Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


W.H. Auden: Happy (108th) Birthday!

As the great man was born on this day, 108 years ago, I couldn’t resist posting one of my favourite poems from his work.

I still remember how startled I was all those years ago – the early 1970s – when I turned a corner in Oxford and almost bumped into the owner of that famously lined reptilian face (“like a wedding cake left out in the rain”). He was going from the High Street into Radcliffe Square behind the University Church, shuffling along in his carpet slippers, his skin a spectral shade of grey. It must have been when Christ Church were putting him up, and therefore not that long before his death.


Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course024
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

In a rather nice touch, York City Council commissioned a spiral pavement outside their headquarters in the converted old railway station, with the opening words of “As I walked out one evening…” on it.


The only image I can find online is this one, of its being built, and it doesn’t really do it justice. You look down on it from the pavement from where this photo must have been taken, and the words are easily legible. When I briefly stayed in York I used to walk past it practically every day, and it never failed to delight me.

And for a slightly chilling, unsettling experience, here is a recording of him reading and an animation of his face.

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!



Pancake Day: a pancake recipe linguistic

Butter…eggs…milk…flour…water…sugar…lemon. Those are the basic ingredients of and garnish for a pancake (thanks Delia!).

Simple, everyday words, but ones with complex histories that illustrate why English is such a succulent concoction of so many other languages.

If we look at where those words ultimately come from–simplifying considerably–what do we discover?
butter (Greek)
eggs (Old Norse)
milk, water (Germanic, Indo-European)
sugar, lemon (Arabic)

And if you also use syrup, that’s another word from Arabic.

Each has a curious story to tell.

(Flour has too, but it’s a different tale: it’s a specialized spelling of flower.)

Let’s look at a couple of these words in more detail.

Fine words butter no parsnips

…but butter is essential to make the pancake batter (from French, btw).

How on earth did “butter” come all the way from Ancient Greece?

Like this. The Ancient Greeks seem not to have used butter for cooking, but they knew of its existence. The fifth-century (BCE) historian Herodotus wrote the earliest account, describing how “the Scythians poured the milk of mares into wooden vessels, caused it to be violently stirred or shaken churning-butterby their blind slaves, and thus separated the part that arose to the surface, which they considered more valuable and more delicious than that which was collected below it”.

Hippocrates, the “father of medicine”, he of the Hippocratic oath, also mentioned butter several times, and prescribed it externally as a medicine. He too described the Scythians making it, and wrote that they called it βούτυρον (bouturon).

Folk etymology or loanword?

The 1888 OED entry states that this “Greek [word] is usually supposed to be βοῦς [bous] ox or cow + τυρός [turos] cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.” In other words, the derivation from Greek might be a folk etymology, and the Greek word might in fact be a loanword.

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!

What the Romans did with butter


Alma-Tadema’s soft porn masquerading as classicism. Exquisitely painted, though!

Greek βούτυρον was borrowed by the Romans as butyrum. They, like the Greeks, did not use it in cooking either, but as an ointment in baths (yuck!) or for medicinal purposes, such as mixing it with honey to rub on mouth ulcers or to ease the pain suffered by teething infants.

Finally, the word reaches Britain

Old English had borrowed it at least by the year 1000 CE, when it appears in Anglo-Saxon medicine in the form butere as a remedy for swellings or boils, mixed (if I’ve translated correctly) with pounded yarrow.

English is technically a “West Germanic” language, and its cousins German, Frisian and Dutch all also borrowed the word for “butter” from Latin, which is why the modern German is butter, and the Dutch boter.

Beware of Vikings bearing eggs

Another of the ingredients of current English is Old Norse words brought over by the Vikings during their incursions (I choose my word carefully)  into the British Isles and Ireland from the late eighth century onwards.

Many of them are basic to our vocabulary: words to do with the body, such as ankle, calf, freckle, scab and skin; or basic verbs such as get, give, take and want. These words often replaced earlier Old English words, and **egg is a Norse interloper (the -loper part of which is from Dutch).

The older word was **ey, (plural eyren) derived from Old English ǣg. It seems that the two different words were used concurrently, but by people from different parts of Britain.


One of the best-known illustrations (or “iconic moments“, if you want to be kitschy) of the history of English concerns these lexical twins.

In his prologue to his translation of The boke yf Eneydos… translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton (i.e. a paraphrase of what we know as Virgil’s Aeneid), Caxton wrote:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.

(What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity of and change in language.)

Caxton was echoing the uncertainty about how to write words at a time when English spelling was becoming a very pressing issue because of the spread of printed books. Dialects within Britain varied far more than they do today, and for Caxton it was important to choose words and spellings that would be understood by as many people as possible.

His remark follows a piquant story

Some merchants–presumably from the north of England, since one is called Sheffield–being becalmed on the Thames and unable to set sail for Holland, want to have something to eat and try to buy eggs from a woman dahn sahf (down south).

