Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


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.

Guerrilla: the word’s backstory

The word guer(r)illa has become so “English” that it is easy to overlook its Iberian origins, which date to the time of the Peninsular War (1808–1814) against Napoleon.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on Spain, previously his ally, an event which ushered in a prolonged period of violent and prolonged national and nationalist struggle against the French. In some ways, that period can be viewed as the first modern war of national liberation.

The central administration of the Spanish State was in complete disarray, and local juntas (another Spanish word) took it upon themselves to help organize resistance. That resistance was largely in the hands of civilians, loosely organized in militias, who avoided pitched battles and either harassed French troops on the march or fiercely defended cities under siege.

“The Defence of Saragossa”, Sir David Wilkie, 1828, The Royal Collection.

Those militias were known as guerrillas. Their heroic defence of their homeland (la patria), notably in the legendary siege of Saragossa, really captured the British public’s imagination.1

At the request of three of the juntas, the British sent troops under the command of the then Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley,

Wellesley bedecked with medals, painted by Goya, and looking hesitant and untriumphal (1812-1814, National Gallery, London).

better known to us as the Duke of Wellington . It is in his dispatches of 1809, according to the OED (which gives only the year, not the month or day) that the word makes its first appearance in English.

I have recommended to the Junta to set…the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

The meaning here as defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online is “A member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces.”

“little war”

The word for “war” in Spanish is guerra (ignore the u, and pronounce the vowels as in guess). Adding –illo or –illa, classed as a “diminutive suffix”, to a word often implies smallness or littleness, so guerrilla is in very literal terms a “little war.”

According to the Spanish Royal Academy’s historical corpus, the word first appears in the classic account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas’ History of the Indies meaning precisely, and somewhat disparagingly, a “little war”, for example:

They had some little wars about the borders and boundaries of their lands and dominions, but all of them were like children’s games and were easily calmed.”2

A traditional Spanish dish makes use of the same suffix: gambas al ajillo, succulent prawns in a tangy garlicky sauce. Ajo is the word for “garlic”, and ajillo refers to chopped garlic and the sauce made from it. And of course, just about any British tapas restaurant is bound to offer Spanish omelette, tortilla, which adds –illa to the word torta.

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

1The Scottish Sir David Wilkie, who was the “Royal Limner” (i.e. painter) in Scotland, was one of the first professional artists to visit Spain after the War of Independence, and was deeply influenced by seeing the paintings of Velázquez and Murillo. 
2Algunas guerrillas tenían sobre los límites y términos de sus tierras y señoríos, pero todas ellas eran como juegos de niños y fácilmente se aplacaban.


Thirty commonly confused words in English


Lost and Confused Signpost

Dozens of words are all too easy to confuse. Their’s [sic] the notorious case of its’s/its, not to mention there/they’re/their, your/you’re, and other obvious spelling mistakes caused by two words sounding the same, that is, being homophones as they’re known in the trade.

But then there are a host of others which are less frequently used, or are used mostly in formal or literary writing and in journalism. Since some readers of those genres undoubtedly love to pounce on any mistakes, it could be embarrassing to write one instead of the other.

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

“All the evidence suggests…”

This is not a list of my subjective bugbears and personal tics. (How very dare you suggest that I have any such thing!) Far from it. It is based on what I’ve noticed in reading or editing over the years, and on what I’ve heard/hear. I have corroborated that observation/listening in the first place by seeing how often these pairs are discussed in online editorial forums and how often questions about them are entered as Google searches.


Second, for many of these posts I have looked at corpus data — chiefly from the Oxford English Corpus, but also from other corpora — to get an idea of how widespread the phenomenon of — let’s call it “meaning swapping” — is, and what its geographical spread might be.

Looking at data not only counterbalances the “frequency effect” (i.e. once we’ve noticed and mentally noted a linguistic occurrence, we see it everywhere), it can also produce surprising results: what BrE speaker would have thunk that, as far as I can see, hone in is now the “norm”, not only in US English but in nearly all varieties?

Apart from looking at corpus evidence, I have also often noted what dictionaries and usage guides say about the question so that you, gentle reader, can make up your own mind.

Why bother?

You mean, “Wotevah! Why bovver, whichever version people use?”

Lots of people have that laissez-faire attitude, but quite a few people are bovvered — sometimes very, very bovvered. And people, such as editors and  proofreaders, whose business it is to “correct” others’ writing, earn their living by being bothered.

Those people who Google questions about these pairs may not be particularly bothered, but they are, at the least, curious to find an unequivocal answer. In fact, after — sigh, “what is the first word in the dictionary” — the most common search terms that bring people to this site are “whereas or where as”, “defuse or diffuse” and “ascribe to or subscribe to.”

Here's a feline-themed homophone.

Here’s a feline-themed homophone.

As you can see, they’re a very mixed bag as regards meaning. What links nearly all of them, though — with the exception of coruscating/excoriating — is the very close similarity between the member of the pair. In some cases, just like they’re/their/there, but depending to an extent on accent, they are true homophones, e.g. veracious/voracious, illusive/elusive.

Here’s the complete list in alpha order:

There are plenty of others; I may add them to the list as time goes on.

