Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

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When is a fair not a fair but a fête? Mainly in Ambridge.

(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Ambridge is a fictitious village, not the Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It is the setting for The Archers, the world’s longest-running soap, and a radio drama series that has been running since the year of my birth [don’t ask!] The people mentioned in this blog are characters in it.)

Recently, lexically inquisitive Lexi asked why the annual Ambridge extravaganza was billed as a fête not a fair. Her question revealed, as a tweetalonger put it, ‘Roy’s etymological deficit’. So, to help Roy’s courtship of this formidable woman (she holds an M.A. from Plovdiv, and is fruit-picking to help finance her doctorate at Sofia university), here’s a crib sheet. (Don’t ask what crib sheet has to do with Baby Jesus’s cradle, pretty please, Lexi!)

(This is also the kind of thing that Lynda might like to mug up on – surreptitiously, of course.)

Let’s start with fair, the older of the two words.

What does it mean, where does it come from, and how long has it been used in English?

What it means

Well, like so many English words it is affected by ‘polysemy’ That’s not a form of potato blight. It’s a sort of Lynda word for ‘many meanings.’ It affects all the most common words in English – e.g., ‘common’ doesn’t just mean ‘frequent’ it also means Tracy Horrobin, Matt, et al. (For teacher’s pets, here’s the pronunciation).

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comprehensively defines the original and core meaning of fair as: ‘A periodical gathering for the buying and selling of goods, at a place and time set out by charter, statute, or ancient custom, and often incorporating sideshows, competitions, and other entertainments.’

The first citation shown is from around 1300, and the next is from Piers Plowman: ‘Ich wente to þe Feire With mony maner marchaundise.’ [I went to the fair with many kinds of merchandise; note that spelling Feire].

The ‘Scarborough Fair’ of the famous ballad would have been of this kind, as would London’s huge and long-running Bartholomew Fair – around which Jonson based his homonymous play.

  1. Now, it wasn’t just the Tom Archers of this world who went to fairs to sell their (putrid) wares: just as in Ambridge, the less obsessive went for the gossip and the entertainment provided by the sideshows – in those halcyon days before ferret racing was ever dreamt of and fruit-picking was a purely domestic affair.

Out of those fripperies grew the sense of ‘funfair’. As the OED puts it: ‘Chiefly Brit. A gathering for entertainment at which rides, sideshows, and other amusements are set up, typically (but not always) on a temporary or periodical basis; the place at which such rides and amusements are set up.’

The OED says it’s often hard to separate that meaning from the first one, but their first example clearly refers to what we (and the recently totally silenced Henry – what ever happened to him? Has Rob eaten him?) understand by a fair:

1763   London Chron. 8 Jan. 1/3   ‘On Saturday the River Thames was frozen over so hard at Isleworth, that a fair was kept on it all day… There was a round-about for children to ride in, and all sorts of toys sold.

And then there’s Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow (1921): ‘Crome’s yearly Charity Fair had grown into a noisy thing of merry-go-rounds, cocoanut shies, and miscellaneous side shows—a real genuine fair on the grand scale.’

3.  Related to meaning 1 is the sort of trade fair that could really be a step change for the village if Ambridge had its own one: ‘an exhibition, esp. one designed to publicize a particular product or the products of one industry, country, etc. Frequently with modifying word.’ The London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair are examples. Perhaps Tom Archer should think about setting up a fermented foods trade fair: KimchAm 2017 (Kimchi + Ambridge) has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I’m sure readers can supply something rather better.

4 Then, briefly, there’s the meaning sometimes Merrye-Englanded as fayre, such as a church fair, ‘an event at which homemade or second-hand goods are sold to raise money for charity, often incorporating competitions, displays, sideshows, etc.’

Now, just to confuse Lexi, the OED equates that  last meaning to fête. And the picture here shows a church event called ‘fair’. But the great and the good of Ambridge decided to call it a fête. Why? Perhaps it sounds jollier than ‘fair’ and avoids the vulgar connotations of commercial funfairs. Moreover, if you google village fete it gets many fewer hits than village fair, so Ambridge is not following majority language use. But then if you use quotation marks in your search, ‘village fete’ is the winner. Other than that, who knows? I think it would be best to ask the organizers.

Sorry, Lexi. English is a bit like that.

As Dickens put it, in the mouth of one of his characters: ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.’ (By ‘Strangers’ he meant ‘foreigners’.)

Where did the word come from?
Like tens of thousands of English words, from French feire (compare the 1390 quotation above.) Which in turn comes from late Latin feria, the singular of feriae, ‘holy days’ on which such fairs were often held. The Latin word has descendants in other Romance languages too: una feria in Spanish means ‘fair’ as in 2 and 3 above; un día feriado in Latin American Spanish is a public holiday; the Portuguese words for Monday-Friday all contain the word feira, e.g. Segunda-feira (Monday), literally ‘second fair’.


Is much more recent. In the unrevised OED entry, where it is defined as ‘A festival, an entertainment on a large scale’, it first appears in a quotation of 1754 from Horace Walpole’s letters i.e. ‘The great fête at St. Cloud’ and later in Thackeray’s 1848 Pendennis ‘The guests at my Lord So-and-so’s fête’.

The ‘village fête’ meaning goes back only to 1893, defined as ‘A bazaar-like function designed to raise money for some charitable purpose.’ The year after we find arch-aesthete Walter Pater offering ‘Sincere congratulations on the success of the Fête.’ Which makes one wonder, who will be writing to congratulate Ambridge?

Like fair, fête too comes from Latin via French: Old French feste (noun), from Latin festa, neuter plural of festus ‘joyous’. Spanish has the ‘same’ word as fiesta.

So, Lexi, there you have it. Not exactly in a nutshell, though. What does in a nutshell mean, you ask. You use it to tell people that you are about to say something in very few words, or briefly, usually when summing up an explanation or reason you have just given. Think of a hazelnut and its shell, and you’ll see you can’t fit many words in there. How would you say that in Bulgarian?

PS: It’s ok to write fete without its little hat, or circumflex accent, if you like, but I’m sure in Ambridge they would insist on it.


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.



“American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares

“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!”

Mark Twain said that as far back as 1897 (Following the Equator, Chapter XXIV). While many Brits continue to entertain the attitude typified (or satirized) by Max Beerbohm:

“He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford.”

Zuleika Dobson, 1911

all of us (i.e. English-speakers) use U.S.-coined words some – if not all – of the time.

Oscar Wilde’s quip “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” really does not apply to so very many words – though the differences between British and U.S. English as indefatigably explored by Lynne Murphy, are still legion.

Twentieth-century “new” words

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m having great fun looking at words that “came into the language” year by year from 1900 onwards, and tweeting one or two a day. To find them, I use “advanced search” in the OED specifying “headword” and a given year. Each year there are usually round 500 such words, and in some years rather more (e.g. 1900: 686), but very occasionally rather fewer (e.g. 1913: 451). [Note that very careful use of fewer, ;-)]

That search excludes words which [yes, oh Word grammar checker, it’s fine to use “which” in a defining clause] acquired new meanings in any year. So, what I end up with is a list of completely new “visitors” (in bird terms) to our language. For each year, I generally look at the first 100, ordered by frequency, and then select 20 or so according to criteria explained in the earlier blog.

Now, while doing this (at the time of writing, I had got up to 1915), I found myself wondering more and more insistently just how many emerged in British English and how many in U.S.English. I was expecting U.S. English to produce the greater number, but my little sample surprised even me.

A 50-word personal sample

I chose 20 words from 1909 and 30 from 1913, thus giving me a nice round figure of 50 to do easy percentages with. The OED lists a few of them as “Orig. U.S.” and variants on that theme. But I had a suspicion that more of them were U.S. than that labelling suggested. I decided to look at the written source which the OED had tracked down as the first record of the word: was it an American journal/newspaper/book, or a British one?

The totals are as follows: U.S. = 33; Brit = 16; other = 1

i.e. 66% of words are first cited in U.S. sources.

Some caveats are in order, of course.

First, several of the OED entries have not been revised for the third edition; different dates and sources may therefore be found.

Second, the fact that a word first appears in a U.S. source does not prove conclusively that it is an American coinage, though it does point strongly in that direction.

And, third, my sample is neither random, nor large enough to prove anything. But it is, to my mind, very suggestive, given that most of these words must surely be considered part of everyday language, rather than technical.

I also labelled the words with a subject field. “Modern life” is a bit of a cop-out, to avoid too many labels; “General language”, as you will see, includes several informal or (once) slangy terms.

“Bull” does not mean what you might think

Hopefully, the abbreviations in the list of sources are self-explanatory. “Bull.”, by the way, means “Bulletin”. Newspapers figure as the first citation for ten words; three appear first in dictionaries.

Finally, some of the first citations are piquant: Winston Churchill for seaplane, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street for lav, P.G. Wodehouse for fifty-fifty, and Arnold Bennett for turn-round. The relevant citations follow the table.

Words are in order of frequency as listed in the OED.  Finally, quite why piggy bank first appears in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette for March 1913 is anyone’s guess.

Headword Year Country Source Field
gene 1909 US Amer. Naturalist science
movies 1909 US Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican entertainment
cinema 1909 Brit Tragedy of the Pyramids entertainment
trade-off 1909 US St. Louis Post-Dispatch  business, economics
coke 1909 US Coca-Cola Bottler (Philadelphia)  modern life
air conditioning 1909 US  Useful Information Cotton Manufacturers modern life
exponentially 1909 US Cent. Dict. Suppl. science
libido 1909 US Freud Sel. Papers on Hysteria psychology
fuselage 1909 Brit Flight transport
empathic 1909 US Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes psychology
multi-party 1909 Brit Englishwoman politics
mindset 1909 US Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods psychology
rite of passage 1909 Brit Folk-Lore anthropology
neo-cortex 1909 Brit Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry psychology
counter-offensive 1909 Brit Daily Chronicle warfare
xenophobia 1909 Brit Athenæum politics
socialite 1909 US Oakland (Calif.) Tribune general language
scrounge 1909 US Webster’s New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. general language
gaffe Brit Pall Mall Gaz. general language
bakelite 1909 US Jrnl. Industr. & Engin. Chem. modern life
isotope 1913 Brit Nature science
close-up 1913


US Technique Photoplay entertainment
Salmonella 1913 Brit Pract. Bacteriol medicine
project management 1913


US Nevada State Jrnl business, economics
behaviourism 1913 US Psychol. Rev. psychology
superconductor 1913


Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad science
big picture 1913


US Titusville (Pa.) Herald  entertainment
comic strip 1913


US Altoona (Pa.) Mirror entertainment
streamlined 1913 Brit Aeroplane transport
not-for-profit 1913


US Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.  business, economics
talkie 1913 US Writer’s Bull.  entertainment
petrochemical 1913 US Chem. Abstr.  science
record player 1913


US Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune entertainment
seaplane 1913


Brit Hansard Commons  transport
turn-round 1913 Brit The Regent general language
stooge 1913 US Sat. Evening Post  general language
person-to-person 1913


US Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star general language
anti-freeze 1913


US Dict. Automobile Terms  transport
pre-eclampsia 1913 Brit Lancet medicine
fifty-fifty 1913 US Little Nugget general  language
once-over 1913 US N.Y. Evening Jrnl general language
lav 1913 Brit Sinister St general language
pep talk 1913


US Colorado Springs Gaz.  general language
intelligence quotient 1913 US Psychol. Bull. psychology
parsec 1913


Brit Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.  science
reflexology 1913 US Med. World  medicine
sexologist 1913 US Pract. Treat. Causes, Symptoms & Treatm. Sexual Impotence  medicine
admin 1913 US Trans. 15th Internat. Congr. Hygiene & Demography  general language
headcount 1913 US Motion-pict. Work  general language
piggy bank 1913 US Dietetic & Hygienic Gaz general language

seaplaneHansard Commons, 17 July – We have decided to call the naval hydroplane a seaplane, and the ordinary aeroplane or school machine, which we use in the Navy, simply a plane. (Churchill)

lav: Sinister St. I. vii. 99 – Tell the army to line up behind the lav. at four o’clock. (Mackenzie)

(lav is marked as “Chiefly Brit” and “colloq.” in the OED)

fifty-fiftyLittle Nugget vi. 121 – Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty in dis deal. (Wodehouse)

turn-round: The Regent x. 291 – She’s going to do the quickest turn-round that any ship ever did… She’ll leave at noon to-morrow.




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Where does the word television come from? Twentieth-century words: the first quinquennium.

A 1900 word that had to wait over 25 years to be instantiated. (Yup, that’s a word too — from 1949.)

A few days ago, I started a daily tweet with two, or occasionally three, words per year for every year of the twentieth century, starting in 1900. I tweet them with their first citation from the OED, which is the source I extracted them from/from which I extracted them [strike through according to taste].

I can hardly claim that this is a unique or novel approach, but it is fun and illuminating in several different ways. You never know what you will find until you find it, if you see what I mean. A bit like online dating — or so they tell me — but without the risk.

What I will do here is list the pairs or triplets of words selected for 1900-1904; provide more information about one of them, namely the gogglebox; and mention others that I didn’t tweet about.

(The full list of my entirely subjective selection is at the end.)

Selecting according to how often the words are used

For any given year, the OED records hundreds of “new words”. For instance, for 1900 there are 686. (That is, extracting “headwords”, rather than “lemmas” or “meanings”.)

How to choose?

They come ordered alphabetically – Hello! The OED is a dictionary — which means that the first one for 1900 is abiologic = abiological – hardly a vocable to set this word buff’s pulses racing.

I had to find a quick and dirty way of identifying potentially interesting ones. The OED rescued me: it helpfully indicates how often a word is used nowadays by means of a series of eight frequency bands, full details of which you can see here.
Sorting words for 1900 by current frequency banishes the worthy but boring abiologic and enthrones…television.

“What!” I hear you say. “TV hadn’t been invented back then.” Correct, it hadn’t. But something/someone does not necessarily have to exist just because there is a word or phrase for them (think unicorns, phlogiston, Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Philosopher’s Stone, basilisks, Aphrodite, mirages, and, probably, God, to name just a few).

Smog: first named and shamed in 1905. The Big Apple looking very mysterious and Whistlerian.

Reality imitates language

The divine Oscar paradoxed that “Life imitates art more than Art imitates life.”

It is similarly true that Reality sometimes imitates, or at least catches up with, Language, particularly the language of science and science fiction. H.G. Wells’s coined atomic bomb in 1914, decades before it became reality. Television also nicely illustrates this same phenomenon.

The first 1900 citation speculates excitedly and futuristically. It is from the June issue of The Century Magazine, an illustrated monthly US publication started in 1881 that lasted nearly half a century. The second is from The Electrician, which, no, is not yer average sparky, but an august and earnest London publication billed by Wikipedia as “the earliest and foremost electrical engineering and scientific journal”, and published for nigh on a hundred years.

