Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


Bloody Mary and bloody Marys; why ‘bloody’, why ‘Mary’?

What’s in a name?

We all know that the wellies wellies_with_flowerswe might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the first Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gaves us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.

Bloody Mary


My favourite cocktail

If that image doesn’t make you thirsty, you’re a better person than me.

When I used to travel and be stuck in airport lounges in the evening, a Bloody Mary was often a little pick-me-up before the tedium of the flight home. Now I make them at home – very occasionally, you understand –, which is what set me thinking about the name.

Who is this Mary, anyway?

Frankly, it had never occurred to me that the Bloody Mary in question could be anyone other than Queen Mary (Tudor), whose brief reign (1553-1558) was proverbially “bloody”. During her campaign to re-establish Catholicism in Britain, some 300 people were burnt at the stake for heresy (including a few already buried who were dug up.)


Latimer & Ridley burnt at the stake, from Foxe’s 1563 1st edn. “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”


(In fairness, in the reigns of her father, brother, and sister, human barbecuing was not unknown, but only on a minor scale in comparison.)

However, such is Mary’s notoriety that her sobriquet is translated into other languages, e.g. Marie la sanglante, Maria la Sangrienta, Marie die Blutige.

Wikipedia lists other pretenders to the name, including the silent-era Hollywood actress Mary Pickford and a waitress called Mary, but itsh true originsh sheem to be losht in the alcohol-shrouded mishtsh of time. Sho, I shall shtick with royalty.

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When was Queen Mary first called “bloody”?


Mary’s portrait in the Prado, by Antonio Moro.

The first citation (1657) for “bloody Mary” in the OED comes from well after her reign. It appears in an Epistle Perambulation by the possibly somewhat demented millenarian John Rogers (b. 1627) to the curiously modern-sounding Time of End, by J. Canne, a non-conformist cleric.

We see it [sc. government] and feel it every day to be of the Beast, and more bruitish then those that have gone before; bloody Mary her self abhorring to make it Treason for words as they have done.

The OED also shows that “bloody Queen Mary” had earlier been used by the same John Rogers in 1654, in Sagrir or Doomes-Day Drawing Nigh:

Which Tyranny and accursed cruelty of theirs is condemned by bloody Queen Mary her selfe.

(The claim in the Wikipedia entry on the drink that it was in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (“Book of Martyrs”) that Mary was first called “bloody” cannot be true, otherwise the recently revised OED entries mentioned above would have mentioned it. A search of the online editions, however, does reveal, for example, references to “the bloudy regiment of Queene Mary” (regiment here = rule, government, or reign).

The OED entry for bloody has no fewer than 15 senses (excluding its use as an intensifier) and bloody Queen Mary is cited bloodthirstily under meaning 4: “Of a person or animal: addicted to bloodshed, bloodthirsty; cruel”, a use that goes back to Old English.

What about the drink, then?

The OED’s first citation is from the N.Y. Herald Tribune for 2 December 1939. At that stage it seems to have been a simple half-and-half mixture:

George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up which is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.

If the OED is anything to go by, the drink took some time to cross the Atlantic – or at least to appear in print this side of the pond:

Those two…are eating raw steaks and drinking Bloody Marys.

Punch,  15 Aug., 1956.

Since the early days, Bloody Marys have become more complicated. The OED defines the drink as “A cocktail containing vodka, tomato juice, and other (usually pungent) flavourings, typically served with a celery stalk or similar garnish.”

Nowadays there are trillions of variations, with different alcohols, such as Tequila, and all manner of flavourings and garnish, from horseradish to olives, wasabi to bacon strips (personally, yuck!), oysters to clam broth. bloody-Mary_image

Forgive me, but I like to keep mine simple at home: vodka, good tomato juice, celery salt, a teeny pinch of garlic salt, black pepper, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, a splosh of dry sherry, ice, and a slice of lime. (I’m too mean to buy the obligatory celery just for a drink!)

Mmmm, perhaps not that simple after all.

A Virgin Mary…

is the punningly alcohol-free version. The OED first records it from 1976, labels it “chiefly US”, and defines it as merely a glass of tomato juice. Later citations, however, show clearly that it’s a detoxicated Bloody Mary:

A waitress approached the table. ‘A Virgin Mary… A Bloody Mary without the vodka.’

Five Roads to Death, J. Philips, 1977.

This quote from a title published in England in London in 1981 conveys a certain British snobbishness about the name:

Crombie ordered himself a straight tomato juice with…Worcester. The Colonel did not, Bognor noted with approval, refer to the drink as ‘a Virgin Mary’.

Murder at Moose Jaw, T. Heald, 1981

Btw, the plural of Mary is Marys, not Maries.

It’s a standard spelling convention that if a common noun ends in a consonant plus the letter -y, you pluralize it like berry -> berries. However, most grammars agree that proper nouns are an exception; you just tack on an -s for the plural. For that reason, you write the Kennedys, the two Germanys, he has won six Tonys, etc. (although the alternatives spellings Kennedies, Germanies, etc. are also used.)

[In Scottish history, the four Marys are the girls of noble birth (the Marys Beaton, Seaton, Fleming, and Livingston) who accompanied Mary to France in 1548.]

by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, 1554

by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, 1554

Bloody Mary has been vilified down the centuries. The Horrible Histories/Kate Bush parody redeems Mary from her ghastly reputation with tongue-in-cheek humour. The complete lyrics are below the link.

King Henry 8th my father hoped I’d have some Tudor brothers.
Mum had no sons,
So rather I got plenty of stepmothers.
When at last prince Ed was born,
The crown I bid adieu;
I said as king he must be sworn,
Boys go first in the queue.
But there’s no need to worry if at first you don’t succeed,
When Ed died
I swept aside the rest and was decreed…

Mary the first, that’s me,
Tudor lady and queen of England, not to be confused
With Mary Queen of Scots.
Not the same, see,
Though, weirdly, she’s a cousin to me.

Some tried to say Lady Jane Grey
Should be queen after Ed,
But England wanted me, hooray,
So poor Jane lost her head.
The Protestants were saying
That my ruling made them sick,
‘Cause when it came to praying,
My tastes were Catholic.
They revolted, challenged me, fuelled my great desire
To tie 300 to a stake,
Light touch paper then retire.

Mary the first, that’s me,
Called the bloody queen of England.
Not what I intended,
Tried to be
Good, you see,
But history only remembers
I was a catastrophe.


This magnificent classicizing bust of Mary’s husband Philip II does its best to disguise his inbred prognathous Hapsburg chin .

Married Philip king of Spain,
Who then left me.
England thought he was a pain,
‘Cause he told me
To attack France with troops
and when the French advanced
We lost Calais. Oops!
Throughout my reign it rained and rained,
It poured upon the poor,
The harvest failed, no food remained,
And flu killed many more.
Burned Protestants and wed a fool,
Led armies to defeat.
Burned more Prots, I say my rule
Was short but not that sweet.
I had no kids,
Named half-sis Liz
As big Queen Bess to be,
So long as she would rule the land
As a catholic queen like me.

Lizzie didn’t listen,
She made the country Protestant,
Meaning my legacy was ruined.
See everything I tried to achieve
Went down the swanny

Bit embarrassing really!


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Anymore or any more? Does anybody write anymore any more any more?

While Annie Lennox was keening  ‘Don’t ask me why’ and lamenting lost or unachievable love, the question in this word geek’s mind (and perhaps in a few others’) was: is that  ‘anymore’ or ‘any more’?

I don’t love you any|more
I don’t think I ever did.
And if you ever had
Any kind of love for me
You kept it all so well hid

One of my most often consulted blogs is about whereas as one word or two, so I thought it would be interesting to look at another case of split personality: any more and anymore.

What’s the problem?

  1. When you want to convey the meaning ‘not … any longer’, e.g. ‘I don’t love you any more’, should you write any more or anymore?
  2. In which uses of any more is it better to write the two words separately?

Quick answers

  1. Whether you write ‘I don’t love you anymore’ or ‘any more’ largely depends on geography. The dataset (details later on) from the Oxford English Corpus that I used suggests that in British English there is a 2:1 preference for ‘any more’. In North American (i.e. US and Canadian) English, the one-word form ‘anymore’ is used in over 80 per cent of cases.

TIP: if you can replace ‘any|more’ with ‘any longer’, ‘again’ or some other paraphrase with a similar meaning, then it is safe to write it as one word if that is your preference. Also, look for the preceding verb, generally negated or in a question, that any|more relates to.

  1. Any more should be written as separate words when you are using the phrase in one of six possible ways in comparative clauses – explained in detail below – where its grammatical function and meaning are different from those in ‘I don’t love you anymore’.

TIP: if the word than follows shortly after any more, it’s a fair bet that you should write the words separately, e.g.

…the book is very well written and does not assume any more than a basic knowledge of biology

The data suggests that, instinctively, most people separate the two words in such contexts, but occasionally they put them together.

There’s a separate, exclusively American meaning of anymore = ‘nowadays’ that will have to be the topic for another blog, sometime.


1 When two become one
2 Any|more as time adverbial
2.1 Examples
2.2 Regional preferences (Table)
2.3 Online dictionaries say…
2.4 Usage guides say…
3 Any + more: examples and explanation
3.1 Non-standard as single word
4 Dataset details

1 When two become one, or the urge to merge

While recently reading Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778), for example, I couldn’t help noticing how often ‘any body’ and ‘every body’ appeared as two words. any_more_evelina Here is Evelina (Letter XXIII, complete text & images here) describing her visit to a concert at the Pantheon, a concert hall:

There was an exceeding good concert, but too much talking to hear it well. Indeed I am quite astonished to find how little music is attended to in silence; for, though every body seems to admire, hardly any body listens.

To state the obvious, spelling is not fixed forever (or is that for ever?)

Some of the words we routinely write as one word nowadays, e.g. everybody, anybody as just mentioned, were regularly written as two at one time. The OED comments on anybody ‘formerly written as two words’ and has this quote from Disraeli that couples those two words: ‘Every body was there—who is any body.’ Vivian Grey, 1826.

To take a more current example, quite a few people write alot. Dictionaries do not yet accept this, but perhaps one day – presumably far in the future – they would, if it were to become the dominant spelling.

2 any|more as time adverbial any_more_keep_calm

The OED (3rd edn) entry dates this use back to before 1338, but the earliest documentary evidence is from the Wycfliffite Bible Jer. iii. 1   If a man schal leue his wijf & she… wedde anoþer man, wheþer shal she turnen aȝeen any more to hym?.

The word(s), whether written as one or two, are a time adverbial meaning ‘to no further extent; not any longer’. You have to use them in (implicitly or explicitly) negative, or (negative) interrogative, clauses, and they are the equivalent of a clause containing ‘no…longer’.

The OED does give anymore as an alternative spelling, but the earliest citation of it in writing is in the ‘American’ meaning of ‘from now on, currently’: We’ll squeeze Michael a bit. He’ll chip in anymore. (1971)


2.1 Modern examples of the alternative spellings

I think these are good people trapped in a very difficult if not terrible situation with a process that they’re not even using anymore. CNNYour Money, transcripts, 2013 (US)

It’s such a shame that people don’t seem to have any common sense anymore. Daily Telegraph, 2013 (BrE)

The principle being that the Tories scuppered our reform of the Lords, and so waaaah, boo hoo, you horrid rotters, we’re not playing with you any more, we’re going home and we’re taking our ball with us. Daily Telegraph, 2013 (BrE)

Using the slogan, “We’re mad as cows and we’re not going to take it any more,” the group has collected more than 2,000 signatures of the 4,500 needed by July 7…’ The New Farm, 2004 (US)


2.2 Regional preferences

This table shows the percentages for the varieties of English available in the Oxford English Corpus. As you can see, the highest preference for ‘anymore’ is in American-continent varieties (US, Can., Carib.), followed by Asian & S. Afr. Englishes. Irish is more or less evenly balanced, and the variety which least favours ‘anymore’ is New Zealand.

British 1,600 892 64.2% 35.8% 10
unknown 890 1,198 42.6% 57.4% 7
American 794 4,065 16.3% 83.7% 2
Australian 339 273 55.3% 44.7% 9
New Zealand 229 71 76.8% 23.2% 11
Irish 132 147 47.3% 52.7% 8
Indian 113 214 34.6% 65.4% 5
East Asian 73 237 23.5% 76.5% 4
Canadian 51 312 14% 86% 1
South African 48 72 40% 60% 6
Caribbean 14 55 20.3% 79.7% 3

2.3 Online dictionaries say…

The Oxford Online Dictionary, British & World English version, gives the two-word form under any, with the alternative ‘anymore’. But if you look up anymore as a solid, it is labelled ‘Chiefly N Amer variant of any more’.

If you use the US version of that dictionary, and enter ‘any more’ the entry you will find is anymore with the variant (also any more).

The UK-based Collins, in its British English version, gives you ‘any more or (especially US) anymore’, but if you look up ‘any more’ in the US version, the same thing happens as with Oxford: you are directed to the entry anymore, with ‘any more’ as a variant.

With Merriam-Webster online, if you enter the two-word form, you are immediately taken to the single-word one. In addition, there is a note stating: “Although both anymore and any more are found in written use, in the 20th century anymore is the more common styling. Anymore is regularly used in negative <no one can be natural anymore — May Sarton>, interrogative <do you read much anymore?>, and conditional <if you do that anymore, I’ll leave> contexts and in certain positive constructions <the Washingtonian is too sophisticated to believe anymore in solutions — Russell Baker>.

2.4 Style & usage guides say…

  • Telegraph style book: any more/anymore: we do not want any more errors in the newspaper; we will not put up with this anymore
  • Guardian Style Guide: Please do not say “anymore” any more

The Economist does not cover it, nor does the Chicago Manual of Style (though its page on Good usage versus common usage has single-word anymore in an unrelated entry, thereby, presumably, endorsing it).

The Merriam-Webster Concise Guide to English Usage does not mention it, but Pam Peters does, in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage. She comments on the US/British difference and says ‘But anymore (as adverb) tends to be replaced by the spaced any more in formal British style.’


3 Any + more as two words

Any + more as two words is appropriate in a range of comparative clauses, either followed explicitly by than, or with an implied comparison.

TIP: It’s a fair bet that if you’re writing something and follow any more with than in the next few words, writing it as two words is correct.

Similarly, if you follow any more with of as in 2) below, or an adjective, an adjective plus noun, or an adverb + adjective + noun as in 4-5) below, it should be two words.


In all cases, any is being used as a ‘submodifier’, comparable to other words such as, e.g. she is far/considerably/much/vastly + more + adjective, e.g.  talented/sophisticated/wealthy, etc + (than)…

The cases in which any + more is two separate words are:

1 more as a determiner (i.e. followed by an uncount or plural count noun, according to the usual rules for more):

My place is wherever America’s enemies are, to kill them before they kill any more Americans on our own soil. Empire of the Ants, 2004 (US)

…nothing that points directly at Chris Christie as having any more involvement than he said he did. The Situation Room, CNN Transcripts, 2014

…vertical integration takes place only for reasons of technological efficiency because it does not involve any more or less monopolization than what existed in the preintegration periodJrnl of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 2005 (US)

This Cambridge Dictionary link explains this basic point.

2 more as pronoun – often followed by of:

Overall, the book is very well written and does not assume any more than a basic knowledge of biology.  NACTA Jrnl, 2005 (US)

He took it upon himself to say ‘I am not going to stand any more of this messing about’. Irish Examiner, 2002

The changes do not make this opera any more of a masterpiece; Bizet ‘s music is still linked to a profoundly unsatisfactory libretto. MV Daily, 2003 (US)

3 any more as adjunct:

Mass production and high levels of craft detail do not usually go together, any more than low-budget buildings are tolerant of too many non-standard details. The Architectural Review, 2000 (AmE)

It still seems necessary to tell the country ‘s history, but the politics will not adhere to the art any more than it did for Wolfflin. Art Bulletin, 2000. (US)


4 more modifying adjective:

a) as subject/object complement

This activity did not make me feel any more despondent than usual, nor did I experience a loss of appetite or a tingling sensation in my lower extremities. Weekly Eye, 2003 (Canada)

Good designers may not be any more talented than you, they are just more aware of their surroundings. Art Business News, 2001 (US)

4 b) premodifying noun group

There can’t be any more horrifying images than the aftermath of Hiroshima or the mass slaughter of Chilean civilians under Pinochet.  Senses of Cinema, 2003 (Austr.)

I really have not given it any more detailed consideration than that because I did not see it as relevant to the point.  High Court of Australia transcripts (2001)

This work , informal and more up to date in concept than anything conceived by such established sculptors as Rysbrack or Scheemakers, was not immediately followed by any more large works. Oxford Companion to Western Art, 2001 (BrE)

5 any more modifying adverb

…the subjugation [ ] of music’s powers of expression results in a poignant intensity not to be realised by any more overtly pathetic means.’ Musical Times, 2004 (US)


3.1  Non-standard uses of anymore

Yow! I will not be giving them anymore business.  Blog, 2004 (Carib.) [see Examples 1 above]

I forgot in my thanks that I had decided not to use anymore bottles of bought water. Blog, 2007 (Austr.) [See Examples 1]

But the scandals and controversy do not overwhelm this Carroll saga anymore than it did the Carrolls themselves. Economic History Services,  2001 (US) [See Examples 3]

But this did not seem to help anymore than a cigarette or a glass of wine would have. Namibia Economist, 2003 (SAfr.) [see Examples 3]

4 Dataset details

The dataset I used for the figures given earlier does not cover all possible cases of any|more as a time adverbial – life’s too short – but it does cover a very frequent use of it, amounting to almost 12,000 examples. Using the Oxford English Corpus of 2.5 billion words (i.e. tokens), I carried out a fairly crude search for the word NOT + 1-4 words + ANY MORE and separately ANYMORE.

I then filtered out certain some obvious elements, such as than, or any more + adjective. The remaining examples were not 100% time adverbials, but nearly all of them were, and I’m happy that, since I applied the same filters to both searches, the proportion of irrelevant sentences for each search should in principle be the same.

Obviously, choosing not rather than the contracted forms is likely to extract more formal language. However, a quick check using -n’t suggests very similar figures.

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Lording it over – or lauding it? All glory, laud, and honour

An eggcorn sighting?

Quick takeaways

  • If you laud someone, you praise them.
  • If you lord it over someone, you treat them arrogantly and in a domineering way.
  • Very occasionally, lorded seems to be used for lauded.
  • Conversely, and rather more often, laud (in all inflections) seems to be used for lord, which I find more difficult to explain semantically. However, this eggcorn goes back at least to the 19th century.
  • Perhaps someone can help.

You should be lorded because…

(No, the above is not from a conversation between a member of the government and a Tory party donor.[1])

In a recent Daily Express online article (ok, I know, I know, an organ that is not necessarily the guardian of the nation’s orthography), my eye was caught by the juxtaposition of a standard spelling and an eggcorn.

In the body of the article, someone was quoted as saying “You should be lauded because you’re wearing uniform, you should be celebrated for wearing uniform.” But the summary box at the side (I don’t know what you call that; somebody will no doubt enlighten me) had “You should be lorded because you’re wearing uniform.”