  • phase / faze (verbs)

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

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

a phased withdrawal of troops.

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

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

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

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

  • exasperate / exacerbate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few examples of exasperate being used instead of the collocationally more standard exacerbate. 

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

Given the history of exasperate, and its multiple meanings other than the most common one of “to annoy”, it might, arguably, be difficult to maintain that it is wrong in that context.

This is an updated version of the page with which I first introduced this series of 30 easily confused words.

1 Comment

Spanish colour words: meaning and grammar (2/3) “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.

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 (1/3)

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.

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.

In the Bard’s work too…

Shakespeare used the word(s), e.g.

Let the lawes of Rome determine all,
Meane while am I possest of that is mine.

Titus Andronicus i. i. 405, 1594.

but much more often he used (in the) meantime, as when Portia says:

For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over:
When it is paid, bring your true friend along.
My maid Nerissa and myself meantime
Will live as maids and widows. Come, away!
For you shall hence upon your wedding-day:

Merchant of Venice, iii. ii. 318 ff., 1600.

Modern usage follows Shakespeare. In the GloWbE corpus (Global Web-based English), in the meantime is 20 times more frequent than in the meanwhile.


Two poetic “meanwhiles”

And, as I was writing this, the last words of Auden’s Friday’s Child, in memory of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, floated into my head:

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

And then a “virtual” colleague made this comment, which I had to add:

“One of my favourite lines from the great Flann O’Brien, where the narrator in The Third Policeman describes his mother: ‘She was always making tea to pass the time, and singing snatches of old songs to pass the meantime.'”

1Witness the kerfuffle* when, in 2013, Associated Press (AP) changed its ruling about “under way” being two words in most contexts to “underway” in all contexts. Editors can be an OCDish lot – after all, part of their job consists in weeding out and correcting things that most people don’t even notice – and one such editor tweeted “I can’t be the only one who is outraged that AP is changing its style from ‘under way’ to ‘underway,’ am I?”

Copy-editing, it could be argued, is a profession whose motto invalidates the old Latin motto de minimis non est curandum (“Don’t sweat the small stuff” or, literally, “It is not to be worried about trivia”).

Whether that be true or not, conventions iz conventions, and the fact that most people abide by them makes them worth sticking to.

* An originally Scottish word, spelt curfuffle.


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



Previously, I talked about how editing papers by non-mother tongue speakers can sometimes severely test my native speaker intuitions about English.  I mentioned slightly atypical word choice as one recurrent issue, and odd collocation as another.

Quick takeaways

  1. There is considerable variation in global English between abreast of /with. With seems to be commoner in countries where English, while an official or second language, is less used than elsewhere.
  2. Analogy and history suggest that it is impossible to say that one version is “correct ” in all circumstances.
  3. Use of one or the other form seems to depend not only on where in the English-speaking world you are, but also on the register. In some academic writing, “with” is standard.

Abreast with?!?!?!


I came across abreast with in an academic paper and it caused me some head-scratching.

The complete phrase was: “He distinguished five dimensions related to Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: civic virtue (keeping abreast with important organizational affairs)…

“(Shome mishtake, shurely? Ed),” thought I to myself, “abreast of is canonical and abreast with a mistake”. On the other hand, I did not amend it and decided to check.

Analogy is such a powerful factor in language: many synonyms of abreast in this meaning take with as their preposition.  The Oxford Online Dictionary offers ten synonyms, of which eight take with, e.g. up to date with.

It seemed clear to me that non-mother tongue speakers would find it logical to use with, as the standard linking preposition. Moreover, they would probably have come across some of those synonyms rather more often than the less frequent abreast of , with its seemingly anomalous preposition.

The usage guides I normally use were of no help, and there was little discussion online, so I consulted corpora.

The first was the Oxford English Corpus.

Shock! Horror!

In the February 2014 release, abreast of appeared only seven times, while abreast with came up well over 100 times, e.g.

She said because technology keeps changing, her company would not want to remain behind but to keep updating their network so as to keep abreast with the latest communication technology.

Reviewing those examples raised in me the suspicion that the figure was high because of regional variation combined with journalistic preference. First, abreast with occurs with far greater than expected frequency in South African, Indian and Caribbean sources; second, in each of those segments its use is confined to a handful of newspapers, e.g. The Times of Zambia, The Hindu, etc.

But my surprise was even greater when I checked in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, journals, of June 2015: stay / keep abreast with = 48; abreast of = 2.

Does the choice of preposition depend on register and domain then, as well as region?

It would seem so.

It also depends on where in the English-speaking world you are from

I checked in four other corpora: The Corpus of Historical American, The Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW Corpus, and the Corpus of Global Web-based English. To simplify matters, I searched for the lemmas of KEEP and STAY only. The figures are these:

CORPUS  (size) dates keep abreast of keep abreast with stay abreast of stay abreast with
COHA (400 mill.) 1810s–2000s 202 (93.5%) 14 (6.5%) 15 (100%) 0
COCA (520 mill.) 1990–2015 195 (97.5%) 5 (2.5%) 86 (96.6%) 3 (3.4%)
NOW (2.8 bill.) 20 countries 2010–yesterday 1252 (83.3%) 251 (16.7%) 488 (92.6%) 39 (7.4%)
GloWbE (1.9 bill.) 20 countries 2012–2013 969 (83.6%) 188 (16.4%) 333 (92%) 29 (8%)

What strikes me is the difference between keep abreast of in  data from a single country (COHA, COCA) and from 20 countries.

