Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, Lexi. English is a bit like that.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

What do they mean? And how are they used?

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

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

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

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

Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.

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

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

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

Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The word is most often used in the syntax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does it make any difference to understanding?

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

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

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

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

People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut

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

Why does the confusion occur?

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

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

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

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

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

How old is this switching?

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

An etymological note

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

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

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

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



Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)

Just to recap on the last couple of blogs, we’ve been talking about ‘folk etytmology’ in both its meanings: a) a story people tell about where a word comes from (e.g. posh = ‘port out starboard home’) or, as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, b)

‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.’

(In this context, ‘popular’ should be interpreted as ‘of an idea, believed by many people’ rather than as ‘liked by large numbers of people.’)

I wonder if you’ve ever indulged in a bit of folk etymology. I know I have. Cabin fever: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ships’ cabins. The story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their cabin as a private space.

Baloney! (A word that is itself, probably, a folk etymology.) In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions’, which covers a multitude of scenarios.

The word first appears in a novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

Meaning b) above [‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage’] has two aspects: ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’.

(Of course, foreign words are initially unfamiliar precisely because of their foreignness, but ‘native’ English words can be unfamiliar too, as e.g. deserts with the second syllable stressed in just deserts, which then becomes just desserts.)

This process of folk etymology has resulted in the transformation over decades or even centuries of a small number of not uncommon words that we use unblinkingly. Loanwords are–or were–prone to undergo this process, as the next example illustrates:

(globe) artichoke: (Cynara scolymus) English borrowed this from the Italian articiocco (which was a borrowing from Spanish alcachofa, which was a borrowing from Arabic al-ḵaršūfa…). On its first appearance in English, it was already being reshaped, as you can see from the quotation below.

1531 MS. Acc. Bk. in Notes & Queries 2 Feb. (1884) 85/2

Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace.

What follows are a few choice quotations, showing the vagaries of its spelling, leading up to its first appearance in its current spelling, in 1727, i.e. almost two centuries after first landing on these shores.

1542 A. Borde Compend. Regyment Helth xx. sig. K.i

There is nothynge vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but ye hed of them.

1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ii. f. 63

The Hartichoch…is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.

1727 Swift Pastoral Dialogue Richmond-Lodge in Wks. (1735) II. 375

The Dean…Shall…steal my Artichokes no more.

The OED comments sagely on parallels with English that might have driven such changes:

‘Similarly, many of the English forms reflect reanalysis of the word by folk etymology. Forms with initial hart– are apparently influenced by association with heart, while the second element was apparently reanalysed as choke n.1 or choke v. from an early date. This has been variously explained as resulting from the belief that the flower contained an inedible centre which would choke anyone attempting to eat it (compare choke n.1 5), or resulting from the plant’s rapid growth which would quickly ‘choke’ anything else growing nearby (compare e.g. quot. 1641 at sense 2).’

The OED extract above mentions the stories which, from the original Archecokks, developed the cultivar artichoke: that you could choke on the centre of the plant, or that it would choke out other plants.

Artichok-- '...a kind of thistel...' and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Artichok– ‘…a kind of thistel…’ and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Another vegetable shares the name but is unrelated botanically: the Jerusalem artichoke. The ‘Jerusalem’ part is another example of folk etymology at work: it is an anglicisation of girasole, the Italian word for ‘sunflower’, which is the genus to which the Jerusalem artichoke belongs.

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I’ve blogged elsewhere about how cockroach and alligator, originally from Spanish, morphed from cucaracha and el lagarto respectively.

Here are some other folk etymologies, with hyperlinks to their definitions, of some well-known examples of loanwords adopting an English-friendly guise because of assumptions speakers made about them: belfry (nowt to do with bells, originally); blunderbuss, crayfish (nowt to do with fishy-wishies, originally), salt cellar (diddly-squat to do with the place you store your vintage Bordeaux).

