Always the bridesmaid

If you’ve ever used the word ‘disconsolate’, you might have wondered whether you can also be ‘consolate’. Or maybe you haven’t, because you have a life. Lucky for you, I don’t. So, in this post I’m looking at unpaired (awwww) words.

Single and ready to mingle

In grammar, an unpaired word is one that looks like it should have an opposite, but doesn’t. This is usually because it has a prefix like ‘dis’ or ‘un’. Sometimes these types of words come about because the opposite word (called an antonym, fact fans) has fallen out of fashion. Or it might be that it never existed in the first place, for example if we nicked the unpaired word from another language (although that would make for a very short blog post, so I won’t be including those here).

So, without further ado, let’s have a look at five now single words, and their lesser-known other halves.

Incorrigible and corrigible

‘Incorrigible’ refers to a person who can’t change or be reformed. So ‘corrigible’ means exactly what you’d expect – something which can be fixed. It’s usually used for things rather than people, unlike its partner. Iago uses ‘corrigible’ in ‘Othello’: ‘…why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.’ ‘Corrigible’ actually came about after ‘incorrigible’, appearing around about the 15th century, a good 100 years after its opposite number. No one seems to know why it never caught on.

Unkempt and kempt

I’m pretty unkempt at the moment (I’m writing this on a Sunday, okay?). It means to be untidy or dishevelled. ‘Unkempt’ has been around since the 14th century, and ‘kempt’ seems to be a backformation of it, which is just a fancy way of saying that someone knocked off the prefix – in this case ‘un’ – to make the opposite. Having said that, another source I found says it did exist but fell out of use some time in the 1500s, only to make a comeback 400 years afterwards. I don’t know who’s right I’m afraid. What they do all agree on is that both words are derived from the Old High German word ‘chempen’ which means ‘to comb’.

Disgruntled and gruntled

I know this seems like a comedy backformation, but it actually isn’t. ‘Gruntle’ did exist as a word, and it’s actually not the opposite of ‘disgruntle’ – it means to grumble or complain, and also to ‘utter small grunts’ (this makes me happy). This is a rare example of the prefix ‘dis-’ as an intensifier, rather than its more usual use which is to undo the meaning of the word it’s attached to. Ooh, interesting, right? Right?  

Unruly and ruly

‘Ruly’ means law-abiding. It comes from the word ‘rule’ which I enjoy – someone who follows the rules is being ruly. Someone who doesn’t is unruly. These days ‘unruly’ has softened a bit, and is more often applied to children. And hair.

Impervious and pervious

‘Pervious’ seems to have been overtaken by the more recognisable ‘permeable’ these days. It comes from the Latin word ‘pervius’ which doesn’t have anything to do with men in dirty macs – it means ‘having a passage through’. While we can use ‘impervious’ both literally (as in something being impervious to water) and figuratively (someone can be impervious to criticism), pervious, however, only seems to relate to physical things (like rocks), that water can run through.

There you have it – five words and their almost forgotten partners. Other words which didn’t make the cut include intrepid and trepid (meaning fearful), feckless and feckful (a Scottish word that means efficient), and innocuous and nocuous (which has now been almost completely replaced by ‘noxious’). So next time you use one of these, spare a thought for their neglected other halves, languishing quietly on the linguistic shelf.

Oh, and ‘consolate’ is a word btdubz (not to be confused with the place where diplomats go – that’s a consulate). It means ‘to console’ or ‘give comfort’. So that’s nice.

WY(M)DKAA or, words you (maybe) didn’t know are acronyms

You probably already know that scuba’s an acronym, right? (It stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Well, obvs.) But there are lots of other words we use every day that you might not know are actually short for something (okay, maybe you only use them every day if you work for NASA or are an American police person, but let’s just gloss over that, m’kay?). Here are my top five.


‘Do you expect me to talk?’

‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!’

That’s my favourite laser-based scene from the movies. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this post. Laser’s short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. This is bound to come up in a pub quiz at some point so I’ve tried to commit it to memory but so far I can only remember ‘light’ and ‘radation’. Half a point?


These aren’t all going to rhyme, honest. Even though it looks nothing like a gun, Taser stands for Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle. This actually has a weirdly nice backstory (considering it’s a not-so-nice thing). Tom Swift is the lead character in a young adult novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land (awesome title – although a bit of research reveals it’s now considered horrendously racist, so maybe don’t rush down to Waterstones) which was a favourite of Taser inventor Jack Cover.

Apparently he added in the ‘A’ – Tom Swift doesn’t have a middle name in the book – which is lucky as otherwise we’d all be trying to work out how to say TSER.


Speaking of working out how to say things, why, oh why, does no one know how to pronounce GIF? I favour a hard ‘g’ myself (like ‘git’) but apparently Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF image format, says it’s pronounced with a soft ‘g’, because it echoes the name of an American peanut butter brand, Jif (I don’t know why). Luckily, because lots of people on the internet have too much time on their hands, someone’s put together a whole website on why it should be a hard ‘g’. And here’s someone arguing the exact opposite.

Wars have been fought over less…

Sorry, I almost forgot to say what it stands for: Graphics Interchange Format. Which is much less interesting than the whole pronunciation thing.


It’s not because they’re smart and you can fit them in teeny-tiny spaces. It stands for Swatch Mercedes ART apparently. This is because the cars were developed by Swatch (yes, the watch people) and Daimler Benz. They started life as ‘Swatchmobiles’ but this was scrapped (pardon the pun) for a reason I can’t find.

I can’t think of anything amusing to say about this, so here’s a link to some funny pictures of smart cars instead.

BASE jumping

The BASE bit’s short for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, which apparently is the stuff you can jump off of (although I’m not sure how you can jump off a span or the earth). If you make a jump from each of the four categories you get a BASE number. Whatever that is, I’m never going to get one.

Just in case you’re not clear on what BASE jumping is, here’s a video of some mental people jumping off what I think is an electricity pylon. Warning – contains some NSFW language (well, I’d be swearing too if I was going to jump off an electricity pylon) and dirty fingernails.

A note on acronyms v initialisms (and backronyms)

Loads of us (me included up until a few years ago) use and abuse the word ‘acronym’. An acronym only applies to an abbreviation that you pronounce as a word. So the ones on this list are all acronyms. If you pronounce the individual letters of an abbreviation (like BBC or FBI), it’s an initialism, not an acronym.

There are also things called backronyms, which are when we make words that aren’t acronyms or initialisms into, well, acronyms or initialisms (that’s a horrible sentence, sorry). It’s basically retconning a word, usually for a laugh. ‘Bing’ (the Microsoft search engine) has been backronymed (not a word) as ‘Because It’s Not Google’.

Apparently SOS is a backronym. It doesn’t stand for ‘Save our souls’ at all – the letters were just chosen because they’re easy to transmit in Morse code. WTF, right?

A collection of collectives

Collective nouns aren’t just for animals – there are also collective nouns for people and things. Excited yet? No? Okay, how about this – did you know that ‘a flight of stairs’ is a collective noun? And a ‘baptism of fire’? (Mind. BLOWN.) So, with the help of the lovely little book ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ by Chloe Rhodes, here’s a list of some of my favourite collective nouns. Because I know how to paaaartaaaay.

