Category Archives: Jokes and puns

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (4 Oct)


Welcome to “TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky”, a new weekly feature on Glossophilia. Every Friday, you’ll find a digest of some of the week’s best offerings about language, literature, grammar, usage and abusage — on the web and on the wire. Some of it will make you laugh, some might make you cry. Some will be genuinely useful, a lot of it won’t, and there will be stuff you just won’t believe. Enjoy (it).


On Facebook, Grammarly posted some incorrect word definitions offered by creative and lateral-thinking students. One of my favorites is Adamant: “pertaining to original sin” …

The Guardian reassured us that there are 10 grammar rules we no longer need to worry about. And one of those is starting sentences with a conjunction; another is all about what you should and shouldn’t end them with.

You think “OMG” or “srsly” are 21st-century inventions? You might have to think again, as Jen Doll, in The Atlantic‘s October issue, takes a look at the not-so-recent history of today’s hottest expressions (not yet online).

The Associated Press reported on the rise in heritage language programs — and why the need for them has grown. “Dorothy Villarreal grew up dreaming in Spanish, first in Mexico and later in South Texas, where her family moved when she was six. She excelled in school — in English. But at home life was in Spanish, from the long afternoon chats with her grandparents to the Spanish-language version of Barbie magazines she eagerly awaited each month. She figured she was fluent in both languages. Then the Harvard University junior spent last summer studying in Mexico and realized just how big the gaps in her Spanish were.”

Pride’s Purge offered us a very useful document: a pocket guide to Toryspeak – ie. what Tories (aka members of the British Conservative Party) say vs. what Tories mean. When they say they’re reforming the NHS, what do they REALLY mean? And what does everyone understand by it?

Keith Houston gives us a sneak peek [see Stealth Mountain below] of his new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, when he describes “four scandalously overlooked typographic outliers” in the Financial Times.

You might not want to try singing like David Bowie – but now you can read like him. As part of the exhibition “David Bowie Is”, which recently opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto, a list of the legendary singer’s top 100 books has been compiled. Open Book Toronto has the list.

The writer Margaret Atwood is among a group of prominent Canadian women who have launched a campaign to make the English-language lyrics to Canada’s national anthem more gender-neutral, as the BBC reports.

Oliver Moody wrote in The Times (UK) that “many teachers do not have adequate knowledge of English grammar to teach the new curriculum, according to the architect of a government-funded teaching programme. Bas Aarts, a professor of English linguistics at University College London, … said that the English tests for pupils up to the age of 14 introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, demanded more knowledge of grammar than many teachers possess.”

mental_floss brought us 9 colorful words and phrases from Breaking Bad‘s final season. (Here’s what I learned: The next time someone offers to send you on a trip to Belize, run in the other direction. Fast.)

On The Guardian‘s U.S. comment site, self-confessed accent geek Erica Buist asks whether Britain is becoming a nation of accent snobs. If we Brits don’t take the trouble to pronounce foreign words like bruschetta correctly, do we have the right to judge those who communicate less comfortably in English?

If you read literary fiction, you’ll become more empathic. That’s what a new scientific study shows, according to a New York Times science blog post. Apparently “reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” Um – do we really need scientists to tell us that? I hear a big resounding ‘duh!’ echoing through the chattering book groups of the world …

And finally, I think I’ve found my favorite Tweeter. Here is how Stealth Mountain @stealthmountain advertises his or her mission: “I alert twitter users that they typed sneak peak when they meant sneak peek. I live a sad life.” The replies to Stealth’s tweets are even funnier than the tweets themselves. Thanks to Reddit for the tip-off.

Songs my childhood taught me 3: Tongue-twisters

"Peter Piper" From Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain & Perfect Pronunciation


Yeah yeah … We all know what sort of vegetable Peter Piper picked, what that clueless lady sold on the seashore, and what was on Bitty Batter’s shopping list. But why are these inane repetitive statements shared with such regularity and delight — especially amongst kids? Because they’re tongue-twisters: the floor exercises of lingual gymnastics, the fun and games of a challenging oral workout. They are phrases or short pieces of prose designed deliberately damned difficult to articulate, and their fun lies not in their poetry or meaning but purely in the sport of pronunciation. Unlike the Freudian slip, in which deepest darkest secrets spill out of minds and mouths on the wings of a subconscious urge to express oneself, these twisters are tongue catnip, messing only with our physiology and not with our ids or superegos; and when the forced errors inevitably occur, our prize is hilarity — sometimes of the vulgar kind. Tangle your tongues with these.


