fascinating sketch of an eclectically talented American. Born in 1842 and variously employed as a soldier, politician, and entrepreneur, Rickey’s name stands out in an age of pioneers and frontiers for one […]

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What inspired the language of A Clockwork Orange?

Clockwork Orange

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. His dystopian novel, set sometime in the near-future, tells the story of teenage anti-hero Alex and his gang of friends, and their violent escapades. Tea-drinking and toast-munching Or put another way, it tells the story of Alex and his […]

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