Through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face.


(One day it will finally dawn on inveterate texting addicts that you can actually SPEAK face to face on a mobie)

At the afternoon sitting on Friday, M. C. Perskyi read a communication on ‘Television’, describing a number of apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium.
31 Sept. 822/2

The OED revised (3rd edn) definition for television goes as follows: “A system used for transmitting and viewing images and (typically) sound; the action of transmitting and viewing images using such a system (now rare). In later use: esp. such a system used for the organized broadcast of professionally produced shows and programmes.”

The Electrician citation presumably refers to “the action of …” mentioned in that definition.

Yes, but what about how the word was coined?

As the OED puts it, “Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: tele comb. form, vision n.”

That “combining form” tele– is probably otherwise best known from telephone, and is from Classical Greek τηλε-, meaning “far”. Television, therefore, could be interpreted as “far seeing”, (which is how German deals with it in Fernsehen). French had an influence: according to the OED, some of the earliest tele– words were created in French, and, it seems, that what Mr Perskyi had in mind in his “communication” noted above was the Gallic télévision.

“Meanwhile”, Modern Greek calques, possibly English, by repossessing the Classical τηλε- element and adding to it the word for “vision, sight”, όραση, to produce τηλeόραση [tī-le-O-ra-sī].

Why did I choose the words?

Having sorted by frequency, I then looked at the first 100 or so for each year. Thereafter, it was whim, dear lady, pure whim. Yeah, no, seriously, my criteria were:
• Does the word have some currency or resonance now? (single currency, racism)
• Did it historically? (suffragette)
• Has it some cultural heritage/baggage/clout/oomph, etc? [“Cultural” in its widest sense] (Dubliner, psychoanalysis)
• Is it so much part of everyday language that it might be difficult to conceive of its ever having been “invented”? (trivia, hormone)
• Was it a (major) discovery/invention? (radio, escalator, chemotherapy)
• Wow! Was it really coined that long ago? (re-evaluate, packaged, Ms., sportswear, eatery)
• Wow! You mean it didn’t exist before! No way! (Dubliner again)
• Did sex come into it? [I’m only human – allegedly – after all.] (voyeur, Tantric)
• Was/is it slangy?


This stands for “airport”. I’m old enough for TWA to mean something, a bit like BOAC. Both “initialisms”, technically, btw.

Come to think of it, those are post hoc justifications [NB: Latin phrases never hyphenated] , and “whim” is about right. My method is evolving as I go along, while the number of words I list per year before selecting my lucky pair (emboldened below) also varies. For what they’re worth, here are my shortlists.

A couple of words of caution. First word: these earliest citations sometimes refer to a meaning that is not the main current meaning. Second word: some of these entries have not been revised by the OED. It is therefore possible that, when they finally are, an earlier “first date” might be found.

single currency
come-hither look
Bramley apple

• noble gas
• chink (i.e. Chinese)

• suitcase
• paranoid
• audio-visual
• limousine
number two(s)
• skoda
• terrazzo

• basically
• radio
• clone
• landfill
man on the Clapham omnibus
• to neuter
• sportswear
• Pepsi-Cola
• fandom

Could this be the elusive “Man on the Clapham omnibus”. To me, he looks more like a toff from a first-class train, but never judge a book, etc. I can remember my father wearing a bowler hat to work (and some clothes, as well).

comic book
• back-track
• meaningfulness
• chiropractor
• preadolescent
• paedophile
• speedometer
• hip


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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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”?

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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.

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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!


Predominately or predominantly? Don’t be pretentious: predominantly predominates.

Radio One in the United Kingdom, in England, which is listened to by predominately younger kids and teens…

Transcript of spoken, ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation), 2015

Oh, geddawaywivyou! The word is “predominantly”.

Editing an academic article the other day, I came across “predominately”.

“Oh, dear! That’s an unfortunate typo”, thought I. Luckily, I decided to double-check.

Shockhorror! It isn’t a typo.

Of course, the spelling “predominately” exists. It exists and is valid in the sense that it is recorded in dictionaries and has a long history: it’s been around since 1594. So what? So has “adamantive”, but who nowadays uses that?

It is arguably invalid quite simply because, if you use it, most people will think it is a typing mistake.

And it is perfectly reasonable for them to think that, because it is the rather uncommon cousin of the much more frequent “predominantly”. That is the version that most people will have been exposed to over time.

If you look up “predominately” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, you will see from the comments that a good third of people consulting wanted to check if it is a “real” word.

The stats prove it. In the several language corpora I consulted, “predominantly” is between ten and seventeen times more often used than “predominately”.

What’s more, as Google Ngrams and other sources suggest, “predominately” is a) used in US writing more than in any other variety, and b) crops up mostly in academic and technical subject matter. And even in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American), it occurs a piffling three and a bit times per million words, compared to “predominantly’s” 22-plus times.


Even if people don’t think it is a mistake, the word will still draw their eye, which is probably not a good thing. And if it draws their eye, they may think it a deliberate – probably rather affected – stylistic choice. (“Oh, who’s a clever clogs then, using a word that nobody else uses!”)

A poll I posted on Twitter confirms the perception either that it is a mistake or that it is rather poncy. The choices and answers  were: is “predominately” a) a typo ( 65%); b) a ridiculous invention (0%); c) academically respectable (6%); and d) universally pretentious (29%)?

I am coolly objective about it in my edition of Fowler. Bryan Garner suggests that the adjective “predominate” used instead of “predominant” is a needless1 variant; I am now tempted to suggest that the same applies to “predominately”.

Some have tried to manufacture a factitious distinction between the two words, but lexicographers are having none of that. If you look it up in the OED, Collins, Macmillan and Merriam-Webster, you will find it cross-referred to predominantly.

The Oxford English Corpus shows that the two forms associate with the same words, e.g. composed predominantly/-ately of, occur predominantly/-ately in, etc.

Its use as a synonym below feels remarkably forced to me.


It should be allowed to die out, and few, I suspect, would regret its demise.

1“Needless variant” is pure lexicographerese, sanctified by usage. Why not “unnecessary”? “Needless” sounds somehow more crushingly final, I suppose. But otherwise, it only collocates with highly unpleasant things, such as death, loss, suffering, bloodshed, etc. Ah, so that’s why lexicographers associate it with variant: it’s like putting a collocational curse on that word. (Shades of negative semantic prosody, but we won’t go there.)


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.

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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”.

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What the word refers to …

In British English,  it refers exclusively to an item of underclothing for girls and women, defined 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.


Museo CarmenThyssen / CarmenThyssen Museum, Málaga. Mis seis cuadros preferidos / My six favourite paintings (1/3)

I’ve been blogging recently —  a bit in the abstract — about colour words in Spanish.

I’m just back from almost two weeks in Málaga and surroundings, where I experienced Spanish colours (and “Spanish colour”) less abstractly.

One of the highlights (puntos culminantes) for me was  a visit to the  CarmenThyssen Museum.


Housed in a completely remodelled sixteenth-century palacio1, the collection it contains consists chiefly of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish paintings (pinturas), particularly those painted by Andalusian artists or depicting Andalusian themes.

A personal eye-opener


A typically “Impressionist” Sorolla painting.

Previously, Sorolla was the only nineteenth-century Spanish painter I had been even vaguely familiar with, so the collection was a complete revelation to me. (OK, OK, I know, Goya [1746–1828]  lived well into the century, but it’s hard to think of him as “nineteenth-century”, other than in his visionary last period.) Even though (a pesar de que) many of the artists were active well into the twentieth century, all were born in the previous one.

The thematic and extremely educative way  in which the collection is arranged according to subject matter, from “Romantic landscape and ‘Costumbrismo‘” to “Fin-de-siècle“, makes it possible, on the one hand, to see how many of the stereotypes and clichés (tópicos)1 about Spain that for many people are still, in some sense, real and representative were created by visual artists who often had an eye on the incipient “tourist” market (mercado turístico); on the other hand, it also illustrates how artistic developments abroad — principally in France — often influenced Spanish artists, who, nevertheless, remain somehow unmistakably Spanish.

Many of the works displayed (obras expuestas1) struck me as being of exceptional quality, but the point of this blog — for I am hardly an Andrew Graham-Dixon or a Waldemar Januszczak — is purely to express my delight (deleite, el) in these gorgeous visual objects while adding my own two ha’p’orth. All six paintings are oil on canvas (óleo sobre lienzo).

The museum website (website, el, or sitio web) is very well laid out indeed: you can get an overview of the collection by going on different tours (recorridos), you can look at highlights (here obras destacadas, “highlighted works”), and you can search by artist. Moreover (además), each painting shown is presented with a detailed explanation (explicación detallada) or description, in Spanish and English.

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The Alamo (but not THAT U.S. Alamo)

Invierno en Andalucía (Bosque de álamos con rebaño en Alcalá de Guadaíra). [Winter in Andalusia; poplar wood with flock of sheep in…]

This painting is by Emilio Sánchez Perrier, who, so the catalogue (catálogo) tells me, lived (vivió)2 from 1855 to 1907, and was born (nació)2 in Seville but died (se murió)2, 3 in Granada — places which make him about as Andalusian as you can get.

However, he spent some time in Paris, where he studied under various French painters (pintores), and exhibited regularly. Although quite small in scale (45 x 31.9 cm, or 17.7″ x 12.6″), it has to my mind an almost jewel-like attention to detail that reminds me of (me recuerda) certain pre-Raphaelite works, while being arguably less dutifully literalistic. At the same time, when you see it in the flesh, as it were, it also has the feel of a watercolour (acuarela).

Perhaps it’s the wintry mutedness of the scene that appeals to me as a North European; certainly, its restricted palette, with those infinitesimal gradations of grey, silver and white tones (tonalidades grises, plateadas y blancas), is something anyone living in Scotland must perforce learn to understand and appreciate (valorar).

While trying to find an artistic parallel, Corot sprang to mind, for the quality of light; I therefore gave myself a smug little pat on the back when this biography, which is the most complete I can find on the “Interweb”, cited him as an influence.

“Typically” Spanish

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the nature idyll of the previous painting and the ur-Spanishness of this one, combining as it does so many stereotypical themes: a supposedly typical genre scene, Spanish light, white-painted buildings, grilles at windows, and Andalusian costume, horsemen, and dark-haired women. Yet it avoids banality through its great delicacy and detail of treatment and its daring and vigorous composition.

Cortejo español [Courting, Spanish style], 1883; José García Ramos, Seville, 1852–1912.

It’s worth lingering (detenerse) over such seemingly insignificant details such as the flower pots on the grille, the rider’s sash and his horse’s trappings, or the surface beneath his mount’s hooves, all of which work together to create a convincing realism that is utterly pictorial rather than photographic.

Compositionally, the dramatic diagonals of the roof (techo) and the path create depth (profundidad, la) while being immensely pleasing geometrically. Other key elements divide the surface (la superficie) of the canvas harmoniously and reinforce the illusion of space without being crassly obtrusive or dully academic. For example, at first sight, the boss on top of the street lamp appears to be equidistant from the edges of the canvas, but it isn’t; what occupies that exact position is the point where the left-hand bar of the lamp, sloping outwards, joins the lamp’s lid or roof. The exact midpoint of the painting’s vertical plane is occupied by … the barely perceived stretch of wall directly behind the three female passers-by. And so forth.

(Well, there I go, pontificating [sentando cátedra] as if I were an art critic. It makes a change from language, anyway!)

In short, the picture is ¡una delicia! I love it.

Learning points about the Spanish shown

1 Three examples of what are known as “false friends” (falsos amigos) between languages: words that look the same and are related in origin but mean different things, or have “additional” different meanings in one language that they don’t have in the other.

palacio – can translate a “palace”, such as Buck House, or Versailles (Versalles). However, it can also refer to a nobleman’s mansion, as in the case of  the Palacio de Villalón which houses the CarmenThyssen collection. Thus, el palacio de la duquesa de Alba en Sevilla is “the Duchess of Alba’s house in Seville” (which is, certainly, pretty bloody palatial).

un tópico – is not generally “a topic”, but “a cliché”. The most frequent words for “topic” are probably el tema or el asunto, but, as with all translation, only a complete context will suggest the most appropriate one, and there are several others.

exponer – can “mean” “to expose”, but in its transitive (rather than reflexive) use it more often translates as “to exhibit”; the derived noun una exposición is “an exhibition”.

2 nació, vivió, murió – these are all the él/ella form (“third person singular”) of the past tense of the  respective verbs, nacer, vivir, and morir.  They highlight the fact that the endings for the past tense of -er and -ir verbs are identical.

While the “stem” of nacer and vivir stays the same for all the past tense, morir is one of those awkward ones, like sentir (“to feel”) that changes its stem in the third person singular/plural of the past tense: morí, moriste, morimos, moristeis, but murió and murieron.

3 Both morir and morirse (i.e. “reflexive” in form) are widely used to talk about literal, physical dying, and it is very hard to define any difference. However, metaphorical and exaggerated meanings always use the “reflexive” form:
Por poco me muero cuando me lo contaron I nearly died when they told me.
Si me descubren me muero I’ll die if they find me out .
¡No se va a morir por llamar por teléfono alguna vez! It wouldn’t kill him to ring me some time!
¡Que me muera si miento! Cross my heart and hope to die!
Me muero de frío I’m freezing.
¡Me muero de hambre! I’m starving!
¡Me muero de sed! I’m dying of thirst!









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Museo Carmen Thyssen / Carmen Thyssen Museum, Málaga; my favourite paintings / mis cuadros predilectos (2/3)

I’ve been blogging recently —  a bit in the abstract — about colour words in Spanish.

Then I thought, “Hey, what about some real Spanish colour?”

I have to rely on the CarmenThyssen Museum in Málaga to provide that. As I said earlier, it gave me a sort of epiphany — a word and en experience not to be sneezed at.


The collection consists chiefly of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Spanish paintings (pinturas), particularly those painted by Andalusian artists or depicting Andalusian themes. There were dozens I could have wittered on about, but I’ve reduced my list to six. Here are/is the second pair.

But before we look at those, let’s at least acknowledge the woman who collected these extraordinary works: to give her her full title, María del Carmen Rosario Soledad Cervera y Fernández de la Guerra, Dowager Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon et Impérfalva. Her Christian names (I use the term advisedly) go up to Soledad; after that, in accordance with Spanish naming practice, Cervera is her father’s surname and Fernández de la Guerra her mother’s. She is the widow (viuda) of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza, whose fabulous art collection was ceded to the Spanish state (el estado1 español) as the Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid, and a major collector (coleccionista) in her own right.

An atypical (?) Sorolla


Vendiendo melones – Selling melons, 1890. Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1927).