The merchants use the Norse and northern English version egges; she uses the southern version eyren. She either was unable to understand, or, like a typical southerner today, decided to wind up the northerner by pretending not to. She added insult to injury by taking him for that worst of all things…a Frenchman!

And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother…And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.

(Modern English version at the end of the blog.)

What about pancake?

Simples! It’s a straightforward, Middle English combination of pan (related to German Pfanne, and perhaps also ultimately from Latin) + cake (again, like egg, from Scandinavia).


**The Old Norse is echoed in the modern Scandinavian languages: Icelandic & Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg, Danish æg; the Middle English ey(e) in modern German and Dutch ei.

In present day English:
“And that common English that is spoken on one shire differs from another…And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted “eyren”. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.”

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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

mary-poppins(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.

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!


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.

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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.

(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!)


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.

(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!)

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 withdiffuse 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


To decry or descry an evil? 20 words not to confuse (13-14)

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[13-14 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

A rare confusion

Only one letter separates these two not particularly frequent words, so perhaps it is hardly surprising that they are very occasionally confused.

Though distantly related in origin (see further down) they now have widely different meanings. If you remove the prefix de- of decry, you are left with cry. And in fact that prefix has historically been interpreted as “down”. So, if it helps to distinguish the two words, think of decrying something as crying it down.

A profile of decry

Of the two, decry is by far the commoner, but even so it only occurs about 2.6 times in every million words of texts in the massive Oxford English Corpus (OEC). (For comparison, criticize occurs 40 times every million.)

If you decry something, you publicly express your severe disapproval of it.

As part of its semantic profile, typical objects are the lack or absence of something, the decline in something, the evils of something, and generally disparaged vices, attitudes and facts such as racism, greed, inequality, hypocrisy.

Typical subjects are critics, purists, feminists, pundits, liberals and conservatives. Approximate synonyms are denounce and condemn, which could replace it in some of the examples below, all of which are authentic (i.e. not made up) and from written texts, mostly in the OEC :

  • They decried human rights abuses.—Oxford Dictionary Online
  • She decries the spread of tower blocks and the failure to turn derelict sites into green spaces.—Evening Standard, 2007
  • The Archbishop will also decry the lack of moral vision displayed by MPs compared to the likes of William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago.—The Telegraph, 2007
  • Feminists have long decried psychology’s devaluing of women’s voices in treatment decisions.— Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 2002
  • #CameronMustGo: Twitter users decry Cameron’s record.—Guardian, 24 November, 2014


If you descry something or someone, you catch a glimpse of them, or catch sight of them, often from a distance, or with difficulty. It occurs in a ratio roughly of 1:40 to decry, and is typical of formal, journalistic or literary registers. (Some of the occurrences of the form descried are actually typos for described)

  • To meet Albert, whom I descried coming towards us.—Queen Victoria’s Journal, 1868


  • Her thoughts were brought to an abrupt end, as she descried two figures on their way up the path—J. Ashe, 1993
  • While he clearly indicates productions he considers successful, I would be hard-pressed to descry a pattern among them.—OEC, 2000.
  • Peering over his shoulder, I descried that he was studying “Malley’s” 16th poem, “Petit Testament,” with its reference to – “Quick. Watson,” he cried. sherlock_holmes“The Shakespeare!” I sprang to the bookshelves.—Jacket Magazine, 2002
  • Through the murk of battle, the fog of US and British military communiques and the more deftly presented Iraqi bulletins, we can begin to descry the shape of things to come.—Sunday Business Post, 2003

The two should not be confused, as has happened in the next example:

X I have some sympathy with people who descry this, and who argue that society’s easy tolerance of single mothers…is actually fostering moral irresponsibility.—OEC, 2005

Fascinating origins: decry

Decry was first used in the early 17th century in the sense “decrease the value of coins by royal proclamation” — in other words, a form of devaluation. Its etymology is de- “down” + cry, from the French décrier , to “cry down”.

The OED first records it in a quotation from the catchily titled 1617 work of the extraordinary Elizabethan traveller and writer Fynes Moryson (of whom more below): An itinerary…containing his ten yeeres travell through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland [sc. modern Czech Republic], Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Divided into three parts.

(it appears that the OED contains nearly 1,400 quotations from this work.)

Having a singular Art to draw all forraine coynes when they want them, by raising the value, and in like sort to put them away, when they haue got abundance thereof, by decrying the value.—I. III. vi. 289

And here is a later example of the same meaning, by the famous diarist John Evelyn:

Many others [sc. medals of Elagabalus] decried and call’d in for his Infamous Life.—Numismata, vi. 204, 1697

It is quite easy to see how this sense had given rise by 1641 to the metaphorical one of disparaging or condemning something, as in this example from Pepys’ diary for 27 November 1665:

The Goldsmiths do decry the new Act.


