Category Archives: Words, phrases & expressions

A solar eclipse glossary

Total solar eclipse seen from Varanasi, India; Wikimedia Commons

In a week’s time, on August 21, a total eclipse of the sun will dim American skies; it will be the first such eclipse to be seen in the continental United States in 38 years, making it the cosmic episode of the decade. In 1925, the New York Times described a solar eclipse as “the most magnificent free show nature presents to man.” Glossophilia takes a rocket-ship ride through some of the light-fantastic lingo of solar eclipses (definitions courtesy of the OED and NASA). We’ll also ask an important and relevant spelling question: should we capitalize “Sun”, “Moon” and/or “Earth” when we’re writing about this heavenly happening? Continue reading

Mystery solved: words (male and female) for idle, observant walkers

Michael Peter Ancher: “A Stroll on the Beach” / Wikimedia Commons

Back in May, my aunt Sally wrote to me asking if I knew of a specific word that she had come across in her reading but which now escaped her. Here’s how she described her word mystery:

“A short while ago I read the book The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, in which she talks about women walking alone at night, including Greta Garbo.​ ​I’m certain that in the book​,​ or in a​n article​ about it​, there was a word used to describe these women​.​ I know I read it, but ​I ​just can’t find it​.​ Can you help? I’m sure it begins​ ​with F.”

Can you guess what that word is, before you read on? Continue reading

Ich sage marmalade, you say jam … (But maybe not for long)

Frank Coopers Oxford Marmalade / Wikimedia Commons

“Brussels MEP plots sweet revenge for Brexit by changing definition of MARMALADE so it includes German jam.” So screamed one of the more bizarre headlines in Tuesday’s Daily Mail. What does marmalade actually mean?

According to the OED, it’s “a preserve made from citrus fruit, especially bitter oranges.”

As the Daily Mail went on to explain, “Under EU rules the spread — a staple of many British breakfast tables and beloved by Paddington Bear — can only be labeled such if it contains at least 20 per cent citrus fruit. … This enshrines in law the British definition that it refers exclusively to spreads made from oranges or lemons. But Germans have traditionally used the name to refer to all sorts of jams made from a variety of fruits including strawberries and plums. … Jakob von Weizsäcker, a German socialist member of the European Parliament, called for the definition to be changed.” You can’t make this stuff up…

Etymonline offers this history of the name of the sweet spread: “late 15c: from Middle French marmelade, from Portuguese marmelada “quince jelly, marmalade,” from marmelo “quince,” by dissimilation from Latin melimelum “sweet apple,” originally “fruit of an apple tree grafted onto quince,” from Greek melimelon, from meli “honey” + melon “apple”. Extended 17c. to “preserve made from citrus fruit.”

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What’s funky?

 

Would you get away with this name for a juice stall in North America?

Passing through Fulham Broadway Shopping center (in London) recently, I was more than a little surprised to see this juice stall pictured above. “Funky Juice.” It was the American in me that was surprised. Smelly fluids? Rhythmic beverages reminiscent of James Brown and George Clinton? A trendy tasty health drink wasn’t exactly what Funky Juices promised in that moment to me. Continue reading

Love, deuce and all that jazz

djokovic-murray

Glossophilia is posting this one again — at the start of Wimbledon fortnight today. Djokovic and Murray aren’t meeting tomorrow, but they’re both still in the game. Familiar faces, new balls …

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They’re meeting tomorrow in what promises to be a nail-biting Wimbledon final (nail-biting at least for the great British public). But how much love will there be on Centre Court between these two formidable sportsmen, Novac Djokovic and Andy Murray? On the scoreboard, there might be a fair amount during the course of the match; perhaps not so much on the court itself. Why is love the name given to the score for zero in tennis? And what the deuce is the story behind the score for 40-all? Continue reading

Woke – a new form of awake

Jeremy Corbyn / Photo Wikimedia Commons

“Was this the wokest Glastonbury ever?” So asked The Guardian this morning. “Beyoncé and, rather less convincingly, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry have attempted to, as Vice recently put it, “board the woke train”; “woke” being the current vogue term for political enlightenment.”

Is woke a real word, used like this as an adjective? Continue reading

To summer or not to summer

Alexis Axilette’s “L’été” / Wikimedia Commons 

In the subject line of a recent press release, we announced that the pianist “Alessio Bax summers on three continents.” A couple of journalists raised their proverbial eyebrows at the word summer stepping out so nakedly and brazenly as a verb. Is this a horrid case of “verbing”, the unseemly practice of making verbs out of nouns that Benjamin Franklin described as “awkward and abominable” in the late 18th century (and which Glossophilia discussed in an earlier post, “A-verbing we will go”)? Or are we allowed “to summer” as wistfully and prettily as Jay Gatsby did in West Egg back in the 1920s? Continue reading

A source for Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about faith and the staircase?

Martin Luther King Jr. / Wikimedia Commons

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

When you search for that sentence on Google, you’ll get about 3,700,000 results — most of which attribute the statement (sometimes as a paraphrase) to Martin Luther King Jr. But can anyone find a source for that citation? I have searched on the King Institute web site — probably the most comprehensive collection  “of King’s most significant correspondence, sermons, speeches, published writings, and unpublished manuscripts” — and found nothing resembling that sentence.

Can anyone shed any light on the history of this famous quotation?

Many thanks to Bronwyn for raising this interesting query.

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Voir dire: to see them say, or to tell the truth?

“The Jury” by John Morgan / Wikimedia Commons

If you’re an American and you’ve ever served on a jury — or at least been through the jury selection process (as I’ve done in the last couple of days)  — you’ll be very familiar with the term voir dire. It’s the name (at least in America) of the process all prospective jurors have to go through to be selected to serve on a particular trial. And the attorneys asking all those probing questions might well explain by way of introduction the origins and meaning of that curious name, voir dire, as a translation of the two modern French verbs: “to see [them] say.” At which point, you might as a prospective juror want to jump up from your seat and shout “Objection!” (Or you might not, since you probably don’t want to be rejected from the jury for being a jerk.) Continue reading