This reproduction really can’t do the picture justice. For a start, the colours aren’t as distinct and glowing as they are in the original. Seeing the original (el original), what really stood out for me was the vibrant  red (rojo), animating an otherwise understated palette, and leading the eye from the waistcoat (chaleco) of the man perching tautly on the wall on the left across the basket of melons — the ostensible subject of the painting — through the red of the shawl draped across the seller’s knees and the red of the shawl of the standing figure behind him.

There’s a lot of detail – such as the ducks (patos) in the pond on the left, or the tiles (azulejos) beneath the grille in front of the window, but they don’t detract from the elegant sinuousness of the overall composition.

This was painted in 1890, shortly after Sorolla’s return (regreso) from Italy and before his style developed that particular kind of luminous impressionism with which he is more normally associated.

Five years earlier, but light years away…



Salida del baile de máscaras – Leaving the masked ball, c. 1885; Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920)

What links this painting and the Sorolla is light (luz, la), which is what also distinguishes them, namely, in the contrast (el contraste) between the warm daylight of the Sorolla and the brilliantly realised harsh gaslight of this night scene.

Silhouetted against the garishly lit vestibule of the dance hall, a couple of figures suggest a narrative: the gentleman is asking the girl to join him in the carriage he is pointing to. Where are they going? Do they know each other well, or have they only just met?

Despite this potential narrative interest, the main subject of the painting really seems to be its virtuosic handling of the dark shades of night: most of the canvas is in gradations of brown (marrón), grey (gris), and black (negro).

Here we are in Paris, the urban society par excellence, in marked contrast to Sorolla’s evocation of a “typically” Spanish country scene. The son and grandson of renowned Spanish painters, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta achieved great succes (éxito) in France, where he lived for much of his life.


Learn more

1 Several Spanish words starting with est– are cognates of English words starting with the letters st-; estado (“state”) is one of those. Others are estructura, estable, estación. Being aware of this will help you “decode” from Spanish into English.

The same often holds true of esp– words, e.g. especular, especial, and esc– ones, e.g. escultura.

However, those correspondences do not mean that all sc/t/p– words in English convert automatically into Spanish versions with an e- added, nor vice versa.




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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Keep/stay abreast of” or “keep/stay abreast with”? (1/2)


For my sins, one of the things I do is “quality-check” the work of other editors. I do this for an organization that pays editors to copy-edit academic papers written by non-native speakers.

(I also copy-edit such papers myself, which is often extremely interesting as it opens up whole new worlds never dreamt of in my philosophy, from Game Theory applied to the Torah to assessing the quality of new housing for flood victims in the Philippines.)

Actually, I say “for my sins”, but mostly it is really rather enjoyable: the editors generally do an excellent job, and I only have to make a minimum of changes.

If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad

“I get paid by the word.”

That phrase is attributed, I believe, to an OUP editor. In my quality-checking role I have to take them seriously: of my sanity, only my friends and family can give you an unbiased opinion.

Two recurring issues in what I check are hyphenation and defining vs non-defining relative clauses. On the first, editors often leave out essential hyphens, e.g. “low-level” as a compound attributive adjective. With relative clauses, they often leave out the comma before a non-defining clause, an omission which often changes the meaning significantly.

'I'll agree to a fifty-fifty split, but I get the hyphen.'

‘I’ll agree to a fifty-fifty split, but I get the hyphen.’

One of the other things that editing papers by non-mother tongue (now, should there be a hyphen between “mother” and “tongue”? Opinions differ) speakers is that it tests my English to the limit, if not to destruction.

Sometimes it’s quite clear to me how I should reword; at others, I’m unsure either of whether my native-speaker intuition is going a bit wonky, or of whether I’m being unnecessarily picky. But then, as a lexicographer and translator by training, I’m preternaturally sensitive to the aura of individual words (how pretentious is that phrase?).

Usually, it’s not a question of grammar in the sense of basic word order (though placement of adverbial phrases can be an issue), verb agreement, or use of tenses (though that is a problem for speakers of some languages). Much more often difficulties arise either a) because a word with the wrong connotations is used, or b) because there is an incongruous combinations of words, a pairing that on the surface is as unlikely as Charles and Diana.

It’s all Dutch to me

When I come across a), I sometimes wonder whether the author has used either a not very good dictionary or a thesaurus. However, that cannot be true of one particular author, a Dutch academic – and very few nations are as good at English as the Dutch.


When they wrote “…were subject to the composer’s artistic ambition, and never on the receiving end of his gifts and affection” it is probably clear to most people what is wrong: you are usually “on the receiving end” of something unpleasant, so there is an obvious linguistic dissonance here, unless the intention was ironic, which is not what the surrounding context suggested.

The phrase has what is known in some circles as a “negative semantic prosody”. In confirmation of that, the Oxford online dictionary defines it thus:

to be the (unfortunate) recipient of some action, event, etc.; to be subjected to something unpleasant.

When the author wrote “In other words, both narratives testify to the common disposition to either sentimentalize or ridicule creativity…”, it was the word disposition that caught my eye. However, this is not such a cut-and-dried case.

It is perfectly correct in that it is a synonym for “tendency, inclination”, so what was wrong with it? I replaced it with tendency without second thoughts. You could say that was unnecessary, but I would maintain that in the interests of idiomatic English it was at least desirable.

Man proposes, God disposes


Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting of the same title, commemorating the disastrous 1845 expedition to explore the Northwest passage in which all crew members died.

Now, coming back to it, it strikes me that it does not work for several reasons.


First, the key difference is that semantically disposition seems usually to be something individual rather than collective.

The handful of examples in the online Oxford Dictionary tend to confirm its being an individual property:

the Prime Minister has shown a disposition to alter policies

the judge’s disposition to clemency

Subsequent lapses in devotion or attitude do not alter God’s disposition to save the individual.

True, the terms of entry were not clearly canvassed, but we may assume a clear disposition to favour New Zealand entry.

Religious reawakening was needed to strengthen people’s innate disposition to distinguish right from wrong.

  • The actors in the first three examples, dear old God included, are single individuals.
  • In the fourth, the actor is not specified, but we can assume that they were either a country or an institution viewed as an “honorary” person.
  • In the fifth example, the actor is a singular noun  with a collective meaning.

There is also something else to do with the meaning which I can’t exactly define, but it’s along the lines of a disposition being something psychologically inherent, possibly innate. That idea is supported by the type of discourse in which the word typically occurs.


From its usually being a property of individuals it follows that a disposition is unlikely to be “common”, as in the quotation by the Dutch academic.

In fact, in the corpus I consulted (the Oxford English Corpus, OEC), the collocation “common disposition” occurs only three times. One of them is in a quotation from  a translation of On The Duty of Man and Citizen According to the Natural Law (1673) by Samuel von Pufendorf, a German Enlightenment philosopher:

…so if we have examined the common disposition of men and their condition, it will be readily apparent upon what laws their welfare depends.

Book 1, Cap. 3, 1

That quotation has the weightiness of political philosophy. In the OEC, well over 60 per cent of the citations for disposition followed by an infinitive were from the Philosophy domain. Another 30 per cent were from Science or the Social Sciences. The preponderance of those contexts for the word provides another post hoc explanation of my decision.

So much for nuances of meaning. But what about odd collocations?

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

In a paper I edited recently I was struck by the phrase “to keep abreast with…” With? My reaction was (Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed), as Private Eye would put it.

It’s abreast of, isn’t it? Pondering whether to change “with” to “of”, I had to be sure and checked in my corpus. You could ov knockt me down with a feather when I discovered that abreast of  in the relevant meaning cropped up only 7 times, but abreast with well over 100 times. I started to investigate further. While other corpora showed that the ratio above was far from representative, they also showed that there seem to be major regional differences in the use of the two collocations. This is something I will explore in the next blog.

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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!

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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 rain in Spain stays mainly on the … ; What does it mean? La llluvia en Sevilla es una maravilla


Everyone knows the saying “the rain in Spain…”, but where does it come from and what does it mean?

Let’s get one thing straight, first: the exact original wording of this phrase that has taken root so strongly in English. Is it:

I had always assumed that it came from the 1964 film of the musical My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison (or “Sexy Rexy”, as my mother and other devoted fans used to call him).

Pygmailon: 1938 Poster.

Pygmailon: 1938 Poster.

It is, it seems, several decades older: it first appeared in the 1938 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. That play was notorious for the phrase “Not bloody likely”, the first use of the b***** word on the British stage (how times have changed!), and the film retained it, thereby becoming the first film in which it appeared. The film spawned a stage play (1956) which begat My Fair Lady (1964).

It has, of course, no connection with the realities of Spanish hydrology. Instead, it is an elocution exercise – one that even today some pronunciation Nazis might approve of. Being a nineteenth-century cockney, Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of both play and musical, habitually made rain sound like the river Rhine, and thus, by not using the standard or prestige pronunciation, immediately identified herself as socially suspect. “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” was the remedial drill imposed on her by her mentor, Professor Higgins – or, as she would call him, ’Iggins.

Generally misquoted

It’s interesting that most people in the small sample I’ve got from the poll on this blog, and from Twitter, think of the phrase as “The rain in Spanish falls mainly on the plain.” The change is logical. What does rain generally do? It falls. And where does it fall? On (or onto) something. The changes to the original show speakers amending it to fit their knowledge of English. In that way, they are rather like eggcorns.

The results for the poll above, as of 18 October, 2016, are:

…falls mainly on the plain 47%
…stays mainly in the plain 28%
…falls mainly on the plane (!) 14%
…stays mainly on the plain 11%

This earwormy phrase has been translated into languages as disparate as Estonian, Icelandic, and Farsi, and many others besides. Translating the English word for word into another language has scant chance of producing anything remotely catchy, so each language makes use of its own rhythmic and rhyming resources.


Thus, the Danish version translates back into English as “A snail on the road is a sign of rain in Spain”, the Italian as “The frog in Spain croaks in the country”, while the Portuguese completely removes any mention of Spain: “Behind the train, the troops come trotting.” 1. (Even from the English, you can see that words beginning with tr are what holds it together.)

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Spanish has played with it in at least three versions, two of which include the word for “rain”. What is it?

1 “La lluvia en Sevilla es una pura maravilla.”

2 “El juez jugó en Jerez al ajedrez.”

3 “La lluvia en España bellos valles baña.”

A rainy winter's day in Seville. (c) Mike Randolph

A rainy winter’s day in Seville. (c) Mike Randolph

Versions 1 and 3, rhyme, as you’ll hear if you say them out loud. They also contain the double ll, which is nowadays generally pronounced similarly to the English y of yes, or, in some parts of Latin America, a bit like the j of judge.

So, rewriting the words with double ll in 1) to show their pronunciation gives us something very approximately like yoovia, seviya, and maraviya.

Verson 2 is a bit of a tongue-twister (un trabalenguas) for those whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish. It translates as “The judge played chess in Jerez”, Jerez being, incidentally, the city that gave English the word sherry.

Version 3 (“The rain in Spain bathes beautiful valleys”) includes the word bello. Unlike its Italian cousin bello, which is commonly used in everyday language, Spanish bello is rather more refined and literary. The everyday words to say that something is beautiful are hermoso or precioso, or lindo, in Latin Ameri ca. 

La lluvia en Sevilla es una pura maravilla” has become so well known in Spanish, that people often think it originated in Spanish. Apparently, it is often simplified by leaving out the adjective pura, to give two lines of equal length (7 syllables), corresponding to the Spanish verse form known as copla: La lluvia en Sevilla | Es una maravilla. The Seville edition of the national newspaper ABC even gives the full history of the word

Here’s the dubbed (doblado) into Spanish version of the original English film. It uses the “La lluvia en Sevilla es una pura maravilla” version. If you’d like to test your comprehension, the diction is perfect. The original English-language version is at the end of the blog.


So, where does the real rain in Spain fall? As Andrew Eames memorably put it: “The rain in Spain doesn’t really fall upon the plain at all; on the contrary, it favours the country’s rocky, steep northwestern corner, where Iberia headbutts the Atlantic. Galicia, in fact.”2

1Dansk: En snegl på vejen er tegn på regn i Spanien

italiano La rana in Spagna gracida in campagna

português Atrás do trem as tropas vêm trotando

2Something Different for the Weekend, p. 143: Bradt Travel Guides, Chalfont St Peter, England.


Lording it over – or lauding it? All glory, laud, and honour … Commonly confused words (29-30)


(29 & 30 of 30 commonly confused words)

Quick takeaways

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

You should be lorded because…

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

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

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

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

Inevitably, this set me wondering whether this was a complete one-off, or a more widespread homophone eggcorn. It gets only a passing mention in the main online eggcorn database, so I decided to do a bit of my own linguistic gumshoeing.

Remind us. What’s an eggcorn, again?

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

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

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

Why this eggcorn makes sense

The OED definition misses out a crucial feature of eggcorns: they are not arbitrary or random (in the older sense of that word). The change has to be semantically and grammatically justified — at least in the mind of the eggcorner. So, to take “lorded” being used instead of “lauded”, as in the quoted example:  a) the verb to lord exists as part of the phrasal verb to lord it over and is probably part of most people’s vocabulary, so it is a spelling waiting to be appropriated for the “laud” meaning; b) if you use lord as a transitive verb, presumably you are “making someone a lord”, i.e. you are putting them in an exalted position, so that makes sense semantically, and explains the eggcorn. But, was it a hapax? The answer is no.

If you are enjoying this blog, and finding it useful or interesting, 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 semi-(ir)regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

I like being lauded. Who doesn’t?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t laud it over me!

A demagogue attempting to "laud" it over a crowd, but not seeming to have much success.

A demagogue attempting to “laud” it over a crowd, but not seeming to have much success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(On the eggcorns forum, a wag has suggested that “perhaps the person ‘lauding it over’ me is singing his own praises so loudly that he can’t hear me?”)

All glory, Lord, and honour

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Damp Squid

I’m relieved to know I’m not a “racist OED lapdog.” A splendid review of my little “Damp Squid.”


Daniel Cassidy did no original research at all. His idea of research was to abstract information from dictionaries, then sneer at the people who had done the work for him. His main targets were the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, who he misrepresented as a clique of WASP bigots. Cassidy called these bastions of the linguistic establishment ‘the dictionary dudes’. In reality, of course, there is more of an implied criticism of the main dictionary-makers in the Irish language in Cassidy’s work, as none of Cassidy’s insane phrases like pá lae sámh and béal ónna are mentioned in any of the Irish dictionaries. It is also interesting that when Cassidy was confronted with a real Irish person who knew some Irish and could clearly see that Cassidy knew nothing about the subject, Cassidy was quite happy to hide behind the authority of the OED. This happened in an RTÉ radio…

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Like lemmings to the slaughter? Like lemmings to the sea? A Norwegian word in English.

One of the curiosities of English is why this diminutive creature has become a byword for impulsive herdlike behaviour, even mass hysteria. These appealing northern rodents are the victims of a bad press—or at least a very inaccurate one.

