Mind your language

Where did ‘aconite’ spring from?

14 December 2019 9:00 am

‘What,’ asked my husband teasingly, by way of an early Christmas game, ‘connects wolf’s-bane with Woolwich Arsenal?’ It took me…

What exactly is a narwhal?

7 December 2019 9:00 am

A point that many people mentioned amid the horror and heroism of the attack at London Bridge was the enterprising…

Where did ‘decuman’ come from?

30 November 2019 9:00 am

‘What made you chase that hare?’ asked my husband with rare geniality. John Ruskin was to blame. He asked James…

From Pliny to poetry: the history of ‘ictus’ and ‘ductus’

23 November 2019 9:00 am

‘I know the difference between ictal and icteric,’ said my husband proudly, reminding me of Tweedledum in Through the Looking-Glass.…

Why is a ladybird called a ‘bishy barnabee’?

16 November 2019 9:00 am

People in different regions like to think their dialects incomprehensible to outsiders, yet they can usually come up with quite…

What’s the different between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’?

9 November 2019 9:00 am

‘Why is whilst only ever used in letters?’ asked my husband, casting aside an argumentative letter from his sister written…

Why are artlessly ambiguous headlines called ‘crash blossoms’?

2 November 2019 9:00 am

‘Hospitals named after sandwiches kill five,’ ran a headline in the Times in June. When it was tweeted by the…

Surd

26 October 2019 9:00 am

Lewis Carroll, in his Phantasmagoria, and Other Poems (1869), constructed a poem that yielded a double acrostic, with the first…

How the language of blackjack crept into Brexit

19 October 2019 9:00 am

In the Times, Janice Turner wrote that she had been watching Remainers and Leavers ‘like degenerate gamblers, double down, bet…

What’s the word for a word that’s been used only once?

12 October 2019 9:00 am

It is easy to speak a sentence never spoken before since the world came fresh from its mould. It’s not…

Sweaty Betty, Acne: the fashion for nasty brand names

5 October 2019 9:00 am

On my way to a party in Ealing I saw a shop called Pan Rings. A mental image popped up…

How did BBC’s Late Night Line-Up get its name?

28 September 2019 9:00 am

The title of the television review and discussion programme Late Night Line-Up is a curious one. I’d be interested if…

The link between politics, moisturiser and your air conditioning unit

21 September 2019 9:00 am

I asked my husband if I should spend £59 on 20 millilitres of Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Intense Reset…

When did 'big girl's blouse' become an insult?

14 September 2019 9:00 am

Fotherington-Thomas was introduced by Nigel Molesworth, the narrator of Down with Skool!, in 1953: ‘As you see he is skipping…

Word of the week: ‘prorogue’

7 September 2019 9:00 am

It was most unlooked-for that a king should ally with Whig politicians to seek parliamentary reform, but that was what…

Is a cow always a cow?

31 August 2019 9:00 am

I’ve noticed a tendency among townies like me to call all cattle cows (which they feel they must mention in…

Are our feelings towards politics apathy or inertia?

24 August 2019 9:00 am

My husband, with a dependable appetite for chestnuts, says he would be the ideal person to start an Apathy party.…

What to call an inferior politician?

17 August 2019 9:00 am

‘What about poetaster, then?’ asked my husband accusingly, looking up from his whisky and the Spectator, in which I’d ruminated…

Where did Boris Johnson’s ‘gloomsters’ come from?

10 August 2019 9:00 am

When Boris Johnson hit out at ‘the doomsters and the gloomsters’, I was willing to believe that the word gloomster…

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Is the term ‘Esquire’ U or non-U?

3 August 2019 9:00 am

‘I’m a learned doctor,’ cried my husband, pulling at the hems of his tweed coat and doing a little jig.…

From moustache to extremist – the journey of ‘bigot’

27 July 2019 9:00 am

How might an oath lend its name in England to a religious extremist and in Spain to a moustache? That…

Must Harry and Meghan’s son really learn to ‘essentialise’ race?

20 July 2019 9:00 am

‘Ha, ha,’ said my husband, as though he’d made a joke. ‘Here’s one for you.’ He waved a page of…

Lib Dem MEP Luisa Porritt in the European Parliament last week (Twitter)

The Lib Dems are wrong – it’s ‘ballocks’ to Brexit

13 July 2019 9:00 am

I agree with James Joyce on the spelling ballocks. The Liberal Democrats made their MEPs wear T-shirts printed with ‘Bollocks…

Who really invented the word ‘posh’?

6 July 2019 9:00 am

Two rules of grammar are certain: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. As for…

Watch out for ‘watch on’

29 June 2019 9:00 am

In Casablanca, Mr and Mrs Leuchtag resolve to speak English to each other in preparation for emigration to America. Mr…