A note on the origins of collective nouns

Most of the nouns on this list have been around for yonks. They first appeared in 15th-century manuscripts called ‘Books of Courtesy’. Basically the ‘What not to wear’ of the 1400s, these were manuals on how to be a noble, designed to stop young aristocrats embarrassing themselves by saying or doing the wrong thing at court. One of the earliest of these is the Egerton Manuscript which dates from around 1450, and lists 106 collective nouns. I’m not entirely sure what collective nouns had to do with being a noble, but maybe if you used the wrong one you’d be executed? If so, that’s my kind of grammar police. Anyway, here we go…

A murder of crows

I love how menacing this sounds. And it has pretty menacing origins as well. According to Rhodes, medieval peasants saw crows (along with ravens and rooks) as messengers of the devil with prophetic powers. Seeing a crow on the roof of your house meant that you’d probably die soon (ouch) as well. So far, so sinister. But then it gets really weird. One of the other reasons they might have chosen the word ‘murder’ is after witnessing a crow parliament. This is essentially a crow court, where loads of crows gather together to apparently try one of their own. It quite often ends with the offender being ripped to pieces by its peers. I’m not even joking. Long thought to just be folklore, it’s been witnessed in modern times, as in this article. ‘Murder’ seems like the right choice after reading this.

Crows are also super clever, which possibly makes them even more murdery. They’re one of the few members of the animal kingdom that can recognise human faces, and there’s evidence that they might have their own language. I’m literally terrified of crows now.

A parliament of owls


This is a relatively new one, as it doesn’t turn up in any of the medieval manuscripts that coined most of the collective nouns on this list. In fact, it’s technically wrong – ‘parliament’ was traditionally ascribed to rooks, not owls. We can blame CS Lewis for this – he called a chapter in ‘The Silver Chair’ (my favourite of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, followed closely by ‘The Magician’s Nephew’) ‘A Parliament of Owls’, as it involves a group of owls getting together to discuss Narnian affairs. He nicked it from a poem by Chaucer, which is called ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (or ‘The Parlement of Foules’ to give it its proper name – I did try to read it, but then I remembered that I hate Chaucer), where all the birds in the world get together to find mates (hmmm, I could do with organising one of those). ‘Parliament’ has now completely superseded the original (although for the life of me I can’t find out what that was, which shows how ingrained ‘parliament’ is now).

A misbelief of painters

The first human collective noun on my list, a ‘misbelief’ is exactly what it says on the tin – ‘a wrong or false belief or opinion’. It seems that this one came about because painters of the Middle Ages generally tweaked their paintings to flatter the sitter – so they’d flatten a stomach, take out the wrinkles and so on. Apparently as long as they got the heraldry and clothes right, everything else was up for grabs. So it was basically the medieval equivalent of airbrushing.

A superfluity of nuns

This one seems a bit mean, but is probably just factually accurate – when it was coined, there were apparently a shedload of nuns about. Between 1270 and 1536, there were around 140 nunneries in England, several of which were really overcrowded. That’s because going off to the convent was seen as the natural step for nobles’ daughters who’d passed marriageable age, and dads pressured prioresses to take in their girls even if there wasn’t any room at the convent (I’d so be in a convent if I’d been alive then). It might also have been a reference to the fact that the seeds of the Protestant Reformation had been planted – when this first appeared in print it was only 50 years before Henry VIII would do his dissolution thang.

An abominable sight of monks

Unlike the nun-noun, this one is mean. Basically everyone hated monks in the 15th century. They were seen as having ruined all the pagan fun the peasants were having before Christianity took over, and latterly as being too well-off and well-fed (think that guy that Kevin Costner boots out the window in ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’, although I don’t think he was a monk, but you get the idea) while everyone else wasn’t well-anything. ‘Abominable’ actually means ‘causing moral revulsion’ which makes sense in this context – I confess I didn’t know this and just thought it was something horrible. Or a big old snowman.

A shrewdness of apes

So this one sounds quite nice, right? Wrong. When it was coined, ‘shrewdness’ actually meant wickedness, and was given to apes due to a ‘playful mischievousness’ which 15th century scientists saw in them. As Rhodes points out though, it’s rather nice that now we know how clever they are (apes, not 15th-century scientists), this one still makes perfect sense today, even though ‘shrewd’ now means something else entirely.

An unkindness of ravens

Similarly to crows and their murdering, this one’s down to people being a bit scared of ravens. As carrion birds, their habits aren’t the nicest, and they were also seen as harbingers of death and destruction in medieval Britain. The name might have come from the fact that ancient writers thought they kicked their young out of the nest leaving them to fend for themselves, and also that they left their older birds to die of starvation rather than help them out (which was probably payback for the whole nest-kicking thing). I can’t find any modern evidence for this, so fingers crossed those medieval Bill Oddies were wrong. I did find that an alternative collective noun for ravens is ‘a conspiracy’ though, which is a bit nicer, though still fairly sinister.

So, there you have it. If you’re intrigued by the world of collective nouns and venery (that’s the collective noun for collective nouns relating to animals – kinda) then I thoroughly recommend Rhodes’ book. And even if you’re not, it looks very nice on the coffee table.


(I definitely didn’t have to clear mountains of crap off the coffee table before I took this photo.)

Just my type

Everyone has their favourite font (right? That’s not just me, is it?) and at least one they hate. In fact, people can get really cross about fonts. And by people, I mean me – I’ve been known to change a document I’m editing from Times New Roman into something more aesthetically pleasing (to my eye at least), then change it back before I send it to the client. But when you’re scanning through the list on Microsoft Word, have you ever stopped to wonder where they get their names from? Here are the origin stories of some of the most common fonts we use every day.


Let’s start with the big daddy of the fonts. As you’ll have gathered from the intro to this post, I’m not a huge fan, but it’s many people’s go-to typeface for everything. This is the oldest font on my list, and was born in 1931 at The Times newspaper, after the paper hired a typog­ra­pher called Stan­ley Mori­son to cre­ate a new text font for them. He worked with a lettering artist in the paper’s advertising department named Victor Lardent to come up with the now ubiquitous TNR (as no one calls it).

Because it’s a newspaper font, it’s a bit narrower than others, which means you can fit more words on a page. Oh, and ‘Roman’ is a reference to the regular style of a conventional font (we use ‘roman’ as an instruction in copyediting when something’s bold or italics and it shouldn’t be).


Ah, Comic Sans. If it was a person, it would wear a Hawaiian shirt and describe itself as ‘a bit wacky’. This travesty of a typeface (a bit harsh maybe, but I like the alliteration) was created by one Vincent Connare, a type designer who worked for Microsoft and also created Trebuchet (which I used to like, but now I know they came from the same brain I’ve gone off). The name’s not particularly imaginative – it’s so-called because it was inspired by comic book lettering. Comic Sans was originally invented for Clippy – that irritating little paperclip b*stard that used to pop up on MS Office (remember? ‘It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like some help with that?’ NO, BECAUSE I’M NOT AN IMBECILE).

There’s a house sign in a village near me that’s in Comic Sans, and it irritates me every time I drive past it. And it seems I’m not the only one – according to this experiment people are less likely to believe a statement when it’s written in Comic Sans.


Maybe because I’m an old-fashioned girl at heart, I’m a fan of Courier. If you’re of a certain age then you’ll know that Courier looks like typewriter text (any millennials reading – ask your parents). It was designed by a man called Howard ‘Bud’ Kettler (most American name ever) in 1955, and later redrawn by Adrian ‘Not Bud’ Frutiger (also a font) for an IBM series of electric typewriters. When asked where the name came from, Kettler said that he was originally going to call it ‘Messenger’, but he chose Courier instead because: ‘A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige and stability.’ I think Mr Kettler possibly had too much time on his hands.

Courier’s a monospaced font, which means each letter takes up the exact same amount of space on a line (something which actually makes it more difficult to read than other proportionally spaced fonts). For reasons I can’t quite fathom, it’s the preferred font for screenplays.