A computer game and a TVad

For many people the word will bring to mind an unstoppably addictive computer game created in 1991. Lemmings’ supposed suicidal urges were also the inspiration for a 1985 TV advertisement launching Apple Macintosh’s Office. Suited businesspeople were shown walking blindfolded and in single file up to a cliff edge, from which they hurled themselves into the abyss, until the last in the line took off his blindfold to the voiceover, “You can look into it. Or you can go on with business as usual.”

A potent urban myth

That lemmings deliberately self-destruct en masse is a complete myth, but one that has a powerful hold on the popular imagination. It is one of those many mistaken things that we all “know” (in the same way that we “know” that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow). And it is a myth firmly embedded in English as a way of symbolizing people who unthinkingly follow what the crowd are doing, often with dangerous, if not downright fatal, consequences.

Where did the myth originate?

A compelling sequence from a 1958 Walt Disney short nature film entitled White Wilderness has  a lot to do with it. It purported to show wave after wave of lemmings plummeting over precipitous cliffs into the Arctic Ocean. Accompanied by portentous commentary and melodramatic music, that film helped sear the idea of rodents with a death wish into the public’s consciousness. It was, however, a cruel fake. Clever camera angles and good editing made it look real, but the (actually rather few) lemmings were cascading into a river, not into the sea, and they were, it seems, being launched from a rotating turntable. If you watch that footage—which now looks very much of its era—you will understand how the use of  lemmings as a powerful metaphor for unthinking, self-destructive mass behaviour took off.

“The science bit”

Lemming describes twenty species subdivided into six genera and belonging to the same superfamily as rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters. They are widespread in the cooler north of Eurasia and North America and range from three to six inches in length. Far from succumbing to suicidal groupthink, these creatures live solitary, hermitic lives, only associating with others, as they must, for mating purposes. Unlike other rodents, which have inconspicuous coats, their pelts are variegated. They are also aggressive towards predators. The Norwegian lemming, Lemmus lemmus, travels considerable distances in its migrations.

Populations fluctuate wildly

Lemming populations fluctuate wildly for reasons not fully understood, and when population density reaches a critical level, they migrate collectively. Since they can swim, they may attempt to cross stretches of water that are beyond their abilities and consequently drown.

History of a simile

The OED gives the first example of the metaphorical use from a 1959 book (“Home-going office workers…potent in mass as a lemming migration“), but Google Ngrams throws up an example from the 1930s: “…logicians fling themselves headlong in hordes, like lemmings; and suicidally discuss the import of ‘propositions’ such as ‘The King of Utopia died last Sunday…,” from The Principles of Art by the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood.

On a more pedestrian level, but more dramatically, Life of 5 January 1942 reported that “Men and Women are swarming out of the Navy Building, the War Department, Labor, Interior, Commerce, not with the orderliness of ants but like lemmings swarming blindly toward the Baltic.”

These examples predate the Disney film and suggest that the myth was current well before the film appeared.

How the simile works

Typically, an explicit comparison is made using the preposition like. Tendentiously, as in:

At present, all countries of the world are marching like lemmings over the philosophical precipice to collectivism.

Financial Sense Online, Editorials 2005.

Or slightly naughtily, as in:

…the run of articles about how being tall and good looking and banging Playmates who line up like lemmings ready to fall over his penis made Michael Bay…

The Hot Button, 2002.

In the first the reference to cliffs is explicit, in the second it is punningly implicit. In a minority of examples with like, the word cliff actually appears in the context:

Sky One’s audience has been deserting it, disappearing like lemmings over a cliff, according to Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks.

Sunday Times, 19 September 2004.

The set phrase “like lemmings to the sea” seems to have emerged in the 1950s. The first Ngrams example I can find is from 1952:

He walked from Grand Central to Eighth Street, kids hitting New York go downtown like lemmings to the sea, and he was a confirmed New Yorker by Thirty-fourth.

The Time and the Place, (a novel), Robert Paul Smith, 1952.

The comparison is also lexicalized in the adjective lemming-like:

After the Diana nonsense, when complete strangers lemming-like threw themselves into publicity-driven grief, through Charles and Camilla’s redemption, we are now spoon-fed the William and Kate Show.

Daily Telegraph, 2012, quoting MSP Christine Grahame.

Like lemmings to the slaughter

As I was writing this, I wondered, “Has anyone changed ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ to ‘like lemmings to the slaughter’”. And, sure enough, they have, but the phrase is not terribly common. A google for those exact phrases throws up under 3,000 for the rodent one, but over 650,000 for the ovine one. The one with lemmings seems slightly odd, since they are not exactly slaughtered by another agent, but it’s an interesting example of a blend of two phrases. Pedants might consider it a sort of malapropism (or it might be a sort of phrasal eggcorn). However, the examples seem to suggest that it is different from “lambs to the slaughter”. Whereas the latter emphasizes that the victims go meekly into a situation of whose dangers they are unaware, the lemmings simile foregrounds the idea of people blindly rushing to do something foolish or dangerous.

In one example it’s the heading to a blog (spamdalot) that continues as shown: “Like Lemmings To The Slaughter. One thing I’ve noticed about Portland is that the pedestrians here have a deathwish…“. In another it’s also a heading, this time in a post on an investment website (Stanford Brown): “Like lemmings to the slaughter………at our April Insight we highlighted that individuals make such poor investors principally because of our insatiable appetite to buy high and sell low. The exact same pattern is happening again“.

Not the only myth

But the suicide myth is not the only one that has attached to lemmings. For a long time they were thought to fall from the sky. In 1555 the Swedish Catholic cleric Olaus Magnus, then exiled in Rome, published in Latin his History of the Northern Peoples (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus), detailing Swedish history and customs.

About lemmings he wrote: “Quod…in Noruegia…euenit, scilicet vt bestiolæ quadrupedes, Lemmar, vel Lemmus dictæ, magnitudine soricis, pelle varia, per tempestates & repentinos imbres è cœlo decidant“.
(Translation) “Which…happens in Norway, namely that little four-footed creatures, called Lemmar or Lemmus, of the size of shrewmice, with variegated hide, fall from the sky through storms and sudden showers.”

This account was repeated almost verbatim at the word’s first appearance in English, in The historie of four-footed beastes, by Edward Topsell, who was, it seems, much given to plagiarism:

There are certaine little Foure-footed-beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes.

So, where does the word come from?

The word lemming is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, borrowed straight from Norwegian, and has not been modified in English. Swedish and Lapp have similar words — lemmel and luomek — and it is possible that the word is related to words meaning “to bark”, such as Latin lātrāre and Lithuanian lōti. Certainly, when they are angry one of the noises they make sounds not dissimilar to the bark of a small dog.

Other Norwegian loanwords

Lemming is not the most common word English has borrowed from Norwegian. Leaving aside the obvious fjord, that honour must surely go to ski, first recorded as a noun in 1755, and as a verb only as late as 1893.

It is interesting that in Norwegian the sk is pronounced sh, the pronunciation reflected in Italian sciare. It was also the English pronunciation Fowler recommended in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Norwegian has also given the skiing world the term slalom, the downhill race, from slalåm, (from sla sloping + låm track).

The Kraken Wakes

The lemming myth mixes fact and fiction, but another Norwegian loanword (1775) plunges us into the world of entirely mythical and terrifying sea creatures: the kraken. This creature was reputedly so enormous that when it dived it created a whirlpool big enough to engulf even the largest ship. Its most famous English incarnation is probably in the title of the 1953 sci-fi novel The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham.

It also found its place in 19th century poetry in a sonnet by Tennyson that is somewhat unusual in having fifteen lines rather than the normal fourteen.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.


Finally, those who in Scotland are bitten by vicious clegs (i.e. horseflies) will be gratified to know that they have been wounded by an Old Norse beast, kleggi, or klegg in Modern Norwegian.


National Grammar Day 2016: Things 7 need about know to you grammar

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

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

What are we supposed to be celebrating?

Before you decide to run into the street dressed as a proper noun or a particularly colourful phrasal verb (like “veg out”?) or construct grandiose, hugely baroque Dickensian periods for your blog, let’s consider exactly what different groups of people mean by the word “grammar”.

The people who get most animated about National Grammar Day usually think “grammar” is going to the dogs.

What do people mean by “grammar”? What do you mean?

There is a lot of misunderstanding (and occasional antagonism) between people who describe language as it is (i.e. “descriptive” people, especially linguists) and members of the general public who dislike a specific feature of language (e.g. so-called split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition).

Some of that misunderstanding is, in my view, simply due to a radically different interpretation of the word “grammar”. Linguists follow a definition that runs something like this:

“The whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.”

Everyone else follows one that, I suggest, goes something like this:

“A set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.”

Interpreted in that way, the word becomes little more than a ragbag into which people can stuff any and every use of language which they object to (or should that be “to which they object”?).

In its technical sense, “grammar” often narrows down to the rules governing how you combine words to make meaningful sentences, the inflections of words (e.g. is the past tense of dive dived or dove?, is the plural of consortium consortia or consortiums?), how verbs behave, what adverbials are, and the like, as illustrated in the graphic above.

You will not find the writers of such eminently readable and practical tomes as the Collins Cobuild English Grammar sneering at someone’s spelling mistake and calling it a “grammatical” error.

The linguistic and technical definition of “grammar”, in fact, excludes most of the things that raise people’s blood pressure.

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

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

Things 7 need about know to you grammar

  1. You already know enough grammar [i.e. syntax] to untangle that heading. Congratulations!
  2. Feeling that words ending in -ize are taking over the language, or objecting to “verbing” nouns is not “grammar”. Looked at charitably, it is a stylistic choice; uncharitably, it is paranoid prejudice.
  3. Mispelling [sic] a word is not “grammer” [sic]. It is a spelling mistake, which might — or might not — reflect someone’s generally not good spelling. But which of us doesn’t make a spelling mistake from time to time, or have to look up how a word is spelled.
  4. If someone from Yorkshire says “it were”, or someone from anywhere says “I done”, it is not “bad grammar.” It is “non-standard”, but that’s not the same thing.
  5. New words and phrases are neither good nor bad. You can like them or loathe them, but they have nothing to do with “grammar”.
  6. When someone interprets nonplussed to mean “not fussed or bothered”, that too has nothing to do with “grammar”. It is an example of a word being reinterpreted by some speakers, and thus changing its meaning.
  7. If someone pronounces a word in a way you dislike, you dislike it, that’s all. Again, “grammar” doesn’t come into it.

Prescriptive grammar

This broad and non-technical interpretation of “grammar” as being about what people should and shouldn’t do has  developed over centuries for many reasons, including as a way of marking social and group identity; of separating in-groups from out-groups.

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

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

from the Australian novelist “Ralph Boldrewood’s” (real name Thomas Alexander Browne) 1892 Nevermore, . ii. 41.

But, as Terry Eagleton says:

“Dropping your aitches in Knightsbridge probably counts as a deviation, whereas it is normative in parts of Lancashire.”

How to Read a Poem, 2007.



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

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

A healthful diet is good for you

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


Health-giving turnips offering themselves invitingly to the discerning palate.

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

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

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

The sage of Walden Pond

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

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

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

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




Whereas or where as? One word or two? Commonly confused words (27-28)



(27 & 28 of 30 commonly confused words)

Where as???

A while ago, when reading The Times, I was struck by this sentence: “He was apolitical. He [sc. Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi PM] never mentioned Iraq where as some students were vociferous.” Aug 16, 2014.

I blogged about it at the time. Since then, that page has become one of the most visited, so I thought I’d update it.

Is it correct to write whereas as two words nowadays?

Short (and long) answer: no.

It had never occurred to me that whereas might be written as two words.

Of course, it could easily be, since it is a simple combination of where and as.

Several “words” are sometimes written as one unit and sometimes as two, for example under way and underway, any more and anymore, and so forth. Sometimes whether you write them one way or the other is simply a matter of house style or regional or personal preference; at other times, the difference can be grammatical, e.g. anymore.

But whereas is not one of those: no current dictionary that I know of accepts the two-word spelling.


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

It is impossible to give an exact figure for it as two words, because searching for the string where as also finds sentences such as “Wolfowitz joined the bank in 2005 after working at the Pentagon, where as deputy defense secretary he was…

What is clear, however, is that where as is highly unusual, i.e. less than one per cent of cases. The OEC data also suggests that it occurs often in news and blog sources (come back subs, all is forgiven!). Just what do they teach those journalists these days?

Was it ever two words?

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

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

(As you will no doubt have worked out, the þ symbol stands for the ‘th’ sound. It was used in Old English, is still used in Icelandic, and is called a thorn since it begins that word.)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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We’ve seen whereas above used to contrast clauses …



And — as in the Paston Letter quotation earlier — it is often used, especially in US laws, to introduce a clause, or usually several clauses, setting out the reasons for something.


The town of Merrill, Oregon, institutes a Carl Barks day, to honour a Donald Duck cartoonist.

Does it have other meanings?


1. Historically, it was used to mean simply “where”, but that use died out long ago, except as a poetic archaism, as illustrated in the second quotation below from the Arts & Crafts designer and writer William Morris:

That…oure heartes maye surely there bee fixed, where as true ioyes are to be founde.

Bk. Common Prayer (STC 16267) Celebr. Holye Communion f. lxiiiiv, 1549.

And quickly too he gat | Unto the place whereas the Lady sat.

W. Morris, Earthly Paradise ii. 655, 1868.

J. W. Waterhouse's 1888 "The Lady of Shalott", Tate Britain.

J. W. Waterhouse’s 1888 “The Lady of Shalott”, Tate Britain.

2. Whereas is also a noun.

It can mean “A statement introduced by ‘whereas’; the preamble of a formal document.”

While the contrary remains unproved, such a Whereas must be a most inadequate ground for the present Bill.

S. T. Coleridge, Plot Discovered 23, 1795.

The rule seems to be that if a candidate can recite half a dozen policy positions by rote and name some foreign nations and leaders, one shouldn’t point out that he sure seems a few whereases shy of an executive order., 2000.

As a further historical footnote, it is interesting that the legalistic, ritual use of whereas as a preamble to legal documents led to its being used as a noun, defined as follows in the Urban Dictionary of its day, Grose’s 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: 

To follow a whereas; to become a bankrupt…: the notice given in the Gazette that a commission of bankruptcy is issued out against any trader, always beginning with the word whereas.


Tom Rakewell, from Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, narrowly escapes arrest for debt while on his way to Queen Caroline’s birthday party.

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We will not waver, we will not tire. Waver or waiver? Commonly confused words (25-26)

We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.

With those stirring, rhetorically honed words, President George W. Bush concluded his Address to the Nation on 7 October, 2001, launching Operation Enduring Freedom, in response to the attack on the World Trade Center.

If you search for them on Google, you will often come across “waiver” instead of waver, which highlights the common confusion of the two words.