Moreover, doing a less focused search for abreast + 1 – which brings in verb variants such as REMAIN, BE, MAINTAIN, etc. – reveals discrepancies between different varieties of English.

For example, while the percentage for of in US English is 93.7%, in Indian English it is 70.2%, in Malaysian English 58.4%, and in Ghanaian English a mere 33.8%.

abreast_english_speakersGrouping the 20 varieties of English in GloWbE gives this intriguing result for of:

(In descending order within each grouping)

100–90%:  Canada, US, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, Jamaica, GB
80–90%:    NZ, Zambia, Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka
70–80%:   Tanzania, Pakistan, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, India
50–60%     Malaysia
30–40%     Ghana


Of the eight dictionaries I consulted (both native-speaker and learners dictionaries), only the Oxford Advanced Learners (OALD) had an example showing with:”It’s important to keep abreast with the latest legislation.” In addition, the Collins English Dictionary, while containing no examples at all, did mark the relevant meaning as (followed by of or with). Seven dictionaries had examples also for the literal meaning – to be alongside or level with someone or something – all exclusively with of.

The long view: historically speaking

A search in the revised (2009) OED, however, reveals several interesting things. For the physical meaning:

  • it gives the phrase as abreast of (also with);
  • the first citation for that meaning (1635) has with;
  • of 11 citations (dated 1635–1994), four have with.

The metaphorical meaning is category b) of the phrase as laid out above, with the additional note “Freq[uently]. to keep abreast of:

  • of 11 citations for that meaning (spanning 1644–2005), seven are with;
  • they range from 1644 through the 19th and 20th centuries

(There are choice examples at the end, for the really keen.)

Conclusion? And the moral is…?

For this editor, the moral of the story is:  don’t jump to conclusions.

  1. Given that the authors of the article which was my starting point were from the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait, and that the medium was an academic article, leaving with seems the correct decision  to me.
  2. Second, it shows that even something as apparently simple as a compound preposition admits of perfectly legitimate variation. It may not be part of my (or your) idiolect, but that doesn’t matter.
  3. Third, as is not unusual, the alternatives are not a “modern invention”, but instead have a long history.
  4. To insist that the version one prefers is the only correct one, in the face of global variation, is to bury one’s head in the sand and be a linguistic martinet.
  5. And last of all, at the risk of stating the obvious, any editor working on international material needs to be aware that there are variations other than the oft-raised British vs US English.


The interweb being what it is, images for “keeping abreast of ” were as you might imagine. As I like my images, this will have to do instead. abreast_mammogram-instagram-breast-cancer-awareness-reminders-ecards-someecards


Examples: literal

The three next men behind him, move forwards to the left of each other; untill they ranke even a brest with their file-leader.

W. Barriffe, Military Discipline xxxvii. 104, 1635.

Facing about, he march’d up abreast with her to the sopha.

Sterne, Tristram Shandy IX. xxv. 101, 1767.

He is abreast of the white man, who has paused.

W. Faulkner, As I lay Dying lii. 155, 1930.


Though some conceive him to be as much beneath a Poet, as above a Rhimer, in my opinion his Verses may go abreast with any of that age.

T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Shrop. 9, a1661.

The compromises by which they endeavoured to keep themselves abreast of the current of the day.

Scott Redgauntlet (new ed.) I. p. xxi,  1832.

 I had written my diary so far, and simply read it off to them as the best means of letting them get abreast of my own information.

B. Stoker Dracula xx. 274,  1897.

Like so many Italian composers, Verdi regarded himself primarily as a craftsman whose duty it was to keep himself abreast with the times.

Musical Times 71 559/1, 1930.

Leave a comment

“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."

“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.

Leave a comment

Elusive or illusive or allusive? Commonly confused words (17-18)

(17 & 18 of 30 commonly confused words)

Takeaways—for busy people

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

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

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

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

In written texts, X illusive is more often used by mistake than in its true meaning, though many examples are ambiguous.

  • The word allusive is also occasionally used by mistake for elusive.
  • The blog gives plenty of examples of appropriate and mistaken use.
  • If you feel confident that you already know all this, why not try the self-test at the bottom of the blog?

For the full story, read on…

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

Why does the mistake happen?

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

What is the difference?


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

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

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


Justin Timberlake trying to be elusive.

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

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

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

What about illusive?


A superb Raeburn portrait of Sir Walter Scott with his dogs.

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

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

Modern examples include:

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

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

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

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

Illusive by mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

      • …this illusive common interest, this notion of shared stakes encompassed the whole world and large majorities in almost every society .—Free India Media, 2004

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

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

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

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

The Corpus of Web-Based Global English (GloWbE) presents a similar picture.  For example, a search for illusive and any words following within three spaces yields this top ten:

man, quality, power, concept, nature, dream, leopard, creatures, happiness, desire.

Nearly all the quotations for man are for the “Illusive Man” in a video game. I have no idea whether the word is a deliberate pun in this context.

