Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

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Paparazzi and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

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

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


Phwoooar! (That’s enough!–Ed.)


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

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

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

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

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

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





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Derricks and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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Biros, bics, and other words named after people


What’s in a name?

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

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

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


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

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



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

The issue

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

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

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

Quick takeaways

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

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


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Lost and Confused Signpost


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

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

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

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

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

Current situation


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


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


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

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

to studie upon the worldes lore Sufficeth now withoute more.

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

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

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

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

An earlier citation (1692), however, has:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Suffice to Say”—a long-forgotten hit

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

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

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


National Grammar Day 2015

Yippee! (Or groan?) It’s National Grammar Day–again

You mean you didn’t know?!? Well, neither did I, until Twitter alerted me a couple of years ago. Actually, it’s more an American than a British “thang”, started in 2008, by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.


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!

What are we supposed to be celebrating?

Before you decide to run into the street dressed as a proper noun, abolish capitals forever like e.e. cummings, or construct grandiose, hugely baroque Dickensian periods for your blog, it might be worth considering exactly what people mean by the word “grammar”. After all, it’s not a word that passes people’s lips that often. And those who do use it usually think it is going to the dogs.

A technical definition

For linguists and grammarians, grammar is, broadly speaking, “the whole system and structure of a language“. Specifically, grammar usually narrows down to the rules governing how you combine words to make meaningful sentences, the inflections of words (e.g. is the past tense of dive dived or dove?, is the plural of consortium consortia or consortiums?), how verbs behave, what adverbials are, and the like, as illustrated in the graphic above. You will not find the writers of such eminently readable and practical tomes as the Collins Cobuild English Grammar sneering at someone’s spelling mistake and calling it a grammatical error.

A tortured grammarian pondering end-of-sentence prepositions. Well, St Jerome, actually, but he’ll do.

But for lay people (non-linguists), the term grammar is far from technical. Rather, it is just a ragbag into which they stuff any and every use of language which they object to (or should that be “to which they object”?).

What grammar is not

Most people cleave to the following definition of grammar: “A set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language”.

And this definition seems to hold true for some editors and copy editors, whose livelihood, after all, depends on following and applying certain rules—sometimes regardless of whether those rules have any validity. Rules such as “which can only be used in non-defining relative clauses” or “it is incorrect to use they referring back to everyone“.

The linguistic definition of grammar, in fact, excludes most of the things that raise people’s blood pressure:


word choice

None of those are (is?) grammar.

Prescriptive grammar

The idea that they come under the umbrella of grammar corresponds to the different dictionary definition mentioned previously: “a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language”.

This interpretation of grammar as being about prescription has  developed over centuries for many reasons, including as a way of marking social and group identity; of separating in-groups from out-groups.

A quotation from 1892 about aitch-dropping shows how rigorous such demarcations could–and can–be:

A very fine young man, but evidently a nobody, inasmuch as he dropped his aitches and so on.


This splendid-looking geezer was never invited to the smartest parties because ‘e dropped ‘is aitches something ruthless. Perhaps that explains the slightly affronted look.

It is reflected in the name of a slightly fascistic current book title “I judge you when you use poor grammar“, which also has a Facebook group. In fact, most of the mistakes its members glote [sic]  over are spelling mistakes or choices of the wrong word. This is also true of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar website, where we are implicitly invited to sneer at someone who wrote “distinguished the fire” instead of “extinguished the fire“, and similar catachreses (now, there’s a splendid word!). Sadly, this kind of  pseudo-grammatical anality is on a par with the prejudices of those Southern Englishers who think that people with, for example, a Yorkshire accent are devoid of grey matter.

A healthful diet is good for you

To illustrate the arbitrary nature of some alleged grammar rules, let’s look at just one example of a use which– strangely, at least for a British audience–can give some American copy editors the screaming abdabs. Is it “good grammar” to talk of food, a diet, a lifestyle, as being healthy? Some intransigents and diehards insist that the correct word in those contexts is healthful.


The (false) reasoning behind this seems to be that if you define healthy as “in good health” it must, by definition, apply only to people. A turnip cannot–as far as we know, but then we don’t so far speak “turnip”, though perhaps HRH Prince Charles could interpret for us–enjoy rude good health, and therefore another word is required to denote “conducive to good health”. Enter healthful.

In fact, though healthful is the older word, healthy has been used to mean “conducive to good health” since the 16th century. The ban on it dates only to 1881, and has been passed down as an editorial meme ever since then. (Go here to hear the dulcet-toned Emily Brewster of  Merriam-Webster setting the record straight.)

The prescription totally ignores a productive feature of English: the transferred epithet , which makes it possible, for example, to apply the word sad not merely to people who feel miserable, but also to the events which give them the blues in the first place. Countless other words behave in the same way; to make an exception of healthy is nonsensical and fetishistic. More to the point, and less emotively, it actually ignores the real “grammar” of English. thoreau

The sage of Walden Pond

Back to grammar. As regards the second definition I mentioned, it’s worth quoting Thoreau, writing in 1862, when prescriptive grammar held sway:

When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly … I think –
Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.

When it comes to the broader definition of “grammar” as our whole language system, we should certainly be celebrating the wonderful ingenuity of human and animal brains in developing it in the first place, and the thousands of ways in which it enriches our experience.

We should also celebrate the fact that all mother-tongue speakers know the grammar of their language, and use it correctly every time they utter, even if they can’t formulate its rules.




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


(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.)


Iconic: is totemic the new iconic?

One-line summary

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

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Iconic: a massively overused word?

