Category Archives: Top posts

The language of sex: come one, come all (come v cum)

Update: The censored cake … With the word “cum” back in the news today, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

The censored cake / Facebook



*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * Language advisory: viewer discretion is advised * *

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How to pronounce “Magdalene” in Britain, and why

Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio, 1594-1596 / Wikipedia Commons

*Update: please see comments below for further discussion on this subject …


When I’m back in Blighty, I stay at my family home in Magdalene Road. Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalene is historically pronounced in the UK), and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare — even by those London cabbies who’ve aced The Knowledge. You are actually more likely to hear that increasingly dated pronunciation when you visit Cambridge, whose Magdalene College sounds more like Maud than Magda. However, the plot thickens, because its sister college in Oxford — which is spelled nearly the same way but without the final “e” — sounds like the surname of the Biblical Mary Magdalene after which it was named. Which pronunciation — if either — is correct: “maudlin”-sounding Cambridge “Magdalene” or the three-syllable Oxford “Magdalen”? Continue reading

X v Y: The British “public school”: what does public really mean? Private?

etonschoolboys   British public schoolboys 

Glosso’s “X v Y” series tackles the complicated matter of British schools: when are they public, and when are they private? Can any actually be both? Continue reading

Isis: from goddess to terrorist state. What’s in a name? Update: from Isis to Daesh?

ISIS1                   Isis2


Isis: she is the epitome of femininity, an Egyptian goddess worshipped as a mother and wife, a patroness of nature and magic. A friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, she’s a protector of the dead and a goddess of children and motherhood. Her name, meaning “woman of the throne”, is bestowed on thousands of girls taking their first breaths around the world; last year it was ranked as the 575th most popular girl’s name in the US. But now the gentle moniker of the fairer sex — in the form of a screaming acronym — has been hijacked by the world’s newest and most frightening embodiment of organized terror: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (commonly referred to as ISIS). Will Isis ever be able to throw off this new shroud of terror and regain its womanly strengths? [And see update re. the name “Daesh” below.] Continue reading

Mad props


Warning: mildly explicit content

“Ayo I got the mad skills that make you wanna flex
I dominate this track so it’s time to have sex
But just chill while I get all in it
Cause I’m about to rip it, who said I couldn’t kick it
Uh, I get shots off just like a shotgun
Stick a fork in your butt, you’re just about done
I pour you MCs just like a lobster
Cause this hip-hopper gets props just like a mobster”

So rapped Da Youngstas in his song “Who’s the Mic Wrecka” — and I guess he should get props for rhyming “just like a lobster” with “just like a mobster”. Mad props, in fact.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, props means “respect or credit due to a person”. But where does it come from? Is it related to theatrical props? Continue reading

Outside baseball: 20 words & expressions that came right off the batting field


“It came out of left field”; “she threw me a curve ball.” These sayings — and others like them — might have started “inside baseball”, but they’ve traveled outside the ballpark and taken root in our everyday language, especially in the mouths of North Americans. Here are 20 words and expressions that came right off the bat, or out of left or right field. Please feel free to add any others I’ve missed in the comments section below.

1) Ballpark: Continue reading

Jolly hockey sticks, and other jolly posh stuff

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge Visits St Andrew's School

Do you ever have the urge to talk like a posh git Brit? When the need to sound like an overgrown English public schoolboy overwhelms you, just pepper your language with some of the following words and expressions – most of which are horribly outdated and only uttered nowadays by non-Brits pretending to be posh Brits — and you’ll be  well on your way to becoming a toff, a pompous twit, or a good old-fashioned Hooray Henry in no time at all. Jeeves and Wooster would be proud. Bottoms up, old boy!

By George! By golly! By ginger! By gosh!: Basically a posh old version of OMG! The mild oath or exclamation dates from the early 1600s, when “George” and the other g-words were used as substitutes for God to avoid blasphemy. The expression started off as “for George” or “before George,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.” Here’s Henry Higgins, in one of the expression’s more famous examples:

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Nylon: the fabric of two cities, or an acronym?


Nylon was invented in the mid-1930s by Wallace Carothers, the director of DuPont’s research center. The synthetic fiber comprising three basic ingredients was called “Nylon 66” by the chemists who brought it into the world because two of its components — adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine — each contain 6 carbon atoms per molecule. However, Carothers named it simply “nylon”, and that was the name by which it was patented in 1935. The durable fabric was fantastically successful when it started being sold soon afterwards, in 1939, most usefully and famously as a replacement for silk in hosiery. Nylon stockings were introduced that year at New York’s World Fair, and by the following year the plural of the word, “nylons”, was synonymous with women’s stockings. The versatile fiber/fabric was used to make everything from toothbrush bristles, fishing lines and surgical sutures to parachutes during the second world war, and later seatbelts and tents. It’s now the second most used synthetic fiber in the U.S.