Of the remainder, quality, concept, leopard, and creatures self-evidently match elusive.  Dream and desire similarly correspond to illusive; power, nature, and happiness could go with either, but in the GloWbE contexts are appropriately described as illusive. 


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

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

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

Which is it better to use?

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

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

So that’s that all sorted out, then

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

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

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

More mistaken examples:

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

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

Fun test

Choose between allusive, elusive, and illusory:

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

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


“All of a sudden” or “all of the sudden”? And “out of the sudden”?


Ain’t English wonderful!

Or, more truthfully, ain’t its speakers wonderful!

Despite all attempts to confine the language, some speakers will always manage to wriggle out of any straitjacket. Here’s a case in point: there’s a standard adverbial all of a sudden. But there’s also a minority variant, ?all of the sudden. And then there’s ?out of the sudden.

Actually, while all of a sudden trips naturally off the tongue or the keyboard (to coin a phrase), its grammar is mildly interesting for the reasons given at the end of this blog. But back to the topic in hand…

Quick takeaways

  • All of the sudden is used – by a minority of speakers, possibly younger speakers.
  • Most people will consider it wrong.
  • Historically, there has been a lot of a/the variation in the slot “of – sudden”, but not with all of a sudden.
  • Contrary to rumour, the Bard of Avon did not coin  the phrase all of a sudden (see citations lower down).

All of the sudden

“Don’t be daft!” I hear you say. “Nobody says that, do they?” (“Pshaw and fiddlesticks. Pig ignorance, I call it!”)

We can’t tell exactly how many people say it, but it does occur in written corpus sources. In the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA), all of the sudden occurs 294 times, compared to all of a sudden’s whopping 6,836 occurrences.

What’s noticeable, first, is that the biggest chunk is in the spoken segment (58%). In the academic segment there is just one example.

Second, frequency, though still very low, seems to be increasing over time: from 0.3 per million (1990–1995) to 0.67 (2010–2015).

Third, the percentage in COCA of all of the sudden out of the totals of both versions is 4.1%, so it’s very much a minority phrasing – at the moment. Similarly small percentages are reflected in the data in the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE) and in the NOW (News on the Web) corpus – 5.3% and 3.7%.

Fourth – and many British speakers will sigh, shake their heads, and tut-tut at this point – all of the sudden is chiefly US and Canadian: in NOW it is seven times more frequent per million words in US English than in British English.


Out of the sudden

You what? Yessiree!

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

I heard an American witness to the horrific events in Nice using the phrase. It was completely new to me, so I thought I’d check it out. A Google “…” search throws up 169,000 results. I skimmed  the first few pages. Of course, many of them are not a set phrase at all, but rather out of  + DET/the + ADJ/sudden + N, e.g.  “…when we stepped into the lively, warm, candlelit bar out of the sudden April downpour, it was a welcome sight.”

But many of them are the set phrase, e.g.

Yesterday I played a bit with the setup, enjoyed some games on FBA and then out of the sudden, the hotkey has no function anymore.

What is one to make of this? It looks like a combination of out of the (blue) + (all of a/the) sudden.

It’s not really a standard eggcorn: there is no obvious homophone link  — all of a/out of the are hard to confuse, aren’t they?; there is no clear meaning re-interpretation, because the change is largely syntactic; and it affects more than a single word. But, hey presto, there’s a potential term for it: a blidiom, i.e. an idiom blend.

Perhaps it is very much a spoken phrase, which then ends up being written online and thereby picked up by Google. That would explain why Google has so many examples despite the phrase’s rarity in both GloWbE and NOW. In the first, the string out of the sudden occurs 20 times, but only 13 are the set phrase, the other seven having a noun following; in NOW, only one out of six is the set phrase, which might just possibly reflect the fact that NOW consists of news sites, whereas GloWbE consists 60 per cent of informal blogs.

Is there any reason why it has to be all of A sudden?

Idiom, dear boy, idiom. As Fowler said “that is idiomatic which it is natural for a normal Englishman to say or write ; … ;  grammar & idiom are independent categories”.

It’s the current majority convention, but it wasn’t always so.

Historically, there has been a lot of see-sawing, not only between the indefinite/definite article, but also with the preposition: variations – without the word all – are of/on/upon/at/in + a/the + sudden.

Is it possible That loue should of a sodaine take such hold?

The Taming of the Shrew, before 1616, i. i. 145

As he gazed, he saw of a sudden a man steal forth from the wood.

Conan Doyle, White Company, 1890.

My Crop promis’d very well, when on a sudden I found I was in Danger of losing it all again.

Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719

The earliest OED (1558) citation of the phrase is in the form of the sudden:

To be…done…for more reasonable hier in hope of present payment then can be had or done upon the soden.

in A. Feuillerat Documents Office of Revels Queen Elizabeth, (1908) 17

The first citation of the “canonical” form – at least under the entry for sudden, I’m still searching elsewhere in the OED – is this, nearly 130 years later than the first, 1558, citation:

All of a sudden, and without any…previous Instructions, they were heard to speak…in the fifteen several Tongues of fifteen several Nations.