My second bit of folk-etymologising concerns Benidorm, in Spain: SELF-EVIDENTLY, it is related somehow to the Spanish dormir for ‘sleep’, and bien for ‘well’, meaning you would sleep well there.

Complete tosh, of course; the origin of the name is Arabic.

What’s your folk etymology?

I’m not sure when I first ate artichoke, but it must have been in a French or French-inspired restaurant, because it was done in the traditional, dining etiquette-testing way. Fortunately, I must have been with someone who helped me avoid making a fox’s paw. The whole flower head is presented to you, vaguely in the manner of St John the Baptist’s head, on its own plate, with the individual scales or petals adroitly loosened through cooking. It then becomes a supreme test of your table manners to detach them one by one, delicately suck the flesh off each, and gracefully discard each armadillo-like scale, until you reach your culinary El Dorado, the heart.


If you fancy trying them at home–I can’t say I ever have–here’s a Delia.


Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)


Eddie Mair’s fizzog

My previous blog on ‘false etymology’ related to this one was about fizzog, a word I hadn’t seen or heard in yonks.1 Of course, it was then inevitable that I should immediately stumble across it. In the Radio Times of 21–27 January, the velvet-voiced British broadcaster Eddie Mair wrote in his entertaining hebdomadal column: ‘Basil Fawlty would rightly have enquired of my disappointed fizzog,…’

Google Ngrams  for phizzog/fizzog in British English show a rather erratic pattern.

A second kind of folk etymology

The ‘false’ etymology or folk etymology I was prattling on about in the previous blog is essentially a cosy form of storytelling. Another word for it, as Michael Quinion has pointed out, is ‘etymythology’2.

The kind of ‘folk etymology’ I’m looking at today answers to a different definition.

As the 1897 (i.e. unrevised) OED entry puts it, in suitably constipated style:

‘usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant’.

(I had to read that phrase more than once to relate ‘it’ back to ‘form’, because, when I read ‘words.’ I anticipated some backwards reference [anaphora] to it later on—but that might just be me.)

It’s hard to tell how much weight of thunderous disapproval and tut-tutting ‘perversion’ drew down upon itself in 1897, or whenever the entry was first drafted: however, it is worth bearing in mind that Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published in 1894.

I digress–bigly.

The OED currently provides only one citation for folk etymology by an eminent Victorian Scandinavianist and runologist (I only added that factoid because I have never before written the word runologist, and am unlikely to do so ever again.)

Back to the definition of folk etymology that I started talking about before I so rudely…

Even non-native speakers get the metaphor.

Free-rein is a management style. A non-native speaker gets the allusion.

The point about that kind of etymology is that, not content with telling tall stories, it actually changes language: enough people tell themselves the same story about a word to ‘operationalize’ that story by modifying, or agreeing to the modification of, the form of a word or phrase.

That seems perfectly normal and understandable. We want to make sense of the world and of our language. When we encounter a word or phrase whose form seems nonsensical, we will torture it into a different shape to extract a confession of meaning.


The process is one that produces–obviously–visible results. Often it happens with words borrowed from other languages. However, it often also affects ‘native’ English phrases.

For instance, to give something or someone free rein is a phrase that has been around since at least 1640, building on a rein idiom that goes back to Caxton’s day. It means ‘to allow total freedom of expression or action to someone or something’. Here is Caxton:

Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) vi. 19

She [sc. a mother] had gyuen her [sc. her daughter] the reyne ouerlong [Fr. lui avoit laissié la resne trop longue] in suffryng her to do all her wylle.

The rein in question is the strap of leather attached to a horse’s bit or bridle by means of which the rider controls his (or in the UK, at any rate, usually ‘her’) mount’s movements.


The metaphor in to give free rein to seems may seem blindingly obvious to some. It certainly does to me, and it’s not even as if I’m horsy (though the persistent stiffness in my right shoulder reminds me that I long ago incurred frozen shoulder by once incompetently falling off a gee-gee.) If you give a horse free rein, you hold the reins loosely to allow it to move freely.

