Tag: What Made the Crocodile Cry?

white elephants

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and Cockney rhyming slang

In the phrase ‘under the auspices of ’, what are auspices? The root of auspices and the more familiar adjective auspicious are closely linked. If something is auspicious it bodes well, giving promise of a favourable outcome. In Roman times, people tried to predict future events by watching the behaviour of birds and animals. An […]

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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 […]

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In a nutshell, cutting the mustard by the skin of your teeth: popular idioms explained

Why do good things ‘cut the mustard’? The word mustard has been used to mean something excellent or superlative for almost a hundred years—the phrase ‘keen as mustard’ draws on the same idea of added piquancy and zest. ‘Hot stuff’, in other words. In America, to say something was ‘the proper mustard’ in the early […]

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What is the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone?

I can only give a very subjective answer, but I’ll start with a few nominations. Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. A study of them in a historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary, which charts chronologically the story of a word from […]

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09 Aug - Collective nouns

Who decides on the right collective noun for something?

The short answer is no one. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve. Indeed English has never been under the administrative rule of a language academy. A keeper of English, according to the eighteenth-century English […]

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real mccoy

Was there ever a real McCoy?

As so often in cases like these, there are numerous contenders for the role of McCoy in this phrase, which has been with us since at least the 1850s. Part of the problem facing researchers is that McCoy is a fairly common surname. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the earliest versions of […]

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Why do some words have two opposite meanings?

Single words that have two contradictory meanings are known as contronyms. The number of contronyms in English is small, but they are significant. Examples include: dust: 1 to remove dust. 2 to cover with dust. hysterical: 1 frightened and out of control. 2 funny. nervy: 1 showing nerve or courage. 2 excitable and volatile. moot: […]

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What is the origin of the word ‘serendipity’?

The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]

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