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

‘If you want anything said, ask Mrs Thatcher’

10 Downing Street

In May 1979 the United Kingdom elected its first female Prime Minister, in spite of her own comment ten years earlier: ‘No woman in my time will be Prime Minister or Chancellor or Foreign Secretary—not the top jobs. Anyway I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. You have to give yourself 100%’. A few years […]

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Solar System

‘Watson’, says Holmes, ‘when you lie here and see all those stars what do you think?’ ‘Well, Holmes,’ says Watson. ‘All that grandeur and majesty. I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t someone in charge. How about you?’ ‘Me?’ says Holmes, ‘I think: Who’s pinched the tent?’ Venus and Jupiter have been extra-bright recently and […]

A short history of Oxford dictionaries

A-short-history-of-Oxford-dictionaries-es

Oxford is famous for, among other things, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which has been the last word on words for more than a century. It is the largest dictionary of English, covering the history of the language, and aiming to include all vocabulary from the Early Middle English period (1150 ad) onward, along with […]

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

New words

Open for longer It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used […]

When W (yes, W) marked the end of the Dictionary

OED

On 19 April 1928 the final section, or fascicle, of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published. Perhaps surprisingly, it covered the words in the range Wise to Wyzen; the fascicle dealing with X, Y, and Z had been published as long ago as 1921. This was because, for many years, there […]

Which words came to life 100 years ago? New words in 1912 from ‘ambivalence’ to ‘jazz’

Jazz

On April 15, 1912, readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their papers to the headline “The World’s Greatest Steamship Wrecked.” Less than two weeks earlier, they had read something else of historical note, at least to etymologists: the April 2 edition contained the earliest citation yet found for the word jazz. At that time, […]

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Hibernating words and linguistic cicadas

Cicada

Most words develop along fairly predictable paths. They may be quotidian words, such as set, which accrue new shades of meanings along the course of a very long life, and which end up with so many dozens of definitions that it is extremely difficult to see where one begins and another ends. Some words may […]

Mad Men, the culture of consumerism, and the language of advertising

Madison Avenue

Mad Men, the ’60s-era drama about the men and women working in a New York advertising agency, makes its long-awaited return this weekend after a 17-month long hiatus. Although less obvious than the stellar art direction and costume design in transporting viewers into a specific time, language plays an important role in creating the lived-in […]

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