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

I’m sure many would second his suggestion.

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

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

Totems and totemic

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Lord B (9.50 minutes in):

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

Professor Champion:

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

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

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

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



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

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

Quick takeaway points

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


1. What is the issue?

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

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

Or this:

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

Art Business News, 2003

The correct verb in both cases is subscribe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(See 6.2 for other, historical examples)

2.2 With which meaning of subscribe is ascribe confused?

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

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

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

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

3. What do usage guides say?

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

4. Can etymology help?

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

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

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

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

5. How often does the mistake happen?

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

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

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

6.1 Biblical and Lincolnian uses

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

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

New Oxford Annotated Bible

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

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

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

6.2 Other historical examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


20 Words good writers shouldn’t confuse

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Lost and Confused Signpost

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

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

  • elicit / illicit

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

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

the work elicited enormous public interest. 

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

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

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

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


  • phase / faze (verbs)

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

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

a phased withdrawal of troops.

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

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

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

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

  • exasperate / exacerbate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 NOUNadverse is wrongly used, as in this article on the use of “guys”.

2.2 Adverse

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

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online/Oxford English Corpus)

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

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

3. Can the word’s origins help?

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

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

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

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

4. adverse to: a complication

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

5. What do usage guides say?

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

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

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

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

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Business Writing Skills: some tips for catchy headlines

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

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


colourful_lettersToday I would like to analyse the first two.

Whetting readers’ curiosity.

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

Take a tip from journalists.

First, grab attention.

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

Some examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t do that in business writing!

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

1. Use questions.

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

2. Create a picture.

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

3. Keep headings short.

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

4. Zap unnecessary words.

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

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

5. More than one headline per page.

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

6.Help people understand figures at a glance.

The BBC example above shows one way of doing this.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

If you have enjoyed 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.


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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An Egyptian word borrowed by English: Chewing gum and pharaohs



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

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


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

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

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

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

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


This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Eggcorns: On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks?


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What does it mean?

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

Where does it come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And tenterhooks are?

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

How old is the word?

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

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


How old is the metaphor?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

How frequent is the eggcorn version?

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

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


Whereas or where as? One word or two?

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.


Lovely Lady Mondegreen

Has this happened to you?

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


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

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

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

From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.

Kids often do it

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


What did you learn at school today?


I know a song about rabbits!


Oh? Can you sing it…?


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

A special name for slips of the ear

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

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

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

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


Eggcorns. What are they?

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

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

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

What are yours?

Why are they called “eggcorns”?

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

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

John Sutter, A.L. Hurtado, 2006.

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

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

Why do eggcorns happen?

Eggcorns often affect obscure or archaic words or meanings. A good example is the conversion of the original Shakespearean in one fell swoop into in one foul swoop. 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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Spice up your business writing with strong headings – (Part 1)

Why have headings?

OMG! What is this book all about?


We live in a sound bite world. People want information in short, memorable chunks. And they want it now.

So, headings should summarize for your readers the section that follows, and whet their curiosity.

Headings are your sound bites.

Your headings should ideally be sound bites for your topic, your opportunity to ‘speak’ to the reader, and they should be as appealing as you can make them. That way you will inspire people  to read on, and make their task easier and pleasanter.

Take a tip from the newspapers.

Try imagining a newspaper without headlines. How would any reader know which articles they wanted to read? Your headings serve exactly the same purpose as newspaper headlines. They direct readers to what interests them.

Not everyone will read everything you’ve written. They’ll pick and choose and they’ll skim.  It’s your job to direct them to the information most relevant to them personally.

Good headings help them see at a glance where and what that is. And they’ll feel pleased that you’ve helped them extract the information they want as quickly as possible.

Headings help you plan.

But headings don’t just help your readers: they help you too.

First, they are a great tool for planning in outline what you’re going to write about. (And planning is essential.)

Actually, I suggest you write your headings before you write anything else.

As you write them, your document is already taking shape before your eyes, which is very motivating. Also, by dealing with only the headings, you avoid getting bogged down in wording and grammar issues.

Second, headings assist you in organizing your thoughts so as to create a structure for your document.  If you use ‘Outline View’ in Word, you can upgrade,  downgrade or change the order of headings in your hierarchy of information.

Finally, headings help you be sure you have covered everything you should, and left out what you do not need.

Using your headings to give you  a clear structure before you start writing detailed content will save you time and effort in rewriting and researching.

If you have any outstanding examples of headings, I’d love to see them.

About Jeremy Butterfield

Published author, wordsmith, copywriter, editor and lover of words.

I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services in the Southwest of England, including

Bristol, Bath, Avon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.

You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield

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Achingly astute: my latest linguistic hero

Jeremy Butterfield:

Praise from an unexpected quarter. Thanks, Kamahl.

Originally posted on In Praise of the Written Word:

First, I must tip my hat to my Al Jazeera Engish colleague Bernard Smith for emailing this link out to our whole newsroom.  I hope everyone reads it.

Until today I’d never heard of Jeremy Butterfield.  He is (seeing as you asked) the editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and has written a brilliant Comment is Free article in today’s Guardian newspaper:

Jeremy is, I believe, a little bit like me.  Slightly pedantic, occasionally furious, but always passionate about defending the English language.  The examples he gives in his article are things I see creeping into journalism all the time – even TV journalism, which is supposed to be all about simplicity and speaking normally.

Jeremy – whether it’s the linguist’s hat or tinfoil hat you occasionally forget to don*, I’m glad you do.  English will of course evolve, as it must.  But isn’t it equally, if not more important…

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