But why “nylon”? There are two spurious theories about how it got its name. First: it’s been suggested that New York’s initials (NY) and the first three letters of London were behind the famous fabric, representing the two cities where the product started its life. However, London wasn’t involved in any way with the launch of nylon: that all happened on the other side of the Atlantic …

The other more outlandish theory is that it was an acronym for “Now You’ve Lost, Old Nippon” (or, alternatively, “Now You Look Out, Nippon”), supposedly referring to Japan’s apparent loss of the U.S. market for its silk exports as a result of this new synthetic product.

Neither of these suggestions holds water, and nylon’s real etymology is disappointingly more prosaic. As Wikipedia explains succinctly, “in 1940, John W. Eckelberry of DuPont stated that the letters “nyl” were arbitrary and the “on” was copied from the suffixes of other fibers such as cotton and rayon. A later publication by DuPont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978) explained that the name was originally intended to be “No-Run” (“run” meaning “unravel”), but was modified to avoid making such an unjustified claim. Since the product was not really run-proof, the vowels were swapped to produce “nuron”, which was changed to “nilon” “to make it sound less like a nerve tonic”. For clarity in pronunciation, the “i” was changed to “y”.”


You say erb, I say herb: American vs. British pronunciation of loan words



You say ‘erb (using the silent French ‘h’), I say herb (the way it’s spelt). Here’s a good example of the difference between the American pronunciation (usually referred to as General American, or GA) and the Received Pronunciation (British English, RP) of foreign loan words — ie. words that have been adopted into standard English from other languages, many from centuries ago. Many will argue that RP has tended more to assimilate these words and pronounce them according to English spelling-pronunciation rules rather than to the way the original word sounds. So fillet (or filet), meaning a small boneless cut of meat (derived from the French word filet), is pronounced by the Brits as “FILL-uht”, in the way that its English spelling prescribes. Americans prefer to approximate the French accent with their more exotic rendering, “fi-LAY”. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, as illustrated in some of the examples below.

Especially when it comes to words of French derivation, the distinction between GA and RP is governed largely by stress, with the Americans sticking more faithfully to the French tendency to emphasize the last syllable of the word, whatever the spelling (as in fillet above). Hence baton, beret, ballet and debris are all voiced differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with RP placing emphasis on the first half of the word and GA on the second; attaché and fiancé follow suit, with the second and final syllables stressed respectively by the Brits and the Americans. (There are exceptions; see below.) Croissant is another curious example: Americans order a “kruh-SAHNT”, where Brits prefer a KWAH-song. But this is a great example of just how these rules of thumb don’t really hold up: whereas GA follows the French rule of emphasis here by stressing the second syllable, RP probably does a better job of imitating the French vibe by approximating both the vowel and consonant sounds of the original word (“kw” for “cr”, “ah” for “oi”, the silent “nt” following the nasal-sounding “o”). So at the end of the day, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule about whether GA or RP more closely follows the original pronunciation of the word in its native language, and indeed this seems to vary according to the original language in question. The wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language looks more specifically at Spanish loan words and how and why they’re pronounced in GA & RP, and there’s a discussion about how German words are handled on the Word Reference Forum.

Here are a few examples of RP and GA pronunciations, with the one I feel more closely approximates the original word bolded.

herb: RP: herb; GA: erb

croissant: RP: KWAH-song; GA: kruh-SAHNT

valet: RP: VAL-lett; GA: val-LAY

fillet: RP: FILL-ett; GA: fi-LAY

address (as noun in postal sense): RP: a-DRESS; GA: ADD-ress

cigarette: RP: si-guh-RET; GA: SI-guh-ret

Van Gogh: RP: either Van-GOKH (rhyming with the “loch” of the Lochness Monster) or Van-GOFF; GA: Van-GO

schedule: RP: SHED-yule; GA: SKED-yule (Greek “sch” words are generally pronounced with the hard ‘k’, eg. school)

Risotto: RP: ri-ZOT-toe; GA: ri-ZOH-toe

Pasta: RP: PAS-tuh (first syllable rhyming with “lass”); GA: “PAH-stuh”