Mind your language

Stockton, Cleverly and scatological etymology

There’s a street in the City of London called Sherborne Lane. In the Middle Ages it was known as Shitteborwelane [Shitborough Lane] or Shitheburnlane. We philologists are accustomed to discussing vocabulary that is taboo because of its sexual or scatological references, and this place name is not rare in depending on a word that ‘is

The appeal of apricity

‘She’ll be telling us next how lovely the word petrichor is,’ replied my husband. I had told him that the redoubtable word-collector Susie Dent had said: ‘Probably my favourite winter-word of all, apricity, is the warmth of the sun on a chilly day.’ She has been saying this every winter for years, and why not?

Is orthogonal nonsensical?

Even with ruler and compasses I couldn’t make sense of a remark I found on Twitter or X, as we all pleonastically call it. Someone had posted this observation: ‘One’s bank balance and number of children are orthogonal to social media usage.’ I knew the prefix ortho– meant ‘straight, perpendicular, right’. So orthogonal meant ‘right-angled’.

How useful is precarity? 

‘There’s no such word,’ said  my husband. Well, he has been wrong before.  For him precarity doesn’t exist; he admits precariousness. Yet precarity is now in vogue among campaigners. Precariousness is used by non-specialists. It is laughable to see how precarity has become grist for the academic mill. Among recent books on precarity are: Contesting

Is loitering really so bad? 

E. Cobham Brewer seems, from his most famous work, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published 1870, an agreeable old cove. But a biographical sketch by his grandson in the centenary edition praised his fearlessness in taking a stick to a ‘rough-looking man asleep in the stable’. He belaboured ‘the trespasser… exclaiming “Be off, you

Is it proper to ‘mull things’?

‘Rollicking time,’ sang my husband to the tune of ‘Mull of Kintyre’. He had been amused to hear of this misapprehension of the lyrics and smugly enjoyed it not being his mistake for a change. That kind of mull is a Gaelic word meaning ‘bare headland’. I think it is related to the Welsh word

Are we oversharing?

Someone on that old-fashioned online game called Twitter (renamed, but still not widely known as, X) told the world of the publication of his book in a post that began: ‘I’m thrilled to share that as of today…’ He probably thought of it not as publication day but the day on which the book was released

What does it mean to be in dire straits?

A reader, Robert Andrews, heard Sir Ed Davey on Today say that the NHS was ‘in a dire strait’. Surely you can’t be in just one strait, dire or not, Mr Andrews suggested. Well, I know sorrows come not single spies but in battalions, but some straits are served one at a time. The Torres

The problem with cutting to the quick

‘At least he didn’t say “Cut the cheese”,’ said my husband, suddenly making a barking noise like a seal, which is his attempt at laughter. He was commenting on a remark by Amol Rajan, the affable presenter on Today. An interviewee was invited to ‘cut to the quick’. Of course he meant ‘cut to the

Why you can’t ‘treat’ yourself

‘I hate sneak previews,’ said my husband. I think he was talking to the wireless, as he often does, not to me, since a broadcaster had just promised him a sneak preview. I agree that the terminology is annoying, as it is generally used as a ploy to pique interest in a subject, otherwise of

Where did ‘push-bike’ come from?

Books that one often used to see in secondhand bookshops, when there were such things, were the World’s Classics editions of the novels of Constance Holme. Humphrey Milford, publisher to the University of Oxford 1913-45, put all of them into the handy blue-bound format. The Spectator gave her second novel, The Lonely Plough (1914), a

Why do we swipe left?

Beau Brummell, denouncing the fashion for a vegetable diet, was asked if he had never tried it himself: ‘Oh yes, I remember I once ate a pea.’ His remark sounded funnier then, because the normal way of talking about the little green spheres was as a collective, pease, as in pease pudding. Brummell was not

What’s the 411 on 101?

‘Don’t be daft,’ said my husband. It was a valid but unhelpful piece of advice in response to a question I’d asked him. The question was: ‘Have you read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus?’ I didn’t want him to explain it (which would indeed have been daft), merely to explain the numbering system of the text. ‘The

How weighing in became wading in 

The Sun reported that a woman sold a pair of rings which, if worn on two fingers, spelt out NTCU. Or they might be swapped round, with ruder consequences. When someone objected, the maker’s followers on TikTok apparently ‘flocked to the comments to weigh in on the situation’. In a report on some other matter,

The changing face of ‘values’

‘Don’t they know what prolific means?’ asked my husband, looking up in a bad-tempered way from a headline on the BBC website: ‘Lucy Letby: Investigating the UK’s most prolific child killer.’ Sky News, the Mail, Reuters and the CheshireLive website used the phrase too. Prolific comes from the Latin prolificus, meaning ‘producing or capable of

The problem with ‘black market’

The term black market should be replaced with illegal market because it could suggest racial bias or discrimination, according to UK Finance, a trade body for British banking and financial services. I suppose it is asking for the black never to be used with negative connotations. That will be a black day for the language.

How the Chancellor of the Exchequer created cancel culture

I used to worry on holiday about not having cancelled the milk, which would grow into a phalanx of doorstep bottles semaphoring an opportunity to burglars. Now whole classes of society are ostracised or cancelled for disagreeing with the declared ‘values’ of companies.  Sir Robert Goodwill, the chairman of the environment committee, told the Daily

Is Nigel Farage really a grifter?

That Coutts dossier on Nigel Farage said in passing: ‘He is considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter.’ I didn’t quite know what grifter here meant. According to the Telegraph, a podcast host at Spotify called the Duke and Duchess of Sussex ‘grifters’. That does not limit the semantic field. It feels to me

The horror of being branded a PEP

When I asked my husband if he knew what PEP meant he said: ‘It’s an emergency combination of HIV drugs that can stop the virus if you’ve been putting your todger where you shouldn’t.’ Trust him to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. To him as a doctor, PEP meant Post-Exposure Prophylaxis.

A condensed history of ‘vape’

Last year, Oxford Languages’ word of the year was goblin mode. Apparently 300,000 voters decided upon it, but I haven’t heard anyone use it. It rocketed into view after someone posted online a fake headline about the break-up of Julia Fox and Kanye West after a month together. ‘He didn’t like when I went goblin