Like decry later on, descry came into Middle English from across the Channel, from Old French descrier to “publish, proclaim”. The OED suggests that it was influenced by or confused with the obsolete spelling descry meaning “describe”, and states that in some contexts it is impossible to know which is meant.

One of its earliest, and now obsolete, meanings was “to proclaim as a herald”, and it has had several other meanings, but at its first appearance in 1440 it already had more or less its modern meaning, as the OED defines it, “to catch sight of, esp. from a distance, as the scout or watchman who is ready to announce the enemy’s approach”. It appears in the classic Middle English text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c1400):

Þe comlokest [lady] [sc. comeliest] to discrye.

A truly adventurous life


Fynes Morison spent several years travelling through Europe and the Near East, as well as serving on the staff of the English army in Ireland. He seems also to have been a master of disguise, and a polyglot. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes:

Moryson was well equipped to write his Itinerary. By his own account he was fluent in German, Italian, Dutch, and French, and his linguistic ability served him well in regions where an Englishman might expect to meet hostility: he generally posed as German or Dutch in the more dangerous states in Italy, adopting a second cover as a Frenchman when visiting Cardinal Bellarmine at the Jesuit college in Rome; he dressed as a down-at-heel Bohemian servant to avoid Spanish troops in Friesland; he passed himself off as a Pole when entering France; and he was got up as a German serving-man when a party of disbanded French soldiers robbed him near Châlons. Travelling without substantial funds or official protection, he survived at various times by adopting a deferential posture, avoiding eye contact, attaching himself to other parties of travellers, concealing a reserve of cash, and keeping his religious convictions to himself, as when he used ‘honest dissembling’ to pass as an English Catholic when lodging with French friars in Jerusalem.”


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.


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. gladstone(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).

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 NOUN-adverse 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.

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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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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?

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!

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.


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. 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. guinea-fowl-photo-04

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?

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!


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 likely 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 Doctor 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.

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

  • glamourize / 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.

Many large organizations will have a house style, which their staff are supposed to stick to.

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.

So, which words must I always spell


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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Elusive or illusive or allusive?: 20 words not to confuse (17-18)

Takeaways—if you’re in a hurry

  • Beware of accidentally writing illusive when you mean that something or someone is hard to find, pin down, or define. The correct word and spelling are elusive.

Correct: Yet happiness is an elusive concept, rather like love.—OEC, 2002;
Incorrect: Sharks up to forty feet are quite common, although when Helen was there they proved to be illusive.—OEC, 2005.

    • If you use Word, the spelling and grammar check will come to your rescue by querying illusive. 
    • If you want to suggest that something is an illusion, illusory is much more frequent than illusive, and a safer choice (readers will be in no doubt about what you mean to say):

Correct: …a Buddhist monk advised him, “You must first realize the illusory nature of your own body”.—OEC, 2003.

    • In written texts, X illusive is more often used by mistake than in its true meaning, though many examples are ambiguous.
    • The word allusive is also occasionally used by mistake for elusive.
    • If you feel confident that you already know all this, why not try the fun test at the bottom of the blog?

For more detail, read on…

(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!)

Why does the mistake happen?

The reason is obvious: the words sound exactly the same: i-l(y)oo-siv (/ɪˈl(j)uːsɪv/.) If you don’t edit your writing carefully the mistake could slip through, because, depending on your spellchecker, it might accept illusive as a legitimate word. Which it is, but, very often, probably not the one you meant!

What is the difference?


relates to the verb “to elude”. So, something elusive eludes or escapes you, is difficult to grasp physically or mentally.

A classic example is from that golden oldie by Bob Lind, Elusive Butterfly:

Across my dreams, with nets of wonder,
I chase the bright, elusive butterfly of love.

Things that tend to be elusive are creatures, foes, beasts…and Justin Timberlake. justin_timberlakeIf people describe him as elusive, that means he is hard to track down and photograph or interview; if they were chasing the illusive Justin Timberlake, they would presumably be implying something about his very existence, or about his skill at creating illusions.

If people describe a concept as elusive, they mean it is hard to pin down, explain, or define; if they describe it as X illusive, they may possibly mean that it is indeed an illusion, but as often as not it seems to be an inappropriate word choice. In the next example the appropriate word has been used:

If the situation in western Pakistan continues to deteriorate, success will be elusive and very difficult to achieve.—OEC, 2009.

What about illusive?

It means, as the Collins Dictionary puts it, “producing, produced by, or based on illusion; deceptive or unreal”. It has a rather literary ring to it, as in Sir Walter Scott’s:scott

’Tis now a vain illusive show,
That melts whene’er the sunbeams glow.

