Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


Underhand or underhanded methods? Another U.S./Brit divergence.

Lesedauer: 4 min


  • In the U.S., for the meaning ‘marked by secrecy or dishonesty’ underhanded is by far commoner than underhand.
  • Underhand is also used in the U.S. with that meaning, but only rarely. Much more often it has a physical meaning.
  • In the UK, underhand is much more often used to convey that ‘dishonest’ meaning, but underhanded is also an option.

Underhanded or underhand?

I’ve been reviewing someone else’s translation from Spanish of a major Latin American classic. That puts me in the luxuriously smug position of avoiding the donkey work and hard grind yet being able to point out and wag the finger that the translator has, for example, taken an idiom quite literally, word for word, and come up with nonsense.

Having now found so many such schoolboy howlers, I examine every word against the original Spanish with hawk-like severity.

So it was that when I came across the phrase ‘underhanded methods’, I paused.

Shurely shome mishtake’, I thought, to use that old Private Eye chestnut. You’ve got carried away again, dear (American) translator. The word is underhand.

Except it’s not…if you’re American, as I was soon to discover.

In fact, if you’re American, underhand will probably sound daft and underhanded normal, and vice versa, if you’re British.

What say the dictionaries?

Go to Merriam-Webster online, look up underhanded as an adjective, and you will find it rather beautifully defined as ‘marked by secrecy, chicanery, and deceptionnot honest and aboveboard’ (pedants, please note that U.S. spelling of above board as a solid [a term that sounds vaguely lavatorial; I digress]).

Go to underhand (adj.) in the same dictionary, and you will find it given three meanings: 1. = underhanded, 2. done so as to evade notice, and 3. made with the hand brought forward and up from below the shoulder level.

e.g. an underhand serve.

(Quite why underhanded does not share meaning 2., I won’t investigate.)

The above two M-W entries reflect U.S. usage rather accurately. Underhand can be used to mean ‘not honest’, as in underhand methods, but very much more often it is used, as the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows, to mean ‘underarm’.

Similarly, if you go to Oxford Online, the U.S. version, and look for underhand, the first meaning given is the ‘(Of a throw or stroke in sports) made with the arm or hand below shoulder level’ one, and the ‘dishonest’ meaning is given only third. The second meaning is ‘With the palm of the hand upward or outward’ as in underhand grip.

Underhanded is defined along the same lines as M-W: ‘Acting or done in a secret or dishonest way’.

If you go to the Oxford Online UK version, it clearly reflects this Atlantic divide: the first meaning for underhand is the ‘dishonest’ one, and the second meaning is a (less frequent) synonym in British English for underarm. If you go to underhanded you get the message ‘another form of underhand.’

‘The science bit’

Dictionaries seem to have got the measure of these differences.

In confirmation of what they say, in the OEC (Feb. 2014) underhand as adjective appears nearly one thousand (977) times, of which 500 are British English and a mere 137 U.S. English. Of those 500 British ones, all but a handful are to do with ‘dishonesty’.  Of those 137 U.S. ones, hardly any are to do with ‘dishonesty’, and the most frequent phrase is underhand grip.

Similarly, the Brigham Young University Corpus of Contemporary American shows, for example, underhanded tactics 22 times, but underhand tactics never, whereas underhand grip appears 34 times.

Finally, the Hansard Corpus – of British English, obviously – with data from 1803 to 2006, has underhanded 68 times but underhand 1216 times. So underhanded is a possibility, but not a common one, e.g. from 2002,

the Trade Union side wished to record its dissent over the deceitful and underhanded way in which this issue has been handled.

(This is by a Scottish MP, which may or may not have a bearing.)

The history bit

Underhand as an adverb goes back to Old English (c. AD 1000) in a now obsolete meaning.
The adjective came later, 1545, in the physical meaning, in this case, relating to archery, and 1592 in the meaning ‘secret, clandestine, surreptitious’. The meaning of ‘not straightforward’, which is an integral part of its modern meaning, did not appear until 1842, in Cardinal Newman’s letters:

1842   J. H. Newman Lett. & Corr. (1891) II. 393

I am often accused of being underhand and uncandid.

Underhanded as adverb makes its appearance in 1822/23, in two different meanings, but the adjective first appears in Dickens, according to the OED, in the meaning ‘surreptitious’ in Bleak House (1853):  xxxvii. 370

Under-handed charges against John Jarndyce.

and in the meaning ‘not straightforward’ in Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. ii. vii. 232

That’s an under-handed mind, sir.

Lady Dedlock, Esther Summerson and ‘Charley’ (Charlotte) in the wood. Phiz’s illustration from Bleak House.




Twitter never fails to disappoint. Or should that be ‘never disappoints’?

While reading something online the other day I came across the phrase Twitter never fails to disappoint. The context made it clear that the meaning intended was ‘Twitter never disappoints’. This is the exact opposite of the logical reading that ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

That example reminded me of one from years ago. A tourist brochure for a seaside resort promised something along the lines of ‘A visit to X-on-Sea never fails to disappoint.

And then, slap my thigh, today, when I was checking out restaurants for my partner’s birthday, what did I come across but this glowing recommendation: I’ve been going to X Bistro in Y since it opened, which was not yesterday, and I can safely say that their food has never failed to disappoint?

(Which shows that the phrase is not a completely frozen idiom, because it allows past tense.)

What is going on that makes a structure mean the opposite of what the speaker intended? And how do other speakers manage to extract the correct meaning? The discussion on the English StackExchange site shows that the phrase can certainly cause confusion.

Multiple negations cause problems

It’s all to do with the number of negations, and how the human brain goes into meltdown when trying to process too many. Having two negations might be the limit to easy intelligibility.

Such negations can be explicit (not, no, nobody, never, etc.) or they can be implicit (fail, ignore, avoid, etc.). If we analyse our phrase in terms of negation, we’ll find three:
• to fail to do something is not to do it = negation1 (explicit)
never adds negation2 (explicit)
disappoint adds negation3 (implicit)
(Disappoint is implicitly negative since it means ‘not to live up to expectations’.)

Logically, to never fail to do something means ‘to always do’ it. ‘Twitter never fails to disappoint’ therefore means ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

But the example which caught my eye was intended to mean the exact opposite. It reads like a conflation of ‘never fails to please’ or some appropriate positive verb, and ‘never disappoints’.

Notice how the reply at the top uses the logical meaning to rebut the positive but mistaken one under the image of the woman eating.

Not a unique case

Twitter never fails to disappoint is hardly a unique case of a phrase meaning the opposite of what the speaker intends. Another well-known and well-embedded example is the ‘It is impossible/difficult/hard to underestimate’ structure, where, logically, overestimate is meant, e.g. ‘It would be impossible to underestimate its [sc. Ulysses’] influence; the novel was never quite the same again.’ The logical meaning is ‘its influence cannot be overestimated’ i.e. exaggerated.

But there we only have two negatives rather than three: one explicit – impossible – and one implicit negative in overestimate, because to overestimate is to produce an incorrect estimate.

But let’s get back to never fail to do.

never + fail + to what?

In theory, in the sense of always doing it, you could never fail to do practically anything, for example, I never fail to eat Marmite at breakfast.
However, our old friend collocation kicks in strongly here. The string never + FAIL [sloped capitals mean ‘in all forms’] + to-infinitive very often goes with events and emotions that can be classified broadly as either positive (entertain, amuse, please, delight, inspire, etc.) or intense (impress, amaze, surprise, etc.), or a mixture of the two.

Even an apparently neutral verb such as make goes with positive verbs, e.g. MAKE + me/us/people, etc. + laugh/smile/giggle/chuckle (though whether that is, in any case, a feature of make, rather than of the entire phrase, is impossible to tell).

‘You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive…’

In fact, the top five collocations by frequency of never + FAIL + to-inf are (in my corpus, OEC Monitor Corpus April 2018) impress, amaze, make, deliver, disappoint.

If, as I have suggested above, the overall ‘profile’ of never fail to is positive, then speakers view never fail to disappoint as positive, despite its meaning the opposite. They take the whole as a ready-made, rather than analysing its meaning.
Moreover, it is possibly one of those phrases where the presence/absence of a negative makes little difference to the meaning. As Language Log pointed out, fail to miss behaves like that: the meaning is the same whether you say miss or fail to miss. Similarly, whether you say never DISAPPOINT or never FAIL to disappoint, the meaning is the same.

The corpus I consulted contains 226 examples of never FAIL to disappoint. In a random sample of 50, 45 showed the illogical meaning (= ‘never DISAPPOINT’)

We were rewarded with our choice of route as the New Zealand scenery never fails to disappoint. (= ‘never disappoints’)

If I’m going to drop $20 on a couple of made-to-order burgers, fries and a soda, there are a few Portillo’s close to here which are similarly priced but never fail to disappoint (= ‘never disappoint’) …The staff here is on point. Honestly, they can’t do enough for you.

A mere five (10%) exemplified the logical surface reading, meaning ‘always succeed in disappointing’.

For example, in this about the chronically inept Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS):

Lord Oakeshott, a leading LibDem peer, said: ‘RBS never fails to disappoint. Taxpayers poured £45 billion but it is a zombie bank, shrinking instead of lending.’

Similarly, this investigator of financial shenanigans:

My investigations often lead me into contact with British law enforcement and regulators and they never fail to disappoint me by their incompetence and lack of professionalism.

All in all, then, it would seem that the apparently negative ‘never FAIL to disappoint’ is well established as meaning the opposite of what it seems to mean, and as positive in intent.

We interpret it as positive, I submit, because a) we are now well used to a range of constructions that mean the opposite of what they are intended to mean and b) multiple negatives cannot be processed and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, lead to a positive or affirmative interpretation.

It could also be significant that the opposite – always FAIL to – does not collocate with the same verbs as never FAIL to. There is a solitary example of always FAIL to disappoint:

The beauty of Smashing Pumpkins is that every album is drastically different from each other. I’m eager for this release, Billy Corgan has always failed to disappoint me.

This general phenomenon of muddled negation is described by Language Log as ‘misnegation’ or ‘overnegation.’ Here is a link to a very long list of examples.

And here is an utterly mind-boggling example, courtesy of LL:

These contrasts don’t mean that Bush was without blemish: As Meacham notes, there were political misjudgments and calculated concessions to ambition on the long path to power. Nor does it mean that Trump doesn’t lack his own kind of strengths, not the least of which is his loudly declared indifference to elite opinion.

The fact is, we are able to interpret these car-crash negatives correctly and extract the meaning the speaker intended.

As humble proof of that, I stared at this oft-cited canonical example for ages before I realised what was wrong: ‘No head injury is too trivial to ignore.’ Like you, gentle reader, I understood what it meant without needing to analyse it, but it should, obviously – D’oh! – on reflection, be rephrased as ‘No matter how trivial your head injury seems, we will not ignore it’ or ‘No head injury is too trivial to be attended to.’ Again, it’s a case of that triple negation; no head injury1; is too trivial to X2 (= ‘is so trivial that it will not be Xed)’; be ignored3 (negative = ‘will not be attended to’).

Watch out for this kind of phrase. There are never too many of them not to fail to ignore.

Leave a comment

Read this! It’s of upmost importance! Utmost, upmost, uppermost and collocation

A three-minute-and-a-second-or-two read

Please read. This is of uppermost importance

The other day I was editing a chapter written by a French/Flemish academic who is a non-mother tongue speaker of English. Apart from a few lurking French-English false friends, it read extremely well, given its (predictably) dry academic style. Then I came across ‘Researching…NOUN bla, bla, bla, rather than simply focusing upon its rhetorical representations is, therefore, of uppermost importance’.

of upmost importance

Tiens! thought I. (Well, I didn’t; I’m just being more than usually pretentious. Reading lots of academic writing in the Humanities can make you like that, you know. Be warned!)

When English speakers diverge from the collocation ‘(of) utmost importance’ they usually replace utmost with upmost.  I hadn’t come across uppermost in that slot before.

But, I can easily see how, if none of the three words is part of your language, uppermost makes sense. It certainly seems to as regards meaning: ‘Highest in place, rank, or importance’ as the Online Oxford Dictionary defines it. And if you know the physical meaning (e.g. on the uppermost shelf), it is a mere hop, skip and jump to the metaphor.

It just so happens that uppermost does not generally associate or ‘collocate’ with importance.1

For example, in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, Journals (June 2015, 1.67 billion words), a search for each of the three adjectives followed by importance retrieves this league table: utmost 1,765, upmost, 27, uppermost 4. Clearly, uppermost is a very distant ‘outrider’.2

The BYU Now Corpus (6 billion words) gives a similar result for the first two: utmost at 6,241 and upmost at 142, but uppermost is even rarer, with a single occurrence.

Could upmost be spreading?
I have long known about ‘upmost importance’; it’s something I must have noted long, long ago. Google Ngrams shows its steady rise since roughly 1930.

But I was a bit surprised to find that upmost limpets itself to other nouns as well.

Looking for example in the Oxford Monitor Corpus (February 2018, about 8 billion words), in addition to the well-ensconced upmost importance, I found upmost respect/integrity/professionalism/dignity:

I can only hope that today’s verdict goes some way to bringing closure to the victim’s family who have behaved with the upmost dignity throughout this very harrowing ordeal.

That is from the BBC News website, repeating, presumably, what someone said, so it might be a transcription glitch. Or it might not.

Those collocations do not appear in the Corpus of Academic English, Journals, which probably reflects the edited nature of the journals, compared to the content of the Monitor Corpus.

Is upmost wrong?
I’d say, rather, that it is, according to current collocational preferences, somewhat anomalous.

However, many people would consider it wrong tout court, that is, with no qualifications, and therefore an editor should probably change it, or, at the least raise the issue with the writer. I would.

Confusing upmost with utmost is hardly surprising given their sound and meaning similarity. It just so happens that the meaning, as the OED defines it, ‘That is of the greatest or highest degree; of the largest amount, number, etc.’ became, it seems, largely confined to utmost, rather than upmost or uppermost, from the early eighteenth century onwards.

However, the eggcorns database labels it as practically ‘mainstream’, while explaining its occurrence:  ‘[The constituent “ut”] is liable to reanalysis to something that more transparently expresses superlative meaning, such as up+most (‘uppermost’), which fits with the MORE IS UP-type metaphor. This may also involve anticipatory assimilation to the nasal in “most”.’

Collocation is such a tricky part of language; it is what invariably distinguishes the ‘native’ speaker from second-language speakers (like our professor at the start) no matter how proficient they might be.

It is also often unpredictable. Why do you make a mistake rather than do one?

For example, if you repay a debt, it seems kind of obvious and logical that the words ‘go together’, that repay is the right word to go with debt, given the meaning of each.

But if you honour a debt, or a cheque, that is, to my mind a rather different order of language combination (though, admittedly, one that is shared by French, Italian, and German, but not Spanish). And you cannot dishonour a cheque.

Moreover, like everything in language, collocational conventions change over time.

Which gives me a pretext for one of my favourite quotes, from that granddaddy of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure:

Le temps change toute chose : il n’y aucune raison pour que la langue échappe à cette loi universelle.’

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

1 What it does, of course, often collocate with is mind and related words (e.g. As Europe seeks to increase pressure on Moscow over its seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine, making Moscow pay an economic price is uppermost in leaders’ minds).

In its original, literal, physical meaning, uppermost often goes with layers, reaches, tiers, floors, and the like: Ms. Langley’s ascent represents a slight evolution in how women have navigated moviedom’s uppermost ranks.

2 Outrider – not to be confused with the popular series Outlander – is a modish cliché I’ve discovered is popular in Academe. It means something like an exception, a solitary or unorthodox case.


Well, I’ll be dashed. A blog about en dashes, en rules and POTUS.

(4-minute read, unless you happen to be Oscar Wilde, in which case, 10-second read.)

Events in U.S. politics seem to move so quickly now that the occurrence I’m going to mention already seems like ancient history.

But you may recall that on 9 April the FBI raided the offices and hotel room of President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to investigate the alleged links between Russia and el Trumpo’s campaign. Those were extremely Stormy days.

Outraged, the world’s most powerful comb-over tweeted that ‘Attorney–client privilege is dead.’

While some people were concerned with the constitutional-legal issues thereby raised [note the hyphen], we (editors) who ignore such trivia and concentrate on higher things were thrust into the eye of a Twitterstorm over POTUS’s use of what looked like an en rule or en dash.

Beg pardon?

That’s right. An en dash (or en rule as it is more often called in Britain) is distinct from your common or garden hyphen; it is longer than it, as you will be able to see in the examples below.

Where you are most likely to have seen en dashes bigly, probably without even noticing, is in ‘ranges’ of different kinds:

in the period 1939–45; We are open Monday–Saturday; Opening times 9.30–5.30

If you read bibliographies, you will also probably have seen en rules in page ranges, e.g. pp. 120–27.

In some publishing styles it is used for ‘parenthetical asides’, which is editor-speak for what normal humans might call ‘subsidiary comments set off from the surrounding text’.

Serendipitously, today I chanced upon this elegant sentence containing en dashes used exactly that way: ‘He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often short, fat, bald, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women’. (Ian McEwan, Solar, p.3)

If you want a definition, New Hart’s Rules defines an en rule somewhat circularly as follows: ‘The en rule (–) is longer than the hyphen and half the length of an em rule.’


The names are not just plucked out of thin air; they have a(n) historical printing basis. An en rule is so called because it would once have been the width of a letter n in traditional lead-type typography. Similarly, an em rule would be the width of a letter… (you fill it in, gentle reader, just to prove you have been paying attention).

But please examine the chart below, going from left to right. For several common typefaces it shows first a hyphen, then a letter n, then an en rule, then an m, and then an m rule; it is glaringly obvious that the link between character width and length of rule has been broken.

Woteva. The fact is that if you want to produce an en or em rule in Word, you can get them effortlessly using the Alt-key. And there are other ways too.

(See at end for instructions.)

Yes, but what about attorney–client privilege?

The question mark hanging unmenacingly over the Twittersphere was whether that presidential en dash should have been a non-presidential hyphen.

Moreover, few could credit that the coiner of the deathless vocable covfefe and the global no. 1 abuser of majuscule (capital letters) could be so subtle as to use an en dash. Not to mention, that it can be hard to judge from Twitter what length a hyphen or dash is in any case.

IMHO, it was correctly an en rule.

New Hart’s Rules, for example saith:

‘The en rule is used closed up to express connection or relation between words; it means roughly to or and:

Dover–Calais crossing; Ali–Foreman match; editor–author relationship; Permian–Carboniferous boundary.’

The pertinent example for us is editor–author relationship. That en rule/dash linking the words perfectly encapsulates the connection between client and attorney as expressed by the Big Ginger.

In an endless thread reflecting on preposPOTUS’s original tweet, one wit opined that:

The en-dash can be used to establish range, such as in a range of pages in a book. Thus, Mr. Trump is making a metaphysical/moral claim here: The ties that bond “attorneys” to “clients” is a spectrum of intimacy, not a simplistic hyphenated ontological proximity.

Another quoted: ‘”The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance,” Attorney and *distant* client?’

In support of the ‘relationship’ hypothesis, I submit Hart’s example of ‘a Greek-American family’ versus ‘Greek–American negotiations’. The first means a family of mixed heritage, the second negotiations between…

Can you use the en dash for anything else?
The Chicago Manual of Style, at least in its current edition, does not mention the ‘relationship’ angle that New Hart’s Rules does.

It does, however, suggest some extreme subtleties which I feel sure must be ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’.  It prefaces those with the slightly starchy: ‘Though the differences can sometimes be subtle—especially in the case of an en dash versus a hyphen—correct use of the different types [sc. of hyphen] is a sign of editorial precision and care.’

  • To indicate an unfinished range, e.g. Theresa May, British Prime Minister 2016–; Brexit negotiations 2017–
  • ‘The en dash can be used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of its elements consists of an open compound…’ e.g. the post–World War II yearsChuck Berry–style lyrics.

(I’m not sure how Chuck Berry might feel about being an ‘open compound’.) But, as the Manual realistically acknowledges, ‘this editorial nicety will almost certainly go unnoticed by the majority of readers.’

As Hart’s points out, the en rule is also used for botanical, anatomical, etc. phenomena named after two people, e.g. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (‘mad cow disease’), and for other non-scientific pairings, e.g. Marxism–Leninism.

Incidentally, AP and Chicago differ in styles, as shown in this chart.

OK, I am raring to use an en dash asap. How do I create one?

There is an exhaustive list here.

To keep things simple, and you on this page, here are three options.

a) Much the simplest, probably, is to use the Alt-key and the numeric keypad, if you have one:

Alt 45 –
Alt 0150 –
Alt 0151 —

But we all have different ways of working, so…

b) In Word, under ‘File’ go to ‘Options’ then ‘Proofing’. Under ‘Autocorrect options’ click on ‘Autoformat’ and make sure you tick the box under ‘Replace’ to replace two hyphens with a dash.

But beware. If you insert two hyphens between words and leave no space, Word will convert them into an em dash

But if you want a word to be followed by an en dash, type the word, then a space, then two hyphens, and – you should get an en dash.

This is the system I have always used, but it is, admittedly, cumbersome.

c) Unicode

hyphen = U2010
en dash = U2013
em dash = U2014

That’s it for now. Sorry, must dash.




Getting off scot-free or scotch-free? Nothing to do with Scotland, anyway

(4-minute read)

Here’s a wheels-within-wheels eggcorn, or even an eggcorns-within- eggcorns eggcorn.

The standard form of the phrase is ‘to get off scot-free’:

Stone believes the two rig supervisors should be prosecuted, but he also thinks BP’s senior leaders have got away scot-free.

And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:

Every school child, and 99.999999999999% of the rest of us know the name of the ONLY country to commit nuclear genocide on innocent civilians and get away scotch-free.

Q: Is it scot free, scotfree or scot-free?
Dictionaries hyphenate it (Oxford Online, Collins, Cambridge, Merriam-Webster).

At the end of this post there are figures showing the relative frequency of this eggcorn. Meanwhile, let’s delve into scot-free’s backstory.

Q: Scot-free has got something to do with Scotland, Scots, Scottish, hasn’t it?
Nope, absolutely nothing, zilch, diddly squat, nada. It has nothing to do with the nationality, the language or the drink.

(Nor does it have anything to do with the American slave Dred Scott.)

Q: Oh, really!?! So, what is that scot bit, then?
It’s an archaic word for a form of tax. So being ‘scot-free’ meant not having to pay scot, that tax, and then, more generally, not having to pay anything for whatever it might be.

(More specifically, the OED defines scot as ‘A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay’.)

Q: OK. But what has that got to do with the modern meaning of ‘without punishment or harm’?
As so often happens, people have extended the literal meaning to something more metaphorical and less specific (known by language geeks like me as ‘semantic broadening’).

As just mentioned, scot was a tax, and scot-free also once meant not liable for tax, and then later, more generally, ‘not liable to pay anything’. In parallel, it came to mean ‘escaping punishment, harm, or injury’. Here’s the earliest example in the OED entry (3rd edn., June 2011) of that extended meaning.

Is there eny grett differynge Bitwene theft and tythe gaderynge..? Uery litell,..Savynge that theves are corrected, And tythe gaderers go scott fre.

1528   Rede me & be nott Wrothe sig. H1 (a tract by reformers condemning the abuses of the Catholic Church)
[Is there any great difference between theft and tithe gathering? Very little,..except that thieves are punished, and tithe gatherers go scot-free.]

And here’s a much later example with the financial meaning still very much alive and kicking.

It was therefore thought very unjust by the Legislature, that all others be oblig’d to pay, and those Towns go Scot-free.

1734,   London Daily Post, 27 Nov.

Q: Is scotch-free a recent eggcorn?
Well, from the eggcorn database, which records it from as recently as 2007, you might be forgiven for supposing so.

However, the Corpus of Historical American has an example from 1960; and while the earliest OED citation is the 1528 one shown above, the second citation has scotchfree, suggesting that the association with Scotland was made very early on. In other words, the eggcorn goes back at least to the mid-16th century. Perhaps it should be spelled eggkorne in honour.

Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.

1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93

(Note that scaped for escaped, as in scapegoat.)

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Q: Is it true that scot-free was once shot-free?
Correct. That’s how Shakespeare put it into Falstaff’s mouth in Henry IV, Pt. 1 v. iii. 30.

Q: Now I’m totally confuseddotcom. What’s the link between scot-free and shot-free, then?
Well, here’s the next wheel or twist. That scot itself is probably a variant of shot, with the same meaning, influenced by Scandinavian skot. However, that shot doesn’t appear in the OED’s records in its own right until 1475:

  On cast down her schott and went her wey. Gossip, quod Elenore, what dyd she paye? Not but a peny.

  c1475   Songs & Carols (Percy Soc.) 94

Here shot means ‘The charge, reckoning, amount due or to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a or one’s share in such payment. Now only colloq. to stand shot’ (according to the unrevised OED entry).

Scott used it with that meaning:

Are you to stand shot to all this good liquor?

1821, Scott, Kenilworth II. vii. 184

Q: Does anyone still use scot-free in its original meaning?
You mean, ‘not having to pay (tax)’? The OED marks it as ‘rare’, and presents as its most recent citation one from 1921:

The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot free at 40 cents an hour.

Internal-revenue Hearings before Comm. on Finance (U.S. Senate, 67th Congr., 1st Sess.) 384

But a 1992 citation from Ngrams seems also to refer to this meaning:

Everything will be scotch free, as they say, and McFillen assures me there will be a good fiddle in the expenses if I work my loaf.

Celebrated Letters, John B. Keane.

Q: But to qualify as an eggcorn, doesn’t there have to be a plausible explanation meaningwise of why people use the phrase in the eggcorned version?
That’s right. And the eggcorn database records an ingenious (post)-rationalization of the modern eggcorn, which I’ll quote in full here:

I was watching Big Brother 8 when a ditzy girl said she got off “scotch free.” Well if you think of the powers of the product Scotchguard that protects fabrics from staining thus allowing crap to easily flow off and not stick. Same idea as the current usage of the phrase getting off “scot free,” no?

That’s a similar image to the one that leads to Teflon man, for someone to whom no ‘dirt’ ever sticks.

Q: How common is the eggcorn?
Not very, actually.

Trawling Ngrams, doesn’t help much, because, for example, what look like nineteenth-century references turn out to be references to the Scotch Free Church, generally known as the Scottish Free Church (the use of ‘Scotch’ reflecting an earlier use). The earliest genuine one I’ve tracked down on Ngrams is from a 1992 novel: “The two young men, Dindial and Mascal, had gotten away scotch free.” (But see the earlier discussion.)

The figures below are from the November 2017 release of the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Web-based English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. As can be seen at a glance, the eggcorn is very much a minority tendency.

Totals 3,012/39 1,130/12 140/0 4,182/51
Form Corpus Combined:


scot-free 1,974 487 113 2,574
scot free 999 525 24 1,548
scotfree 39 18 3 60
scotch-free 5 2 0 7
scotch free 17 10 0 27
scotchfree 17 0 0 17









Objections to ‘to be done with something.’ Uniquely American? I’m done with the topic, anyway.

(four-minute read)

Here’s a language issue that’s new to me.

The other day on Twitter @The_GrammarGeek asked:

‘There’s an opinion out there that it’s wrong to use “done” to mean “finished,” as in, “I’m done with my homework.” But this use of “done” has been widely used since the 15th century. Any idea/when where the false rule originated?’

Another tweep, Karen Conlin (thanks, Karen!) then tweeted that this issue is not mentioned in my edition of Fowler (4th edn., 2015), and asked if I could shed any light on it. Here goes, then…

If you’re in a hurry…

  • That highly specific use (= ‘to have finished, completed + NOUN’) seems to be mainly U.S.
  • So, strictures against it have no reason to appear in Br.E. manuals.
  • That specific use is 18th century onwards, rather than 15th.
  • According to M-W’s Concise Dict. of English Usage, objections to it were first raised in 1917, with no obvious justification.

If you’ve got longer…

Here’s my two pennies’ worth.

First, to use ‘done’ in exactly that construction, namely, HAVE + done + with + NOUN and with that precise meaning (= ‘to have completed’), is not something I personally would say (is not part of my ‘idiolect’), and – I’m speculating here – is not something most Br.E. speakers would say either. (Looking for evidence in do, one of the most common verbs in the language, could be a Herculean, not to say Sisyphean, enterprise!)

However, I might say  ‘I’m done with blogging’, using the pattern to be done with + –ing form (verbal noun), but I think that is a slightly different meaning (‘I will never do it again’ = ‘I’m through with blogging’).

And I would also write, though probably not say, the standard phrase ‘let’s tell him and be done with it’.

If the above claim is true, then there is no reason why a fatwa against the use should exist in Br.E. usage manuals. I’ve checked in all three previous editions of Fowler, and the issue has not been treated. My additions and amendments were based on notes kept over several years about issues that had struck me, and this was not one of them.

Second, what exactly is this use, and where does it come from?

What can the OED can tell us?

Previous edition

The previous edition (1989) makes it a second sub-sense under the more general, somewhat undifferentiated rubric of

8. (In pa. pple. and perf. tenses.) To accomplish, complete, finish, bring to a conclusion. to be done, to be at an end.’

The sub-sense is headed

b. to be done is used of the agent instead of ‘to have done’, in expressing state rather than action. (Chiefly IrishSc.U.S., and dial.)

That geographical information in brackets is important.

The first example given dates to 1766, from T. Amory’s Life of John Buncle II. x. 365

I was done with love for ever.

(Amory, btw, grew up in Ireland.)

The second citation, however, is from Thomas Jefferson: 1771 T. Jefferson Let. T. Adams in Harper’s Mag. No. 482. 206

One farther favor and I am done.

Current edition

The current edition (3rd edn., March 2014) is more nuanced. It puts that Life of John Buncle quotation (I was done with love for ever) at the head of a category (10. a. (b)) captioned thus:

‘Of a person: to be at the end of one’s dealings with, to have no further truck with; = sense10b(b).’

In other words, it makes it equivalent to ‘to have done with something/someone’ as in Shakespeare’s Do what thou wilt for I haue done with thee, and as the earlier edition also did.

On that analysis, the Buncle quote could have been I had done with love forever.

The meaning that is truly the one at issue, I think, is now lexicographed as follows (underlining mine):

10. a. (c) Of a person or other agent of action: to be at the end of what one is doing, to be finished. Also with complement expressing the action being finished. Now chiefly U.S.’

That note ‘chiefly U.S.’ chimes with Karen’s hunch that the use is more U.S. than British and is substantiated by the citations the OED chose:

The Jefferson quote heads that category, and the other examples are, with one exception, U.S.:

1876   H. B. Smith in Life (1881) 404   After this is done I am done.

1879   Literary World 6 Dec. 400/1   The mills of the gods are not yet done grinding.

1883   Cent. Mag. 25 767/1 ‘ twenty-four thousand dollars! Are you all done?’ He scanned the crowd.

1971   M. B. Powell & G. Higman Finite Simple Groups i. 5   Since g is arbitrary, we are done [i.e. we have completed the proof].

1981   J. Blume Tiger Eyes (1982) xxi. 87 ‘Davey..are you almost done?’ Jane calls, knocking on the bathroom door.

2000   A. Hagy Keeneland 242   You are full of total dog shit. I’m done putting up with you.

Note the examples with the –ing form, which I noted earlier that I would use. I might also say, similarly to the 1981 example above, ‘Are you quite done!’ as a retort to someone, for example, who was being rude or offensive at length.

Quick statistical note

A trawl in the Feb. 2018 ‘Monitor Corpus’ of the Oxford English Corpus for the string BE + done + with + –ing form retrieves 1,029 examples. Almost half are of unknown source, but of those whose source is known 265 are U.S., 65 British, e.g.

DANIEL Craig is said to be done with playing Bond, but producers are willing to do the impossible to keep the superstar happy.

As he’s mentioned in the example above, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add a variant of the almost legendary image from Casino Royale to add pep to a potentially dry topic.

An earlier version of the corpus (2014) shows a not dissimilar ratio.

Yes, but what about the prohibition against?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the M-W dict.’s earliest note is from 1917.  The M-W entry also notes the Heritage Usage Panel in 1969 47 percent disapproved of it, suggesting that it was a rule that had been forced on many of them.

Is it still being trotted out/bandied about? If so, please let me know where.


Flaunting or flouting the law (2). If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Or flout it?

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

(Six-minute read.)

What’s the story (morning glory)?

In the earlier blog about these changeling verbs, we looked at what flaunt and flout are supposed to mean, and at how often they get swapped.

Writing about that made me wonder why they get confused in the first place.

Why the confusion?

There must be a reason. Nothing in language is, I am quite convinced, arbitrary; nor must this be.

Clearly, sound plays its part: the words cross the starting and finishing line together. However, rhyme they do not (i.e. are not homophones), and one has four phonemes while the other has five: /flaʊt/ and /flɔːnt/.

