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

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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Place your bets: getting geed up for the Grand National

Horse racing

The only time I’ve ever been in a betting shop was more than twenty years ago, on National day. Though not a betting man by nature, like much of the British population my dad would have a flutter on the Grand National. He took me with him one year, and I remember the small, close […]

Sound and fury: cockney ducks and mimicking politicians

Cow in Glastonbury

Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among […]

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 […]

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: […]

Slappers and dumb blondes: why we should care about language

Gender

With International Women’s Day being celebrated today, and US talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s controversial description of women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke as a ‘slut’ still causing uproar, journalist and writer Anne Sexton looks at the long and inglorious history of the word ‘slut’, and explains why gender-neutral language is still a hot topic. Is […]

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Word in the news: a chink in the armor

Medieval Armour

A lesson on the perils of saying what you don’t mean Recently, followers of US basketball got a stark reminder that words often have connotations which stretch beyond our intentions when using them. An editor for ESPN’s mobile website was dismissed from his position for using the phrase a chink in the armor in a […]

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