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

Was a parting shot once a real bullet?

Bullet hole

A parting shot, a phrase used to mean a final remark, usually pointed or cutting, made by a person at the moment of leaving, started out as something quite different: a ‘Parthian shot’. And it was indeed both live and dangerous. The Parthians were an ancient race living in southwest Asia; they were skilled warriors […]

Long to reign over us: the language of anniversaries

Diamond

On 6 February, 1952, Queen Elizabeth II began her reign as monarch of the United Kingdom. Although she would not be ceremonially crowned until 2 June 1953 (the same day that news reached London of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest), she was proclaimed queen of the Commonwealth upon the […]

What is the origin of the word ‘posh’?

P.O.S.H

There have been many attempts to explain the etymology of posh, with some theories being more persuasive than others. Stylish dandies and cash Posh, meaning ‘smart, stylish, splendid, luxurious’ is first recorded in 1914, with the chiefly British strand of meaning, ‘typical of the upper classes; snooty’, following soon after. As the Oxford English Dictionary […]

Confessions of a pedant

Pedantry

We all know what a taxi is There are two big problems about working for a dictionary. The first is that everyone assumes you know the meaning of every word, which is setting the bar rather high. There are about 600,000 words and senses in the OED. Any one of them could crop up at […]

Why do we call false sentiment ‘crocodile tears’? Can crocodiles really cry?

crocodile

To shed crocodile tears is to put on an insincere act of being sad. The expression is very old, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century. An account of the life of Edmund Grindal, the sixteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, quotes him as saying, ‘I begin to fear, lest his humility . . . be a counterfeit […]

Which words do we love to hate?

Banned

Every year since 1976, Lake Superior State University in Michigan has released a small list of select words – those that they have decided should be banished from everyday use of English. The list is released on the first day of the year, and is composed of words submitted by the public that are thought […]

Where does the expression ‘to mind your Ps and Qs’ come from?

etiquette

If you have you ever been told to mind your Ps and Qs, it might have struck you as a rather odd thing to do. The concept seems reasonable enough– behaving well and not giving offence – but quite what the letters P and Q have to do with this is a little more mysterious. […]

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Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man’s face sideburns?

General Ambrose Burnside

An American general of the nineteenth century, by the name of Ambrose E. Burnside, was immediately recognizable from his mutton chop whiskers and moustache, combined with (unusually) a clean-shaven chin. Thanks to his trend-setting, and from the 1870s onwards, people were calling this style a Burnside. The whims of fashion meant that the moustache was […]

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