Georgia’s a relatively young font, and was created in 1993. It was designed to be easy to read on computer screens. And the name? When I looked this up on Wikipedia, I thought someone unauthorised had got in and started mucking about with the page. But I’ve found it on a few different sites, which means it must be true, right? So, according to at least three different web pages I looked at, they named it after a tabloid headline, ‘Alien Heads Found in Georgia’. Unfortunately this isn’t a real newspaper headline – it was one of several sample sentences they were using while they worked on the design.


Tahoma and Verdana were invented by the same person who came up with Georgia (one Matthew Carter). Tahoma was named after Mount Rainier in Seattle, which is called Tahoma by native Americans. And Verdana is a combination of the word ‘verdant’ and the name Ana, after Ana Howlett, daughter of Virginia Howlett, one of the first designers at Microsoft. I wish someone would name a font after me.


Helvetica is a font which had an identity crisis. It was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger and was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk (yuck). It’s a neo-grotesque style, apparently (I won’t even attempt to tell you what that means – if you’re really interested, have a look at Wikipedia) and was renamed in an attempt to make it more marketable across the world. The new name comes from the Latin name for Switzerland, ‘Helvetia’. But with an extra ‘c’. I don’t know why.

The rebranding definitely worked, as these days Helvetica is everywhere. Lots of organisations use it for their logos (BMW, Panasonic and IBM to name three) and apparently the American government uses it for all its official forms. It’s also the font used on the whole of the Brussels transport system (although it’s not a patch on Johnston, AKA the London Underground font). Oh, and in 2007 somebody made a whole film about Helvetica. That. Is. Commitment. 


As mentioned above, Trebuchet was also invented by Vincent Connare, the man responsible for Comic Sans. Much less controversial than its sibling, Trebuchet is a sans-serif typeface (i.e. it doesn’t have serifs, which are those little lines which appear on some fonts like TNR) that Connare designed in 1996. As you probably guessed, it is named after the medieval siege engine. And the reason for it is quite nice. The name came from a puzzle question Connare heard at Microsoft HQ: ‘Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away? Mathematically, is it possible and how?’ (Those Microsoft guys know how to party.) Connare thought ‘that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the internet’.

I feel like I can forgive him for Comic Sans just for this image.

So there you have it. Feel free to leave me a comment about your favourite font, or even a defence of Comic Sans. I won’t read it, but I’ll applaud your efforts.

PS A note on fonts vs typefaces

I’ve used the terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ interchangeably in this post. Technically this isn’t right – they’re actually different things. I’m hoping you’ll forgive me this, as they’re increasingly losing their individual identities and definitions these days. But I’ve added this note for any typographical experts who’ve accidentally stumbled across this blog post and are currently all red in the face and shouting at their screen at my ignorance.

So, in brief: a typeface is a particular design of type, and a font is a type in a certain size and weight. Still none the wiser? Here’s someone with much more knowledge than me explaining it.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

‘i before e, except after c.’ You probably learnt this rule at primary school. But I’m sorry to tell you, it’s complete and utter rubbish. In fact, according to this tweet (thanks to my friend Sophie for sending this to me), there are 44 words in English that follow this rule, and 923 that don’t. Yep, 923. In percentage terms, that means it only applies 4.5501 per cent of the time (I think – if you’re the kind of person who insists on proper maths, have a look at this article by a statistician who actually did the sums. There’s graphs!).

You can find the ‘i before e, except after c’ mnemonic (I love the word ‘mnemonic’) in text books as far back as the 1860s, and similar ones even earlier. 

Truth or lie?

First up, let’s look at when it is true. The word that immediately springs to mind is ‘receive’. Second one: ‘ceiling’. Racking my brains a bit more (and definitely not cheating and looking on the web)... ‘deceit’. So far, so true. But what about ‘science’? And ‘species’? Or ‘sufficient’? 

So why has the English language been lying to us for so long? IS NOTHING SACRED?

‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in't’

Thankfully, it turns out there is some logic to the exceptions to the rule. When you look at a list of them closely you realise that (a) you need to get out more, and (b), what the rhyme doesn’t say is that it only applies to words with a ‘c’ and an ee sound. So that’s why it doesn’t work for ‘science’ or the other ones mentioned above. In fact, it doesn’t apply to any word without the ee sound, even when ‘c’ isn’t involved. Think ‘foreign’, ‘weight’, ‘vein’, and so on.

But, did you know, THERE’S A SECOND PART TO THE RHYME?! (If you did, you’re better informed than I am.) I feel like this needs a fanfare or at least a drum roll. Take a deep breath and brace yourself. Ready? Here it is...

‘i before e,
Except after c,
Or when sounded as “a”,
As in neighbour and weigh.’

Whoah, right? Okay, so it still doesn’t include the whole long ee thing, but apparently you can find this in some early British (of course) iterations. Sadly, I haven’t been able to locate the actual wording anywhere (if anyone reading this is a poet, feel free to come up with something).

The final verdict

So, where does this leave us? I can’t help thinking that whoever came up with our mnemonic (mmmm) was so wedded to making it rhyme, that they forgot to make it clear. But in the grand scheme of lies, it’s more along the lines of ‘Of course there’s a Father Christmas, darling,’ than ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Although it might not be technically true, it’s still a generally useful rule of thumb. Just don’t completely rely on it. And if you’re not sure, maybe chuck in a quick spell check as well.


It’s a no from me

We all know the alphabet, right? WRONG.

(Well, not completely wrong, but ‘ONLY A BIT WRONG’ didn’t work as well dramatically.)

I was watching Only Connect the other day (the hardest quiz on TV™ – if I get one question right I do a little dance and feel like I’m winning at life), and one of the questions was about letters of the alphabet which we don’t use anymore. After an obligatory not-at-all in-depth internet search I discovered there are at least 12 letters which didn’t make it through the audition stages of the competition. 12, I hear you splutter? I can’t handle the excitement! Don’t fret, I’m only going to tell you about six now – I’ll save the rest for a later blog post (I wouldn’t want to spoil you).

So, in no particular order, here we go...

1. Thorn

You know when you see a sign that says ‘Ye olde something shoppe’? That ‘y’ at the start of ‘Ye’ actually isn’t a ‘y’ – it’s a whole other letter which means we should be pronouncing ‘ye’ as... ‘the’. Okay, so that’s not terribly exciting, but in days of yore (or should that be thore? No, no it shouldn’t), there was a single letter for the ‘th’ sound called thorn. Here’s what it looks like:


So, what happened to the thorn? Turns out it’s those pesky printers’ fault. When the printing press made its way to our shores from Europe, it didn’t have a thorn, as no one else used it. So some bright spark decided that the closest thing to it was a ‘y’ (really? Not a ‘p’?). And that’s where we get ‘Ye’ from.

Thorn itself was an Anglo Saxon rune from the Elder Futhark runic alphabet which looks pretty awesome and I wish we still used today. And thorn is actually spelled þorn (hee hee hee).

2. Ampersand

Yep, you did read that right. The ampersand (&) was originally a proud member of the alphabet (in fact, it was the last letter of the alphabet), and was only downgraded in the 19th century. Don’t believe me? Here it is in all its glory in an 1863 book called The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks (you can see the whole of that book here).


Interesting (kinda) fact: it wasn’t always called an ampersand. When people were reciting the alphabet, they’d say ‘X, Y, Z, and’, which sounds a bit stupid. So, some very clever person decided to say ‘and per se’ instead, which basically means ‘by itself’ (I bet that person got punched in the face a lot). Eventually the three words were run together, and we ended up with ‘ampersand’. 

