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

Tag: phrases

Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Yobs over the moon about burying the hatchet: popular idioms explained

Why do we call hooligans yobs? Yob is a good example of ‘back-slang’—a form of slang in which words are spelt backwards as a code so that others (usually parents) are unable to understand them. ‘Yob’ is simply ‘boy’ spelt backwards; the ‘backward’ element seems appropriate in the definition of retrograde behaviour. Why do we […]

Rigger-jiggers, feathers, and crabs: the language of rowing

Rigger-jiggers, feathers, and crabs: the language of rowing

Every November Oxford’s Isis river is overrun with novice crews and coxes trying to win their first race, the Christ Church Regatta. Rowing is a huge part of student life here, underlined rather explicitly in this apt quotation which features in the entry for rowing in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Rowing was more than a […]

Relatively speaking: an untangling of that/who/which

Relatively speaking: an untangling of that/who/which

I have a twofold career: as well as writing blogs about grammar and usage, I also teach English as a foreign language. Explaining the more arcane and sometimes illogical nuances of English grammar to native and non-native speakers alike can be challenging, but I relish the chance to do so. I’ve found that some people […]

Why is something that is the very best known as ‘the bee’s knees’?

The bee's knees

This curious expression is one of many similar sayings for something that is the acme of excellence. We are all familiar with the cat’s whiskers (or the cat’s pyjamas, the cat’s meow, and the cat’s nuts), which originated in the roaring 1920s and which might well have been the first of its kind—it is said […]

The language of cooking: from ‘Forme of Cury’ to ‘Pukka Tucker’

The language of cooking: from 'Forme of Cury' to 'Pukka Tukka'

The earliest surviving English-language recipes came from the kitchens of kings and their great nobles. Richard II’s Master Cooks boasted that their Forme of Cury contained only the ‘best and royallest viand of all Christian Kings’, and, what’s more, had been approved by the king’s physicians and philosophers. Healthy eating issues and celebrity endorsements are […]

Grisly bears and grizzly murders?

Grisly bears and grizzly murders?

Most of us would agree that English spelling can be a minefield: one reason for this is that there are numerous words which sound the same when you say or hear them but which are spelled differently and which have completely different meanings: a few examples are pour/pore, flower/flour, and sight/site. Such words are known […]

Jack and the Flagpole: what do you call the British national flag?

Bunting

Travelling around Britain, as I’ve been doing this week, I have been struck, as anyone would be, by the profusion of national flags. Not only are they to be found draped on cars and pinned in bedroom windows this year, the British flag is also being displayed on civic flagpoles, high-street lamp-posts, and pub-signs, and […]

“Does ‘all of’ have any legit uses?” A reflection by David Foster Wallace from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

“Does ‘all of’ have any legit uses?” A reflection by David Foster Wallace from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Other than as an ironic idiom for ‘no more than’ (e.g., sex with Edgar lasts all of twenty seconds), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is a qualified, complicated, and personally embarrassed yes. Here’s the story. An irksome habit of many student writers is to just automatically stick an of between all […]

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