Modern examples include:

    • …a film essay about the real and illusive nature of motion pictures.—Senses of Cinema, 2002

(after all, films produce an illusion in the mind of the viewer);

    • Gaskell [i.e. Mrs Gaskell, the novelist] did not sentimentalize or yield to the illusive attractions of the English pastoral idyll.—Criticism, 2000

(the attractions were indeed an illusion, since country life was harsh and poverty-stricken).

Illusive by mistake

However, the data in the Oxford English Corpus demonstrate how often illusive appears by mistake for elusive. A roughly 10-per cent sample (50 examples) of all occurrences contained 23 in which illusive was clearly a mistake:

    • …but even after a decade, his [i.e. Ricardo Chailly’s] musical character remains strangely X illusive and lacking any special definition.—New York Metro, 2004

(the intended meaning must be “hard to define” and therefore should be elusive);

    • During the long period we spent waiting for this X illusive good weather, there was also tragedy on the mountainEverest Expedition dispatches, 2003

(my reading is that the good weather came only sporadically, but the sentence is conceivably ambiguous).

Of the other 28 examples, only 12 unequivocally used—at least by my reading—the true meaning of the word:

      • The New World Order thus created a common interest binding the ruling classes all over the world. With distressing rapidity, through misperception, deception, corruption, or with coercion, this illusive common interest, this notion of shared stakes encompassed the whole world and large majorities in almost every society .—Free India Media, 2004

(the left-leaning nature of the text suggests that common interest between the ruling classes and the ruled is indeed an illusion).

But 15 were ambiguous to me, and in some cases it was impossible to work out quite what the writer intended:

    • After a troubled season at Arsenal, Bergkamp was his illusive best on Friday night, dropping off Kluivert and playing a part in almost all of Holland’s better moments.—Sunday Herald, 2000

Was Bergkamp hard to pin down and tackle, or a master of illusion through feints?


Illusory has the same definition as illusive. According to the OED, it was first recorded in a letter of 1599 by no less a personage than Elizabeth I (though it looks like a noun), elizabeth1and then by John Donne.

  • To trust him uppon pledges is a meare illusorye.—1599
  • A false, an illusory, and a sinfull comfort.—Sermons, X.51, before 1631

Illusive appeared nearly a century later (1679) according to the OED, in the blood-curdlingly titled The narrative of Robert Jenison, containing 1. A further discovery and confirmation of the late popish plot. 2. The names of the four ruffians, designed to have murthered the king…

Which is it better to use?

If you really mean to convey the idea that something is an illusion, I’d be tempted to go for illusory, as the more common word, and in order to dispel any suspicion that you meant elusive. In the OEC it is roughly eight times more frequent that illusive:

  • “…they give the Palestinians the illusory feeling that via a unilateral strategy and parliamentary resolutions they can obtain their political aspirations,” foreign ministry spokesman Emanuel Nachshon told The Irish Times—10 December, 2014.

So that’s that all sorted out, then

If only… Another word (a near homophone) sometimes gets snarled up in this tangle of meaning. It is allusive, the adjective corresponding to “allusion” and used mainly by literary critics, film critics, and the like. Some poetry, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, is highly allusive, since it constantly alludes (i.e. refers indirectly) to other texts, poetic or otherwise.

  • Although there is no question that Ulysses provided a supreme example of the allusive method in action, deployed on a breathtaking scale, Eliot’s almost insatiable appetite for allusion sprang from other sources as well.—T.S. Eliot: The Modernist in History, ed. Ronald Bush, 1991

But people occasionally use it by mistake. I heard the pronunciation “allusive” referring to whales in a recent BBC trailer for a nature programme. And if you search for “The Allusive Butterfly of Love” online you will find quite a few examples.

More mistaken examples:

  • Picking up a taxi from Epping tube station, it was another half an hour finding the X allusive final destination.—Ideas Factory, 2004
  • Give John Kerry this. He’s maddeningly X allusiveOEC, 2004

Given the prevailing muddle over the meaning of these words, it is perhaps not surprising that one has to turn to literary titans to see them used with absolute precision: at a conference in August 2004, Vikram Seth memorably and alliteratively defined writing as “allusive, elusive and illusive”.

Fun test

Choose between allusive, elusive, and illusory:

  1. Although his restless experimentation and complex, _________ style often prove difficult on first reading, his novels possess a complexity and depth that reward the demands he makes upon his readers.
  2. Dylan is notoriously _________; as he wrote on the album notes to Highway 61 Revisited , “there is no I—there is only a series of mouths .”
  3. The hint that the possibility exists for real and not _________ happiness and love appears fleetingly in a few of Sirk’s earlier Universal-International films.
  4. ...the Convention is interpreted and applied in a manner which renders its rights practical and effective, not theoretical and _________.
  5. But in one area, success is _________: The city’s rats remain as bold and showy as ever, darting through well-lighted subway stations as…

1. allusive 2. elusive 3. illusory 4. illusory 5. elusive


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