Sound helps, but doesn’t explain everything. Something else must be going on. And that something else is what I think I can explain below (prompted by a wise observation in the Merriam-Webster Concise Usage Dictionary).

If flaunt were a packing case, it would have ‘I DISAPPROVE!’ stamped all over it.

In fact, the Cobuild dictionary, which is hot on this kind of thing, known technically as ‘pragmatics’, makes that quite clear.

  1. If you say that someone flaunts their possessions, abilities, or qualities, you mean that they display them in a very obvious way, especially in order to try to obtain other people’s admiration. [disapproval]

They drove around in Rolls-Royces, openly flaunting their wealth.

[If you need an avatar for ‘flaunt’, think footballers’ sports cars, or Kim Kardashian (assuming, gentle reader, that you are not one of her besotted followers).]

  1. If you say that someone is flaunting themselves, you disapprove of them because they are behaving in a very confident way, or in a way that is intended to attract sexual attention.

‘She’s asking for trouble, flaunting herself like that. Did you see the way Major Winston was looking at her?’

What links these two meaning of flaunt? Hypervisibility. Or, in Cobuild’s more measured, words ‘…display them in a very obvious way.’

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

A Kardashian among verbs

Anyone who flaunts themself [sic] might as well have donned a hi-vis jacket with ‘LOOK AT ME, ME, ME, MEEEEE! AREN’T I SEXY!’ emblazoned all across the back.

Now, the Cobuild definition I mentioned earlier says that if someone flaunts whatever it may be they choose to flaunt, they do so ‘in a very obvious way’.

‘In a very obvious way’ is technically an ‘adverbial adjunct’. OK, ok already: it is more than one word, and it doesn’t end in –ly, but it is doing exactly what a common or garden adverb does, which is to comment on the verb.

Which raises the question: which common or garden –ly adverbs lend their seal of disapproval to  flaunt? We have already had openly in the example above (…openly flaunting their wealth…).

But isn’t that practically tautological? After all, to flaunt means ‘to display to public view’. You can’t secretly flaunt anything, can you?

That would be to miss the point of openly, and another adverb often used, publicly. Rather than being tautological, or redundant, they both intensify the tut-tutting, finger-wagging tone inherent in flaunt. If  you describe someone as ‘openly flaunting’ something, you’re suggesting their action is morally on a par with, shall we say, kicking a baby or having public sex.

Even more common are adverbs with a positively Whitehouseian moralistic tinge: blatantly, brazenly, flagrantly.

Those adverbs form the bridge to flout.

Why this Greek flute player? Read on.


Dictionary definitions say nothing about visibility in relation to flout (e.g., Cobuild’s ‘If you flout something such as a law, an order, or an accepted way of behaving, you deliberately do not obey it or follow it’).

But language corpora (which are vast, computerized collections of natural language) show those same ‘visibility’ adverbs that criticise flaunt clustering round flout like bees round a honeypot: openly, flagrantly, brazenly, blatantly:

For too long these rickshaw drivers have been ignored while blatantly flouting the law.

Not only are court orders brazenly flouted, there is substantial evidence that the cleared land are [sic] not used for any development purposes, but rather, reallocated to political cronies.

Another blush-making adverb is shamelessly.

This video shows how two drivers shamelessly flouted driving rules on one of Chelmsford’s busiest roads.

The ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashian’ star shamelessly flaunted her fabulous bikini body in the vintage snap.

So, these twin features of hypervisibility and brass-necked shamelessness make the two words almost perfectly overlap in a sort of Venn of moral revulsion.

In the previous blog on this, I was wrong to say it is only flaunt that ousts flout. M-W Usage Dict. has a couple of examples of the reverse direction, as does the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), and even Google, e.g. Put simply, no amount of drug education in schools will succeed if the law enforcement agencies allow drug dealing with impunity on our streets and drug dealers are allowed to accumulate and flout their wealth (GloWbe).

Who started the swapping?

According to The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002), the first green-ink letter about this of which they have ken was penned (and received) in 1932. Their earliest evidence of the swap is from 1918, from the Yale Review, while the OED’s is from 1923. Google Ngrams does not seem to throw up any earlier evidence.

But even such a brilliant lyricist and wit as Noel Coward could fall into the trap, according to the OED:

Although we sometimes flaunt our family conventions, Our good intentions Mustn’t be misconstrued.

N. Coward Stately Homes of Operette(libretto) I. vii. 55, 1938

And no less august a figure than the PM at the time could be caught out too:

The Prime Minister in a broadcast on Wednesday (January 17) … referred to ‘flaunting’ the regulations.

Times 25 Jan, 1973

(Whether ‘Sailor Ted’ and ‘august’ collocate, I’ll let the reader decide.)

What about the words themselves. Where do they come from?


Nobody knows for sure. For flaunt (first cited in the OED from 1566) a connection with certain Scandinavian dialect words has been posited; alternatively, it might be a blend of e.g. fly, flounce with vaunt.

In its original intransitive use, one meaning was, as the OED (1896 entry) majestically puts it (underlining mine; the second underlined clause seems like a perfect definition of most social media activity): ‘Of persons: To walk or move about so as to display one’s finery; to display oneself in unbecomingly splendid or gaudy attire; to obtrude oneself boastfully, impudently, or defiantly on the public view. Often quasi-trans. to flaunt it (away, out, forth).’

This use is exemplified in Pope’s (1734) Essay on Man: Epist. IV 186:

One flaunts in Rags, one flutters in Brocade.

And in Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) VI. xxxiii. 122:   To flaunt it away in a chariot and six.

Mrs Piozzi (Hester Thrale), in 1810, aged 69, J. Jackson. Chalk & pencil portrait (detail.) Dr Johnson’s House museum, London.


But this use, though recorded first (1566) must surely be an extension of the literal meaning, first recorded in 1576: ‘Of plumes, banners, etc.: To wave gaily or proudly. Of plants: To wave so as to display their beauty.’

You might not think of plants being attention-seeking, but Dr Johnson’s friend and muse, Mrs Thrale/Piozzi,1 did:

Orange and lemon trees flaunt over the walls.

H.L. Piozzi, Observ. Journey France I. 59, 1789


The transitive use, though latent earlier in ‘to flaunt it away’ did not materialise until 1822:

The Summer air That flaunts their dewy robes.

T. Hood, Two Peacocks of Bedfont ii, in London Mag. Oct. 1822

The haberdashers flaunt long strips of gaudy calicoes.

Thackeray, Paris Sketch Bk. I. 19, 1840

Flouting and fluting

In its transitive meaning (‘To mock, jeer, insult; to express contempt for, either in word or action’) to flout appears in a 1551 translation of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia:

In moste spiteful maner mockynge…and flowtynge them.

  1. Robinsontr. T. More Vtopia sig. Aiii

and Shakespeare used it in the Scottish play2.

The unrevised OED (1897) suggests a link with a Middle English spelling of flute (verb).

‘What has a flute got to do with it?’, you may well ask.

Pan by Picasso. Lithograph.

Well, the connection seems to run like this, according to authoritative sources. It might come from Dutch fluiten ‘whistle, play the flute, hiss (in derision)’ [remember that Dutch has gifted an extraordinary number of words to English]. In support of this origin, the Oxford Online Dictionary notes, ‘German dialect pfeifen auf, literally ‘pipe at’, has a similar extended meaning’. And the OED points to hiss having evolved similarly from simple ‘noise’ word to derision.

As far as I have been able to establish, flout started to be used with ‘rules, law, etc.’-style words in the mid-nineteenth century (Corpus of Historical American) but didn’t really take off in that use until the twentieth.

1 The Grauniad review of Beryl Bainbridge’s masterly last completed novel, According to Queeney, recounting Dr Johnson’s relationship with Mrs Thrale, has an interesting use of flaunt:  ‘Bainbridge respects her reader enough not to flaunt her research, though this is a novel stitched together from original material.’

2 DUNCAN: Whence cam’st thou, worthy Thane?

ROSS: From Fife, great King,

Where the Norwegian banners flout the sky

And fan our people cold.

Norway himself, with terrible numbers,

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,

The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict

Till that Bellona’s bridegroom [sc. Macbeth], lapped in proof,

Confronted him with self-comparisons,

Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm,

Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude,

The victory fell on us—




Flaunting or flouting the law? (1)

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  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

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

(Four-minute read.)

I’ve been prompted by a comment on this site (h/t Rick), and by seeing flaunt for flout recently, to revise and republish this post from the early days of this blog.

What’s the issue?

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

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

What do these words mean?

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

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

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

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

Spain ‘s Duchess of Alba, known as the “rebel noble,” has died at age 88. The wealthiest woman in Spain, she was also a bohemian, famous for her eccentric style and for flouting convention in numerous ways.

In another case, it rejected the appeal of a New Mexico photographer accused of flouting anti-discrimination laws by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding.

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

Unlike some other pairs of confusable words, such as lord/laud, the confusion here seems to work only in one direction. IOW, people do not use flout instead of flaunt.

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

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

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

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

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

What does the evidence say?

Other corpora (Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW corpus, and the Global Corpus of web-based English (GloWbE) present a similar picture of the most frequent collocates of flaunt. For instance, in GloWbE, the most common noun object of flaunt is wealth, followed in equal second place by body and law. The other corpora show a similar pattern.

However, if you look at relative frequency, that is, at how often each verb has as its object a noun in the semantic field of “law, regulation, etc.”, things start to look rather different. For instance, in GloWbE again, you have the following (flout/flaunt) ratio:

law 287:37
laws 100:18
rules 212:25
convention 31:3

That shows a percentage of between 10 and 15 percent for flaunt with those collocates. Figures from the NOW corpus show a rather lower percentage, which may be due to its being journalistic, and therefore more ‘edited’:

law 1614:77
rules 2116:96
convention 82:4

So, while Merriam-Webster is less prescriptive than Oxford, Macquarie, and British style guides, in that it accepts the contested use, these figures suggest that many, many more writers across the twenty varieties of English represented in the corpora mentioned actually maintain the distinction than those that ignore it.



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

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

On the other hand, if you are writing or editing something, there is an argument that it would be wise to maintain the distinction, and, possibly, tactfully, raise the issue with the author. In that way, you or they might avoid the involuntary sighs of some of your (probably older) readers as they are distracted from the content of your message by what they see as a flaw in its form.


Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:

  1. What is its origin?
  2. Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
  3. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases

For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.

Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?

Yes, in several.

(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)

For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:

être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)

German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.

But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.

Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?


It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.

To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.

Where does the phrase come from?

Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom.  However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.

However, a concatenation of googles eventually led me to none other than Cicero. In a letter to Atticus he describes Julius Caesar as

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.

Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than he himself to himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.

Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.

Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.

They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.

On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.

In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.

Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.

A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.

I can discern no difference between them.

All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.

So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?


Own worst enemy or own worse enemy? Eggcorns (5)

No punctuation in contractions? Well never accept it, will we?

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

Oh, what a fount of inspiration is that little bird. Watching the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations Match on Saturday (10 March) and tweeting at the same time added to the thrills and spills, even if it meant missing a few crucial moments. (Even J.K. Rowling was tweeting. Gosh! Scotland lost abysmally, btw.) And it can throw up the odd language curiosity. One such was ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’.

Yay! Another eggcorn spotted in the wild. This one is not in the ‘famed’ (how I loathe, detest and revile that word, which I only put in so that I could say quite how much…) eggcorn database, so there was no illumination to be found there as I wondered how frequent it might be.

It also piqued my curiosity in other ways.

  1. Is the eggcorn on the increase?
  2. How old is the eggcorn?
  3. How did the eggcorn come about?
  4. Where does the original phrase come from?
  5. Is there a similar idiom in other European languages? and…
  6. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases?

How frequent is the eggcorn?

That, I thought, is going to depend on where you look, surely?

As it turns out, it does, but the differences are not huge. Three different corpora I consulted give figures ranging from just under 2 per cent to 3.63 per cent of all occurrences of both forms.

A Google for “own worse enemy” in quotation marks scores 32,700 against “own worst enemy” at 2,590,000, but I suspect that doesn’t prove anything very much.

Is it on the increase?

I couldn’t tell you. When I entered the search string ‘own worse enemy_INF’ in Google Ngrams, it plotted a seemingly vertiginous rise from the 1980s onwards. But the numbers are so small they don’t tell you very much. If you enter both strings], i.e. …worse… and …worst…, you can see a much gentler rise for …worst…, going back to the nineteenth century.

How old is the eggcorn?

Coming across any eggcorn, one might be tempted to tut-tut, shake one’s head, and condemn modern illiteracy. If you are so tempted, refrain. Like many other eggcorns and ‘mistakes’, …own worse enemy has a venerable history—at least as far as Ngrams goes—1881 being its premiere there.

‘It is not too much to say that the man who has any interest in fruit production or selling in this State, and yet places obstructions in the way of the execution of laws intended to foster that industry, is his own worse enemy, and a blind leader of the blind.’ This seems to have to do with a crisis in the horticultural industry of aphis on pear and apple trees, i.e. probably greenfly and blackfly.

How did/does it come about?

From a meaning point of view, it baffles me. But I’m probably too close to it to see the wood for the trees. I mean, everyone can use the superlative—man’s best friend, I am the greatest, etc. If you use the comparative, as here, what’s the comparison? I’m probably overthinking, though, because there’s another explanation, which is  phonetic, and it seems quite simple. It’s yet another case of final t-/d-deletion, the same linguistic brand that is proud to bring you it’s a doggy-dog world, midrift, coal-hearted and cold slaw. Knock off the final -t of own worst enemy, and you have…

And I’m own worst enemy because I put off blogging, and then weeks go by I don’t post anything.


lactose intolerant, lack toast (and) intolerant, lack toast and tolerant: eggcorns (4)

Continuing my intrepid expedition into the fabled Kingdom of Eggcornia (“Here bee dragoons”), in this blog I’ll look at one more from the first ten of the list I mentioned originally. (The full list is at the bottom of this blog.) It is lack toast intolerant, and variants.

I’ll use the notation that I used and explained in an earlier blog.

lack toast intolerant, lack toast and tolerant and even lack toast and tall or rent, lack toast and toddler ant, etc. (lactose intolerant)

9.1.1 (In eggcorn database?)  Y;
9.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2004;

9.1.3 Typology possible t-insertion, at least for lack toast intolerant; in other words, the reverse of final d/t deletion, the phenomenon that explains explains e.g. dog-eat-dog becoming doggy-dog

9.2 (GloWbE figs.) n/a;

9.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

9.4.1 (History and explanation) I think this one is on the Barbary shores of the fabled land of Eggcornia. Or rather, it is more spoken about than spoken. Many of the Google hits for it are metalinguistic: people are slagging it off as a mistake.
However, it’s been around for quite a while: this site refers to its being mentioned in 1997, and Susie Dent mentioned it in her Language Report for 2006. And this Youtube link is an example, as is one of my images.
Being lactose intolerant has to do with milk products. Someone who had never heard the phrase before might assume there was a t missing, insert it, and come up with lack toast intolerant. But it doesn’t at first sight make a great deal of sense.

But then there is the “reshaping” lack toast and tolerant, which, actually makes more sense and might shed some light on lack toast intolerant. It makes more sense because, if I don’t know what the lactose in lactose intolerant is about, my thought processes might go something like this:

  • From context, it’s about food allergies;
  • Oh, yeah, some people are allergic to wheat products;
  • Toast’s got wheat in it, right?
  • So, what they’re saying is, they’re intolerant because they can’t eat toast;
  • Sure, I dig. Who wouldn’t be a bit grumpy if you can’t even eat toast?
  • And then, with the reformulation to lack toast and tolerant, the meaning is that the person so described, being wrongly supposed to be allergic to wheat, is now tolerant because they have not got toast, which contains it.

Far-fetched? Possibly. I’ll let you decide. I came up with this explanation, before discovering that someone else humorously suggested something along the same lines (see below).

The alternative, of course, and equally, or more likely, is that whoever uses the eggcorn understands exactly what the referent is, but has just never thought about analysing the individual parts of the phrase.

9.4.2 (Other observations) FWIW, Google searches using quotation marks produce these figures:

“lack toast intolerant” 39,600
“lack toast and tolerant” 8,240
“lack toast and intolerant” 327

In The Ants are My Friends (2007), Martin Toseland jokes about the last one: “If you wake up in a bad mood, don’t get breakfast soon enough and are generally a complete pain, you can be described as ‘lack toast and intolerant’;…”

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)






Blog-gate: what happens when your WordPress site is suspended?

I was totally flabbergasted and bemused.


Gentle reader, I’m sorry if you were notified about a new blog post but then couldn’t read the post because this blog was temporarily down. So, I thought I’d explain in my usual OTT style, in case you were wondering what was going on and whether I’d been arrested and locked up. Or, at the very least, I’d been bad-mouthing someone, or gone off on a rant about something and been censored.

On Wednesday my blog was suspended for no apparent reason.

What I learned

  • It’s not fatal.
  • If you query such a suspension as a mistake, WordPress responds very rapidly and appropriately. (And considering my site is free, that’s pretty impressive on their part.)
  • Back up you your blog after every single new blog post (with WordPress it’s so easy it’s like ‘stealing candy from a baby’).
  • Finalise the content, and save it somewhere else, for the record, before posting. (Till now, I drafted all blogs in Word first, and then edited them online. Time-consuming, and other people probably don’t, but it’s the way I liked to work. From now on, I’ll make sure the Word version is the final one, and then just copy and paste.)

What happened?

On Wednesday 25 Jan. I posted a new (revamped) blog about ‘on tender/tenterhooks’. As I always do, I publicised it on Twitter, with a link to the blog. I’m glad I did, because a tweep alerted me to this notice that now appeared when he tried to follow the link:

This blog has been archived or suspended in accordance with our Terms of Service. For more information and to contact us please read this support document.

How did I react?

That sounded pretty drastic to me; a visit to my site did nothing to reassure me.

All I was able to see was a kind of disembowelled, disembodied ghost of a dashboard with only a couple of options. No blog post of any kind. Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse. Glug!

Where had all those tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of words posted over the last six or seven years gone?
How dare they snaffle and then annihilate my intellectual property!
How am I going to start again from scratch?
What about those thousands of visits I get very month? How can I build those up again on a new site?

Fortunately, however, and despite my mounting irritation and anxiety, that wraith-like d’board still allowed me to export my content, which I promptly did.

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful or informative, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and whatever language point floats my boat on any given day according to my mood swings. Enjoy!

Reasons for which I surmised it was suspended

Once I got over the initial puzzlement and shock, I asked myself what Terms of Service I could possibly have infringed. The User Guidelines page mentions all the things you’d expect: basically, no hate speech/porn/nicking other people’s stuff/advertising/infringement of copyright.

My brain went into a paroxysm of mini-paranoia.

  • Someone’s got it in for me, and has maliciously reported me.
  • My blog’s been hacked.
  • Oh dear, I’ve used an image that is copyright, and the copyright lawyers have got it in for me.
  • The OED have complained, because I quote profusely from it, and have got it in for me.
  • I’ve used ‘naughty’ words (such as ‘toilet’), and somehow this has been picked up by a naughty-word-cleansing algorithm, which also has it in for me. (Better half was adamant it was my title ‘toilet talk’ that had caused it.)
  • I included a sarcastic mention of the SNP in a blog, and they’ve got it in for me.

And so on and so forth.

My head is going to explode.

At the back of my mind I thought: ‘Shurely, this is shome ridiculoush mishtake?’ At the same time, I was incensed because the notification did not mention a specific fault or infringement.

I felt myself plummeting into a literally (?) Kafkaesque nightmare world of being tried by an invisible judge for a nameless crime. (The ToS page said something along the lines of ‘The final decision is ours’.)

Why had it been suspended?

Fortunately, the ghost dashboard also allows you to send a message if you think your blog has been suspended in error.

I sent such a message, explaining that my blog is purely about ‘language’, and wondered how many days or weeks it would take to hear back (if I ever did).

Well, ‘my relief was palpable’ (what a strong collocation that is, isn’t it?) when, within the space of a couple of hours a Community Guardian got back to say:

Your site was mistakenly flagged by our automated anti-spam controls. We have reviewed your site and have removed the suspension notice.

They also apologised for the error and any inconvenience.

I’m impressed, actually, by the speed of response.

So there you have it. The culprit was an automated routine, not a person.

So, all’s well that ends well, but the answer raised another question: what in my site fell foul of the automated routine? And, might it happen again? Well, at least I know what to do now.

I asked if any specific words might have caused it, and they told me that doesn’t happen.

In any case, I’m thankful to WordPress for such a quick response. And I’m thankful that I don’t have to start from scratch. Phew, and double-phew! Everything is luxe, calme et volupté once again.

‘Luxe, calme et volupté’, Matisse, 1904, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Title taken from Baudelaire’s poem L’invitation au voyage, from Les fleurs du mal.


On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks? Eggcorns (3)


The chap on the left is attaching the cloth to a tenterhook, to keep the cloth nice and taut on its ‘tenter’ (frame).

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful or interesting, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and whatever language point floats my boat on any given day according to my mood swings. Enjoy!

I’m on a role [;-)] with this eggcorn thang, so here’s a revamp of one I made earlier, to tied you over until the next in-death one I have time to pen.1

To be on tenterhooks: What does it mean?

You’ll probably have your own image. [You can add it mentally here…]

For me, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because you don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as you feared, be it exam 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 constituent parts. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenDerhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is? And if something is tender, it’s delicate and susceptible to harm or damage, and so, if I’m on tenderhooks–you get my drift when it comes to explaining the logic of this eggcorn.

Not to mention that, soundwise, it’s possibly another example of the t-flapping which/that accounts for several other eggcorns, such as trite and true, financial heartship and cuddlefish.

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

The kind of 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. In other words, the original image is one of being very “tense”, in the sense of being stretched very tight, as can be clearly seen in the early quotation, from Cranmer, mentioned later on.

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 first quarter to first half, 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 of the literal meaning is from a dialect dictionary of 1889.

Note the meaning drift:

Tenter-hooks, strong iron hooks put in ceilings and..joists.., on which bacon and other such things are hung. Glossary of Words from Manley & Corringham, Lincs. (ed. 2), E. Peacock.

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in the form tentourhokes in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV’s daughter and Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York. She apparently needed 200.

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.” (i.e. at eight pence the 100).


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“.


Disraeli père, looking very intellectual and thoughtful.

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” or even use “alternative facts”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tenterhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only as late as 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

Aren’t I just fabulous? You can dress me up in this ridiculous, semi-oriental drag that no Englishman (or half-Scot, which I am) would be seen dead in and I still look like a lord. That’s breeding for you.

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. I don’t think I’ll be on tenterhooks waiting to see if they do.

In case you think I’m being more than usually silly, tie over, indeath research and to be on a role are all genuine eggcorns. I didn’t stumble across them; I asked myself if they would exist in the wild, googled them, and, sure enough, they do. Almost any idiomatic phrase you care to think of will probably have an eggcorn version. Try it for yourself.

Leave a comment

Eggcorns (2). Let’s nip this in the butt!


It’s a dog-meet-dog world…

In the previous blog on this topic, I attempted to differentiate eggcorns from other verbal “slips”, and suggested that they illustrate how people try to make sense of idioms they hear that are both unfamiliar and seemingly nonsensical.

I also suggested that the difference between eggcorns and the originals that inspired them could often be reduced to a single sound. In other words, I want to hone in [sic] on the fact that not only are eggcorns semantically motivated and “logical”; they also often make sense from a sound point of view. They are not, as nothing in language is, random in the sense of being arbitrary, and are susceptible of rational explanation.

For instance, not only does damp squid make sense meaningwise; it replaces the voiced plosive /d/ with another one, /b/, rather than, say, replacing it with squit. which ends with a voiceless plosive, but could equally convey the meaning of dampness and unpleasantness.

The section on “typology” in the list that follows, hopefully, illustrates ways in which such modifications are phonetically non-random.

Of course, eggcorns can be highly amusing if they generate a surreal image. But the amusement they provide should be disinterested and kind-hearted; it should not be of the rebarbative “I despise you when you use poor grammar” school.

I also suggested that the survey I talked about in the earlier blog could not seriously be considered “research”. Which raises the question: where is evidence for eggcorns to be found?

Language corpora of different kinds are the obvious answer. There is also the mother of all eggcorn collections here, the eggcorn database set up by asphyxianados years ago. (I made that one up, in case you’re wondering, but a google does get some hits.)

That said, eggcorns are largely oral phenomena, and therefore looking in written sources for them might be akin to looking for God in a brewery. Nevertheless, written collections of one kind or another do shed some light. What follows is a detaiedl analysis of the first four in the original list (there’ll be further blogs on others). Each one is analysed according to the following criteria:

1.1 In eggcorn database? Y/N

1.2 If Yes, year of first citation mentioned in that database?

1.3 Typology

1.2 Frequency of original in the vast database GloWbE1 vs the eggcorn version

1.3 If in Google Ngrams, earliest relevant example

1.4.1 History & explanation (if applicable)

1.4.2 Other observations

(Numbering starts with the number of the entry in the list, and then continues with the numbers of the four categories and subcategories mentioned above.

  1. to be pacific (to be specific)
    1.1-1.1.2 (Eggcorn database & Year) N;
    1.1.3 (Typology) initial consonant phoneme drop;
    1.2 (In GloWbE?) N;
    1.3 (Google) no Googles, other than metalinguistic
    1.4.2 This one puzzles me. The use of “pacifically” for “specifically” is well attested; so much so, in fact, that is practically a meme. I suspect that whoever put the list together found this somewhere and regurgitated it.

  1. escape goat (scapegoat)
    2.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    2.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) undated;
    2.1.3 (Typology) initial vowel phoneme addition;
    2.2 (GloWbE figs.) 3,094/63 escape goat; escapegoat 5;

2.3. (Earliest Ngrams citation) As can be seen on this link, 1853, it seems. That entry is from a French-English dictionary. Earlier quotations seem to be not germane to this discussion.
2.4.1 (History & explanation) The “scape” in scapegoat is escape with its first vowel chopped off. In Google Ngrams, some of its occurrences are metalinguistic, i.e. in discussion of how it came to be.

As Ben Zimmer pointed out in the eggcorn database: Note by Ben Zimmer, Nov. 15, 2010: “As explained by Merrill Perlman in ‘Passing the Blame’ (CJR Language Corner, 11/15/10), the change of scapegoat to escape goat simply brings it into line with its etymological origins:

‘The concept of the “scapegoat” is in the Bible, in Leviticus, as part of the ritual of atonement. The word “scape-goat” itself, though, did not appear until 1530, according to The Oxford English Dictionary: “In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.” That first goat escaped death, though it was loaded with sin. Since “scape” was merely a spelling variation of “escape,” it was, literally, an “escape goat.” Maybe “escaped goat” would be more grammatically correct, but no matter.”’

It is also worth mentioning the further eggcorn scrapegoat.


  1. damp squid (damp squib)
    3.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    3.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2005;
    3.1.3 (Typology) Final consonant phoneme swap (voiced plosives);
    3.2 (GloWbE figs.) 352/20;
    3.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) 1898 “By the time she returns to her ‘muttons’ all interest in the entertainment has evaporated, and the denouement fizzles out like a damp squid.” The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 68;

3.4.1 A squib is a type of firework, and a damp one doesn’t go off, and is therefore disappointing. The OED first records the idiom from as “recently” as 1846.
3.4.2 What can I say? This was the title my editor chose for my parvum opus. The idiom, in either form, seems to be far less known in the US than in the UK. In the earlier blog, I mentioned Jeanette Winterson’s remark that she grew up believing it was damp squid. Here it is again, for interest:

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?


4. nipped it in the butt (nipped in the bud)
4.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
4.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2002;
4.1.3 (Typology) t/d-deletion2;
4.2 (GloWbE figs.) 462/2;
4.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

4.4.1 The original, nip in the bud, is a horticultural metaphor. First recorded in its current form in 1607, but known in a variant from 1590: F. Beaumont Woman Hater iii. i. sig. D4v   Yet I can frowne and nip a passion Euen in the bud.

4.4.2 I couldn’t track this down in Ngrams, which is perhaps not surprising, given its mere two occurrences in GloWbE. If you google “nip in the butt” millions of ostensible hits show up. I scanned the first two screens of hits, and all, bar one, were discussions of the misuse of one for t’other, or knowing puns.

The single exception, from a blogger who had grown up believing “in the butt” to be the correct version, shows how adept people are at rationalizing their own usage: “I thought the saying was more of a scare tactic. Basically if you don’t cut out the behavior that you are doing you will get nipped (bit, pinched, etc) in the butt. This was pretty powerful for me growing up.”

The confusion with butt is not only “logical”, as illustrated by the blogger’s comment above; it is also motivated by conflicting meanings of nip. For the in the butt version, people assign the meaning “bite, peck” etc. to the verb, as in the cartoon below.  However, the idiom derives from a different, and nowadays rarer meaning, which the OED classifies as sense 13 a: “Originally: to check or destroy the growth of (a plant), as by the physical removal of a bud or the like, or through the action of cold or frost. Later: to arrest or prevent the growth or development of (anything).”

Additionally, I would have thought that the existence of other frequent idioms with butt (pain in the butt, kick in the butt, etc.) must play a part.

1 GloWbE stands for “The Global Corpus of Web-based English, a corpus containing over 1.9 billion words of text from 20 countries where English is used.

2 t/d-deletion, discussed here, explains why e.g. skimmed milk might become skim milk, and why some estate agents wax lyrical if a house for sale “boasts” stain glass windows. Try saying end game very quickly. Now, is there a /d/ there? Be honest.


Eggcorns. Grit to my mill! (1)

On 8 December 2017, some British newspapers picked up a story about “eggcorns”. The Independent headed it “The 30 most misused phrases in the English language”.

According to the Indy, a British opticians and hearing care company “surveyed 2,000 British adults and found that 35 per cent of them used eggcorns without even realising they were saying something incorrectly”.

As its introduction, the article (drawn, I suspect from experience, more or less verbatim from the company’s press release) stated, “New research has revealed the 30 most commonly misused phrases in the UK. Known as eggcorns, the bizarre phrases often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings.” (The full list is at the end of this blog.)

Clearly, this is not serious “research”. For starters, what particular “English language” was being sampled? For example, were people recorded over a period of days, weeks, or months, and were the recordings then transcribed and analysed? Somehow, I think not. And a score of other questions could be asked.

Let’s leave methodology aside, though, and hone in [sic] on the purported “definition” of eggcorns: “bizarre phrases [that] often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings”.

No, sirree. eggcorns are quite the opposite of “nonsensical”: they are the hearers’ attempt to make sense of phrases that strike them as nonsensical by making them meaningful – at least for those hearers.

I’ve pontificated previously about eggcorns in general here, and about specific ones here and here. But, at the risk of repetition, here’s the OED definition again:

An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.”

Incidentally, I’d highlight “reinterpretation” here, rather then “mishearing”: the sound stream reaching my ear may be the real McCoy, but my brain has to interpret it somehow by turning an “unknown unknown” into a sort of “known unknown”, if you catch my drift, and the result is an eggcorn.

The term was coined in 2003 by the eminent linguist Professor Geoff Pullum1, and derives from a “reinterpretation” of the “word” acorn2.

Oh, so it’s just a fancypants, linguists’ term for malapropism, right?

No. That’s why it was needed.

Malapropism involves “The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect.” President Bush was famous for them, e.g. “We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.”—Houston, Sept. 6, 2000.

OK. So, it’s like folk etymology, then?

(You mean “folk etymology” in the meaning of “the transformation of one word or lexeme into another which then becomes institutionalized”, such as crayfish from Middle English, crevice, crevisse, with the –ice, –isse element reinterpreted as “fish”; or chaise lounge [recognised in some dictionaries] from chaise longue?)

No, because, in theory at any rate, eggcorns are the productions of one speaker, rather than of a speech community.

So, what defines an eggcorn?

Well, apart from being the production of one speaker – and such are going to be very hard to find written evidence for, aren’t they? – they often tend to differ from the original by a single sound, occasionally two. An example of that is damp squid for damp squib3. Alternatively, actually, they sound exactly the same as the original, but their existence only emerges when someone writes them down, as in ex-patriot for expatriate.

What’s more, many idioms that are eggcornized contain a word that rarely, or even never, occurs outside the idiom. What exactly is “grist“, anyway, and what is it doing in my mill? And what is a “squib“?

What evidence is there for the claim made?

I believe that any “research” mentioned in the article would be along these lines: the market research company surveying people created a list of thirty phrases with their original and eggcorn versions, and then asked their sample to say which was correct. If that is the case (and I’ll try to find out), the statement “35% of them used eggcorns” needs to be deconstructed. It could, after all, merely mean that 35 per cent of the sample got 1 phrase wrong, out of 30. More probably, however, there will have been a range: i.e. some answered 1, some 2, some 3, etc. (though none will have answered 30).