(This blog is about 25 & 26 of 30 commonly confused words.)

waiver, waver; waive, wave

Quick “takeaways”

These four words can cause considerable confusion.

  • To waver is most commonly a verb.
  • A waiver is a noun, but is quite often wrongly used as a verb.
  • Occasionally the spelling waver is wrongly used instead of waiver for the noun.
  • The verbs wave and waive also sometimes get muddled up.
  • What follows are definitions of these words, and examples with correct or mistaken spelling.


1 waiver vs waver

Definitions & examples

1.1 to waver

If something such as flame or a flag wavers, it quivers or flutters in the air. Related to that idea, but recorded earlier in the OED, is its meaning with regard to people’s feelings, “to be indecisive”, and mental states “to fluctuate; to falter.” Things that typically waver are abstract nouns such as faith, loyalty, concentration, confidence and physical attributes such as voices and smiles. People also waver in or from sentiments like loyalty, determination, beliefs, etc.

TIP: If you think of someone or something wavering, they are as unsteady or changeable as a wave. Or, as the Bible (Authorized Version/King James) puts it:

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

James i. 6

1.1.1 Examples


…a video sequence of candles burning is particularly effective, as it is only when the flame occasionally wavers that the onlooker realises it is a moving image at all.

Architecture Australia (magazine).

Smith’s concentration wavered just enough in the following over.

Times of India.

The House came to a hushed standstill as Burke –  voice wavering – told MPs to give it a rest.

The Age, (Austr.).

Despite the problems cited in the assessment, Mr. Karzai has not wavered in his determination to complete the transition by spring, said several officials.


1.2 a waiver

A waiver relates to the verb to waive (see 2.1 below) and, according to the Collins English Dictionary, means:

  1. a) the voluntary relinquishment, expressly or by implication, of some claim or right
  2. b) the act or an instance of relinquishing a claim or right
  3. c) a formal statement in writing of such relinquishment

TIP: a waiver is ultimately related to the word waif, as in poor waif, and waifs and strays.

1.2.1 Examples

However, immigration officers have been told they have the discretion to grant a character waiver in cases where it would be “unduly harsh” to decline a visa.

NZ Herald.

The form contained a waiver of parental rights with respect to children resulting from any retrieved eggs., (US).

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1.3.1 waiver wrongly used as a verb for waver

The one stakeholder, in fact the largest stakeholder, whose support for strong action on climate change has not X waivered [read “wavered”], is young people, who have the most to lose from inaction. The Age, (Austr.).

I have been saying for years that many charities are ripe for exploitation due to lack of professionalism and X  waivering [read “wavering”] from asking hard questions, and this proves it,” she says. Telegraph.

Andrew Sullivan of “The Daily Dish,” says Clinton will have pleased her supporters but I doubt she will have won over any X waiverers [read “waverers”] or doubters. CNN transcripts.

This misspelling also applies to the derivative waver, i.e. someone who waves a flag.

I’m a third-generation flag X waiver [read “waver”] and a second-generation military brat. Airman (magazine), (US).

1.3.2 waver for waiver

I believe that the US and the European Union have a visa X waver [read “waiver”] agreement. Oz Report.


2 to waive / to wave

Definitions & examples

2.1 to waive

If you waive something such as a fee, a right, privilege or a requirement, you decide not to impose it on someone else, or to make use of it yourself.

2.1.1 Examples

I feel that Amazon should waive the return fee and give me back my inventory.

StartUp Nation, (US).

But there are plenty of examples, plenty of precedents where White House officials have gone to testify before Congress. They have waived that executive branch privilege, if you will.

CNN Transcripts.

Mr Wilson’s interview meant that he had waived his legal confidentiality as a former client of the firm.

Blog, (NZ)

2.2 to wave

It hardly needs saying that to wave generally means to move your hand, or an object held in your hand, to convey a signal or message. Typical things you wave are hands, fingers, flags, placards, banners, handkerchiefs, magic wands, sticks, and swords. You can also wave goodbye or farewell.

TIP: A well-known example from poetry is Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning, whose first verse runs:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.


Hands reaching above water --- Image by © G. Baden/Corbis

Hands reaching above water — Image by © G. Baden/Corbis

2.2.1 Examples

It was his usual rhetorical trick: framing any call to act or lead as a demand to wave a magic wand that he does not have.


Benedict XVI confidently climbed the stairs of the aircraft, steady enough to not need the handrail, and turned to wave a final farewell to Great Britain.


Haji Mohammad Naim testified in his native Pashto through an interpreter, speaking loudly and quickly and frequently waving a finger in the air.


2.3.1 waive wrongly used for wave and vice versa

Sometimes people use waive for wave:

… an ocean of Ahmadinejad supporters X waiving [read “waving”] Iranians flags and traditional Shia banners. Guardian, Comment is Free.

More commonly, the mistake is the other way round.

Digital wallet Coinbase is also X waving [read “waiving”] all fees on Black Friday so that Bitcoin users can buy, sell, send and receive Bitcoins all day. Telegraph.

But after finding out that his team had lost, he decided to X wave [read “waive”] his exemption, and stand equal with his other losing team mates. Blog, (Brit.)

3 waver as a noun, and other derivatives of waver

waver can be a noun with some meanings of the verb:

Before Vince came to visit he asked, with a slight waver in his voice, if he’d be meeting my parents this time around. Philadelphia Weekly.

A person who wavers is a waverer (an uncommon word):

Call them the waverers or, worse for Mr. Obama, the drifters: people who provided his comfortable margin of victory in 2008 but are now overcome by doubts about his presidency NYT.

Other even less frequent derivatives are waveringly, and wavery:

The accrued biographical experience that produces place attachment…appears to help produce such hope (sometimes expressed waveringly by respondents) about a place that is always at risk to disaster. Reconstruction, (US).

… possibly the prettiest song Chernoff has written yet, with his wavery and unsteady vocals rising above a background of acoustic guitar, violin, haunting back-up vocals, … Stylus (magazine), (US).


To wave comes from the Old English verb wafian, whose Germanic base also gives rise to waver, and is first recorded c. 1000. (The unrelated noun wave, relating to water, is a sixteenth-century adaptation of the earlier form waw or waȝe).


Hokusai, The Great Wave at Kanagawa, from 36 views of Mount Fuji, c. 1829, combined with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, 1889.

Wave as a noun, meaning an action of waving, is derived from the verb and is first recorded from 1688.

To waive comes from the Anglo-Norman verb weyver, a variant of Old French guesver, “to allow to become a waif, to abandon”, probably of Scandinavian origin.

The noun waiver is either a version of that weyver infinitive used as a noun, or a combination of the verb waive + the -er suffix.

To waver comes from Middle English waver, wever, related to Old English wǣfre, “restless”.

As a final verbal image for wave — though not the wave we’ve been talking about so far, so this is a bit of a cheat — here are some lines from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (1867)

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

William Dyce (1806_1864) Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858. (?1858-60). Tate Britain.

William Dyce (1806-1864) Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858. (?1858-60). Tate Britain.



home in or hone in? Both right? Commonly confused words (3-4)

What’s the issue?


Which of these two sentences do you think is correct?

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


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

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

Which also means that whichever version you use, someone somewhere is likely to consider it wrong. (And if they are of the “grammar” pedantry persuasion, to take great delight in doing so.)

(But if you are not a British English speaker, the chances are that you’ll plump for the second one.)

A handful of examples


Once again the media homed in on Tyrannosaurus.

American Scientist

DRUG dealers were today warned that the police were homing in on them after a man caught with drugs worth £26,000 was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail.

Bolton Evening News (UK)

Unfortunately, many Twitter users homed in on an Alan Joyce of Stanford, California. The American acquired more than 300 extra Twitter followers in the past 24 hours after tweeters confused him with the Qantas boss.

New Zealand Herald.


The writer Malcolm Hulke really seems to be honing in on the anxieties of the time, by focusing on the pollution of the planet and leaving the earth uninhabitable.

The Independent blog (UK).

Yes, they had those rhetorically brilliant 1858 debates, but the election of 1860, waged in a fiercely divided country, also honed in on the candidates’ appearances [sic].

Boston Globe.

Therefore, we hope to initially hone in on some sightings of Raja [sc. an animal] by villagers of the area.

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka).



(3 & 4 of 30 commonly confused words)

Tapas menu

  • Hone in seems to be as widely used as home in, if not more widely.
  • If you use it, you are in the majority, but several reputable sources view it as a mistake.
  • For many people, however, it is the only correct version, and makes sense semantically.
  • Both phrasal verbs can be seen as “skunked”, i.e. they will offend someone’s linguistic sense of smell, so they might be best avoided.
  • There is an argument that hone in is a separate development, not a mistake.
  • Users of each version can easily find justifications for them – specious or otherwise, selon votre goût.

À la carte menu

Read on …

Worldwide, more people use hone in than home in. 

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


Mrs Malaprop, looking rather splendid.

That surprised me. I was familiar with the “home in” version, whose meaning has always seemed self-evident to me: I think of a  homing pigeon returning to a specific place, or a missile homing in on its target, and therefore to home in on something is to target it or pinpoint it (or, as the ODO definition goes, “Move or be aimed towards (a target or destination) with great accuracy“).

Consequently, as a British English speaker, I have occasionally winced when, for example, British HR-obots talked about “honing in on” a particular point or issue. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought, a misinterpretation, a malapropism, an eggcorn.

I first posted on this topic about 18 months ago, and since then, having looked at more data, I am obliged to change my mind. For it seems that the home in version is a) less frequent across all varieties of English and b) shows signs of being ousted even in British English by the hone in version.

Some figures

The figures I mention do not show exactly the same picture. Nevertheless …

1 I looked in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), which consists of about 2.6 billion words of data from US, British and several other varieties of English. (Or, to indicate its vast size another way, over 112 million sentences of English.)

I looked for in + on after the lemmas home and hone (i.e. all forms, home, homes, homed, homing). Overall, hone in on is slightly more frequent, with 700 instances against 655.

Looking at regional variation within those figures gives us this table:

Regional variety home in on hone in on
British English  283  67
American English 254  419
unknown 57  69
Australian English 16  37
Irish English 13  47
South African English 8  6
New Zealand English 6  12
East Asian English 6  8
Canadian English 5  30
Indian English 4  3
Caribbean English 3  2
TOTALS 655 700

Only in British (and three other varieties, with very low figures, also italicized) is home commoner. The ratio in BrE of home: hone is 80.9:19.1%.

Outside US and Canadian English, the highest ratio of hone: home is in Irish English (78.3:21.7%).

For the US, the ratio is 62.3:37.7%, and for Canada it is 85.7:14.3%.

2 Looking at the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE, pronounced “globe”, 1.9 billion words from 1.8 millon web pages) produces rather different results.

Across all 20 varieties of English covered, hone greatly outnumbers home: 786 vs 283 instances.

The figures below show figures for US, Canadian and British English.

 HOMING IN ON 122 29 3 45
 HOMED IN ON 115 20 7 37
 HOMES IN ON 29 3 1 13
 HOME IN ON 17 2 1 8
 TOTAL 283 54 12 103


 HONE IN ON 411 124 42 73
 HONING IN ON 154 42 20 31
 HONED IN ON 145 43 14 27
 HONES IN ON 76 20 5 12
 TOTAL 786 229 81 143


The ratio of hone:home for the US is higher still than in the OEC (81:19%), while for Canada it is very similar. For Britain, however, the figures are completely reversed in favour of hone: 58.1:41.9%.

In all other varieties, hone wins.

3 Google books Ngrams shows the lemma home +  in on as more frequent than hone +  in on, e.g. for the string home in on 10 occurrences per million words in 2000 vs 3 per million in 1999 for hone in on. It also shows a steep rise from the 1970s onwards.


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But hone in on just doesn’t make sense! It’s obviously a crass mistake!!

Mmmmm. It clearly does make sense to very many people, including George Bush.**

  • For it to be a mistake, it would have to be clear that home in on was well established before the arrival of hone in on. That is not indisputably so, as Mark Liberman suggested in some detail a while ago.
  • The sense development of home in on is fairly clear (see OED citations at the end), but what of hone in on? After all, the core meaning of hone is “to sharpen a blade” (1788), so what has that got to do with “focussing on something”?


Showing the word’s metaphorical extension, the second OED definition of hone is “To refine or practise (a skill, technique, etc.); to make more effective or intense.” The first example in this category is from 1914, but then the next one is from 1955, and the OED notes “Before the mid 20th cent. usu. as part of an extended metaphor”. This is only ten years before the first appearance of hone in.

Well, as regards going from “sharpening” to “focussing”, Grammarist suggests this: “Hone means to sharpen or to perfect, and we can think of homing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.”

Judging by some online comments, some people even see a meaning distinction between the two forms: “’home in’ and ‘hone in’ do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. ‘Home in’ means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while ‘hone in’ means to pay close attention to or listen to something.”

Mark Liberman suggests in detail a development I shall summarize like this:

hone (down) X = “improve X by sharpening focus on the essentials and eliminating or ignoring extraneous materials” –> hone in on Y = “reach Y by a process of successively sharpening focus while eliminating extraneous material.”

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

A couple of dictionaries list hone in on with no comment, but several others consider it a mistake.

Several style guides take that same view; some set great store by the physical meaning of hone, in a way that comes close to being the etymological fallacy.

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

  • The OED makes no bones about calling hone in the result of “folk etymology”.
  • My revised (4th) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage covers similar territory to this blog more briefly, but suggests avoiding either word altogether.
  • Merriam-Webster notes the existence of hone in and suggests that it “seems to have become established in American usage”. The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004) gives “to direct one’s attention; focus” as a meaning of hone in.
  • Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, however, considers it unequivocally wrong.
  • The Guardian style guide notes, somewhat acidly, “home in on, not hone in on, which suggests you need to hone your writing skills.” Neither The Economist nor The Telegraph guides mentions it.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edn, notes: home in. This phrase is frequently misrendered hone in. (Hone means “to sharpen.”) Home in refers to what homing pigeons do; the meaning is “to come closer and closer to a target.”
  • The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage charts the development of hone in on, but notes that “If you use it, you should be aware that some people will think that you have made a mistake.”

Various online grammar sites also castigate hone in on as a mistake for home in on. One site (Grammarist), which is more permissive, attracted 57 tetchy and not so tetchy comments, mostly against hone in on.

So…? What should I do?


The hone in variant has been around for half a century. It is used in many parts of the Anglosphere. As discussed, some dictionaries list it without comment, while others warn against it, as do many usage and style manuals.

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

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

** From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “An issue looming on the usage horizon is the propriety of the phrase hone in on. George Bush’s use of this phrase in the 1980 presidential campaign (he talked of ‘honing in on the issues’) caught the critical eye of political columnist Mary McCrory, and her comments on it were noted, approved, and expanded by William Safire. Safire observed that hone in on is a confused variant of home in on, and there seems to be little doubt that he was right. . . . Our first example of home in on is from 1951, in a context having to do with aviation. Our earliest record of its figurative use is from 1956. We did not encounter hone in on until George Bush used it in 1980. . . .”


