Author Archive

  • Surveilling a new back formation

    Posted by on April 14, 2014

    New words are constantly entering English, though only some are destined to stick around or become standard. We might imagine them being made from scratch, and some, such as blurb and quark, were coined this way – by Gelett Burgess and James Joyce, respectively. Far more often, though, new words emerge through modification of existing […]

    Read the full article
  • False and flying colours in metaphor

    Posted by on March 31, 2014

    Colour has many figurative and metaphorical uses, independent of physics, that can reflect our identity or nature more or less directly. People might show their true colours by making an off-colour remark, or we might say the local colour of a town has brought colour to some event. I want to highlight here a particular […]

    Read the full article
  • Patterns of consonant doubling

    Posted by on March 17, 2014

    A tricky aspect of English spelling is the question of doubling consonants when words are suffixed. It’s often cited as an example of UK vs US spelling differences – travel, for example, generates traveller and travelling in the UK, traveler and traveling in the US. But many such words are styled the same in both […]

    Read the full article
  • The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks

    Posted by on March 03, 2014

    Quotation marks, also known as inverted commas, are normally used for quotation, as their American name suggests, or to mark a title (book, film, etc), or to enclose a foreign, technical, or otherwise potentially unfamiliar word. Standard use of these marks encompasses variation: they can be single or double, and may be punctuated differently around […]

    Read the full article
  • Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts

    Posted by on February 17, 2014

    Every year there’s controversy over the use of punctuation in public places. Often it’s the humble apostrophe causing trouble, and so it was in Cambridge recently when the city council removed the mark from street signs. Unhappy pedants armed with markers set about replacing the missing apostrophes, which were later officially reinstated. One anxious campaigner […]

    Read the full article
  • Willy-nilly word development

    Posted by on February 03, 2014

    There’s something about reduplication that makes it pleasing to the ear. Willy-nilly ticks that box and has the added appeal of a complex history. Let’s break the word down first. The verb will originally meant ‘want’ or ‘be willing’, and nill was its negative, from ne (‘not’) + will. Nill’s past tense is nould (just […]

    Read the full article
  • Apocope is not to be dissed

    Posted by on January 20, 2014

    Words are mutable things, subject to constant tugs and tweaks in the everyday trade of conversation. Some drift far enough to become visibly different when written down. There are patterns to these drifts, for example aphaeresis, whereby a word loses its initial sound or sounds (’twas, ’cause, knock, ticket). Sounds are also lost from the […]

    Read the full article
  • Is ‘amazeballs’ still amaze?

    Posted by on January 07, 2014

    Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord column recently had its tenth anniversary, prompting word-watchers to look back on a decade of innovation in English vocabulary and usage. One of the featured words has a way of drawing both positive and negative attention to itself, and lots of it: amazeballs. Full disclosure: I never adopted amazeballs (which, for the […]

    Read the full article
  • Check your privilege and know thy selfie

    Posted by on December 24, 2013

    As the year draws to a close it’s timely to consider what words and phrases stood out over the last twelve months. Some recurred in the news (surveillance, privacy, drone), while others rose rapidly in cultural or subcultural currency (selfie, chapulling, listicle, feels). Bitcoin made financial headlines, while twerk made waves in the entertainment pool. […]

    Read the full article
  • What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know

    Posted by on December 09, 2013

    Metonymy is a figure of speech which, though common, easily goes unnoticed. It’s when you replace the name of something with the name of another thing closely associated with it, or (defined more broadly) with the name of one of its parts or attributes. The word literally means ‘change of name’ – it has the […]

    Read the full article