Peter Piper picked a pick of pickled peppers;
a peck of pickled peppers, Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?


She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.


Bitty Batter bought some butter
“But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter.
If I put it in my batter,
It will make my batter bitter.”
So she bought some better butter,
And she put the better butter in the bitter batter,
And made the bitter batter better.


Theophilus Thistle, the successful thistle-sifter,
While sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles,
Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.
Now if Theophilus Thistle, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles,
Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb,
See that thou, while sifting a sieve-full of unsifted thistles,
Thrust not three thousand thistles through the thick of thy thumb.
Success to the successful thistle-sifter!

Red Leather, Yellow Leather

Red lorry, yellow lorry

Cecily thought Sicily less thistly than Thessaly.

Eleven benevolent elephants

Unique New York

Black background, brown background

A skunk sat on a stump, The stump thunk the skunk stunk, The skunk thunk the stump stunk.

Six gray geese grazing gaily into Greece. “What eat ye, gray geese? Green grass, gray geese?”

Five brave maids, sitting on five broad beds, braiding broad braids. I said to those five brave maids, sitting on five broad beds, braiding broad braids, “Braid broad braids, brave maids.”

A cup of proper coffee in a copper coffee pot.

She sawed six slick, sleek, slim, slender saplings.

Cross crossings cautiously.

The seething sea ceaseth, and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.

Now, careful with these, please: not in front of the children …

I’m not the fig plucker,
Nor the fig pluckers’ son,
But I’ll pluck figs
Till the fig plucker comes.

Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Not a punt cut square,
Just a square cut punt.
It’s round in the stern and blunt in the front.
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.

Mrs Hunt had a country cut front in the front of her country cut pettycoat.

Six stick shifts stuck shut.

He can’t drive home: he’s Brahms and Liszt!


[Warning: obscenities ahead …]

Marking Glossophilia’s 100th post, we’re celebrating the wonderful world of Cockney rhyming slang.

This clever and often amusing form of speech started in the East End of London, probably in the mid-19th century (although there are references to a specific Cockney dialect dating back to the 17th century, when regional folk traditions first began to be recorded).  The OED‘s first recorded use of Cockney language is dated 1776. It’s difficult to establish exactly how, when and why it originated – partly because it was spoken by street-traders, costermongers and working-class Londoners, but not written and recorded by scholars and academics. The slightly convoluted ‘code’ or system of the rhyming slang, which is explained below, makes the lingo difficult to understand by non-users, and there are various interesting theories about whether it evolved by accident or design, and from whom its originators sought to keep their communications secret. Some suggest that it was a language of thieves; others that it was used by traders to talk and collude with each other without customers or eavesdroppers being privy to their conversations. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two: it could have been a way for shady tradesmen to conduct their dodgy businesses without the “Old Bill” cottoning on (London’s police force was established in 1829, at roughly the same time Cockney slang began to take root; the timing might not have been coincidental). Or the local slang might have had more innocent beginnings as fun market banter that helped maintain a sense of community.

Here’s how it works: A common word (usually a noun) is replaced with a phrase of two or three words that rhymes with it, and then the rhyming part of that phrase is (usually) taken away, leaving the non-rhyming word to serve as the slang. The omission of the rhyming word is what makes this Cockney slang so hard for outsiders to decipher. Let’s take an example that’s still in common usage: butchers is slang for look. The phrase “butcher’s hook” rhymes with look, then hook is removed. Hence a Londoner will say “I’ll take a butchers” when he’s going to take a look. Another popular one is trouble, slang for wife (“trouble and strife”...).

Cockney rhyming slang is alive and well today. Fans of British TV will hear it in many programs set in London – eg. Steptoe and Son, Mind Your Language, The Sweeney, Minder, Citizen Smith, and Only Fools and Horses. And it’s rife in EastEnders, a soap opera following the lives of people who live and work in Albert Square, a fictional market square in London’s East End. Cockney slang continues to evolve – often incorporating words and names that are relevant to the time, including contemporary celebrities and personalities. For example, “Tony Blairs” is the modern rhyming slang for “flares” (as in wide-bottomed pants or trousers), but it used to be “Lionel Blairs” (Lionel Blair was a well-known actor/TV presenter in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s). A few words and phrases have been absorbed into more widespread English usage. To scarper (to flee, go, or run away) is understood widely as a British colloquialism; it comes from Scapa Flow = Go (Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Scottish Orkney Islands). As Wikipedia explains: “The use of rhyming slang has spread beyond the purely dialectal and some examples are to be found in the mainstream British English lexicon and internationally, although many users may be unaware of the origin of those words. One example is “berk”, a mild pejorative widely used across the UK and not usually considered particularly offensive, although the origin lies in a contraction of “Berkeley Hunt”,  as the rhyme for the significantly more offensive “cunt”. ”


Listen to three Londoners slinging some Cockney rhyming slang around in this colorful video shot in a London pub:

Cockney Rhyming Slang


Thanks to for this list of some of the most common – and amusing – examples of rhyming slang still in popular usage today.