(Interestingly, when I looked again after a few hours, the mistake had been corrected, possibly by a vigilant sub-editor, if such people still exist)

Inevitably, this set me wondering whether this was a complete one-off, or a more widespread homophone eggcorn. I couldn’t find it in the main online eggcorn database, so I decided to do a bit of my own linguistic gumshoeing.

Remind us. What’s an eggcorn, again?

In case any gentle readers have forgotten what an eggcorn is, here’s the OED definition: “An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.” egg

And for those who have forgotten (wake up, you at the back!) what a homophone, as opposed to a homophobe, is: quite simply, it is a word pronounced identically to another one that has a different spelling. The classic case is, of course, the dreaded their/there/they’re.

(For those who wish to pursue the topic, here’s a link to a Grauniad list of homophone confusions.)

Why this eggcorn makes sense

The OED definition misses out a crucial feature of eggcorns: they are not arbitrary or random (in the older sense of that word). The change has to be semantically and grammatically justified — at least in the mind of the eggcorner. As for ‘lorded’, a) if you use lord as a transitive verb, as in the current example, you make someone a lord, i.e. you are putting them in an exalted position, so that makes sense; b) the verb to lord exists, though it is nowadays intransitive, and is probably a part of most people’s vocabulary. All in all, this eggcorn makes perfect sense. But, is it truly a hapax? The answer is no.

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 I like being lorded. Who doesn’t?

First, I looked in the Oxford English Corpus. It throws up 1,699 occurrences of lord as a verb. If you filter out the word over in a five-word window either side (on the assumption that if used with over it couldn’t be an eggcorn for laud) that reduces the number by about half (to 841), but a quick scan of those remaining citations did not reveal any as an eggcorn for lauded.

However, a search on Google for be lorded  minus ‘over’ (to filter out the passive use of ‘to lord it over someone’) does throw up a few echt eggcornisms, such as:

Like many organizational processes, socialization and prestart training may simply be lorded as positive features of the organizations [sic] human resource  …

And in a comment on a Bradford Herald & Argus article of 27 July 2015 about new investment in the city centre:

Any other city in the country this would be lorded as a big investment and showing confidence in the city.”

So, while rare, this eggcorn is not unique [2].

Don’t laud it over me!

What surprised me, however, is that in the OEC data laud appears to be more often used for lord than the other way round. A search for laud as verb followed immediately by it produced 77 examples, of which 7 were eggcorns, e.g.:

So confident was Blair of this that he lauded it over his critics , sneering before parliament…

A Google Ngrams search unearths plentiful examples of the eggcorn this way round, in a wide range of texts, including novels by Catherine Cookson and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

More surprising to me was that this form goes back to the nineteenth century, often appearing in religious tracts of various kinds:


A demagogue trying to “laud” it, but not seeming to have much success.

…that ambitious and seditious demagogues might laud it over the throne, and the aristocracy; and bow the neck of the lordly and the mighty to their unhallowed yolk.
Truth’s Advocate against Popery and Fanaticism, 1822.



What has become of your self-complacency? Where the pride and the lauding it over your poor fellow-sinner?”
The Gospel magazine, and theological review. Ser. 5. Vol. 3, no. 1 July 1874

The only explanation I can think of for laud it over in those days is this, but hope someone can supply a better one.

    • Laud meaning praise is a word used principally in religious contexts;
    • People in the nineteenth century would have been familiar with it in that context;
    • If they heard but never read ‘lord it over’, they would learn it as an idiom, a gestalt, and slot the word they knew – laud – in;
    • For US writers, lord referring to the aristocracy would not be in their active vocabulary, and this might have helped block that analysis of the phrase.

Convinced? I’m not, but it’s as good a guess as any.

All glory, Lord, and honour

The correct version is, of course, All glory, laud, and honour, to thee, Redeemer, King.

I remember first singing this, with its simple, stirring tune at school. But I have to confess that if I hadn’t been learning Latin and hadn’t seen the words written down, I would have interpreted it as ‘Lord’. And that is what many people do, as a Google search will quickly show [3].



From the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. In Books of Hours, a portrayal of the Virgin being visited by her cousin Elizabeth was often placed at the beginning of the section on Lauds.

Lauds is “A service of morning prayer in the Divine Office of the Western Christian Church, traditionally said or chanted at daybreak, though historically it was often held with matins on the previous night.” It is one of the parts of the daily round of prayer: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline. Auden wrote a sequence of poems about each one (excluding matins) including Lauds, with its echoic stanza pattern and unusual serpent-biting-its-tail ending.

Among the leaves the small birds sing;
The crow of the cock commands awaking:
In solitude, for company.

Bright shines the sun on creatures mortal;
Men of their neighbours become sensible:
In solitude, for company.

The crow of the cock commands awaking;
Already the mass-bell goes dong-ding:
In solitude, for company.

Men of their neighbours become sensible;
God bless the Realm, God bless the People:
In solitude, for company.

Already the mass-bell goes dong-ding;
The dripping mill-wheel is again turning:
In solitude, for company.

God bless the Realm, God bless the People;
God bless this green world temporal:
In solitude, for company.

The dripping mill-wheel is again turning;
Among the leaves the small birds sing:
In solitude, for company.

1 As a transitive verb, to lord can mean to make someone a lord, though this use is archaic.

2 I sometimes wonder if there any totally unique [please don’t tell me I can’t qualify ‘unique’] eggcorns.

3 Google also showed me a version titled ‘All glory, praise, and honour’, presumably because laud is such an archaic word.


dryly or drily, slyly or slily? A spelling conundrum

A oung boy and girl smile shyly in their village, Kawaza, in Zambia, Africa.

A young Zambian girl and boy smiling shyly.

What’s the issue?

The other day I was writing this sentence: “The exotically handsome man in the corner lowered his Arabic newspaper and smiled shyly at her.”

I had to pause to think about the spelling of “shyly”. Was that right, or should it be “shily”?

But the second one looked very, very odd to me. A quick check in the Oxford online dictionary (British & World English) confirmed that the -yly spelling was indeed correct.

How many words are affected?

That set me thinking, though, about which other adverbs were affected. The obvious one – well, perhaps not that obvious, because none of these words are/is particularly frequent – was dryly/drily, and the only other one I could think of off the top of my head was slyly/(slily?).

The OED has since come to my aid by adding wryly to those. It also lists two opposites (unshyly and unslyly) as well as some curiosities. (I’ve put a couple at the end. As so often happens, the OED citations suggest some delightful [to me, at any rate] historical asides.)

OK, aren’t I fussing about superminutiae, you might ask. Yes and no. There is a generalizable spelling rule that piqued my curiosity, and, apart from anything else, I wanted to refresh my understanding of it.


What’s the spelling rule?

That spelling rule, as formulated in the Oxford A-Z of Spelling, is:

“When adding suffixes to words that end with a consonant plus -y, change the final y to i (unless the suffix already begins with an i).”

Using its examples, that gives us pretty -> prettier -> prettiest
ready -> readily
beauty -> beautiful

The rules also apply to the inflectional verb morphemes -s, -ed, -ing added to verbs ending in -y, thus giving us, on the one hand, defy -> defies, defied, deny -> denies, denied, and on the other defying, denying.

Them be the rules. But there is a certain fuzziness affecting a few words apart from the adverbs already mentioned: dryer vs drier and flyer vs flier come to mind. And American and British usage seem to be different, as dictionaries illustrate below. So, it constitutes yet another of those trillions of subtle differences between American and British English that can flummox the unwary.

So, why are shyly, slyly, etc. exceptions to the rule?

The final letter -y of many adjectives – pretty, crazy, noisy, etc. – represents a ‘short’ unstressed i sound, i.e. /ˈprɪti/. When the adverb suffix is added, it changes slightly to /ˈprɪtɪli/ but it’s still an i sound. But the -y in shy, sly, etc. represents a different /ʌɪ/ sound, e.g. /ʃʌɪ/. The more common pattern for adverbs is the first (around 500 examples in the OED), which presumably sets up the expectation that the spelling -ily is to be pronounced /-ɪli/. And that just jars with what we know about the pronunciation of dry, etc.  as an adjective by suggesting  the anomalous /drɪli/.

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What do dictionaries say?

Oxford online (UK): drily (also dryly); shyly; slyly; wryly
Oxford online (US): dryly (also drily); as above
Collins online (UK): drily or dryly; shyly; slyly, slily; wryly
Collins online (US): dryly; shyly; slyly; wryly
Merriam-Webster online: drily or dryly; shyly; slyly also slily; wryly
OED unupdated entries give: dryly | drily and slyly | slily as alternative headwords; shyly (also shily); wryly (also 15-16 [i.e. 1500s, 1600s] wrily)
The Oxford Canadian dictionary gives dryly (also drily), whereas its Australian companion gives drily (also dryly).

(NB: there are also differences in what dictionaries show for comparatives and superlatives of adjectives, e.g. shyer/shier, shyest/shiest, but I’m trying to keep this short(ish), though I inevitably end up being prolix.)

Historically, it looks as if writers have for a long time wavered between the two spellings. For example, the 14 OED citations for dryly/drily divide into dryly (5), drily (7), driely (1), dryely (1).

Corpus to the rescue

Oxford English Corpus (OEC) data (March 2013), which covers ten varieties of English, produces 1980 citations for dryly, against a mere 416 for drily. In most varieties where the figures can be taken as meaningful, there is a clear preference for dryly, most markedly in US English, closely followed by Canadian. Only British and New Zealand English show an almost 50/50 split.

(Complete table at the end; apologies for the format: I can’t do WordPress charts.)

The Corpus of Global Web-based English does not show such an extreme split: dryly (437)/drily (231), but confirms most of the trends shown in the OEC, except: in NZ dryly predominates, and Irish usage is roughly 50/50.

There doesn’t seem to be too much online discussion of this minutia (yes, it does exist). In a posting on dryly/drily, a British speaker states that she prefers drily, while the original poster (sounds odd, but is correct) was puzzled by seeing drily in US publications. And an American professor was perplexed about how to explain this glitch in the rules to his class.

I suspect the spelling of this very small group of adverbs causes not a few people to scratch their head quite ferociously.

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Some OED treasures

I searched for *yly, which returned also vowel + yly. All of these headwords are marked in the OED with the obelisk (dagger) symbol, to show that they are obsolete: †

astrayly (i.e. from astray), has only one citation, from the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (“storehouse for children”) a bibliographical landmark as the first bilingual English-Latin dictionary. It translates astrayly as palabunde, the adverb from the post-classical Latin pālābundus, “wandering about, struggling”.

Sundayly  (i.e. every Sunday). From The Medieval records of a London City Church (1905) p. 110:   Item payd sondayly to iij [3] poore almysmen to pray for the sowle of Iohn Bedham yerely.

It’s a touching image of medieval devotion to think of those three men being paid – or given something in kind? – to pray for John Bedham’s soul – but only once a year?

enemyly: from the Wycliffite bible (c1384)  Macc. xiv. 11   Other frendis hauynge hem enmyly, enflawmiden Demetrie aȝeinus Judee.

Last, and certainly not least, from the 1496 epitaph of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and Duke of Bedford (Beddeford), buttly, which the OED defines as “beautifully (?)” : He that of late regnyd in glory With grete glosse buttylly glased Nowe lowe vnder fote doth he ly.


There are 31 citations from this work in the OED. Jasper Tudor was Owen Tudor’s son, Henry VI’s half-brother, and Henry Tudor’s uncle, and a powerful figure during the Wars of the Roses, instrumental in the victory of his nephew, who thus became Henry VII.

Totals for citations do not match overall figures given earlier, since low numbers of occurrences have been excluded.

Variety of English dryly drily Total citations
Number As % of total for that variety Number As % of total for that variety
US 887 91% 88 9% 975
Br. 259 54% 222 46% 481
Can. 54 89% 7 11% 61
Austr. 49 87.5% 7 12.5% 56
Irish 21 78% 6 22% 27
NZ 15 45% 18 55% 33
Unknown 677  92% 62  8% 739


A “swarm of people”, i.e. migrants. Politically incorrect or harmless metaphor?

Is an orderly queue a swarm?

Is an orderly queue a swarm?

The brouhaha over the Prime Minister’s use of the phrase “swarm of people” referring to migrants has, understandably, been intense. (A fuller record of the context in which he said it is at the end of the blog). Notably, Harriet Harman stated that “he should remember he is talking about people and not insects”, while Jeremy Corbyn described his language as “inflammatory, incendiary and unbecoming of a prime minister.”

Standing back a little from this highly charged debate over a deplorable situation for all concerned (above all, please remember, for the people trying to reach the UK, but also for the people of Calais, lorry drivers, holiday makers, etc., etc.), I said to myself: hang on, isn’t Harriet Harman’s comment rather literalistic? It is, surely, perfectly possible to refer to groups of people as swarms. (Jump to the Conclusion, if you want to skip the lexicography bit.)

What can dictionaries tell us?

For what it’s worth, dictionaries certainly include this meaning.

  • Collins (3rd meaning): “a throng or mass, esp when moving or in turmoil”;
  • Merrian-Webster does not separate the human swarm from others, but has as meaning 2 a: “a large number of animate or inanimate things massed together and usually in motion: throng swarms of sightseers a swarm of locusts a swarm of meteors”;
  • Oxford online (meaning 1.2) has: “(a swarm/swarms of) A large number of people or things: a swarm of journalists“.

It is interesting that none of those three comments on the connotations of the word, as lexicographers often do, with labels such as “offensive” or “derogatory”.

In fact, only the OED does so: “A very large or dense body or collection; a crowd, throng, multitude. (Often contemptuous.)”

But the first meaning all of them give can be summarized either as “a very large number of insects moving together” (Merriam-Webster) or (Oxford online) “A large number of honeybees that leave a hive en masse with a newly fertilized queen in order to establish a new colony”.

(The bee meaning goes back at least to 725, and the word is echoed in Modern German, Dutch, Swedish, etc., as well as being probably related to Sanskrit.) swarm of bees

A slumbering metaphor?

The application to people can be considered a metaphor, which raises the question of whether that metaphor is alive, dormant, or dead. The current debate suggests that it was dormant, but has been rudely reawakened.


I think it’s fair to say that the connotations (semantic features) of the word are necessarily:

    • a large group;
    • a compact group;
    • a group in energetic motion;
    • (perhaps optionally) confused motion; and
    •  the group is undesirable.

Referring to people, is it inevitably pejorative?

Let’s look briefly at its history. That use, according to the OED, dates back to an early fifteenth-century poem (the Kingis Quair, the King’s Book) by James 1 King_James_I_of_Scotlandof Scotland (himself an enforced “migrant” in an English prison) in one of the stanzas describing people on Fortune’s wheel:

And ever I sawe a new swarm abound
That thoght to clymbe upward upon the quhele (wheel)
In stede of thame that myght no langer rele. (spin)

While that particular use seems neutral – he is just referring to masses of people – more than half the subsequent OED citations have a negative tinge (many in theological contexts): swarm(s) of Antichrist, bishops, false ministers, sects.

What can Google and corpus tell us?

If you search in Google Ngrams (a ginormous database of books published between 1800 and 2012) for the string swarm of followed by a wildcard, the string swarm of these is the seventh most common, after different insects. My survey (15 citations, with some duplication) of what follows “these” for 1800-1810, shows that all three cases (which include Gibbon and Goldsmith) mentioning people are negative, e.g. “England is already, unfortunately for native talent, cursed with a swarm of these exotic ‘artists’.” This tends to confirm what was said above about the OED citations: the negative association of the word when applied to groups of people is of long standing.

Furthermore, most of the insects referred to in Ngrams as a swarm are a nuisance, or undesirable; locusts, flies, ants, gnats (but Ngrams only gives you the first ten collocations.)

One question that I asked myself was whether you could refer to “desirable” or beautiful insects as a swarm and the Oxford English Corpus suggests that you can: dragonflies, fireflies, grasshoppers and even butterflies.

However, the first human group in that same list is paparazzi – almost universally regarded as a pest.

It all depends on the context

The OEC data shows that swarm of (within a window of three to the right) collocates with groups of humans: people; angry youth/bloggers/media; reporters.

Swarm of people

Of the 32 examples of swarm of people from the OEC about half seem to be neutral, as far as one can gather from the limited context available: for example (from a news site): “Whistles and drums will echo through Lancaster as a swarm of people parade through the streets in a bid to save a nursery.”

That contrasts with contexts such as “Suddenly Bradson was centre of a swarm of people , all staring at him , pressing close , addressing him in a language he could not comprehend“, where the swarm is clearly perceived as threatening.

Looking at the plural swarms of people in Google Ngrams suggests a similar contrast, even among the earliest citations it throws up. On the one hand, there is Addison’s neutral “… trade and merchandise, that had filled the Thames with such crowds of ships, and covered the shore with such swarms of people” (The Freeholder, Vol. 4, No. 47).

On the other, there is Malthus’s “... in the midst of that mighty hive which had sent out such swarms of people, as to keep the Roman world in perpetual dread, …” (An Essay on the Principle of Population, Book 1, ch. 6, 1798).

Other swarms

While “swarm of people” can arguably merely highlight the numbers involved, the other kinds of swarm mentioned — angry youth, etc. — are all unfavourable.

Another collocation is with who, where 12 of the 30 collocations seem neutral, but the remainder are negative, ranging from mere Marxists to “a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities” and “a swarm of crusading bureaucrats who relentlessly raid our private lives“.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


The overriding conclusion must be that when referring to people, swarm is highly likely to be negative (or to have a negative “semantic prosody” as some linguists have termed it, though the concept has been challenged).

As confirmation of that, if one looks at the synonyms dictionaries give for swarm, several are as unfavourable as it, or more so (horde, gang, mob, etc.).

The combination swarm of people when referring to migrants is particularly unfortunate, since the latter is in any case a highly charged and politicized word and concept. (As the Washington Post has commented, to be described as a migrant immediately puts you on the bottom rung of a hierarchy of status and desirability. Aren’t so-called “economic migrants” as much refugees as political refugees?)

What would have been wrong with the neutral “large groups”?


Image courtesy of Karl Sharro, tweeting as @KarlreMarks

On an uncharitable reading, by using the phrase “swarm of people”, Mr Cameron was either giving unwitting vent to his inner xenophobe (though that seems unlikely for such a fluent, soundbite politician) and/or playing to the gallery, by reinforcing the narrative of Britain as an island of prosperity besieged by trillions of invading would-be scroungers.

(The fact that one of these desperate people was recently killed in the attempt, and that others repeatedly suffer severe hand injuries is ignored.

And it seems to me that people who have the courage to make the incredibly dangerous and draining journey from wherever they set out are displaying a degree of courage and determination that is admirable.

Here is a sober analysis of the numbers involved, showing how few Britain has accepted compared to other EU countries).

On the other hand, his using the word could be justified by the neutral use of swarm referring to people as previously detailed. That fits in with Downing Street’s justification that “The point he was making is that there are tens of thousands of people moving across Africa and trying to get to Europe.”

