Author Archive

  • Due to general usage, this phrase is fine

    Posted by on November 23, 2015

    In his short story collection Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris begins a paragraph with this line: ‘Due to his ear and his almost maniacal sense of discipline, I always thought my father would have made an excellent musician.’ To many readers – probably an overwhelming majority – there’s nothing wrong with it. But […]

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  • Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?

    Posted by on November 09, 2015

    The phrase grin like a Cheshire cat has become synonymous with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But while Carroll was no slouch when it came to inventive language, the expression predates his book and was in general use at the time. The enduring success of his comic fantasy helped to popularise the simile. A […]

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  • Does a jive jibe with a gibe?

    Posted by on October 26, 2015

    Some words seem almost designed for confusion. Ronald Pineda told me on Twitter that he sees jive, jibe and gibe used interchangeably, and suggested I disentangle them. So I will, but first I should say that certain variations and overlaps in their usage are legitimate, while others are generally considered non-standard or incorrect. The usual […]

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  • The dodo is dead, long live the dodo

    Posted by on October 12, 2015

    The dodo evolved on the island of Mauritius in the absence of serious predators, so it was no match for the dogs, rats and people that landed there in the 16th and 17th centuries. But though this large, flightless bird was extinct by the late 17thC, it lives on in language – paradoxically in the […]

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  • Words change, and that’s OK

    Posted by on September 28, 2015

    Many of the bugbears of language purists hinge on what they believe is the incorrect use of particular words. But the meanings and usage of words change all the time: new senses emerge, old ones fade or shift, and senses can vary greatly from one context to another. This month Macmillan Dictionary introduced its Real […]

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  • Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll

    Posted by on September 14, 2015

    One of the joys of reading Lewis Carroll lies in his treatment of logic – the wonderful mixture of care and irreverence with which he manipulates the everyday rules and conventions through which we make sense. As a mathematician who wrote books on logic, Carroll seems to have delighted in playing around with it in […]

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  • Etymology bites back

    Posted by on August 31, 2015

    We’ve all been offered a ‘morsel’ of something – pie, cake, or some other food perhaps – or we may have received a morsel of praise for being the person who offered it. But unless you’re etymologically inclined, you might not have stopped to wonder where the word comes from, and it’s a lot less […]

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  • Bandying the word ‘bandy’ about

    Posted by on August 17, 2015

    Gill Francis’s post on updating the linguistics entries in Macmillan Dictionary described a technical term as ‘not usually bandied about in public’. This got me wondering about the curious word bandy and the different ways we use it. We might say someone is bandy-legged, for example, meaning curved outwards at the knees (bow-legged is a […]

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  • It’s a libfix-aganza!

    Posted by on August 03, 2015

    In his report on the new updates to Macmillan Dictionary, Michael Rundell discussed the increasingly popular and productive term -mageddon, as in carmageddon and snowmageddon. Each such coinage invokes, by analogy with the others and with the original word Armageddon, ‘the idea of something bad occurring on a large scale and causing chaos or destruction’. […]

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  • Finding fault in the right places

    Posted by on July 20, 2015

    A common way to discuss what is correct or appropriate or not in English is by pointing out shortcomings in other people’s usage. This practice has a long tradition in language commentary and pedagogy, and while it can be helpful and enlightening, it’s not always constructive. Not only in the sense that people frequently misidentify […]

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