It would be interesting to know which were the most commonly misused, but that is too much to hope for.

More importantly, though, if the company created the list, it must have drawn on existing sources. That, as a bit of an eggcorn groupie and having myself done PR campaigns based on eggcorns, is what I suspect from the list, and from the dubious status of at least a couple of entries on it (“to be pacific”? “circus-sized”?)

For the moment, I’m going to analyse and comment on the first 12  in the list. But that’s material for another blog. Otherwise, this one will be too long.

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)

1 The link to the Language Log post discussing the issue is here.

2 As the OED shows, the person who pronounced acorn as “eggcorn” and thus inspired the linguistic term was not alone, and not the first.

1844   S. G. McMahan Let. 16 June in A. L. Hurtado John Sutter (2006) 130   I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn [acorn] bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.

1983   Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa24 Apr. 23 (caption)    Paper sacks held a variety of ‘recyclable’ goods including ladies’ shoes, pine cones, walnuts, used toys and, according to their sign, eggcorns (acorns).

If you say the word acorn in a sort of Texan drawl, you might hear how it could become eggcorn. Or, as Mark Liebermann puts it: “Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which ‘beg’ has the same vowel as the first syllable of ‘bagel’. For these folks, ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.”

3 Jeanette Winterson is quoted as follows. Her explanation shows how very much eggcorns do make sense: “I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”



U and non-U language – napkins and serviettes

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

In response to my toilet talk number one (geddit!?!) post, one of my most assiduousest followers (Here’s to you, M******t!) asked when it became de rigueur in British polite society not to refer to the kasi as a toilet.  In other words, when toilet became what is/was known as non-U. It’s a long story, so please bear with…

For the benefit of my transatlantic reader(s) and the young … toilet falls– or fell – into the category of words that the English/British upper classes would supposedly never use, a group of words classified as ‘non-U’ [i.e. non-upper-class].

Such distinctions must seem entirely baffling to those drinking nectar and ambrosia in the land of the free. Let’s explain. At one time, not that long ago, in England/Britain, which synonym you chose of a pair immediately identified the rung you occupied on the social ladder.

Referring to ‘a square piece of cloth or paper used at a meal to wipe the fingers or lips’ as a serviette meant you were a lower-ordersy sort of cove, and to be confined instantly to social outer darkness, while calling the same item a napkin meant either you really were posh or else had skilfully trained yourself to sound it.

Napkins looking like an unlikely ancient observatory.

Similarly, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all’ is not a sentiment a well-born British Evil Queen would have expressed, since looking glass, scansion notwithstanding, was the snob-approved synonym.1

Where did the U/non-U distinction come from?

While the distinctions themselves  must clearly predate any description of them, it was a linguist who coined the terms and then an aristo who brought them to somewhat clamorous public attention—the first in 1954, the second, the following year.

That linguist was Professor Alan S. C. Ross, then Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham (UK) University, and the aristo was Nancy Mitford, one of the almost legendary Mitford sisters.

An obscure Finnish academic journal, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen(‘The Bulletin of the Neo-Philological Society of Helsinki, Vol. 55. No. 1, 1954, pp. 20-56, available at JSTOR) published an article by Ross entitled Linguistic Class Indicators in Present-Day English. Not a title, or indeed a source, you might think, to set the Thames on fire. But in 1954, in a British (specifically English) context, ‘class’, and in particular class-defined language, was a seriously hot-button topic.

Ross included in his article a list of word/phrase pairs, such as writing paper (U) and notepaper (non-U), How do you do? (U in reply to How do you do?, while Pleased to meet you would be utterly non-U), and so forth.

While toilet is not listed in its own right, toilet paper is listed as non-U compared to lavatory paper (U), implying therefore that lavatory was the ‘polaite’ word for the bog.

One of Ross’s sources was Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love. The professor consulted la Mitford about her language in that book, but she decided to have a jolly jape about the whole thing, which resulted in her rejoinder-as-essay titled The English Aristocracy for the left-leaning-intello-snob magazine Encounter.

Here’s a telling contrast. The Prof started his article thus:

‘Today, in 1956, the English class system is essentially tripartite—there exist an upper, a middle, and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is marked off from the others.’

If one manages to pass over the wording ‘a lower class’ without choking on a pheasant bone, and then not stumble on the Anglocentric ‘English’, the Prof’s thesis was that members of the upper class had only language to distinguish them from—and, let’s admit it, elevate them above—(the) hoi polloi3. For, as Ross pontificated, they were ‘not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class’.

At this distance, it seems impossible to say how in earnest the Prof was; to me, some of his article reads like someone gloriously extracting the Michael at the expense of the Finns and everyone else. That impression is only reinforced by the knowledge that Nancy Mitford considered him U. However, a Wikipedia list of his publications shows a learned philologist, so one has to take what he wrote at face value.

Nancy in a rather fabulous wedding dress

Which is what la Mitford did, when she began her riposte with…

‘The English aristocracy may seem to be on the verge of decadence, but it is the only real aristocracy left in the world today’.

The touchpaper of linguistic insecurity had been lit, and it blazed [What is ‘it’? The touchpaper or linguistic insecurity? Please review this rather far-fetched phrase. Ed.] fiercely for at least a couple of years, leading to the publication in 1956 of the Prof’s (simplified and condensed) paper, la Mitford’s rejoinder, and contributions from that ur-snob Evelyn Waugh, among others, in a slender volume called Noblesse Oblige. To cash in on the furore that had been sparked off, the title was changed to ‘U and non-U’ with the subtitle ‘An essay in sociological linguistics’. The embers of the issue burned on for years.

Nowadays, as British English arguably4 morphs into a Calibanish second cousin of American (when visiting Buck House as a member of the public a few years back, a young whippersnapper asked us ‘to form a line’ – I ask you! I remonstrated, and reminded him that in this country we speak of queues, but that laddie was not for learning. And now it is obligatory if you are under 120, to talk of ‘shtructures’ and ‘orcheshstras’ and ‘shtreets’ – need I go on?) it takes an effort of the imagination to think how different things were in the constipated Britain – well, England, actually – of the mid-1950s.

The Second World War had supposedly effaced the rigid pre-war class distinctions and Labour had swept to power (excuse the cliché) in 1945. The NHS had been created, fair enough, but underneath nothing much had changed, and a Conservative government had been returned to power in 1951.

Toffs were still toffs, the working classes generally knew their place and were definitely not upwardly mobile; to wear a hat of some kind outside the house was a virtual obligation for men as well as women; Britain still clung to an Empire on which the sun was rapidly setting; and possibly a third of the British population believed that the Queen had been appointed by God. 

At home my mother drank a vile coffee-substitute confection called Camp, a hangover I suspect from her time as a Frontier Corps wife in the dying days of the Raj; olive oil came in tiny phials bought at great expense from the chemist to loosen childish ear wax; on winter outings my brother and I were cocooned like mini-me Jack Hawkinses in military-style dufflecoats whose toggles constantly frustrated childish hands, and, when the cold really bit, we were topped off with balaclava helmets; our father schooled us laboriously and aspirationally in how to say ‘How do you do!’ and shake hands with adults we were introduced to; and everyone leapt to attention when the national anthem was played in cinemas at the start of the programme.

In such a world, to get on in most walks of like, you had to enounce your thoughts in an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent (but not a refained and therefore put-on one). Social climbers who had a gift for mimicry could train themselves to talk like the clipped-most BBC announcer or the orotund-most Shakespearean actor. But such social tightrope-walking was perilous. Like the German spies in Holland who, anecdotally, were unmasked [Can you be ‘anecdotally unmasked’? Ed.] by not being able to pronounce Scheveningen5 like a true Netherlander, one lexical slip could send your social ambitions straight down the toilet. Which is where we came in.

You might sound like a toff, but was your vocabulary U?

The next sheet of this blog will be about the phrase toilet talk and loo.

Incidentally, the first uses of lavatory to mean either room or receptacle are quite close to those for toilet (1874/1886, i.e. earlier for the room, but later for the receptacle 1894 for toilet vs 1903 for lavatory), which raises the question of when it became U in the first place, and why.

I’ve been editing far too many academic articles and monographs of late…that’s my excuse for the endnotes, anyway.

i In the Grimms’ original, the mirror is a diminutive Spieglein, which is hard to match: mirrorlet? I don’t think so. »Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand,
Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?«
so antwortete der Spiegel:
»Frau Königin, Ihr seid die Schönste im Land.«

ii It is easy to forget that German was well placed to become the universal lingua franca in the nineteenth century, above all because of its scientific and scholarly credentials. This seems to have been the case in Finland, as witnessed by the aforementioned journal, whose title is in German, as is, naturally enough, the information about it. However, Ross’s article is in English, and the one, also in English, preceding it in the journal, mentions how English was taking over in Finland in scholarly circles.

iii Pray don’t tell me that hoi means ‘the’ in Greek, and therefore ‘the’ in English is redundant. I know already  what it means. But English is not Greek, just as Hungarian is not Mandarin, nor Slovene, Punjabi, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

iv Arguably is such a wonderfully, conveniently weasel word. It would like to sound as if it means ‘there are objective arguments to support what I am about to claim’; what it really means, as here, is ‘because I say so’.

v Scheveningen is a suburb of the Hague, where, as a mid-teenager, I spent my first solo European holiday, when my father was working there. It’s a word that does not trip easily of an untutored British tongue, and my dad’s Dutch friends had hours of harmless fun trying to get me to say it properly.


Where does the word ‘toilet’ come from? History

The purpose of World Toilet Day is, of course, to highlight how many people in the world lack access to private or safe basic toilet facilities. That aim is very laudable.

And talking of ‘aim’ brings to mind that sign you might encounter, for example, in a twee B&B — I shouldn’t, I know, because it’s puerile and tasteless, but why change the habit of a lifetime? — directed at male micturators: We aim to please. You aim, too, please.

But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t, instead, want to plumb the depths of the word’s back passage, I mean backstory – which, as it turns out, is rather illuminating.

First, though, here’s a riddle to set your neurons a-twinkle: what’s the connection between toilets and posh wallpaper?

We’ve all been there.

If English is going down the toilet, as some believe, it’s usually the Yanks who are to blame. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, they are responsible for the latest twist in the very long story of a word that’s been running and running since the sixteenth century.

Once upon a (long long) time (ago), rather than referring to the

bathroom, loo, smallest room, privy, jakes, thunder-box, garderobe, house of easement, crapper, bog, khazi, etc., (odd how many of those slang terms are British — does it reflect a national scatological obsession?)

toilet meant ‘A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes.’

‘You’re kidding me!’
Yeah, no, really.
It did.

How that shift happened is a long story, best told by reverse time travel. So, follow me boldly round the u-bend of etymology. On our cloacal journey we’ll see how a word can constantly morph as speakers give it new meanings, so that it wouldn’t recognize itself even if it found itself in its soup.

That journey gives us a hopefully easy-to-read timeline.  And I trust you won’t think me too anal-retentive in going through all this. Or, indeed, that all that follows is pure bovine scatology.

Trust the Dutch to be so forthright! We Anglos are a more reserved race. Actually, it’s about Louis XIV doing his business during a meeting. Yuck. Small wonder perhaps, then, that the famous apophthegm ‘Après moi le déluge’ was coined by his successor.

The dates that follow are the first recorded uses of the word in the meaning defined, according to the OED. Quotations are added for literary or historical interest.

In incarnations 4, 5, and 6 the pronunciation would have been /twɑːˈlɛt/, imitating the French /twalɛt/. And many of the word’s earlier meanings seem to have been borrowed from the Protean meanings of the French word. Several of the examples in the OED are from translations, illustrating the word’s original frogginness.

Note, too, the folk etymology in the 1803 example of category 7, and the sort of naïve phonetic rendering in the 1682 example under section 8.

  1. 1894 – “receptacle for you know what.”
    I saw him sitting on the toilet with all his clothes on. N.Y. Court of Appeals: Rec. & Briefs 19 Dec. (1897) 134
  1. 1886 – “room or building.”

1886 He says the English railways are improving all the time… No toilets are provided, which make [sic] long distance traveling very injurious to the health. Kane (Pa.) Leader 7 Oct. 2/2

1959   Such a gentleman..always pretended not to see you if he met you coming out of the toilet. S. Gibbons Pink Front Door xviii. 222

  1. 1790 – “A dressing room (in later use esp. one equipped with washing facilities).”

1819   There is the closet, there the toilet. ByronDon Juan: Canto I cliii. 79

1978   Gradually the room where one attended to personal grooming or ‘made one’s toilette’ came to be called just the toilet. Verbatim, Sept. 5/2

  1. 1752 – “Chiefly in form toilette. Manner or style of dressing; dress, costume. Also (as a count noun): a dress or costume, a gown. Now arch. and rare.”

1821   His toilette had apparently cost him some labour, for his clothes..were of the newest fashion, and put on with great attention. ScottKenilworth I. iii. 50

1936    Nance..had suffered such a ruffling of her toilet that a couple of hairpins trailed across one of her ears. J. C. Powys, Maiden Castle ix. 450

  1. 1688 – “Chiefly in form toilette. The reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet, esp. fashionable in the 18th cent.”

1688   For indeed people never go thither to make their Court, nor do they attend at the Sultana’s Toilets [Fr. Toillettes]. J. Phillips, translation of Du Vignau Turkish Secretary 51

1786    I am forced to deny all admission to my toilette, as it has never taken place without making me too late. Fanny BurneyDiary 19 Aug. (1842) III. 120

Lady at her toilette, c. 1660, Gerard ter Borch, 1617-1681, Detroit Institute of Arts

  1. 1684 – “Frequently in form toilette. The action or process of washing, dressing, or arranging the hair. Frequently in to make one’s toilet.”

1684 She was given to understand, being at her Toilette, of the death of her Husband. translation of ‘Le Sieur Combes’ Hist. Explic. Versailles 32

1726   Every Trifle that employs The out or inside of their Heads, Between their Toylets and their Beds. SwiftCadenus & Vanessa 7

1939    They make their toilette and take their repose. T. S. EliotOld Possum’s Bk. Pract. Cats 20

  1. 1667 The dressing table covered by this cloth; a toilet table. Obs.

1667 (stage direct.Re-enter Donna Blanca and Francisca as in Blanca’s chamber, and she newly seated at her Toilet, and beginning to unpin. G. Digby, Elvira iv. 58

1789    My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette. GibbonAutobiogr. (1854) 100

1803   M. Charlton Wife & Mistress (ed. 2) I. 118   I have made up a twilight in her room, and put my white taffety pin~cushion upon it.

1819   On the toilette beside, stood an old-fashioned mirror, in a fillagree frame. ScottBride of Lammermoor xii, in Tales of my Landlord 3rd Ser. II. 301

  1. 1665 – “A cloth cover for a dressing table, formerly often of rich material and workmanship; ..Obs.”

1665  Two Gentlewomen masked, and a little Dwarf with his vizard on likewise, came to undress him, afafter [sic] they had spread a most sumptuous Toillet on a side Table. J. B. tr. P. Scarron, Comical Romance ix. 48

1682    A gold-coloured Tabby Twilet and Pincushion with Silver Lace. London Gaz. No. 1739/4

1696   Toilet, a kind of Table-cloth, or Carpet of Silk, Sattins, Velvet or Tissue, spread upon a Table in a Bed-chamber. E. PhillipsNew World of Words (new ed.)

  1. 1664 – “A shawl to cover the head or shoulders; spec. a cloth put over the shoulders during shaving or hairdressing. Obs.”

1664   How Propa this little Rogue is, in every thing! Night gowne, slippers, Cap, and Toylet? As brave as if she were to marry some Prince to night. T. Killigrew, Thomaso v. vi, in Comedies & Trag. 375

1687   When they go abroad, they wear a Chal which is a kind of toilet of very fine Wool made at Cachmir.  A. Lovell, tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant iii. 37

Corneille de Lyon, Claude; King James V, King of Scotland (1512- 1542), Aged 25; National Trust, Polesden Lacey

  1. 1538 – “Chiefly Sc[ottish]. A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes. Obs.”

1538 vj quartaris of ȝallow bukram to be ane tulate to ane goune of gray dalmes of the kingis grace maid of before, and had to Striveling. [..quarters of yellow buckram to be a toilette to a gown of grey damask of the King’s grace made from before, and had to Stirling[i].]
In J. B. Paul Accts. Treasurer Scotl. (1907) VII. 86

1611    Toilette, a Toylet; the stuffe which Drapers lap about their clothes; also, a bag to put night-clothes, and buckeram, or other stuffe to wrap any other clothes, in. R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues

So, there youse have it. From piece of cloth to shawl to dressing table cover to dressing table to action of doing one’s hair to receiving visitors to style of dress to dressing room to…loo.

Like everything useful in the modern world, ‘toilet’ — the word, at any rate — is thus a Scots invention.

[Alternative Facts advert kindly sponsored by the Scottish National Party.]

How direct the line from one meaning to the next is is not clear. What is clear is how one little word can substantially flush out older meanings as it moves through the cistern, I mean system.

I was almost forgetting my little riddle. Toilet comes from French toilette, which is a diminutive of the French for ‘cloth’, toile. If you want some elegant, chintzy, shabby chic wallpaper you might be interested in toile de jouy, which is ‘A type of printed calico with a characteristic floral, figure, or landscape design on a light background.’

[i] I take this to be the town of Stirling, site of one of the Stewarts’ most important castles/palaces. The date of 1538 would make sense as relating to Mary’s QoSc’s father, James V (1512-1542, ane other scottis monarke killed aff by thon inglis bastarts – [steady on! how did that mad Nationalist get in here? Ed.]), whose wife, Mary of Guise, was French. This meaning of the French toilette is one of the several meanings imported into English. The close links between France and Scotland at this time might explain the original importing of the term.

Leave a comment

Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (2)

In the previous blog on this topic, I presented some information about the history of these two forms of the ‘same word’, which have exactly the same meanings.

Once a presumed synonym comes into existence, though, it seems that some people will search heaven and earth to find a justification for its existence. Such is the case with discernable. If you google it, you might be directed to Wikidiff, which assures you that there is a meaning distinction between the two forms. You could have fooled me, but here, for what it’s worth, is what that august fount of knowledge claims:

‘The difference between discernible and discernable is that discernible is possible to discern while discernable is detectable or derivable by use of the senses or the intellect.’

Whoever thought that up had not quite worked out that nonsense on stilts is still nonsense, even if stamped with the faux seal of the internet/Wiki/wotevah. If something is ‘possible to discern’ it can ‘be discerned’, which means that it is ‘detectable by use of the senses or the intellect.’ I’m not sure where the ‘derivable’ comes in, but this cyberjobsworth was clearly not averse to circularity.

According to the OED, whose judgement I prefer to that of Wikidiff, and according to common sense, whose virtues may be even greater than those of that august cultural monument, there is simply NO DIFFERENCE (at least in meaning) between the two words. Each has five senses, which are exactly paralleled in the other, including the fifth and obsolete ‘capable of discerning’ (an ability the writer of Wikidiff clearly lacked):

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.

1650   Man in Moon No. 37. 295   I hope this will be a sufficient caution for all discernable, or rationall men.

The difference is a simple orthographical one, ‘derivable’ or ‘possible to discern’ by looking at data.  Which is more frequent? Discernible or discernable. You know the answer yourself, vermute ich, but here is the science:

Figures and ratios for discernable/ible in several corpora:

Oxford English Corpus:

Feb 2014 – General – 4430/1472; total = 5,902; Ratio 75:25%
Monitor corpus Aug. 2017 – 9750/1861; total = 11,611; Ratio 83.97:16.03%
Academic journals, June 2015 –  6,303/1,858; total = 8,161; Ratio 77.23:22.77%

BYU corpora:

Corpus of Historical American (CoHA)– 1132/54; total = 1,186; Ratio 95.4:4.6%
NOW Corpus (News) – 5602/932; total = 6,534; Ratio 85.7:14.3%
Corpus of Contemporary American (CoCA)– 1096/190; total = 1,286; Ratio 85.2:14.8%

And here are the figures from the Global Corpus of Web-based English.

discernible 2,608 609 164 596 170 244 121 80 624
discernable 721 183 46 175 40 65 42 21 149
RATIO [%] 78.8/21.2 76.9/23.1 78.1/21.9 77.3/22.7 81.0/19.0 79/21 74.2/25.8 79.2/20.8 80.1/19.9

As you will have noticed, for most corpora, the proportion of discernible seems to hover betwen the 75% and 80% mark.

The exceptions are those datasets that exceed the 80% mark, of which there are four: OEC Monitor, CoHA, NOW and CoCA. To what extent the difference is signficant, not being a statistician, I am afraid I cannot say. The very high 95.4% of the CoHA data, though, is presumably due to writers historically being more careful about putting down what they thought of as the correct form.

Good ole’ Ngrams shows a slight drop in discernable at the beginning of the 19th century, and then an upward trend towards 2000, while discernible shows an earlier peak, and then decline.

Finally, omniscient Google asks ‘Did you mean discernible?’ if you key in the –able form.

So, yes, according to what the sources tell us, discernable is used and legitimate, but still a minority taste (a bit like the British LibDems, really). The only usage note I can find on it is in Pam Peters’ Cambridge guide, where she suggests that writers use the -able form either ‘in deference to the older tradition, or by using the regular English wordforming principle for English verbs’.

In that regard, the OED lists about 3,700 –able adjectives compared with a mere 600 for –ible.

Leave a comment

Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (1)

‘Discernable’, I hear you say. ‘There’s no such word!’

While editing the other day I came across this spelling, and it had me scratching my head. ‘A mistake, surely?’ said I to myself, a tad too smugly, as it turned out.

I thought I’d better check all the same.

I’m glad I did, for thereby hangs a tale of imported words, historical swapping, and current variation or uncertainty.

Is it correct, you might ask? Well, yes and no. (It depends what you consult.)

Is it frequent? (For those in a hurry [FTIAH], far less so than discernible.)

And what does ‘the dictionary’ say? ([FTIAH], It depends which one.)

Which came first? And where from? (Read on.)

If I write discernable, am I wrong? (Read on.)


‘The dictionary’ says:

  1. The Online Oxford Dictionary gives it as an alternative form under the headword discernible.
  2. Collins proclaims itrare’ and ‘another word for discernible’.
  3. Google asks ‘did you mean discernible?’
  4. Merriam-Webster online makes it a subentry under discern, ‘discernible or less commonly discernable’.
  5. M-W Unabridged gives it as an alternative under discernible with no comment on relative frequency.
  6. In its etymology rubric for discernible, the OED says ‘compare earlier discernable’, which has its own (Dec. 2013) entry.

So, if you go by ‘the dictionary’, it exists and is valid.

However, the OED entry for discernable has a cautionary note: ‘discernible is now the more common word; some later examples of discernable may show typographical errors for it.’ (My underlining.)

And the ‘After Deadline’ column’s spelling check in the NYT – admittedly back in 2010 – had this to say:

‘Here’s a new nominee for the title of most-frequently-misspelled word (by percentage of uses): “discernible.”

Like “legible” and “divisible,” it ends in “-ible” rather than “-able” (the spelling generally depends on how the original Latin verb was conjugated). In the past year we used “discernible” in articles 92 times and “discernable” 15 times, for an error rate of about 14 percent.

Granted, a few dictionaries charitably list “discernable” as an alternate spelling, but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a 16th-to-18th-century variant. We should stick to “discernible.”’

By Philip B. Corbett January 19, 2010 11:05 Am


Where do discernible/discernable come from?

There’s a bit of a story to unravel here. The M-W unabridged puts it in a nutshell:


discernible alteration (influenced by Late Latin discernibilis, from Latin discernere + –ibilis -ible) of discernable; discernable from Middle French, from discerner + -able

In other words, it suggests that what most people would today take to be the standard form is an alteration of the form in –able.

Does the OED agree?

Not exactly, but it does provide some interesting historical information.

Stepping back a bit from either derivative, let’s take the verb discern. The OED gives it a dual parentage from French AND Latin. (Words from ‘French and/or Latin’ constitute the fourth-largest group of loanwords in English, after those from [you’ll have guessed already] Latin only, French only, and Greek, and ahead of German]. It is first recorded from before 1325 (i.e. the exact date is not known).


Given its existence in English, discern, like so very many other verbs, was then capable of having the suffix –able added – or, as the OED puts it: ‘formed within English by derivation’ – when the need to express the idea of ‘able to be discerned’ arose. Which it did, but not before 1548, it seems, and then in a rather sad cause.

1548   W. Patten The Expedicion into Scotlande of…Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset sig.

That woorthy gentleman and valiaunt Captain all piteefully disfigured and mangled amoong them lay: and but by his bearde nothing discernable.

That extract is from the account of the disastrous (for the Scots) battle between the English and Scots armies at Pinkie Cleugh (near Musselburgh, which is not far from Edinburgh), on 10 September, 1547. Possibly as many as 6,000 Scots were killed out of an army of 22,000 to 23,000.

In that extract, the meaning is not the main modern one of ‘perceptible’ but rather that of ‘recognizable’, in this case only by the subject’s beard. (How you recognize a man by his beard alone could be a skill we moderns have lost. Hipsters take note.)

Lord Protector Somerset by Holbein (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, under whose auspices the attack on Scotland took place.) You’d have to be Herculeanly butch to get away with that look nowadays.

That meaning of ‘perceptible (to the mind)’ first surfaced thirteen years later, in a translation of Calvin (the theologian)’s work:

1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Inst. Christian Relig. i. xvii. f. 62   The schoole of certayn and plainly discernable trueth [L. certae conspicuaeque veritatis schola].

It is worth noting, firstly, that the OED gives twenty-first century citations for four out of the five meanings it assigns to discernable (the fifth being, in any case, obsolete).

Second, the OED also notes ‘Compare Middle French, French discernable visible, (in later use also) that can be perceived by the mind or intellect (16th cent.)…’ which leaves it tantalizingly unclear what influence the OUP lexicographers think French had on the word. (Remember what M-W Unabridged says, quoted earlier.)


is a direct borrowing from the Late Latin discernibilis, from the Latin verb discernere mentioned earlier, ‘to separate, to distinguish, to settle, decide’ (from which comes discrete, meaning ‘separate’ and not ‘tactful’, which is spelled discreet). I wonder if its replacing the –able form is an example of the philological Latinizing trend that e.g. added the b to debt.

It currently has all the same meanings as discernable, and one extra, historically (= capable of discerning), with which it first appeared in 1603 in a work by the Elizabethan/Jacobean poet Samuel Daniel:

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.



The first OED citation for one of its current meanings (‘That can be discerned or perceived by the mind or intellect.’) is:

1616   S. S. Honest Lawyer i. sig. B

I am composd most of the nimbler elements: But little water in me, farre lesse earth, some aire..but their mixture Is scarce discernible, th’are so dispers’d. For my predominant qualitie is all fire.

A contemporary OED example with the same meaning is: 2003   N.Y. Mag. 3 Nov. 90/3   Songs that stop and start for no discernible reason.

Finally, in the meaning of ‘visible’ we have the first appearance in 1678:

W. Thomas Serm. preached before Lords 36

Elijah’s little Cloud scarce discernible at first aspect, but being dilated, blackens the Heavens.

And more recent quotations from George Eliot and Ian McEwan:

1866   ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt I. ii. 67   There was the slightest possible quiver discernible across Jermyn’s face.

2001   I. McEwan Atonement 160   There was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the greyish-blue of the western sky.

Tbc in another blog, with information on relative frequencies.


It’s a dog’s life (Part II). What does ‘It’s a ‘dog’s life’ mean? Good or bad?

I’m not quite sure what’s bitten me, but, I’ll be doggoned, I can’t stop nuzzling through all things linguistically canine. Previously, I‘ve looked at: the origin of ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’; at its eggcorn version; and at whether ‘X’s bark is worse than X’s bite’ and ‘it’s a dog’s lifehave parallels in other languages. Subsequently, I’ve come across a few curiosities I thought I’d ‘share’, particularly for US readers, who are the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog. (Thanks!)

In addition, I’m sort of obliquely revisiting ‘it’s a dog’s life’, though I hope all this won’t turn into a shaggy-dog story.

As mentioned previously, the OED has a welter of pooch-related phrases, proverbs, compounds, and so forth. Not to mention the 31 fundamental meanings of the word, several of which are further subdivided.

Apart from various highly technical meanings, there is one which regular visitors, like me, to stately homes – National Trust or otherwise – might well come across: ‘A utensil, consisting of an iron bar sustained horizontally at one end by an upright pillar or support usually ornamented or artistically shaped, at the other by a short foot; a pair of these, also called ‘fire-dogs,’ being placed, one at each side of the hearth or fire-place, with the ornamental ends to the front, to support burning wood.’ These dogs, otherwise known as andirons, tend to be the sort of ostentatious metalwork, or domestic bling, that nowadays only the truly grand or the truly pretentious can indulge in (you need a fireplace, for starters, preferably a large one).

These are truly splendid Dutch seventeenth-century (fire)dogs.

Most Americans would be baffled by a Brit saying ‘give us a bell on the dog’. (‘Is this some kind of weeeeuuuuuurd pooch accessory you crazy guys use that we haven’t heard of?’)

‘To give someone a bell’ is informal British English for ‘to phone’ someone, and ‘the dog’ is short for ‘dog and bone’, which is rhyming slang for…phone.

(Actually, that utterance is one of those made-up examples that used to be the norm in dictionaries but wouldn’t cut the mustard nowadays; though theoretically plausible, it is unlikely [despite existing on Google] because the second part is redundant: ‘to give someone a bell’ implies on the phone, which therefore does not usually need to be stated.)

Similarly opaque for US readers might be dressed up like a dog’s dinner – meaning ‘wearing extremely smart or ostentatious clothes for an occasion for which they are entirely inappropriate’; and, slangwise, something being the dog’s bollocks when it is the best of its kind, the genuine article, the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, etc., e.g. ‘Back in 1996, when the supercomputer was installed at Australia’s National University, it was the dog’s bollocks.’

Now, reverting to it’s a dog’s life, Paul Nance, who is an assiduous reader of this blog, kindly posted a comment noting that for ‘it’s a dog’s life’ the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs compiled by William George Smith. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Second edition (1948), reprinted 1963, page 152) quotes a proverb suggesting that a dog’s life may be mixed:

As Paul wrote: ‘…“a dog’s life, hunger and ease,” suggesting that a dog’s life is one of both misery and pleasure. It quotes Kelly’s Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, “A dog’s life, mickle hunger, mickle ease. Applies to careless, lazy lubbers, who will not work, and therefore have many a hungry meal.”‘

I have to say that I find it hard to be convinced by the argument cum proverb, for three principal reasons: first, a proverb may exist – in the sense of having been recorded – but be infrequent, or only relevant historically (For instance, outside the covers of dictionaries, I have never encountered a dog that will fetch a bone will carry a bone and its variants, all of which mean ‘a gossip carries gossip both ways’.)

Second, which is a corollary of the first, although framed as a proverb by someone once, a given ‘proverb’ may not feature in people’s mental lexicons at all, and therefore certainly not represent a general truth in people’s minds. And in fact, the Scots proverb above contradicts the first one (‘mickle‘ means ‘a lot of’).

Third, so many proverbs, phrases, and derivatives connected with bow-wows are negative that the balance of probability linguistically suggests that a dog’s life just has to be negative. To take three examples, 1) you can only ever be dogged by something bad, such as bad luck, illness, etc.; 2) historically, if something is dog + ADJECTIVE X, it is generally bad, despised, or not desirable, e.g. OED C. 1 d) & e), dog-tired, Lear’s dog-harted daughters, A wretched kind of a dog-look’d fellow, dogmad, dog-hungry, and so forth; and 3) if something is dog + NOUN X, it is of poor or dubious quality, e.g. OED C.1 f) …

1565   M. Harding in J. Jewel Def. Apol. Churche Eng. (1567) 94   Luther would stampe, and rage, and whette his dogge eloquence vpon you.

1581   P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 29   Heere is praeda Mysorum, expounded and set out with dogge Rhetorike, and much adoe.

1611   J. Florio Queen Anna’s New World of Words   Versaccij, dog-rimes, filthy verses.

(I will pass over what my most attentive readers will have spotted, namely that 2) and 3) here possibly contradict what I said earlier about a proverb only being relevant historically. No matter: ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ ;-). )

Nevertheless, usage changes in line with changed attitudes. Since dogs in English-speaking countries are hugely popular as pets and are pampered, cosseted, spoiled, accessorized and anthropomorphized almost to death, there is every reason to suppose that ‘it’s a dog’s life’ will over time become exclusively a positive thing. In fact, a micro-minsurvey on Twitter revealed to my surprise that half of respondents over 40 already interpret it as a good thing, and under a third of those under 40 also do. Of course, it is also true that one might use it in one way oneself, but happily interpret it the other way round, according to context.