J. Scott,  Christian Life: Pt. IIII. vii. 601, 1686


A sad song in Bahasa, with translation.

Do usage guides say anything?

There was some discussion a while back on Stack Exchange. A specious suggestion that all of the sudden might be logical when referring back to an event already mentioned, thereby justifying the specificity of the definite article, received the memorably aphoristic reply: “Idiom trumps logic.” Fowler would undoubtedly have concurred.

Paul Brians’ Errors in English Usage notes it, while the Phrase Finder mentions it, attributes it wrongly to Shakespeare, and suggests it is preferred by “the young”.

Oh, and the WordPress spell checker ain’t having none of all of the sudden.

Some grammar points

  1. Sudden is primarily an adjective, but here it’s being used as a noun. There’s nothing too unusual about that in itself: “out of the blue” similarly turns an adjective into a noun.
  2. Before searching in COCA, I had expected all of a to be immediately followed by a singular noun in most cases. In contrast, nearly all examples are for the set phrase all of a sudden. The very few examples with a noun are all of the type all of a + SG N’S + SG/PL N” as in “all of a cell’s DNA/a hospital’s procedures”.
  3. The only other set phrase that crops up in COCA is all of a piece, e.g. “The aim of American movies in the thirties…was to appear seamless, all of a piece…”.
  4. All is being used here as an intensifying adverb, as in “She’s come over all shy”, a use marked in Oxford online as informal. Another example given by Oxford is “He was all of a dither.”


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

The issue

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

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

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

Quick takeaways

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

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

Meanwhile, the results of the poll embedded in this blog show that the option with most votes is that both versions are ‘correct’. Which you use is likely to depend on where you’re from, how you first heard or used the phrase, and how you parse it, among other things.

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


Lost and Confused Signpost


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

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

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

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

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

Current situation


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


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


The earliest use of the verb suffice recorded in the unrevised OED (1915) entry is from 1325:

The OED‘s first example of an impersonal use is from the Wycliffite version of the Bible:

He cam the thridde tyme, and seith to hem, Slepe ȝe nowe, and reste ȝe; sothli it sufficith.

Mark xiv. 41

There is then a separate category with the following rubric:

“Const[ruction] inf[initive] or clause with, or (formerly) without, anticipatory dummy subject it. Now chiefly in the subjunctive, suffice it, sometimes short for suffice it to say.”

The first OED citation of this use is from the Middle English (1390) Confessio Amantis, showing an infinitive as the subject of the verb:

to studie upon the worldes lore Sufficeth now withoute more.

There is one more citation before Book-of-Common-Prayerthe Book of Common Prayer on Publyke Baptisme f. iiii*v (1549) showing a similar infinitive construction.

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

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

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

An earlier citation (1692), however, has:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Suffice to Say”—a long-forgotten hit

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

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

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


No problemo! What kind of Spanish is that?


Is this a sham marriage?


Sure, baby. Is that a problemo?

Troy from The Simpsons uses problemo on its own, as a noun, but it’s usually part of “no problemo” – famously used in the Terminator movies by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Where does it come from?

Where does this little phrase come from? It’s been around since 1985 and I had thought it was now rather passé, but Google Ngrams and the Oxford Twitter corpus suggest it is still going strong.

Originally a creation of US English, it is now used in British English and elsewhere. It features in several dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

People use it broadly in two ways: to show that they are willing to do or can do what someone asks (“I can pick you up, no problemo.”), and, when being thanked for doing something, to say that it was “no trouble.”

But it also has other, often sarcastic, overtones.

Sometimes, it’s an exclamation: “Well of course ignorance of the law is no excuse but this is Hillary Clinton – so, no problemo!” gender_bender_hillary

At other times, it’s a kind of adverbial, as in this online restaurant review: “We had a lot of leftovers (SO not normal with Thai. I am a Thai addict and can polish off 6 entrees no problemo).”

Sometimes, it’s a noun: “In arguments on Arizona voting law, Scalia sees “’no problemo’ for state requirements“.

Is it Italian, Spanish, Esperanto, or what?

It’s a sort of spoof Spanish translation of the earlier (1955) English “no problem”, which has been Spanglishized by having an-o tacked on, to create a (reassuring or irritating, according to taste) little jingle.

Adding that little -o is part of a long tradition of creating cod Spanish nouns such as el creepo for a creep and El Smoggo or El Stinko as nicknames for El Paso, Texas.

To say that something was no trouble, i.e. “you’re welcome”, the traditional Spanish phrases are ¡De nada! (literally “of nothing”) and, rather more formally, ¡No hay de qué! (literally “there is not that for which [to thank me]”). People might also say ¡Un placer! or Es un placer. 


A very masculine problem

Now, if a Spanish noun ends in –o, it’s a reasonable assumption that it refers to something or someone “masculine”. A cynic might say that, since men create most of the world’s problems, it seems appropriate that the Spanish word for “problem” should be masculine. And in fact it is.

But there’s a problem: the real Spanish word is el problemA. The el shows you unambiguously that it’s got cojones, yet it ends in an –a. How come?