I love ampersands (except when people use them instead of ‘and’ for no reason). This is a picture of a shelf in my house which demonstrates just how much:



3. Ash

We do still use this one today. Although when I say ‘we’ I mean pretty much no one. Here it is:


This is a ligature, which is a posh way of saying it’s two letters smushed together. Like thorn, ash comes from the Futhark alphabet. It managed to survive the Norman conquest and was around until the 13th century before it fell by the wayside. It did stage a comeback in the 16th century when writers started to borrow from Latin and Greek for words we didn’t have at the time, but you’re unlikely to see it anywhere in English these days. It does still appear in the alphabets of some languages though, including Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

Here’s a list of some everyday words which used to contain ash:

  • archæology
  • curriculum vitæ
  • fæces (because I have to get something poo-related in every blog post I write)
  • hæmorrhage
  • pædiatrician
  • vertebræ.

There’s loads more here.

4. The long S

You’ve definitely seen this one. It’s basically what it says on the tin – that long ‘s’ that everyone thinks is an ‘f’. Here it is in a book only to be sold by Spiderman:



Confusingly, the long s wasn’t superseded by the ‘s’ we use today – they were both in action at the same time. Madness. I won’t even try to explain this lexical anomaly because thankfully another blogger has already done that for me. Find out about that here.

5. Yogh

In a weird coincidence, I was having a chat with my sister’s partner over the weekend, and he informed me that the shop John Menzies* should actually have been pronounced John ‘Mingis’ (I can’t remember why we were talking about John Menzies – conversational gold, I’m sure). It turns out that the reason for this is the old English and Scots letter yogh. Here it is, looking suspiciously like a 3:


Yogh actually had three (!) different pronunciations, depending on whereabouts in the word it appeared. So in modern English it could either be spoken as a ‘y’ as in ‘yes’ or a ‘g’ as in ‘night’, while in Scotland it would be the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’. 

So, what happened to yogh? Once again, it’s the fault of the printing press. In English-English it was rendered in print as a ‘y’, while in Scottish-English it was replaced with a ‘z’. Hence the FUBAR John Menzies pronunciation**.

I’m concerned about what this means for how I say the word ‘yoghurt’.

6. Eth

Here’s an eth for you:


Eth comes from Irish, and originally represented a slightly different pronunciation of ‘th’. It was essentially a softer version of thorn (depending on your regional accent) – so more like ‘thing’ than ‘them’. (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, while the second is the voiced dental fricative. Well, OBVS.)

It was thorn that killed off eth – people just started using thorn all the time, so eth didn’t have a job anymore. So it eth-ed off. 

I’ve said it (many times) before and I’ll say it again – the English language is an ever-changing beast. And that’s a great thing. Who knows what kind of alphabet kids will be singing in a few hundred years’ time (assuming the impending apocalypse hasn’t happened of course). I have a suspicion it may well be emoji based...

* For any young people reading, John Menzies was a WH Smith-type shop that was around in the 90s. I used to frequent the café when I was a student because it was the only one in Colchester you could smoke in. Ah, memories.

** This also applies to Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell and Dalziel in Dalziel and Pascoe (which should be pronounced Dee-ell). Unfortunately it does not explain why Mainwaring is pronounced Mannering.

Sard off, you bescumbered rantallion!

The inimitable Eva Price, of Coronation Street fame, uses the word ‘pigging’ (I presume) in place of swearing. She uses it a lot. And that got me thinking – leaving aside all the gangsters, murder, affairs etc, the inability to swear (not even the mildest of rude words like a ‘bloody’ or a ‘bugger’ seems to be allowed pre-watershed) is one of the things that makes soaps less believable (that and how people always just order ‘a pint’ when they go in the pub – A PINT OF WHAT!?!).

It must be tough for scriptwriters to come up with a decent insult when a character’s slept with someone’s husband/wife, murdered their family, stolen their baby (and so on), and the worst they can call them is a git or a pillock. If I was a soap opera writer, I’d be plundering the English language’s glorious back catalogue for swears* – there are ye olde insults galore which could definitely slip by the censors. Here are eight of my favourites.

1. Cumberworld

Nope, not a theme park devoted to Benedict Cumberbatch (although how I wish that was a thing), a cumberworld is a person who’s so useless that all they do is take up space. Think Piers Morgan, most politicians, etc.

2. Gillie-wet-foot

This is an old Scottish word for a businessman who swindles people out of their money, or someone who gets into debt then legs it.

3. Scobberlotcher

A scobberlotcher’s someone who never works hard. So not me then (because I’m definitely not looking up swear words on the internet when I should be working). It probably comes from scopperloit, which is an old English dialect word for a holiday (which I’ll be using in my next out-of-office).

4. Wandought

No, not a spell from Harry Potter – a wandought is a weak and ineffectual man (wandoughty is an old word for impotence. Say no more). 

5. Sard

This is basically the f-word of its day (which was pre-18th century). Apparently it first turned up in a 10th-century Old English translation of the Bible which said ‘...don’t sard another man’s wife’. Good advice. Especially as it leaves us ladies free to sard as many husbands as we like apparently.

6. Beardsplitter

An alternative for ‘dick’, this is Victorian slang for penis. I’m not going to walk you through the why as you can probably work it out for yourself. Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t it?

7. Rantallion

Another uncharacteristically graphic Victorian insult. It means a man whose scrotum’s longer than his penis. So basically someone with a teeny weeny winkie.

8. Bescumber

Still nothing to do with Cumberbatch (although when I open Cumberworld I might adopt it as a ride name where you get covered in Benedicts), to ‘bescumber’ someone is a swear that means to ‘discharge ordure’. Regular readers (hello Dad!) will know ‘ordure’ means poo. So if you say you’re going to bescumber someone, then you’re going to cover them in poop.

So, there you are scriptwriters – eight alternatives to bitch, pratt, idiot, etc. I’m sure we’ll be hearing Phil Mitchell yelling ‘You sarding wandought!’ in the Queen Vic any day now.


* So it’s probably lucky I’m not a soap opera writer.

Welcome to the masquerade ball

Have you ever heard a lovely word, then realised it actually means something horrible? Here are six terms that are masquerading as pretty things, but have not-so-nice meanings.

*Warning: Contains references to faeces. A LOT of references to faeces.

Oh, and some swears.

1. Tenesmus

Okay, so this sounds like some kind of beautiful landscape feature. Come my darling, stroll with me along the tenesmus and we can watch the sun go down together...

What it actually means

Cramping rectal pain. Yep, it’s when you really need to poop, and can’t. Nice.

2. Nugatory 

Mmmm, this must be an adjective for something creamy and delicious. Maybe something chocolatey...?

What it actually means

From the Latin nugari (‘to trifle’) it means unimportant, of no value or useless. Futile basically.

So definitely not chocolate then.


3. Meconium

Ooh, it’s science-fictiony, right? I’m sure I remember Captain Kirk asking Scottie to fire up the warp drive with some meconium.

What it actually means

Well, it’s kind of science-y. Nope, who am I trying to kid – it’s poop again, sorry. Originally it was used to describe a brown, syrupy substance made from crushed poppy heads (from the Greek word mekon for ‘poppy’). But we now use it to describe the poos a baby does when it’s born. Oh.

4. Moribund

Maybe just because it sounds vaguely like ‘fecund’, this one could be something to do with being bountiful or fertile. Or maybe relating to mushrooms? I don’t know why.

What it actually means

Close to death. Sorry.

5. Ordure

This one’s got a certain air of respectability about it. I can just imagine Dickens writing about a well-dressed gentleman with a double-barrelled name exuding an air of ordure. He’d be wearing a very smart stovepipe hat.

What it actually means

Once again, I apologise, because this one’s also poo. Ordure literally means excrement or dung, and goes all the way back to the 14th century. So you’d probably want to avoid any gentlemen exuding it, stove-pipe hat or not.