Here’s a modern example:

My boss gave free rein to his well-trained sarcasm as he chastised me, but in the end he thought my ineptitude was so funny that he decided not to fire me.

There are other colourful idioms that use the word, such as to keep a tight rein on something or someone, and the reins of power.

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However, that metaphorical link with an essential piece of tack has been lost on many people in our non-equestrian society: the form to give free reign to something is now quite common—although exactly how common depends on where you look.

Confusion reigns–or does it rein?

Ngrams shows a rise over the decades in reign and a corresponding drop in rein. The Corpus of Contemporary American has 82 (22.5%) examples of free reign vs 283 (77.5%) for rein (This includes variants of the phrase such as allow free reign, have free reign, etc.) In the Oxford English Corpus, rein occurs about 38% of the time.

I wonder

‘I wonder what “to give free reign” to something means…’

The folk etymology involved in reign presumably runs something like this: ‘during a ruler’s reign they exercise power, which can range from limited to total. So, if they have free reign, their power must be unlimited’. Extending that interpretation to the metaphor then makes complete sense.

(And, as the Oxford words blog points out, the confusion affects not only free reign, but also, e.g. You mentioned Castro’s illness. Obviously, he turned the X reigns of power over to his brother, because…)

The rein/reign substitution is easy because both words sound identical. That homophony also explains shoe-in for the original shoo-in.

If someone is a shoo-in for a job, election, award (Oh, no! Not flippin’ Adele again!) or whatever, they are certain to get it, barring acts of God.

This jolly little chap, in the Horse of the Year Show, aged 3, must be destined to hold the reins of power.

This jolly chap, in the Horse of the Year Show at the tender age of 3, must surely be destined to hold the reins of power.

While the metaphor involved in free rein is still transparent to many, and must once have been so to all, the semantics of shoo-in are not immediately clear, although they too are horsy.

Going one step back from its equine origins, think of the noises you make as drive away your neighbour’s mangy cat, hens, etc., ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ , while you flap your hands wildly, kick out, and spit and growl (well, I do, anyway) at the unwelcome intruder.

From that comes the verb to shoo, which can mean ‘to frighten something away’, but can also mean ‘to move someone or something in a desired direction’:

I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

1973,   M. Amis Rachel Papers, 150.

From that comes the phrasal verb to shoo in, originally US slang, meaning ‘to allow a racehorse to win easily’:

There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were.

1908 ,  G. E. Smith Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’, ix. 123

And then that verb is nominalized:

A ‘skate’ is a horse having no class whatever, and rarely wins only in case of a ‘fluke’ or ‘shoo in’.

1928,   National Turf Digest (Baltimore), Dec. 929/2

Awww! A cynophilist's little self-indoggence.

Awww! A cynophilist’s little self-indoggence.

Given that almost Abrahamic succession of meanings, is it any wonder that people plump for shoe-in? Here’s my folksy definition, for what it’s worth.

If you or someone are a shoe-in for something, you can ease into it as easily as you can ease your feet into a shoe (with or without the help of a shoehorn) or into a pair of comfy slippers.

Obvious, really.

In CoCA, shoo-in appears nine times, eight of them in spoken data; shoe-in appears 44 times, 31 of them in spoken—, which, of course, raises the issue of transcription error. However, the 13 that are not spoken but written still outnumber the 9 of shoo-in.

Other well-known folk etymologies of this type (standard version first) give us

fazed (phased)
bated breath (baited breath)
just deserts (just desserts)
strait-laced (straight-laced)

to name just a few.

In the next blog, I’ll come back to some other changes wrought by folk etymology.

1 The OED dates yonks to the 1960s. It’s a bit of a memento mori to think that I can remember it coming in, and discussing with my chums/father/brother (not sure which) where it came from.

2 A term, I now discover, thanks to Ben Zimmer, the Sherlock Holmes of the linguistic microcosm, coined in 2004 by a linguist at Yale.