It’s a dog’s life. And the dogs go on with their doggy life.

Could ‘it’s a dog’s life’ be used refer to a pleasant lifestyle rather than a despised, downtrodden one?

It would seem passing strange to me. But somewhere recently I read that the meaning of this idiom seems to be changing (annoyingly, I can’t remember where). And the (to me rebarbative) picture above of dog as girly fashion accessory makes it sound very plausible.

If it is happening, it would be an example of (a)melioration, the linguistic process by which a word sort of moves upmarket, or at least shakes off ‘its lowly-born tag’. The classic example is nice, which has moved from meaning ‘silly’ or ‘ignorant’, to meaning, erm, ‘nice’.

If you come across ‘a dog’s life’ being used positively, do please let me know.

Now, dogs are not proverbially associated with the good things in life, which reflects their often less than pampered status, historically speaking.

For instance, one of the most famous dogs in literature, Odysseus’ Argos, dies a pitiable death, as Pope’s ‘translation’ from The Odyssey so elegantly conveys in heroic couplets.1

For instance, when things ‘go to the dogs’, they are certainly not improving (1st OED quotation, 1619). If someone ‘dies like a dog’, it is hardly a noble or glorious death.

Þu schalt regne as a lion, butte þu schalt die as a dogge. (before 1425).

The OED groups doggy idioms, proverbs and the like according to the canine characteristic they exemplify. One rubric for the category in which poor mutts are a symbol of maltreatment runs ‘With reference to the quality of a dog’s existence’ and then ‘In various other idiomatic expressions involving an unpleasant thing, circumstance, or event (usually in negative constructions)…’

The broth may be good, but the flesh is not fit for doggs sure.

[a1625   J. Fletcher Wife for Moneth v. i, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) 66

The punishment diet was such as no humane man would give to a dog.

The Times, 6 March 1898

Other examples of translated Yiddish being adopted by non-Yiddish-speaking people are, ‘It should(n’t) happen to a dog!’ [etc.].

American Speech, 18 46, 1943

I’ve heard the way some people talk to sports stars and you wouldn’t talk like that to a dog.

Courier Mail (Austr.), 10 June 2006.

If people from Jacobean playwrights to modern journalists, as in the examples above, say something is ‘not fit for a dog’, or you ‘wouldn’t give X to a dog’, you can be sure that that particular something is deeply undesirable.

The list of negatively connoted phrases goes on like a litany of canine woe (dog’s breakfast/dinner, not a dog’s chance, throw someone to the dogs).

Stubbs’ ‘A Rough Dog’, 1790. It looks a bit like my stepmother’s bearded collie ‘Pushkin’, but dog lovers will know better than me.

It’s a dog’s life

So, what about ‘it’s a dog’s life’? Actually, it’s not in the OED in that precise form: instead, there is a subsection under the rubric previously mentioned:  ‘to lead a dog’s life and variants: to lead a life of misery, or of miserable subservience. So to lead (a person) a dog’s life: to subject (a person) to such an existence.’

Here are the earliest and most recent quotations (with a lot of misery in between left out).

Mr. Ford afterwards had a dogs life among them.

Fox MSS. in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) III. xxi. 174, a1528

He’d led her a dog’s life, she couldn’t bear to talk about it.

Bristol Evening Post, 29 April 2003

Several other European languages seem to agree about the universal wretchedness of Fido’s life: une vie de chien, una vita da cani, una vida de perros, uma vida de cão, ein Hundeleben, собачья жизнь, Σκυλίσια ζωή. 

This poor little chap certainly has a hangdog look. (Despite myself, you see, I can’t help anthropomorphising him.)

I wondered if corpus could help. Well, in the corpus I consulted, there are 113 examples. However, many of them are not the idiom at all (e.g. I’m a firm believer now that a routine is a very healthy part of a dog’s life). Even with the verb ‘it’s a dog’s life’ many are just puns in texts where dogs are the topic.

Of those that are definitely the idiom, and not punning on the dog connection (less than a dozen), most are negative, e.g. Gerard Doherty is leading a dog ‘s life at the moment. Playing football after a few pints of devil juice is not a good idea. A swollen ankle is proof enough that Gerard is not as young as he thinks.

However, there is a punning one that could be taken to suggest that a dog’s life is a good thing. It’s about a sniffer dog called Jake.

In the wake of Sept. II, Jake often pulled 14-hour days. The long shifts were not his idea of a dog’s life. One night he practically collapsed from exhaustion.

And then a couple more where it is not clear what the implication is:

Ainlee is not living with his wife and for some time there has been a coolness between him and the Baroness. There are two or three children, who are knocked about from one to the other. One day she says “they’re yours, take them”, and then, “They ‘re mine and I want them back”. Rathbone says the poor kiddies haven’t a dog’s life.

Given the strange use of ‘have’ here, could this be a confusion with the idiom ‘a dog’s chance’?


The holidays are usually the biggest time for animal adoption, but the Humane Society is not sure what to expect this year. Right now that old saying, it’s a dog’s life just doesn’t carry quite the same meaning.

Does this mean that if adoptions go ahead, it’s a dog’s life, therefore a good thing? Or, given the context, does it mean ‘a dog’s life is worth something’?

In connection with ‘a dog’s life’, I was reminded of Auden’s ‘doggy lives’ from Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the poems I recite to myself on the treadmill in the gym to stave off almost terminal boredom.2


One of Flaxman’s glorious neo-classical illustrations for The Odyssey.

1 Take Odysseus’ dog, Argos, that exemplar of canine devotion and loyalty. He gets to see his master on his return to Ithaca, and has his praises sung, but his only reward is death, as Pope’s very free translation makes clear. To be read aloud.
WHEN wise Ulysses, from his native coast
Long kept by wars, and long by tempests toss’d,
Arrived at last, poor, old, disguised, alone,
To all his friends, and ev’n his Queen unknown,
Changed as he was, with age, and toils, and cares,
Furrow’d his rev’rend face, and white his hairs,
In his own palace forc’d to ask his bread,
Scorn’d by those slaves his former bounty fed,
Forgot of all his own domestic crew,
The faithful Dog alone his rightful master knew!
Unfed, unhous’d, neglected, on the clay
Like an old servant now cashier’d, he lay;
Touch’d with resentment of ungrateful man,
And longing to behold his ancient lord again.
Him when he saw he rose, and crawl’d to meet,
(‘Twas all he could) and fawn’d and kiss’d his feet,
Seiz’d with dumb joy; then falling by his side,
Own’d his returning lord, look’d up, and died!

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
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.
(Complete version here)


His bark is worse than his bite; Perro que ladra nunca muerde; Can che abbaia non morde

(I’m on a roll with this dog thang, so I thought I’d go on until bitten in the leg or otherwise stopped)

As non-gender-specific Human’s best friend, dogs have understandably inspired much proverbial wisdom and colourful phrases down the ages and in many languages.

Sometimes a doggy thought expressed in English in one way is expressed (technically ‘lexicalised’) differently in another European language. I was reminded of this truism when a Bulgarian character in a radio soap (‘The Archers’) asked what ‘her bark is worse than her bite’ means.

The Spanish equivalent that I’ve occasionally heard used is ‘perro que ladra no muerde’ [literally ‘dog that barks, doesn’t bite’, the omission of the article in Spanish arguably giving the phrase a sort of epigrammatic, emphatic, gnomic quality]. You use it as a comment on someone’s personality, meaning, as you will already have worked out, that ‘their bark is worse than their bite’.

(As it happens, the exact same syntax applies to the French and Italian equivalents: chien qui aboie ne mort pas and can che abbaia non morde.)

At this point, it’s worth defining what a ‘proverb’ is: according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, it is ‘A short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.’ To my mind, ‘his bark is worse than his bite‘ is a catchphrase, not a proverb, since it can inflect (his/her/their/your) etc. But these are quibbles.

It turns out that there is an English proverb with the ‘same meaning’: A barking dog never bites. It is just far less common than the alternative already mentioned, which most English speakers will recognise and – as occasion demands – use.

Proverbs tend not to be that well represented in written corpora; even so, for example, worse than…bite’ crops up 163 times in the Oxford English Corpus (July 2017) compared to the other’s…well…just twice.

One of those is in a passage where dog tropes are part of the narrative style (see 1 below for a longer extract), while the other is attributed to an altogether different language: ‘There’s a saying in Syria: a barking dog never bites,” said Adnan Diab, a Syrian teacher living in Lebanon.’

In contrast, ‘X’s bark is worse than their bite’ (oh, the lengths one has to go to to be gender-neutral) is so well established that it readily lends itself to punning, as the following example and the one at 2 below show.

My favorite Gary Ingle story is about the piano teacher who taught her cocker spaniel how to play all fifteen two-part Inventions of J.S. Bach. The dog’s Bach was worse than his bite. American Music Teacher, 2015

Although a barking dog never bites will NOT trip readily of most people’s tongues, it goes back a long way, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (CODP), which gives a thirteenth-century French example: ciascuns chiens qui abaie ne mort pas.

The Trésor de la langue française (a sort of French OED) suggests that that ancient fomulation is still valid in the form chien qui aboie ne mort pas (note the omission of any article before chien, similarly to the Spanish version).

The CODP also furnishes an entertaining 1980 quotation, from the 1 May Daily Torygraph:

A canvassing candidate came to a house where there was an Alsatian who [NB] barked ferociously. His agent said: “Just go in. Don’t you know the proverb ‘A barking dog never bites’?” “Yes,” said the candidate, “I know the proverb, you know the proverb, but does the dog know the proverb?”’

Finally, German has the exact equivalent of the English Hunde, die bellen, beißen nicht [dogs that bark don’t bite] whereas Italian can che abbaia non morde has the gnomic brevity of the Spanish and French, and is elegantly translated by Google as ‘Can that barks does not bite’.  Which comes from which? Or is there an underlying Latin source? [These are purely rhetorical questions.]

1 ‘Some might say election season turns into a dog-eat-dog political world, with candidates performing dog-and-pony shows. And while some would point out that a barking dog never bites, others would agree that the whole thing has gone to the dogs.’, 2012.

2 This extract refers to a hot dog eating competition as reported in the New York Post in 2007. Yuck and double yuck!

In a record-shattering wiener war yesterday, Joey Chestnut downed 66 Nathan’s hot dogs, besting six-time defending champ Takeru Kobayashi ‘s 63. Chestnut reclaimed the Mustard Yellow Belt for the United States by scarfing down a total of 20,394 calories at the annual Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island.Despite a jaw injury that nearly prevented him from competing, Kobayashi stayed neck and neck with Chestnut until the end of the 12 -minute battle when his barf [sc. vomit] proved worse than his bite.


What does ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world’ mean? And a doggy dog world?


It was National Dog Day the other day (26 August), which set me thinking about all the many phrases into which our canine friends nuzzle their way.

Actually, I say ‘canine friends’ somewhat tongue in cheek, as I’m rather ambivalent – not to say cynical1 – about the whole mutt race. On the one hand, I’ve never owned one (though I have owned three cats); I’ve been bitten – well, ‘nipped’ would be more accurate – twice (both times by Alsatians/German shepherds2); I can’t abide incessant barking or yapping; and the number of times I’ve had to scrape doggy doo out of my corrugated soles does not endear the little darlings to me (though, of course, I recognise that is their owners’ fault, not theirs.)

On the other hand – and this must be genetic in humans and instinctive – when I see one, the urge to pat/stroke/caress is almost overwhelming – as is the need to talk in that kind of potentially shaming canine baby talk people automatically adopt (‘Who’s a clever boy, then?’).

When I see cute pictures of pooches I gurgle.  When our neighbour’s cockapoo (I ask you! Whoever dreamt up that portmanteau had cloth ears) aka ‘Hector’ leaps into our garden and has to be scooped up and returned home, he always spreads a broad grin across my wizened fizzog, because he is, frankly, completely mental and absolutely adorable.

Clearly, some kind of therapy is required.

‘A dog is a dog is a dog’ Gertrude Stein might have said. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to disagree, since it gives the noun dog no fewer than…down, boy, wait for it…88 ‘senses’ i.e. different meanings, and 166 subentries (many of which are the proverbs and phrases I’ll be coming on to).

And dog is also one of those mysterious OED words that have the experts staring into the void: ’ Origin: Of unknown origin. Etymology: Origin unknown.’

I digress ‘majorly’.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world

…is a bit of a cliché. Where does it come from? The first relevant quotation in the OED is from a 5 August 1794 headline in the Gazette of the United States: ‘Dog eat dog’. The next quotation (1822) is from a British source, and then The Times of 30 December 1854 has:

‘It was dog eat dog—tit for tat… the customers cheated us in their fabrics; we cheated the customers with our goods.’

But why should a dog eat another dog? Have you ever seen it happening? Have you heard about it? Me neither. Yes, some barbaric people (used to) organise dog fights, but the losing hound dies or is slaughtered, not eaten.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world and variants, in fact, echo an earlier proverb that comes all the way from Latin. That proverb, nowadays less common than its pup, is ‘dog does not eat dog’ which comes from the Latin grammarian Varro’s canis caninam non est3, literally ‘dog dog’s flesh not eats’.

This is first recorded by the OED from the 1543 anti-Catholic diatribe The Huntyng & Fyndyng out  of the Romishe Fox sig. Aiiv by the cleric and naturalist W. Turner (the Dictionary of National Biography opines that ‘Turner’s exposition of protestant teachings alternates with sometimes scurrilous sexual imagery and coarsely textured abuse’):

That the prouerb may haue a place on dog will not eat of an other dogges fleshe nether will on wolf eat of an other.

Shakespeare played with the idea in Troilus and Cressida ‘One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?’ (v. vii. 19)

And Charles Kingsley (he of The Water Babies4) used the canonical form in Hereward the Wake, which I quote here in case it comes in handy for the British team during Brexit negotiations:

Dog does not eat dog, and it is hard to be robbed by an Englishman, after being robbed a dozen times by the French.’ (II. xi)

(Hereward the Wake led local resistance in the Fens to the invading Normans [i.e. ‘French’].)

It’s a doggy dog world

Now, the idea of mutts eating one another must have struck some cynophiles as so bizarre and inconceivable that they had to eggcornize it to ‘it’s a doggy dog world’, as recorded in the eggcorns database (the hyperlinks there to sources are dead, btw) and as it pops up in Google Ngrams.

e.g. ‘Americans are always in a rush, always looking at the clock, never waiting patiently. It’s a doggy dog world out there.’

The mechanism for the eggcorn is easy to understand, as the database points out: it’s t/d deletion (the ‘t’ of eat), which also accounts for other eggcorns such as *coal-hearted and *bran-new. What I can’t quite grasp is what kind of world a doggy dog one is, in the perception of the eggcornizers.

1 Ultimately from the Greek word for dog, κύων, κυνός (kyōn, kynos) via κυνικός (kynikos) ‘dog-like, currish, churlish’, via Latin cynicus, with possibly some influence of French.

2 What is it with me and Guatemalan Alsatians? The first bite was administered to me as a child in Guatemala; the second as an adult in Argentina by the Guatemalan ambassador’s dog, no less.

3 That est, btw, has nothing to do with the 3rd person singular of the verb ‘to be’ esse, meaning ‘is’, as in i.e. ‘id est’; it is an archaic form of the verb edĕre, ‘to eat’, from which, ultimately, comes English edible.

Inevitably, sometimes described as The Water Babes, the which title could give rise to all sorts of erotic imaginings if one is that way inclined.


gambit vs gamut. The whole gamut of emotions or gambit of emotions? Run the gamut or gambit?

Here’s a whole gamut of emotions. Or do I mean gambit? Read on.


The other day a friend used the word gambit in a context where gamut would have been the “natural” thing to say. It goes without saying that I didn’t behave like a language fascist and point this out to them (note my cunning use of the so-called “singular they/them” to conceal gender): I merely noted a linguistic event for later investigation (Pull the other one! Ed.)

And sure enough, there is objective evidence that this isn’t a one-off—which set me wondering why. Before delving into my lucubrations, let’s look at what the two words in question mean.

What do they mean? And how are they used?

First, gambit. This originated (1656) as a chess term, originally denoting a game or series of moves that entailed making a sacrifice to gain an advantage, and then narrowing semantically to mean specifically an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.

However, unless you’re a chess buff, you’ll only encounter or use the word in the two other meanings that developed from those chess ones.

First historically and by frequency comes, as the OED defines it, “A remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation or discussion”: e.g.

His favourite opening gambit is: ‘You are so beautiful, will you be my next wife?’.

Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.

Typical adjectives that go with this meaning are opening and conversational.

Next, “A plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”: e.g.

He sees the proposal as more of a diplomatic gambit than a serious defense proposal.

Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.

A more common or garden synonym for this meaning is tactic.

As in the examples, it needs adjectives to support it, such as diplomatic, bold, clever, desperate, daring, etc. Typical verbs of which it is the object are try and employ, and as subject, succeed/pay off/fail.

However, the most common verb in the corpus I consulted that “activates”1 gambit is run, of which more later.

Here’s another gamut of emotions. Mainly disagreeable, I agree.


As with gambit, and as with so very many words we use every day, gamut started life in a specific field of knowledge: music. Its more technical musical meanings needn’t concern us here, but one less technical meaning is “The full range of notes which a voice or instrument can produce, or which are used in a particular piece.” From this came its more generic modern meaning: “The whole gamut of something is the complete range of things of that kind, or a wide variety of things of that kind”: e.g.

Varied though the anthology may claim to be, it does not cover the whole gamut of Scottish poetry.

As the story unfolded throughout the past week, I experienced the gamut of emotions: shock, anger, sadness, disgust, confusion.2

The word is most often used in the syntax

the + (adjective) + gamut + of + noun(s),

and in particular in the noun group the whole gamut of.

Typical nouns are issues, topics, styles, activities, services and experience, but the most typical noun of all is emotions, as in the legendary, but somewhat apocryphal Dorothy Parker put-down of Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability: Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.

Note the verb ran there, because run is far and away the most common verb “activating” gamut (followed in a lagging second place by cover.)

In what contexts are the words confused? And which way round?

Confusion of the two words is not that common, as discussed below; when it happens, gambit usually replaces gamut.

You may remember that when describing gambit I said run was its most common “activating” verb too, as in *The emotions run the gambit from joyous exultation to disgust, anger, and sadness, and each are [sic] performed so flawlessly as to take you, the viewer right into them as well.

The software underpinning the Oxford English Corpus, which I used here, makes it possible to compare the collocations of two different words (lemmas) using an analysis called “Sketch Diff”. (Bracketed figures below show the number of examples.) Using this for gambit and gamut shows that overlaps are restricted, as follows:

“activating” verb: run the gamut/gambit, (1746:50) cover the gamut/gambit (220:7)

noun + of: gamut/gambit of emotions (217:10)

adjective + noun: whole gamut/gambit (483:25)

As can be seen, the substitution of one for the other is a minority trend, unlike, e.g. replacing the etymologically correct minuscule with miniscule. Percentages of mistaken gambit out of all occurrences of the collocation in question range from 2.78 per cent (run…) to 4.92 per cent (whole…).

Another adjectival collocate of both words is usual (20:11). However, in only one of the eleven examples with gambit is it a slip: “*Emotions run the usual gambit of love and loss, but they’re sufficiently covered in metaphor and conceit, most often taking the guise of flowers and other elements of the natural world.”

Does it make any difference to understanding?

I humbly submit that it doesn’t. I’ve probably missed some, but here are some possible scenarios for people hearing/reading the confused use:

They know both words and their meanings will mentally (or verbally, if they want to lose friends) make the correction

They know only gambit, and know only its correct meaning, will interpret, query, or, possibly, attach a new (mistaken) meaning to the word

They  know only gambit, and have “gamut” as a meaning and will…well, nothing will happen, actually

People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut

People who know neither word will work out the “meaning” of gambit from the surrounding context, and possibly perpetuate the error.

Why does the confusion occur?

Neither word is common. Gambit occurs less than once per million words. Gamut is more frequent, at almost 1.5 times per million. (But compare either with say, tactic(s), which occurs 26 times per million.) According to Collins, both fall within the 30,000 most common words of English, but that hardly makes them A-listers, given that a mere 7,000 words (lemmas) make up 90% of all texts.

Their relative infrequency means that there are not many opportunities available to sort sheep from goats, or one from the other.

In addition, I can’t help wondering whether phonetics or phonotactics plays a part: gambit contains the gamb– string that occurs in gamble, gambol and a total of 47 headwords in the OED. The string gamu– occurs only in—well,  you guessed it.

If you heard the word gamut and never saw it written, might you assimilate it to your known gambit?

Alternatively—and to be honest, as I get older I favour this interpretation more and more—it might be Dr Johnson’s “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

How old is this switching?

Some of the data in Google Ngrams is curious.3 For example, if you search for the string “gambit of emotions”, there seems to be a rash between 1968 and the mid-1990s, but then it disappears. Searching for “the whole gambit of” reveals an earliest example from 1937, including in Hansard and other parliamentary texts. However, Google Ngrams is a treacherous friend: it turns out that “the whole gambit” in Hansard means what it says, i.e. “the gambit in its entirety of…”.

An etymological note

Gambit is interesting in that it sems to be the bastard child of both Italian and Spanish.

On its first appearance in English it was gambett, showing a derivation from Italian gambetto, literally “little leg.” The OED etymology suggest this order of derivations:

gambito (Spanish, 1561) < gambetto (Italian, 14th century). Both -ito and -etto are diminutive suffixes in Spanish and Italian respectively, the ultimate source being Italian gamba = leg.

  1. In Mel’ˇcukian terms of lexical relations, Oper1
  2. Examples come from the excellent Collins Cobuild Dictionary, designed for ESL/EFL purposes, but actually extremely instructive IMHO for mother tongue speakers too.
  3. If you search for a string, Google will sometimes present examples that show the words occurring in the same context, but in isolation. This clearly skews results.



We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)

This is the face my gran pulls every time she hears “around” used instead of “about”. I’m worried her false teeth will fall out.

What’s this about?

As the title shows, it’s the continuation of the earlier blog on this topic:

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past.
  • Some people loathe it.
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?
  • If you were editing, how would you replace it?

For those in a hurry, here are the conclusions:

  • Around does seem to be on the increase in combination with certain kinds of noun.
  • It is not only a replacement for about: it can also replace or stand in for other phrases and prepositions (e.g. on, over).
  • It is not free, in the sense that it cannot fit into any slot where about works (e.g. you could not say “I know nothing around it”).
  • As far as I can tell, it is used chiefly in the syntagma NOUN (often plural) + around + NOUN (often plural or uncount, and including verbal nouns [“gerunds”, if you must]).
  • If one wished to edit it out, it is often clear immediately how to do so.

The earlier blog concluded with this paragraph:

“Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.”

Now, please read on… [A ten-minute read — or one minute if you’re Oscar Wilde]

Some examples of the contested use

Using Google Ngrams to find nouns preceding around produces only the literal meaning, e.g. arms around (i.e. he put his arms around her).

However, the OEC (Oxford English Corpus) comes to the rescue – sort of. If you look for plural nouns followed by around, and exclude the obvious physical meanings (e.g. business leaders around the world) you get problems, ideas around and, heaven forbid, pace my correspondent, stories around. Here are some examples:

  1. “…Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity.” Senses of Cinema, 2002
  2. “…Hastings believes there has been insufficient debate about what he sees as the huge social problems around the marketing of fast food and snacks.” Sunday Business Post, 2003.
  3. Things Fall Apart involves a range of questions around the term “Third World.” The Hindu: Literary Review, 2002.
  4. “There were also a number of other problems around the workings of the gate including the width of the net clearance provided by the gate, …” England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003.
  5. “Basically, gay artists have pushed sexual politics and ideas around sexual art quite far.” Montreal Mirror, 2002.

What becomes apparent from these examples is that, actually, in my opinion, in only the third and fifth of them could you realistically replace about with around. Try it yourself, to see what you think. In the other three, an adjectival phrase is needed, or a different preposition could have been used: in the first something like “stories on/dealing with/ concerned with, etc. a same theme”; in the second and fourth “with/connected with/arising from/caused by, etc…problems”.

So, what is going on?

As the first part of the OED definition suggests (“In reference or relation to; concerning, about”), around is not solely a modish or overused replacement for about in the meaning of “concerning”, though it often is just that. Take the phrase “ideas around sexual art” from the last quotation above. There are two entities – ideas and sexual art – and the speaker wishes to state that there is some kind of relationship between them, but the nature of this relationship is unspecified.

Possible explanations

  1. If you wanted to be leadenly literalistic, you could argue that this use of around foregrounds its physical meaning to create an image of something hovering around something else without actually touching it. That interpretation would then interpret the widespread use of issues around as a kind of liberal pussyfooting around sensitive issues. (The theory of reiconization, discussed at the end, seems to have great explanatory power, and could be taken to reinforce this interpretation.)
  2. Alternatively, one could suggest that the speaker is either being deliberately vague, or accidentally wooly.
  3. Alternatively yet again, one could simply say that the choice of around as the preposition following issues and related words is merely an increasingly prominent collocation – in the way that veritable is with smorgasbord  – while noting that it is not the only possible combination.

In fact, in the February 2014 OEC, issues around was less frequent than issues about (1744:2384) and the latter appears in examples such as the following where around could just as easily have been used:

“With or without these qualifications, the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography.” Art Bulletin, December 2003.

“Debates between the validity of medical and Neoplatonic interpretations of love thus clarify the extent to which what is seen as natural in love is a cultural construction involving wider philosophical issues about the body and gender.” Early Modern Literary Studies, May 2002.

Such collocational prominence for around seems to be self-perpetuating or self-reinforcing; the more people hear the collocation, the more people use it, and so on, ad infinitum. As evidence of this, the balance has changed dramatically in the space of three years: in the even larger May 2017 Monitor Corpus, issues around (excluding “around the world”) garners 7,496, issues about 4,606.

The process could be that the collocation is constantly expanding from issues as the head noun to other sets of words related semantically to core notions such as DISCUSSING, WORRYING, and REGULATING — and others still to be defined.

A search for PLURAL NOUNS + around + NOUN (of any kind) in the OEC threw up almost 115,000 examples. Most of them were in the physical sense; a small, random sample provided the collocations for our sense shown near the end of this blog.

Where did this use come from?

Because around in its “literal” physical meaning is more frequently used in AmE than BrE, it would be tempting to assume that this “new” use is ultimately American. I do not have enough information to say one way or the other; however, the earliest OED citation is from the British magazine Punch, from 1897. The next one noted by the OED is American, but then the 1970 one is, as far as I can tell, British. It is interesting that all include nouns relating to DISCUSSING rather than the word issues.

“Essence of Parliament… Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
1897,  Punch 29 May 263/3

“The rather outstanding feature throughout the programs was the discussion around the larger problems of rural service.”
1938, Wisconsin Libr. Bull. July 133/1

“The..publication…has stimulated discussion around pre-capitalist economic formations of the non-European type.” 1970, M. A. Cook Stud. in Econ. Hist. Middle East (1978) 278 (note)

How frequent is it?

If someone has a linguistic bugbear such as the one I am blogging about, they are psychologically primed to notice it (and wince, scream, throw a hairy fit, etc.) whenever it happens. It then becomes a prominent feature of their perception of language, irrespective of how often it actually occurs in the stream of language they are exposed to.

Linguists call this the “frequency illusion”, meaning that once one notices a particular phenomenon one notices it over and over and over again and therefore believes it to be more frequent than it actually is (“frequency” here being objective, i.e. how often per million words of “text” [which covers spoken and written] does it occur?).

As mentioned earlier, Google Ngrams shows a fairly vertiginous rise in “issues around” in AmE and BrE. The use in British English takes off later than it does in AmE, which might provide some support for AmE spreading the use.

Other off-the-top-of-the-head collocations show an increase, like issues around, from the 1960s onwards:

discussion/rules/worries/anxiety/concerns/ around”.

On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve been noting its use in speech recently, particularly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme I’ve put in brackets how I think it could be replaced if one (i.e. an editor) wanted to. The more I’ve looked into this, the more it strikes me that people use it in speech because there isn’t time to retrieve the more traditional/conventional/expected collocation — and because it is shorter — and because of reiconization.

challenges around – 22 June 2017 – British Chancellor of the Exchequer (posed by)
choices around – 23 June 2017 – a chief constable (recast the whole sentence?)
safety regimes around cladding – 26 June 2017 – I can’t remember who, sorry! (regulating, for)

And this was part of a statement by a CEO about a controversial issue:

“Instead, they were intended to outline a view that it is key for businesses in Scotland to have stability and clarity around ongoing important political issues.” (about, with regard to, when it comes to)

The most “arounded” conversation I have heard, however, comes from the leader of the Northern Ireland DUP party, Arlene Foster, from 26 May 2017, a part transcript of which is below.

Q: …
A: Well, I think this is an election about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – it’s also around getting the best deal for Northern Ireland in EU exit negotiations and making sure that we have a strong team to do that, and of course, it’s about the restoration of devolution as well.

Q: …
A: Oh, I think it can, and I think it can send a very clear message in relation to the Union. The Stormont elections were perilously close around a different set of circumstances…

In the first part, around looks like a way of not repeating about for the third time. In the second, however, it is distinctly unusual, given that there is a well-established prepositional collocation of under/in…circumstances. Moreover, it does not match the sytactic pattern mentioned earlier.

Other examples…

“I think after Will’s behaviour around women joining the team he should have been asked to leave already.” (over) (Twitter)

From OEC sample

“Though Zuckerberg has talked much about his opinions around borrowing ideas…” (about)

“…incomplete research into existing legal issues around encryption…” (affectingrelating to)

“The report recommended a raft of improvements around communication, stakeholder engagement, coaching, roles and responsibilities and leadership.” (to)

“The Government also agreed to lifting the restrictions around day-release for eligible prisoners…” (on)

“…directors emerged from a marathon board meeting on Thursday having resolved to implement new protocols around contracts after bungling negotiations…” (for, regulating, governing, etc.)

The wince factor

This is a purely and utterly subjective phenomenon – which is not to belittle its emotional intensity, but to state an obvious truth (or truism). [For example, I detest the pronunciation of “perfect” as /ˈpəːfɛkt/ rather than  /ˈpəːfɪkt/ because a) to my mind it reflects “spelling pronunciation”, and b) it is not the pronunciation I grew up  with. However, others might find this particular bugbear hard to understand or share.]

Words constantly change meaning and use. What is unusual, I believe, about around is that it is a preposition. Changes in the use of preposition are perhaps more noticeable because they are grammatical words, and grammatical words do not change that often or that quickly.

The eminent linguist Dwight Bolinger long ago devised the concept of “reiconization” to explain the increasing use of about to replace “of” in phrases such as “We’re more aware about it” rather than “aware of”.

I believe a similar process has happened/is happening with around: it sounds more graphic and literal than the now “empty” about.

Finally, we have no problem with the extension from the literal, spatial meaning of about to the less literal one of “concerning”. One could ask, why should around be any different?

Text of the abstract of the Bolinger article about reiconization (World Englishes, November, 1988).

“Reiconization refers to the process of reanalysis in which a meaningless or semantically opaque item is replaced by a new item with a transparent meaning. When the replaced (deiconized) item combines with other items to form a larger expression, the effect of reiconization is to maintain or restore the original meaning of the larger expression. This process is readily observable in the case of prepositions. For instance, the preposition of lacks a central meaning, and consequently, it is often replaced by the more iconic about or for, as in talk about rather than talk of. Similar examples can be found for other prepositions. Reiconization is not restricted to the replacement of prepositions, but operates at higher levels as well. The respecification of each in the reciprocal, each other, and the reanalysis evidenced by folk etymologies furnish examples of the operation of reiconization at different levels.”

One has to pay to read the article online. I shan’t attempt to summarize it, but will merely say that Bolinger gives several examples showing NOUN/ADJ/VERB + of collocations in which of is replaced by about: 

proud                                        |
I didn’t know what to make | about
disdainful                                 |
wary                                          |

He then goes on to say that while those phrases are reiconized by means of about, about itself is deiconized in the pair about vs around (in US English, at any rate.) Thus, to mess about is replaced by mess around, similarly,
stroll |
stand | about –> around 

That deiconization of about seems to go a long way towards explaining the rise and rise of around discussed in this blog.


We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (1/2)

“I can’t stand this misuse of ‘around'”, she shrieked, pressing the heels of her hands hard into her temples as if she were trying to give her brain some relief from its distress.

What’s this about?

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past;
  • Some people loathe it;
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?

In a review a couple of years ago of my revision of Fowler, I was taken to task for not having dealt with the phrase “issues around”.

Recently, a correspondent, clearly in some linguistic distress, wrote to me about around, “the” – in her words – “new all-purpose preposition”. Her email was headed drolly “around around”. I quote some of it (underlining added).

