Etymology

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 BBC mentioned an Australian who ‘has form for wading into sporting rows’. So do people weigh in or wade in? Have they weighed in or waded in? The earliest citation given by the OED for wade in, meaning ‘intervene energetically’ is in a poem from 1863 called ‘How are you, Sanitary?’ The title is

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 producing offspring’. It can be used figuratively to mean ‘abundantly creative’ or just ‘productive’. A poet might deliberately use the phrase prolific child killer as a harsh oxymoron. For a journalist to use it in such a context is deplorable. A word far less easy to pin down is now widely used as a weapon:

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. Who ever thought that black market had anything to do with black people? It’s not as if black people are stereotyped as illicit money-changers. It cannot be long before Penzance changes the name of its principal street, Market Jew Street. The name has nothing to do with Jews but derives from the Cornish Marghas Yow,

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 like a synonym for chancer, which in an 1889 dictionary of slang was defined as ‘one who attempts anything and is incompetent’.  Stephen Frears’s film The Grifters (1990), not to be recommended to anyone of a nervous disposition, deals with fixing racecourse odds, running confidence tricks, and even faking one’s own death. Get the Grift

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 mode,’ it read. Fox later made it clear she had said nothing of the kind. It means ‘self-indulgent, lazy, or greedy behaviour that rejects social norms’. I suspect goblin mode is a vogue term that will disperse like the morning mist. Talking of mist, vape has made another advance in establishing itself in the language.

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 it is a word that has been around from time immemorial, though not often used. In fact it was invented in 1965 by Andrew Wilkinson in a book called Spoken English: ‘The term we suggest for general ability in the oral skills is oracy; one who has those skills is orate, one without them inorate.’

Curiouser and curiouser: what does it mean to go ‘down the rabbit hole’?

Radio 4 has just run a series of programmes called Marianna in Conspiracyland made by its disinformation correspondent Marianna Spring. Prefatory remarks for one episode asked: ‘Do you know someone who’s fallen down the rabbit hole?’ I think this phrase has changed its connotations recently. The reference to Alice in Wonderland is evident. The podcast reinforced it by quoting a phrase from the book, ‘curiouser and curiouser’. In Wonderland, Alice had mixed feelings: ‘I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!’ The OED, finding a first usage for it from 1938, defines

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 only stretches to one Q and doesn’t bother with the A, but declares that ‘terminology is continuously evolving’. Continuous evolution means that yesterday’s approved term is today’s hate speech. The Canadian government website says that ‘the term homosexual has fallen out of favour, as it is associated with the historic medical understanding of same-sex attraction

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 believe that everyone in the world knows what a terf is. In the past five years, terf wars has turned from a joky headline into a standard reference to permanent hostilities. Since I wrote about terf here in 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary has given it an entry, and its earliest citation for the word

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 not in fact that of finding the accused guilty. That is the work of a show trial: ‘A judicial trial held in public with the intention of influencing or satisfying public opinion, and typically having a predetermined verdict,’ as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. A kangaroo court is more like lynch law, named after

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 past fortnight it has been deployed in that storm in a television set: the fall of Phillip Schofield. Someone called Dr Ranj Singh declared that the culture at This Morning – the ITV programme that is generally on when one is waiting at an airport – had ‘become toxic’. Schofield, a presenter of the

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. I had never got a satisfactory answer from our friends about how the street is pronounced. They do not know. I find this odd. How do they get home by taxi? The crux is whether it is two syllables or three. By chance, a trip with my husband to North Yorkshire last week resolved the

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 phrase in a song by that uneven chansonnier Georges Brassens: croque-macchabée. It means ‘undertaker’, macchabée being ‘a corpse’. The French slang macchabée and the English macabre both originate in the Danse Macabre. There was a 14th-century French book called La Danse Macabré, with an accent, and Macabré seems to be an alteration of the Old

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 suggest a rub like Vicks VapoRub, which originated in America in 1905. The Oxford English Dictionary says such a rub is likely to be a liniment, though I can’t quite see the difference. I do remember Sloan’s Liniment, its label bearing an engraved portrait of the thick-moustached inventor, Dr Earl Sloan (another American, a doctor

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 rocketed up a few inches, like a surprised killer whale, then flopped back down, displacing a few cubic inches of water each side. It’s funny how ordinary words attract erroneous stories. Hour does not, of course, come from Horus. Few English words come from ancient Egyptian; pharaoh and oasis are exceptions. Hour derives from Norman

How ‘iconic’ became anything but

Though I love words, I don’t generally get on other people’s cases about them as I don’t expect everyone to have my almost parasexual attachment to the English language. I’ve suffered silently through the flagrant misuse of ‘epic’ and ‘awesome‘ and numerous moronic reference to food as ‘orgasmic’ and ‘artisanal’ featuring ‘curated table-scapes’. If you’re older than five and say ‘nom’ (in any multiple) then frankly, I believe that you should have your voting rights taken away – it’s called Universal Adult Franchise for a reason. However, I’m going to make an exception for ‘iconic’, the overuse of which has mildly irritated me for quite some time. I reached tipping

Why ‘great’ should be used with great caution

Sir Keir Starmer told his party conference last month that a Labour government would within a year set up a publicly owned company to be called Great British Energy. Perhaps it was thought to have a ring of the popular Great British Bake Off. (The series is called The Great British Baking Show in America because a company running competitive bake-offs there since 1949 claimed commercial ownership of the term.) I’m not sure that all the echoes of Great British Energy are entirely positive. Great British Public has been in use, chiefly ironically, since 1833, when the popular novelist Catherine Gore, known simply as Mrs Gore, wrote in The Sketch

What makes a ‘crisis’?

In his picture from 1932, ‘Derrière la gare Saint-Lazare’, Henri Cartier-Bresson caught the moment when a man in a hat launched himself forward from a ladder lying in some water, his leading heel not yet breaking the mirror-like surface, which reflected too a circus poster of a girl leaping. In 1952, when the photographer published his collection Images à la Sauvette, the title chosen for the English edition was The Decisive Moment, a phrase that Cartier-Bresson took from a sentence from Cardinal de Retz (1613-79), a statesman from a banking family: ‘Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment décisif’ (‘There is nothing in this world that

Why ‘pop’ is popping up everywhere

The Guardian kindly tells us that green is a colour whose time has come: ‘A blazer or a cotton shirt in Wimbledon grass-court green as a pop of saturated colour against white jeans and chunky flat boots is very Copenhagen Fashion Week.’ For the Express, it’s nails: ‘With polish costing from as little as £1, you can add a pop of colour to an outfit for next to nothing.’ This is the sassiest usage just at the moment of that vastly productive word pop. Yet in the papers, the predominant references by far are still to pop stars or (heaven help us) pop culture. That kind of pop simply comes

What ‘Budget’ and ‘bilge’ have in common

The Budget (which the revolutionary fiscal act last week was technically not) is directly connected with bilge and with one of the circles of Dante’s Hell, the eighth, which houses the financial fraudsters, speculators, extortionists, counterfeiters and false forecasters. The circle is divided into the ten ditches of Malebolge. The Malebolge, singular bolgia, take their name from Latin malus (‘evil’) and bulga (‘bag’). The early commentator on Dante, Benvenuto da Imola, says that bolgia in Florentine speech means a concave and capacious ditch. In Dante’s Hell inside the Earth, the Malebolge are concentric. Budget also comes from the Latin bulga. We are just about aware of the obsolescent budget meaning