6. Coprolalia

Wait, I know this one. It’s the name of a 19th-century ballet about a mechanical doll. Nailed it, right?

What it actually means

No smarty pants, that’s Coppélia. Coprolalia is a psychiatric term for the involuntary use of obscene language. Still, at least it’s nothing to do with motherfucking shit this time.

So, the moral of this blog post is that you should never judge a word by the way it sounds. And that the English language has a lot of words about poo.

It ain’t necessarily so

I’m a big EastEnders fan (I even have a weird crush on Danny Dyer). One of the soap’s most famous lines after ‘Hello Princess’ came about when Zoe Slater bellowed at her ‘sister’ Kat, ‘You ain’t my muvver!’ (spoiler: she is). After reeling for a moment at this revelation my mind then obviously turned to grammar* – why is ‘ain’t’ considered persona non grata in the world of contractions? We’ve embraced ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘aren’t’ and the like. So what’s made ‘ain’t’ so universally reviled?

Contractions – not just for babies

When we’re speaking, we naturally run words together. So we’ve been using contractions for pretty much as long as we’ve been using English. I encourage my clients to use them all the time, even in formal writing – without them, words can sound stilted and robotic. And even though I get the occasional die-hard who just won’t accept that, most people are happy to embrace the likes of ‘we’re’, ‘shan’t’ and ‘don’t’ (one notable exception was a client from a large accountancy firm who, when I suggested we say ‘we can’t do that’ instead of ‘we cannot do that’, told me he didn’t want any of ‘that hip-hop rap-speak, thank you very much’).

Having said all that, I’d never use ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘am not’ or ‘has/have not’ in business writing. But why the hell not?

Fear of the unknown

One not-particularly-feasible theory for our suspicion is that it’s not immediately obvious which words ‘ain’t’ is formed from. We can easily see where (for example) ‘don’t’ and ‘we’ll’ come from. And if we’re using ‘ain’t’ in place of ‘am not’, we should probably follow the style of its more acceptable cousins – which would make it ‘amn’t’ (which is quite hard to say) or ‘an’t’ (which isn’t). So where did the ‘i’ come from? Maybe it snuck in from ‘isn’t’ via ‘in’t’ – another reviled contraction. (I can’t even hazard a guess about how ‘has/have not’ –  as in ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – turned into ‘ain’t’, so I’m just not going to go there.)

Unfortunately this whole theory falls flat when you look at ‘won’t’, which is short for ‘will not’. According to the five seconds of internet research I just did, this comes from ‘woll not’ which is ye olde English (y’know, from yore). And we’re all alright with ‘won’t’, right?

What the dickens?

So, the next place we need to look is Dickens (it’s almost always either Dickens, Shakespeare or Carroll when it comes to word origins). Some of the earliest appearances of ‘ain’t’ in writing appear in his novels. And it’s generally a Cockenee, and – quite often – criminal type, what says it:

  • ‘Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got!’: Magwitch in Great Expectations
  • ‘She ain’t one to blab. Are you Nancy?’: Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist (I’m still traumatised by that bit in the musical when Oliver Reed bludgeons Nancy to death. IT’S A KIDS’ FILM FOR CHRISSAKES).

It seems that this is an association that stuck – authors generally use ‘ain’t’ to indicate a character comes from a, ahem, less salubrious background. So it looks like our fear of ‘ain’t’ is simply down to a lingering Victorian snobbery which we’re yet to get over. So despite the fact that ‘ain’t’ does appear in the OED, it doesn’t look like it’ll be making the leap from EastEnders scripts into polite conversation/writing any time soon…

* And then 17 years later I wrote a blog post about it.

A partridge in a pear tree? I’d rather have a blog on etymology

I blimmin’ love Christmas. I put my decorations up on 1 December every year without fail, then I get really depressed on Boxing Day because it’s ALL OVER. So, before that happens, here’s my Christmas gift to you – six Christmassy words and their etymology (I was going to do 12 – as in the 12 days of Christmas – but it was too many and I ran out of steam. Sorry).

1. Eggnog

Yum, eggy booze. Who on earth thought that sounded nice? Maybe that’s why we only drink it once a year. Anyway, the ‘nog’ bit of ‘eggnog’ is a 17th-century word for strong beer (looks like the English have always been lager louts) from Norfolk. And the ‘egg’ bit? Well, you can probably work that out for yourself. 

2. Carol

Nothing to do with Vorderman or King, we used to use the word ‘carol’ to talk about any celebratory song. It was the Tudors who started using it for Christmas songs only. We nicked the word ‘carol’ from our Gallic friends across the channel in the Middle Ages – a carole was French for a circle dance accompanied by singers. And they probably got it from the Italians (carola), who took it from the Latin (choraulēs – ‘flute player accompanying a chorus dance’), which came from the Ancient Greek word khoraulḗs (‘one who accompanies a chorus on the flute’). That has its roots in Proto-Indo-European language, but as you probably stopped reading a while ago, I won’t go into that.

3. Mistletoe

This one’s a bit of a mystery (a mistle-tery? Nope?). Well, ‘mistle’ is – the ‘toe’ bit’s fairly straightforward, as it comes from ‘tān’, which is an Old English word for ‘twig’. But no one’s really sure where the ‘mistle’ part came from. Wikipedia just says it’s ‘from Proto-Germanic *mihstilaz (“mistle”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₃meyǵʰ- (“to urinate”)’ which I feel merits more explanation, but sadly, doesn’t give any.

Mistletoe’s a parasitic plant, which means it sucks the nutrients out of other plants, either stunting their growth or killing them (which is why it stays green all year round, the bastard). And some of it’s poisonous. Kissing under the deadly parasitic twig doesn’t seem quite so romantic now, does it?

4. Poinsettia

The poinsettia is a Mexican plant which the ancient Aztecs called ‘cuetlaxochitl’. Presumably because no-one could pronounce that, when American ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett bought one back with him from Mexico to the US of A they decided to name it after him. The association with Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend (which I was in a production of at primary school). You can read it here (the myth, not my primary school production).

5. Tinsel

Beloved of 80s Christmas trees, ‘tinsel’ was originally the name for a cloth that was woven with gold or silver thread. It comes from the Middle French word estincelle which means ‘spark’ or ‘spangle’.

Tinsel was invented in Nuremberg in the 17th century. Originally made from real silver, apparently it’s supposed to mimic the appearance of ice. I never knew that, even though now I do it seems blindingly obvious.

I like saying the word ‘tinsel’.

6. Yule

Log lady.jpg

Like a lot of stuff to do with Christianity, this one was stolen from paganism (technically called ‘Christanised reformulation’ fact fans). It comes from the word jól, the Norse name of a pagan festival which took place in the 12 days leading up to 25 December. It’s connected with the myth of the wild hunt (which is a pretty frickin’ awesome myth). We nicked the word jól and added it to Old English as ġéol, which morphed into ‘yule’ some time in the middle of the 1400s. I’m not really entirely sure what we use it for these days, except for making bad puns (‘yule love this festive blog post!’) and the yule log. I totally thought a yule log was a cake, but it’s an actual log which also has pagan roots (BOOM BOOM).

So, there you have it. A little bit of Christmas cheer, in blog form. Oh, and thanks for reading my word-based musings this year – here’s to plenty more in 2018.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Immigrant song

According to the OED, there are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got everything covered. So sometimes we adopt words from other languages to fill the gaps. Chances are you’ve already come across ‘schadenfreude’, and new kid on the block ‘hygge’. But what about ‘tartle’? It’s a Scottish word for that panicky pause when you have to introduce someone whose name you’ve forgotten. Good, right? So here are my top 12 (because anyone can do a top ten) foreign words without an equivalent in English. Bloody foreign words, coming over here and stealing our words’ jobs.