I wanted to write to share my pain at the creeping use of around and ask your opinion of how it could possibly have crept so far and so fast. While five years ago or so it was restricted to the speech of a certain type of person (politicians, civil servants etc), I’m now hearing it everywhere and even seeing it written down more and more, including in the headlines of supposedly serious newspapers.”

In case, gentle reader, you are unaware of the use of around being alluded to, it is where, previously, most people would have used about. My correspondent continues:

I find it hard to understand is how it has slipped so smoothly into people’s speech. To me, ‘a story about’ is a phrase I learnt when I was little and I’d find it hard to change to “a story around” without putting serious thought into changing my natural way of speaking (and I think about language a lot).”

Someone unkinder than me (I?) might jibe that perhaps the wrong kind of thinking is going on. I digress.

I find it so upsetting that the wide variety of prepositions we’ve used for years has been replaced by this jarring interloper that kicks me in the teeth every time I hear it.

I know I’m being slightly overdramatic but I find it all so frustrating. I am something of a pedantic linguist but I love new, genuine changes that I think enrich the language (the sort of slang heard on The Wire). I detest the glibness and impoverishing effect on language of around.”

In Michael Winner mode, I might be tempted to say “Calm down, dear!” (Drat, I’ve just unwittingly revealed the gender of my correspondent and simultaneously outed myself as a chauvinist pig. So be it.)

That email raises several issues. I will deal only with the language (briefly), the question of newness, the question of frequency, and what I shall call “the wince factor”.

When I started work on my revision of Fowler a few years back, I originally intended to include around with its continual and seemingly unstoppable quest for Lebensraum. I decided not to, for several reasons; however, were another revision to happen, I would feel obliged to put it in. And I would have to do so because my correspondent – and I know she is not alone – shows all the signs of emotional distress that afflict certain people – me included – when faced with a usage they intensely dislike. Not being a psychologist, I cannot comment on how such distress relates to other psychological phenomena. But the language is typical of the overwrought phrases that people use when decrying what they see as solecism: “share my pain”, “jarring interloper”, “kicks me in the teeth”. From this, and from my previous experience of this kind of complaint, it is clear that there is a specific subgenre of “language grousing” one of whose characteristics is physical pain metaphors of the most hyperbolic kind.

(As it happens, my email writer did not acknowledge my lengthy reply, which might suggest that the outburst was a way of letting off steam. That might explain the extreme language.)

As for how my correspondent distinguishes between “new, genuine” changes and those affected by “glibness” or “an impoverishing effect”, the answer must surely be “Because I say so”. It is stating the obvious to say that such distinctions are an entirely subjective matter: your “glib” or “impoverishing” word or phrase may be my metaphor of choice.

Anyway, let’s draw a line under that aspect and move on. (Now, there’s a couple of “glib” phrases.)

How recent is this use of around?

Arnold Zwicky identified a phenomenon he dubbed the “recency illusion”, namely “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent”. My correspondent suggests that around to mean “about” has crept in and assumed a stranglehold over the last five years. It is undoubtedly older than that (and see also later on). In my mind, it is inextricably welded to the preceding noun issues, and I recall mentally noting this collocation issues around well over a decade ago, when it struck me as the jargon of the mealy-mouthed.

As regards the newness of this use of around = “about”, it is worth noting that the very recently revised OED entry (March 2016) includes a meaning category (B. II 11) defined as “In reference or relation to; concerning, about”, whereas the 2nd edition 1989 entry did not.  This shows that the OED lexicographers have decided it is a “thing.”

Now, I first noticed this issues around collocation as an irritating – to my sensibility, anyway – linguistic tic of academics, social workers, hacks and bien-pensant politicians. Google Ngrams shows its vertiginous ascent in that collocation quite clearly. (The texts in which it occurs are, Google confirms, indeed of the kind I have just mentioned.) What is noticeable, though, is that its irresistible rise and rise is not that recent. It is true that between 1980 and 2000 Google shows it rocketing up (its frequency in occurrences per million words goes up almost fourfold), but it had started its ascent well before that, roughly trebling between 1960 and 1980.

Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.

tbc very soon…


Americanisms in British English. Love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay. And we love them.

On Saturday 20 May 2017, the well-known British word buff (orig. U.S.)  Susie Dent presented an excellent and
engaging program(me) on BBC Radio 4 about Americanisms in British English.

Her angle (orig. U.S.) was that she personally (orig. Brit.) likes them, and she wanted to persuade people who don’t to change their minds and join her.

I suspect she won’t have succeeded; feelings run deep on this issue, and there are plenty of Brits (orig. U.S.) who dislike, not to say detest, Americanisms.

The program(me) was called Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a  Good Thing. (Note the playful alternation between the –ise and –ize spelling.)

As she put it, “I’ll be exploring why the use of American English seems to raise the hackles of so many speakers of British English.”

She raised the question of why, when English has “borrowed” so many words from so many other languages, some people object only to the import of U.S. words and phrases.

As she is a personality (orig. Brit) whose views on language might interest the general public, her endorsement of Americanisms grabbed a certain amount of media attention. (So much so, that Radio Scotland invited me to do a 15-minute slot on their morning program(me), an offer I turned down in favo(u)r of attending my regular yoga class. I missed my Warholian 15 minutes, but I managed my first ever headstand. Much more rewarding.)

Sadly, my attempt looked nothing like this. 😦

As a goodly proportion of visitors to this blog are American, let me tell you that a recurrent theme in Britain can be summed up as “Americanisms are destroying our language.” This is, of course, nonsense on stilts. (I do love that phrase. I wonder who first used it.)

  • You cannot “destroy” a language (except by making it extinct)
  • It is not “our” (i.e. British) language. Nobody “owns” a language to the exclusion of anyone else. Or, rather, or conversely, if you’re a linguistic socialist, everyone who speaks it “owns” it.

(And, if we’re using the ownership metaphor, I feel obliged to bring in Mark Twain’s “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”)

Ms. (orig. U.S.) Dent, or her guests, went on to highlight (orig. BrE literally, orig. U.S. figuratively) some other basic truths:

  • Many words perceived as Americanisms are not in fact such; e.g. trash, gotten appear in Shakespeare;
  • British English (BrE) speakers use many words of U.S. origin without even realising it;
  • As proof of which, the OED records 26,000 words and meanings of U.S. origin, of which 7,000 are now part of BrE;
  • Verbing is an ancient historical phenomenon, not a U.S. invention;
  • BrE is now merely one variety or dialect out of many.

For anyone who works in the field, these are self-evident truths, not to say truisms. But, presumably, for the rather conservative (with a small c) listenership of Radio 4,  they must, in their unexpectedness, be like Damascene revelations.

Rubens’s Conversion of St Paul. Busy or what! You have to really concentrate to find St Paul; and the angel of revelation, or whatever it is, looks like a Labourite with a grudge. Presumably, the thronged scene was how it was when you could get the staff and Rubens was painting.

One of her guests was the president of the Queen’s English Society, Dr Bernard Lamb. He is an academic who has published over 100 papers in his field. Sadly, that field is clearly not linguistics.

Among his more outrageous pronouncements we had “The argument that all forms of English are equally valid I don’t think is true. English comes from England, and I think we’ve got prior rights to it…and our form I much prefer. I’ve no objections to Americans using Americanisms, but I don’t really like them in this country.”

Sure, English comes from “England”, except for the thousands of words that come from other languages, or from Scottish, Welsh or Irish varieties of English. (That use of “England” and “English” when a wider area is meant gets right up my nose [BrE].)

And the “I don’t really like them in this country” said in a certain way is rather perturbing.

The “Lady of Countdown” also interviewed John Humphrys, anchorman (probably orig. BrE) of the premier (orig. BrE) BBC news program(me) Today. He reserved his most splenetic scorn for “reach out” in the meaning “contact”. This is a usage I also detest, but, hey, who cares?!? He also clings to and thus helps to perpetuate the myth that the –ize spelling is peculiarly American.

He was reacting to the idea that e.g. color is easier to spell than colour. I quote at length: “I’m slightly baffled by the idea that we should welcome something because it’s easy. The whole point of language is to communicate. If we know that we for years have spelt organise with an s, and that is the correct way to spell it, correct because there IS a right and wrong way to spell things. That’s necessary for children to learn how to write words…fairly obvious point to make, isn’t it?…in a way that everybody else can understand. Now if half the population uses an s and half the population uses a z, children are entitled to say ‘Which one is right?'”

(The answer, sweet British child, is that both are, but if you use the z spelling, teacher will probably mark it  wrong.)

Where to begin? In what other area of life would we not welcome something that makes life easier? On reflection, though, I agree. Hey! Let’s abolish refrigerators, radio, the internet, aeroplanes and antibiotics for starters.

How many years exactly is “for years”, and who exactly is this “we”? It sounds like “inclusive we” i.e. Humphrys and all his listeners, but isn’t it really the  ‘we who are in the know’ “we”? (As I’ve written at length elsewhere, many verbs first appeared in English with the z spelling, which is for many of them etymologically preferable.)

And, yes, the whole point of language is indeed to communicate. But note the misleading and mistaken equation of spelling with language. And, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to spell most words, but for quite a few words there are alternatives, in my judg(e)ment.

As I pointed out in Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, where I devoted a few pages to the topic (pp. 153-6), formerly it was the French who were often accused of besmirching “our” language. Nowadays, however, that poisoned chalice has passed to the Americans. There is a historical tradition going back to at least the sixteenth century of antipathy to “furrin” words; and nowadays, American English is perceived as the “furriner”.  Nobody objects to bruschetta from Italian, but, as Lynne Murphy has pointed out, to speak of cookies if you’re British is akin to sleeping with the enemy. Yet, almost inevitably, the word is first found in a British (specifically Scottish) source.

As I wrote in Damp Squid: “A possibly apocryphal story illustrates perfectly the mixture of jingoism, snobbery, and one-upmanship that can underlie prejudices against American usage. An American student let his tutor know he was in Oxford and would like to contact him, to which came the Olympian rejoinder: ‘I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb “to contact” has not.’”

That’s enough of my little rantette. To emphasize how much BrE owes to AmE, I’ve listed the 51 new words for the years 1900 to 1920 that I’ve been tweeting more or less daily.

After Susie Dent’s program(me), I wanted to see the country in which the first citation of the word was published, according to the OED.  You’ll see the totals when you get to the end of the list. There were some that surprised even me, such as lifestyle, OMG and bullshit being first cited in British sources, or U-boat and ponytail being American. Where a famous author is given as the first citation, I’ve put their name in brackets.

bold = U.S.; sloped bold = Britain

1900 television, hillbilly

1901 Ms., eatery

1902 number two (euphemism), airport

1903 racism, man on the Clapham omnibus

1904 hip, demo (Australian), telecommunication (unidentified)

1905 tantric, smog

1906 suffragette, teddy bear, psychoanalysis

1907 taxi, cornflakes

1908 art nouveau (Shaw), boy scout 

1909 neo-cortex, cinema

1910 Freudian, post-impressionism

1911 pie in the sky, pavlova (New Zealand), brassiere (Canadian)

1912 tweedy, vitamine (named thus by a Polish scientist)

1913 comic strip, piggy bank

1914 u-boat, crossword

1915 lifestyle, bullshit (Wyndham Lewis), America First

1916 ponytail, red giant, tank

1917 soviet, commonwealth, OMG

1918 dada, motherfucker, legend in one’s lifetime (Lytton Strachey)

1919 bagel, dunk, rocket

1920 T-shirt, deb(bie) (both Scott Fitzgerald), leotard (unidentified)

Total = 51

US = 27
Brit = 19
Unidentified = 2
Canada/Australia/New Zealand = 1 each


Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

I wonder what kind of “crescendo”. Of passion? Desire? Lust? Deceit?

5-second read

Some musicians and pedants hate the use of crescendo to mean an event, as in “to reach a crescendo”, rather than a process. Don’t worry. Use it that way if you want to. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché.

Now for the 7.5 minute read.

Can something reach a crescendo?

Not for language “purists. This usage gets right up their nose. Normal folk will probably just get on with life and use the phrase as and when required – which, if you are not a journalist, newscaster, reporter or wannabe writer, is unlikely to be very often.


On Twitter recently a tweep was incensed enough by the journalistic (mis)use of the idiom to tweet this collective rebuke to Beeb hacks:  “Yet again, BBC reporters, you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is a process leading to a climax, or peak or whatever.”

That tweet concisely puts the argument deployed by purists. Repeat after me (they say): ‘“crescendo” does not mean “climax, culmination” and the like.’

A definition or two

Oh, but I’m sorry to have to break the news that it does. Where do we look if we want to know what a word “means”. Why, “the” dictionary, of course. Well, on this point dictionaries are in harmony, not to say unison (Geddit?!?!). Here’s the Collins dictionary’s first definition:

  1. music a gradual increase in loudness or the musical direction or symbol indicating this. Abbreviation: cresc. Symbol: (written over the music affected) ≺ (The image is my addition, btw)

(I added the illusration, btw; it is not in the dictionary.)

But that is followed by a further two:

  1. a gradual increase in loudness or intensity

the rising crescendo of a song

  1. a peak of noise or intensity

the cheers reached a crescendo

That last meaning shows the word association – reach – that is the major bête noire in this piece. “If a crescendo is a process”, say the naysayers, “how can it be reached?” It is true that you can reach a final state – maturity, for example, but not a process, such as “growing up”.

Crescendo goes with a few other verbs (e.g. become/hit/build to/rise to) but reach is by far the most frequent to imply an end state or an event. It is also worth noting that build to and rise to suggest process rather than state.

Just to be clear what we’re talking about, here are three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American, from the academic, magazine, and fiction components:

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles.

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664, when the English took possession of New Amsterdam (population ten thousand) and the city and colony were renamed New York.

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Crescendos be like…

Adjectives that modify crescendo include, according to the Oxford English Corpus, operatic, Rossini, orchestral, slow-building, gradual, deafening, crashing, thundering, almighty, swelling, EUPHORIC, FRENZIEDROUSING, THRILLING.

Now, you might think that the adjectives/participles to do with hearing/sounds, or emotion (underlined and capitalized respectively), point to the word being used in its strictly musical sense. However, many do not.

For example, of the 14 examples of deafening crescendo, only two are strictly musical, and even one of those is from a football report:

…the orchestra reaching its deafening crescendo before the long silence known as off-season begins.

The other examples include e.g. Her entire being ached with unimaginable pain. She could barely move, the pain rising in a deafening crescendo as she struggled to sit up.

And, similarly, when it comes to crescendos of something, while many are musical or aural, there are also several non-musical ones (in descending order of statistical significance): a crescendo of boos, guitars, noise, applause, drums, strings, sound, voices, EXCITEMENT, EMOTION, CRITICISM, violence, PROTEST, music, color, activity, attack: e.g.:

Instead, there is a rising crescendo of voices wondering what C4 [British TV Channel Four] is for, and why, precisely, it deserves any kind of public subsidy.

Due to the short growing season, spring and summer flowers bloom together in a crescendo of color in July and August.

The title track of the new album is a highlight as ‘Shake/ Shiver Moan’ slowly builds itself up into an epic crescendo of flailing guitars and pounding drums and is an impressive indicator of where they now find themselves.

This very short, one-bar crescendo only reaches mezzo forte.

Who talks about crescendos?

The Oxford English Corpus shows you the domain of discourse of a word or phrase. Of the 2,857 examples of crescendo as a noun (singular, or plural crescendos), 1,040 are in the “arts” domain, 657 in “news”, “unclassified” accounts for 257, blogs  for 233, “life and leisure” 164, sport 92, “society” 80, fiction 60.

So, what does that tell us? Hey presto! 1,040 examples, or 36 per cent-ish, are in the arts domain, so it must be musical.

Well, not really. If you look more closely, a little over 600 are in the subdomains of “popular” and “classical music”. But that’s still fewer citations than for “news.” In addition, domains such as “life and leisure”, sport, and “society” are almost entirely journalistic writing, e.g.

…Barrett brilliantly builds a nerve-stretching crescendo of suspense and dread that culminates in the 1998 car bombingNZ Listener, referring to a film.

In short, though the first person cited by the OED as using crescendo in its “climax” meaning is Scott Fitzgerald (The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. Great Gatsby, iii 68), its forte is in journalism.

A musicianly rant

A Google search for “reach a crescendo” will quickly lead you to blogs and pronouncements, including one from the New York Times – which has been doing the rounds since 2013 — titled “A crescendo of errors”. The author is a violist (no, not a typo for “violinist”, but someone who plays the viola), and so knows a thing or three about music. H e expostulates “But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

A crescendo is the process, in music, of getting louder.”

He also notes that “crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud.”

The Macdonald Stradivarius viola. At auction, offers of over $45 million were invited, but not achieved. It once belonged to the Amadeus Quartet’s violist.

He also says “And you will never convince any of those musicians that a word that for centuries has had one and only one precise meaning will, through repeated flagrant misuse, come to mean something else.”

He’s a musician, so, surely, his opinion must count for something. Or must it? Just as you wouldn’t ask a tone-deaf linguist to play Hindemith’s Viola Concerto, so a musician’s judgement on linguistic matters might be fatally flawed.  I respectfully submit that it is, on several different counts.

In no particular order…

  1. Just how “precise” is “the one and only one precise meaning”? If a crescendo can go from any volume to any other volume, in other words, if its end points are fluid, isn’t it a somewhat hazy concept? The only constant is that musicians play louder. In addition, it can be very short, as in the example higher up.
  2. To say that crescendo can only mean what it means to musicians is an example of the “etymological fallacy”, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that a word’s origin conveys its true meaning.

Here, though, we have the etymological fallacy with knobs on or a dose of musical snobbery thrown in. Or, to put it yet another way, the fallacy of the appeal to authority.

  1. I’ll give you one word: polysemy. A word or phrase can allowably have more than one meaning. In fact, most of the words we use most often have several. Thinking musically, we can talk about the different movements of a concerto or symphony. Does that mean we can’t apply movement elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. (Note that my reasoning here is potentially Jesuitical: the word movement already existed in English before it acquired its musical meaning. But, no matter.)
  2. Neither the gender-fluid non-binary person (formerly known as “man”) on the Clapham omnibus, nor John nor Mary Doe, nor everyday usage cares what the technical meaning of a word is in its original field of discourse. Think “acid test” (originally a test using nitric acid as a test for gold). Think of the ubiquitous “DNA” in business speak. Think of “quantum leap” for “major [allegedly] advance”. Think of your own examples, as I’m sure you will.
  3. The phrase is useful.

Actually, perhaps fatally so for journalists, as we have already seen. On the one hand, it can be seen as one of those journalistic clichéd tropes which/that attempt to be dynamic and attention-getting. On the other, in certain cases, it is hard to think of a phrase that could replace it.

Taking the examples cited earlier on…

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005…

“Culminated in”? “reached” Had its crowning moment in”? “came to a climax in”?

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664,…

“Came to a head”?

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Here, I find it hard to see what could replace it: “achieving maximum volume”? “climaxing”?

It has also been suggested that the popularity of “reach a crescendo” might owe something to euphemism:  “to reach a climax” almost inevitably invokes the sexual meaning of climax (first brought into current usage by women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes starting in 1918).

  1. Words change meaning over time. The sense development of crescendo is explained in detail by Arnold Zwicky here. In brief, the word both moved from meaning “an increase in musical loudness” to “an increase in loudness generally” and from meaning a process to meaning the end result of that process, namely an event or state.

As it happens, climax has followed an analogous progression from process to end state, while another term, gamut, has gone from being the single lowest note in a musical scale to meaning a series of notes, and then a range of anything you care to mention (including, of course, Katharine Hepburn’s acting in the sublimely catty remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “She runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”) Both words also emigrated from technical domains.

An exquisite book cover — shades of Picasso, de Chirico, Dufy, and not sure who else.


Crescendo is indeed originally a musical term – like so many, from Italian (piano, adagio, allegro, etc.). It is the participle of the Italian verb crescere, to grow, itself a direct descendant of Latin crēscĕre to grow, which is the ultimate ancestor of the English word crescent.

Musically speaking, or when musicians speak about it, it is a process rather than an end state, as the following example clearly, if lengthily, illustrates (my emboldening):

“…during more than four minutes of music in which no performers are in view, the setting becomes the focus of the stage, as the moon rises over the forest. From a pianissimo beginning, more and more instruments enter in a gradual crescendo, the orchestral texture and colour becoming richer and more vibrant until the full orchestra plays,…”

From Beyond Falstaff in ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor’: Otto Nicolai’s Revolutionary ‘Wives’, John R Severn, 2015.

That musicians mean one thing and Joe Public another does not invalidate the “climax” meaning. Whether it is a cliché is a matter of opinion. That it is widely used by journalists is an evidence-based fact, as discussed earlier. (The excellent Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners specifically applies the label “journalism” to its definition 2: “People sometimes describe an increase in the intensity of something, or its most intense point, as a crescendo.”)

Moreover, the sense of a progression, as in its strictly musical application, has not been ousted by the “climax” meaning. As Oxford Online defines it:

A progressive increase in intensity.

‘a crescendo of misery’

More example sentences:

‘Although many speakers struck bland notes individually, together these became a crescendo of shared concern.’

‘They believe that if you try hard enough there’s a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands.’

Yes, but what’s the plural?

Crescendos is rather more frequent than crescendoes. That second form, in fact, is used for the verb. Crescendi confines itself to music criticism.

Valery Gergiev. Yippee! I’m looking forward to experiencing him conducting Shosta 4 at the Embra Festival.

An eggcorn too far?

As long ago as 2006 the Eggcorn Database noted crashendo as an eggcorn for crescendo, e.g. It is obvious that a lot of folks are going to join the crashendo of shouting about this fiasco – – soon. It is actually a good thing for small business.

The creation of an eggcorn based on the “event” rather than the “process” meaning surely settles the debate, ;-), doesn’t it?


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (2/∞)


A young scholar struggling with the “which/that” distinction.

There are one or two loose ends to tie up from the previous blog on this topic, before I move on.

1.1 which or that in defining clauses: with indefinite pronouns

First, it may be helpful in distinguishing restrictive or defining relative clauses from non-restrictive/non-defining ones to note the following: they often associate with specific words or kinds of words such as something/nothing/anything/everything whose very meaning suggests that any relative clause following them has to be defining, since those words themselves are indefinite (actually, “indefinite pronouns”).

a) Elevating the usually ordinary exercise of changing level to such a dramatic experience is something that Libeskind [sc. the famous architect] relishes.
Architecture Week, 2004.

b) The public showing of something which is so private and particular is immediately startling.
Art Throb, 2004.

c) Punctuation serves a valuable purpose – it helps to convey meaning more precisely and anything which erodes the precision of the English language is to be deplored.
Telegraph, 2014.

d) For Samsung, anything that could help it look better in the eyes of U.S. Federal Court Judges is probably a good move, although in this case it may not help much.
The Mac Observer, 2014

While which can be used after these words, as illustrated, it is very much a minority trend: in the case of something that/which, for example, a little less than 10 per cent of all cases.

1.2 with determiners and predeterminers

Another class of words often associating with defining relative clauses is “determiners” and “predeterminers” such as some, any, many, most, several, other, all, both, each, every, little, few, etc., e.g:

e) Icelandic law prevents the importing of new strains to prevent disease: any horse which leaves Iceland can never return. Open Country. BBC, Radio 4.

f) But there are some things that all can understandGuardian Unlimited, 2004

g) There is no herbicide that controls all plants. UNL Neb Guides, 2002.

Most of these examples show that/which as the subject of its clause. Where it is the object, as in a) and f), it could just as easily have been left out altogether, as often happens in speech, e.g.,

f) But there are some things that all can understand.

Clauses of the type, …all can understand…, from which the relative pronoun is dropped, are what is known in grammar as  “contact clauses” and are very common in spoken language.

2 non-defining or non-restrictive clauses

As mentioned in the earlier blog, the information they contain can be omitted. Putting it another way, they are almost like an aside. That is why such clauses are conventionally and correctly enclosed in commas if they come in the middle of a sentence, or are preceded by a comma if they are the last clause in a sentence. Fowler (1926)  noted that a non-defining clause “gives a reason…or adds a new fact.”

The example given in the earlier blog was “I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite.” Even if such clauses are omitted, the sentence will still make sense (though it will, obviously, convey less information): “I saw Kylie Minogue” makes perfect sense.

In that earlier blog, there were adjoining sentences, each with a non-defining clause: “They then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.”

Without those non-defining clauses, each sentence still works: “They then wanted me to review the proofs. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader.” As Fowler, noted, the clauses add “a new fact”.

3 the rule – who enforces it?

To claim that “It is a rule that ‘that’ must be used to introduce a defining relative clause’” draws attention to the ambiguity, or at least polysemy, of the word “rule”. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines two relevant senses:

  1. One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.
    ‘the rules of cricket’
    1.1 A principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable. [my underlining]
    ‘the rules of grammar’

The “rule” that that has to be used clearly falls largely under definition 1 above.

It is a “regulation” or “principle” “governing conduct” within a particular “area”.

In this case, the “area” is written, edited English. However, the proponents of the rule would wish to assimilate it to definition 1.1.

Clearly “which” in a defining relative clause is both possible and allowable. But the usage absolutists would wish it weren’t, and certainly consider it undesirable. Their fatwa, however, is not like a genuine rule of grammar, such as “A clause in the English declarative mood has the subject followed by the verb.”

4 Who says you have to use “that”?

4. 1 Many people. For British English, the style guides of choice are The Guardian/Observer, The Telegraph, The Times and The Economist.
4.1.1 The Guardian endorses the distinction; as does the Telegraph Style Book, but with lamentable punctuation, in what looks suspiciously similar to The Economist’s perfectly punctuated dictum. The Telegraph has “which and that: which informs that defines. This is the house that Jack built, but: This house, which Jack built is now falling down.”

The Telegraph thus misses out the essential comma closing off the non-restricting clause.

4.1.2 The Economist correctly has: “which and that Which informs, that defines. This is the house that Jack built. But This house, which Jack built, is now falling down. Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. (“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”).”

(IMHO, for “fastidious” read “anal”.)

However, the Economist style guide occasionally (inevitably?) breaks its own rules, e.g. The Arabic alphabet has several consonants which have no exact equivalents in English (note that “determiner” several, as mentioned earlier).

4.2 For U.S. English,

4.2.1 Garner is dogmatical and absolutist on the matter:

“Legal writers who fail to distinguish restrictive from nonrestrictive clauses—and especially that from which—risk their credibility with careful readers. It’s therefore worthwhile to learn the difference so well that, when writing, you use the correct form automatically.”

Such cut-and-driedness is a reflection, presumably, of the need for absolute clarity and unambiguousness in legal writing.

4.2.2 Chicago is more nuanced: “Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). The APA (American Psychological Association) prefers writers to observe the distinction, and the AP style guide imposes it too.

Fowler and his crystal ball

In his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler included lengthy entries on that as relative pronoun and which((that)(who. In the entry for that, he distinguishes the two kinds of clause and assigns them what he considers their appropriate pronoun.

His learned, measured style is perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities and is possibly easier to follow if read aloud:

“The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining & the non-defining; & if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now ; but it would be idle to pretend it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

While Fowler expressed a velleity, it seems that the combined weight of usage guides, not to mention Word’s grammar checker (and no doubt others) is turning it into reality.

Fowler starts out the relevant section by taking usage writers down a peg or several: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize ; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes.”


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (1/∞)

Can you use which in defining (or restrictive) relative clauses?

For example…

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”
(From The Oxford Companion to English Literature [2000], referring to A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary)

In a nutshell, if you’re in the U.S., no (almost certainly); if you’re in the UK, yes, you can, as in the example shown, but many people think you can’t.

“Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet. It’s buzzing around in a mad sort of OCD way, and I can’t swat the varmint, try as I might. The apian interloper in my titfer is this: I think changes should only be made to a piece of writing if they are either essential from a strictly grammatical (e.g. verb concord) or meaning point of view, or stylistically desirable. To adapt William Morris’s famous phrase, “Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ll pass over the stylistics here, but one facet of what I mean by “essential” is that truly ambiguous wordings or structures have to be changed. However, such cases are rare; the example with which at the start of this blog is not, to my mind, one of them.

I presume the mother, if American, will confiscate the present, and only give it back when the child replaces “which” with “that”.

Is this change necessary?

I do a lot of editing, and I also review other editors’ edits of articles for academic journals.

One of my oft-repeated comments directed at certain editors is “Is this change necessary?” On a similar tack, I recently copy-edited about half [don’t ask] of a book by a writer and journalist who has already had several books published and writes with flair and distinction. They [Isn’t it handy when “singular they” conceals gender!] then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread.

Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.

One of the notes, however, read “I have changed a few instances of ‘which’ to ‘that’ were perceived to be a relative clause.” This was a red rag to my bull.  I happened to notice one such change, as follows:

“That the phrase ‘native place’ is still used, however, shows that many Indians are migrants, albeit internal migrants. Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British,  a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

That word which [my emboldening] had changed to that in the proofs. The book was being published by a British publisher: the change was, therefore, by my lights, totally unnecessary. What is more, it changed the words which/that had come naturally to the author and so, one could argue, changes their “voice”.

(From now on, I will use which/that to highlight restrictive or defining clauses.)

Back to basics: restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses

Let’s look at the example just mentioned. “Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, …”

Now, which Indian railways are we talking about here? Why, only the ones the British developed before their departure in 1947. The specification is important, because, since then, the Indian government has massively expanded the rail network. So, what the clause “which were developed” is doing is to restrict the extension (in its logical meaning) of “railways”, or to define the kind of railways in question. That is why such clauses are called restrictive clauses or defining clauses.

Now let’s return to the example which/that heads this blog.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

“Vocabulary” here is being restricted to or defined as that which came into use during the long period it took for the original OED to be published (1884–1928), or thereafter. In other words, what is excluded by the defining clause is words that were already in the language before 1884.

How to identify restrictive or defining clauses

One way to identify defining or restrictive clauses which/that is often mentioned is to ask whether removing them changes the meaning of the sentence, or makes it nonsensical. Applying that test to our two example sentences gives:

“Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

This is clearly a nonsense, since the subject of “they changed” now becomes the railways.

The other example still makes sense with the clause removed, but the meaning has changed drastically to include all the vocabulary of English.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

So, what are non-restrictive or non-defining clauses?

As the Collins Cobuild Grammar helpfully explains them, they “give further information which is not needed to identify the person, thing, or group you are talking about.”

(Note, incidentally, the use of which in the above restrictive/defining relative clause. The Grammar was produced at Birmingham University, and whoever wrote that section will have been a British English speaker. The use of which was natural to them.)

The Grammar then continues: “If you say ‘I saw Kylie Minogue’, it is clear who you mean. But you might want to add more information … , for example, ‘I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite’. In this sentence, ‘who was staying at the hotel opposite’ is a non-defining relative clause.” Note that the comma here is obligatory to separate such a clause from what precedes.

If you’ve ploughed/plowed through this, you might need cheering up, so I throw in this picture of KM gratis, free and for nothing.

The gold hotpants which/that caused quite a stir when Kylie first exhibited herself in them.



Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)

Just to recap on the last couple of blogs, we’ve been talking about ‘folk etytmology’ in both its meanings: a) a story people tell about where a word comes from (e.g. posh = ‘port out starboard home’) or, as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, b)

‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.’

(In this context, ‘popular’ should be interpreted as ‘of an idea, believed by many people’ rather than as ‘liked by large numbers of people.’)

I wonder if you’ve ever indulged in a bit of folk etymology. I know I have. Cabin fever: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ships’ cabins. The story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their cabin as a private space.

Baloney! (A word that is itself, probably, a folk etymology.) In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions’, which covers a multitude of scenarios.

The word first appears in a novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

Meaning b) above [‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage’] has two aspects: ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’.

(Of course, foreign words are initially unfamiliar precisely because of their foreignness, but ‘native’ English words can be unfamiliar too, as e.g. deserts with the second syllable stressed in just deserts, which then becomes just desserts.)

This process of folk etymology has resulted in the transformation over decades or even centuries of a small number of not uncommon words that we use unblinkingly. Loanwords are–or were–prone to undergo this process, as the next example illustrates:

(globe) artichoke: (Cynara scolymus) English borrowed this from the Italian articiocco (which was a borrowing from Spanish alcachofa, which was a borrowing from Arabic al-ḵaršūfa…). On its first appearance in English, it was already being reshaped, as you can see from the quotation below.

1531 MS. Acc. Bk. in Notes & Queries 2 Feb. (1884) 85/2

Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace.

What follows are a few choice quotations, showing the vagaries of its spelling, leading up to its first appearance in its current spelling, in 1727, i.e. almost two centuries after first landing on these shores.

1542 A. Borde Compend. Regyment Helth xx. sig. K.i

There is nothynge vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but ye hed of them.