It is true that most Spanish nouns ending in –a are feminine. But not all of them. Common exceptions include:

    • el clima = the climate
    • un cura = a priest
    • un día = a day
    • el idioma (inglés) = the (English) language
    • el mapa = the map
    • un problema = a problem (and many other scientific or technical words ending in -ma, e.g. el plasma, el programa, el sistema)
    • el tema = the topic

There’s a kind of commonsensical yet false assumption that in Romance languages that have the –o /-a alternation (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish) any noun ending in –a must be feminine. It’s an easy mistake to make, and one I’ve made myself.

Recently arrived in Argentina, and with only embryonic Spanish, I earned extra money by giving private English lessons, mostly to ladies who lunched – and lunched rather splendidly, at that. A prospective student asked me over the phone how I was going to find my way to her house, I caused great amusement by saying that I would use *la mapa. It then became a kind of catchphrase that she could tease me with whenever I made a mistake in Spanish. Of course, I never made that particular blunder again.

English speakers, assuming that all nouns ending in –a are feminine, often sex-change the correct ¡BuenOs días! to *¡Buenas días!

Conversely, they sometimes say *¡Buenos tardes! and *¡Buenos noches! instead of ¡Buenas—.

Both la tarde and la noche are feminine.

Artists, athletes, and astronauts


Some other “masculine” nouns ending in –a denote a rather select group of professions: el artista, el atleta, el astronauta, el espía, el guía. Actually, these nouns are androgynous. You use exactly the same form for men and women, changing the “article” and other words relating to the noun as appropriate:

El famoso artista español Pablo Picasso / La famosa artista mexicana Frida Kahlo

Mata Hari es una de las espías más famosas de la historia.

In a quote that includes two of our masculine –a words, el artista Picasso wrote

“Todo niño es un artista. El problema es cómo seguir siendo artista cuando uno crece.”

(“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to carry on being an artist when you grow up.”)

Self-test 1

There is a mistake in the Spanish of this quotation from Selina Scott’s book about her life in Majorca, A Walk in the High Hills. Can you spot it?

“A woman is telling him how the greenery will enhance the village, but Sancho is having none of it. ‘Problemas, muchas problemas,’ he says, shaking his head.”

Self-test 2

Can you supply the correct missing ending in these phrases that use the words discussed above?

El artista antes conocid_ como Prince.

El clima económic_ actual no es muy favorable para la gente joven.

Hombres armados dispararon el miércoles a un cur_ italian_ , hiriéndolo de gravedad.

Era un día espléndid_ de fiesta y de luz.

actual = current
dispararon = shot
hiriéndolo = wounding him
la luz = light

Leave a comment

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.)

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 and you’ll receive an email to tell you. (If you’re on laptop,  you should see it to the right above the Twitter feed; if you’re on a mobile device, it is probably after this blog and any comments.)”Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging semi-(ir)regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

Spanish has played with it in at least three versions, two of which include the word for “rain”. It should be easy to work out what that is.

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 Italian bello, which is commonly used in everyday language, Spanish bello is rather more refined and literary. The everyday word to say that something is beautiful is hermoso.

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.

Featured Image -- 3760

Leave a comment

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…

View original post 603 more words


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.

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!


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 then 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 the latter, 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 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!).

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.

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!

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.

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.

Leave a comment

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).

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!

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.


(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!)

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.

(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!)



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 the “not very British” lubricious poem about figs — made it, as emerges 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.

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.

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!

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.

Leave a comment

“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.

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!

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!


Leave a comment

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.


After all, what man is going to buy an Alice band when he can buy a headband?

[*] Another of those myriad British/US English differences. Apparel sounds quaint & poetic in BrE, but is a standard word in US English used by shops where BrE would use “clothing”: a sale on summer apparel for women. There is even a verb: a designer who regularly apparels several of the presenters at the Oscar ceremonies. (Both examples from Merriam-Webster online.)

[**] Answer to the Hatter’s riddle: Lewis Carroll’s Author’s Note: Christmas, 1896. “Enquiries have so often been addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle … can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat ; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought : the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

[***] It seems that Carroll gave Tenniel very precise instructions about the illustrations. Until I did some online digging for this blog, I was unfamiliar with Carroll’s own illustrations for the forerunner of AAIW, Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Many of them foreshadow the better-known Tenniel versions, as here, and illustrate how a great graphic artist can turn a rough sketch into a compelling image:

Lewis Carroll's sketch.

Lewis Carroll’s sketch.

Tenniel's version.

Tenniel’s version.


dryly or drily, slyly or slily? A spelling conundrum

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

A young Zambian girl and boy smiling shyly.

What’s the issue?

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

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

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

How many words are affected?

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

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

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


What’s the spelling rule?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Lost and Confused Signpost

What do dictionaries say?

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

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

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

Corpus to the rescue

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

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

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

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

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

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Man dryly scratching bonce.

Some OED treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Is an orderly queue a swarm?

Is an orderly queue a swarm?

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

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

What can dictionaries tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slumbering metaphor?

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


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

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

Referring to people, is it inevitably pejorative?

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

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

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

What can Google and corpus tell us?

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

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

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

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

It all depends on the context

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

Swarm of people

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

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

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

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

Other swarms

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Image courtesy of Karl Sharro, tweeting as @KarlreMarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Cameron’s words

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Telegraph (British), 2013.