Apples and Pairs – Stairs  – “I’m too old for those apples”

Army and Navy –  Gravy –  “Pass the army, will you?”

Bacon and Eggs –  Legs –   “She has such long bacons.”

Barnet Fair –  Hair  –  “I’m going to have my barnet cut.”

Brahms and Liszt – Pissed (BrE, as in drunk)

Bees and Honey  –  Money  –  “Hand over the bees.”

Biscuits and Cheese –  Knees  – “Ooh! What knobbly biscuits!”

Bull and Cow –  Row (as in argument) –   “We don’t have to have a bull about it.”

Butcher’s Hook  –  Look  –  “I had a butchers at it through the window.”

Cobbler’s Awls  –  Balls  –  “You’re talking cobblers!”

Crust of Bread  –  Head  – “Use your crust, lad.”

Daffadown Dilly –   Silly  –  “She’s a bit daffy.”

Hampton Wick –  Prick –  “You’re getting on my wick!”

Khyber Pass  – Arse  – “Stick that up your Khyber.”

Loaf of Bread  –  Head  –  “Think about it; use your loaf.”

Mince Pies  –  Eyes  –   “What beautiful minces.”

Oxford Scholar  –  Dollar  –  “Could you lend me an Oxford?”

Pen and Ink  –  Stink  –   “Pooh! It pens a bit in here.”

Rabbit and Pork   – Talk   – “I don’t know what she’s rabbiting about.”

Raspberry Tart   – Fart   –  “I can smell a raspberry.”

Scarpa Flow  –  Go –   “Scarpa! The police are coming!”

Trouble and Strife –   Wife   –  “The trouble’s been shopping again.”

Uncle Bert  – Shirt  –  “I’m ironing my Uncle.”

Weasel and Stoat –    Coat   – “Where’s my weasel?”


Finally, here are some gems picked especially for Glossophilia readers:

Dicky bird  – Word – “I didn’t say a dicky bird!”

Porkies / Pork pies –  Lies – “Have you been telling porkies again?”

and finally …

Septic tank  – American (Yank) –  “Last I heard, she took up with a septic.”

* and in case you’re wondering about the title of this post: Brahms and Liszt = Pissed (BrE, as in drunk)






Double positive


Thanks to Rona for this.

“In English,” Professor Austin said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”


Vive le français en anglais


H. W. Fowler had this to say about French words: “Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth – greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners. That is the guiding principle alike in the using & in the pronouncing of French words in English writing & talk. To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully understand, to pronounce them as if you were one of those few (& it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be so), is inconsiderate & rude.” OK, so he did write this in 1949 (Fowler’s English Language), but doesn’t he have a point?

Sometimes you just have to hop over the channel (or the Atlantic) to grab that little word from our favorite Romance language – to describe his blasé attitude, her style that’s so effortlessly chic, that risqué outfit or comment – because there’s just no other word that will do the trick. But when does littering our speech and prose with French words and expressions stop being colorful, nuanced and poetic (if not completely necessary) and start verging dangerously on the pretentious? When it comes to (the) French, is our inferiority complex (not only about our language but just about everything else as well) always in play?

Anglo-Saxon or Old English, with its essentially German base and subsequent influences from Celtic, classical Latin and Norse/Scandinavian invaders,  was spoken and written in England until the mid 12th century. When William the Conqueror seized the throne, French took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture – and stayed there for 300 years. The Norman conquest brought about huge changes in English language and culture. As English was relegated to the everyday classes as a usable, pragmatic tongue, and the more grammatically complex and nuanced French flourished at court, the two languages coincided happily for years, but not without a fundamental shift that turned Old English into Middle English. With the Norman invasion, about 10,000 French words were adopted , many of which are still in use today. This French vocabulary is found in every area of life and conversation – from politics and law to art and literature – and is used often unconsciously by people of all backgrounds and ages. More than a third of all English words are derived directly or indirectly from French, and linguists estimate that English speakers who have never studied French nevertheless know 15,000 French words.