1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ii. f. 63

The Hartichoch…is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.

1727 Swift Pastoral Dialogue Richmond-Lodge in Wks. (1735) II. 375

The Dean…Shall…steal my Artichokes no more.

The OED comments sagely on parallels with English that might have driven such changes:

‘Similarly, many of the English forms reflect reanalysis of the word by folk etymology. Forms with initial hart– are apparently influenced by association with heart, while the second element was apparently reanalysed as choke n.1 or choke v. from an early date. This has been variously explained as resulting from the belief that the flower contained an inedible centre which would choke anyone attempting to eat it (compare choke n.1 5), or resulting from the plant’s rapid growth which would quickly ‘choke’ anything else growing nearby (compare e.g. quot. 1641 at sense 2).’

The OED extract above mentions the stories which, from the original Archecokks, developed the cultivar artichoke: that you could choke on the centre of the plant, or that it would choke out other plants.

Artichok-- '...a kind of thistel...' and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Artichok– ‘…a kind of thistel…’ and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Another vegetable shares the name but is unrelated botanically: the Jerusalem artichoke. The ‘Jerusalem’ part is another example of folk etymology at work: it is an anglicisation of girasole, the Italian word for ‘sunflower’, which is the genus to which the Jerusalem artichoke belongs.

Enjoying this blog? 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, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and–occasionally–Spanish.

And I also copy-edit a wide range of texts, from books to websites to theses. So if you need some help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about how cockroach and alligator, originally from Spanish, morphed from cucaracha and el lagarto respectively.

Here are some other folk etymologies, with hyperlinks to their definitions, of some well-known examples of loanwords adopting an English-friendly guise because of assumptions speakers made about them: belfry (nowt to do with bells, originally); blunderbuss, crayfish (nowt to do with fishy-wishies, originally), salt cellar (diddly-squat to do with the place you store your vintage Bordeaux).

My second bit of folk-etymologising concerns Benidorm, in Spain: SELF-EVIDENTLY, it is related somehow to the Spanish dormir for ‘sleep’, and bien for ‘well’, meaning you would sleep well there.

Complete tosh, of course; the origin of the name is Arabic.

What’s your folk etymology?

I’m not sure when I first ate artichoke, but it must have been in a French or French-inspired restaurant, because it was done in the traditional, dining etiquette-testing way. Fortunately, I must have been with someone who helped me avoid making a fox’s paw. The whole flower head is presented to you, vaguely in the manner of St John the Baptist’s head, on its own plate, with the individual scales or petals adroitly loosened through cooking. It then becomes a supreme test of your table manners to detach them one by one, delicately suck the flesh off each, and gracefully discard each armadillo-like scale, until you reach your culinary El Dorado, the heart.


If you fancy trying them at home–I can’t say I ever have–here’s a Delia.


Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)


Eddie Mair’s fizzog

My previous blog on ‘false etymology’ related to this one was about fizzog, a word I hadn’t seen or heard in yonks.1 Of course, it was then inevitable that I should immediately stumble across it. In the Radio Times of 21–27 January, the velvet-voiced British broadcaster Eddie Mair wrote in his entertaining hebdomadal column: ‘Basil Fawlty would rightly have enquired of my disappointed fizzog,…’

Google Ngrams  for phizzog/fizzog in British English show a rather erratic pattern.

A second kind of folk etymology

The ‘false’ etymology or folk etymology I was prattling on about in the previous blog is essentially a cosy form of storytelling. Another word for it, as Michael Quinion has pointed out, is ‘etymythology’2.

The kind of ‘folk etymology’ I’m looking at today answers to a different definition.

As the 1897 (i.e. unrevised) OED entry puts it, in suitably constipated style:

‘usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant’.

(I had to read that phrase more than once to relate ‘it’ back to ‘form’, because, when I read ‘words.’ I anticipated some backwards reference [anaphora] to it later on—but that might just be me.)

It’s hard to tell how much weight of thunderous disapproval and tut-tutting ‘perversion’ drew down upon itself in 1897, or whenever the entry was first drafted: however, it is worth bearing in mind that Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published in 1894.

I digress–bigly.

The OED currently provides only one citation for folk etymology by an eminent Victorian Scandinavianist and runologist (I only added that factoid because I have never before written the word runologist, and am unlikely to do so ever again.)

Back to the definition of folk etymology that I started talking about before I so rudely…

Even non-native speakers get the metaphor.

Free-rein is a management style. A non-native speaker gets the allusion.

The point about that kind of etymology is that, not content with telling tall stories, it actually changes language: enough people tell themselves the same story about a word to ‘operationalize’ that story by modifying, or agreeing to the modification of, the form of a word or phrase.

That seems perfectly normal and understandable. We want to make sense of the world and of our language. When we encounter a word or phrase whose form seems nonsensical, we will torture it into a different shape to extract a confession of meaning.


The process is one that produces–obviously–visible results. Often it happens with words borrowed from other languages. However, it often also affects ‘native’ English phrases.

For instance, to give something or someone free rein is a phrase that has been around since at least 1640, building on a rein idiom that goes back to Caxton’s day. It means ‘to allow total freedom of expression or action to someone or something’. Here is Caxton:

Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) vi. 19

She [sc. a mother] had gyuen her [sc. her daughter] the reyne ouerlong [Fr. lui avoit laissié la resne trop longue] in suffryng her to do all her wylle.

The rein in question is the strap of leather attached to a horse’s bit or bridle by means of which the rider controls his (or in the UK, at any rate, usually ‘her’) mount’s movements.


The metaphor in to give free rein to seems may seem blindingly obvious to some. It certainly does to me, and it’s not even as if I’m horsy (though the persistent stiffness in my right shoulder reminds me that I long ago incurred frozen shoulder by once incompetently falling off a gee-gee.) If you give a horse free rein, you hold the reins loosely to allow it to move freely.

Here’s a modern example:

My boss gave free rein to his well-trained sarcasm as he chastised me, but in the end he thought my ineptitude was so funny that he decided not to fire me.

There are other colourful idioms that use the word, such as to keep a tight rein on something or someone, and the reins of power.

If you are enjoying this blog, 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, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and–occasionally–Spanish.

And I also copy-edit a wide range of texts, from books to websites to theses. So if you need some help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

However, that metaphorical link with an essential piece of tack has been lost on many people in our non-equestrian society: the form to give free reign to something is now quite common—although exactly how common depends on where you look.

Confusion reigns–or does it rein?

Ngrams shows a rise over the decades in reign and a corresponding drop in rein. The Corpus of Contemporary American has 82 (22.5%) examples of free reign vs 283 (77.5%) for rein (This includes variants of the phrase such as allow free reign, have free reign, etc.) In the Oxford English Corpus, rein occurs about 38% of the time.

I wonder

‘I wonder what “to give free reign” to something means…’

The folk etymology involved in reign presumably runs something like this: ‘during a ruler’s reign they exercise power, which can range from limited to total. So, if they have free reign, their power must be unlimited’. Extending that interpretation to the metaphor then makes complete sense.

(And, as the Oxford words blog points out, the confusion affects not only free reign, but also, e.g. You mentioned Castro’s illness. Obviously, he turned the X reigns of power over to his brother, because…)

The rein/reign substitution is easy because both words sound identical. That homophony also explains shoe-in for the original shoo-in.

If someone is a shoo-in for a job, election, award (Oh, no! Not flippin’ Adele again!) or whatever, they are certain to get it, barring acts of God.

This jolly little chap, in the Horse of the Year Show, aged 3, must be destined to hold the reins of power.

This jolly chap, in the Horse of the Year Show at the tender age of 3, must surely be destined to hold the reins of power.

While the metaphor involved in free rein is still transparent to many, and must once have been so to all, the semantics of shoo-in are not immediately clear, although they too are horsy.

Going one step back from its equine origins, think of the noises you make as drive away your neighbour’s mangy cat, hens, etc., ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ , while you flap your hands wildly, kick out, and spit and growl (well, I do, anyway) at the unwelcome intruder.

From that comes the verb to shoo, which can mean ‘to frighten something away’, but can also mean ‘to move someone or something in a desired direction’:

I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

1973,   M. Amis Rachel Papers, 150.

From that comes the phrasal verb to shoo in, originally US slang, meaning ‘to allow a racehorse to win easily’:

There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were.

1908 ,  G. E. Smith Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’, ix. 123

And then that verb is nominalized:

A ‘skate’ is a horse having no class whatever, and rarely wins only in case of a ‘fluke’ or ‘shoo in’.

1928,   National Turf Digest (Baltimore), Dec. 929/2

Awww! A cynophilist's little self-indoggence.

Awww! A cynophilist’s little self-indoggence.

Given that almost Abrahamic succession of meanings, is it any wonder that people plump for shoe-in? Here’s my folksy definition, for what it’s worth.

If you or someone are a shoe-in for something, you can ease into it as easily as you can ease your feet into a shoe (with or without the help of a shoehorn) or into a pair of comfy slippers.

Obvious, really.

In CoCA, shoo-in appears nine times, eight of them in spoken data; shoe-in appears 44 times, 31 of them in spoken—, which, of course, raises the issue of transcription error. However, the 13 that are not spoken but written still outnumber the 9 of shoo-in.

Other well-known folk etymologies of this type (standard version first) give us

fazed (phased)
bated breath (baited breath)
just deserts (just desserts)
strait-laced (straight-laced)

to name just a few.

In the next blog, I’ll come back to some other changes wrought by folk etymology.

1 The OED dates yonks to the 1960s. It’s a bit of a memento mori to think that I can remember it coming in, and discussing with my chums/father/brother (not sure which) where it came from.

2 A term, I now discover, thanks to Ben Zimmer, the Sherlock Holmes of the linguistic microcosm, coined in 2004 by a linguist at Yale.


What is folk etymology or false etymology? Why fizzog is not French visage (1/3)

“The Long Story” by William Sidney Mount, 1837. Corcoran Gallery of Art, US.

Who doesn’t love a good yarn, egh? (It’s a rhetorical question [RQ for short] so don’t tell me, please, “Quite a lot of people.”)

And who isn’t fascinated by where words come from? (Which is etymology, or, for the unwary, “entomology”.)

And here’s another RQ: Who doesn’t want to write a book? (The leader of a course I once attended claimed that wanting to write a book was second- or third-top New Year Resolution, but I can find no evidence for that.)

So, how better to satisfy that writerly urge than by scribbling about where words and phrases come from (much as I am doing)?

Of visages and fizzogs

The other day, the A Word A Day word of the day word (don’t you just love the iteration you can do with language– makes me think of the legendary Bufffalo buffalo Bufffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo) was visage–pronounced, as any fule kno [Molesworth] VIZidge /ˈvɪzɪdʒ/ or audio here.

But when did you last hear the word? Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it uttered by a normal human being, i.e. not by a thesp in a play, etc.

“Polonius behind the curtain” by Jehan Georges Vibert, 1868.

(e.g. ‘Tis too much prov’d, that with devotion’s visage | And pious action we do sugar o’er | The Devil himself; Polonius in Hamlet, III, 1).

Which made me wonder how someone who had only ever read it might think it should be pronounced; for example, a bit à la française like the US pronunciation of garage as guh-RAAZH? 

(I was also  remembering a self-educated friend who could never forget being ridiculed when they [sic, singular they, so there] came out with banal pronounced like anal).

Incidentally, I seem to be on the way in this blog to beating my own record for bracketed asides, so…GET A GRIP, Jem.

I tweeted my musings about the said pronunciation, and in reply was proffered a classic piece of folk etymology, which I post here, with the original author’s permission. It illustrates the charm such etymologies can have.

Fizzog,  n. I am from a part of Ireland which was heavily influenced by the Norman, as well as the Viking, invasions. A lot of words and family names in my part of Ireland are therefore taken from French, and fizzog (along with its related term vizzard, see below) is one of those. Clearly a derivative of the French visagefizzog basically means ‘face’, but used mainly in a pejorative sense. So, if you were in a bad mood, someone might say to you ‘What’s the fizzog on you for?’, which means ‘Why the long face?’ or ‘You’ve some fizzog on you,’ which means, in a roundabout backhanded way, ‘cheer up.’”

That claimed origin of fizzog is, it seems to me, satisfying in many ways that help explain why folk etymologising is popular. First, it appeals to a shared, potentially mythicised, romantic history of Normans and Vikings, and enters the territory of historical fiction. It then adds the cachet and romance (both, of course, French words) of French. Finally, the author refers to their part of Ireland, thereby appealing to a cultural and linguistic tradition that a number of readers will share, or, conversely, providing a quaint, folkloric perspective.

I can’t comment on the currency of the delightful phrases quoted, but fizzog itself is a word I’ve known most of my life: my mother–Welsh, not Irish–used it, if I remember well, to refer to her own face, e.g. “I’m just putting some make-up on my fizzog.” So, no colourful phrases like the Irish ones, just an informal synonym for face.

In fact, fizzog, is just the most recent slang descendant of physiognomy (OK, ok, that word is partly French, and partly Latin). The OED currently records its first appearance as a headword in the 1811 Lexicon balatronicum: a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pick pocket eloquence, 1st edition, 1811, London:  

Physog, the face. A vulgar abbreviation of physiognomy.

Its variant forms include phisogphysogphyzog, and it subsequently appears, inter alia, in Kingsley’s Alton Locke, a Wilfred Owen letter, the Opies’ classic The lore and language of schoolchildren, and in this extraordinary quotation:

There was something fanatical and weightless about his long leg inside the expensive trousers and his ineffably Gallic phizog and the lank quiff à l’anglaise.

Mirror for Larks, V. Sage, 1993.

Fizzog’s parent is phiz, and several variant spellings, a word that goes back to a 1687 translation of one of Juvenal’s Satires.

Oh had you then his Figure seen, With what a rueful Phis and meine*.

H. Higden

* = mien, i.e. here probably “facial expression”; or “general appearance and manner”.

So, what is folk etymology, then?

The term refers to two different things.

As the Online Oxford Dictionary defines it, folk etymology is “A popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase”.


Some “accounts” are so popular that they have become self-perpetuating urban myths. For example, British readers are probably familiar with the notion that posh is an acronym for “port out, starboard home”, that is, the preferred—because shadier and cooler—side of a P&O liner to have your cabin on when travelling to India. My mother travelled to India by ship, just after the war, to join my father, who was stationed there, and I suspect that I first heard this folk etymology from her or him.

If you are enjoying this blog, 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, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and–occasionally–Spanish.

And I also copy-edit a wide range of texts. So if you need some help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Another example is the pleasingly Magrittean suggestion that “to be raining cats and dogs” comes from said animals being flushed out of thatched roofs, where they were huddling during violent rainstorms (if you’ve ever given a thatched roof a more than cursory glance, you will immediately see that such felines and canines would have to be paper-thin so to huddle).

“Golconda” by René Magritte, 1953. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Yet another one is the supposed “rule of thumb” origin, which claims that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was no thicker than his thumb.

As for “the whole nine yards”, alleged origins include the length of cloth required to make a sari or a dress kilt, the number of plots in a New York city block, the cubic capacity of concrete mixers (yet, simultaneously, the capacity of a soldier’s pack), the volume of a wealthy person’s grave, the length of a hangman’s noose…and so on, and so on.

It’s easy to see the charm and the interest of such stories—for that is what they are. For a comprehensive debunking of some of them, it’s worth looking at Michael Quinion’s Port Out Starboard Home, or David Wilton’s Word Myths.

While such stories don’t affect the forms of language, a different definition of folk etymology does.

But that’s for the next blog post.


-ise or -ize? (3/3) In praise of monetize, diarize, etc.

-ize verbs are ‘like lavatory fittings, useful in their proper place but not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.’


Some people have an almost pathological aversion to certain words ending in -ize and would do all they could to expel them from the body of English.

(NB: ‘-ize‘ here stands also for the spelling –ise)

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

Here’s an example:

Monetize: a word we didn’t need

Only in the perverted world of the web can something as simple and fundamental as making money be in need of a fancy word like “monetize”

from the blog Signal v. Noise.

Here’s a question from the Grammarphobia blog.

Q: A curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was quoted as saying that “risk has been incentivized.” Yuck! Any comments?

A: Someone in the arts has no business using that kind of bureaucratese. Leave it to the CEOs and politicians.

And here’s Brian Garner on disincentivize: “Disincentivize is JARGON for discourage or deter” and he gives the example (from the San Francisco Daily): “We’re competing with Los Angeles and New York firms for talent,” Bochner said. “We don’t want to disincentivize people from coming here because there are huge gaps in salary.”’

Any discussion of words such as the above, it seems to me, has to attempt to answer at least the following questions:

  1. what do they really mean?
  2. are they necessary or useful?
  3. are they overused?
  4. when are they appropriate?
  5. who dislikes them, and why?
  6. when did the dislike start?

A history of contempt

Verbs in -ize have existed in English for a very long time, e.g. baptize since 1297, organize since 1425, generalize also 1425, etc., etc.

The OED lists no fewer than 2,315 of them. Some are nonce words (to wondernize – ‘to make a wonder of’, 1599; to miraculize – ‘to transform [a person] with miracles’, 1751); many were—some might say ‘thankfully’—short-lived (to abastardize, ‘to declare [someone] illegitimate’], 1574—1692|; to accowardize, ‘to render [someone] cowardly’, 1480—1642).

But many are indispensable in everyday language, and seem to ruffle no feathers, e.g. authorize (first recorded in the 14th century), civilize (17th), memorize (16th), sterilize (17th), terrorize (19th), and, more topically, computerize (1960).

One prolific coiner of –izes was the Elizabethan maverick writer Thomas Nashe, whom the OED credits with 28, including overprize, which has survived (by the skin of its teeth), and unmortalize (= ‘to kill’), which has not.

The OED entry for the -ize suffix suggests that he was criticized, nay, anathematized, and martyrized for its overuse:

Reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize.

What happened between then and the nineteenth century I don’t know, but usage gurus in the 1800s repeatedly condemned them, as  Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage explains.

Not even Noah Webster himself was immune to izeophobia. While deigning to enter the word jeopardize, he nevertheless noted: ‘This is a modern word, used by respectable writers in America, but synonymous with jeopard and therefore useless’.

If you are enjoying this blog, 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, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and Spanish.

And I also edit other people’s work. So if you need some help, don’t hesitate to contact me.


A generalized dislike? ‘Crude, overused, or unnecessary’.

In his 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Robert Burchfield referred to ‘The widespread current belief that new formations of this kind are crude, overused, or unnecessary’. (He substantiated this by referring to a single comment in Gowers’ Plain English, so perhaps ‘widespread’ should be interpreted as ‘prevalent among the small group of Oxonians, usage pundits and others who care deeply about such things’.)

However, his adjectives reflect some of the issues about these words that I touched on at the beginning.

Are they necessary? To my mind, their very existence confirms their necessariness. Speakers do not generally create phantoms. Moreover, several such words have highly specific technical or scientific meanings. How many people object to being anaesthetized before an operation? (Though of course, the pedantic could insist on being ‘given an anaesthetic’.)

Are they overused? I don’t even know how one would begin to answer this question. If ‘overused’ means ‘there are too many of them’, how many would be not too many? How many would be too few?

Perhaps it means individual verbs are used too often. In which case, there must be a notional cap on any given word. If so, who decides what it is? (‘OK, Mr Carney, you’ve used “undercapitalized” three times today. That’s your lot, mate. You’ll have to find another word, or put a tenner in the -ize box.’)

The question doesn’t make any kind of sense.

Another criticism sometimes levelled at –ize verbs is that they are ugly (e.g. by Gowers), or inelegant. But aesthetic criteria in language are subjective. Your ugliness can be my practicality.

One might be on firmer–though still rather subjective–ground in suggesting that some of them sit best in certain kinds of discourse.

For instance, Garner might have a point that ‘disincentivize’ is jargon and needlessly ousts simpler words such as deter or discourage. Then again, he might be wrong; it all depends on context. In the specific example he quotes, the subject matter is, after all, financial, and you could argue that disincentivize is actually more accurate and focused than the synonyms he suggests: it packages a more complex idea, which means that the sentence could be paraphrased as ‘we don’t want to remove whatever possible incentives we can provide for talent’.

Like many original technicisms (e.g. neurotic, semantic, mesmerize), such words escape the confines of their original domain. That they do so does not make them unnecessary or suspect.

I would, in fact, argue that many -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.


What do they mean?

One can only take them individually.


Going back to ‘monetize’, many of the 44 comments on the website mentioned at the beginning quibble over what it ‘really’ means1.

Some argue that it is just a pompous way of saying ‘make money out of ’. If so, any flab it adds in pomposity it quickly works off through brevity.

Economy of effort should never be underestimated in language, as a couple of other commenters (?) are quick to grasp. One says: ‘“How can we monetize this?” actually means “How can we make this make money?” and is thus more efficient and avoids the double use of “make”’. Another quips ‘Monetize is a word that has a specific meaning when used in context. It is [a] useful word for making conversations shorter, therefore making meetings shorter.’

But I don’t think it usually means merely ‘make money out of’. As one of the commenters says, ‘the term monetize is more referring to “how can we take this thing we already have (traffic, users, etc.) and convert it into money.”’

That echoes the relevant OED definition and examples: To exploit (a product, service, audience, etc.) so that it generates revenue.

1998   Boston Globe 14 Jan. c6/6   It’s all about eyeballs, audience acquisition… Growth lies in the ability to monetize those eyeballs.

Moreover, that meaning is the fourth and last of a word that first saw the light of day in 1867.

(And if anyone can think of a way of monetizing this blog, do, please, let me know.)



Which leads seemlessly (only joking, but it’s a common enough eggcorn) to another word that is, in my view, both economical and versatile. In 1982, 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.

Consider its usefulness. With a single word you can express the meaning ‘Designate or treat (something) as being very or most important’ (e.g. the department has failed to prioritize safety within the oil industry)


‘Determine the order for dealing with (a series of items or tasks) according to their relative importance’ (e.g. ‘age affects the way people prioritize their goals’)


(intransitively) To establish priorities for a set of tasks. (e.g. A hot file forces you to prioritize because you have to select which things will be included.)

Its other benefits include nominalization as prioritization, and derivatives, reprioritize and deprioritize.




Finally, in this paean to -ize verbs, 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?

Lavatory fittings?


In his The Complete Plain Words (1954), Sir Ernest Gowers, drawing on the well-established ‘unwanted alien’ trope for language, wrote:

‘The main body of the invasion consists of verbs ending in ise.

‘“There seems to be a notion”, says Sir Alan Herbert, “that any British or American subject is entitled to take any noun or adjective, add ise to it, and say, “I have made a new verb. What a good boy am I.”

‘Among those now nosing their way into the language are casualise (employ casual labour), civilianise (replace military staff by civil), diarise (enter in a diary), editorialise (make editorial comments on), finalise (put into final form), hospitalise (send to hospital), publicise (give publicity to), servicise (replace civilians by service-men), cubiclise (equip with cubicles), randomise (shuffle).’

As happens with such verbs, three have disappeared together with their referent (civilianise, servicise, cubiclise), but the others have forcefully demonstrated their usefulness.

Gowers then uses the aesthetic argument:

‘This may be symptomatic of a revolt against the ugliness of ise and still more of isation, which Sir Alan Herbert has compared to lavatory fittings2, 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.’)

As long ago as 1996, Burchfield proved that

‘Any feeling that the language is being swamped by new formations in -ization and -ize does not appear to be supported by the facts.’

(As an example, of the 5,219 post-1970 words in the OED, a mere 40 are -ize verbs. )

1 A wag among the commenters writes: ‘The first time I saw that word, I thought “Monet-ize”? You mean, scrunch up your eyes to make everything blurry, like the plein-air painters do? When I learned what the word was intended to mean, I realized my initial thought was correct – it is linguistic bullshit designed to obfuscate the fact that you are trying to figure out how to make money from something that should just be free.’

2 I have to confess, since coming across this phrase, I’ve never understood exactly what Sir Alan meant. Bidets? Toilet paper holders? Bog brush?


-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (2/3) Damn your -ize, Morse!


  • Inspector Morse was a snob and a pedant — but you probably knew that already.
  • The -ize spelling is exclusively US = MYTH.
  • The -ize spelling is far from being a modern invention. In fact, you could say it’s Greek.
  • Some authoritative British journalism style guides recommend the -ise spelling.
  • Overall, there is a marked preference in British English writing for the -ise, -yse spellings.

Damn your -ize, Morse!

In Ghost in the Machine (1987), an episode of the British TV series Inspector Morse (1987–2000), Morse ritually humiliates his long-suffering sidekick, DS Lewis, as you can witness in this YouTube extract.

(Someone should have told Morse that being an Oxonian does not entitle you to belittle others – oh, but hang on, that’s part of the characterisation.)

To give non-Morseians a bit of background, they are looking at what purports to be a suicide note, supposedly written by the aristo, art collector and general toff Sir Julius Hanbury. Morse assumes, naturally, that an aristo  knows how to spell. That’s why he smells a rat.

Morse   Now, how does he spell ‘Apologise’? …with an s. ‘Civilised.’ Another s.
Lewis     What’s wrong with that?
Morse   (Morse glowers at Lewis as if he were something he has just scraped off his shoe, and expostulates triumphantly.) It’s illiterate1, that’s what.
The Oxford English Dictionary uses a z for words that end in -/ʌɪz/. And so did Sir Julius. Look…here. So, HE didn’t write it.

So, do Brits use the -ize spelling?

As with most things in language, there’s no simple yes/no answer.

Some do, some don’t. (See the table later on for organize, which also shows that that the -ise spelling, though rather rare, is also used on the far side (from me) of the pond.)

Sure enough, the OED uses the -ize spelling, and its (chiefly etymological) reasons for doing so are set out in a note at the entry for –ize, part of which is reproduced at the end of this blog2.

But, in contrast, many British speakers would take the opposite view, and call -ize “illiterate” or an “Americanism”, which, let’s face it, is in some people’s view much the same thing, or, actually, rather worse.

It has even been suggested, in a comment by Gerwyn Moseley on my earlier blog, that Brits who insist on changing -ize to -ise are indulging in hypercorrection.

People have also asked me why I use the -ize spelling , the answer to which is that I follow OUP and Collins style — even though I’m sure I used to write -ise.

As mentioned in my earlier blog on the topic, several British style guides favour -ise, and The Times changed to that spelling in 1992. As for dictionaries, even Oxford show the -ise spelling as an alternative in their online dictionary (NB: this is not the OED.) Collins English dictionary shows only the -ize form, as does Macmillan; Cambridge  shows the -ize form as the headword, but with a very visible note underneath about British spelling.

Some figures

Life being finite – no matter what anyone tries to tell you – it is impossible for me to look at all examples that might be relevant, so I have been very selective. In the Global Corpus of Web-based English, the figures for the lemma ORGANIZE are shown below (yes, many will be the adjective, I know, but “la vida es un soplo” [life is a mere breath]). The bottom row sums it all up.

US Can Brit
organized 9,375 4,821 3,260
organize 5,652 2,529 1,854
organizing 4,138 1,795 1,178
organizes 529 271 209
TOTAL -IZE 19,694 9,416 6,501
organised 575 279 8,978
organise 376 163 5,352
organising 243 130 4,042
organises 35 17 522
TOTAL -ISE 1,229 589 18,894

all forms -ize/ise

94.1%5.9% 94.3%/5.7% 25.6%/75.4%

I also looked at a far less frequent lemma, civilise/civilize, which yields less extreme percentages but a similar general outlook for US English, but a much more even balance between the two forms in British English:

civilize, -ized, -izing
Brit = 53 (29/19/5)  US = 126 (79/31/16)
civilise, -ising

Brit = 76 (35/41) US = 10 (8/2)

Percentage all forms -ize/ise:

US:         92.65%/7.35%
Brit:       41.09%/58.91%

The difference between the percentages for the two words in British English makes me wonder if organize/-ise, is a sort of test case: being so much more frequent, it automatically presses those “ah, British spelling!” alarm buttons for British English speakers that “civilize/-ise” doesn’t.


Is -ize American?

No. No. And no, again.

It is not a dastardly modern “American invention”, as many British speakers seem to think.

Spellings in -ize go back to the 15thcentury; organize is first recorded in the OED from 1425, in an English translation from French:

The brayne after þe lengþ haþ 3 ventriclez, And euery uentricle haþ 3 parties & in euery partie is organized [L. organizatur] one vertue.

The OED’s earliest example for realize is from 1611, from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, a bilingual dictionary by Randle Cotgrave:

Realiser, to realize, to make of a reall condition, estate, or propertie; to make reall.

Dr Johnson spelled such word as –ize in his 1755 dictionary, although the first OED-recorded use of realise is, as it happens, in a letter of 30 December of that same year from Dr J:

Designs are nothing in human eyes till they are realised by execution.

Surprize, surprize!

As a friend and colleague pointed out, Jane Austen spelt surprize thus, as did Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, John Evelyn, Vanbrugh, Addison, Wordsworth … all “in despite of” etymology, since the word comes from Anglo-Norman and Old French surprise, past participle of surprendre.

A search for -ize in the online text of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) retrieves apologize, civilized, monopolize, recognize, stigmatize, sympathize, and the very modern-sounding journalize (= “to make a journal entry for”,  I think) and Londonize (in its first OED citation).

It’s all Greek to me

The -ize ending is very ancient indeed: it comes to us from Classical Greek.

A politically important word in which it featured was the ancestor of our modern ostracize. I find it thrilling (Note to self: Must get our more often; PS to self: don’t bother) to think that there is a direct line of descent from ὀστρακίζειν ostracize from the Athens of 2,500 years ago to its modern descendant.

Early Christian writers Latinized some key Greek words ending with the -izo suffix, such as “to baptize” – βαπτίζειν – which then passed into English from French baptiser. The first citation for the word (1297) is spelt baptize rather than baptise (though most of the other OED citations have the s spelling).

Perugino paints a flash-mob Baptism.

Which words are only written -ise?

My related blog on the topic lists the most common ones.

There are also various rules of thumb which, at a pinch, might help.

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

final –> finalise/finalize

real –> realise/realize

critic –> criticise/criticize

Conversely, if you want to remember which words can only be spelt -ise, it has been suggested that you should ask yourself if there is an -ation derivative. If there ain’t — e.g. no *comprisation, enterprisation, enfranchisation, revisation, etc. — then the verb must be spelt with an s in the first place.

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 that is not a derivative of themselves, if you see what I mean (e.g. enfranchisement, supervision).


Some of the verbs always written -ise are back-formed from nouns, like televise television, or have a related nouns, like advertise advertisement. So, if you remember that the nouns 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.

There is also the oddity of a vessel apparently named Enterprize (see note 3 at the end of this blog).

So where does -ise come from?

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

I haven’t said yet that the seesaw between s and z obviously 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 analysecatalyse and  paralyse, where -yse is the norm in British English and -yze the rule in American English.

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

That’s the trillion-dollar question…

[1] Polysemy is a marvellous thing. Morse uses “illiterate” here in its extended meaning of “poorly written”, not its literal one of  “unable to write”. That corresponds to sense 1.3 here. In a Guardian piece, I used it in a similar way. In a comment on that piece, someone attempted to wisecrack that the word didn’t mean what I thought it meant, thereby proving that they were illiterate in sense 1.2

[2] OED note

“…; in modern French the suffix has become -iser, alike in words from Greek, as baptiserévangéliserorganiser, and those formed after them from Latin, as civilisercicatriserhumaniser. Hence, some have used the spelling -ise in English, as in French, for all these words, and some prefer -ise in words formed in French or English from Latin elements, retaining -ize for those formed < Greek elements. But the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -ιζειν, Latin -izāre; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic.”

Oxford blog note: “The use of ‘-ize’ spellings is part of the house style at Oxford University Press. It reflects the style adopted in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which was published in parts from 1884 to 1928) and in the first editions of Hart’s Rules (1904) and the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary (1905). These early works chose the ‘-ize’ spellings as their preferred forms for etymological  reasons: the -ize ending corresponds to the Greek verb endings -izo and –izein.”

[3] Discussion about the spelling “enterprize” from an earlier version of this blog.

Ted A: Jeremy, a certain 5th-Rate Vessel of the Royal Navy was launched on 28 April 1708 in Plymouth, England. Its name was HMS Enterprize. I’m unable find the reason it was spelled that way. Any clues?

Tom Thomson Are you sure of that? I thought there were only 2 ships called HMS Enterprize, the first a 24 gun frigate captured from the French and renamed Enterprize (from the French L’Entreprise in 1705) and a 10 gun tender lost to the Americans in 1775 after a very brief life in the Royal Navy.
There was quite a fuss about the opening credits of StarTrek:Enterprise which showed a Galleon called HMS Enterprize, and a lot of people (not me, though, I’m too lazy about stuff outside my main interests) spent a lot of time trying to find out what this ship was; they all concluded that there had only ever been two ships called HMS Enterprize, the two mentioned above.
As neither a 24 gun frigate nor a 10 gun tender could carry enough guns to be a fifth rate warship (as far as I understand the rates the frigate could be 6th rate but not fifth), I suspect there was no 5th rate HMS Enterprize in 1708. Of course as the first HMS Enterpize was wrecked in 1707 and didn’t return to service and the second was built the best part of 70 years later, I suppose the gun count is a superfluous argument.