But the ‘think’ spelling is used here:

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

New Zealand Parliamentary debates, 2005.

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

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

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

Quick facts

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

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

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!

Where is the phrase from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilshire Editorials, G. Wilshire.

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

Is anyone bovvered?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Why the alternation?

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

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

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

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

What do dictionaries and style guides say?

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

Facts & figures

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


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

(February 2014 release; 2.14 billion words)

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

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

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

(1.9 billion words)

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

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

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

another thing:another think 20:23

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


Paparazzi and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

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

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


Phwoooar! (That’s enough!–Ed.)


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

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!

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

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

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

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

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






Leotards and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

We probably all know that the wellies we might wear to go on walks through muddy fields are named after the Duke of Wellington, the “Iron Duke”. 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”.

leotard – The word for this figure-hugging one-piece garment, made of stretchy materials and donned by ballet dancers for practice and other people doing various forms of exercise, is written without an accent. But if you add the acute accent, you get the name of its inventor, Jules Léotard, a remarkable French acrobat.

Jules contriving to look butch in a fetching miniskirt.

Jules contriving to look butch in a fetching miniskirt.

In 1859 –  the same year that his compatriot Blondin crossed the Niagara Falls on a tightrope – he performed the world’s first aerial somersault and leapt from trapeze to trapeze. That provided the inspiration for the popular music-hall song That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Sadly, his career was short-lived: he died at the age of twenty-eight in 1870.

The narrator tells the story of his lost love.

Once I was happy, but now I’m forlorn
Like an old coat that is tattered and torn;leybourne
Left on this world to fret and to mourn,
Betrayed by a maid in her teens.

The girl that I loved she was handsome;
I tried all I knew her to please
But I could not please her one quarter so well
As the man upon the trapeze.

He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze.
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please
And my love he purloined away.

Some further verses chronicle how she fell in love with the trapezist and then eloped with him, before …

Some months after this I went to the Hall;
Was greatly surprised to see on the wall
A bill in red letters, which did my heart gall,
That she was appearing with him.

He’d taught her gymnastics and dressed her in tights,
To help him live at his ease,
And made her assume a masculine name,
And now she goes on the trapeze.

She’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
You’d think her the man young man on the flying trapeze.
Her movements were graceful, all girls she could please,
And that was the end of my love.

Am I the only one who is puzzled by the hint of sapphism in the last verse? Or is the word “girls” used because to replace it with “men” would be far too saucy?

Anyway, this photo highlights the effect on Victorian sensibilities that Jules L. must have had when he chose not to wear his modesty-preserving miniskirt. “Wardrobe malfunction” hardly does it justice.

leotard 3(1)

“I’m really quite pleased with my merguez and pickled lemons.”

And here’s a sort of hillbilly version of the song, from the 1934 film It Happened one Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (“together for the first time”!). Note the American pronunciation of “trapeze” at the beginning, with a full /a/ not a schwa.


Knickers and other words named after people

What’s in a name?

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

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

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


What the word refers to …

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

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

Men in baggy knickers! Sooo hot!

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

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

Hudson Review, Autumn 2004.

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

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

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

“Knickers” is short for “knickerbockers”.

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

The dreadful Knickerbocker custom of calling on everybody.

Longfellow, Journal, 1 Jan, 1856

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

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

City Journal (New York), autumn 2003.

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


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


The two earliest OED examples for those meanings are:

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

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

The OED also includes an amusing citation from Shaw:

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

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

Do only Brits wear “knickers”?

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

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

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

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

Blog (written by a woman), 2005.

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

An emergency undergarment drop.

An emergency undergarment drop.

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

Leave a comment

Biros, bics, and other words named after people


What’s in a name?

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

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

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


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

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


1 Comment

National umbrella day 2016: a Latin word borrowed by English

Happy National Umbrella Day, a tutti quanti!


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

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


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

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

How so?

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

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

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


Allium umbels

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

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

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

Some delightful early quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Keeping dry in other languages

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

From Mary Poppins to Rihanna


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Forecast or forecasted? Broadcast or broadcasted?

One-sentence takeaway

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

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. (Sign-up is in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed, if you’re reading this on a laptop/PC; and probably at the end of the blog, after any comments, if you’re reading it on another platform) “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Results as of 19 October, 2016:
Would never use/regard it as wrong: 24
Depends on domain/syntax: 9
Wouldn’t use but not wrong: 9
Sometimes use: 2

(See note at the end for more on the past tense of “broadcast.”

New verbs are always regular

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

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



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


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


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




Verbs from nouns always…

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The results of the poll above, i.e., resoundingly against “broadcasted” — seem to confirm that, though results might vary according to which verb was in the poll.)

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

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

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


As long ago as 1926, Fowler in Modern English Usage Fowler's cover (2)made the verb from verb/verb from noun distinction with forecast, but brought in historical etymology to justify his aesthetic preference: “Whether we are to say forecast or forecasted…depends on whether we regard the verb or the noun as the original from which the other is formed…The verb is in fact recorded 150 years earlier than the noun, & we may therefore thankfully rid ourselves of the ugly forecasted ; it may be hoped that we should do so even if history were against us, but this time it is kind.”


