Mind your language

Is oat milk really ‘divisive’?

The Cenotaph was called contentious in a secret Metropolitan Police report, exposed by Policy Exchange, on memorials that were open to attack for their links to war, imperialism or slavery. In reality, of course, the Cenotaph brings the nation together each Remembrance Sunday to honour our dead. In the same way, people are called divisive when

Why is ‘NPC’ an insult?

An 11-year-old boy is doing well after being stabbed at a Dollar Tree store in Mill Creek, Washington State. Dollar Tree is like a pound store and attracts poor folk. According to court documents the insult ‘NPC’ had been shouted at a man who has now been charged. My husband didn’t even say ‘What?’ when

The peculiar history of a mistranscribed book 

‘Hang on,’ said my husband. ‘That’s not right. I’ve read that book.’ He had too, the book being The Hooligan Nights. It purported to be an account of a young hooligan from Lambeth called Alf, and was published in 1899, a year after the feared and anathematised youths came to prominence in the press. The

The problem with ‘lived experience’

The Chinese emporium where I buy balloons for my husband thinks I am a laughing-gas addict, I buy so many. My husband blows a few up and pops one each time he hears a chosen phrase on the radio. This week it is lived experience. From the kitchen, his explosions sound like a shooting party.

What’s the difference between rocks and stones?

‘You rocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,’ exclaimed my husband, misquoting Shakespeare as though it were an improvement. In English a rock is different from a stone and it can be annoying when news reports, especially on radio and television, speak of crowds throwing rocks. This Americanism has not yet ousted stones in

Can you read Charles Dickens’s handwriting?

‘Can you read Dickens’s handwriting?’ asked a blogger. Underneath was a picture of his manuscript for chapter 23 of Oliver Twist. It looked easy enough to read: ‘If the village had been beautiful at first it was now in the full slow and luxuriance of its richness.’  No, slow couldn’t be right. Must be flow.

The curious pronunciation of ‘East Palestine’

‘The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is a palace on a Steine,’ said my husband in a dislocated response to learning that East Palestine, Ohio, is pronounced ‘palace-steen’. We’d never heard of the place, pop. 4,761, before a train crashed there, letting out fumes. Its name sounded like a claim to be further east than the

Which ‘holdall words’ pack the most meaning?

Listeners to Today last week were fascinated by an item about foreign words with no equivalent in English that must be translated by a whole sentence. If brunch is an example of a portmanteau word, these are, I think, examples of holdall words, packed full of meaning. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, had asked for examples

What do biscotti and macaroni have in common?

‘Only one biscotto!’ exclaimed my husband, grabbing a little packet labelled ‘Biscotti’ at the station coffee stall. It fell from his agitated fingers and broke into two. ‘There you are, darling, two biscotti,’ I said cheerfully, to his annoyance. But singulars and plurals for foodstuffs are seldom simple. Take macaroni. It is an obsolete form

The spread of ‘slather’

‘Slither, slather, sliver, slaver, slabber, slobber,’ chanted my husband from the armchair beside his glass of whisky, to a little tune he had composed all by himself. The occasion for this outburst was a seventh item of slip-slop vocabulary: a newspaper reference to a slice of bread ‘lathered in mayonnaise’. I think it might just

The political history of ‘faggot’

‘What does it mean by faggot?’ asked my husband when I showed him a newspaper item headed ‘Champion faggot’. The cutting, from the Northern Daily Mail for 6 November 1897, was sent to me by the historian Andrew McCarthy who had found the headline when looking for something else, and had no idea what it

Where does ‘knocked up’ come from?

Anthony Horowitz (Diary, 4 February) tells us he was advised by a ‘sensitivity reader’ to remove the word scalpel from a book with a Native American character lest it suggest scalps (though the words are unrelated). I’ve stumbled across the birth of a new forbidden phrase on Twitter, that social media swamp for the older

The ins and outs of ‘outwith’

‘I don’t mind when a Scotsman says it,’ remarked my husband magnanimously. The ethnically sensitive word in question was outwith. The Stornoway Gazette announced in 1998: ‘On Christmas Day and outwith these hours, arrangements to have urgent prescriptions dispensed may be made by ’phoning 701472.’ I like the apostrophe in ’phoning. Short for telephoning, as

‘Super’ has become super-annoying

‘Claiming that I am a drag Queen or “performed” as a drag Queen is categorically false,’ tweeted the US Representative George Santos last week. ‘I will not be distracted nor fazed by this.’ ‘Wow, George Santos did something interesting!’ responded Stephen Colbert on the Late Show. ‘All his other lies are super-boring, like “I worked

John Donne and the emergence of ‘emerging’

In 1625 John Donne said: ‘As Manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so doe the Psalmes administer instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion.’ I’m not sure where Donne got this idea about manna, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis had it in mind when he wrote

Where did Oil of Olay get its name?

‘Is it sponsored by the oil people?’ my husband asked as we drove into London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, past a sign: ‘ULEZ.’ Naturally his words reflected mental confusion, but I had some sympathy for his presumption that the acronym was pronounced to rhyme with the French verb culer, ‘make sternway’. By oil he was


‘It’s very annoying when someone pulls a grape or two off the bunch,’ said my husband, glowering at the ‘obscenely’ denuded pedicels. To him it is a crime not to break off a cluster or cut its peduncle with grape-scissors. For me a far more annoying trend is to use bunch in a strange new

The worst words of 2022

‘Homer, the poet?’ asked my husband, puzzled, as he often is. He was responding to my scornful observation that the Cambridge Dictionary had chosen homer as its word of the year for 2022. The reason was merely that it had figured as the answer to a Wordle puzzle and many people did not know what

‘Quite’ has gone quite wrong

Something has gone wrong with the use of quite. Someone wrote in the Telegraph: ‘Beating Brazil at a World Cup? Quite the experience.’ Then I heard: ‘It’s been quite the dreich day.’ The annoying part is the the. An idiom does exist with quite the, but the meaning is different. If my husband displayed his