From that perspective, it would not be unreasonable to argue that he was merely using a standard, colourful collocation of English, which his critics and the thought police have pounced on in order to make political capital.

Against that, it can be argued that because the larger verbal contexts in which swarm of tends to occur are so often negative, people are attuned to that negativity, and will therefore tinge supposedly neutral contexts with that negativity. Furthermore, since the larger, social context is the whole British debate about migrants, which is generally negative, it is hard to disagree with critics of what Cameron said.

Mr Cameron’s words

(From the Guardian, 30 July 2015) Speaking to ITV News in Vietnam, Cameron vowed to do more to protect Britain’s borders. He said: “We have to deal with the problem at source and that is stopping so many people from travelling across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. That means trying to stabilise the countries from which they come, it also means breaking the link between travelling and getting the right to stay in Europe.

This is very testing, I accept that, because you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live. But we need to protect our borders by working hand in glove with our neighbours, the French, and that is exactly what we are doing.”


‘To have another think coming’ or ‘another thing coming’?

The other day, the chirruping bird alerted me to an issue that I hadn’t previously given much thought to. Is it to have (got) another think coming or another thing?

A tweet for English learners referred to the idiom as ‘another thing coming’, and pointed people to a Judas Priest song titled You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, the second verse of which goes like this:

If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by
You’re thinkin’ like a fool cause it’s a case of do or die
Out there is a fortune waiting to be had
If you think I’ll let you go you’re mad
You’ve got another thing comin’
You’ve got another thing comin’

Conversely, a British English speaker, sought to correct a tweet by a British politician that contained the wording ‘another thing coming’.

Metalheads will already know the song. If you don’t, and you want your ear wax blown out, or wish to indulge in some private moshing or headbanging, you can listen to the original version here:

If you prefer a more mellow approach, here’s the link to veteran smoothie Pat Boone’s version — which kinda proves that heavy metal is non-transferable.

The ‘thing’ spelling is repeated, for example, in:

“If they think I’m going to be a Labrador and roll over they’ve got another thing coming,” he says of the [Conservative] party.

Daily Telegraph (British), 2013.

But the ‘think’ spelling is used here:

In the first instance it sounds good, but if people think those big international companies are here for the benefit of New Zealand, they really have another think coming.

New Zealand Parliamentary debates, 2005.

Since both quotations transcribe what people said, it is impossible to know what form of the phrase the original speakers had in mind.

Stewie says 'another thing', and he's a bit of a stickler.

Stewie says ‘another thing’, and he’s a bit of a stickler.

Quick facts

  1. Speakers use both another thing coming and another think coming. and both are part of World English, although only a few varieties of English use either phrase frequently.
  2. Which version you use may depend partly on which variety of English you speak, and which variant you have been most exposed to—and, possibly, on how much of a  ‘prescriptivist’ you are.
  3. Whichever version you use, someone somewhere may consider it wrong, but British speakers are probably more likely to consider another thing coming wrong.
  4. The Oxford English Corpus (OEC) and the Global Web-Based English Corpus (GloWbE) both show another thing coming to be more frequent in data for all varieties of English taken as a whole.
  5. In US English, data suggests a marked preference for another thing. In British English, the two forms compete more evenly.
  6. Other data on frequency is slightly contradictory (see further details at end of blog).

All the above suggests to me that, if you’re editing someone else’s work and feel tempted to change this phrase, you might want to have a bit of a think about it.

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Where is the phrase from?

In its original form, according to the OED, it was to have another think coming, and it is American in origin:

Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a corning fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.

Syracuse (N.Y.) Standard, 21 May, 1898.

But note that Language Log has a citation from a year earlier, from the Washington Post of April 29, 1897, in the title of an article, and in inverted commas.

It’s worth mentioning that think as a noun is merely a nineteenth-century ‘invention’ (1838), despite the antiquity of the verb (Old English). From discussion in the blogosphere, it seems that some people find it rather odd for think to be used as a noun, which would reinforce their use of thing. (It turns out from figures given below that this noun use of think is indeed rare in US and Canadian English.)

The OED’s first example of another thing coming is from only a few years later, from a book published in New York in 1906:

Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things.., we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing [1904 Wilshire’s Mag. think] coming.

Wilshire Editorials, G. Wilshire.

(Notice how the OED shows the 1904 rendition of the phrase with ‘think’.)

Is anyone bovvered?

Online searches suggest that, rather than caring deeply about which version is correct, many people are simply puzzled when they come across whichever of the two alternatives is not part of their idiolect.

For example, in my idiolect think is correct, and makes sense meaningwise: it means ‘to think again, to change one’s mind, to have second thoughts’, and that meaning is primed for me by the fact that the phrase often follows a clause introduced by ‘if you/he/she, etc. think(s), e.g., And if you think I ‘m letting you get your hands on my crystals you’ve got another think coming.

Moreover, there are analogous uses of think as a noun—to have a think about something, after a bit of a think, and so on.

However, this noun use of think seems to be rather more common in British and Australian English than in American English, according to the OEC data. GloWbE confirms this: of its 440 examples, 370 are from British/Australian/New Zealand/Irish English, and only 30 from US/Canadian.

Similarly, another thing coming makes perfect sense to the people who use it. In that form, the phrase can be interpreted along the lines of ‘something different from what you expect is going to happen to you’. This makes sense too, since both versions of the phrase are a sort of warning, if not a veiled threat.

And while sentences containing another thing coming also often start with ‘if you/he/she, etc. think(s), that doesn’t appear to deter people from using the thing spelling.


Here is an interpretation from a site on which users raise questions about English usage (

I also grew up with another thing and I still don’t believe think is original. My thoughts are along the following lines. Ehhmm, Ready?? Lots of people, when laying out the list of arguments for their cause will follow that list with, “… And another thing… ” and go on to list more arguments. This was the origin of the phrase in my mind. Think, I reasoned, was then just someone’s clever pun.

And from comments on a Guardian blog on this topic, it is clear that many people are absolutely adamant about which version is ‘correct’. (There is the usual split in comments between the ‘English is going to the dogs’ and the ‘variation is a fact of language’ brigades.)

Why the alternation?

In simple terms, because the sound at the end of think and the beginning of coming is broadly similar, i.e. /θɪŋk/ and /k-/, it is hardly surprising that word boundaries have been re-analysed as sort of /θɪŋ/ /k-/, which produces another thing coming.

Such re-drawings of word boundaries have historically given English words such as adder, apron, nickname, and umpire.

In practice, the phonetic picture is rather more complex, and it can be difficult in rapid speech to tell if a speaker is saying ‘think’ or ‘thing’. A detailed phonetic notation, kindly provided by Professor Jane Setter, of Reading University, is here: think_thing. With think the phenomenon of ‘pre-fortis clipping‘ takes place, affecting the value of the i sound.

(For an exhaustive and illuminating phonetic description of what exactly is going on when someone says the phrase, complete with audio clips, see this Language Log blog.)

What do dictionaries and style guides say?

Neither the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage nor The Cambridge Guide to English Usage covers it. Burchfield included it in his 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and I have modified it in my edition. The OED describes to have another thing coming as ‘arising from misapprehension’ of “another think coming”’, but the Oxford Dictionary Online (which is not the OED, but a shorter, more modern dictionary) has no note, and does not include to have another thing coming; nor do Merriam-Webster online, the Collins online dictionary, and the Macmillan dictionary.

Facts & figures

Perhaps dictionaries should look at the issue again; no doubt in time they will.


A simple Google for ‘another thing/think coming’ shows them practically neck and neck. However, if you exclude ‘Judas Tree’ from each search, the balance shifts towards ‘another think coming’: (roughly 170 million vs 71 million.) I’m dubious, however, about how useful such a simple search is.

(February 2014 release; 2.14 billion words)

‘another thing’ = 124
US = 56 (45%)
Brit. = 28 (22%)
unknown = 15 (12.1%)
Can. = 7 (5.6%)
Oz = 6 (4.8%)
Remainder (India, Ireland, etc.) = 12

‘another think’ = 94
Brit. = 35 (37%)
US = 29 (30%)
unknown = 11 (11.7%)
NZ = 9 (9.6%)
Oz = 2 (2.1%)
Can. = 1 (1.1%)
Remainder (South Africa, India, etc.) = 10

As regards British English vs US English, in the OEC both variants are used in both varieties, but for American English the ratio of think:thing is 29:56, while for British English it is 35:28.

(1.9 billion words)

‘another thing’ = 119
US = 33 (27.7%%)
Brit. = 32 (26.9%%)
Irish = 12 (10.1%)
Oz = 8 (6.7%%)
Philippines = 5 (4.2%)
Remainder (15 countries) = 29

‘another think’ = 66
Brit. = 26 (39.4%)
US = 18 (27.3%)
Nigeria = 4 (6.1%)
Philippines = 3 (4.5%)
Irish = 2 (3%)
Oz = 1 (1.5%)
Remainder (14 countries) = 12

Corpus of Contemporary American
(450 million words; 1990–2012

another thing:another think 20:23

Google Ngrams
Data here suggests that the exact string ‘got another think coming’ is still more frequent, but that ‘got another thing coming’ has been increasing since the 1960s, while ‘think’ has been declining since the 1980s. The picture is similar for English data as a whole, and for US and British English data individually.


Paparazzi and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.


Phwoooar! (That’s enough!–Ed.)


paparazzo – a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities to take and then sell photographs of them. It may be a bit of a surprise that this word is an eponym; as in the case of knickers, the character who gave us the name is fictional. In Italian film director Federico Fellini’s classic 1959 La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the surname of a photographer who works with gossip columnist Marcello Mastroianni. The character is based on a real-life Roman celeb-snapper of the era, a certain Tazio Secchiaroli.

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As with some other Italian words (graffiti, spaghetti, panini), English does not always respect (and why should it?) the singular/plural distinction of the original Italian: 1 paparazzo, 2 paparazzi. Because paparazzi generally hunt in packs, the plural form paparazzi is much more frequent than the singular in any case, and is quite often used as a singular, instead of the technically “correct” paparazzo.

The Scottish guy I met who moved here to be a paparazzi has moved elsewhere.
Montreal Mirror, 2004.

He published the photographs – taken by a paparazzo who gatecrashed the wedding – to defend the economic interests of his magazine, he added.
Yorkshire Post Today, 2003

 Occasionally paparazzi seems to be interpreted, as far as I can judge, as a collective noun, and accordingly is used with the singular verb agreement obligatory for collective nouns in American English:

I was actually thinking that Michelle Obama will be the one that the paparazzi takes the most pictures of, you know, detailing, you know, her every outfit.
CNN (transcripts), 2008.






Knickers and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name. In modern Greek, επώνυμο (eponimo) is the word for “surname”.

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What the word refers to …

In British English,  it refers exclusively to an item of underclothing for girls and women, defined as “A woman’s or girl’s undergarment, covering the body from the waist or hips to the top of the thighs and having two holes for the legs”.  In American English it also refers to loose-fitting breeches that are gathered at the knee, known in full as knickerbockers.

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

That explains why in this quote, Bobby [a boy] is not, as might appear to British readers, indulging an unhealthy fetish for ladies underwear:

Bobby was wearing new lace-up shoes and knickers with long, thick socks like most of the boys in my school.

Hudson Review, Autumn 2004.

In BrE it is also a very mild exclamation of irritation or contempt: “Oh, knickers to the lot of them!

And it is used in many varieties of English in the idiom “to get one’s knickers in a twist” or variations on that theme, meaning to become angry, upset, or agitated, as in:

The Tories have really got their knickers in a twist over this.

“Knickers” is short for “knickerbockers”.

In 1809, the American novelist Washington Irvine published a History of New York, under the pseudonym of and purporting to be by one Diedrich Knickerbocker. The surname Knickerbocker, and close spelling variants, is Dutch and goes back to the earliest days of New York as a Dutch colony (New Amsterdam), and the word originally meant a descendant of the original Dutch settlers of the New Netherlands in America, hence, a New Yorker.

The dreadful Knickerbocker custom of calling on everybody.

Longfellow, Journal, 1 Jan, 1856

And nowadays it is still occasionally used to refer to New Yorkers (marked in the Oxford Dictionary Online as “informal”, but in Merriam-Webster as “broadly”):

Sex and the City unfolds in an elite New York that Edith Wharton or Nelson Rockefeller wouldn’t recognize. In this city, merit, not pedigree, rules. Unlike the old Knickerbocker establishment, where birth and breeding gave social standing, in this democratic meritocracy it is the prestige of your job that tells us where you are in the social order.

City Journal (New York), autumn 2003.

An edition of the book was illustrated by George Cruikshank (who also illustrated some of Dickens’s work, most notably Oliver Twist), and in it the eponymous hero is shown wearing knee breeches. Soon the word became popular to refer to this kind of trousers, and also to a ladies undergarment, which similarly extended as far as the knee, but has over time become shortened to its modern size–somewhat like the word itself.


These look like bloomers or drawers to me, but I’m no expert.


The two earliest OED examples for those meanings are:

1881   R. Jefferies Wood Magic I. i. 15   It was not in that pocket , … nor in his knickers.
(British, but the OED marks this use as “now U.S.”)

1882   Queen 7 Oct. 328/3,   I recommend … flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat.

The OED also includes an amusing citation from Shaw:

Laws … are amended and amended and amended like a child’s knickers until there is hardly a shred of the first stuff left.

G. B. Shaw The Intelligent Woman’s Guide Socialism i. 2, 1928.

Do only Brits wear “knickers”?

The Oxford Dictionary Online labels them “British”, while Merriam-Webster labels this meaning “chiefly British”. The Oxford English Corpus (March 2013 data) paints a different picture, illustrating yet again how the boundaries between different varieties of English are fuzzy.

The total for the string “knickers” in the corpus is 2,827. Filtering out variations on “to get one’s knickers in a twist” leaves 2,526.

Of those, 1,658 (65.6%) are British, 221 (8.7%) American, and 118 (4.7%) Australian. While several of the American English examples refer to knickerbockers, some mirror the British English meaning. Clearly, in the following light-hearted example, the word is used as part of a repertoire of synonyms:

Firstly, Deb is organizing Operation Panty Drop, delivering brand-spankin’-new underpants to people in Houston who’ve been displaced and dispossessed by the hurricane. Send new knickers only, please — seriously, how would you feel if someone handed you a pair of used panties? Well, okay, it depends on the panties, I KNOW THAT, but pretend you don’t get turned on by things like that and just mail her a couple of new pairs of Hanes or something.

Blog (written by a woman), 2005.

Don’t you just love the name of the appeal!

An emergency undergarment drop.

An emergency undergarment drop.

Before I get branded as a paid-up member of the dirty mac brigade, I think I’ll sign off, since this blog is one of a series about eponyms. But I’ll come back to the idiom “knickers in a twist” another time.


Derricks and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the British Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.

derrick – Not a misspelling of the Christian name Derek, but a word for a type of crane with a movable pivoted arm for moving heavy weights, especially on a ship (see the image below); and, perhaps more commonly these days, the framework over an oil well or similar boring, holding the drilling machinery.


This seemingly innocent, mechanical word conceals a rather grisly story, for derrick was originally a nickname for a hangman, and not just any old hangman. The man whose surname was Der(r)ick served under the Elizabethan magnifico Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, who was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.


At the siege of Cadiz, Der(r)ick committed rape and was sentenced to death, but was pardoned by the earl when he agreed to become the hangman at Tyburn, the place of execution of criminals (not far from present-day Marble Arch in London). He is said to have invented a more advanced and reliable method of hanging that involved a beam and pulleys, and the word for it was then applied by analogy to similarly constructed cranes. This eponym therefore displays a semantic shift, unlike many others, whose referent stays the same.

A historical irony is that Der(r)ick ended up executing his own saviour, the Earl of Essex. The first citation for derrick in the OED is dated circa 1600 and is from a lengthy “lamentable ditty” – a ballad – bewailing the execution of the earl, on 25 February, 1601, for treason . (However, the version that I have been able to access online wrongly dates his execution to 1603.)

Sweet Englands pride is gone,
Which makes her sigh and groan,
Evermore still,
He did her fame advance in Ireland Spain and France,
And by a sad mischance,
Is from us tane. [taken]

Derick, thou know’st at Cales I sav’d
Thy life lost for a rape there done,
As thou thyself can’st testifie,
Thine own hand three and twenty hung,
But now thou seest my self is come
By chance into thy hands I light,
Strike out thy blow that I may know
Thou ever loved at his good night.

But to Christ who for my sins did dye,
Trickling with salt tears in his sight
Spreading my arms to God on high,
Lord Jesus receive my soul this night.



The 2nd Earl of Essex; miniature attrib. to Nicolas Hilliard.

Apparently, it took three blows to sever his head – well, he was well known for his brass neck – and when the Queen was informed, she momentarily stopped playing the virginals, and then played on.

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Biros, bics, and other words named after people


What’s in a name?

We all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the first Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. Perhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


biro – the Hungarian inventor László József Bíró wanted to develop a pen with ink that dried quicker than that from a fountain pen, and, after earlier experiments, in 1938 patented his idea for what is known in British English as a biro (elsewhere ballpoint pen is the standard).

As a Jew, he was forced to flee Hungary after the Nazi occupation, and went to Argentina, where a biro is still known, in honour of him, as a birome. Elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world it is known as un bolígrafo, because of the ball (bola) that controls the flow of ink (bolígrafo is also shortened to boli). Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for production in France for the company which became BIC, and that is the name that biros are known by in French—in other words, they are also a French eponym.



“Suffice it to say” or “suffice to say”?

The issue

The plot makes twists and turns like a snake writhing in the desert. To tell would be to spoil, but suffice to say, writer, director and cast have colluded brilliantly.

Fraser’s scenes are painfully boring to watch—suffice it to say, he’s not a master of physical comedy.

An editor in an online editorial group recently raised the question of which version is correct, and her query elicited more than 80 comments. Many people swore that suffice to say was the correct and only version, and that suffice it to say was a “hairy mutant”. People in the other camp lambasted their opponents, and resorted to dictionaries to prove beyond a doubt that the four-word version was gospel. What is the truth of the matter?

Quick takeaways

  • Both forms are in use (see more detail at Frequency below).
  • Suffice it to say is slightly more frequent in a British corpus, and much more frequent in an American one.
  • Suffice it to say was formerly considered standard, and is still seen by many people as the only correct formulation.
  • However, possibly because of its puzzling syntax, it is often “regularized” to suffice to say.
  • The traditional formula is still widely used, and useful, despite being considered pompous or old-fashioned by some.
  • There are strange variations on it, such as sufficed to say and the eggcornish surface it to say.

Below, I look in more detail at the grammar, frequency and history of this phrase, which the Oxford Dictionary Online aptly defines as “Used to indicate that one is saying enough to make one’s meaning clear while withholding something for reasons of discretion or brevity.”

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Lost and Confused Signpost


Three things are worth mentioning about suffice it to say. First, the subject of the sentence is the “dummy” or impersonal it. Second, the verb form is subjunctive—the absence of the normal third person singular –s shows this, i.e. suffice, rather than suffices. Third, there is subject-verb inversion.