I’m annoyed that the Germans have got this word and we haven’t. The literal translation is ‘energetic queuer’ – basically it’s for those clever people (of which I’m, sadly, not one) who always join the right queue.


Another German one, the direct translation of which is ‘digger truck spy hole’. It’s the desire to peek into a boarded-up building site. C’mon, you know you’ve done it...


A Danish word for something that I’ve obviously got no experience of – when you wake up in the morning still drunk from the night before (it translates as ‘backwards drunk’). Nope, never happened to me. And definitely not this morning.


This is an Italian word for the stain left on a table from a cold drink. Use a coaster people!


A Filipino word for when you see something really cute and feel the urge to squeeze or pinch it. I get this every day for my dog Bella. Cue gratuitous picture...



Being as the English are known for not wanting to cause a fuss, it’s odd that the Thai have a word for this one and we don’t. It’s when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it’s a pain for them.


This is an Inuit word for when you’re so excited about someone coming round to your house that you keep going outside to check if they’ve turned up yet. Like me and the Amazon delivery man.



I love this one. It’s a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on water. Gawjuss.


You know that thing when someone taps you on one shoulder from behind so you turn one way, when they’re actually standing on the other side? Well, the Indonesians came up with this word for it.

I actually already have a word for people who do this. It starts with ‘w’ and ends with ‘ankers’.


This is a Danish word for being disgusted by a politician. So basically everyone in the world then.


Think ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘The Satanic Verses’, ‘The Alchemist’... yep, this is a Japanese word for when you buy books and then never read them. At least they look nice on the shelf.


This is a Georgian word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and has equivalents in lots of languages including German (übermorgen) and Polish (pojutrze). I’m cheating slightly here because there is actually an English version – ‘overmorrow’. But unfortunately it’s ye olde middle English, so no one uses it anymore. There’s also the equally delightful ‘ereyesterday’ in English for ‘the day before yesterday’. I’m going to make it my mission to bring these back.

This woke blog post is lit AF

The other day I got an email from a company I buy quite a lot of clothes from. The subject line was ‘Something for your bae’. Now this threw me, as I have no idea who or what my bae is. After asking the internet I now understand that this is shorthand for my girlfriend or boyfriend. Good to know. But it got me thinking – how out of touch with the yoof am I?

It turns out, quite a lot.

So here’s my pick of some young people’s speak, along with what it actually means and some handy examples for if you want to chuck any into conversation. (And I’ve now instigated a rule that if a company send me an email with slang I don’t understand, then I’m too old to be buying whatever it is they’re selling.)


What? To be woke about something means to be well informed about it.

In action: I stay woke by listening to Radio 4. 


What? One of my friends used this the other day and I had to ask her to explain it (because I’m not woke about millennials). Confusingly it turns out it has a few meanings, depending on the context. It can mean that something’s really good, or drunk/stoned/had a great night. This second meaning’s actually been around for a long time, and first showed up in the 1910s.

In action: This cross stitch I’ve just finished is lit or Emma got lit at book group last night.


What? Short for (sorry Mumsy) ‘as fuck’. Because who wants to type/say a whole FOUR extra letters?

In action: This Farrow & Ball paint colour I’ve chosen is delightful AF.

Glo up

What? When I googled this the first result was the village of Gloup in the far north of the island of Yell in the Shetland Islands. How did I not know there’s an island called Yell? It’s home to the most haunted house in the Shetlands as well as some trolls (the old-fashioned kind, not the internet ones).

Anyway, I digress. To glo up is to suddenly become really attractive.

In action: Plain Jane Superbrain did glo up in Neighbours (FYI I’m not entirely sure what the past tense is – maybe she glo'd up? Answers on a postcard please). 

I so wanted to be Plain Jane Superbrain when I was young. Check her out in action below (the clip also features some little-known Australians called Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue. I wonder what happened to them?).


What? When you’re angry because you’re hungry, obvs. I like hangry because (a) it makes perfect sense and I can’t believe there isn’t a word for it already, and (b) I love a portmanteau. Who doesn’t?

In action: My Waitrose delivery is an hour late and I’m super hangry.


When a man explains something to a woman in a patronising way, or by interrupting or speaking over her. It’s often about something she already knows, or is already an expert in. (Not to be confused with manspreading which is a whole different thing.)

In action: Check out these awesome examples. And it even happened to an ACTUAL ASTRONAUT.

So, that’s it for yoofspeak for the time being. If you’re as old as me, then hopefully this will help you out if you have to interact with any millennials any time soon. And if you’re a yoof yourself, feel free to correct me or give me some more examples (without mansplaining though please).

Fancy a fuksheet?

The English language is a wonderful thing. And one of the reasons for that is because we have lots of rude words. Think about it. There are loads of them. I can come up with five words for my you-know-what off the top of my head right now. But there are also a lot of words which sound rude but are actually perfectly acceptable in polite society. Here’s just a small selection of some of my favourites – why not see how many you can get into the conversation at your next dinner party?

1. Bumfiddler

Depending on which part of the internet you look at (and I wouldn’t recommend Googling this if you’re easily offended), to be a bumfiddler either means that you pollute or spoil something (like a document, not a bottom), or that you’re a fidget or a busybody. If you put a space in it (i.e. bum fiddler), it means to harm or attack. And if you look it up on, it’s to do with playing a fiddle with your arse. Obviously.

2. Cockchafer

It’s a big old beetle. It was almost eradicated with pesticides but numbers are on the rise again, you’ll be pleased to hear. And apparently Nikola Tesla once made an engine out of four of them (I don’t know how). 

Here’s a picture of one – it’s surprisingly cute for a family of bugs which can apparently ‘terrorise ... with their high-pitched screams as they leave a trail of destruction’ (a quote in this well-balanced article from the Daily Star which was published last summer. I must have missed the cockchafer plague).


3. Copula

A copula is a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (i.e. the bit that describes or expands on the subject). So in the sentence ‘The cockchafer is furry’, ‘is’ is the copula. It also crops up in probability theory and statistics where it’s a multivariate probability distribution for which the marginal probability distribution of each variable is uniform. But you knew that already, right?

4. Formication

Nope, not that. It’s actually pretty unpleasant – a feeling that you have insects crawling over your skin. From the Latin formica which means ‘ant’. So you could legitimately say that you feel like you’re being formicated by cockshafers. If the situation ever arises.

5. Fuksheet

Okay, so ‘fuk’ with no ‘c’ is a Middle English word for a sail. So you attach a fuksheet to a fukmast. And then you fuk off in your boat.  

6. Invagination

Turning something inside out, innit. And the opposite is called ‘evagination’. One source said it also applies to putting one thing (not that) inside another (not that either), like a sword into a sheath. (If you’re anything like me you’re now singing ‘Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure invagination...’)

7. Jaculate

When you throw something, especially something like a dart or a javelin, you jaculate it. Yep. Not to be confused with ejaculate, which is when you eject something suddenly. And, you know, the other thing.

8. Peniaphobia

Nothing to do with being scared of winkies, this is the fear of poverty. It comes from the Greek penia.

9. Teasehole

Less ooh er, matron and more opening in a glassmaking furnace for putting fuel in.

10. Vagitus

Despite sounding like some kind of ailment you have to whisper over the counter at the chemist, this is actually rather nice – it’s the name given to a newborn baby’s first cry. Aw.

Punctuation drunk – part 2

After leaving you on a grammatical cliffhanger last time (kinda), at long last, here’s the second part of my foray into the world of obscure punctuation marks. Man, my life is exciting. Hold onto your hats people...

