Category Archives: Top posts

Oxford & Cambridge: is punctuation the new battleground for an old rivalry?

OCrace

The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is coming up on Sunday (it will be a closed event on the River Great Ouse). Will Oxford take the trophy back from Cambridge, who were victorious in their last encounter (in 2019)? Tension is mounting in the historic rivalry between the famous British universities – and today it goes beyond the coxes and crews and the battle of the Blues. As reported this morning in the Cambridge Herald, Cambridge University has announced its introduction of the “Cambridge comma.” Rivaling the contentious Oxford comma, which – after the apostrophe – is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the Oxford or serial comma here), the Cambridge comma introduces a punctuated pause AFTER the word “and in lists — i.e. before the final list item, with Oxford already having staked its claim to the prime position before the “and”.

An example of the new Cambridge comma illustrates the unexpectedly belated verbal interruption that it offers: “He packed up his books, cigars, teddy bears and, slippers.” Oxford’s remains more predictably timely: “He packed up his gowns, pipes, long-johns, and ties.”

Oxford and Cambridge have enjoyed an infamous but healthy rivalry for centuries, dating back to when they were the only two universities in England and Wales. Competition between the “Oxbridge” institutions is most famously characterized by the annual boat race, which takes place on a four-mile stretch of the River Thames. Now the colleges will have one more thing — in addition to the best cox and crew, the most famous alumni, the best academic ranking, the most renowned theatrical society — over which to compete: the relative value of their respective serial comma positions. Are you an Oxford comma kind of character, or a Cambridge comma cat?

A spokesman for Cambridge University was quoted in the Cambridge Herald remarking on this new role for the ever versatile comma: “Cambridge is proud to add a new, dynamic and, pause-worthy role to the most widely-used and abused punctuation mark in the English language. We look forward to seeing it flourish in literature, texts, DMs and, IMs as we encourage the world to take an added pause.” Read the full Cambridge Herald article here.

We didn’t see this one coming!

***

Happy 10th Birthday, Glossophilia!

Ten years ago today, this little hobby-blog tip-toed onto the internet, taking an informal, irreverent, trans-Atlantic look at language use and abuse in all its glory. A decade on, it’s flourishing. With visitors from every country in the world bar five, the blog recently celebrated its millionth reader. Its lively Facebook page has a flock of 28,000+ followers, and our fledgling podcast spin-off is warmly appreciated on both sides of the pond. It’s thrilling to know that there are glossophiles loving their lingo in every far-flung corner of the planet. (Read more about the blog below.)

Continue reading

Come one, cum all!

Originally posted in 2013, and then updated in 2018 when it came back into the news, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

2018 update: The word “cum” is back in the news today, with a censored cake that went viral.

The censored cake / Facebook

*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * 

Original post in 2013: I was watching Masters of Sex the other night on Showtime, and it struck me that Masters and Johnson were using the word come a lot. And they weren’t meaning the opposite of go. (It didn’t escape my notice that they also seemed to be coming a lot — but that’s another story…) I know these ground-breaking sex researchers of the 1950s and ’60s were famously ahead of their time, but not in their word choices — and their use of this particular piece of sexual terminology sounded weirdly anachronistic to me. I really thought that this word “come” was a more modern invention… Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

insidebaseball

“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. [Update, March 2019: a new – 21st – entry has been added: thanks, Candice. Update, Jan 2021: In the run-up to Glossophilia’s 10th birthday we’re republishing our most popular ten posts. Here’s no. 9.]

1) Ballpark: Continue reading

It’s as cold as …

cold

As Glosso approaches its tenth birthday in ten weeks’ time, we’re publishing the ten most popular posts again in weekly installments, with some extra tidbits and updates thrown in. We start with a perennial winter Glosso favorite, posted again today when it’s as cold as #*%$ here in the frostiest of US winters (and I mean that metaphorically more than literally).

Today we’re throwing in another cold simile: can you guess whose frigid pen wrote these words back in 1850? “It was as cold as Blue Flujin, where sailors say fire freezes.” See appendix below for the answer. Continue reading

How to pronounce “Magdalene” in Britain, and why

Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio, 1594-1596 / Wikipedia Commons

*This post has been updated and revised to reflect the many comments suggesting my original post was misinformed.

***

When I’m back in Blighty, I stay at my family home in Magdalen Road in South West London. Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalen(e) 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. The same is true for its sister college in Oxford — which is spelled nearly the same way but without the final “e”. Which pronunciation — if either — is correct: the “maudlin”-sounding Cambridge and Oxford colleges, or the more modern three-syllable “MAG-duh-lin” that you’ll hear nowadays in most other parts of England? Continue reading

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

image

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