-ise or -ize? Is -ize American? (1/3)



In brief…

  • The -ize spelling is exclusively US = MYTH
  • For words with an -ise/-ize or -yse/-yze alternation, the -ize spelling is used in British and World English as well as in US English.
  • (The same applies to derivatives, e.g. organisation/organization, organisable/organizable, etc.)
  • The -ize spelling is far from being a modern invention.
  • Some authoritative British journalism style guides recommend the -ise spelling.
  • Overall, there is a marked preference in British English writing for the -ise, -yse spellings.
  • While many words can be spelled/spelt either way, a small group always end in -ise (see later in the blog).
  • Words spelled/spelt -yse/yze, e.g. analyse, are best written exclusively as -yse in British English.

An evergreen myth

The BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4 is the premier UK radio news programme, with episodes lasting three hours Monday to Friday, and two hours on Saturdays.

In their last ten-minute slot before signing off, they often have a light-hearted linguisitc snippet. So it was that on 28 November there was discussion about the alleged decline in children’s spelling. As if to disprove that trend, we had a ten-year-old official “child genius” who could rattle off the spelling of obscure polysyllables such as eleemosynary.

At some point, the question arose of whether another sesquipedalian word, lyophilisation, should be spelt -isation or -ization. There seemed to be a consensus among guests and presenters that the spelling with -s- was the  “English” (Ahem. Read “British”) spelling and the second “American”.

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

Not so!

For the dozens of common verbs which can be spelled/spelt either way, e.g.

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

it is true that the -z spelling is standard in US usage. [1]

However, in Britain, too, it is perfectly acceptable to use the -ize spelling, though the -ise spelling is more widely used [2].  The only problem is that British people who are not editors may well turn up their noses at the-ize spelling, and assume you are a) trying to be unpatriotically transatlantic, or, worse still, b) a Trumpnik. It will also depend on whether you are writing for an organization that has a particular house style, and who the eventual readers are.

St Jerome, unable to lay hands on his dictionary, tries to remember if “televise” has an s or a z.

Who sez 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 GuardianThe Economist and The Telegraph. Choosing one form or the other is part of their “house style”: the rules they lay down for their writers.

While you may think it doesn’t matter — and, indeed, in the grand scheme of things (whatever that is), it matters not a jot — it does matter to editors and to journal publishers because they  have to make a decision about which style to plump for, and then apply it consistently.

For example, a major academic journal publisher has this in its UK style bible for editors:

“Where UK authors have used -ise spellings throughout their papers in a consistent fashion, please do not change. Where there is inconsistency, use –ize.”

The last sentence of the advice thus shows that, even for the UK, this publisher prioritiz/ses the -z- spelling.

If you are not bound by a house style, you can make up your own mind whether to use -ise or -ize. It’s a matter of personal preference, like Lapsang Souchong vs Green tea.

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.


Or should that be “organised”?

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, if you’re reading this on laptop, and under the blog if you’re reading it on a tablet, mobile, etc.) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories,  writing tips, and Spanish.

So, which words must I always spell -ise, no matter whether I’m British, American, etc?

Here are some very common, and a few rather less common, ones:




circumcise disguise expertise revise


comprise emprise franchise supervise


compromise enfranchise improvise surmise
apprise despise entreprise incise surprise
arise devise exercise merchandise televise
chastise disenfranchise excise reprise




They are spelt/spelled like that for several reasons, but often because the -ise part came into English from French words that had never had the Greek/Latin -ize spelling. [3]

One that is a bit of an odd person out and potentially confusion is prise/prize, in the meaning of “Use force in order to move, move apart, or open (something):I tried to prise Joe’s fingers away from the stick.” Even though its origin is French prise, in US dictionaries it has a z, which means it would be a homonym of prize = to value. However, as the comment below by Laura D suggest, nowadays people don’t write it that way, and dictionaries need to update. 

[1] For example, if you look up organize in the ordinary Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ise spelling is not acknowledged at all; it is only when you look at the medical dictionary that you see it.

[2] As noted under various entries in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

[3] For example, advertise came directly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French a(d)vertiss-. Even so, the OED notes: “From an early date the ending was frequently either apprehended [i.e. “interpreted and understood”] as or assimilated to -ize suffix”. Televise, in contrast, is a back-formation from television, and thus the s faithfully respects the word’s etymology.


¡Y viva España! I’m off to sunny Spain. ¡Eviva España! What does it mean? Where is it from?


Go on, admit it! Even if you loathe(d) this 1970s anthem, I bet you can a) at least hum (tararear), whistle (silbar), or even sing (cantar) at least a line of the chorus  (at home, en casa, natch) and b), now that I’ve mentioned it, the tune (la melodía) will run up and down your brain like Speedy Gonzales on amphetamine.

If you want to blame someone for creating this song (esta canción) that is light years beyond cheesy (cursi), look no further than “poor little Belgium”, for it was there, in the fateful – for pop history, at any rate – year of 1971 that the music and lyrics (la letra) were written.1 yviva_map

Despite widespread success in covers on the Continent, where, for instance, there were 56 different versions available in Germany, it wasn’t until 1974 that it reared its goofy head in English, sung by the Swedish singer Sylvia (surname: Vrethammar, since you’re asking). It reached number four in the singles charts and stuck there – like an irritating bit of seaside rock lodged unbudgingly between your teeth – for several months.

The original title (título) was Eviva España. Unfortunately for its Belgian lyricist, eviva is not even a genuine Spanish word (though Evviva! in Italian means “hurrah”.) The name by which English speakers know (and love/hate) it was given it by the song’s Spanish translators.

Y Viva España has at least the merit of making sense: “Hurrah for Spain”, or, literally, “Long live Spain”.

(That “Viva” is a special form of the verb vivir (“to live”).2)

The English lyrics by Edward Seago read as if written by a non-English speaker (¿¿“Valentino … had a beano”??), much in the way that Abba lyrics do, but without their redeeming creativity.


Rudi, looking less camp and made-up than usual.

Stuffing in as many stereotypes as possible – matadors, flamenco, castanets –, the song promises the sun, “romance” (i.e. sex), and excitement that lemminged millions of sun-starved northern tourists onto planes (aviones) heading south. (I’ll spare you their full awfulness here, but the full text is at the end of this blog for those who, like me, love doggerel.3)

Perplexingly, Rudolph Valentino makes a cameo appearance as the epitome of Spanish lovers (er, no…, he was Italian).

This careless mixture (mezcla) of nationalities hints at how, in the Northern imagination, Spain was more an idea than a country (un país), merely part of a hazily defined Mediterranean that dissolved national boundaries: it didn’t really matter which country you were in (Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.), as long as there was sun, sea, beaches, drink, and…

…those ellipses mean that there was always the hope, too, that there’d be more how’s your father than your meagre rations at home, but that was undoubtedly more honoured in the breeches than the observance.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English — and Spanish — usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

While Swedish Sylvia sang the lines with faux, eyelash-fluttering innocence, British lovers of Carry On-style double-entendres must have relished:

Each time I kissed him behind the castanet
He rattled his maracas close to me,
In no time I was trembling at the knee.


Those lines seem to have amused even Kenneth Williams.

The song was also a hit in Spain, but it wasn’t translated word for word. Given that the original was a paean to a romanticized Spain, one can understand why the Spanish lyricist Manuel de Gómez’s chest swelled with patriotic pride as he penned lines such as:

Sólo Dios pudiera hacer tanta belleza,
y es imposible que puedan haber dos.
Y todo el mundo sabe que es verdad
y lloran
 cuando tienen que marchar

Only God could make so much beauty,
And it’s impossible that there can be two.
And everyone knows that it’s true,
And they cry when they have to leave.

If the Spanish lyrics sound a mite triumphalist, bear in mind that de Gómez was working at the Spanish embassy (embajada) in Brussels at the time and that Franco was still in power.

The chorus (el estribillo) runs as follows:

Por eso se oye este refrán:
¡Qué viva España!
Y siempre la recordarán.
¡Qué viva España!
La gente canta con ardor:
¡Qué viva España!
La vida tiene otro sabor
y España es la mejor.

That’s why you hear this saying:
Hurrah for Spain!
And they’ll always remember her.
Hurrah for Spain!
People sing with passion:
Hurrah for Spain!
Life has a different taste,
And Spain is the best.

So, to round off this extravaganza, I can do no better than treat you to this colourful, life-enhancing version by the late Manolo Escobar.

1 By Leo Caerts and Leo Rozenstraten.

2 Spanish verbs may at first feel daunting. But actually, the basic endings number a mere handful. “Viva” is the subjunctive of the –ir verb vivir. The subjunctive of such verbs uses the ordinary present tense endings of any –ar verb. So, vivir goes viva, vivas, viva, viv…, viv…, viv…. Can you complete the last three shown?

Here go the lyrics:

All the ladies fell for Rudolph Valentino
He had a beano back in those balmy days.
He knew every time you meet an icy creature,
You’ve got to teach her hot-blooded Latin ways
But even Rudy would have felt the strain,
Of making smooth advances in the rain.

(Chorus) Oh, this year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y Viva España!
I’m taking the Costa Brava ‘plane, Y Viva España!
If you’d like to chat a matador, in some cool cabaña
And meet senoritas by the score, España, por favor!

Quite by chance to hot romance I found the answer,
Flamenco dancers are far the finest bet.
There was one who whispered ‘Whoo, hasta la vista!’
Each time I kissed him behind the castanet.
He rattled his maracas close to me,
In no time I was trembling at the knee.

Chorus repeats

When they first arrive, the girls are pink and pasty
But, oh, so tasty, as soon as they go brown.
I guess they know ev’ry fellow will be queuing
To do the wooing his girlfriend won’t allow.
But every dog must have his lucky day,
That’s why I’ve learnt the way to shout ‘Olé!’
Oh, this year I’m off to Sunny Spain, Y Viva España!
I’m taking the Costa Brava ‘plane, Y Viva España!
If you’d like to chat a matador, in some cool cabaña
And meet señoritas by the score, España, por favor!
España, por favor! Olé!


Spanish colour words: meaning and grammar (3/4): “Red and yellow and pink and green…”

Pretty in pink

In English, the colour word pink comes ultimately from the flower (la flor) of the same name, i.e. the genus Dianthus (it’s too long a story to go into here). arcoirispinks-126351177-resized

In Spanish, that same colour is rosa and also has an obvious flowery origin (origen, el), namely, the rose.

Some of the associations of pink/rosa are very similar. For example, although the use is now rather dated, rosa was at one stage used to refer to the gay community, just as pink is used in English for the pink pound, the pink economy, and so on.

In verlo todo del color de rosa (literally “to see everything coloured pink”), meaning “to see everything through rose-tinted or coloured spectacles/glasses ”, the idea is paralleled in each language (idioma, el); Spanish speakers just don’t need to wear the gigs to be optimists.


que yo no soy la típica soñadora romántica que ve el mundo color de rosa, yo creo más en la existencia de Shrek que de la historia de Cenicienta…

“I am not your typical romantic dreamer who sees the world through rose-tinted spectacles; I believe in the existence of Shrek more than I do in the story of Cinderella…”

 …las personas que se tienen que sentir optimistas a toda costa o el optimista necio que ve todo color de rosa y da una explicación simplista e1 inmediata.

“People who have to feel optimistic whatever happens or the stupid optimist who sees everything through rose-tinted spectacles and gives off-the-cuff, simplistic explanations.”

Taking that rosy view further still is the phrase una novela rosa, which would be the kind (género) of book a Hispanic Barbara Cartland would write. In fact, so I’m told, there is a sort of Hispanic Barbara Cartland, and her name is Corín Tellado. She published so much that in 1962 UNESCO named her the most widely read writer in Spanish after Cervantes. Unlike (a diferencia de) Babs C, however, her books are set in the present (el presente), and because many of them were written when Francoist censorship still applied, there is no explicit eroticism.

La prensa rosa is the kind of tittle-tattle2 press that concentrates on the love lives of celebrities. Fittingly, its most famous exponent, “Hello” magazine (revista), was founded (se fundó) in Spain as “Hola” over 70 years ago (1944), and was originally less concerned with tawdry, meretricious, sleb glamour than it is now.


This blogger clearly detests that kind of press:

El pueblo español dormita entre el opio de la prensa rosa y el estupidizante espectáculo de millonarios en calzoncillos dando patadas a una pelota.

“The Spanish populace is in a slumber, drugged by celebrity journalism and the stultifying spectacle of millionaires in briefs kicking a football around.” (My very free translation.)

Another idiom that brings in rosa and associates it with positive events and emotions is color de rosa, which suggests that things are going well — often, but not always, in the phrase ser todo color de rosa:

En poco tiempo se conocieron, noviaron y se casaron. Todo era color de rosa, más o menos, hasta que llegó el tercer miembro de la familia.

“In a short space of time they met, started dating, and married. Everything was going swimmingly, more or less, until the third member of the family arrived.”

Actually, life being what it is, this phrase is more often used in the negative, as in the following extract from an anguished blog post:

Tenemos ya casi 3 años y siento que ya no quiero más nada con él. Cuando comenzamos era todo color de rosa…pero ahora todo se ha vuelto un infierno

“We’ve been together almost 3 years and I feel I don’t want to have anything more to do with him. When we started it was all perfect, but now it’s turned to hell…”

How to translate no ser todo color de rosa exactly will vary according to the individual context, but sometimes the English idiom “a bed of roses” could come into it, as in this extract in which a professional baseball player in the Dominican Republic laments how hard life can be:

Muchos ignoran, las infinitas prácticas que hay que tomar para mejorar, la paciencia que hay que tener durante semanas que las cosas no te salen bien … No todo es color de rosa, en ese mundo donde todo es béisbol, desde que te levantas hasta que te acuestas.

“Lots of people aren’t aware of the endless practising that you have to do to improve, or the patience you have to have week after week when things aren’t going right for you. It’s not all a bed of roses, in this world where everything is baseball, from the time you get up till you go to bed.”

As with other adjectives ending in –a, as discussed here, you don’t change the shape of rosa, no matter what kind of noun you associate it with: un vestido rosa, unos vestidos rosa. And, as with those other adjectives, you can also say de color rosa, e.g. un vestido de color rosa.

Finally, in a very literal use of rosa, salsa rosa (“pink sauce”) describes the blend of mayonnaise (mahonesa), tomato sauce and other ingredients, according to taste – a bit of brandy really peps it up, I find – that goes with seafood (los mariscos). In Britain, where it was once traditional to obliterate the flavour of the prawns (gambas) with a sickly gloop, it is called Marie Rose sauce, and in the US, Thousand Island dressing.



La Casa Rosada, Buenos Aires.

Some “pink” things are not rosa, but rosado. Vino rosado is “rosé wine” and the Casa Rosada in Argentina is the pinkish-painted presidential palace, immortalized by Madonna, I mean Eva Perón.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English, and Spanish, usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

So, now we’ve done “red and yellow and pink and green, purple and…”

Stop! We haven’t done “purple”.

Some people say it goes “…purple and orange and blue” and others that “orange” comes before “purple.” The first, “I can confirm”, is the canonical order (orden). (I just loathe that journalistic tic “The BBC/Telegraph/etc. can confirm…”)

Purple. Morado. A word that comes from mora, “blackberry.” So, perhaps it ought to translate as “Deep Purple.” (Oh, no! I’ve just put mental earplugs in, but my brain is still being bombarded by memories of heaveee met-uhl riffs. The only way out (salida) is death.)

I digress. Something that is typically morado is…well, things that are typically morado are repollo (“cabbage”) and cebolla (“onion”), which is, chromatically speaking, a more accurate description, let’s face it, than English “red” cabbage and onion.

However, these images (imágenes) suggest that it is a rather sombre shade of purple:



Other idioms that make use of this colour are:

un ojo morado – a black eye – it’s purple before it goes black, so Spanish speakers are obviously used to catching and describing them fresh.

pasarlas moradas – to be having a really tough time

Las estoy pasando moradas pero soy incapaz de dejar de aportar las mensualidades pactadas con algunas ONG’ s.

“Things are really tough at the moment but I just cannot bring myself to cancel the monthly payments I’ve signed up for with some NGOs.”

"The Young Lady with the Shiner", Norman Rockwell, 1953.

“The Young Lady with the Shiner”, Norman Rockwell, 1953.

The normal word y for “and” changes to e before a word beginning with another /i/ sound; if it didn’t, it would be awkward or imperceptible.

There doesn’t seem to be a single, all-purpose translation for prensa rosa. “Tabloids” seems too broad; I’ve opted for “celebrity journalism” above. I’ve seen “gossip press”, which certainly conveys the idea well, but “celebrity journalism” is more frequent in the corpora consulted.

Orden is one of that small group of hermaphroditic Spanish words. As el orden, it means “order” in the sense of “arrangement”, as in orden alfabético “alphabetical order”. As la orden, it means “order” in the sense of “command”. In Latin America in particular, someone providing a service might say ¡a sus órdenes! “at your service, sir/madam.” Note how you have to add an accent to the letter o- in the plural, to keep the word stress where it belongs. The same basic rule (words ending in -s or –n have stress on the penultimate syllable) inserts the accent in imágenes.


  1. ¿Verdadero o falso?

a. The colour pink and the flower “pink” are completely unrelated. V/F.
b. Una novela rosa is a detective story. V/F.
c. Rosé wine is vino rosado. V/F.
d. The word ¡Hola! means “goodbye”. V/F.
e. The word orden is masculine. V/F.
f.  You stress the last syllable of the Spanish word la crisis. V/F.

2. Prácticas

a. Which version has the accent in the correct place? El orígen/origen de las especies de Darwin es considerado una obra maestra de la literatura científica.
b. Where does the accent go in the plural of the following words? el origen; la orden; el orden; una imagen.
c. Complete the words: La casa rosa__ es la sede del Poder Ejecutiv_ de la República Argentin_.
d. Can you find the words in this blog for the following: language; eye; explanation; more or less; magazine; prawn; sauce; onion; way out (=exit).


Where does “knickers” come from? Don’t get your knickers in a twist!

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

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

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 ( above the Twitter feed, in the right-hand column,if you’re on a laptop/PC; at the bottom of the blog, on other platforms) 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 word refers to …

In British English,  it refers exclusively to an item of underclothing for girls and women, defined by the OED as “With pl. concord. A short-legged (orig. knee-length), freq. loose-fitting, pair of pants worn by women and children as an undergarment. In extended use, the shorts worn by boxers, footballers, etc.”

Here’s a rather glamorous pair:


In American English it also refers to loose-fitting breeches that are gathered at the knee, known in full as knickerbockers. Once standard issue for several sports, they still occasionally appear, as in this cycling gear


that only the most robustly testosteronic males could get away with — and even then…

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

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

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

Hudson Review, Autumn 2004.

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

The OED records that expletive use from nearly half a century ago, (1971) and it now sounds to me positively mealy-mouthed or old-maidish.

The idiom “to get one’s knickers in a twist” or variations on that theme (“…in a knot/bunch/crease, Calvins in a wad/bunch/crease”), meaning to become angry, upset, or agitated, though still most frequent in British English, seems to sit comfortably in World English — or so GloWbE data suggests. This is from Canada,

So if Harper doesn’t mind his party’s social conservatives getting their knickers in a twist about same-sex marriage at this early stage of his mandate…

and this from Nigeria,

Quit getting those puritanical knickers in a twist?

The OED records the phrase from 26 June, 1971, in that venerable British communist organ The Morning Star:

Britain’s Foreign Office mandarins have had their knickers in a twist for the past fortnight.

“Knickers” is short for “knickerbockers”.

In 1809, the American novelist Washington Irvine published a History of New York, under the pseudonym of and purporting to be by one Diedrich Knickerbocker. The surname Knickerbocker, and close spelling variants, is Dutch and goes back to the earliest days of New York as a Dutch colony (New Amsterdam), and Irvine used the word to satirize conservative, upper-crust New Yorkers.

The dreadful Knickerbocker custom of calling on everybody.

Longfellow, Journal, 1 Jan, 1856

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

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

City Journal (New York), autumn 2003.

The most visible reminder of that meaning lies in the name of the professional basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers, or Knicks for short.knickers_nyknicks

How was the name applied to the garment?


I cannot vouch that this is a Cruikshank illustration.

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


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


The two earliest OED examples for those meanings are:

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

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

The OED also includes an amusing citation from Shaw, in which the word must be taken to refer to breeches:

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

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

The OED also notes the  following phrase from the 1966 Lern Yerself Scouse: “Ee’s got both legs in one knicker, he is not playing [football] well.”  A Google suggests that this phrase is as much talked about as used, which is not very often in either case.

Talking of idioms, one of my British favourites is “all fur coat and no knickers.” According to the Online Oxford Dictionary elegantly objective lexicographerse it means to “Have an impressive or sophisticated appearance which belies the fact that there is nothing to substantiate it: ‘the government’s policies are all fur coat and no knickers.'”

How common it really is, I’m not sure. In both GloWbE and the NOW corpus it occurs only 9 times. Googling it doesn’t help a lot, because a play and a clothing outlet bear the name, but it does throw up the dissonant and possibly doubly fetishistic, “British Gas’ ‘plumbing superheroes’ are all fur coat and no knickers.”

I first came across the phrase twenty or more years ago, in the Scottish version “aw fur coat and nae knickers,” used by a Glaswegian to describe Edinburgh people. It was discussed in The Scotsman a couple of years ago; the sixth comment down, by BeBrief, suggests that is a cultural meme, and makes fascinating reading.

Do only Brits wear “knickers”?

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

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

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

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

Blog (written by a woman), 2005.

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

An emergency undergarment drop.

An emergency undergarment drop.

Before I get branded as a paid-up member of the dirty mac brigade, I think I’ll sign off, since this blog is one of a series about eponyms.


Guerrilla or gorilla? What is “guerrilla marketing”? And where does “guerrilla” come from?

Do you puzzle over whether it is “guerrilla marketing” or “gorilla marketing”?

And if you write guerrilla, do you have to check how many r’s it has? (If you don’t, you’re a better speller than me.)

Warhol’s icon of Che Guevara, a legendary guerrilla.

In English it can be either guerrilla or guerilla, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — mind you, the spelling with two r‘s is much more usual.

It’s not just English speakers who can’t decide how many r’s; some Spanish speakers have the same problem, even though it is a current Spanish word, and clearly must have two r’s for reasons we’ll go into in a minute.

And that uncertainty can get right under some people’s skin.


This hideous tattoo should read “Dios bendice mi familia” “God blesses my family”: b and v sound identical in Spanish.

In 2016, the official language body in Colombia launched a hashtag campaign offering the services – gratis — of professional tattooists to retattoo (makes my flesh crawl) misspellings shown on photos of their own tattoos that people were invited to submit. One of the orthographically challenged tattoos bore the misspelling – in Spanish, that is – guerilla, with a solitary letter r. 

Why “guerrila marketing”, etc.?

Like so many loanwords in English, guerrilla has taken on a life all of its own.

In warfare, guerrillas use unconventional tactics, fight alone or in small groups, do not recognize authority, and can pop up anywhere without warning. Since the late 20th century, the word has been freely used to apply those very characteristics to actions in peaceful spheres that flout established social norms.

Take guerrilla marketing or advertising, that is, marketing/advertising aimed at achieving maximum exposure at minimum cost, using innovative techniques and avoiding traditional media.

(The first citation for guerrilla advertising, in 1888, is a lot older than you might expect, but then the word seems to have gone quiet for nearly 80 years.)

I don’t see how you can get much more guerilla than this…

Guerrilla marketing…involving the dispatch of streakers or nearly-nude nutcases to high profile events with the company’s web address tattooed on bare skin.

Independent, 7 June 2005

New to me is guerrilla gardening:

Landless residents…decided to plant trees and other food crops on public land. Fortunately, the council did not object to this growing trend that is known as guerrilla gardening.

BBC ‘Countryfile’, Feb. 12, 2010

And if I could knit, I might be tempted by guerrilla knitting:

The woolly displays are part of the wider trend of guerrilla knitting, a type of benign vandalism in which enthusiasts leave knitted creations on lampposts, railings and road signs.

“Benign vandalism” is such a lovely oxymoron, don’t you think?

Also known as "yarn bombing." Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Also known as “yarn bombing.” Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Of course, thanks to that tricksy old sound the schwa, guerilla sounds exactly like…gorilla. If you don’t believe me, in phonetic notation they are both /ɡəˈrɪlə/. (That letter e doing a Yogic headstand is the schwa, and stands for the unstressed “uh” sound.)

Because they sound the same, people sometimes mistakenly write gorilla marketing. As a British online wag quipped: “Is that when you have King Kong promote your product?”

A Manchester-based (UK) SEO company punningly has the misspelling as its name, a gorilla as its logo, and the strapline “It’s a jungle out there.”

Koko, the "talking" gorilla, with her pet kitten.

Koko, the “talking” gorilla, with her pet kitten.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) 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!

Guerrilla: the word’s backstory

The word guer(r)illa has become so “English” that it is easy to overlook its Iberian origins, which date to the time of the Peninsular War (1808–1814) against Napoleon.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on Spain, previously his ally, an event which ushered in a prolonged period of violent and prolonged national and nationalist struggle against the French. In some ways, that period can be viewed as the first modern war of national liberation.

The central administration of the Spanish State was in complete disarray, and local juntas (another Spanish word) took it upon themselves to help organize resistance. That resistance was largely in the hands of civilians, loosely organized in militias, who avoided pitched battles and either harassed French troops on the march or fiercely defended cities under siege.

“The Defence of Saragossa”, Sir David Wilkie, 1828, The Royal Collection.

Those militias were known as guerrillas. Their heroic defence of their homeland (la patria), notably in the legendary siege of Saragossa, really captured the British public’s imagination.1

At the request of three of the juntas, the British sent troops under the command of the then Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley,

Wellesley bedecked with medals, painted by Goya, and looking hesitant and untriumphal (1812-1814, National Gallery, London).

better known to us as the Duke of Wellington . It is in his dispatches of 1809, according to the OED (which gives only the year, not the month or day) that the word makes its first appearance in English.

I have recommended to the Junta to set…the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

The meaning here as defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online is “A member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces.”

“little war”

The word for “war” in Spanish is guerra (ignore the u, and pronounce the vowels as in guess). Adding –illo or –illa, classed as a “diminutive suffix”, to a word often implies smallness or littleness, so guerrilla is in very literal terms a “little war.”

According to the Spanish Royal Academy’s historical corpus, the word first appears in the classic account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas’ History of the Indies meaning precisely, and somewhat disparagingly, a “little war”, for example:

They had some little wars about the borders and boundaries of their lands and dominions, but all of them were like children’s games and were easily calmed.”2

A traditional Spanish dish makes use of the same suffix: gambas al ajillo, succulent prawns in a tangy garlicky sauce. Ajo is the word for “garlic”, and ajillo refers to chopped garlic and the sauce made from it. And of course, just about any British tapas restaurant is bound to offer Spanish omelette, tortilla, which adds –illa to the word torta.

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

1The Scottish Sir David Wilkie, who was the “Royal Limner” (i.e. painter) in Scotland, was one of the first professional artists to visit Spain after the War of Independence, and was deeply influenced by seeing the paintings of Velázquez and Murillo. 
2Algunas guerrillas tenían sobre los límites y términos de sus tierras y señoríos, pero todas ellas eran como juegos de niños y fácilmente se aplacaban.


Thirty commonly confused words in English


Lost and Confused Signpost

Dozens of words are all too easy to confuse. Their’s [sic] the notorious case of its’s/its, not to mention there/they’re/their, your/you’re, and other obvious spelling mistakes caused by two words sounding the same, that is, being homophones as they’re known in the trade.

But then there are a host of others which are less frequently used, or are used mostly in formal or literary writing and in journalism. Since some readers of those genres undoubtedly love to pounce on any mistakes, it could be embarrassing to write one instead of the other.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) 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! 

“All the evidence suggests…”

This is not a list of my subjective bugbears and personal tics. (How very dare you suggest that I have any such thing!) Far from it. It is based on what I’ve noticed in reading or editing over the years, and on what I’ve heard/hear. I have corroborated that observation/listening in the first place by seeing how often these pairs are discussed in online editorial forums and how often questions about them are entered as Google searches.


Second, for many of these posts I have looked at corpus data — chiefly from the Oxford English Corpus, but also from other corpora — to get an idea of how widespread the phenomenon of — let’s call it “meaning swapping” — is, and what its geographical spread might be.

Looking at data not only counterbalances the “frequency effect” (i.e. once we’ve noticed and mentally noted a linguistic occurrence, we see it everywhere), it can also produce surprising results: what BrE speaker would have thunk that, as far as I can see, hone in is now the “norm”, not only in US English but in nearly all varieties?

Apart from looking at corpus evidence, I have also often noted what dictionaries and usage guides say about the question so that you, gentle reader, can make up your own mind.

Why bother?

You mean, “Wotevah! Why bovver, whichever version people use?”

Lots of people have that laissez-faire attitude, but quite a few people are bovvered — sometimes very, very bovvered. And people, such as editors and  proofreaders, whose business it is to “correct” others’ writing, earn their living by being bothered.

Those people who Google questions about these pairs may not be particularly bothered, but they are, at the least, curious to find an unequivocal answer. In fact, after — sigh, “what is the first word in the dictionary” — the most common search terms that bring people to this site are “whereas or where as”, “defuse or diffuse” and “ascribe to or subscribe to.”

Here's a feline-themed homophone.

Here’s a feline-themed homophone.

As you can see, they’re a very mixed bag as regards meaning. What links nearly all of them, though — with the exception of coruscating/excoriating — is the very close similarity between the member of the pair. In some cases, just like they’re/their/there, but depending to an extent on accent, they are true homophones, e.g. veracious/voracious, illusive/elusive.

Here’s the complete list in alpha order:

There are plenty of others; I may add them to the list as time goes on.

  • 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 homophones 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 the collocationally more standard exacerbate. 

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.

Given the history of exasperate, and its multiple meanings other than the most common one of “to annoy”, it might, arguably, be difficult to maintain that it is wrong in that context.

This is an updated version of the page with which I first introduced this series of 30 easily confused words.

1 Comment

Spanish colour words: meaning and grammar (2/4) “Red and yellow and pink and green…”


This it the second part of an overview of basic colour words in Spanish, illustrating what they mean, their grammar, and how they relate — or don’t — to English.


celeste. “sky-blue, pale blue”. “Blue eyes” can be ojos celestes or ojos azules, depending, presumably, on the depth and intensity of the blue. In parts of Mexico and Central America, masks (máscaras) play a central part in elaborate dances and rituals, some of which re-enact la conquista, the conquest by Spain of those countries. The masks for the conquistadores often have piercing blue eyes and blond (rubio) hair and beards, as in the image above. Those features hardly match the northern European stereotype of a Spaniard, but the original inhabitants (habitantes) were clearly struck by the relative lightness of the Spaniards’ complexion (la tez) and hair (pelo) compared to their own.

Azul and celeste don’t seem to be rigidly demarcated. For example, the blue of the Argentine flag is often referred to as azul celeste, which, if translated literally – “sky-blue blue” – sounds like what linguists call a tautology, or saying the same thing twice. It  puts me in mind of that delightful phrase sky-blue pink to describe a non-existent or fanciful colour; I first heard it from my parents as a child, and it is the kind of paradox or linguistic riddle that children tend to find fascinating.

La bandera argentina.

La bandera argentina.

There is a Spanish proverb or saying (un refrán) based on celeste: El que quiera azul celeste, que le cueste. Literally, “Whoever wants sky-blue, let it cost him”, meaning that it takes hard work to achieve your ambitions.1

If you want a mental link with English, think celestial meaning “relating to the sky or heavens”. Both the English and Spanish words derive ultimately from the Latin word for “heaven”, caelum.

violeta. My route home from school used to take me past a confectioner’s, the window of which often enticed me in, with its elegantly tiered displays of delicately perfumed violet creams, their crystallized flowers sitting voluptuously atop a seductive chocolate crescent.

My mistake: that’s purple, not violet, prose. Which illustrates the fact that I’m personally somewhat hazy about the boundaries of this colour, yet sceptical about some of the online illustrations for it: they seem far too garish and too close to fuchsia (fucsia) to resemble even remotely the colour of the sweets or the flowers. “Roses are red and violets are blue”, after all.

I digress.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) 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!

