Category Archives: Words, phrases & expressions

Verbs born of names

What do the following verbs — all (except one) in fairly common modern usage — have in common? Clue: they all started their lives in the English language with capital letters (and a few of them still carry their initial cap in deference to their namesakes). Can you think of any others? Continue reading

Low tea or high tea? Know your teas … (on National Tea Day)

Low tea

High tea

I rarely hear the expression “low tea” any more. But if I do, I’m transported back to a specific time every weekday afternoon at my boarding school in the English countryside when we would sip warm tea and dip our dry Rich Tea biscuits (and occasionally cake, if we were lucky) into our cups at the end of a long school day. Low tea was, for many, the high point of the day; long were the minutes spent waiting in class for the school bell to ring out, heralding the arrival of caffeine-and-sugar-time. “High tea” was a different story, and came a couple of hours later.

On British National Tea Day, let’s look at the origin and history (and widespread misunderstanding) of the terms “low tea” and “high tea”, and find out just what is eaten at what time on each occasion, and where the names came from. Was it the tides, the time of day, or something to do with the quality or class of the food prepared? Continue reading

Answer to yesterday’s quiz: the most meaningful word in the English language?

Yesterday Glosso asked the following: “Oxford English Dictionary editors have just revealed the English word with the most meanings: it has 645 different usage cases for its verb form alone. And that’s just when it’s a verb. Can you guess what the word is?”

The answer is “run”. As in, to run a mile. To run out of ideas. A play runs on Broadway; he has the runs. To run for a bus, or to run for President. A run for your money, or a run on the bank. Running an idea up the flagpole, running with this suggestion. And the list runs on …

“The copious definitions of “run” featured in the OED’s upcoming third edition begin with the obvious, “to go with quick steps on alternate feet,” then proceed to run on for 75 columns of type. This entry, in all its girth, took one professional lexicographer nine months of research to complete. How could three little letters be responsible for so much meaning?” Read the full story about this new Guinness World Record-Holder in Reader’s Digest.

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Quiz: The most meaningful word in the English language?

Oxford English Dictionary editors have recently revealed the English word with the most meanings. This word has 645 different usage cases for its verb form alone. And that’s just when it’s a verb. Can you guess what the word is?

Clue: it has three letters.

The answer will be posted tomorrow …

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It’s 4/20: do you know where your children are?

Originally posted on 4/20 five years ago. And still relevant today …

“420”. Or more specifically: “Four Twenty”. What does that mean to you? For me, I’m transported back to a special time each weekday afternoon at my boarding school in the English countryside when we would sip warm tea and dip our dry Rich Tea biscuits (and occasionally cake, if we were lucky) into our cups at the end of a long school day. Low tea was, for many, the high point of the day; long were the minutes spent waiting in class for the school bell to ring out, heralding the arrival of caffeine-and-sugar-time. In those days, 4.20 meant simply a number or time of day, and it was low-time. Its ‘higher’ connotations had yet to spread beyond the drug culture of Californian youth …

Let’s go 420, and explore the origin and history (and the truths and myths) of the term. Continue reading

The out-of-date female -ess

Stewardess cigarettes, via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays we tend to wince when we hear words like authoress, giantess, or sculptress. Even though they still hang around, female-specific words like actress and stewardess now seem PI (politically incorrect) or just downright sexist, and they’re fast going out of style. I mean, when was the last time you heard anyone introducing themselves as an editress? (Yes, that’s a word.) Especially as the notion of gender binarism itself is being challenged and eroded, along with its 2- and 3-letter pronouns, we’re moving steadily away from gender-specific vocabulary in our language. But what might surprise you is how many of these passé nouns still appear in modern and respectable dictionaries without a note or even a hint of how anachronistic (and dare I say misogynistic) these words now sound in the 21st century. For example, there’s a word* listed in the Oxford English Dictionary online with the definition “a woman addicted to or guilty of fornication”; it ends in ‘-ess’, and there’s no “rare”, “obsolete” or “archaic” note in sight to consign it to the rubbish-bin of linguistic history. Below is a list of specifically female nouns currently listed in the OED, along with their definitions and usage notes where applicable. I’ve italicized all those that have “a female xxx” as their definition. Try not to wince at the words themselves, their definitions, or when you look for that usage note and it simply isn’t there … Continue reading

“Lit”: drunk, high, happy — or something else?

(Warning: explicit lyrics)

This is ASAP Rocky singing his “Get Lit”. As Jakob Scott pointed out in the comments below the video: “[H]e said lit before it was cool”. But was ASAP really that hip when he recorded the song in 2011? I think the Oxford English Dictionary might disagree with Mr. Scott. And just what does lit as an adjective mean nowadays, when we’re not talking about something that has been either illuminated or set on fire? Does it mean drunk? High? Or something else entirely? I think you’ll be surprised to see how versatile lit‘s become, even since ASAP “got it”, and especially when it’s flying high on the blue bird … Continue reading

“Bob’s your uncle” — and other family members in lingo

Emperor Maximilian I with his son Philip the Fair, his wife Mary of Burgundy, his grandsons Ferdinand I and Charles V, and Louis II of Hungary (husband of his granddaughter Mary of Austria) / Wikimedia Commons

“Using a fluffy brush, blend the highlight into the fuller parts of your breasts — that being the high points that naturally catch the light, and Bob’s your uncle.” So advised Cosmopolitan recently in an article titled “How to make your boobs look way bigger …” That has to be one of the saucier examples of the very British expression “Bob’s your uncle,” which curiously still hasn’t made its way across the Atlantic. But there are plenty of expressions and colloquialisms used by both Brits and Americans that incorporate the names of family members, as well as slang meanings of those names. Here are some of them below; can you think of any others? Continue reading

“Alternative” or “alternate” facts?

From my inbox …

“Kellyanne Conway says Donald Trump’s team has ‘alternative facts.’ Which pretty much says it all’,” reported the Washington Post recently. Well, these ‘alternative facts’ issuing from our new President’s administration might be wrong, but at least the adjective Conway uses to describe their facts is correct on both sides of the Atlantic. She could easily have used the alternative adjective and called them ‘alternate facts’.

“Alternative facts” are the new lies. And at least in America, they can also technically be known as “alternate facts,” which will grate on many an Englishman’s ear. Take the following examples:

The day before the inauguration, the New York Times reported that “around the country, an unusual number of alternate activities are planned to coincide with weekend events surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump and the Women’s March on Washington.” And in the same article, discussing her own event that she hosted up in Washington Heights, the actress Ellen Burstyn explained: “It’s not a protest,” “It’s an alternate reality.”

Yes, in America we don’t just have alternative facts, but we also have alternative words for alternative. On this side of the pond, alternate is a synonym of alternative (as well as being an adjective describing things that are alternated). This is presumably a case of linguistic evolution, in which a word frequently confused with and substituted for its similar-sounding colleague has been absorbed into the vernacular with the ‘wrong’ meaning becoming standard and legit.

As Oxford Dictionaries explains succinctly: “In both British and American English the adjective alternate means ‘every other or every second’, as in they meet on alternate Sundays, or ‘(of two things) each following and succeeded by the other in a regular pattern’, as in alternate layers of potato and sauce. Alternative means ‘available as another possibility or choice’ (an alternative route; some European countries follow an alternative approach). In American usage, however, alternate can also be used to mean ‘available as another choice’: an alternate plan called for construction to begin immediately rather than waiting for spring. This American use of alternate is still regarded as incorrect by many people in Britain.”