Mind your language

To avoid knowing the distasteful origin of ‘scumbag’, look away now

13 October 2018 9:00 am

President Vladimir Putin of Russia remarked of Sergei Skripal, whom his agents tried to kill, ‘He’s simply a scumbag.’ Scumbag…

Was everyone a psychopath before 1909?

6 October 2018 9:00 am

My husband is enjoying Do No Harm, the arresting memoir of the brain surgeon Henry Marsh who was on Desert…

Why ‘embolden’ is a word in a million — and it’s currently in vogue

29 September 2018 9:00 am

Embolden is a word in a million. In other words it is quite common. Using data from Google Books, the…

Why ‘whiter than white’ shouldn’t get you suspended

22 September 2018 9:00 am

A detective superintendent has been placed on ‘restricted duties’ while the Independent Office for Police Conduct investigates a complaint that…

The origin and nature of teacakes

15 September 2018 9:00 am

The Sunday Telegraph has been running a correspondence on the origin and nature of teacakes. One reader averred that in…

Optics: stingy pub measures and politicians’ images

8 September 2018 9:00 am

If you’d like to buy a copy of Newton’s Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours…

1880s slang: How to fig a nag and pitch a snide

1 September 2018 9:00 am

‘I want my money back,’ said my husband. ‘This is from the 1880s, not the 1980s.’ He looked up from…

Why would you relish an opportunity?

25 August 2018 9:00 am

The Sun gave a sad picture of British loneliness recently in a report about the national yearning to play a…

Petrichor: an awkward word for a pleasant phenomenon

18 August 2018 9:00 am

I’m not too sure about the word petrichor, invented in 1964 as a label for the pleasant smell frequently accompanying…

‘Crest’ and the absurd language of heraldry

11 August 2018 9:00 am

A friend of my husband’s, yet a well-educated man, said in conversation as we walked to Tate Modern: ‘Is that…

Signage

4 August 2018 9:00 am

My husband, in company with a similarly superannuated medic on the unfamiliar London Underground, was bidden at Baker Street to…

Mind your language: County lines

28 July 2018 9:00 am

We are suddenly all expected to know that county lines are to do with the selling of illegal drugs in…

‘Living with’ is now a thing – usually followed by something nasty like Alzheimer’s

21 July 2018 9:00 am

I’m not at all sure about the formula a person living with, followed by something unwelcome, such as Alzheimer’s disease,…

Has Boris brought ‘turd’ back into polite society?

14 July 2018 9:00 am

I have never lost my admiration for Boris Johnson’s summary of British ambitions over Brexit as ‘having our cake and…

Ideation, from suicide to management speak

7 July 2018 9:00 am

‘Suicide!’ yelled my husband, while performing an inappropriate mime of a hangman’s noose. That was his reply when I asked…

The origins of the famous blue tiles of Portugal’s buildings have been misunderstood

30 June 2018 9:00 am

A friend sent a nice postcard from Portugal showing the outside of a church covered with old blue tiles. She…

‘Iteration’ has escaped from the computer shops

23 June 2018 9:00 am

‘They should say, irritation, not iteration,’ exclaimed my husband as a voice on the wireless spoke about men’s fashion and…

When ‘activist’ used to mean ‘Nazi supporter’

16 June 2018 9:00 am

Rudolf Eucken had a beard and a way of tucking the ends of his bow tie under his collar that…

Unconscious bias: is Starbucks like the old Met Police?

9 June 2018 9:00 am

Starbucks closed its 8,000 American coffee shops for half a day to give staff unconscious bias training. Training is to…

Like ‘gammon’, ‘spasmodic’ was a term to put down a despised tendency

2 June 2018 9:00 am

To find out why the poetry of Ebenezer Jones was thought execrably bad, I turned to The Spectator of September…

Similar to (as opposed to like, as with, such as)

26 May 2018 9:00 am

I’m often annoyed by like being misused in different ways. (In place of as, for example: ‘Like I expected, he was…

Is Donald Trump really bonkers?

19 May 2018 9:00 am

John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, has a way with words. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003…

Paranoia and The Woman in White

12 May 2018 9:00 am

I sat up with a jerk, after contemplating the wallpaper in the television dramatisation of The Woman in White, when…

Terf wars and the ludicrous lexicon of feminist theory

5 May 2018 9:00 am

Fiore de Henriquez, a sculptor, had a wonderfully high-windowed studio at the bottom of Cadogan Square, where I sometimes visited…

When is an aubergine not an ‘aubergine’?

28 April 2018 9:00 am

In the warm weather, I had an al fresco hit with my mad-apple bruschette. Mad-apple shows the tangle to which…