*** OED definitions / earliest citations. (Italics in examples mine.)


  1. a. intr. Of a homing pigeon: to fly back to its ‘home’ or loft after being released at a distant point; to arrive at the loft at the end of such a flight. Hence of any animal: to return to some specific territory or spot after having left it or having been removed from it. Freq. with to.

1854   Poultry Chron. 1 573/2   It is generally considered that a cock [pigeon] homes quickest when driving to nest, and a hen when she is feeding squabs.

  1. intr a. Of a vessel, aircraft, missile, etc.: to move or be guided to a target or destination by use of a landmark or by means of a radio signal, detection of a heat signature, etc. Usu. with in on, or less commonly onon to, or towards. Cf. hone v.4

1920   Wireless World Mar. 728/2   The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if ‘homing’ towards a beacon.

1947   J. G. Crowther & R. Whiddington Sci. at War 119   Torpedoes and bombs that follow or ‘homeon to their targets.

1968   Galaxy Mag. Nov. 107/1   The only way another ship could get here would be to home in on the drone that our Line ship homed in on.

NB: the previous version of the entry had a 1956 US citation for home in on, in the physical sense.

  • b. fig.To make something the sole object of one’s attention; to focus intently on something. Cf.hone v.4

1955   C. M. Kornbluth Mindworm 53   That was near. He crossed the street and it was nearer. He homed on the thought.

1971   New Scientist 16 Sept. 629/1   Mexico’s Professor S. F. Beltran homed in on education as a critical need.


It should be noted that this is a new 3rd edn entry from 2004, which treats hone here as a homograph of hone3 with its meaning of “to sharpen.” I think previously both were grouped under the same headword.

Etymology:  Apparently a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Etymons: home v.
Apparently an alteration of home v. (see home v. 5a), probably arising by folk-etymological association with hone v.3

orig. U.S.

 intr. to hone in: to head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on. Cf. home v. 5a.

1965   G. Plimpton Paper Lion vii. 62   Then he’d fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing into intercept his line of flight.

1967   N.Y. Times 5 Nov. iii. 10/1   A few who know the wearer well recognize that something is different without honing in on the hairpiece.


A coruscating attack, review, etc. Or excoriating? Commonly confused words (1-2)

(1 & 2 of 30 commonly confused words)

If you read that so-and-so-A has made a “coruscating attack” on so-and-so-B (or so-and-so-B’s work), what do you take it to mean?

For instance:

The report is a coruscating attack on the Government’s welfare reforms and those of its coalition predecessor.

Sunday Express, 29 December 2015.

These three options suggest themselves: a) search me, guv; b) oh, A is tearing into B  like nobody’s business; c) A is an ignoramus, and what they actually meant was “an excoriating attack”.

A while back, The Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column plumped firmly for option c):

“In the following article, Terry Eagleton’s ‘corruscating [sic] review’ of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion may have been withering or possibly even acidulous.”

The Guardian style guide is categorical about the matter:

coruscating means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating”.

The Economist style guide notes (with bold items as shown) that: This means sparkle or throw off flashes of light, not wither, devastate, or reduce to wrinkles (that’s corrugate).

You’re unlikely to hear either word in everyday conversation, far less down the pub (unless it’s a pub frequented by lexicographers, journalists, or usage pundits). Both are rare, and typical of arty or journalistic writing.


  • Coruscating is occasionally used in a small number of phrases in what looks like confusion with excoriating.
  • The lemma to excoriate and its derivatives are about five times more frequent than coruscate.
  • Coruscating as an adjective is more frequent in British English than elsewhere, as are its collocations with attack and semantically similar words.
  • A Google search for “coruscating attack” and “excoriating attack” shows the second – the “correct” one – in a ratio of 4.7:1 to the first.



Album cover for jazz giant John Surman. Copyright ECM or original graphic artist

Meaning and examples

Coruscating can be a bit of a journalistic trap. British hacks in particular sometimes light on it in order to embellish their prose, occasionally with scant regard for its meaning.

It derives from the Latin coruscāre in its meaning of “to flash, glitter, gleam”.

“Glittering” or “sparkling”, literally or metaphorically, is what it usually means in English. Merriam-Webster has a pithy definition for the metaphorical use: “to be brilliant or showy in technique or style.”

Coruscating is the participial form of the verb to coruscate, but the verb itself is rather rare. (In fact, according to the OED, the word was first recorded in this participial form, in 1705.)

The Oxford Online Dictionary labels the verb as literary, and includes the following example:

Finally, as the blazing star appeared high over the island, the glow coruscated into incredible brilliance and began the nightly display.

Nouns typically described as coruscating are wit, brilliance, a review, a performance, a display, and an attack.

The Oxford English Corpus data suggests that it occurs with less than expected frequency in US English, and with higher than expected frequency in BrE.**

She preserves the steely delicacy and coruscating wit of Wilde’s writing.

Sunday Times.

… a complete understanding of the resources of the instrument and an acute ear for contrast allowed Liszt to produce a quasi-orchestral palette of tone-colours, lending a coruscating brilliance and variety to both his original music and his transcriptions.

Oxford Companion to Music.

Oops, did I chose the wrong word?

Examples like the previous reflect the core meaning of the word, but what are we to make of its use in these examples?

… the anthropologist and writer John Ryle wrote a coruscating review essay in the Times Literary Supplement , documenting numerous inaccuracies , exaggerations and mythifications in Kapuscinski’s writing on Africa. Guardian, Comment is Free. 

Departing SNP leader John Swinney yesterday delivered a coruscating attack on the tormentors within his own party who he claimed had made it impossible for him to continue in office. Scotland on Sunday.

In those contexts it is obviously intended to mean “scathing”, “ferocious” and the like. They seem to be a mistake for the less rare but equally Latinate adjective excoriating.

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

excoriate / excoriating

Origins, meanings, examples

While the verb has been used in English to mean “to strip the skin off someone”, i.e. flay them, it has a specific modern medical meaning, “to damage or remove part of the surface of the skin” (images for which I’m too squeamish to show).

It comes from the Latin excoriāre to strip off the hide, < ex- out + corium hide>, and the OED*** dates its first occurrence to 1497, in a work published by Wynkyn de Worde.


The flaying of St. Bartholomew. Rome. 3rd quarter 16th century, cutting from a collectar. In the style of a Croatian artist – which may explain why the Romans look curiously oriental, with their splendid mustachios.

Clearly, if you can excoriate someone physically, that is, flay them, you can also do so metaphorically (lambast similarly developed from physical to figurative, and think of “to roast someone or something” in a figurative sense, e.g. This is a movie whose brain belongs in its pants, and which deserves to be roasted for the turkey it truly is.)

The OED defines this non-physical meaning of to excoriate as “upbraid scathingly, decry, revile” and dates its first occurrence to 1882:

How he [sc. Jackson] would excoriate Tilden for his copperheadism.

NY Tribune, 15 March 1882.

Here are current examples of the verb:

Critics excoriating him for other aspects of his film show an equal lack of sensitivity to the challenges that come with highly structured storytelling.

Bright Lights Film Journal, (US).

Talk shows were excoriated in the media and featured in countless political cartoons of the period.

Art Journal, (US).

Excoriating … is the participial adjective from the verb. The adjective typically qualifies attack(s), a crique, a report, criticism, or an editorial.

Throughout the second world war, Aneurin Bevan subjected the line of the Churchill coalition government to excoriating criticism and withering examination …

Sydney Morning Herald Web Diary.

Two coroners launched an excoriating attack on the lack of basic equipment in the Armed Forces yesterday, blaming poor resources for contributing to the deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Although E. P. Thompson has not been alone in objecting to the work of Louis Althusser, it is nonetheless within his excoriating critique in The Poverty of Theory that one witnesses a prolonged attack on the perceived errors of the French intellectual’s abstract structuralism.

Capital and Class, (US).

A British English issue?

It is worth noting that of those collocations listed above for excoriating, over three-quarters are British English (78%). In other words, those collocations are possibly better known in BrE than elsewhere. That might explain why the confused coruscating ?attack and ?review seem also to be peculiarly British: 80% of examples.

Is this a recent phenomenon?

It seems not. Good ol’ Ngrams throws up an example of coruscating attack from a 1961 Report to the Fellows, Pierpoint Morgan Library, p. 59. However, it also shows a vertiginous rise in frequency of that collocation between 1981 and 2000.

Why are the two confused?

I don’t know, but here are some thoughts. If one were to be uncharitable, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance” as Dr Johnson is reported to have said, would be the reason. Viewed in that light, “coruscating” becomes a malapropism of the “allegory on the banks of the Nile” kind.

But that won’t entirely do: the alternation cannot be arbitrary or random.

First, though clearly miles away from being homophones, they share both an -ating element and a Latinate sound –but, admittedly, not the same number of syllables.

Second, if someone has seen the phrase “coruscating review”, but not read the review in question, how would they know what the phrase meant? Reviews are often negative, so assigning a negative meaning to coruscating as a word to describe a review does not seem unreasonable. In any case, for many reviewers, the bitchier the review the more brilliant it is, at which point coruscating and excoriating easily begin to merge.

Google Ngrams also brings a tantalizing clue to the origin of the crossover – on the basis of sounds.

I could only retrieve this fragment:

On the basis of shared sounds, I had associated ‘coruscating’ with ‘corrosive’ and ‘excoriate’ when it means to flash, like lightning. Hence a coruscating review will be brilliant, but not necessarily cutting.

Australian Book Review, Issues 108-117, 1989.

Overall, it might be worth considering using a synonym to replace either word – there’s no shortage of them –, such as blistering, devastating, scathing,  withering, savage, caustic, vitriolic, and whatever else your thesaurus suggests.

A “skunked term” is Bryan Garner’s phrase**** for a word or phrase whose alleged misuse will annoy purists. I suspect that for a (rather small) number of  people, “coruscating” for “excoriating” will indeed exude the rank smell of error.

** GloWbE (The Corpus of Global Web-Based English) tends to confirm this. While average frequency across 20 countries is 0.06 occurrences per million words, in US English that figure is 0.03, but in British it is 0.14.

*** Interestingly, this meaning of “mercilessly criticize” was not recorded by the original OED editors in their 1894 entry. The 1993 draft revisions show the verb first used in the “attack” meaning in 1882, and the adjective in 1884. Presumably it was, therefore, too recent to have attracted the attention of the original compilers

**** “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another–a phase that might take ten years or a hundred–it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).

“A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become ‘skunked.’ . . .

“To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners–whether they’re in Group 1 or Group 2. Thus, in this view … is now unusable: some members of Group 1 continue to stigmatize the newer meaning, and any member of Group 2 would find the old meaning peculiar.”

Bryan A. Garner, Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, 2002.


peek, peak or pique. It piqued my interest or peaked my interest? Take a peek or peak? Commonly confused words (23-24)

(23 & 24 of 30 commonly confused words)

Peak, peek and pique. To take a peek, to feel piqued, etc.

Since all three words sound the same and all work both as nouns and verbs, it is perhaps inevitable that people sometimes muddle them up.

Quick definitions & examples



A peak is the highest point of something, either physically or metaphorically, and if something peaks, it reaches its highest point:

Colors feel appropriate as well, from the brilliant white of snow-capped peaks to the deep blues in shots of water.

DVD Verdict.

Urban renewal has been in practice in the industrialized nations since the 1800s, but it hit its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.


In the Nielsen poll, Mr Abbott’s personal popularity peaked more than two years ago and the longer-term trend has been down.

The Age (Aus).



A peek means “a quick or furtive look” and if you peek, you “look quickly or furtively into or at something”. By extension, if something peeks out of something, it emerges or pokes out from it.

Security is tight and few are prepared to let outsiders peek inside.

Scotland on Sunday.

She gets her hair cut at the Muslim-owned beauty shop upstairs; she hands candy to the Somalian children who peek shyly in her store.

Boston Globe.

She noticed snowdrops peeking up through the grass beneath the trees, and pussy willows furring the hedge.

Source unknown.

“They’d push them across the table and say, ‘You might want to take a peek at this,'” he said.



Pique is a feeling of irritation or sulkiness resulting from a perceived slight, and, more rarely, means a quarrel; if something piques your curiosity, interest, appetite, and the like, it arouses it, and if you feel piqued, you feel resentful. In a rarer meaning, if you pique yourself on something, you take pride in it.

Among those in the audience was Ed Miliband, whose intellectual curiosity was piqued.

New Statesman.

“You don’t have to lecture us, Lizzy “, Kitty said, somewhat piqued.

Date & source unknown.

Yet right and left alike pique themselves on this imbecile prejudice.

Guardian, Comment is Free.

At the same time—and perhaps not illogically—she piqued herself on her talent for bedroom diplomacy , working hard to persuade the President to place women in important posts.


…the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.

Believer Magazine.

Is the Attorney-General motivated by pique rather than by principle, and has she seriously considered her motives in bringing this case forward?

New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 2004.

Linguistic explanations?

Probably, deep down in our mental lexicons we have all stored this knowledge about these words, but in writing it is all too easy to bang down the wrong one.

Some cases may be eggcorns. For example, as the eggcorn database points out, a phrase such as “to peak someone’s interest” can be interpreted as a causative use of peak, that is, it means “to cause someone’s interest to peak”, just as “to walk the dog” means “to cause the dog to walk.” Similarly, if the “sun peaks over the horizon”, the image could plausibly be of the sun moving towards its zenith.

That said, however, editors and alert readers will still regard the use of one spelling for the other as a mistake, and such use is not legitimized by dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage sagely advises:

A writer needs to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.

And in some cases, e.g. “peek someone’s interest”, it is difficult to think of a convincing semantic explanation.

Peak wrongly used

The main villain of the piece seems to be peak, perhaps because it is the most common lemma of the three. It often replaces peek (noun) in the collocations to have a peek, to sneak a peek, to take a peek.

A Google search for “take a peek” in inverted commas throws up 14,600,000 results. It often seems to be used as a trite advertising trope, to titillate, tease, and tantalize the reader (That’s enough alliteration! – Ed) and make them imagine they are enjoying the privilege of an advance or exclusive look at something special, e.g. “Take a peek into the life of a nanny to the super rich / into X’s exclusive Chelsea Home/ into the new [fill in as appropriate]”. (Pass the sick bag, please.)

Searching for “take a peak” also throws up vast numbers. Some are deliberate puns (e.g. “Take a peak: fun new places to stay in European ski resorts”), but many are instead of the peek spelling: “Take a peak through the keyhole of three beautiful festive homes” [read “peek”] (This appeared in the online version of a newspaper on 18 December.)