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

Ifs and buts

(if you want some more analysis)

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

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


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

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

I am reliably informed that, according to Asa Briggs’s History of Broadcasting, the radio pioneers approached C. T. Onions, Fellow of Magdalen and Editor of the OED, and asked him if they could adopt “broadast” as the past tense because it was more euphonious. (“Broacast” in this meaning was a simple and colourful metaphor which the BBC pioneers had devised, based on the original meanings of “to scatter seed widely” and “to disseminate widely.”) Onions is said to have replied “Since it is what you do, you can decide the grammar of the term for yourself,” And he adopted their suggested usage.


Iconic: is totemic the new iconic?

One-line summary

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

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


Iconic: a massively overused word?

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

I’m sure many would second his suggestion.

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

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

Totems and totemic

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Lord B (9.50 minutes in):

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

Professor Champion:

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

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

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

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



To defuse or diffuse a situation? Commonly confused words (19-20)

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

Poll results as of 29 December:

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

What’s the issue?

In a sentence such as

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

Birmingham Evening Mail, 2007

is diffuse a mistake for defuse?

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

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

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

What does each word “mean”?

defuse: literally


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

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

…and metaphorically

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

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

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


Are they synonyms?

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

diffuse: core meanings

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

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

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

Further examples

(From Cobuild and the Online Oxford Dictionary)


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


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

Where is the overlap?

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

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

diffuse=defuse? Definition

Cobuild defines the contentious use of diffuse as follows:

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

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

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

In two minds?


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

A legitimate extension of meaning?

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

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

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

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



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

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


Further examples, facts & figures

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

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

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

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

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


Ascribe to or subscribe to? Commonly confused words (15-16)

(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!)

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

Quick takeaway points

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


1. What is the issue?

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

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

Or this:

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

Art Business News, 2003

The correct verb in both cases is subscribe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(See 6.2 for other, historical examples)

2.2 With which meaning of subscribe is ascribe confused?

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

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

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

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

3. What do usage guides say?

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

4. Can etymology help?

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

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

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

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

5. How often does the mistake happen?

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

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

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

6.1 Biblical and Lincolnian uses

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

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

New Oxford Annotated Bible

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

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

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

6.2 Other historical examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

A cache of arms not a cachet: commonly confused words (11-12)

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

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!

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

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

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

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


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

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!


antidisestablishmentarianism tatoo1 The longest word?

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

2 Has it always been “the longest word”?

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

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

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

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

3 Is it a “real” word?

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

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

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

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

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

4 Why is it known as the longest word?

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

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

5 What do all the different bits mean?

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

6 It’s all to do with politics and religion

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

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

6. 1 Establishmentarian

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

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

6.2 Establishmentarianism

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

6.3 A secondary, more modern meaning

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

6.4 Disestablishmentarian

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

And their philosophy is disestablishmentarianism (OED, 1897).

6.5 Antidisestablishmentarian(ism)

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

Leave a comment

The longest word in the English Dictionary

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

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

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

What is a word?

What do you class as a word for these purposes?


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

What does “in the dictionary” mean?

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

Technical or non-technical?

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

What about foreign words?

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Averse to adverse to: commonly confused words (9-10)

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!


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

1. Takeaways – in a nutshell

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

 2. In detail

2.1 Averse

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2 Adverse

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

Examples (from Oxford Dictionary Online/Oxford English Corpus)

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

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

3. Can the word’s origins help?

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

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

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

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

4. adverse to: a complication

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

5. What do usage guides say?

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Business Writing Skills: some tips for catchy headlines

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

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

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


colourful_lettersToday I would like to analyse the first two.

Whetting readers’ curiosity.

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

Take a tip from journalists.

First, grab attention.

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

Some examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t do that in business writing!

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

1. Use questions.

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

2. Create a picture.

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

3. Keep headings short.

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

4. Zap unnecessary words.

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

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

5. More than one headline per page.

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

6.Help people understand figures at a glance.

The BBC example above shows one way of doing this.

Leave a comment

Voracious or veracious readers? Commonly confused words (7-8)


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

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!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Flaunting or flouting the law? Commonly confused words (5-6)

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!

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

What’s the issue?

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

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

What do these words mean?

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

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

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

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

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

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Leave a comment

An Egyptian word borrowed by English: Chewing gum and pharaohs



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!


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Lovely Lady Mondegreen

Has this happened to you?

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


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

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

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

From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.

Kids often do it

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


What did you learn at school today?


I know a song about rabbits!


Oh? Can you sing it…?


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

A special name for slips of the ear

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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

Which words can be either -ize or -ise?

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

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

final –> finalise/finalize

real –> realise/realize

critic –> criticise/criticize

Which words are only written -ise?

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


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

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

Is -ize American?

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

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

It’s all Greek to me

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

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

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


So where does -ise come from?

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

Amn’t I forgetting something?

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

globalization / globalization
/ localization

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

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Spice up your business writing with strong headings – (Part 1)

Why have headings?

OMG! What is this book all about?


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

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

Headings are your sound bites.

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

Take a tip from the newspapers.

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

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

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

Headings help you plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Jeremy Butterfield

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

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

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

You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield