Author Archive

  • The vogue for banning words

    Posted by on November 24, 2014

    I’m not a fan of banning words. Even moist. For one thing it’s impossible, so I should say I’m not in favour of attempts to ban words either, even when those attempts aren’t serious. It strikes me as futile and rash, a casual shot at censorship motivated by capricious dislike of a word that perhaps […]

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  • Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it

    Posted by on November 10, 2014

    Some words may seem harmless but attract prolonged disapproval from critics. One such word is overall, in its use both as an adjective meaning ‘considering something as a whole, rather than its details or the different aspects of it’ (the overall result), and as an adverb – usually a sentence adverb – meaning ‘when everything […]

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  • Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens

    Posted by on October 27, 2014

    Misheard song lyrics have been in my head again. Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord article on creep as a combining form reminded me of the memorably rude example ‘I drove all night, crapped in your room’ – instead of crept. Then a Twitter friend mentioned ‘Poppadum Creek’, a surreal misanalysis of Madonna’s lyric ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and […]

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  • Enthusing about freedom of usage

    Posted by on October 13, 2014

    Writing about back-formation earlier this year, I said that enthuse – a verb back-formed from enthusiasm – occupied a grey area of acceptability. This area is worth mapping in more detail, since much of what people say about enthuse applies to other words and usages, and offers insights into what Macmillan Dictionary calls real grammar. […]

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  • The wacky world of ‘wack’ and ‘whack’

    Posted by on September 29, 2014

    Imagine you’re involved in a project outdoors, busy doing your whack of the work, and suddenly you get a whack of a branch, or you whack your leg off a gate. That would be totally wack, right? Or is it whack? If the semantic tangle of these words leaves you feeling a little out of […]

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  • Can you twig it?

    Posted by on September 15, 2014

    Given how close Ireland and Britain are geographically, standard English has surprisingly few words that originated in Irish (less surprising when politics and social history are taken into account). Examples include banshee, galore, shamrock, and perhaps smithereens. Informal English has a few more, one of which may be twig, meaning ‘realise’ or ‘understand’. But its […]

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  • A critique of ‘criticism’

    Posted by on September 01, 2014

    If I told you a mutual acquaintance of ours had criticised your new hairdo, you might well take offence. But if I said I’d be happy to criticise something you’d written, you might infer a different meaning of the word. The related noun criticism  shows a similar dichotomy. The two senses of these words – […]

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  • Broadcast(ed) and forecast(ed)

    Posted by on August 18, 2014

    Children learning language for the first time tend to regularise irregular verbs, saying things like ‘I goed’ instead of ‘I went’ and ‘we runned’ instead of ‘we ran’. If English inflection were more consistent, these utterances would be normal practice, not errors – though it’s worth noting that children may be more aware of words’ […]

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  • Hail-phrase-well-met

    Posted by on August 04, 2014

    I was ploughing through a legal thriller recently (Limitations by Scott Turow) when I came across a line that brought me up short: ‘“Nathan!” George cries, hail fellow well met, as he strides out.’ Hail fellow well met. I’ve been encountering this expression on and off over the years, but never properly examined it. What […]

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  • Why heed the language cranks?

    Posted by on July 21, 2014

    Disputes over English usage are full of familiar items. Split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions, words like [you might prefer such as] hopefully and decimate – the same issues keep showing up, despite convincing arguments that there’s seldom a problem with any of them, leaving aside the question of register. It feels as though these are battles […]

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