Other examples from the Oxford English Corpus include:

That means no sneaking a peak [read “peek”] at work emails from outside the office, even if they are expecting non-work messages. Telegraph.

While one distracts a guard’s attention, the second – while pretending to be on the phone – can take a peak [read “peek”] at the guest list and get some names which they can then use. Telegraph, 2009.

With the verb such substitution seems less frequent, but does occasionally happen, e.g. I kept peaking [read “peeking”] at my watch. Blog.

Peak as a verb is also used where pique is correct, as in the next two examples.

It peaked [read “piqued”] my curiosity enough to buy the CD today during lunch. Blog.

Two aspects of Hox genes have peaked [read “piqued”] the interest of phylogeneticists. American Zoologist.

TIP: A good grammar/spellchecker should pick up these confusions.

TIP: If you’re British, think of the Peak District, i.e. an area of high summits. (You will also find this spelled wrong, but it is not very common.)



as a noun has an immensely convoluted etymology, as the OED explains, deriving ultimately from the Old English word piic, meaning a pickaxe, or pick for breaking up the ground. It was first used to refer to the pointed summit of a mountain in the early 17th century. Its metaphorical use to refer to the zenith or highest point of something is late-18th century. The verb use “to reach a peak or highest point”, e.g. prices, floods, etc., is modern: the first OED citation is from 1937.


This started life as a verb in the 14th century (the OED defines it as “To look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.”), and possibly derives from the word of similar meaning to keek.

(The OED points out the similarity of peek to peep and peer, words with the same/similar meanings Remembering that might help with spelling).

It became a noun by the common process of conversion, i.e. using an existing word in a different part of speech category, a use first recorded by the OED from 1636.


attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

As its spelling might suggest, this word comes from French: from the Middle French word pique, meaning “quarrel, resentment”, which in turn comes from the verb piquer, “to prick, pierce, sting”.

The OED first records the noun in a letter of 1532 by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. (This portrait makes it look as if an expression of slight pique was natural for him.)

The verb is first recorded in 1664.

(You will also find the spelling pique for piqué, a type of stiff cotton fabric.)

The three words discussed become incestuously entangled in all sorts of ways, as the following examples demonstrate. If you want to try correcting them, the answers are shown at the end.


  1. Star Clipper offers antique vessel aficionados an opportunity to take a peak inside this unique club for the modest cost of a 10-day passage. Boat (US), 2005.
  2. The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when he pulled himself from the bed. US fiction, 2005.
  3. He opened each door slowly and quietly, only so far as he needed to peak. British fiction, 2003.
  4. The reason that I’m asking is I’ve recently found my interest peeked in these two areas. Babelith Underground Forums, 2002 (Br)
  5. …they call me when they’re at the peek of it and they want to keep momentum going. CNN Transcripts, 2000
  6. About 50 people take part in the annual grape harvest, just at the peek of maturity in order to bring in the grapes at the best possible moment to insure the highest quality wine possible.
  7. Inferno represents Argento at the pique of his technical and experimental prowess. DVD Verdict, 2013.
  8. …frankly we can’t afford for me to get head over heels into every little hobby that peeks my interest, otherwise by now I would have taken those horse riding lessons, violin lessons, and be a world famous ice-skater! Blog, 2008.

  1. peek
  2. peeking.
  3. peek.
  4. piqued.
  5. at the peak of it.
  6. at the peak of maturity.
  7. at the peak of.
  8. piques.


elicit vs illicit. What’s the difference? Commonly confused words (21-22)


Quick “takeaways”

  • Elicit and illicit do not mean the same thing at all. Elicit is a verb only**, illicit is solely an adjective.
  • Beware of accidentally using illicit as a verb when you want to talk about evoking a reaction or extracting information.

Correct: He used good actors who are capable of eliciting genuine sympathy from the audience.
Incorrect: It’s likely to X illicit a collective groan.

  • Beware of using elicit as an adjective.

Correct: The Grenadines, with their many uninhabited islets, are a transhipment point for illicit drugs from South America to the United States.
IncorrectIt was hard to imagine why his wife should believe that there were women just waiting to entice him into an elicit liaison.



Having warmed up with the above, you might like to try some verbal gymnastics.

A word is missing from these authentic (i.e. not made up by me) sentences. If you’re game, to complete the meaning choose one of the alternatives shown.

  1. The detective involved was reprimanded for ______ false confessions. a) illiciting; b) eliciting.
  2. Heavy drinking or ______ drug use make treatment ineffective. a) elicit; b) illicit.
  3. That remark ______ friendly laughter from the audience. a) elicited; b) illicited.
  4. It is a rare film that can ______ that response from me. a) illicit; b) elicit.
  5. These are things that, like Greene’s ______ liaisons , remain to be forgiven. a) illicit; b) elicit.

(Answers at the end.)

If you got them all right, you probably know all you need to know about illicit vs. elicit. 

If not, what follows may help you to avoid confusing them.

Why are they confused?

Simples! They sound identical, as their phonetic representation shows:

elicit /ɪˈlɪsɪt/

illicit /ɪˈlɪsɪt/

So, they are examples of what are called homophones: words that sound exactly the same but have different spellings and meanings.

A crucial distinction between them is that elicit is a verb. It can therefore have all the verb parts, i.e. elicits, eliciting, elicited.

Illicit is an adjective and has only the one form as an adjective. Its derivatives are illicitly and illicitness.

TIP: Because of the above, if you come across X illiciting, for example, or if you find yourself writing it, you will know that it is a mistake. (An automatic spellchecker would pick it up as a mistake in any case.)

TIP: Something illicit borders on being illegal, so remembering the ill– element in both may help. If you elicit a reaction, you evoke it, so remembering the e- prefix (meaning “out”) may help.

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Meanings and origins


The verb elicit means “to evoke or draw out (a reaction, answer, or fact) from someone”. The kinds of thing that you can elicit include reactions and responses; physical reactions such as applause, laughter, chuckles, giggles; and emotional reactions such as emotion, admiration, sympathy, and pity. You can also elicit information, confessions, and testimony.

The Yorkshire Gazette recorded how he “elicited unbounded applause, and sent his audience home delighted with their evening’s amusement”.

Subsequent staff letters to the college administration, inviting discussion of remaining issues, have not elicited a reply.

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

Things that are typically illicit include drugs, substances, liquor, opium, trade and trafficking, on the one hand, and liaisons, trysts, affairs, and sex, on the other.

Less easily influenced is the illicit trade in armaments around the globe.

South Africans don’t tend to dump their illicit sex lives in tacky red-light districts.

The connection of illicit with sex or romance was highlighted in the 1931 film Illicit, in which the heroine, played by Barbara Stanwyck, lives together with her boyfriend “out of wedlock”, and so the film must have been pretty racy for its time.



They may look at first glance as if they are related, but they come from two different Latin roots.
Elicit comes from the past participle of the Classical Latin ēlicĕre “to draw or entice (someone) out”.

According to the OED, it was first used in 1641.

Illicit comes from French illicite, which comes from the Latin adjective illicitus, a combination of the negative prefix il- and licitus, past participle of the impersonal verb licēre “to be allowed”. The same verb is the root of licence, licit, and leisure.

It was first used in English in 1606.

Its derivatives are illicitly and illictness.

How often are they confused?

Without substantial research, it’s impossible to give figures. However, a scan of Oxford English Corpus data suggests that perhaps illicit is more often wrongly used as a verb than elicit is as an adjective.

The following examples are typical of the “accidents that will occur in the best-regulated”… newspapers, journals, and even High Court transcripts:

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

X Elicitly gathering information is a step too far. Guardian, 2012

Raise it for debate in the pub and it’s likely to illicit a collective groan, but in boardrooms and dressing rooms it has greater currency. Scotland on Sunday, 2005

the cost is high and the prospects of any helpful information being X illicited by the independent analysis, remote. England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003

…such confessions of diabolic sexual attack were merely excuses to cover up the evidence of masturbation or X  elicit affairs. Folklore, 2003.


1. b); 2. b); 3. a); 4. b); 5. a).

** There is also an obsolete adjective elicit, defined by the OED as “Of an act: Evolved immediately from an active power or quality; opposed to imperate.”




Portuguese words in English: marmalade, mangoes, and maracas

There’s something so very very English (or British) about marmalade.

It’s not on the list of 100 English icons voted for by the public, but a full English Breakfast is.

And without marmalade, a full English Breakfast would, to my mind, be, um, well, half empty.

It turns out that even D. H. Lawrence — that writer of that “not very British” lubricious poem about figs — made it, as can be deduced from what sounds like a WI motivational quote (“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.”)


Naturalized Brit Ruby Wax said, “I once did an on-line interview where I had to write the answers to the questions. I never speak that slowly. It was like having sex in marmalade.”

Noel Coward opined that

“Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.”

Virginia Woolf’s husband listed it as one of the ingredients of, presumably, a highly nourishing tea:

A spread of boiled haddock, apple tart, tea, toast, butter, marmalade, & cake in front of a huge fire awaited us.

L. Woolf , Let. 30 Nov., 1917

Yes, all in all, it’s a very British institution, but it’s also one of those thousands of words English has borrowed from other languages – Portuguese in this instance.

So British is it, in fact, that it first appeared in English (1480, in the form marmelate) a full sixty years before its appearance in any other European language, besides Portuguese.

Words from Portuguese

Portuguese loanwords in English cannot compete numerically with those from the other Western Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian). Nevertheless, the OED lists 398 (compared, for instance, to more than four times that number for Spanish, at 1748).

English borrowed them from Portuguese, but Portuguese borrowed them too.

A handful of these 398 words derive(d) from existing Portuguese words, e.g. lambada (from lambar, “to beat, to whip”). But most draw on the many languages with which Portuguese merchants, explorers and seamen came into contact during Portugal’s history as a seafaring and colonizing power. (In fact, Portugal was the last European colonizer to relinquish a colony, when East Timor achieved independence in 2002.)

'Vasco da Gama' (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838. In the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

‘Vasco da Gama’ (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by Antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838. In the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Because of this rich colonial history, Portuguese has one of the highest number of mother-tongue speakers in the world: ranking sixth, according to the Ethnologue, below Arabic and above Bengali.

An exotic cornucopia

In their search for the fabled spices of the East and other precious commodities, the Portuguese traded in much of the known world, particularly Africa and the Far East, and, of course, Brazil (now the country with the largest number of Portuguese speakers). Many of the words Portuguese has given to English reflect encounters with local flora and fauna, e.g. cougar, jaguar, macaw, mongoose, and mango. Others describe artefacts encountered in indigenous cultures, e.g. fetish, marimba, and maracas.

We first encounter many of these Portuguese loanwords in late-sixteenth- or seventeenth-century English translations of foreign explorers’ descriptions of the lands they visited, translations that vividly convey contemporary fascination with the “new worlds” being opened up to Europeans.

Varied origins of Portuguese loanwords

As varied as the meanings of those words are their origins. While Portuguese was the immediate vehicle for transmission into English, the Portuguese language itself often “borrowed” them from other languages, including Arabic, Indian subcontinent languages such as Malayalam and Marathi, and African and South American languages. Mango and maraca illustrate that; the first is probably immediately either from Malayalam māṅṅa, a Dravidian Indian language related to Tamil, or from Malay mangga, and before that in either case from Tamil mankay, from man “mango tree” + kay “fruit”; the second is from Tupi or Guaraní, both South American languages.

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But marmalade has a longer, European history

…if you go back far enough.

The immediate source is the Portuguese word for “quince”, marmelo + the suffix -ada (= -ade).

By Brigitte E.M. Daniel, 2000.

By Brigitte E.M. Daniel, 2000.

As the OED explains, originally marmalade referred to “a preserve consisting of a sweet, solid, quince jelly resembling chare de quince [= “quince flesh”] but with the spices replaced by flavourings of rose water and musk or ambergris, and cut into squares for eating”.

It must therefore have been similar to the luscious, toothsome quince jelly that is now fashionable as an accompaniment to cheese. Often, it is the imported Spanish delicacy dulce de membrillo (literally, “sweet of quince”, the Spanish word membrillo deriving, like the Portuguese, from Latin.)


That quince jelly (chare de quince) is mentioned in the Paston Letters:

I pray yow that ye wol send me a booke wyth chardeqweyns that I may have of in the mo[r]nyngges, for the eyeres be not holsom in this town.

1451, M. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 247,

(I assume that “booke” here reflects this OED meaning:  “A packet of some other commodity bound together for ease of handling or dispensing”.)

Later, as the OED explains: “Subsequently: a conserve made by boiling fruits (now usually oranges and other citrus fruits) in water…typically containing embedded shreds of rind…Often with the name of the fruit or other dominant ingredient prefixed, as apricotonionquince When none is specified, orange marmalade is now usually meant.”

Which explains why onion marmalade is so called, though it seems a long way from jentacular marmalade.

[I wanted an adjective relating to breakfast that isn’t breakfast used attributively , and jentacular is it — such a shame it is obsolete.]

Where does the word marmelo come from?

It didn’t descend angelically out of thin air.

In etymology, the “less than” < symbol is used to show the source language on the right, and the receiving language on the left, e.g. English < French. But, as we read from left to right, I think it’s easier to reverse the direction and the symbols, which gives us this for the long road marmalade has travelled.

Classical Greek  μῆλον mēlon (= apple), μέλι meli = (honey)

> Hellenistic Greek μελίμηλον melímēlon (summer-apple, apple grafted on quince)

> classical Latin mēlomeli (honey flavoured with quinces) + melimēla (plural) (a variety of sweet apple)

> post-classical Latin malomellum (quince or sweet apple).

> Portuguese marmelo (1527) but marmeleira (quince orchard, 973).

As the OED suggests, “Close medieval trading relations between England and Portugal may account for the very early borrowing of the Portuguese word in English.”

So there we have it: a word for a quintessentially British preserve whose roots can ultimately be traced back, if you like, to Homer and beyond.

many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground,
aye, root and apple blossom therewith.

πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γε προθέλυμνα χαμαὶ βάλε δένδρεα μακρὰ
αὐτῇσιν ῥίζῃσι καὶ αὐτοῖς ἄνθεσι μήλων.
Homer, Iliad, Bk 9, l. 542.

I don’t have a sweet tooth, really. I think I’ll go and have some Marmite on toast.

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“A while” or “awhile”; “for a while” or “for awhile”?

“See you later, alligator” – “In awhile, crocodile”

This catchphrase of the 1950s greatly amused my brother and me when very young. awhile_bill_haleySaying goodbye, you would gigglingly go “See you later, alligator” and the other person would reply “In awhile, crocodile.”

Or should that be “In a while”?

If you google “In awhile, crocodile”, Google wags its finger at you and asks if you mean “in a while”.

That question goes straight to the crux. Is it “in a while” or “in awhile” (not to mention “after a while/awhile” “once in a while/awhile”, etc., etc.)

