Mind your language

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

What does Keir Starmer mean by ‘oracy’?

‘Is that something to do with oratory?’ asked my husband, looking up from the Guardian, which he only reads to annoy me, though it doesn’t. He was talking about the word oracy, which featured in Sir Keir Starmer’s speech last week about ‘smashing the class ceiling’. I think that, like my husband, most people assume

What does it mean to be ‘2S’?

Justin Trudeau has attracted a certain amount of mockery by referring in a tweet to people who are 2SLGBTQQIA+. The Canadian Prime Minister was referring to people who are Two Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex or asexual, plus anything else that might come to mind. The official website of the Canadian government

How to spot a terf

At dinner the other night I was wedged between two friends of my husband’s, with another facing me. They had made their living as university academics and were, frankly, old men. None of them, I was surprised to find, knew what a terf was, despite its frequent discussion in The Spectator. Feminists of my acquaintance

Where was the original kangaroo court?

‘Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts. This is the very definition of a kangaroo court.’ So said Boris Johnson, in announcing his departure from parliament, with reference to the Commons Privileges Committee. What have kangaroos got to do with it? Perhaps a kangaroo court’s essence is

Is This Morning really ‘toxic’?

‘I know the antidote to toxicity,’ my husband shouted, waving a copy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, even though there was nobody to shout down. Toxicity has become a fashionable word, particularly since the resignation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Toxic is to poisonous what erotic is to sexual: an elevated term. Over

The Viking roots of ‘Thirlby’

Last month hundreds of Westminster street signs were auctioned off. Their design with san-serif capital letters was the work of Sir Misha Black in 1967. One for Thirleby Road went for £240. It is not a famous street but my husband and I know people who live there, though they were not the lucky bidders.

What does ‘macabre’ have to do with the Bible?

When The Spectator took the pulse of Paris in 1897, it reported: ‘Macabre pictures, Macabre poems, and Macabre music are all the fashion. We hear of cafés where the tables are shaped like coffins.’ Macabre was a new word in English, and this was its sole 1890s Spectator appearance. Its connections are indicated by a

There’s ‘the rub’ – but where did it come from?

‘So, are the Tories going to win the election?’ asked my husband after listening to the engaging psephologist Sir John Curtice. I’d been paying attention, but was distracted by Sir John’s phrase ‘the rub in the ointment’. Typical of extempore speech, this a metaphorical mixture of the fly in the ointment and the rub. Ointment might

How ‘hour’ ticked into our language

‘Why is there water all over the bathroom floor?’ asked my husband, without doing anything about it. It was my fault. During a bank holiday soak, I heard the Radio 4 book serialisation of Hands of Time by Rebecca Struthers say that ‘the origin of the modern word hour’ is the Egyptian god Horus. I