Percontation point: ⸮

Despite sounding like a place where teenagers went to snog in the 50s, the percontation point is actually a back-to-front question mark. And it might be my new favourite thing. You use it to show you’re being ironic or sarcastic. Nowadays the nearest equivalent is probably an exclamation mark in brackets, as in: ‘Yeah, blogs about punctuation marks are really interesting (!).’

Who came up with that? Henry Denham (a 16th-century printer and my new celebrity crush) first suggested the backwards question mark as a way to end a rhetorical question. Sadly this didn’t make it past the 17th century, but it was resurrected by a French poet in the 1890s who used it to show irony or sarcasm. In fact, loads of people have tried to come up with a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm (including the excellently named sarcmark) but nothing’s really stuck yet.

Exclamation comma: not available on keyboards so see picture below

Exclamation comma.jpg

I’m not a fan of the exclamation mark generally – they can make you sound a bit mental and shouty! And with the exclamation comma, you’re no longer limited to only sounding mental and/or shouty at the end of a sentence. It’s a bit hard to give you an example as it’s untypeable, so using an exclamation mark as a stand in, it would look something like this:

‘We’re so excited about this punctuation mark! we can’t end this sentence.’

The exclamation comma’s actually pretty young compared to most of its other obscure cousins, and was created in 1992 by three American inventors (called Leonard Storch, Haagen Ernst Van and Sigmund Silber), who even took out a patent on it. Fortunately for us that’s now expired, so feel free to be surprised in the middle of sentences with gay abandon (but only in handwritten documents).

But what if I want to ask a question in the middle of a sentence? Fret not – our three intrepid inventors also created an unholy union between the question mark and the comma. They called it – wait for it – the ‘question comma’ (it’s no ‘exclamoquest’ is it?). And it’s also not available on keyboards, sorry.

Dagger: †

Possibly not that obscure – you’ve probably seen this one in action as it’s generally used for a footnote if the writer’s run out of asterisks. It’s another oldie and is believed to have been invented by a Homeric scholar called Zenodotus (which is what I’ll be naming my next dog). You can also use it next to someone’s name to show they’re dead, in which case it’s called the ‘death dagger’. Ooh. (There are actually loads more uses for the dagger, and thankfully someone much cleverer than me has collated them on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Or even still reading.)

Why’s it called a dagger (See what I did there?) The dagger has a second and, in my opinion at least, much more exciting name – the obelisk. This comes from the Greek word obeliskos, which doesn’t mean pointy statue, but ‘roasting spit’. Much better, right?

There’s also a double dagger, or ‘diesis’ (‡), and apparently even a triple one for people who don’t know that you can also use numbers for footnotes. 

Guillemets: « »

Not to be confused with the birds, or the indie rock band, guillemets are possibly a bit of a cheat, because they’re foreign. They’re basically a more exotic version of our quotation marks and are used in loads of languages including French, Greek, Italian and Spanish. I only really included them here because I like the word (and I wanted to make that indie rock band joke in the first sentence). 

Sheffer stroke: |

Not the prettiest of punctuation marks, the sheffer stroke is actually on your keyboard. I’ll wait here while you go find it. 

Got it? It’s the one next to the z (and the cleanest key on my keyboard, as I don’t think I’d pressed it before today). It’s named after one Henry M Sheffer, author of the 1913 paper ‘Transactions of the American Mathematical Society’ where he provided an axiomatisation of Boolean algebras using the stroke, and proved its equivalence to a standard formulation thereof by Huntington employing the familiar operators of propositional logic (which are, of course, and, or and not). I absolutely, positively didn’t copy and paste this from Wikipedia.

It’s also, rather boringly, called a vertical bar, and is a variant of the slash, presumably for people who are just too lazy to make it slope. 

The end?

That’s it for the moment for obscure punctuation. If you’re feeling a bit bereft (I know I am), then why not join me on my quest to come up with a new punctuation mark named after me? The Emmamark perhaps? Or the Wilkin Woggle (I don’t know what this is for, but I’m liking the name already)? Or, you know, go outside and talk to people or something.

Punctuation drunk – part 1

Alongside your everyday commas, question marks, semicolons and so on, there are other, more exotic, punctuation marks hiding in the shadows. Here are just a few of them...

The Pilcrow: ¶

I’ve got a pendant in the shape of a pilcrow (a present from my friend Bee – here’s a slightly smug-looking picture of me wearing it). You’ve probably seen a pilcrow in Microsoft Word (it’s the button which shows all the usually hidden formatting marks). Sometimes called a paragraph mark, it’s the elder statesman of punctuation, and can trace its roots as far back as Ancient Greece. I’m reliably informed by the internet that its name comes from the Greek word paragraphos, by way of French and Middle English.

But what the hells it for? In the Middle Ages rubricators used a pilcrow to mark a new train of thought in a manuscript. This was before it became usual to start these on a new line. What the hell’s a rubricator I hear you say? Nothing to do with the cubes I’m afraid – rubrication’s when a scribe adds text in red ink to ancient manuscripts for emphasis. I like to think of them as the medieval equivalent of a highlighter pen.

These days, apart from the button in Word which I’ve already mentioned, the pilcrow turns up in:

  • legal and academic documents – it’s used for cross references (it’s more complicated than that, but even I started getting bored writing about it so I gave up)
  • as a proofreading mark to show a paragraph should be split in two (sadly it’s pretty rare that us editors get to use a pen for proofreading these days, so this one might be a dying art)
  • in the order of service for some churches to show that the text following is an instruction to stand up, sit down or kneel (I feel like this could be used in hilarious, and probably blasphemous, ways in the wrong hands)
  • online for something to do with permalinks to avoid link rot. I don’t know what this means.

Interrobang: ‽

New-favourite-word alert! The interrobang is the weird lovechild of the question mark and exclamation mark. It’s the punk rocker of the punctuation world – the enfant terrible. (Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.) In 1962, Martin K Speckter, head of a New York advertising firm, decided it would be better to have a single mark at the end of a rhetorical or surprised question, instead of using ‘!?’ (e.g ‘How the hell did you lose your shoe!?’). It was him who came up with the name interrobang (from the Latin interrogatio and ‘bang’, printers’ slang for the exclamation mark), although he did write a magazine article inviting suggestions for alternatives. In the 60s equivalent of Boaty McBoatface, he got some awesome portmanteaus including ‘emphaquest’ and ‘exclamoquest’ (which might even be slightly better). But ‘interrobang’ stuck, and the mark was even added to a range of US typewriters in 1968. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to save it, and the interrobang was doomed to fade into obscurity. I’ll be doing my very best to bring it back.

When can I use it? Basically, every time anyone says or does something stupid. Like when you drunk text someone and then send a message the next day saying: ‘Don’t know what happened last night‽’


The less popular cousin of the asterisk, the lovely looking asterism takes its name from a group of stars that’s smaller than a constellation. Nice, right?

Why do I need one of those? You probably don’t, to be honest. You can use an asterism to indicate a break in text that’s not as strong as a page break (or the end of a chapter), but bigger than a paragraph. I’ve used one below because it looks pretty, and I feel like it needs an outing. Sadly most people tend to use ‘***’ these days instead, possibly because it has the fabulous name of ‘dinkus’.

Want to know more?

If you can’t wait for part 2 of this post (and let’s face it, it’s pretty damn exciting), check out the book Shady Characters by Keith Houston, which I used when writing this post (a present from my dad – I get a lot of punctuation-based gifts). You can buy yourself one here.

