Author Archive

  • On behalf of this fossilised phrase

    Posted by on March 02, 2015

    We often refer to something being done on behalf of someone, but the word behalf appears only in this set phrase and variations on it. In other words it’s not linguistically productive, so it can be described as a fossil. But what is a behalf, and where does it come from? On someone’s behalf, etymologically […]

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  • Numb-headed numbnuts, ninnies and Numskulls

    Posted by on February 16, 2015

    Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary is a great place to keep an eye on new words and niche vocabulary. It has a marvellous variety of novel phrases, slang, specialist terms, vogue words, regionalisms and other items not used often enough or widely enough to be considered core vocabulary – though any that shift towards mainstream use […]

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  • Refuting allegations of incorrectness

    Posted by on February 02, 2015

    A common bugbear of language critics is the use of refute to mean ‘reject’. A politician might claim to refute allegations of wrongdoing, meaning reject or deny (but not disprove) them. Or a news organisation might phrase the politician’s denial that way; both are common sources of the usage. But because refute traditionally means ‘disprove’, […]

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  • #Blacklivesmatter and words of the year

    Posted by on January 19, 2015

    The final, and foremost, Word of the Year selection in language lovers’ winter calendar is the American Dialect Society’s, which took place in Portland earlier this month. With no clear front-runner for its overall WOTY, it was open to surprises – like last year’s winner because. And a surprise duly occurred: the word of 2014 […]

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  • Accent prejudice in the mainstream

    Posted by on January 05, 2015

    The rules of TV-watching change at Christmas, with the result that even a habitual tube-avoider like me can end up seeing shows like Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year. I didn’t expect it to contain material of any great sociolinguistic interest, but it did, and it wasn’t good. On at least three occasions […]

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  • Anti-multiple-hyphen tendencies

    Posted by on December 22, 2014

    A leading story in Irish current affairs this year has been the government’s controversial creation of Irish Water, which will charge people for their use of water, and the ensuing nationwide protests. The outcry is about much more than the water charges – there is deep, widespread anger about how the country is being run […]

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  • Flat adverbs are exceeding fine

    Posted by on December 08, 2014

    We can do something quick or do it quickly, go slow or go slowly. But though we can do something fast, we don’t do it fastly – this is not a word you’re likely to hear from a native English speaker. How come? Fast, slow, and quick all belong to the set of adverbs in […]

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  • 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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