Spanish speakers (hispanohablantes) may not agree (estar de acuerdo) on what they classify as violeta. Linguistically, however, they agree that slapping on a la violeta after a word that describes someone’s views or profession is a bit of a put-down: un socialista a la violeta is a “would-be“, “pseudo-” or even “armchair socialist.”

Like naranja, mentioned in an earlier blog, violeta never changes to match the noun it goes with.

marrón. “brown”. Grammatically, marrón is a bit odd: unlike other adjectives ending in -ón, such as mandón/-ona (“bossy”), it has no feminine form, but it does have the plural marrones (notice how the written accent falls off in the plural).

Rather more Spaniards have ojos marrones than have ojos azules, and Northern Europeans would probably stereotype all Spaniards as having ojos marrones. It seems, however, that in fact more than half the population (más de la mitad de la población) have eyes in the spectrum verdeavellana (“green-hazel”).

In Spain, marrón as a noun means a difficult or embarrassing situation that you put yourself in or that someone else puts you in.

¡Vaya marrón en que me ha metido mi prima! “What a fix my cousin has got me into!”

Lush castañas glaseadas topped with what looks like a violeta glaseada.

Lush castañas glaseadas topped with what looks like a violeta glaseada.

Like English maroon, marrón comes from the French word for “chestnut”, as in those moreish marrons glacés (castañas glaseadas) that are popular at Christmas. But linguistic history has determined that the two words denote different colours.


For which colour adjectives from this and the previous blog are these the anagrams? (The forms shown might be singular/plural, masculine/feminine.)

  1. luesaz
  2. deerv
  3. smoalrali
  4. osajr
  5. aaajrnn
  6. nmraór
  7. teviola

1El que quiera azul celeste, que le cueste. Both quiera and cueste are subjunctive verb forms (from querer and costar). It is standard to use such forms after words or phrases indicating “indefiniteness”, such as el que (“Whoever”, literally “the one who”), which is why it is quiera.  The form cueste is subjunctive because it is effectively part of an order, preceded by the conjunction que.


“Red and yellow and pink and green…” Spanish colour words, meaning & grammar (1/4)

An overview of some basic colour words in Spanish, showing what they mean and how they work.

(Skip to after the first picture, if you’re in a hurry. If you’re into “slow reading”, please read on…)

The last Plantagenet English monarch, Richard III, suffered multiple indignities after being slain at the Battle of Bosworth: stripped of its armour, his naked body (cuerpo desnudo) was slung unceremoniously across the back of a horse, and then some peasant stabbed him in the bum (culo) with a dagger (un puñal) as a final insult. (The Age of Chivalry, ¡Un jamón!)

Worse still, when they got him to Leicester, he was buried in an anonymous car park, before being cartoon-villained by Shakespeare, who at least spared him the indignity of mentioning his rather downmarket and very unregal municipal last resting place.


Pedro Pablo Rubens, Paisaje con arco iris (h. 1636, Wallace Collection, Londres).

However, Ricardo found posthumous redemption of a sort by being immortalized centuries later (siglos después) in a schoolboy mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow (el arco iris):

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain
red orange yellow green blue indigo violet

There is no analogous mnemonic in Spanish, and in any case “indigo” is not a colour (un color) much in use. But the corresponding colours that are more or less useful go like this:

red orange yellow green blue violet
rojo naranja amarillo verde azul violeta

It’s an obvious fact of language that colours do not necessarily have the same symbolic meaning (significado) or connotations in every language: for English speakers red means danger (peligro), for Chinese speakers it means good fortune (la suerte). What follows highlights some of the similarities and differences between Spanish and English when it comes to the most common colour words. And there’s an ever so easy self-test at the end.

Rojo shares the consonant r and many associations with English red. For example, Spanish_Prince_Hsomeone with pelo rojo has red hair, and the two words combine to make un pelirrojo / una pelirroja, “a redhead.” If you’re finding it hard to visualize a pelirrojo, think of that famous royal bachelor (soltero) Prince Harry (el príncipe Henrique).




During the Cold War (la Guerra Fría), Soviets, communists, and sympathizers might be referred to colloquially as rojos, which was also the term Francoists used during the Civil War to demonize Republicans.

Someone who is extremely embarrassed turns red “as a tomato”, not a beetroot:

Basta1 mirarle2 para que3 se le ponga4 la cara5 como6 un tomate7. “You’ve only got to look at him and he goes as red as a beetroot”.1

And beware: for wine you use a different word: red wine is vino tinto.

Naranja. As in English, you use the same word for the citrus fruit orange and the colour, but a fruit is una naranja whereas the colour is el naranja, because all colours are masculine. Both the English and Spanish words ultimately come from Arabic nāranj , but the n at the beginning dropped off somewhere on the way to English, while Spanish kept it.

Certain colours adjectives like naranja never change to match the noun they go with: un pantalón naranja, una blusa naranja, dos blusas naranja. Such “invariable” adjectives can be used on their own, but are just as often preceded by color or de coloruna camisa color naranja/beige, una camisa de color naranja/beige.

Amarillo. Unlike the previous two, there seems nothing to connect this word and English yellow. Perhaps the double ll in both might help you to make the connection. In Spanish, you talk about the  la prensa amarilla, literally the “yellow press”, meaning “the gutter press.” Amarillo also has a negative meaning – just like English yellow = “cowardly” – when talking about “yellow unions” that represent employers’ rather than workers’ interests, los sindicatos amarillos.

To say the word, put the song “Is this the Way to Amarillo” right out of your mind. You pronounce that double ll as a sort of y, to give a-ma-ree-yo.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) 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!

Verde. Apart from being the title of a famous Lorca poem, “Verde que te quiero verde”, startlingly, for English speakers, you use the word for green in the phrase un viejo verde, “a dirty old man” and un chiste verde, “a dirty joke”. The association of verde / green with ecology is the same in both languages, as is the link with jealousy: estar verde de invidia “to be green with envy”. If you want a connection with English, think verdant. 

Verde ends with an –e. Adjectives ending in any vowel other than –o have no feminine form, but they do have a plural, i.e. verdes. There is a famous flamenco song or copla about a woman who spends a night of passion with a man with green eyes:

Ojos verdes, verdes como la albahaca.                                  Green eyes, green like basil.
Verdes como el trigo verde                                                        Green like unripe corn
y el verde, verde limón.                                                               And green, green lemons.
Ojos verdes, verdes, con brillo de faca                                    Green green eyes, that gleam like a knife
que estan clavaito en mi corazón.                                            And have stuck in my heart.

And here’s the renowned flamenco singer the late Rocío Jurado giving a wonderfully over-the-top theatrical (teatral) rendition. Not for nothing was she nicknamed La más grande (“The Greatest”).

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

El Greco, La Trinidad (detalle), 1577-1579, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. I don’t think you can get much more “azul” than that.

Azul. Just as in English, aristocrats are supposed to have blue blood: veinte familias de sangre azul “twenty aristocratic families” (literally “families of blue blood”). Presumably in the same vein, someone’s príncipe azul is their “Prince Charming” or “knight in shining armour,” or even “Mr Right.”

As a cynic blogged: Las mujeres se pasan la mitad de su vida buscando a su príncipe azul, para terminar casándose con un amable fontanero.

“Women spend half their lives looking for Mr Right only to end up marrying a nice plumber.”

Just like verde, azul is one of those unreconstructed chauvinist adjectives that have no feminine, but do change for the plural, e.g. Scandinavians stereotypically have ojos azules.

This rule about adjectives not having a feminine but having a plural applies to almost all adjectives ending, like azul, in a consonant, e.g. un chico/una chica joven, un trabajo/una pregunta fácil, “a young boy/girl”, “an easy job/question”.

1The word-for-word translation is: “It is enough1 to look at him2 so that3 it to him becomes4 the face5 like6 a tomato7”.

1. Match the Spanish phrase to the English.

a.       The Red Planet los Verdes
b.      A red alert de sangre azul
c.       blue-blooded el Planeta Rojo
d.      an orange shirt El Ángel Azul
e.      the Greens una camisa naranja
f.        The Blue Angel una alerta roja

2. ¿Verdadero o falso?

a. The English word orange is from Dutch.
b. All adjectives in Spanish change to match the noun they go with.
c. “Red wine” is vino tinto.
d. “Amarillo” as sung in “Is this the way to Amarillo” is the correct Spanish pronunciation.
e. All Spanish colour words are masculine.
f. The feminine of verde is verda.


Mean while or meanwhile? In the mean while or in the meanwhile? One word or two?

Short answer: one word. To write two words will nowadays be considered a mistake. But it wasn’t always so…


(I think that should be “Meanwhile, in Scotland”, don’t you?)

Rules iz rules…but rules can change.

To write several analogous pairs (a while, any more, etc.) as one word or two is a matter of convention, and conventions can, and do, change over time.1

I was forcefully reminded of this while reading Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), a Gothic classic that keeps making me visualize a sort of Ken Russell – if not Hammer horror – film before its time, or “avant la lettre”, if I wish to be flowery, which I often do.

The narrator falls into the hands of murderous outlaws who want to drug him – and a baroness who has also fallen into their clutches – by giving them a spiked drink (or a sleeping draught, in more trad language).

In the mean while our host [Baptiste, a bandit] had drawn the cork, and, filling two of the goblets, offered them to the lady and myself. She at first made some objections, but the instances of Baptiste were so urgent, that she was obliged to comply. Fearing to excite suspicion, I hesitated not to take the goblet presented to me. By its smell and colour, I guessed it to be champagne; but some grains of powder floating upon the top convinced me that it was not unadulterated.”

(Fret not: the hero does manage to avoid drinking the potion, and then feigns sleep. Tales of his derring-do fill at least another hundred pages.)

Note that “In the mean while” at the start of the extract.

Some history…

As the revised (2001) OED entry notes: “The one-word form (first found in the 16th cent.) has become steadily more frequent since the early 19th cent., and has been the standard form since the end of the 19th cent.”

Modern meanwhile has simply obliterated the space that manifests its etymology. It is, quite simply, a combination of “mean” the adjective and “while” the noun. That adjectival meaning is defined by the OED as “Intermediate in time; coming or occurring between two points of time or two events” and gave rise to the now obsolete adverbs  the mean season and mean space, both meaning, um…, “meanwhile.”

Mean[ ]while itself, is first recorded as a noun from some time before 1375:

Boþe partiȝes…made hem alle merie in þe mene while.
(Both parties…all made merry in the meanwhile.)

William of Palerne.

and as an adverb in the first English-Latin dictionary, the Promptorium Parvulorum (“Storehouse for Children” or “Little Egbert’s Crib Sheet”) of 1440:

Mene whyle, interim.

Annoyingly, the OED doesn’t present a single-word example from the sixteenth century: its first “solid” example is:

Upon this subject I will in my next Number make an appeal… In the meanwhile let me pride myself a little on the circumstance [etc.].

Cobbett’s Weekly Polit. Reg. 33 101, 1818.

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, if you’re viewing this on laptop, and, probably, at the bottom of this post, after comments, on other platforms) 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 the Bard’s work too…

Shakespeare used the word(s), e.g.

Let the lawes of Rome determine all,
Meane while am I possest of that is mine.

Titus Andronicus i. i. 405, 1594.

but much more often he used (in the) meantime, as when Portia says:

For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over:
When it is paid, bring your true friend along.
My maid Nerissa and myself meantime
Will live as maids and widows. Come, away!
For you shall hence upon your wedding-day:

Merchant of Venice, iii. ii. 318 ff., 1600.

Modern usage follows Shakespeare. In the GloWbE corpus (Global Web-based English), in the meantime is 20 times more frequent than in the meanwhile.


Two poetic “meanwhiles”

And, as I was writing this, the last words of Auden’s Friday’s Child, in memory of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, floated into my head:

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

And then a “virtual” colleague made this comment, which I had to add:

“One of my favourite lines from the great Flann O’Brien, where the narrator in The Third Policeman describes his mother: ‘She was always making tea to pass the time, and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime.'”

1Witness the kerfuffle* when, in 2013, Associated Press (AP) changed its ruling about “under way” being two words in most contexts to “underway” in all contexts. Editors can be an OCDish lot – after all, part of their job consists in weeding out and correcting things that most people don’t even notice – and one such editor tweeted “I can’t be the only one who is outraged that AP is changing its style from ‘under way’ to ‘underway,’ am I?”

Copy-editing, it could be argued, is a profession whose motto invalidates the old Latin motto de minimis non est curandum (“Don’t sweat the small stuff” or, literally, “It is not to be worried about trivia”).

Whether that be true or not, conventions iz conventions, and the fact that most people abide by them makes them worth sticking to.

* An originally Scottish word, spelt curfuffle.


“Keep/stay abreast of” or “keep/stay abreast with”? (2/2)



Previously, I talked about how editing papers by non-mother tongue speakers can sometimes severely test my native speaker intuitions about English.  I mentioned slightly atypical word choice as one recurrent issue, and odd collocation as another.

Quick takeaways

  1. There is considerable variation in global English between abreast of /with. With seems to be commoner in countries where English, while an official or second language, is less used than elsewhere.
  2. Analogy and history suggest that it is impossible to say that one version is “correct ” in all circumstances.
  3. Use of one or the other form seems to depend not only on where in the English-speaking world you are, but also on the register. In some academic writing, “with” is standard.

Abreast with?!?!?!


I came across abreast with in an academic paper and it caused me some head-scratching.

The complete phrase was: “He distinguished five dimensions related to Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: civic virtue (keeping abreast with important organizational affairs)…

“(Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed),” thought I to myself, “abreast of is canonical and abreast with a mistake”. On the other hand, I did not amend it and decided to check.

Analogy is such a powerful factor in language: many synonyms of abreast in this meaning take with as their preposition.  The Oxford Online Dictionary offers ten synonyms, of which eight take with, e.g. up to date with.

It seemed clear to me that non-mother tongue speakers would find it logical to use with, as the standard linking preposition. Moreover, they would probably have come across some of those synonyms rather more often than the less frequent abreast of, with its seemingly anomalous preposition.

The usage guides I normally use were of no help, and there was little discussion online, so I consulted corpora.

The first was the Oxford English Corpus.

Shock! Horror!

In the February 2014 release, abreast of appeared only seven times, while abreast with came up well over 100 times, e.g.

She said because technology keeps changing, her company would not want to remain behind but to keep updating their network so as to keep abreast with the latest communication technology.

Reviewing those examples raised in me the suspicion that the figure was high because of regional variation combined with journalistic preference. First, abreast with occurs with far greater than expected frequency in South African, Indian and Caribbean sources; second, in each of those segments its use is confined to a handful of newspapers, e.g. The Times of Zambia, The Hindu, etc.

But my surprise was even greater when I checked in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, journals, of June 2015: stay / keep abreast with = 48; abreast of = 2.

Does the choice of preposition depend on register and domain then, as well as region?

It would seem so.

It also depends on where in the English-speaking world you are from

I checked in four other corpora: The Corpus of Historical American, The Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW Corpus, and the Corpus of Global Web-based English. To simplify matters, I searched for the lemmas of KEEP and STAY only. The figures are these:

CORPUS  (size) dates keep abreast of keep abreast with stay abreast of stay abreast with
COHA (400 mill.) 1810s–2000s 202 (93.5%) 14 (6.5%) 15 (100%) 0
COCA (520 mill.) 1990–2015 195 (97.5%) 5 (2.5%) 86 (96.6%) 3 (3.4%)
NOW (2.8 bill.) 20 countries 2010–yesterday 1252 (83.3%) 251 (16.7%) 488 (92.6%) 39 (7.4%)
GloWbE (1.9 bill.) 20 countries 2012–2013 969 (83.6%) 188 (16.4%) 333 (92%) 29 (8%)

What strikes me is the difference between keep abreast of in  data from a single country (COHA, COCA) and from 20 countries.

Moreover, doing a less focused search for abreast + 1 – which brings in verb variants such as REMAIN, BE, MAINTAIN, etc. – reveals discrepancies between different varieties of English.

For example, while the percentage for of in US English is 93.7%, in Indian English it is 70.2%, in Malaysian English 58.4%, and in Ghanaian English a mere 33.8%.

abreast_english_speakersGrouping the 20 varieties of English in GloWbE gives this intriguing result for of:

(In descending order within each grouping)

100–90%:  Canada, US, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, Jamaica, GB
80–90%:    NZ, Zambia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka
70–80%:   Tanzania, Pakistan, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, India
50–60%     Malaysia
30–40%     Ghana


Of the eight dictionaries I consulted (both native-speaker and learners dictionaries), only the Oxford Advanced Learners (OALD) had an example showing with:”It’s important to keep abreast with the latest legislation.” In addition, the Collins English Dictionary, while containing no examples at all, did mark the relevant meaning as (followed by of or with). Seven dictionaries had examples also for the literal meaning – to be alongside or level with someone or something – all exclusively with of.

The long view: historically speaking

A search in the revised (2009) OED, however, reveals several interesting things. For the physical meaning:

  • it gives the phrase as abreast of (also with);
  • the first citation for that meaning (1635) has with;
  • of 11 citations (dated 1635–1994), four have with.

The metaphorical meaning is category b) of the phrase as laid out above, with the additional note “Freq[uently]. to keep abreast of:

  • of 11 citations for that meaning (spanning 1644–2005), seven are with;
  • they range from 1644 through the 19th and 20th centuries

(There are choice examples at the end, for the really keen.)

Conclusion? And the moral is…?

For this editor, the moral of the story is:  don’t jump to conclusions.

  1. Given that the authors of the article which was my starting point were from the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait, and that the medium was an academic article, leaving with seems the correct decision  to me.
  2. Second, it shows that even something as apparently simple as a compound preposition admits of perfectly legitimate variation. It may not be part of my (or your) idiolect, but that doesn’t matter.
  3. Third, as is not unusual, the alternatives are not a “modern invention”, but instead have a long history.
  4. To insist that the version one prefers is the only correct one, in the face of global variation, is to bury one’s head in the sand and be a linguistic martinet.
  5. And last of all, at the risk of stating the obvious, any editor working on international material needs to be aware that there are variations other than the oft-raised British vs US English.


The interweb being what it is, images for “keeping abreast of ” were as you might imagine. As I like my images, this will have to do instead. abreast_mammogram-instagram-breast-cancer-awareness-reminders-ecards-someecards


Examples: literal

The three next men behind him, move forwards to the left of each other; untill they ranke even a brest with their file-leader.

W. Barriffe, Military Discipline xxxvii. 104, 1635.

Facing about, he march’d up abreast with her to the sopha.

Sterne, Tristram Shandy IX. xxv. 101, 1767.

He is abreast of the white man, who has paused.

W. Faulkner, As I lay Dying lii. 155, 1930.


Though some conceive him to be as much beneath a Poet, as above a Rhimer, in my opinion his Verses may go abreast with any of that age.

T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Shrop. 9, a1661.

The compromises by which they endeavoured to keep themselves abreast of the current of the day.

Scott Redgauntlet (new ed.) I. p. xxi,  1832.

 I had written my diary so far, and simply read it off to them as the best means of letting them get abreast of my own information.

B. Stoker Dracula xx. 274,  1897.

Like so many Italian composers, Verdi regarded himself primarily as a craftsman whose duty it was to keep himself abreast with the times.

Musical Times 71 559/1, 1930.

Leave a comment

Elusive or illusive or allusive? Commonly confused words (17-18)

(17 & 18 of 30 commonly confused words)

Takeaways—for busy people

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

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

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

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

In written texts, X illusive is more often used by mistake than in its true meaning, though many examples are ambiguous.

  • The word allusive is also occasionally used by mistake for elusive.
  • The blog gives plenty of examples of appropriate and mistaken use.
  • If you feel confident that you already know all this, why not try the self-test at the bottom of the blog?

For the full story, read on…

(If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, 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!)

Why does the mistake happen?

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

What is the difference?


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

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

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


Justin Timberlake trying to be elusive.

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

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

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

What about illusive?


A superb Raeburn portrait of Sir Walter Scott with his dogs.

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

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

Modern examples include:

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

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

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

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

Illusive by mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

      • …this illusive common interest, this notion of shared stakes encompassed the whole world and large majorities in almost every society .—Free India Media, 2004

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

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

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

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

The Corpus of Web-Based Global English (GloWbE) presents a similar picture.  For example, a search for illusive and any words following within three spaces yields this top ten:

man, quality, power, concept, nature, dream, leopard, creatures, happiness, desire.

Nearly all the quotations for man are for the “Illusive Man” in a video game. I have no idea whether the word is a deliberate pun in this context.

Of the remainder, quality, concept, leopard, and creatures self-evidently match elusive.  Dream and desire similarly correspond to illusive; power, nature, and happiness could go with either, but in the GloWbE contexts are appropriately described as illusive. 


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

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

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

Which is it better to use?

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

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

So that’s that all sorted out, then

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

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

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

More mistaken examples:

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

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

Fun test

Choose between allusive, elusive, and illusory:

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

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


“All of a sudden” or “all of the sudden”? And “out of the sudden”?


Ain’t English wonderful!

Or, more truthfully, ain’t its speakers wonderful!

Despite all attempts to confine the language, some speakers will always manage to wriggle out of any straitjacket. Here’s a case in point: there’s a standard adverbial all of a sudden. But there’s also a minority variant, ?all of the sudden. And then there’s ?out of the sudden.

Actually, while all of a sudden trips naturally off the tongue or the keyboard (to coin a phrase), its grammar is mildly interesting for the reasons given at the end of this blog. But back to the topic in hand…

Quick takeaways

  • All of the sudden is used – by a minority of speakers, possibly younger speakers.
  • Most people will consider it wrong.
  • Historically, there has been a lot of a/the variation in the slot “of – sudden”, but not with all of a sudden.
  • Contrary to rumour, the Bard of Avon did not coin  the phrase all of a sudden (see citations lower down).

All of the sudden

“Don’t be daft!” I hear you say. “Nobody says that, do they?” (“Pshaw and fiddlesticks. Pig ignorance, I call it!”)

We can’t tell exactly how many people say it, but it does occur in written corpus sources. In the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA), all of the sudden occurs 294 times, compared to all of a sudden’s whopping 6,836 occurrences.

What’s noticeable, first, is that the biggest chunk is in the spoken segment (58%). In the academic segment there is just one example.

Second, frequency, though still very low, seems to be increasing over time: from 0.3 per million (1990–1995) to 0.67 (2010–2015).

Third, the percentage in COCA of all of the sudden out of the totals of both versions is 4.1%, so it’s very much a minority phrasing – at the moment. Similarly small percentages are reflected in the data in the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE) and in the NOW (News on the Web) corpus – 5.3% and 3.7%.

Fourth – and many British speakers will sigh, shake their heads, and tut-tut at this point – all of the sudden is chiefly US and Canadian: in NOW it is seven times more frequent per million words in US English than in British English.


Out of the sudden

You what? Yessiree!

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!

I heard an American witness to the horrific events in Nice using the phrase. It was completely new to me, so I thought I’d check it out. A Google “…” search throws up 169,000 results. I skimmed  the first few pages. Of course, many of them are not a set phrase at all, but rather out of  + DET/the + ADJ/sudden + N, e.g.  “…when we stepped into the lively, warm, candlelit bar out of the sudden April downpour, it was a welcome sight.”

But many of them are the set phrase, e.g.

Yesterday I played a bit with the setup, enjoyed some games on FBA and then out of the sudden, the hotkey has no function anymore.

What is one to make of this? It looks like a combination of out of the (blue) + (all of a/the) sudden.

It’s not really a standard eggcorn: there is no obvious homophone link  — all of a/out of the are hard to confuse, aren’t they?; there is no clear meaning re-interpretation, because the change is largely syntactic; and it affects more than a single word. But, hey presto, there’s a potential term for it: a blidiom, i.e. an idiom blend.

Perhaps it is very much a spoken phrase, which then ends up being written online and thereby picked up by Google. That would explain why Google has so many examples despite the phrase’s rarity in both GloWbE and NOW. In the first, the string out of the sudden occurs 20 times, but only 13 are the set phrase, the other seven having a noun following; in NOW, only one out of six is the set phrase, which might just possibly reflect the fact that NOW consists of news sites, whereas GloWbE consists 60 per cent of informal blogs.

Is there any reason why it has to be all of A sudden?

Idiom, dear boy, idiom. As Fowler said “that is idiomatic which it is natural for a normal Englishman to say or write ; … ;  grammar & idiom are independent categories”.

It’s the current majority convention, but it wasn’t always so.

Historically, there has been a lot of see-sawing, not only between the indefinite/definite article, but also with the preposition: variations – without the word all – are of/on/upon/at/in + a/the + sudden.

Is it possible That loue should of a sodaine take such hold?

The Taming of the Shrew, before 1616, i. i. 145

As he gazed, he saw of a sudden a man steal forth from the wood.

Conan Doyle, White Company, 1890.

My Crop promis’d very well, when on a sudden I found I was in Danger of losing it all again.

Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719

The earliest OED (1558) citation of the phrase is in the form of the sudden:

To be…done…for more reasonable hier in hope of present payment then can be had or done upon the soden.

in A. Feuillerat Documents Office of Revels Queen Elizabeth, (1908) 17

The first citation of the “canonical” form – at least under the entry for sudden, I’m still searching elsewhere in the OED – is this, nearly 130 years later than the first, 1558, citation:

All of a sudden, and without any…previous Instructions, they were heard to speak…in the fifteen several Tongues of fifteen several Nations.

J. Scott,  Christian Life: Pt. IIII. vii. 601, 1686


A sad song in Bahasa, with translation.

Do usage guides say anything?

There was some discussion a while back on Stack Exchange. A specious suggestion that all of the sudden might be logical when referring back to an event already mentioned, thereby justifying the specificity of the definite article, received the memorably aphoristic reply: “Idiom trumps logic.” Fowler would undoubtedly have concurred.

Paul Brians’ Errors in English Usage notes it, while the Phrase Finder mentions it, attributes it wrongly to Shakespeare, and suggests it is preferred by “the young”.

Oh, and the WordPress spell checker ain’t having none of all of the sudden.

Some grammar points

  1. Sudden is primarily an adjective, but here it’s being used as a noun. There’s nothing too unusual about that in itself: “out of the blue” similarly turns an adjective into a noun.
  2. Before searching in COCA, I had expected all of a to be immediately followed by a singular noun in most cases. In contrast, nearly all examples are for the set phrase all of a sudden. The very few examples with a noun are all of the type all of a + SG N’S + SG/PL N” as in “all of a cell’s DNA/a hospital’s procedures”.
  3. The only other set phrase that crops up in COCA is all of a piece, e.g. “The aim of American movies in the thirties…was to appear seamless, all of a piece…”.
  4. All is being used here as an intensifying adverb, as in “She’s come over all shy”, a use marked in Oxford online as informal. Another example given by Oxford is “He was all of a dither.”


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

Quick takeaways

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

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

Meanwhile, the results of the poll embedded in this blog show that the option with most votes is that both versions are ‘correct’. Which you use is likely to depend on where you’re from, how you first heard or used the phrase, and how you parse it, among other things.

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!


Lost and Confused Signpost


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

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

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

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

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

Current situation


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


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


The earliest use of the verb suffice recorded in the unrevised OED (1915) entry is from 1325:

The OED‘s first example of an impersonal use is from the Wycliffite version of the Bible:

He cam the thridde tyme, and seith to hem, Slepe ȝe nowe, and reste ȝe; sothli it sufficith.

Mark xiv. 41

There is then a separate category 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 use is from the Middle English (1390) Confessio Amantis, showing an infinitive as the subject of the verb:

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) showing a similar infinitive construction.

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 on-the-fringes-of-Punk days with this little ditty, here it is:


No problemo! What kind of Spanish is that?


Is this a sham marriage?


Sure, baby. Is that a problemo?

Troy from The Simpsons uses problemo on its own, as a noun, but it’s usually part of “no problemo” – famously used in the Terminator movies by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Where does it come from?

Where does this little phrase come from? It’s been around since 1985 and I had thought it was now rather passé, but Google Ngrams and the Oxford Twitter corpus suggest it is still going strong.

Originally a creation of US English, it is now used in British English and elsewhere. It features in several dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

People use it broadly in two ways: to show that they are willing to do or can do what someone asks (“I can pick you up, no problemo.”), and, when being thanked for doing something, to say that it was “no trouble.”

But it also has other, often sarcastic, overtones.

Sometimes, it’s an exclamation: “Well of course ignorance of the law is no excuse but this is Hillary Clinton – so, no problemo!” gender_bender_hillary

At other times, it’s a kind of adverbial, as in this online restaurant review: “We had a lot of leftovers (SO not normal with Thai. I am a Thai addict and can polish off 6 entrees no problemo).”

Sometimes, it’s a noun: “In arguments on Arizona voting law, Scalia sees “’no problemo’ for state requirements“.

Is it Italian, Spanish, Esperanto, or what?

It’s a sort of spoof Spanish translation of the earlier (1955) English “no problem”, which has been Spanglishized by having an-o tacked on, to create a (reassuring or irritating, according to taste) little jingle.

Adding that little -o is part of a long tradition of creating cod Spanish nouns such as el creepo for a creep and El Smoggo or El Stinko as nicknames for El Paso, Texas.

To say that something was no trouble, i.e. “you’re welcome”, the traditional Spanish phrases are ¡De nada! (literally “of nothing”) and, rather more formally, ¡No hay de qué! (literally “there is not that for which [to thank me]”). People might also say ¡Un placer! or Es un placer. 


A very masculine problem

Now, if a Spanish noun ends in –o, it’s a reasonable assumption that it refers to something or someone “masculine”. A cynic might say that, since men create most of the world’s problems, it seems appropriate that the Spanish word for “problem” should be masculine. And in fact it is.

But there’s a problem: the real Spanish word is el problemA. The el shows you unambiguously that it’s got cojones, yet it ends in an –a. How come?

It is true that most Spanish nouns ending in –a are feminine. But not all of them. Common exceptions include:

    • el clima = the climate
    • un cura = a priest
    • un día = a day
    • el idioma (inglés) = the (English) language
    • el mapa = the map
    • un problema = a problem (and many other scientific or technical words ending in -ma, e.g. el plasma, el programa, el sistema)
    • el tema = the topic

There’s a kind of commonsensical yet false assumption that in Romance languages that have the –o /-a alternation (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish) any noun ending in –a must be feminine. It’s an easy mistake to make, and one I’ve made myself.

Recently arrived in Argentina, and with only embryonic Spanish, I earned extra money by giving private English lessons, mostly to ladies who lunched – and lunched rather splendidly, at that. A prospective student asked me over the phone how I was going to find my way to her house, I caused great amusement by saying that I would use *la mapa. It then became a kind of catchphrase that she could tease me with whenever I made a mistake in Spanish. Of course, I never made that particular blunder again.

English speakers, assuming that all nouns ending in –a are feminine, often sex-change the correct ¡BuenOs días! to *¡Buenas días!

Conversely, they sometimes say *¡Buenos tardes! and *¡Buenos noches! instead of ¡Buenas—.

Both la tarde and la noche are feminine.

Artists, athletes, and astronauts


Some other “masculine” nouns ending in –a denote a rather select group of professions: el artista, el atleta, el astronauta, el espía, el guía. Actually, these nouns are androgynous. You use exactly the same form for men and women, changing the “article” and other words relating to the noun as appropriate:

El famoso artista español Pablo Picasso / La famosa artista mexicana Frida Kahlo

Mata Hari es una de las espías más famosas de la historia.

In a quote that includes two of our masculine –a words, el artista Picasso wrote

“Todo niño es un artista. El problema es cómo seguir siendo artista cuando uno crece.”

(“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to carry on being an artist when you grow up.”)

Self-test 1

There is a mistake in the Spanish of this quotation from Selina Scott’s book about her life in Majorca, A Walk in the High Hills. Can you spot it?

“A woman is telling him how the greenery will enhance the village, but Sancho is having none of it. ‘Problemas, muchas problemas,’ he says, shaking his head.”

Self-test 2

Can you supply the correct missing ending in these phrases that use the words discussed above?

El artista antes conocid_ como Prince.

El clima económic_ actual no es muy favorable para la gente joven.

Hombres armados dispararon el miércoles a un cur_ italian_ , hiriéndolo de gravedad.

Era un día espléndid_ de fiesta y de luz.

actual = current
dispararon = shot
hiriéndolo = wounding him
la luz = light


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 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!


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 an English dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark“. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word in an English dictionary 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 denoting 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


The aardvark. First word in the dictionary? Or urban myth?

3-minute read


As this is my most often-visited blog page, I thought I’d re-issue it. It’s short and it doesn’t need updating. But the fascination this animal exerts on people’s minds seems universal and never-ending. 

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 an English dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark“. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word in an English dictionary 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 denoting 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.

If you’re enjoying this blog and finding it useful, why not get an alert every time 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 about issues of English usage, word histories, writing tips, and, occasionally, other languages. Enjoy!

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