It goes without saying that certain French words are non-negotiable: we would be tongue-tied without cuisines, souvenirs, matinées, bouquets or clichés. Then there are those words and expressions that simply have no real equivalent in our humdrum English: how could we possibly describe a rendez-vous, a pied-à-terre, a protégé, a tour de force? An idée fixe or a fait accompli, the nouveau riche, that feeling of deja vu? Who in the absence of the maitre d’ would run the restaurant, and what the hell would we serve at cocktail parties if we didn’t have hors d’oeuvres? And without either, how would we leave en masse? Repartee would be replaced by witless banter; a tête-à-tête would lose its intimacy. And how would we all cope without the freedom of carte blanche – or the option of a ménage à trois? Not being able to dismiss an outfit, attitude or concept as passé would be unfortunate.

But when do we start treading on dangerous ground? Many English speakers might feel bereft not having savoir-faire, laissez faire, pièce de résistance, touché, au fait, soirée, bon voyage, joie de vivre, or bon appetit in our vocabularies, but others might try and avoid using what could be regarded as snotty affectations.

Admit it: when you hear your fellow countrymen using some of the following words or phrases ‘on fronsay’ , don’t you agree with Mr. Fowler and cringe just a little? Just un soupçon?

Adieu! … A propos … Au contraire! … Au naturel … N’est ce pas? … C’est la vie … Comme il faut … Je ne sais quoi … Tout de suite …  Sans … Apéritif … Vis-à-vis … Et voilà!

The history of English in 10 minutes


“The English language begins with the phrase ‘Up yours, Caesar!'”. Did you know that Shakespeare invented the word “hob-nob”? That the Vikings gave us the words “give” and “take”? Or that the King James Bible taught us that the leopard can’t change its spots? In which century did our ‘private parts’ first get their names? This fun video is as much a history of the British Empire as it is of its ubiquitous tongue.


When insults had class…

These glorious and eloquent insults are from the good old days when our armory of linguistic weapons extended beyond 4-letter expletives, frowny faces made out of punctuation marks, and screaming caps … And, what’s more, they’re eminently stealable, since most of their authors are long gone.


  • A member of Parliament to Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.”

“That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”


  • “He had delusions of adequacy.” – Walter Kerr


  • “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” – Winston Churchill


  • “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”  Clarence Darrow


  • “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway).


  • “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.” – Moses Hadas


  • “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” – Mark Twain


  • “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” – Oscar Wilde


  • “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” – George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

“Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second … if there is one.” –  Winston Churchill, in response.


  • “I feel so miserable without you; it’s almost like having you here.” – Stephen Bishop


  • “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” – John Bright


  • “I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.” – Irvin S. Cobb


  • “He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others.” – Samuel Johnson


  • “He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.” – Paul Keating


  • “In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.” – Charles, Count Talleyrand


  • “He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” – Forrest Tucker


  • “Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?” – Mark Twain


  • “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” – Mae West


  • “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” – Oscar Wilde


  • “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.” – Andrew Lang (1844-1912)


  • “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” – Billy Wilder


  • “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” – Groucho Marx



Lot’s of apostrophe’s and “quotation mark’s”

I just stumbled on two fun blogs: one devoted entirely to “unnecessary quote marks” and one to apostrophe abuse (when people use lot’s of apostrophe’s for plural’s etc.)



Here’s an example from each (with the most bizarre example I’ve seen of a misplaced apostrophe):





Mea culpa, Anna Bolena

We pride ourselves at 21C on getting most of our information right – factually and grammatically. But as Glenn often reminds us: only Allah is perfect. And perfect today’s press release about Anna Netrebko certainly wasn’t, as a journalist rightly pointed out to me this afternoon.

Can you spot the mistake? [Oh – it’s been fixed. – Ed]

I’ll give you the paragraph in question.

“The first in a trilogy of operas Gaetano Donizetti wrote about the Tudor period (Maria Stuarda, named after Mary, Queen of Scotts, and Roberto Devereux, about the reputed lover of Elizabeth I, are the other two), Anna Bolena follows the tragic demise of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII who literally lost her head because she could not bare the King a male heir.  The soprano role is considered one of the most challenging in the bel canto repertoire, making the opera difficult to cast and rarely performed.  The fall 2011 production at the Met, which is staged by David McVicar and also stars Garanca as Giovanna, in fact marks the work’s Met premiere.”

Brownie points if you can spot more than one mistake …