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

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

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

Oh, geddawaywivyou! The word is “predominantly”.

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

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

Shockhorror! It isn’t a typo.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Guerrilla or gorilla? What is “guerrilla marketing”? And where does “guerrilla” come from?

Do you puzzle over whether it is “guerrilla marketing” or “gorilla marketing”?

And if you write guerrilla, do you have to check how many r’s it has? (If you don’t, you’re a better speller than me.)

Warhol’s icon of Che Guevara, a legendary guerrilla.

In English it can be either guerrilla or guerilla, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — mind you, the spelling with two r‘s is much more usual.

It’s not just English speakers who can’t decide how many r’s; some Spanish speakers have the same problem, even though it is a current Spanish word, and clearly must have two r’s for reasons we’ll go into in a minute.

And that uncertainty can get right under some people’s skin.


This hideous tattoo should read “Dios bendice mi familia” “God blesses my family”: b and v sound identical in Spanish.

In 2016, the official language body in Colombia launched a hashtag campaign offering the services – gratis — of professional tattooists to retattoo (makes my flesh crawl) misspellings shown on photos of their own tattoos that people were invited to submit. One of the orthographically challenged tattoos bore the misspelling – in Spanish, that is – guerilla, with a solitary letter r. 

Why “guerrila marketing”, etc.?

Like so many loanwords in English, guerrilla has taken on a life all of its own.

In warfare, guerrillas use unconventional tactics, fight alone or in small groups, do not recognize authority, and can pop up anywhere without warning. Since the late 20th century, the word has been freely used to apply those very characteristics to actions in peaceful spheres that flout established social norms.

Take guerrilla marketing or advertising, that is, marketing/advertising aimed at achieving maximum exposure at minimum cost, using innovative techniques and avoiding traditional media.

(The first citation for guerrilla advertising, in 1888, is a lot older than you might expect, but then the word seems to have gone quiet for nearly 80 years.)

I don’t see how you can get much more guerilla than this…

Guerrilla marketing…involving the dispatch of streakers or nearly-nude nutcases to high profile events with the company’s web address tattooed on bare skin.

Independent, 7 June 2005

New to me is guerrilla gardening:

Landless residents…decided to plant trees and other food crops on public land. Fortunately, the council did not object to this growing trend that is known as guerrilla gardening.

BBC ‘Countryfile’, Feb. 12, 2010

And if I could knit, I might be tempted by guerrilla knitting:

The woolly displays are part of the wider trend of guerrilla knitting, a type of benign vandalism in which enthusiasts leave knitted creations on lampposts, railings and road signs.

“Benign vandalism” is such a lovely oxymoron, don’t you think?

Also known as "yarn bombing." Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Also known as “yarn bombing.” Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Of course, thanks to that tricksy old sound the schwa, guerilla sounds exactly like…gorilla. If you don’t believe me, in phonetic notation they are both /ɡəˈrɪlə/. (That letter e doing a Yogic headstand is the schwa, and stands for the unstressed “uh” sound.)

Because they sound the same, people sometimes mistakenly write gorilla marketing. As a British online wag quipped: “Is that when you have King Kong promote your product?”

A Manchester-based (UK) SEO company punningly has the misspelling as its name, a gorilla as its logo, and the strapline “It’s a jungle out there.”

Koko, the "talking" gorilla, with her pet kitten.

Koko, the “talking” gorilla, with her pet kitten.

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

Guerrilla: the word’s backstory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“little war”

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

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

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

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

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

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


Thirty commonly confused words in English


Lost and Confused Signpost

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

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

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

“All the evidence suggests…”

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


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

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

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

Why bother?

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

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

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

Here's a feline-themed homophone.

Here’s a feline-themed homophone.

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

Here’s the complete list in alpha order:

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

  • phase / faze (verbs)

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

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

a phased withdrawal of troops.

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

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

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

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

  • exasperate / exacerbate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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