The phrase thus belongs to that very small group of “fossilized” phrases in which the subjunctive is used: God save the Queen! far be it from me to…, Perish the thought! All of them could be rewritten as “Let + subject + verb” i.e. let God save the Queen, let it suffice to say, etc. In particular, far be it from me displays the same subject-verb inversion.

However, the fact that such subjunctive phrases are rare and on the fringes of most people’s grammar means, I believe, that they have difficulty analyzing the “suffice it to say” form, and therefore attempt to regularize it to “suffice to say”. The inversion of subject and verb presents a further block to analysis.

It has also become clear to me, from discussion of this issue in online editorial forums—or fora, if you really, absolutely must—that some people interpret the it as the object of the verb suffice. As a result, they reject it, correctly, in so far as they perceive suffice to be intransitive in this use, but incorrectly if one analyses the phrase as having subject-verb inversion.

“Suffice to say”, however, while sounding superficially like a second person imperative—stand up, wake up, pay attention, etc.—is as anomalous as the four-word form. Who is being addressed in this imperative?

Current situation


    • The Oxford English Corpus (OEC) has slightly more examples of the string “suffice to say” than of “suffice it to say”: 952:937 (and each occurs less than once per million words of text.) However, filtering out “suffice to say” as a zero infinitive, i.e. in phrases such as let it suffice to say, it should suffice to say, etc., reduces its total to well below 900, making it, therefore, less frequent than the longer form.
    • Though the shorter form is used in all varieties of English, its use does seem to be particularly marked in Australian English, at least in the OEC data.
    • In the Corpus of Contemporary American the distribution is very different: 376 occurrences of the longer version against 97 for the shorter. It is particularly noticeable that in academic writing the longer form occurs in an even higher ratio of 6:1.
    • A Google Ngrams comparison of “suffice to say” and “suffice it to say” suggests a decline in the use of both phrases over the last century, However, “suffice to say” is often the zero infinitive mentioned previously, and it would be too time-consuming to compare the frequency of the two phrases in detail over time. For the period 1960-2000 (i.e., the latest period covered by Ngrams) “suffice it to say” is the more frequent of the two strings.


Both the Oxford Online Dictionary and Macquarie bracket the it: suffice (it) to say, indicating clearly that they accept it as optional. Merriam-Webster Online notes “often used with an impersonal it <suffice it to say. Collins shows only the complete phrase.


  • The unrevised entry in the OED heads the relevant sense with the following rubric: “Const[ruction] inf[initive] or clause with, or (formerly) without, anticipatory dummy subject it. Now chiefly in the subjunctive, suffice it, sometimes short for suffice it to say.”

The first OED citation of this impersonal use is from the Middle English (1390) Confessio Amantis:

to studie upon the worldes lore Sufficeth now withoute more.

There is one more citation before Book-of-Common-Prayerthe Book of Common Prayer on Publyke Baptisme f. iiii*v (1549):

If the childe be weake, it shall suffice to powre water vpon it.

However, the first citation for the exact phrase “suffice it to say” does not appear until a 1779 edition of the periodical The Mirror:

Suffice it to say, that my parting with the Dervise was very tender.

An earlier citation (1692), however, has:

It suffices to say, That Xantippus becoming the manager of affairs, altered extreamly the Carthaginian Army.

  • In the Corpus of Historical American (COHA), the string “suffice to say” is mainly of the zero infinitive type mentioned above. However, the earliest citation of it independently is in 1815, in the drama by Edward Hitchcock the Emancipation of Europe, or The Downfall of Bonaparte: Marshal Ney, no less, replies to a question from Talleyrand, no less, about how a battle went:

    Oh most murderous! Too horrid to relate. Suffice to say Our troops are overwhelmed in toto.


  • The next example from COHA is from Around the Tea-Table (1847), by T. De Witt Talmage (now, there’s a moniker for you!), author, as his title page proclaims, of “Crumbs Swept Up,” “Abominations of Modern Society,” “Old Wells Dug Out,” Etc.

    Perhaps it was gout, although his active habits and a sparse diet throw doubt on the supposition. Suffice to say it was a thorn — that is, it stuck him. It was sharp.

Five O’Clock Tea by American painter Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855 – 1919)

Five O’Clock Tea by American painter Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855 – 1919)

“Suffice to Say”—a long-forgotten hit

Googling in connection with this topic, I discovered a 1977 hit by a band called The Yachts. Here are some of the lyrics:

Although the rhyming’s not that hot | It’s quite a snappy little tune | I’m sure you’ll like the chorus too | It’s short and sweet and to the point | It even says that I love you | Just after this: Suffice to say you love me | Can’t say that I blame you | Suffice to say I love you too

Clearly, leaving out it was necessary on rhythmical grounds. And if you want to relive your Punk days with this little ditty, here it is:

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National umbrella day: a Latin word borrowed by English

Happy National Umbrella Day, a tutti quanti!


Every February 10 marks this “national day” that probably passes most people by. But it’s a useful opportunity for umbrella manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers (umbrellists?) to market their wares and trumpet their amazing usefulness.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


In Britain, and even more so in Scotland, where I live, an umbrella is an absolute necessity–preferably a golf umbrella, or one of the same size. But even they often buckle or blow inside out when the cruel Scottish wind gets into a temper.

Never mind. It’s remarkable how the word for this everyday object, to which we probably don’t give too much thought as long as it functions effectively, goes all the way back to one of the languages from which, more than almost any other, English has “borrowed”, namely Latin.

How so?

As concisely and accurately as I can tell it, the story goes something like this:

  • The Latin word for “shade” or “shadow” is umbra.

(That’s the word, incidentally, from which ultimately we also get the expression “to take umbrage”. Not to mention the botanical umbels, the shadowy penumbra, and the highly formal verb to adumbrate.)


Allium umbels

But, lest I’m tempted to digress further, let’s get back to the main plot.

    • The diminutive form of umbra in Latin was umbella, meaning a parasol or sunshade, and the word was already in existence in the 1st century CE. (It’s only our dreich climate that makes us inevitably associate umbrellas with rain rather than sun; think magnificent Indian rajahs riding an elephant and protected by a sunshade).rajah
    • In Late Latin, the letter r of the base word umbra was reinserted into um[]bella to give umbrella.
    • Meanwhile, Latin umbra became **ombra in Italian, which, together with the diminutive suffix, became ombrella or ombrello.
    • From there it passed into French, which is, apparently, the language from which we most immediately borrowed it, in the early 17th century.
      (Which leaves me wondering what people did before then; life must have been so utterly miserable when it rained).

(I’ve also blogged about English words borrowed from Spanish, Norwegian, Afrikaans and Egyptian.)

Some delightful early quotes

The OED lists several spellings, as almost invariably happens with loanwords. The main variants are the one that has become standard, umbrella (1609), umbrello (1611) and ombrella (before 1630).

I’ve put below some quotes in the OED that caught my eye:

From an early bilingual lexicographer, Randle Cotgrave, in his dictionarie of the French and English tongues (1611):

Ombrelle, an Vmbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherwith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserue themselues from the heat of a scorching Sunne.

From the remarkable Somersetian writer and traveller Thomas Coryate, responsible, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for the first use of the word in English literature, here describing how Italians shielded themselves from the sun in his Crudities (which means here “undigested snippets”; 1611):

Many of them doe carry other fine things…, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue vmbrellaes…These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy & hooped in the inside with diuers little wooden hoopes that extend the vmbrella in a prety large compasse.

And John Donne, using the word as a metaphor, written in 1609, but not published until 1633:

We have an earthly cave, our bodies to go into by consideration, & coole our selves: and…wee have within us a torch, a soule, lighter and warmer then any without: we are therefore our owne umbrellas, and our owne Suns.

Then poet John Gay, he of The Beggar’s Opera, from Trivia (1716):

Good houswives…underneath th’Umbrella’s oily Shed,
Safe thro’ the wet on clinking Pattens tread.

Finally, from the “Sage of Concord”, Emerson, commenting on those strange people, the English, in English Traits (1856):

An Englishman walks in a pouring rain, swinging his closed umbrella like a walking-stick.



Keeping dry in other languages

The modern French for umbrella is parapluie, the first part being borrowed from Italian words, and conveying the idea of protection, the second being the word for…rain. A similar combination of ideas gives German Regenschirm (literally “rain screen” ). The modern Greek is simply ομπρέλα, (transliterated letter by letter = omprela).

From Mary Poppins to Rihanna


(or should that read from innocence to sexperience?)
Squeaky clean Mary Poppins’ miraculous flying umbrella had a parrot-head handle. Rihanna’s does not, but what she does with the umbrella could certainly make your head spin.

It’s noticeable, by the way, how she gives the word four syllables – um-buh-rel-luh – for the sake of the rhyme, in a linguistic process that goes by the name of anaptyxis.

Happy umbrella day!  I hope nobody rains on your parade. Or, that if they do, you have an umbrella to hand.

(If you’d prefer something a bit more melodic on the theme of shade, you might like Handel’s celebrated and sublime aria Ombra mai fu, sung by the sublime Janet Baker.)


** Early in Canto I of the Inferno, as he starts on his journey, Dante asks Virgil who he is, using the word ombra:
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.»

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.”

(I don’t know who this translation is by so can’t credit is as I should.)


Forecast or forecasted? Broadcast or broadcasted?

One-sentence carry-out

(that’s Scots and US for takeaway).

Both are correct, but the irregular form is much more common than the regular one;  the regular form forecasted seems to be more often used in American English than in other varieties.

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The other day I was checking my fuel bills online, thanks to the wonders of the Interweb (I live in Scotland; it’s cold, and heating bills are painfully high). One of the graphs helpfully provided by the energy supplier contrasts “forecasted usage” with actual usage. That’s right, forecasted usage.

That set me thinking about that minuscule set of verbs whose past tense forms (simple past and participle) can be either regular or irregular:

• forecast(ed)
• input(ted)
• output(ted)
• offset(ted)
• podcast(ed)


(I’ve left out cast and cost, which raise different issues).

In online forums (or fora, if you’d prefer; I certainly don’t), people ask which is the correct form, i.e. forecast or forecasted. This is one of those fairly rare instances in English verb morphology to which the answer is “both”.

But, as usual when it comes to English usage, there are some ifs and buts.

Before we look at those ifs and buts, though, it might be worth trying to find out why these two different options exist in the first place.

Results as of 10 February:
Would never use/regard it as wrong: 8
Depends on domain/syntax: 6
Wouldn’t use but not wrong: 4
Sometimes use: 1

New verbs are always regular

Of course, many of the most common verbs in English are irregular (e.g. bring, forget). But regular verbs far outnumber them, though they may not outweigh them in frequency.

(Just to remind ourselves, regular verbs just add –ed or –d to their base form, e.g. talk => talked, for past tense forms, sometimes with spelling modifications, e.g. try => tried.)



Any newly invented verb should automatically follow this pattern. Lewis Carroll famously made use of this rule in Jabberwocky with the word he invented that is now part of English:


“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.


(He also playfully invented an irregular verb as well, but that’s another story: ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves | Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: | All mimsy were the borogoves, | And the mome raths outgrabe (from to outgribe).




Verbs from nouns always…

follow the regular pattern almost without exception, in the process known as verbing (the possible and controversial exception being text).

Stephen Pinker (The Language Instinct, p. 380 ) states, having  proved it experimentally,  that verbs derived from nouns are filed in a different part of the mental lexicon from verbs derived from verbs; contrast outshone [from verb] with grandstanded [from noun, and not *grandstood]). grandstand

In fact, this pattern is so firmly imprinted in our internal grammars as a basic process that if I were now to ask you to make the invented noun flixxle (= a panicky attack of fidgeting) into a verb, you would automatically know how to do so. Ditto for verbing the noun bafflegab–but don’t forget to double the final –b!

The verbs we’re looking at can be irregular or regular

All, obviously, contain an irregular verb as their second element: cast, put, and set.

Their alternative forms reflect two different and conflicting analyses. If we mentally analyse them as deriving from a noun, they are regular; but if we analyse them as based on the irregular verb within them, their past tense forms will also be irregular. On the whole, the influence of their verb affix prevails.

People subconsciously analyse them in different ways, which explains online bewilderment such as:

“I am having a problem with the word offset. This is what I’m going to type to my vendor:
If we do not receive your Statement of Account by 30 Mar ’12, all payments will be ‘offsetted’.
Is it OK to use offsetted in this sentence?”

Most dictionaries show both forms for most of these verbs; Collins is the only one I know of to show podcasted. Incidentally, the WordPress spellchecker flags up the –ed forms.

As long ago as 1926, Fowler in Modern English Usage made the verb from verb/verb from noun distinction with forecast, but brought in historical etymology to justify his aesthetic preference: “Whether we are to say forecast or forecasted…depends on whether we regard the verb or the noun as the original from which the other is formed…The verb is in fact recorded 150 years earlier than the noun, & we may therefore thankfully rid ourselves of the ugly forecasted ; it may be hoped that we should do so even if history were against us, but this time it is kind.”


You can’t go wrong if you use the irregular (i.e. shorter) form in all contexts. If you use the regular form, some people may find it rather odd, question it, or even dismiss it as “wrong”.

Ifs and buts

(if you want some more analysis)

I wondered if different forms might be used with different syntax and/or meaning, e.g. attributive vs predicative, or past tense vs past participle.

I suppose there is no obvious reason for these verbs all to behave in the same way, and a brief analysis of three of them shows that indeed they don’t.

A rough-and-ready analysis of the March 2013 build of the Oxford English Corpus provides the following figures:

  • broadcast vs broadcasted: as the past tense 2,160 vs 465, or 82% vs 18% of all occurrences of the past tense. That means that broadcasted occurs more often in percentage terms compared to broadcast than forecasted does to forecast.
  • When it comes to the past participle, the tagging of the data meant that broadcasted could not be retrieved in its own right. However, the string BE + broadcasted within a five-word span, in other words passive use of the verb, accounted for roughly 40% of all occurrences of the form broadcasted. In contrast, there was not one single occurrence of broadcast in a passive construction. This suggests that there could be a marked syntactic differentiation between the two forms of the participle. The figures do not suggest that this passive use is specifically American.
  • As regards offset, the corpus yielded only two occurrences of offsetted against 461 of offset as past and past participle.
  • However, a Google search reveals (apart from dictionary entries and queries over which is the correct form) that offsetted appears mostly in contexts of geometric modelling and accounting, and occasionally in relation to emissions offsetting, e.g. Leaving on a carbon-offsetted jetplane! (obviously referring to the well-known song).
  • Finally, forecast vs forecasted for all uses = 3,394 vs 360, or 90% vs 10% with roughly the same relative distribution of the forms applying both to past tense and participle.
  • The data also suggests that forecasted may be more common in American English than in British, particularly as a past participle.
  • Unlike broadcasted, however, there are very few passive uses of forecasted.


Iconic: is totemic the new iconic?

One-line summary

Totemic might be a modish choice to replace the overused and much maligned iconic, but it is still rather rare in comparison.

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Iconic: a massively overused word?

On 20 January, that universal pundit Stephen Fry tweeted: “How would it be if there were a media-wide moratorium on the use of the word ‘iconic’ for the next ten years? Just a suggestion.”

I’m sure many would second his suggestion.

But in any case, it seems that a minority are voting with their tongues and using a different mot du jour instead: totemic.

(I’ll deal with whether they mean the same in a future blog.)

Totems and totemic

A Facebook friend alerted me a few months ago to what he thought was the irresistible rise of this adjective and the noun it derives from, totem.


So, it was perhaps unsurprising to find, amid the typical luvvie blether so aptly parodied in Private Eye, Benedict Cumberbatch’s description (Radio Times, 15-21 November 2014) of the martyred Alan Turing:

“He wasn’t someone who purposefully [sic] put himself in the way of things as a protest – he was just a great role model for anyone who’s different or feels different…And even as his body was morphing he was doing work on how the environment causes cellular structures to change. I mean, God knows, he probably would be celebrated as someone like Bill Gates. Without a doubt, he would be held as a totem of the modern world.”

Not just an icon, mark you, oh, no, sirree! A very totem. And then, blow me, if in Melvyn Bragg’s recent (and very informative) programme about the legacy of Magna Carta on January 8, 2015 the two words, the jaded, raddled cliché and the not-yet-but-give-it-time-and-it-will-be cliché were metaphorically squaring up to each other in a sort of modern logomachy.

(See further down for a transcript of the relevant sections: totem / totemic / icon / iconic each appear once).

Totemic may be on the rise: only time will tell. However, for the moment it is still rather unusual. In the Oxford English Corpus it is outnumbered getting on for 20 times by iconic. And in fact they share only two noun totemic-figurescollocations: status and figure (in ratios of 53:1 and 14:1 respectively). Also, totemic figure as often refers literally to artistic works having some affinity with totems as it does metaphorically to people who symbolize something.

On Google, a comparison of the exact string “iconic figure” accentuates the difference in numbers: 643,000 against 11,000. And again, totemic figure is often literal.

Totemic, then, looks like a word to watch: it has not yet been adulterated by massive overuse, but, by the same token, is still nowhere near to being as often used as its rival.




On the one hand, the noble Lord referred to Magna Carta as follows (about 2 minutes in):

“…It is radical in the way it has been used in innumerable rebellions, uprisings and movements to demand freedom…The original was stuffed with laws about fisheries in the Thames, about foreign immigrants and widows’ rights. At first sight it seems strange that such a document could turn into the great totem of individual liberty.”

Responding to Lord B’s introduction, Professor Nicholas Vincent, a leading Magna Carta scholar from the University of East Anglia (UEA), then says:

“A lot of it increasingly became rather archaic…financial stipulations don’t really bear much relation to reality even by the late thirteenth century. But those totemic clauses, the clauses about sale of justice, denial of justice, right to free judgement, right to judgement by the law of the land, all of those retain their significance.”

Later in the programme, another scholar, Professor Justin Champion, of Royal Holloway, of the University of London, uses the i-word.

Lord B (9.50 minutes in):

“It’s been suggested…There are 63 chapters or statutes or clauses in the original Magna Carta and only a couple are still on the statute book, and therefore its significance is, in today’s world, largely symbolic. What’s your view on that, Justin?”

Professor Champion:

“I think the word symbolic is somehow a bit weak. It’s [slight pause] it’s iconic. And in one respect it doesn’t really matter that precise elements of the clauses have been suspended or transcended because the core principles are concepts, they’re ideas…”

And then further in, the word icon makes an appearance on the lips of journalist and MEP Daniel Hannan (about 17.30 minutes in):

“It became very fashionable in Britain in the twentieth century to debunk all historical icons, and to say ‘Oh, this is all reinvented’, and so on. US historiography didn’t go through that to anything like the same extent.”

(For a bit of light relief, go to about 26.45 minutes in to hear Tony Hancock’s take on Magna Carta.)



To defuse or diffuse a situation?: 20 words not to confuse (19-20)

[19-20 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

Poll results as of 29 December:

  1. Leave as is=7
  2. Change to defuse=41
  3. Consult writer=8
  4. Use another verb=7
  5. Wouldn’t notice it as issue=2

What’s the issue?

In a sentence such as

She is coping because she has learned that forgiveness is the only way to diffuse ire and hatred

Birmingham Evening Mail, 2007

is diffuse a mistake for defuse?

Most dictionaries do not accept this use of diffuse, but Cobuild does, presumably, as an impeccably corpus-based venture, after having examined the evidence of actual use.

The Online Oxford Dictionary has a usage note (discussed later on); and the Cambridge Guide to Modern English Usage considers that when it comes to emotions (for example, as in the sample sentence above), the two distinct verbs overlap and converge.

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What does each word “mean”?

defuse: literally


In its literal meaning (sort of obviously, because it consists of the prefix de- + fuse (noun)), defuse means “to remove the fuse of an explosive device in order to prevent it from exploding”:

  • Explosives specialists tried to defuse the grenade;
  • The device was defused by police bomb disposal experts.

…and metaphorically

in its literal sense, according to the OED, it’s a relative newcomer (1943). As a metaphor (1958), it refers to making a situation less dangerous or volatile. In other words, a situation is conceived of as something explosive, like a bomb. Things that people typically defuse (noun objects of the verb) are situation(s), crisis/crises, tension(s), anger, conflict(s), row(s):

  • With a joke and a smile he was able to defuse many a tense situation and his presence in any room was unmistakable;
  • Now he is trying to defuse the crisis that the warmongers have created;
  • Their diplomacy has been aimed at defusing conflict between the North and the South [sc. Korea].

But defuse has a near-homophone. It is, of course, the verb diffuse. The only thing that distinguishes it from defuse in speech is that its first vowel is a short i /ˈfjuːz/ contrasting with the long i of /di:ˈfjuːz/, rhyming with tea.


Are they synonyms?

In their core meanings, it seems hard to argue that they are.

diffuse: core meanings

Simplifying its meanings considerably (I hope you’ll allow the unattached participle), if something diffuses, it spreads, and if you diffuse it, you spread it, e.g. information diffuses and you can diffuse it.

(Because the subject of the intransitive use can be the object of the transitive, it falls into the class of verbs classified as ergative. The fullest explanation of the verb’s syntax is in the Cobuild Dictionary).

What diffuses / is diffused can be abstract or concrete, and in the latter case it has a specific physical meaning when light is involved: “to cause light to spread evenly to reduce glare and harsh shadows”, e.g. The morning light was diffused to a mucky orange by the pollution of the shuddering city.

Further examples

(From Cobuild and the Online Oxford Dictionary)


  • His heart sank, fear spread and diffused through his body;
  • Technologies diffuse rapidly.


  • The problem is how to diffuse power without creating anarchy;
  • an attempt to diffuse new ideas;
  • It works efficiently to create and diffuse purchasing power throughout the economy and disseminate liquidity throughout the financial system.

Where is the overlap?

One quite often comes across sentences using diffuse with nouns which seem more appropriate to defuse, both in its literal—bomb, explosive—and metaphorical meanings—crisis, situation, tension, anger, conflict. Are these mistakes, or legitimate extensions of meaning and collocation?

It is a moot point. mute_pointCobuild recognizes it, but Collins, Macquarie and Merriam-Webster do not. Nor is it to be found in most dictionaries for learners of English, such as Cambridge, Macmillan, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s. This suggests to me the possibility that, whereas the Cobuild editors acknowledged the weight of usage that is tending to legitimize what many people would still consider a mistake, the editors of dictionaries for learners prefer to discourage students from muddling up the two words. (It is also worth pointing out, incidentally, that the WordPress spellchecker flags diffuse ire and diffuse tension in this blog, and asks if I meant defuse.)

diffuse=defuse? Definition

Cobuild defines the contentious use of diffuse as follows:

“To diffuse a feeling, especially an undesirable one, means to cause it to weaken and lose its power to affect people”: The arrival of letters from the Pope did nothing to diffuse the tension.

The Oxford Online Dictionary does not include the meaning in its definition of diffuseinstead it has a usage note:

Diffuse means, broadly, ‘disperse’, while the non-literal meaning of defuse is ‘reduce the danger or tension in’. Thus sentences such as Cooper successfully diffused the situation are regarded as incorrect, while Cooper successfully defused the situation would be correct. However, such uses of diffuse are widespread, and can make sense: the image in, for example, “only peaceful dialogue between the two countries could diffuse tension” is not of making a bomb safe but of reducing something dangerous to particles and dispersing them harmlessly.

In two minds?


I find myself considerably (if one can be, linguistically speaking) in (or of, in the US) two minds. On the one hand, since this form is especially common in newspapers and transcripts, I suspect that urgent deadlines are often responsible, not to mention a certain amount of journalistic sloppiness. If I’m being over-literal, to my mind diffuse = “to spread”, and therefore diffusing tension spreads it rather than dissipating it.

A legitimate extension of meaning?

However, “spreading” is not the only meaning of to diffuse, and it is here that its physical meaning of “dispersing” light comes into play. Light that is diffused is made softer and less intense, so I suppose that diffusing  tension disperses it and thereby renders it less potent. I follow the logic of the Oxford editor’s argument, even though it still reads like special pleading to this old fuddy-duddy (what a wonderful word that is!).

It also worth noting that both Cobuild and the Oxford note reproduced above have the same noun object collocate: tension.

So, I can see that there may well be a shift in collocational primings going on. In other words, more and more people are psychologically primed by their experience of the word diffuse to associate it with the semantic set of tension, crisis, etc, and to associate that set with diffuse rather than defuse.

However, that collocational shift still raises problems for me. If diffuse is “correct” when used metaphorically, and in specific collocations, e.g. tension / row / controversy / crisis, why would it not be “correct”  when applied literally (i.e. ?he diffused the device). But, even though diffuse turns up several times with bomb and words in that set, it still feels completely wrong, at least to me.



There seem to me to be three ways of looking at this issue in “correct usage” terms:

  1. At the strict, i.e. “prescriptive”, end of the spectrum, the only correct verb for the contexts discussed above is defuse.
  2. At the other, i.e. “descriptive”, end, one could take the view that diffuse is correct in all collocations that match those of defuse, i.e. including its literal use with bombs, etc. Though that use must, surely, have started out as a homophone mistake, we accept that it is now part of standard usage, and therefore applicable in all circumstances.
  3. We adopt a sort of Buddhist “middle way” approach and say that the two words are synonyms in some contexts, but not in others. Thus diffuse tension would be correct, but diffuse a bomb would not. There is nothing linguistically perverse about this, since synonymy operates with meanings, not words, and therefore works with some collocates but not others: a tax bill can be large or hefty, a building can only be large. However, this “middle way” would probably lead to a lot of borderline cases.


Further examples, facts & figures

In the OEC, these two lemmas do not differ much in frequency: they occur just over twice in every million words of text (compared to, say, “big”, which occurs nearly 400 times per million).

Their collocations overlap very little: apart from noun objects, as shown below, the adverb quickly and the verbs try and attempt.

There are eight noun objects with which they both collocate. They are listed in descending order, according to the ratio of occurrences of defuse to diffuse: situation, anger, confrontation, standoff, tension, row, crisis, bomb. The ratios range from just under 3:1 for situation to nearly 12:1 for bomb. In other words, for the most literal meaning, diffuse encroaches far less on defuse than it does with less literal meanings.

In absolute rank order as collocates of diffuse, the above nouns are: situation, tension, crisis, bomb, anger, row, confrontation, standoff.

  • Nevertheless, the dispute over the islands will continue to cause political and economic headaches for China and Japan, with neither acting to defuse the tensionsBusiness Insider, 2013;
  • Yet the frenzied days and sleepless nights seem to have averted a major embarrassment for the administration and defused a crisis that threatened to upend relations between the two countriesNYT, 2012;
  • The Scott report is a time-bomb stealthy politicians and officials are trying to diffuseGuardian, 1995;
  • Meanwhile, the European Union is trying to diffuse the controversy by calling for a voluntary media code of conduct.—CNN transcripts, 2006.


Ascribe to or subscribe to?: 20 words not to confuse (15-16)

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[15-16 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

Quick takeaway points

  • Using the construction ascribe to a view, idea, etc. in the way shown in the examples under the next heading is generally considered a mistake.
  • It appears from comments on the Merriam-Webster website that some people were taught at school that this construction is in fact correct.
  • The use of the correct subscribe to (= support, endorse), derives clearly and logically from that word’s earliest use of putting your signature to something, as explained at 4 below.
  • Lincoln used ascribe to in his inaugural presidential address. See 6.2.


1. What is the issue?

Take a sentence such as this from a 2006 issue of the Globe and Mail (Canada)

“In the twisted minds of those who ascribe to this militant ideology, Canada has become fair game.”

Or this:

“He doesn’t necessarily ascribe to the philosophy of ‘bigger is better’ or featuring loud colors or ‘sale’ logos to attract attention.”

Art Business News, 2003

The correct verb in both cases is subscribe.

“Yes, we know,” you may say: “you’re teaching your grandmother to suck eggs“. Nevertheless, suckingeggsenough people commit the mistake to make it worth highlighting.
In fact, from a few comments on the Merriam-Webster online site, it seems that some people were actively taught by their schoolteachers that ascribe to is correct in this context, and that subscribe to is wrong.

2. 1 What is the correct use of ascribe to?

As Cobuild defines it, the word nowadays has three core meanings. Note that they all require the preposition to, and have a direct object and an obligatory prepositional object. In other words, you cannot say he *ascribed his success. [Most examples are from the Online Oxford Dictionary].

  • If you ascribe an event or condition to a particular cause, you say or consider that it was caused by that thing:

He ascribed Jane’s short temper to her upset stomach;
He ascribed the poor results to poverty and the lack of resources at most schools.

(Attribute works as a synonym for this (and the next meanings) or give the credit to, if it is a good thing, such as success.)

  • If you ascribe something such as a quotation or a work of art to someone (my amendment: or to some period) you say that they said it or created it, (my amendment: or that it was said or created in that period):

a quotation ascribed to Thomas Cooper;
He mistakenly ascribes the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ to Charles Darwin.

  • if you ascribe a quality to someone, you consider that they possess it:

Tough-mindedness is a quality commonly ascribed to top bosses;
I don’t want to ascribe human reactions to my dog, because that spoils the joy of seeing things from a dog perspective.

(See 6.2 for other, historical examples)

2.2 With which meaning of subscribe is ascribe confused?

Subscribe has many meanings, but the one in question is meaning 2 in the Online Oxford Dictionary:

(subscribe to) Express or feel agreement with (an idea or proposal):

Or maybe he subscribes to the postmodern idea that truth is a social construct;
We prefer to subscribe to an alternative explanation.

Closish synonyms for this meaning are agree with, support, back, accept, believe in and endorse.

3. What do usage guides say?

There is no mention of it in the excellent Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage, nor in the equally excellent Cambridge Guide to English Usage. The current (3rd) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not include it either, but I have added it to my revision for the 4th edition.

4. Can etymology help?

Rather obviously, both words contain the element -scribe, meaning “write”, imported ultimately from Latin, and all around us in words such as describe, inscribe, and so forth. The sub- element is the Latin for “under”, as in submarine, sub-editor, etc. So, literally, if you subscribe something, you put your name under it. The word was directly borrowed from Latin, and its first recorded use is as just described: will

This is my last Will, subscribed with my own Hand, R.H.1415

That meaning is defined by the OED as follows: “To put one’s signature or other identifying mark upon (a document), esp. at the end or foot, typically to signify consent or agreement, or to declare that one is a witness; to signify assent to or compliance with (something), by signing one’s name; to attest (a particular viewpoint or position) by one’s signature”.

If you want a mnemonic for which of the two words under discussion is appropriate in which context, it may help to remember support, which—ultimately, in Latin—contains the same prefix—sub, i.e. “under”—as subscribe. If you subscribe to a view, theory, etc., you do indeed support it.

5. How often does the mistake happen?

[Skip this if you don’t want the “science” bit]

It is true that it is not the commonest of mistakes, but then neither verb is particularly frequent in its own right. Subscribe (the specific form, not the lemma) just scrapes into the seven thousand most frequent words in English (in the Oxford English Corpus), which make up 90% of all texts: it occurs just under 7 times per million words of texts; ascribed (again, the token, not the lemma) comes in as the 12,200th most common form in English, occurring less than 3 times per million words.

Since the mistake most often occurs in collocation with words such as view and theory, and others in their lexical field, the only measure I can easily produce for its frequency is to compare the collocations subscribe totheory and ascribe totheory (within a five-word frame to the right). The first occurs 471 times in the OEC, the second 18 – i.e. in under 4 per cent of cases.

6.1 Biblical and Lincolnian uses

Many people on the Merriam-Webster website looked up the word because it is used in Psalm 29 in some versions of the Bible:

1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor

New Oxford Annotated Bible

(It is worth noting that the Authorized Version (King James) does not use ascribe in this context, but the more Anglo-Saxon Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, etc.

Abraham Lincoln also used it in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861):

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?

6.2 Other historical examples

The OED subdivides ascribe into 11 senses, of which six were already labelled obsolete as long ago as 1885, when the entry was compiled.

It was first used in English in the Wycliffite Bible, and is among wycliffitethe earliest ten per cent of words the OED records.

On its first appearance it was used broadly in the first meaning discussed above:

Lest…to my name the victorie be ascrived—2 Sam. xii. 28, before 1382

(The spelling with v mirrors the Old French form from which it was borrowed. In the 16th century it was Latinized to a letter b.)

Other examples in this use, as shown below, range from Sir Thomas More to Samuel Johnson:

  • Al which miracles al those blessed saintes do ascribe vnto the worke of god.—Thomas More, Heresyes IV, in Wks. 286/2, 1528
  • The same Græcians did often ascribe madnesse to the operation of the Eumenides.—Hobbes, Leviathan I. viii, 37, 1651
  • This Speech is…the finest that is ascribed to Satan in the whole Poem.—J. Addison, Spectator No. 321. ¶6, 1711
  • We usually ascribe good, but impute evil.—Johnson, The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language 25, 1746


20 Words good writers shouldn’t confuse

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Lost and Confused Signpost

As you can see, they’re a mixed bag. They are not of the obvious affect/effect type, because they are not as frequently used. Some of them are more literary or formal–which means that they will appear in the kind of writing where they will stand out like a sore thumb to informed readers.

These are only twenty out of what could grow into a much longer list. Here are six more that I’ll no doubt deal with in detail in future, along with many others (examples mostly from the Online Oxford Dictionary).

  • elicit / illicit

An obvious homophone mistake. Elicit is a verb meaning “to evoke or draw out (a reaction, answer, or fact) from someone”:

e.g. I tried to elicit a smile from Joanna;

the work elicited enormous public interest. 

Illicit is an adjective, meaning “forbidden by law, rules, or custom”:

e.g. illicit substances / drugs / affairs / liaisons.

The following example is typical of the “accidents that will occur in the best-regulated”… newspapers:

The Prince of Wales and his charities have a growing property portfolio, but there is one notable building that is unlikely to X illicit a bid from the heir to the throne–Telegraph, 2011


  • phase / faze (verbs)

confused-man-in-suitYet another homophone glitch. If something is phased, it is done in stages (i.e. phases) over a period of time:

e.g. the work is being phased over a number of  years;

a phased withdrawal of troops.

If something fazes you, it disconcerts you in such a way that you do not know how to react:

e.g. She’s been on the stage since the age of three so nothing fazes her at all.

In the next example, the wrong one has been used:

Cox is unlikely to be X phased by the prospect of going for gold in Athens , having been a record breaker at the tender age of 11–BBCi Sport, 2004 Olympics. 

  • exasperate / exacerbate

Not homomphones this time, but similar enough in sound to cause confusion. If someone or something exasperates you, they annoy you greatly and make you feel frustrated

e.g. Speed bumps definitely do make you slow down, and taxi drivers take sadistic pleasure in exasperating their passengers by coming almost to a halt in front of them;

But speculation that he may quit Britain for America exasperates him.

If something exacerbates a situation or a problem, it makes it worse. It’s a rather formal word.

e.g. rising inflation was exacerbated by the collapse of oil prices;

At least the government is trying to find an actual solution, rather than exacerbating the problem.

Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few examples of exasperate being used instead of exacerbate. It is a moot point whether this can be considered a mistake.

More than half of households living in council or housing association homes…live in one that is not at all, or not very suitable. The Bedroom Tax has exasperated this problemBig Issue, No. 1018, December 2014.

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A cache of arms not a cachet: 20 words not to confuse (11-12)

[11-12 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

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People sometimes use cachet when cache is required. Despite having five letters in common, and coming ultimately from the same French verb (cacher), in English they are completely unrelated. A cache of something is a “collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden place” such as an arms cache or a cache of gold and rhymes with cash.
Cachet is “prestige, high status; the quality of being respected or admired” and rhymes with sachet. The next two examples show the words being used correctly:

Several inmates seized a cache of grenades and other weapons and killed six security officers, including a high-ranking counterterrorism official;

The department stores knew they had to offer something different, something perceived to have more cachet.

In the next one, cachet is wrong, and cache would be correct: Egyptian excavators this week chanced upon a cachet of limestone reliefs.


Antidisestablishmentarianism: the longest word in English (or not?). History of an enigma.

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antidisestablishmentarianism tatoo1 The longest word?

Everyone knows that it’s “the longest word in English”, with its 28 letters. Actually, it isn’t. The “longest word in any dictionary” depends on the dictionary: in the Oxford Dictionary Online it is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which weighs in at 45 letters; that word is not in Merriam-Webster Online (though it is in their Unabridged), nor is antidisestablishmentarianism.

2 Has it always been “the longest word”?

I can’t say when antidisestablishmentarianism acquired its mythical status (but see 3 below for some evidence).

However, a search of Google Ngrams shows that in 1901, in an issue of the Writer, A Monthly Magazine for Literary Workers, founded by two Boston Globe journalists, it was the four-letters-shorter disestablishmentarianism that was cited as the longest word in English. (The magazine is still going strong). And in Current Advertising of the same year, there is the following quote: “If anybody really wants to know, it may be authoritatively stated that the longest legitimate word is disestablishmentarianism. Don’t let the fact that it isn’t in the dictionary worry you. The word was coined and used by the late Mr. Gladstone…” (that attribution is probably apocryphal).

Gladstone, looking not very happy about the 'barbarous ' word.

Gladstone, looking not very happy about that ‘barbarous’ word.

3 Is it a “real” word?

3.1 Yes, as I think this blog will demonstrate. However, a bit like the running machine that sits, rarely or never switched on, in some people’s homes, it is more exciting as an idea than in reality: it is more talked about and discussed qua longest word than ever actively used. Merriam-Webster goes so far as to say that “Merriam-Webster doesn’t enter antidisestablishmentarianism in any of its dictionaries because the evidence indicates that the word is almost never used anymore”.

What Merriam-Webster says is true. The word is hardly ever actively used, and is instead a treasured fossil, a linguistic curiosity, because discussion about the disestablishment of the Church, which gave rise to it, is not as topical as it was at times in the 19th century. However, when  such discussion does occur, the word may briefly be taken out of its museum case, as it was by the Telegraph in 2005.

3.2 Interestingly, the first OED entry for antidisestablishmentarianism is from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1923, at the entry for long words. However, the Bulletin of the Grosvenor Library, Buffalo (Volumes 1-4, p. 168), has this from 1918: “I can go this one better, with a word which I have been told, ever since childhood, was the longest in the English language, it is antidisestablishmentarianism, containing 28 letters, and meaning, of course, the doctrine of those who did not wish…” The “this” apparently refers to an earlier claim in the same publication that anthropomorphologically (23 letters) was the longest.

3.3 everylandAnd a 1919 edition of Everyland: A Magazine of World Friendship for Girls and Boys has this: “Dorothy Knudson says it is “antitransubstantiationalistically” : Alison Bryant, Rose Gibson, Lucretia Ilsley, and Isabel Weedon say it is antidisestablishmentarianism.” (Vol 10, Issues 7-12, p. 336.)

From which it is clear that by that date several readers of the magazine took anti…ism to be the longest. As regards the even longer, 33-word contender, antitransubstantiationalistically, that it was ever actually used looks extremely dubious.

4 Why is it known as the longest word?

Partly, I suggest, because it consists of familiar individual parts that make it possible to remember, unlike, say, the monster mentioned at 3.3 above. It also has, to my mind at least, a distinct personality.

I can remember being told about it as a child. Its eleven (or twelve, depending) syllables with their repeated i and s sounds had an amazing dynamism, like a choo-choo  building up steam towards the main stress on the eighth. And its two negative prefixes, anti- and dis-, seemed bafflingly at loggerheads with one another, creating a strange double negative. It had all the magical, talismanic power that words can have for young children. Once heard, it can never be unremembered.

5 What do all the different bits mean?

It is also a remarkable example of how prefixes and suffixes can be coupled together, a bit like railway carriages. If you uncouple them, what do you get? anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism. In other words, the locomotive of this word is the verb establish. Why is that?

6 It’s all to do with politics and religion

In England, the Church of England is “established”. This means it is the official Church, and has several links with the State. For instance, the monarch is its head, and any measures passed by the Church’s governing body have to be approved by Parliament. (In the US, in contrast, no Church has this constitutionally privileged role).

Historically, this dominance of the Church of England has been disputed—and in some circles still is. Those in favour of maintaining it as the established Church were called establishmentarians…

6. 1 Establishmentarian

The OED records this word as a noun from 1846, and as an adjective from 1847: “Those who, like myself, are called High Churchmen, have little or no sympathy with mere Establishmentarians.”—Hook, 1846.

It seems that Gladstone did not much care for the word: in the Contemporary Review of June 1875 he wrote “The prosecutors…are strongly (to use a barbarous word) establishmentarian.”
(It is worth remembering that Gladstone was a considerable classical scholar, and will no doubt have had firm views on what were barbarous—that is questionably formed from an etymological point of view—words).

6.2 Establishmentarianism

And the philosophy upheld by establishmentarians is of course…establishmentarianism. In 1873 the noted philologist Fitzedward Hall wrote of Richard Chenevix Trench chenevix_trench(the admirer of female rowing crews and original inspiration for the creation of the OED) that “Establishmentarianism was wont to roll over the prelatial [Abp. Trench’s] tongue“. Chenevix Trench was in fact Archbishop of Dublin when the C of E was disestablished in Ireland, in 1871.

6.3 A secondary, more modern meaning

The adjective cum noun establishmentarian also has a more modern meaning, as the OED defines it: “Pertaining to or characteristic of the establishment; supportive of or favouring the establishment and its values; establishment-minded, conservative”. First recorded, it seems, in the economist J.K. Galbraith’s journal in early 1962. A more recent example is: In 1976 , he left the abortion rights league, in part because he believed it was becoming too establishmentarian” (NYT, 2006).

6.4 Disestablishmentarian

Those in favour of disestablishing the Church were, naturally, disestablishmentarians, first recorded from 1885 in the unrevised OED entry, but traceable in Google Ngrams at least as far back as The Church Herald of 1874: “…no public event has done more mischief as regards turning men’s minds into a Disestablishmentarian channel than the recent policy of the Bishops’ Bench as expounded by the two Primates.”

And their philosophy is disestablishmentarianism (OED, 1897).

6.5 Antidisestablishmentarian(ism)

Those opposed to disestablishment are, inevitably, antidisestablishmentarians. If you knocked off the first two prefixes, you would get back to establishmentarian, which would not, however, mean exactly the same thing. The first OED entry for antidisestablishmentarian is from the journal Notes and Queries of 1900. And for antidisestablishmentarianism from 1923, as previously mentioned, which takes us full circle

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The longest word in the English Dictionary

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flocciWhen I was growing up, antidisestablishmentarianism was quoted by masters at school as the longest word in English. But at a mere 28 characters it is something of a pygmy in comparison with, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, an invented, pseudo-scientific term for a type of lung disease, with its 45 letters.

So, what really is the longest word in English, and which is the longest word in “the dictionary”? Those questions can only be answered satisfactorily by first posing and then answering some prior questions that they raise.

What is a word?

What do you class as a word for these purposes?


    • Can you include names, such as the legendary Welsh place name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?
    • Do you count invented words such as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, made famous by the film Mary Poppins?
  • Or do you only include words that have been created by actual usage? If so, antidisestablishmentarianism might be a better candidate than some.
  • Do you include scientific names, such as that ne plus ultra of sesquipedalianism, the scientific name for the protein titin, which starts Methionyl… and goes on for another 189,910 letters (yes, that’s right, you didn’t misread it: one hundred and eighty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ten).

What does “in the dictionary” mean?

The first question is: which dictionary? Not all dictionaries are equal. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary Online both include the supercali… word; Collins, Merriam-Webster online, and Macquarie do not. The two Oxford dictionaries, and Macquarie include floccinaucinihilpilification; Collins and M-W do not.

Technical or non-technical?

Broadly speaking, the dictionaries mentioned above are, apart from the OED, general dictionaries that anyone might readily consult. But in scientific areas, only specialists in the discipline concerned will consult such volumes as, for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (known as the “Red Book”), which states the rules for naming inorganic compounds.

What about foreign words?

And do you include words that appear in dictionaries of foreign languages, and have been translated or transliterated into English? If so, you might give some thought to the 183 letters of the Classical Greek

This is a transliteration of a comical word coined by the Greek playwright Aristophanes to describe a fictional dish that is defined by Liddell & Scott as “compounded of all kinds of dainties, fish, flesh, fowl, and sauces”. Since the dish never existed, we need not be put off by its rebarbative mixture of fish, meat, seafood, fowl, and birds.

What’s the longest word: an age-old question?

What is interesting is that the fascination with long words is clearly not just a modern curiosity, the result of printing and universal literacy. The Aristophanic word suggests that it is clearly ancient. It makes you wonder just how often Greeks in the Classical Age asked themselves: “I wonder what the longest word is…”

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Averse to adverse to: 20 words not to confuse (9-10)

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[9-10 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

1. Takeaways – in a nutshell

  • Using “to be adverse to something” to mean “to dislike something” is considered a mistake by many people, dictionaries, and usage guides.
  • It has been suggested that this use may be more common in American English than in British English.
  • Beware of incorrectly using x averse in phrases such as “to have an adverse reaction to something”.
  • Conversely, beware of using adverse in compound adjectives formed with averse: risk-averse, not x risk-adverse.

 2. In detail

2.1 Averse

How many times have you seen sentences such as “He was not adverse to compromising himself politically for the sake of his career” or “Are Scottish people adverse to a little sex in their movies?

They seem to confuse two words that are almost identically spelled but have rather different meanings.

The standard construction to suggest that a person has a strong dislike of or antipathy towards something is averse to, often used with negation:

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online)
Strong and aggressive, he is not averse to a bit of shirt pulling and uses his arms effectively to hold off defenders.
Now some of you may know that if an opportunity arises of a little fun with a person of the opposite sex I’m not averse, rare as it is.
I also stand to see the value of my property increase, which I’m not averse to.
I am a recent alumna of the University of Waterloo and do not consider myself in any way averse to liberal writing.
I’ve noticed I’m becoming more and more averse to what I call overt luxury.

As in all but one of the examples above-and note how most of them are first person statements-, averse in negative contexts is often a form of ironic understatement, or litotes: “I’m not averse to” means something like “I’m really rather keen on” (though perhaps reluctant to admit it). All the examples above also show averse being used in the structure to be averse to, i.e. predicatively.

Averse is also often used as the second part of a compound adjective, such as risk-averse, change-averse and so forth. risk_averse_2Occasionally NOUNadverse is wrongly used, as in this article on the use of “guys”.

2.2 Adverse

Adverse, broadly speaking, means: “unfavourable” (an adverse balance of trade, adverse circumstances, adverse weather conditions); “hostile” (adverse criticism, an adverse reaction); or “harmful” (adverse effects)

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online/Oxford English Corpus)

From 1997 to 2000, the combination of adverse weather and declining sales led to retrenchment by any cooperatives.
A series of meetings at the department after the leak of cabinet papers and the widespread adverse reaction to the government’s plans has led ministers to slow the process.
Such events promote Belfast’s image and go some considerable way to countering the adverse publicity the city has often received over the years.
The trials had been cancelled after the drug was found to cause an adverse reaction.
Roadworks on three of the routes in and out of Skipton are having an adverse effect on local businesses.

In contrast to averse, in these examples adverse modifies a following noun (in other words, it is attributive).

3. Can the word’s origins help?

Without falling into the etymological fallacy, (the notion that a word’s original meaning, or its meaning in the language from which it derives, is its only true meaning) examining these two words’ origins may help clarify the distinction between them.

Both come from Latin, and contain the Latin verb vertere, “to turn”, found in so many other verbs and adjectives, (convert, divert, extrovert, invert, pervert, etc).

The late 16th century averse comes from Latin aversus ”turned away from”, past participle of avertere. The a- part gives it the meaning “away from”. The old-fashioned phrase “avert your gaze” means “turn your gaze away”, in other words “look away”. Remembering that, and the related noun aversion, may help to crystallize the distinction.

In contrast, adverse from Latin adversus “against, opposite”, suggests the notion of one thing being in opposition to another, and therefore hostile or unfavourable to it. Its related noun is adversity, a synonym for misfortune or difficulty.

4. adverse to: a complication

To be adverse to mirrors averse to structurally in certain phrases, particularly in legal contexts, e.g. “…‘adverse party’ includes every party whose interest on the case is adverse to the interests of the appellant…”–Wisconsin Statutes, 1947;  “…the whole parliamentary tradition as built up in this country…is adverse to it“–Winston Churchill, 1942. But in this meaning it refers to things, to external circumstances, whereas, as we have seen, averse to refers to someone’s personal tastes and inclinations.

5. What do usage guides say?

The Oxford Dictionary Online has a note that calls e.g. “He is not adverse to making a profit” a mistake. The AP Style Guide and the British Guardian Style Guide draw an absolute distinction between the two words, as does Fowler. fowlersMerriam-Webster’s Concise English Usage has a long, scholarly, slightly non-committal discussion pointing to potential overlaps between the two words. The grammar checker in Microsoft’s Word will flag up “not adverse to” as a mistake-which is helpful for many people, but could cause problems for those–often, but not necessarily, lawyers–who are using it correctly.

A quick scan of Google Ngrams for “not averse to” and “not adverse to” suggests that while “not adverse to” was previously often confined to legal contexts of the kind mentioned at 4. above, recent decades show an increase in its use as a substitute for the preferred “not averse to”.

In the Oxford English Corpus, a simple search for “adverse to” shows that in British English 60 per cent of examples are in legal contexts, and therefore assumed to be correct, but in American English that figure is less than 1 per cent.

However, it cannot automatically be inferred that the use of the phrase  in non-legal contexts is wrong. In fact, in AmE only one third of those non-legal uses were of the criticized use, while in BrE it was over two thirds. If one compares the number of times averse to was actually used with approximate estimates of how often adverse to was used for it by mistake, the figures are as follows: BrE 730/92; AmE 662/81 giving ratios of around 8:1 for both. This evidence does not suggest that the mistake is more frequent in AmE than in BrE.

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Business Writing Skills: some tips for catchy headlines

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In my previous blog on headings, I suggested that headings perform several crucial functions.

1. whetting readers’ curiosity;
2. providing sound bites of your topics;
3. helping readers home in on what is relevant to them;
4. helping you plan and structure what you write.


colourful_lettersToday I would like to analyse the first two.

Whetting readers’ curiosity.

Your first task as a business writer is to motivate people to read what you have written. Their hearts may sink at the sight of yet another document, so it is your job to overcome their reluctance. Here are some thoughts on how to do just that.

Take a tip from journalists.

First, grab attention.

Journalists are great at creating headlines and summaries that grab the attention of readers, viewers and listeners. They do it not only in newspapers and online news, but also on TV and radio. Granted, in a serious business report it is not appropriate to use tabloid style headlines. But you can still use headings that are interesting rather than bland.

Some examples.

Here are three news headlines picked at random (on 28 November 2012).

‘You can photograph nudes anywhere’. (Yahoo news)

Intriguing, isn’t it? It makes you want to find out more. You sense there’s a saucy story behind these five words. (The item is about the Pirelli 2013 Calendar.)

‘UK rivers remain on flood watch’. (Guardian)

Very matter of fact, but it alerts people who could be affected to find out more.

‘One in ten workers underemployed.’ (BBC News)

Lays out the whole story in five words. If you go to the article, you find that the heading is slightly different: Underemployment affects 10.5% of UK workforce. Notice how the headline puts the figures in a way that people can understand at first glance, rather than as a percentage.

I can’t do that in business writing!

You may not be used to it, but why not try it? Here are six tips.

1. Use questions.

They engage the reader. Instead of the bland and uninformative “Current market situation” how about “Where is the market heading?“, “What’s new in the market?“, “Can the market grow any more?” and so on.

2. Create a picture.

People visualize as they read. Help them do that by suggesting an image. Like the Pirelli Calendar above.

3. Keep headings short.

Five to seven words is about right, as in the news headlines above.

4. Zap unnecessary words.

Use newspaper headline style to get rid of words such as “the” and “a”.

The court rules in Bonzo’s favour” becomes “Court rules in Bonzo’s favour“.

5. More than one headline per page.

Exactly how many depends on what you are writing about. A single-page memo could have three or four.

6.Help people understand figures at a glance.

The BBC example above shows one way of doing this.

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Voracious or veracious readers? 20 words not to confuse (7-8)


[7-8 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

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I’ve seen a few profiles on Twitter of people who call themselves “veracious readers“. Presumably they mean “voracious readers“. If so, their self-styled title is deeply ironic: even if they read a lot, they cannot be very attentive to the spelling of their reading matter.

Voracious voraciousrefers to people who eat a lot, and then, as a metaphor, to people who engage in an activity with great gusto and enthusiasm. At several removes, it’s related to the verb devour, since both derive from Latin vorāre.

Veracious, in contrast, is a really rather rare word, meaning “truthful”, e.g. a veracious witness to great and grave events. So, a “veracious reader” would be a truthful one, though I doubt that is the claim people describing themselves as such are making. Like voracious, it too derives ultimately from Latin, from the word for “true”, vērus, which has given us words such as verify, verity, and the vera of Aloe vera.

Veracious is also used by mistake in phrases such as *veracious appetite instead of the correct voracious appetite.

Of course, veracious may be just a homophone typo for voracious. What I mean is that it is fatally easy to have two words in your mental lexicon that sound exactly the same, and to key one instead of the other, such as “two” for “too“. You know the difference, but when you type with only half a mind on what you’re doing, the wrong one takes over.


In case you’re not convinced that the two words sound the same, here is the phonetic spelling of voracious /vəˈreɪʃəs/, and here it is for veracious: /vəˈreɪʃəs/. Identical. The villain of the piece is that tricksy little symbol /ə/, which occurs in the first and last syllables. It represents the “uh” sound known as a “schwa“, which is responsible for a huge number of spelling mistakes in English.

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Flaunting or flouting the law? 20 words not to confuse (5-6)

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[5-6 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

What’s the issue?

Put simply, it is this: Are people who write sentences such as “motorists who blatantly flaunt the regulations for their safety and well-being” (instead of flout) woefully ignorant dunderheads who need remedial English and should not be allowed into print, or are they just following a long-standing and perfectly legitimate linguistic trend?

How you answer that question defines your place on the descriptive-prescriptive spectrum (if you answer “yes”, you are probably an out-and-out prescriptivist). Your answer may also depend on where you live, and which dictionary or usage guide you take as your bible.

What do these words mean?

Though sounding similar, they have—at least in origin—very different meanings. If you flaunt something, you show it off in a way which is brash and overdone. The very use of the word suggests that flauntyou don’t approve of whoever is doing the flaunting. Typical things that people flaunt are their wealth, their sexuality, and themselves.

He flaunts his riches like everyone in the business.
Women should have it both ways—they should be able to flaunt their sexuality and be taken seriously.
Katie seemed to be flaunting herself a little too much for Elizabeth’s liking.

If you flout a law, rule, regulation, convention, and semantically related nouns, you do not obey them, and treat them with blatant disregard.

Around 10 smokers were openly flouting the ban when the Health Board’s environmental health inspectors arrived.

A quote from Chinua Achebe (1987) illustrates the confusion between the two. “Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people.” “Flout, you mean,” I said. “The people?” asked His Excellency, ignoring my piece of pedantry.

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

Merriam-Webster gives that transitive use of flaunt two definitions.
1 to display ostentatiously or impudently:
2 to treat contemptuously
while adding a note, which states that the use of flaunt in this way “undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout”, but that the contexts in which it appears cannot be considered “substandard”. Yet it hedges its bets by stating that “many people will consider it a mistake”.

On the other side of the pond, Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) states categorically that the two words “may sound similar but they have different meanings”. oedThe 1993 draft addition to the OED entry notes that the usage “clearly arose by confusion, and is widely considered erroneous”.

Various British usage guides maintain the distinction rigidly, and the Economist style guide’s witty note runs “Flaunt means display; flout means disdain. If you flout this distinction, you will flaunt your ignorance”. The Australian Macquarie dictionary notes “Flaunt is commonly confused with flout”.

Nevertheless, ODO admits that in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) “the second and third commonest objects of flaunt, after wealth, are law and rules”.

While that is true, closer inspection reveals that the “correct” flout the law, flout the rules, are several times more frequent, and this is borne out by the Corpus of Contemporary American. So, while Merriam-Webster is less prescriptive than Oxford, Macquarie, and British style guides, in that it accepts the “wrong” use, these figures suggest that many more people actually maintain the distinction than ignore it.

Furthermore, only a very small percentage of examples of flaunt in the OEC show it being used to mean “flout”.



Given the current state of things, any reply to my original question has to be nuanced. So, if you read something that contains collocations such as flauntrules, regulations, convention, you could try to suppress a sigh for the total collapse and degradation of the English language and just give the writer the benefit of the doubt: it is presumably part of his or her idiolect.

Flaunt has been used to mean “flout” since the 1920s, according to the draft addition to the OED entry, and appears regularly, particularly in journalistic writing. At least one dictionary recognizes it as having that meaning; in the long run, others may accept it too.

On the other hand, if you are writing or editing something, there is an argument that it would be wise to maintain the distinction. In that way, you will avoid the involuntary sighs of many of your readers as they are distracted from the content of your message by what they see as a flaw in its form.


Home in or hone in? 20 words not to confuse (3-4)

[3-4 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

What’s the issue?confused-man-in-suit

Which of these two sentences is correct?

A teaching style which homes in on what is important for each pupil.


A teaching style which hones in on what is important for each pupil.

Where you live in the English-speaking world will affect your opinion.

Which also means that whichever version you use, someone somewhere will think it wrong.

Many people use hone in.

A US copywriter spotted “home in” in a blog of mine, and kindly pointed out what she thought was a typo. She was surprised when I told her it was intentional. In a straw poll in her office – this was in the US, remember – everyone agreed hone was correct.

Wearing my language purist hat, I would classify hone in as a malapropism or an eggcorn. malapropBut wearing my descriptivist hat, I would have to say it is an example of language change in action.


home_sweet_homeHome in is a metaphor, from home used as a verb to describe how a missile or aircraft is directed to a target, as in:

The other helicopter located the dinghy by homing in on the bleeping of the emergency distress call.

To hone means “to sharpen a knife with a whetstone”, or “to improve a skill or talent”.

What data is there?

I looked in the Oxford English Corpus, which consists of about 2.6 billion words of data from US, British and several other varieties of English.

First, home in is about 70% more frequent than hone in. But there is a noticeable contrast between British and US English. In US English, home in occurs 532 times, while hone in occurs 421 times. So, hone in constitutes getting on for half the total pie.

But in Britain the picture is rather different. Of the total pie, 85% are examples with home in.

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

Lost and Confused Signpost

Oxford Dictionaries Online in both World English and US versions notes at home in on that hone is quite common in mainstream US writing, but that many people still consider it a mistake, as do Collins and Macmillan lists it with no comment.

The OED doesn’t classify it as a mistake. Instead it notes that it is “originally US”, and gives the earliest example from 1965. The revised (4th) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage covers similar territory to this blog.

On the other side of the pond, Merriam-Webster notes the existence of hone in and suggests that it “seems to have become established in American usage”. The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004) gives “to direct one’s attention; focus” as a meaning of hone in. Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage considers it unequivocally wrong.


The hone in variant has been around for nearly half a century. It is used in many parts of the Anglosphere. Some dictionaries list it without comment, while others warn against it.

If you use it, you will not be misunderstood. However, if you do use it, bear in mind that some people will consider it a mistake, and therefore conclude that you can’t use English “correctly”. And others will come to the same conclusion if you use home in.

To steer clear of the problem, why not use focus on, concentrate on, zero in on, or any other synonym that suits your context?


Coruscating criticism or excoriating criticism?: 20 words not to confuse (1-2).

[1-2 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

There are dozens of words that are all too easy to confuse. There’s [sic] the obvious case of its’s/its, not to mention there/they’re/their.

(If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!)

But then there are a host of others which are rather more uncommon, even literary. Since many are words generally found in formal or literary writing, readers of which are likely to be more literate themselves, and therefore more critical, it could be a bit embarrassing for you as a writer to mistake one for the other.

Here are two of my top twenty. It’s well worth paying particular attention to them.


Coruscating is a journalistic favourite. Hacks in particular light on it in order to embellish their prose, all too often with scant regard for its true meaning.

It derives from the Latin coruscāre “to vibrate, glitter, sparkle, gleam”; “glittering” or “sparkling”, literally or metaphorically, is what it means in English, e.g. She preserves the steely delicacy and coruscating wit of Wilde’s writing.

So, it puzzles me that, despite its relative rarity, it is commonly misused in phrases such as coruscating attack, criticism, review by mistake for the slightly less rare but equally Latinate word excoriating.

This is the participial adjective of the verb excoriate, which in English has been used to mean literally “strip the skin off” someone, flayingand non-literally “criticize them mercilessly”, e.g. Audiences are excoriated for not understanding what composers write.

Even more embarrassing than misusing the word in the first place is to compound the stylistic felony by doubling coruscating’s single letter r, as noted in The Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column: “In the following article, Terry Eagleton’s ‘corruscating [sic] review’ of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion may have been withering or possibly even acidulous.”

Alternatives whose meaning would be clearer to reader and writer alike are blistering, devastating, and scathing.


Spanish loanwords borrowed by English: alligators and cockroaches



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What is a loanword? It sort of does what it says on the tin. It is a word one language loans or lends to another (though the lender doesn’t usually get it back, and no interest is paid). And the word loanword is itself a loan translation, purloined from German Lehnwort.

English is full of loanwords, as are most, if not all, European languages.


Our alligator combines the Spanish word for “lizard” lagarto, and the Spanish definite article el “the”. So, if you run the two together you get elligarto, which eventually was standardized as alligator, though previously spelt in at least a dozen different ways.

The word first appeared in its Spanish form lagarto in translations into English in the second half of the 16th century. It made an early appearance in Romeo and Juliet, when Ballet ArizonaRomeo is describing an impecunious apothecary’s shop:

And in his needie shop a tortoyes hung, An allegater stuft, and other skins Of ill shapte fishes, and about his shelves…

That is the spelling in the 1599 Quarto; in the 1597 Quarto it is Aligarta, which illustrates just how indeterminate the spelling originally was.

In the first half of the 17th century we find Sir Walter Raleigh raleigh and Ben Jonson still using the more Spanish spelling: Alegartos and Alligarta respectively. So why did the letters rt of that final -arto or -arta get swapped round to -ator? The OED suggests that it was by association with the agent suffix -ator, found in administrator, imitator, and so on.

This change of form suggests the influence of folk etymology: the process by which people change the shape of a strange, unfamiliar word to make it fit in with a more familiar word or pattern.


The ultimate shape of the word alligator suggests the influence of folk etymology on a mere suffix. With cockroach, the process transformed both elements of another Spanish word, cucaracha, into recognizable English ones: cock + roach. Many people will know the original word from the popular Mexican song:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene,
porque le falta
las dos patitas de atrás.

(The cockroach, the cockroach
Can’t walk anymore
Because it hasn’t
Because it’s missing
Its two rear leglets.)

The unpleasant bug first appeared in print in 1624 in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles by John Smith, a picaresque character, soldier, and Virginia’s first colonial governor:

A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.

Its spelling, like that of alligator, inevitably went through several mutations, before folk etymology pinned it down to its modern shape. For a long time it was hyphenated, and appears as Cock-roach in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).


A more recent example of folk etymology in action is chaise lounge, adapted from the French chaise longue. The word longue looks odd in English (a rare parallel is tongue), but a chaise longue is ideal for lounging; the alteration therefore seems quite logical. (Some are more for show than serious lounging, like Le Corbusier’s iconic creation.) le-corbusier-chaise-longue While chaise lounge is predominantly American, and not recognized as a British spelling, the OED shows it first in an impeccably British source: an edition of The Times of 1807.

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An Egyptian word borrowed by English: Chewing gum and pharaohs



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One of life’s minor irritations is having to prise a half-solidified wad of chewing gum off the sole of your shoe because some unthinking slob spat it onto the pavement. This scourge of the street could be avoided if other governments were as draconian as the Singaporean authorities: they allow the import solely of medicinal gum, which has to be prescribed by a doctor, and impose a hefty ban for spitting gum out on the street.

But the habit of chewing resin or gum of some kind goes back several millennia. In 1993 archaeologists in Sweden found three gobbets of 9,000-year-old sweetened birch resin that had clearly been chewed by a human—in fact, by a teenager. And the word gum itself can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.


It started its journey to English in the form we would write as kemai.

(That first syllable kem– already shows a connection with the modern masticatory habit: the g of our gum and the k of kemai can be considered phonetically two sides of the same coin: g is the “voiced” counterpart of k. Try saying the /k/sound of came on its own and then the /g/ sound of game to appreciate their connectedness.)

But before it knuckled down to its role in modern English, kemai did a lot of travelling: its gap year turned into several centuries.

First, the Greeks adopted it in the form kommi (κόμμι), retaining the k sound of the Egyptian. Pre-classical Greeks were profoundly influenced by Egyptian civilization, borrowing, among other things, some of their sculptural conventions in the “Archaic” period, before they achieved the extraordinary naturalism that we associate with their greatest sculptures.

The historian Herodotus mentions kommi in his description of how the Egyptians embalmed bodies: “and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue”.


This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.

From Greek it passed into Latin in the form cummi or gummi (classical Latin spelling, it seems, generally avoided the letter k). In late Latin the word changed to gumma, and was taken into Old French in the form gome. Thence it came into Middle English, in the prologue to Chaucer’s c1385 Legend of Good Women: “As for to speke of gomme or erbe or tre”. It makes another 14th century appearance, in the Wycliffite translation (before 1382) of the biblical Book of Jeremiah “Whether gumme is not in Galaad, or a leche is not there?

That passage is better known nowadays in the King James wording: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”, balm being a resin with medicinal properties, and thus an image for something that heals spiritually.

That image found powerful expression in the African American spiritual, the chorus of which is:

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.


Gum in English referred originally to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs that hardens on drying but is soluble in water, and from which adhesives and other products are made”. (In that sense, it contrasts with resin, which is insoluble in water).

From the 15th century onwards, it developed several meanings as a verb, including the modern one of “fastening with gum or glue”, which led to the further image in the phrasal verb gum up of clogging something up.

That meaning seems first to have developed in the US: the OED’s first quote is from an 1874 report by an American mining engineer. Nearly 50 years later, another US quote encloses it in quotation marks to indicate the writer’s doubts about its uncertain status, as novelty or slang.

The US has also given us two words for different kinds of footwear incorporating gum in the sense of “India rubber”. Gumboots (1850) are rubber boots or wellington boots; the word seems to be rarely used in British and US English nowadays, but is still going strong in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Much more evocative is the word gumshoes (1863), meaning galoshes. It first appeared in 1906 in relation to detective work in A.H. Lewis’s Confessions of a Detective: “You’re d’gum-shoe guy I was waitin’ fer… It was Inspector Val tells me to lay for you“.


Nowadays of course, gum generally means chewing gum, an industry apparently worth 19 billion dollars a year. That shorthand use goes back as far as 1842: “[She] asked me if I didn’t want A piece of gum to chaw”. At that time the gum would have been spruce gum.

It was not until 1871 that gum developed in its modern form, using chicle, a natural gum from various types of Central-American trees. (Chicle is the Spanish the word for chewing gum.) In Argentine Spanish the English chewing gum has been phonetically adapted as chuenga (pronounced chwenga) to mean a kind of sweet that stuck like a limpet to your teeth.

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Eggcorns: On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks?


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What does it mean?

As we all know, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because we don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as we feared, be it A-level results, a job application, a medical test: “Britain’s farmers have been on tenterhooks since a vet found lesions–possible signs of foot and mouth disease–in the mouths of two sheep at the farm on Tuesday.”

Where does it come from?

Why tenterhooks? Most people absorb the phrase as a whole (or Gestalt, if we want to be pretentious): they grasp the meaning without analysing its constituents. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenderhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is?

Well, it’s all to do with tenters—who are not people who have anything to do with tents or camping. In fact, they are not people at all. (There is a word tenter meaning someone who lives in a tent, but that’s a different word.)

The tenter we’re interested in is, according to the OED, “a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”. The OED also points out that tenters once stood in the open air in tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts.

And in some antique panoramas of cities before or during industrialization the surrounding fields are filled with white waves of cloth suspended on tenters.

In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but mid-, I guess, though I’m no costume expert) rows of tenters in some of the fields can just about be made out.

The origin of the word tenter, again according to the OED, is not certain, but may have to do with the Latin for stretching (tendĕre) or with the French for dye (teint).

And tenterhooks are?

As the OED puts it: “one of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung”.

How old is the word?

Tenters is first recorded in its literal sense from the 1300s (“Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a tey[n]tur”, Modern English: “When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the cross as men doth cloth on a tenter“), while the last OED citation is from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849).

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV. Another sartorial context (1579) is provided by the Office of the revels of Queen Elizabeth I. You could buy a lot of them very cheap (by today’s standards): “Tainter Hookes at viiid the c.“.


How old is the metaphor?

Very. Tenters was used in several phrases such as to put or stretch on the tenters in the 16th century. The next two quotations suggest by their visual immediacy how much tenters must have been part of everyday life. From the author of that jewel of our language The Book of Common Prayer, and Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer (1551): “But the Papistes haue set Christes wordes vppon the tenters and stretched them owt so farre, that they make his wordes to signyfy as pleaseth them, not as he ment”, (not a sentiment calculated to endear him to Queen Mary).

And in this simile by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker (1602): “O Night, that…like a cloth of cloudes dost stretch thy limbes; Vpon the windy Tenters of the Ayre“.


Tenterhooks was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond in various metaphors suggesting something causing suffering, and also the idea of stretching something beyond its proper bounds, as in this Isaac Disraeli (the Prime Minister’s dad) quote: “Honest men…sometimes strain truth on the tenter-hooks of fiction” (or, as we’d say nowadays, “are economical with the truth”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tentherhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only in 1748 in Smollett, and in its canonical form not until 1812, in the diary of soldier and diplomat Sir Robert Thomas Wilson: “Until I reach the imperial headquarters I shall be on tenter-hooks“.

Byron used the spelling “tender” – or did he?

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The line from Don Juan runs as follows:

[It] keeps the atrocious reader in suspense; The surest way for ladies and for books To bait their tender or their tenter-hooks.

Does tender here go with hooks? Or is it used in the meaning of “offering”?

How frequent is the eggcorn version?

To be on tenderhooks is relatively well known among eggcornisti, and seems to me to be part of the “eggcorn canon”. But, actually, how frequent is it? I’ve looked at various sources, such as the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American, of Historical American, and Google books (US), which all suggest that it isn’t at all frequent, at least in written sources. For instance, in the GloWbE (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English) it occurs 3 times against 241 for the correct version. Similarly in Google US books (155 billion words) the figures are 57 to 8,238.

Dictionaries don’t accept the eggcorn, and judging by relative frequency are unlikely to for a long time.


Whereas or where as? One word or two?

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Where as???

Reading The Times recently I was struck by the following sentence: “He was apolitical. He [sc. Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi PM] never mentioned Iraq where as some students were vociferous”, Aug 16 2014.

It had never occurred to me that whereas might be written as two words, though it could easily be, since it is just a combination. There are several “words” which are sometimes written as one unit and sometimes as two, for example under way and underway, any more and anymore, and so forth. But whereas is not one of those: no current dictionary that I know of accepts the two-word spelling.

A quick check in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows that whereas whereas as a single word appears over 100,000 times—as two words it’s in the hundreds.

It is impossible to give an exact figure, because searching for the string where as also finds sentences such as “Wolfowitz joined the bank in 2005 after working at the Pentagon, where as deputy defense secretary he was…”. What is clear, however, is that it is unusual, i.e. less than one per cent of cases. The OEC data also suggests that it occurs often in news and blog sources (come back subs, all is forgiven!).

Historically, it was originally two words. The earliest OED example is from The Paston Letters (1426-7), in the meaning now largely confined to legal writing, ‘taking into consideration the fact that’:

Where as þe seyd William Paston, by assignement and commaundement of þe seyd Duk of Norffolk…was þe styward of þe seyd Duc of Norffolk.

In its principal modern meaning (“in contrast”) it first appears in Coverdale’s Bible (1535), also as two words:

There are layed vp for vs dwellynges of health & fredome, where as we haue lyued euell.

(From Book 2 of Esdras, not included in the AV.)

The first OED citation for it as one word is in Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1 (written before 1616).

I deriued am From Lionel Duke of Clarence…; whereas hee, From Iohn of Gaunt doth bring his Pedigree.

So, while there are historical precedents for the two-word spelling, whereas is one of those words that current spelling convention decrees should not be sundered.


As a historical footnote, it is interesting that the legalistic, ritual use of whereas as a preamble to legal documents led to its being used as a noun, defined as follows in the Urban Dictionary of its day, Grose’s 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar TongueTo follow a whereas; to become a bankrupt…: the notice given in the Gazette that a commission of bankruptcy is issued out against any trader, always beginning with the word whereas.


Lovely Lady Mondegreen

Has this happened to you?

How often do we ask someone to repeat something we didn’t quite catch? Then sometimes we don’t ask and we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It must have happened to everyone at some point. An extreme example is when someone is hard of hearing. A contributor to an online forum mentioned her somewhat deaf father’s hilarious mishearings: asked for a passage from scripture he understood a boa constrictor.


One form of language that is easy to mishear or misinterpret is songs, hymns, and anthems. The often-quoted classic example is Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky being understood as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Wikipedia suggests that Jimi knew about this mishearing and played up to it.

gladly-cross-eyed-bearAnother example, possibly mythical, is Gladly, the cross-eyed bear for Gladly my cross I’ll bear from a late nineteenth-century hymn.

Keep Thou my all, O Lord, hide my life in Thine;
O let Thy sacred light over my pathway shine;
Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I’ll bear;
Hear Thou and grant my prayer, hide my life in Thine.

From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.

Kids often do it

We always want to make sense of what we hear. So if the sounds that reach our ears don’t make sense to our brains, we reinterpret them or fill in the gaps with words we do know. Adults don’t have to do that too often, because they know a lot. Children know less about the world, and fewer words. That’s why they can interpret words new to them in strange ways.


What did you learn at school today?


I know a song about rabbits!


Oh? Can you sing it…?


Oh yes! it goes – Speed, bunny boat, like a bird on the wing…!

A special name for slips of the ear

Slips of the ear of this kind are known as mondegreens. The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the word in 1954, and she explained why:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen'”. But the exact words of the ballad are (in the closest I can find to the original Scots):

YE highlands, and ye lawlands, Oh! quhair hae ye been? They hae slaine the Earl of Murray, And hae laid him on the green.

Her mishearing of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” illustrates the mistaken analysis of word boundaries that is typical of mondegreens. Technically, it is known as metanalysis. Historically, metanalysis has produced an adder from a nadder and a newt from an ewt. Ultimately, it gave us an orange from the Arabic nāranj.
Perhaps Lady Mondegreen looked as sad as this when she lost her Earl of Murray.

The celebrated columnnist William Safire commented on mondegreens and similar here. I blogged previously about the similar phenomenon of eggcorns.


Eggcorns. What are they?

There are hundreds of quaint British folk practices and events, from Gloucestershire cheese rolling to Morris Dancing and Derbyshire well-dressing. Hunting for eggcorns is not a folk tradition, but it can be an entertaining linguistic pastime. “Eggcorn” is the term for

a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting another, with an element of the original being replaced by one which sounds very similar.

Eggcorns must by definition sound similar or identical to the original. They are “slips of the ear”. But they must also make sense in their own terms. A common eggcorn that sounds exactly like the original is to the manor born instead of to the manner born (from Hamlet). Eggcorns that diverge from the original by only one sound are miniscule instead of minuscule and mute point for moot point. My favourites include to have a poncho for something, the Nuke of the North (Nanook of the North), and to go off on a tandem.

What are yours?

Why are they called “eggcorns”?

Try saying “acorn” in a slow, southern-US-states drawl, and pronounce the c like a g, and it will probably sound like “eggcorn”. This spelling is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from as far back as 1844, in a letter:

“I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon”

John Sutter, A.L. Hurtado, 2006.

There are two points to note about this spelling. First, it made complete sense to the writer. Semantically egg corn fits well, because from acorns come trees, as chickens do from eggs; acorns are vaguely egg-shaped; and an acorn in its cup could conjure up the image of an egg in its egg cup.

The second point is that people quite often twist words and phrases into new shapes in a similar way. So widespread is the phenomenon that the linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum coined this term “egg corn” for it in 2003. Since then, the term has become widely used in linguistic discussions, and there is even an online database of examples.

Why do eggcorns happen?

Eggcorns often affect obscure or archaic words or meanings. A good example is the conversion of the original Shakespearean in one fell swoop into in one foul swoop.

A jungle fowl in India's Corbett National Park. This species is the ancestor of the modern chicken.

A jungle fowl in India’s Corbett National Park. This species is the ancestor of the modern chicken.

Fell as an adjective no longer exists, and is therefore not meaningful to speakers, whereas foul conveys the perceived meaning of the phrase, which often describes undesirable events. In a further “eggcornization”, the phrase also appears as in one fowl swoop.

Uneducated slips or educated guesses?

Eggcorns explain phrases that can, at first sight, look like bizarre mistakes, such as the Delhi lama, the Dahlia Lama, Asparagus syndrome (Asperger’s syndrome), above/beyond approach (above /beyond reproach), and countless others. Once you knows about eggcorns, it can be entertaining to listen and look out for them. To do so is even, perversely, a way of celebrating the playfulness of language.

While eggcorns do cause mirth, it would be condescending to be superior and view them as signs of poor literacy. Many fit specific phonetic patterns, and illustrate systematic phonetic trends. They also display people’s intelligence and ingenuity in making sense of what they hear, which is, after all, what we do all the time with any speech we hear.

An eggcorn grows a folk etymology


Eggcorns can even develop their own folk etymology in that word’s meaning of inventing a colourful but incorrect origin for a phrase. British novelist Jeannette Winterson reported a delightful example:

‘…I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.” “The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly…where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’”.’

Times, 13 May 2006

An “autological” word

The term eggcorn is a rare example of a word that is “autological”, namely a word that is itself a member of or has features of the category it describes. Other examples of autological words are short (the word itself is short) and sesquipedalian (“having many syllables”).

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The legendary aardvark. First word in the dictionary?

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Everyone knows the word, but how many have ever seen the animal? The definition

medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites

does not make the beast sound immediately prepossessing, yet some people find this Cyrano de Bergerac of the animal kingdom cute. (The wording of that Oxford English Dictionary definition could also suggest, somewhat surreally, that it is the critter’s tail which feeds solely on ants and termites).

The aardvark is not mythical, like the phoenix, since it really exists, but it has its own urban myth. Ask anyone which word comes first in a dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark“. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word is…

That honour usually goes to the letter A, as in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). You might think a simple letter would be child’s play to define. In fact, the OED divides it into no fewer than 33 senses, including everyday meanings such as the musical note, and more technical ones such as A as a socio-economic grouping and A for Ångström.

Dozens of abbreviations follow before the next entry, the humble but indispensable indefinite article (aka “general determiner”) a. It is followed by numerous entries for a in different guises, such as in Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin“, as a prefix (asexual), and as a Latin or Greek suffix (idea, data).

Finally, we strike gold with the first truly lexical entry. And it is? (A very muffled drumroll for) aa, meaning a stream or watercourse, last spotted in 1430 and marked as not only obsolete but rare. Several more curiosities, including some that may be useful for Scrabblists, intervene (aal, from Hindi, the Indian mulberry tree, aapa, from Urdu, meaning older sister) before we get back to our ant-eating, ground-digging mammal with its thirty-centimetre-long tongue.

Why “aardvark”?

South African Dutch, which became Afrikaans, is the language from which English borrowed aardvark, originally written as aardvarken. The aard- part is the Dutch word aarde, which means “earth” and comes from the same Germanic stock as the English word. (The connection between the two is easier to see in the medieval Dutch form of the word, which was ertha.) The -varken part means “pig”. And the animal is also called earth-hog and earth-pig in a loan translation.

Another sign of how English and Afrikaans are ultimately related can be seen in the word Apartheid. It meant literally “apart-ness”, and the -heid element matches the -hood of childhood, priesthood, and other “-hoods“.

Other Afrikaans words in World English

south_african_flagAfrikaans is an offshoot of Dutch, and is one of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Its gifts to World English include trek as a noun and verb, and commandeer. Commandeer is multiply borrowed, a bit like a parent’s car, in that it was borrowed from Afrikaans kommandeer, which borrowed it from Dutch commanderen, which borrowed it from French commander. Phew!

It rose to prominence in British English during the First Boer War of 1880-1881. It was originally used to mean “to force into military service”, as The Times reported on 5 February 1881:

The night previously the Boers had commandeered the natives…and compelled them to fight.

Its more metaphorical meaning of taking arbitrary possession of something came later:

The naïve claims put forward by the Boers to some special Providence—a process which a friendly German critic described as “commandeering the Almighty”.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1900.

Rather more colourful is scoff, the informal noun for food. It is from Afrikaans schoff, representing Dutch schoft “quarter of a day”, hence the four meals in a day. The OED’s first quotation comes from the 1846 Swell’s Night Guide; or, a peep through The Great Metropolis, a rather louche guide for the man about town in search of interesting nightlife, including casual sex (plus ça change):

It vas hout-and-hout good scoff, and no flies.

(The spelling is not a mistake. It presumably mimics the speaker’s accent.)

And a word which demands a wider airing is stompie, a cigarette butt, or a partially-smoked cigarette, especially one stubbed out and kept for relighting later, as in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s

The whiteman stopped the bulldozer and smoked a cigarette… He threw me the stompie.


'Keep Britain Tidy' Drops 30ft Drop 30ft Cigarette Butt On Trafaler Square


‘Lavatory fittings’. Should we flush -ize/-ise verbs down the toilet?


Many editors and other assorted word buffs have a pathological aversion to some words ending in -ize (or -ise, it doesn’ t matter which, I’ll use –ize below to stand for them both), and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English.

Why? Sometimes it seems almost like a blood feud: just as venomous and visceral, and just as unreasonable.

A history of contempt

NPG D25501; Thomas Nash after Unknown artist Since the 19th century usage gurus have repeatedly condemned them; and it seems that even in Elizabethan times Thomas Nashe’s use of the suffix to coin new words upset some of his contemporaries.

Lavatory fittings

The novelist, MP, and campaigner for plain language Sir Alan Herbert compared verbs ending in -ize to lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place, but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.

(He also quipped:

 If nobody said anything unless he knew what he was talking about a ghastly hush would descend upon the earth.)

Perhaps people’s antipathy to such words is simply a question of their novelty, either real or perceived.

In the 19th century jeopardize was a favourite target (of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, among others).  In the earlier 20th century finalize came in for a lot of flack.

Who now raises an eyebrow about either?

In 1982 the eminent lexicographer Robert Burchfield described prioritize as

a word that at present sits uneasily in the language

While some people still consider it an uninvited guest, it seems to have made itself at home and got its feet well under the table.

And who bats an eyelid (the idioms are galloping away with me today) about authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).

A public convenience

DiaryOne criticism of –ize verbs is that they are ugly, or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.

I would argue that most -ize verbs are a very convenient way of packaging in one word meanings and connotations that would otherwise take several.

They are beautifully (or uglily, for many) economical.

Take a word which, as it happens, is more common in British than in American English, despite probably sounding to many Brits like an Americanism; and, far from being new, was first used—albeit in a different meaning—in 1827: diarize/diarise.

It expresses “to put in one’s diary” in a single word. How convenient is that?

Let’s incentivize our offering

Another current bête noire is incentivize. It is one of the more than 100 -ize verbs the Oxford English Dictionary lists as having been coined after 1950.

Again, it is conveniently economical. Compare its single-wordness with the OED definition.
To motivate or encourage (a person, esp. an employee or customer) by providing a (usually financial) incentive; also with to and infinitive. Also: to make (a product, scheme, etc.) attractive by offering an incentive for purchase or participation.”

As long ago as 1996, Burchfield wisely observed:
One must be careful not to give the thumbs down to words simply because one has not encountered them before. … Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in –ization and –ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.

I agree wholeheartedly.

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Confused about -ize and -ise? (Part 2)

Which words can be either -ize or -ise?

This rule of thumb may help. (Please let me know how it works for you.)

If there is a noun or adjective to which you can relate the verb, then the verb can most probably be written either way. For example:

final –> finalise/finalize

real –> realise/realize

critic –> criticise/criticize

Which words are only written -ise?

My related blog on the topic lists the most common ones. Applying my rule of thumb, you can tell that words like the ones below can only ever be written -ise because there is no current, existing word to which they can be related.


Some of the verbs always written -ise are related to nouns, of course. For example, advertise and televise. So, if you remember that advertisement and television both have -is-, you are more likely to spell the verbs correctly.

If you want to check online which words can be spelt either way, the Oxford Dictionary Online shows the alternatives very clearly, and it has both World English and US English versions.

Is -ize American?

No. It is not a modern “American invention”, as some British speakers might think.

Spellings in -ize have existed since the 15th century, for example, organize from 1425, and realize from 1611, and that’s the way Dr Johnson spelled those words in his 1755 dictionary.

It’s all Greek to me

The -ize ending is very ancient indeed. It comes to us from Ancient Greek.

A politically important word in which it featured was the ancestor of our modern ostracize. I find it thrilling to think that there is a direct line of descent to ostracize from the Athens of 2,500 years ago. Then its infinitive was pronounced something like os-trah-ki-zayn, with a k, not an s, sound. (Not to mention that it was written ὀστρακίζειν, and meant “to banish”.)

Early Christian writers Latinized some key Greek words ending with the -izo suffix, such as “to baptize” – βαπτίζεινwhich then passed into Old English, the first known example being spelt baptize rather than baptise.


So where does -ise come from?

In a nutshell, some of the words for which either spelling is possible came from French. And in French the ending is always -iser. Examples are civilise / civilize, and humanise / humanize. Many of the words which can only ever be spelt –ise came into English directly from French: apprise / comprise / surmise. They are formed on the basis of the French past participle ending in -is: think of the French phrase Vous avez compris? (“Have you understood?”)

Amn’t I forgetting something?

I haven’t said yet that the seesaw between s and z applies to derived words as well:

globalization / globalization
/ localization

It also applies to verbs which have a y before the s or z, such as analyse, catalyse and  paralyse, where -yse is the norm  in British English and -yze is the rule in American English.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in the matter of -ise versus -ize, it is important to be ruthlessly consistent within a document, series of documents, or house style.

Why do some people dislike verbs such as prioritize and diarize?

That’s a topic I’ll come back to in a future blog.

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Confused about -ize and -ise? (Part 1)

One little letter makes a world of difference

We use dozens of common verbs which can be spelt -ise or -ize, such as

  • glamo(u)rize / glamourise
  • romanticize / romanticise
  • socialize / socialise
  • trivialize / trivialise

Many people think that there is a hard-and-fast rule: in American English you spell such words -ize, and in British English you spell them -ise.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, in two main ways.

First, some words should always, always, always be spelt -ise, no matter where in the English-speaking world you are writing. A classic one is advertiSe. Although you may see it written as advertiZe, that is definitely wrong.

Second, even in British style it is perfectly acceptable to spell with -ize those words which have two possible forms (unlike advertise, which only ever has one).

How to decide which to use

Different authorities and institutions have different views. Oxford University Press, for example, favours the -ize spelling, but Cambridge University Press prefers -ise, as do The Guardian, The Economist and The Telegraph. Choosing one form or the other is part of their “house style”: the rules they lay down for their writers. images

If you are not bound by a house style, you can make up your own mind whether to use -ise or -ize.

The important thing is to be consistent within a document, or series of documents, for a given client.

But do bear in mind that if you are writing for the British market, some readers may scratch their heads when they see -ize spellings, so that could distract them from your message. On the other hand, many Americans will simply consider the –ise spelling wrong.

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!
Many large organizations will have a house style, which their staff are supposed to stick to.

So, which words must I always spell -ise?

Here are some of the most common ones:



The related blog on this topic looks into why this pesky spelling difference exists in the first place.

Which of the words above has you scratching your head most?

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Spice up your business writing with strong headings – (Part 1)

Why have headings?

OMG! What is this book all about?


We live in a sound bite world. People want information in short, memorable chunks. And they want it now.

So, headings should summarize for your readers the section that follows, and whet their curiosity.

Headings are your sound bites.

Your headings should ideally be sound bites for your topic, your opportunity to ‘speak’ to the reader, and they should be as appealing as you can make them. That way you will inspire people  to read on, and make their task easier and pleasanter.

Take a tip from the newspapers.

Try imagining a newspaper without headlines. How would any reader know which articles they wanted to read? Your headings serve exactly the same purpose as newspaper headlines. They direct readers to what interests them.

Not everyone will read everything you’ve written. They’ll pick and choose and they’ll skim.  It’s your job to direct them to the information most relevant to them personally.

Good headings help them see at a glance where and what that is. And they’ll feel pleased that you’ve helped them extract the information they want as quickly as possible.

Headings help you plan.

But headings don’t just help your readers: they help you too.

First, they are a great tool for planning in outline what you’re going to write about. (And planning is essential.)

Actually, I suggest you write your headings before you write anything else.

As you write them, your document is already taking shape before your eyes, which is very motivating. Also, by dealing with only the headings, you avoid getting bogged down in wording and grammar issues.

Second, headings assist you in organizing your thoughts so as to create a structure for your document.  If you use ‘Outline View’ in Word, you can upgrade,  downgrade or change the order of headings in your hierarchy of information.

Finally, headings help you be sure you have covered everything you should, and left out what you do not need.

Using your headings to give you  a clear structure before you start writing detailed content will save you time and effort in rewriting and researching.

If you have any outstanding examples of headings, I’d love to see them.

About Jeremy Butterfield

Published author, wordsmith, copywriter, editor and lover of words.

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services in the Southwest of England, including

Bristol, Bath, Avon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.

You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield


Alice bands and Alice in Wonderland

What’s in a name?

We all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the first Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. wellies_with_flowersPerhaps less well known is the link between the mac – in British English, at any rate – that we might also wear and its inventor, the deviser of the waterproof cloth from which macs are made, Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), the Scottish inventor who patented the cloth. Many units of scientific measurement, both everyday and more specialized, are named after their discoverers: the Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta gave us volts, the Scottish engineer James Watt gave us, er, … watts, and the Belfast-born Lord Kelvin gave his name to the units in which absolute temperature is measured.

Such words, derived from someone’s name, are technically called eponyms, a word created in the 19th century from the Greek epōnumos “given as a name, giving one’s name to someone or something”, from epi “upon” + onoma “name” (ἐπώνυμος; ἐπί + ὄνομα, Aeolic ὄνυμα name). The same Greek word for “name” has given English also anonymous and synonym(ous). And when people refer to the eponymous hero of such and such a novel, e.g. Fielding’s Tom Jones, they mean that the title of the novel is its protagonist’s name.


A male-dominated field

As in so many areas, when it comes to items of apparel [*] or ornament there is a severe gender imbalance. While the list of male-named clothes includes wellies, cardigans, knickers, leotards, raglan sleeves, Nehru jackets, Mao collars, Van Dyke collars, Prince Alberts, etc., the roll call of those named after women is rather shorter. One that easily springs to mind is Alice band.

Alice band – a flexible hairband of cloth, elastic, plastic, or other material that women and girls wear to keep their hair in place.

The Alice in question is the protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) [AAIW] and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found there [TL-G] 1871. The term was obviously inspired by (Sir John) Tenniel’s (1820-1914) illustrations, but was first recorded only as late as 1944, at least according to the OED.

Now you see it, now you don’t.
Alice in Wonderland vs Through the Looking Glass

In Tenniel’s illustrations (woodblock engravings) for AAIW, Alice is not once portrayed wearing anything in her hair. In the whole text the word hair is only mentioned seven times, including at the Mad Tea-Party (often known as the “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party”, though Carroll did not use the phrase “mad hatter”) alice_b-w-teaparty

“Your hair wants cutting,”

said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,”

Alice said with some severity;

“it’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was,

“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”


Nearly at the very end of the story, Alice’s older sister (who is nameless) also falls into a dream, in which “she could hear the very tones of her [Alice’s] voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes”.

In TL-G, where Alice’s hair plays a more important role, aliceAlice is uniformly presented as having her formerly unruly hair kept in place by what looks like a broad ribbon tied in a neat bow. Such a hairstyle seems to have been standard for Victorian girls at the time.

In 1890, Tenniel selected, adapted and added colour to 20 of his original illustrations from AAIW for a nursery version (complete set of images at the British Library: here). Perhaps by this stage Alice’s ribbon or headband had become an integral part of her image: at any rate, Tenniel added one, which the original illustration lacked, as well as making changes to Alice’s dress. [***]


Illustration from The Nursery Alice.

Illustration from AAIW.

Illustration from AAIW.

A male accessory?

But Alice bands are not worn only by women or girls. Footballers with long hair also wear them to keep their locks out of their faces when playing the beautiful game. The first sleb footballer to have worn one seems to have been uber-metrosexual David Beckham alice_band_Beckham_Hair8. Others have emulated him, including Ronaldo. But the fashion is still hardly mainstream: when Gareth Bale wore one, it was newsworthy enough – at least in the eyes of the journo who wrote it – to merit comment on The Independent’s website.

Tangentially, there is also a question of definition: when does an “Alice band” become a “headband”? It must be all to do with the width of the band, as in this photo of Nadal.


After all, what man is going to buy an Alice band when he can buy a headband?

[*] Another of those myriad British/US English differences. Apparel sounds quaint & poetic in BrE, but is a standard word in US English used by shops where BrE would use “clothing”: a sale on summer apparel for women. There is even a verb: a designer who regularly apparels several of the presenters at the Oscar ceremonies. (Both examples from Merriam-Webster online.)

[**] Answer to the Hatter’s riddle: Lewis Carroll’s Author’s Note: Christmas, 1896. “Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle … can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat ; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought : the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

[***] It seems that Carroll gave Tenniel very precise instructions about the illustrations. Until I did some online digging for this blog, I was unfamiliar with Carroll’s own illustrations for the forerunner of AAIW, Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Many of them foreshadow the better-known Tenniel versions, as here, and illustrate how a great graphic artist can turn a rough sketch into a compelling image:

Lewis Carroll's sketch.

Lewis Carroll’s sketch.

Tenniel's version.

Tenniel’s version.


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