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

What is a lexicographer?

OED

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, famously defined a lexicographer as ‘A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge’. He also said, in the entry for dull, that ‘To make dictionaries is dull work’. Of course, his tongue was firmly in his cheek, noted wit that he was (he might also […]

That’s ell oh ell

LOL

‘Out shopping. There’s a bird going cheep’. I text this to my daughter, and then, because I’m crossing the generational gap, I add ‘lol’. At some point, probably towards the end of the 80s, someone felt the need to signal, probably while emailing, that something was funny. Perhaps they wrote out the whole thing, ‘laughing […]

Are there cases of Chinese whispers in language?

Whisper

Oral ‘mis-transmission’—whereby words change as they are passed on verbally and their new form moves towards becoming the norm—can be a subtle and slow process and the results are sometimes hard to detect. Indeed, some of our most common idioms and grammatical constructions are the result of linguistic Chinese whispers. to have another thing coming: […]

Cat lying down large

Lie or lay? Laying down the law on some puzzling verbs

Can you declare, hand on heart, that you always use the verbs lie and lay correctly? You don’t say? Does that go for all the tenses and forms of those verbs? There’s an abundance of evidence in every type of writing, from journalism to legal reports, that many English speakers are all at sea when […]

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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 […]

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 […]

Interactive quiz: how well do you know the language of film?

Film quiz

Hollywood doesn’t pay much attention to lexicographers (Billy Wilder’s 1941 comedy Ball of Fire is the notable exception), but lexicographers are duty-bound to make a careful study of the world of film. The Oxford English Dictionary regularly studies screenplays as part of its research programme, and cites nearly 200 examples from film scripts. During the […]

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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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