The spelling variation happens because there are two distinct “words”: the noun while, meaning “a period of time” and the adverb awhile, meaning “for a short time”.

The noun we use now descends from the Old English noun hwíl, first recorded in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, before 888, and is related to the modern German die Weile, meaning “while”.

The adverb awhile was, ironically, not written as two words until the thirteenth century and is a combination of the noun to give áne hwíle “(for) a while”. It is first recorded in Beowulf.


  • Following a preposition (e.g. after awhile), awhile is accepted in some US sources, but not in British ones, and is more common in North American English, though not unknown in British. (2.2, 3.2, 4.1-2)
  • Possible overgeneralization of the statement that “awhile is an adverb” means it is used in cases where most people would write “a while”. (2.3)
  • In many contexts there are two possible grammatical interpretations. (2.1, 4.3)
  • The verb used with the word/phrase can heavily influence the spelling as one word or two.


Is there a rule?

Various online grammar sites propose rules that can be summarized as follows:

1.1 Awhile is an adverb. Being an adverb, it modifies a verb. It means “for a short time”. Therefore, if you can replace it with the phrase “for a short time”, you are using it correctly:

We lingered awhile by the pool –> We lingered by the pool for a short time.

(The unspoken corollary of this is that after any verb awhile should be used, which is not true, as explained at 2.1 below).

1.2 If you cannot replace awhile with “for a short time”, you should write the two words separately. Therefore, “I’ll be with you in a while” is correct because otherwise you would have “in for a short time”, i.e. with two incompatible prepositions.

1.3A while” should be written as two words when it is is a noun phrase. Online examples given are a) “We have a while left to wait” (have requires a direct object, which ought to make it clear that while functions as a noun here), and b) “I saw her a while ago”. awhile_new-yorker-cartoon

1.4 As an adverb, awhile cannot follow a preposition, therefore “in awhile” is incorrect.

Such rules attempt to give simple, straightforward explanations. However, they can be somewhat circular. Write it as two words if it’s a noun – but how do you recognize it as a noun in the first place? Apart from the circularity, they do not seem to allow for:

2.1 It is not only words classed as adverbs that fulfil adverbial functions. You can also use noun phrases as adjuncts (of time duration), in which case certain prepositions are optional, e.g. l stayed there for a week/month/year, etc. Accordingly, it would be quite reasonable to interpret the sentence in 1.1 above as of this kind, i.e. “We lingered for  a while by the pool”.

(The Oxford Online Dictionary recognizes this in its category 1.1 of while, with examples such as “Can I keep it a while?”)

2.2 Second, a sizeable minority of English speakers do in fact write “for/in/after/ etc. awhile”.

This use is recognized, for example, in the Merriam-Webster online usage note: “Although considered a solecism by many commentators, awhile, like several other adverbs of time and place, is often used as the object of a preposition <for awhile there is a silence — Lord Dunsany>.”

2.3 Third, adhering blindly to, or misinterpreting, the rule “if it modifies a verb”, often leads to uses like this, which many people would regard as wrong: awhile_calmdown

Conversely, “a while” as two words is often used following verbs, where the rule at 1.1 above states that it should be one word.

If you happen to walk down your local high street today, pause a Proustian moment by the open doorway of Greggs and linger a while.

Daily Telegraph, 2012

(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Greggs is a chain of food outlets selling economically priced sandwiches, cakes, etc. Hence the irony of the quotation.)

2.4 Certain adverbs can and do follow prepositions, e.g. since yesterday, for once.

Holy mackerel! So what do I write when, please!

3.1 You could test that you are dealing with a noun phrase. Try substituting another “duration” noun phrase in your sentence. In the example in the image above: “It just took me | some time / a few minutes / several hours / etc. to get loose and calm down”.

Using that substitution works for the sentences at 1.2 and 1.3: “I’ll be with you in| a while / a few minutes / seconds / etc. ”

We have| a while / an hour / several hours / etc. left to wait

I saw her| a while / an hour / a day or two / etc. ago

3.2 When it comes to prepositions, usage varies. To write “in awhile, for awhile, once in awhile” etc. is more frequent in American English than in British English. (See 4 for a few figures.)

The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage gives it its blessing, and quotes several examples, e.g. …he had dosed it for awhile with an elm compress soaked in whiskey. Garrison Keillor, WLT: A Radio Romance, 1991.

In contrast, the OED (admittedly, the unrevised entry of 1885) categorically proclaims:  “Improperly written together, when there is no unification of sense, and while is purely a n.”

You have been warned!

Its first quotation, from Caxton, in 1489, shows, however, that said “impropriety” has been around a very long time.

It was doon but awhyle agoon.

tr. C. de Pisan Bk. Fayttes of Armes i. xxiii. 72


Do usage and style guides help?

Neither the Economist, nor the Telegraph, nor the Guardian style guide mentions the issue.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edn) says, echoing online advice, but disagreeing with Merriam-Webster:

awhile; a while. The one-word version is adverbial {let’s stop here awhile}. The two-word version is a noun phrase that follows the preposition for or in {she worked for a while before beginning graduate studies}.”

The M-W Concise Dictionary of English Usage allows for preposition + awhile, quoting examples with “for/after/once in awhile” and justifying this by referring to a comment in Quirk et al., 1985 that “some adverbs of time and place do occur after prepositions” (see 5).

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, under the entry awhile, says that “More of its uses are sanctioned in the US” and concludes by saying that “Separating awhile into a while may seem to make too much of what is – after all – a vague time period.”

I suspect many editors would disagree.


For most people, the distinction probably doesn’t matter a tinker’s cuss. In contrast, many editors and writers will no doubt have firm views on the matter.

Although a while as two words far outnumbers awhile in the Oxford English Corpus, a minority use it in contexts where most people prefer the two-word form.

There are some contexts in which it seems impossible to come down firmly in favour of one spelling over the other (see 4.3)


4 A few facts and figures

From the Oxford English Corpus (March 2013 release)

4.1 As simple strings

awhile = 11,520 (10.4% of total occurrences)
a while = 98, 770 (89.6%)

Of those 11,520 awhile examples, 7,745 (67.2%) are North American (US, Canada) and 801 (7%) are British English.

Conversely, of the a while examples, 44,060 (44.6%) are North American, and 22,998 (23.3%) are British.

Taking all examples of both spellings, there is a marked difference: the North American percentage ratio of a while:awhile is 85:15% while the British is 96.6:3.4%

4.2 After certain prepositions
The combinations for/in/after a while/awhile broadly reflect the overall percentages, with the single-word spelling hovering round the ten per cent mark.

Turning to specific collocations, of the 4,874 examples of “for awhile”, 3,317 (68%) are North American and 270 (5.5%) British English. With “for a while”, this changes to 20,173 (42%) and 12,096 (25%).

The percentage ratios are therefore 85.9:14.1% for N. Amer. English and 99.4:0.6% for British English, i.e. even more marked for British English than for the overall ratio of the two forms.


4.3 In my mental lexicon at least, awhile still has a sub-poetic or quaint ring, collocating with verbs such as tarry, linger, and the like, or in rare set phrases such as not yet awhile.

However, in the Oxford English Corpus it collocates – though in fairly small numbers – with a range of verbs related to speech (chat, talk), relaxed states (rest, chill, sleep) and mental activity (muse, meditate). Its two most common verb collocates are wait and take.

For most of these verbs, it looks to me like a moot (British English meaning, i.e. debatable) point whether to interpret the combination as verb + adverb or verb + noun phrase used adverbially: people clearly do both.

Browsers take awhile to catch up to state-of-the-art from scratch.

The Mac Observer, 2012.

In this case, awhile as an adverb of duration could be compared with forever (though that’s the only one I can think of).

The results are impressive. The problem is that it can take a while to process the shot.

The Mac Observer, 2011.

In this case, a while could be replaced by another noun phrase, such as some time, quite some time, a few minutes, etc. awhile_Obamacare

I can see no meaning difference between the two. Perhaps a wiser head than mine can. However, as 4.4 illustrates, the choice of verb does seem to have a marked effect on spelling.

4.4 The collocates of a while and awhile for all parts of speech are very similar, and similar in relative frequency, in a span of two preceding and one following word. When it comes to verbs, there are many overlaps but also some interesting differences.

4.4.1 The most frequent verb lemma with both is TAKE. It accounts for 47% of all verb collocations with awhile, whereas with a while the figure is 62%, which might suggest that TAKE exerts a strong influence on the two-word spelling, in line with while being interpreted here as its noun object. (See examples at 4.3.)

With SPEND, a while has 292 (96.4%) examples, awhile a mere 11, illustrating an even stronger influence than for take.

This is on page 99, at which point he’s spent a while seeking to disprove that god exists (no capital g for Him).

Daily Telegraph, 2013

This was after she spent awhile attacking me, of course.

Canadian English blog, 2004.

4.4.2 With the lemma WAIT, the percentage ratio of a while:awhile is 85.2:14:8%, i.e. a higher percentage of awhile than in the overall figures at 4.1.

We had planned on doing another mile or so by the River Hull but here the grasses on the floodbank were rank and it was like walking in knee-high snow. One can’t whinge, and this route can wait a while until the powerful herd of 25 creamy cattle have eaten their way through.

The Press (York, UK), 2005

But I suspect that Hillary Clinton will wait awhile until more of these precincts have reported.

CNN transcripts, 2008.

4.4.3 In contrast, with the lemma STAY, the ratio of a while:awhile is 56.4:43.6%, suggesting that STAY exerts a strong attraction for the single-word form.

4.4.4 Finally, with REST the split comes even closer to being 50:50, with 63 (52.5%) examples for a while and 57 (47.5%) for awhile, suggesting a very strong influence by the verb on the single-word form.

There is always something happening in a Glazunov symphony, even if you do feel that he could do with resting a while and taking stock.

Scotland on Sunday, 2004

Time to rest awhile before regaining strength ready for next week.

Boris Johnson, blog, 2005


4.5 In all the following examples, taken from, it seems to me that either spelling could be used, depending on where you are, and personal preference. However, the spellings shown reflect the tendencies previously described.

But if they give him The Tonight Show back, maybe it ends up all right after a while

Starlings foray across the land and rest awhile on the sunlit twigs of ash.

After a while, Rawls came in to let another set of children have a chance. 

Crazy Horse watched this awhile and then rode down the river where some men were going out to repair the talking wires. 

We’ve been talking for a while when Baroness Campbell of Surbiton suddenly cuts to the chase, and leaves me speechless.

Beyond the bar, soft white leather booths beckon you to sit, take off your coat and stay awhile

5 Quirk et al., 1985, 5.64, p. 282.

“A number of adverbs signifying time and place function as complement of a preposition.”

Because for and after often co-occur with a while, relevant examples taken from Quirk et al. are after| then/today/yesterday/now, and for| today/always/ever/once.

And here are Bill Haley and his Comets with the original song.



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

What’s in a name?

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

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

Bloody Mary


My favourite cocktail

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

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

Who is this Mary, anyway?

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


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


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

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

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

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When was Queen Mary first called “bloody”?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the drink, then?

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

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

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

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

Punch,  15 Aug., 1956.

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

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

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

Mmmm, perhaps not that simple after all.

A Virgin Mary…

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

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

Five Roads to Death, J. Philips, 1977.

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

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

Murder at Moose Jaw, T. Heald, 1981

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

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

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

by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, 1554

Mary Tudor, by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, 1554

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bit embarrassing really!


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

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

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

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

What’s the problem?

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

Quick answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1 When two become one, or the urge to merge

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

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

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

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

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

2 any|more as time adverbial any_more_keep_calm

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

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

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


2.1 Modern examples of the alternative spellings

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

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

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

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


2.2 Regional preferences

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

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

2.3 Online dictionaries say…

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

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

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

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

2.4 Style & usage guides say…

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

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

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


3 Any + more as two words

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

This Cambridge Dictionary link explains this basic point.

2 more as pronoun – often followed by of:

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

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

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

3 any more as adjunct:

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

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


4 more modifying adjective:

a) as subject/object complement

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

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

4 b) premodifying noun group

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

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

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

5 any more modifying adverb

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


3.1  Non-standard uses of anymore

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

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

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

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

4 Dataset details

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

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

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


Alice bands and Alice in Wonderland

What’s in a name?

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

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


A male-dominated field

As in so many areas, when it comes to items of apparel [*] or ornament there is a severe gender imbalance. While the list of male-named clothes includes wellies, cardigans, knickers, leotards, raglan sleeves, Nehru jackets, Mao collars, Van Dyke collars, Prince Alberts, etc., the roll call of those named after women is rather shorter. One that easily springs to mind is Alice band.

Alice band – a flexible hairband of cloth, elastic, plastic, or other material that women and girls wear to keep their hair in place.

The Alice in question is the protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) [AAIW] and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found there [TL-G] 1871. The term was obviously inspired by (Sir John) Tenniel’s (1820-1914) illustrations, but was first recorded only as late as 1944, at least according to the OED.

Now you see it, now you don’t.
Alice in Wonderland vs Through the Looking Glass

In Tenniel’s illustrations (woodblock engravings) for AAIW, Alice is not once portrayed wearing anything in her hair. In the whole text the word hair is only mentioned seven times, including at the Mad Tea-Party (often known as the “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party”, though Carroll did not use the phrase “mad hatter”) alice_b-w-teaparty

“Your hair wants cutting,”

said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,”

Alice said with some severity;

“it’s very rude.”

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was,

“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”


Nearly at the very end of the story, Alice’s older sister (who is nameless) also falls into a dream, in which “she could hear the very tones of her [Alice’s] voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes”.

In TL-G, where Alice’s hair plays a more important role, aliceAlice is uniformly presented as having her formerly unruly hair kept in place by what looks like a broad ribbon tied in a neat bow. Such a hairstyle seems to have been standard for Victorian girls at the time.

In 1890, Tenniel selected, adapted and added colour to 20 of his original illustrations from AAIW for a nursery version (complete set of images at the British Library: here). Perhaps by this stage Alice’s ribbon or headband had become an integral part of her image: at any rate, Tenniel added one, which the original illustration lacked, as well as making changes to Alice’s dress. [***]


Illustration from The Nursery Alice.

Illustration from AAIW.

Illustration from AAIW.

A male accessory?

But Alice bands are not worn only by women or girls. Footballers with long hair also wear them to keep their locks out of their faces when playing the beautiful game. The first sleb footballer to have worn one seems to have been uber-metrosexual David Beckham alice_band_Beckham_Hair8. Others have emulated him, including Ronaldo. But the fashion is still hardly mainstream: when Gareth Bale wore one, it was newsworthy enough – at least in the eyes of the journo who wrote it – to merit comment on The Independent’s website.

Tangentially, there is also a question of definition: when does an “Alice band” become a “headband”? It must be all to do with the width of the band, as in this photo of Nadal.