Let’s talk about techs baby

This week I was working on some copy that told the reader to ‘dial’ a number. Which got me thinking – even though I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually used a phone with a dial (probably about 1985, when we also had a three-digit phone number – tru dat kids) – everyone knows what you mean when you talk about dialling a number. So what other tech terms live on, even though the technology that coined them is long dead?


CC stands for carbon copy, which harks back to when people used to make copies of things (like receipts) by putting a piece of carbon paper under the sheet before writing on it. Then the ink transferred onto the other piece of paper (or something – it’s kinda hard to explain). We also used it for card payments in the dark days before electronic readers (and identity theft. Coincidence? Yes, probably).

We now of course use CC when we’re emailing people and BCC when we’re being sneaky. And we still use ‘carbon copy’ when we’re talking about someone or something being a dead ringer for another person or thing, which I used to think was something to do with Han Solo, but almost definitely isn’t. And I wonder how many people under the ago of 20 (or 30 even?) know where it comes from?


Alongside ‘tape’ for ‘record’, this is left over from the days of VHS. These days there’s no actual tape being wound backwards – only different bits of a drive being accessed.

(Remember when you could only record one thing at a time, you needed a science degree to set the video and most of the time it didn’t record what you wanted anyway? Ah, memories.)

Tune in

Still applicable to some radios, this one’s from when you used to have to turn a dial to get a station. It also applied to TVs to pick up a channel. Luckily there were only three, so it didn’t take too long.  

Hang up

Another phone-related one here. Back in the days of yore we used to have to actually put the phone back on a cradle to finish a call. Whereas nowadays we never actually hang up anything – just press a button or swipe the screen (which makes angrily ending a phone call much less satisfying).

Wind down the window

Or up, for that matter. You’d be hard pushed to find many non-classic cars on the road these days where you actually have to rotate a handle and wind down the window. They’re all buttons these days. And thank god, because otherwise this awesome movie moment would never have happened...

All this makes me wonder what terms we’ll be using in, say, 20 years? With the speed technology’s moving words are becoming obsolete almost as soon as we learn them. Take ‘click’ for example – something I use a lot when I’m writing copy for emails or web pages. It’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as more and more people are using touchscreens which don’t involve any kind of clicking.

Or maybe we’ll still be talking about ccing people in 100 years’ time when we’re communicating entirely telepathically from inside our flying cars.

It’s not unusual (to hate double negatives)

  • ‘I don’t know nothing.’
  • ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’
  • ‘I can’t see no one.’

Yep, this time around I’m looking at the double negative. Beloved of songwriters and people in EastEnders, it’s one of the few grammatical mistakes that annoys almost everyone. 

Double trouble

So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s look at the rules around double negatives. You’ll notice that the three examples at the start of this post all have one thing in common – they’re horrible. They also have two negative words in them. And if we correct them, they only have one. I’ve highlighted the negative words below:

  • Wrong: ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Right: ‘I don’t know anything.’
  • Wrong: ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’ Right: ‘You ain’t [are not] going anywhere.’
  • Wrong: ‘I can’t see no one.’ Right: ‘I can’t see any one.’

The simplest way to look at it is that, like in maths, two negatives make a positive (or cancel each other out). So you only need one to make a negative sentence. So far, so logical. But, as we so often find, the English language is a bit stupid sometimes. There are actually two types of double negatives – the ones I mention above which aren’t okay, and a second type, which are grammatically acceptable. (Honestly, I don’t know how anyone ever learns to speak this ridiculous language of ours.)

Double negatives that aren't not okay (i.e. okay)

Right, stay with me. It’s okay to use two negatives in the same sentence if you’re expressing a positive idea. Got it? No? Okay, here’s an example: ‘I can’t just do nothing.’ So you’ve got two negative words there – the ‘n’t’ of ‘can’t’ and ‘nothing’. But the sentence means I must do something, and actually expresses a stronger sentiment than just saying ‘I must do something’. This is called litotes – a figure of speech which uses negative words to make positive statements. It’s one of those annoying things that’s all about nuance (and is also terribly British) so is quite hard to explain. Here are some more examples of litotes in action:

  • he’s not hard to look at (i.e. he’s Brad Pitt’s better-looking brother)
  • it’s not too shabby (it’s blimmin’ awesome)
  • this wasn’t my best idea (this was the worst idea I’ve ever had, ever).

Finally, here’s one from a proper writer – master of subtlety Jane Austen in the excellently named Emma: ‘She owned that, considering every thing, she was not absolutely without inclination for the party.’ We’ve all been there.

So technically speaking, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd go straight to the bottom of the class for crimes against grammar (I Can’t Get No Satisfaction/We Don’t Need No Education), while Sir Tom of Jones gets a gold star for his use of litotes in It’s Not Unusual

Language never stays unchanged

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, language evolves. If I was writing this in the 17th century (on parchment, by candlelight) I’d be saying exactly the opposite – it wasn’t until then that people tried to impose more logical rules on English. Check out this impressive triple negative from a little-known writer called William Shakespeare: ‘I never was nor never will be.’

And let’s not forget – language isn’t maths. So why do we feel the need to impose logical rules on it? Maybe it’s just so we can break them?

Why so Sirius?

Monday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Apart from making me feel well old (I know, I know, you’d think I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye 20 years ago (!), but in fact I’d just started university when it came out), it reminded me of how much I admire JK Rowling – she’s created a world that people of all ages, myself included, have come to love. (When the last book came out I once hid in the loo at work in the middle of the day so I could finish a chapter.) So this week, I thought I’d take a look at the etymology of the names of some of my favourite characters in the series. Rowling studied French and classics at university so the origins of her character’s names are often very pertinent – she put a huge amount of thought into even minor characters’ names. 

FYI: I find it hard to believe there are many people who haven’t read an HP book or seen a film, but just in case you are that one person, be warned that this way spoilers lie...

‘You’re a wizard Harry’

  • Sirius Black: Oh Sirius. I was convinced right up until the last page of the last book that you’d somehow come back from the dead. Sigh. Anyway, Sirius is the name of the brightest star we can see from the earth. Because he’s lovely, you see. And of course it’s also called the Dog Star, which refers to Sirius’ status as an animagus.
  • Remus Lupin: My second favourite after Sirius (which apparently is the kiss of death for HP characters), this one’s a bit of a double whammy. ‘Remus’ must be a reference to ‘Romulus and Remus’ who, as I’m sure all my highly educated readers already know, were the legendary twin brothers who were abandoned then brought up by a wolf (obvs), and then went on to found the city of Rome. So that’s our first clue to Remus’ wolfy secret. Secondly, presumably Lupin is a reference to ‘lupine’ (rather than the flower), which of course means ‘of, like, or relating to a wolf’. Boom.
  • Albus Dumbledore: ‘Albus’ is Latin for ‘light’, which makes sense as he’s number 1 good guy. And ‘Dumbledore’ is apparently an English dialect word for bumblebee. Nope, me neither. Maybe JK just liked the sound of it? (Some further googling reveals that apparently she imagined him bumbling round his office like a bee. Why not, I guess?)
  • Severus Snape: Fantastically portrayed on film by the much-missed Alan Rickman, Severus was a complicated character who ultimately turned out to be working for the good guys (he just had a really long endgame). So, ‘Severus’ means ‘stern’ in Latin (which is where we get ‘severe’ from), which makes sense as he was a fairly scary teach. And according to the lady herself, JK Rowling took the name ‘Snape’ from a village in Suffolk (where I’m writing this right now – Suffolk, not Snape), but it also means ‘to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to’ which is a nice coincidence (although probably entirely intentional).
Me and Sirius.jpg

‘I solemnly swear I’m up to no good’

  • Voldemort: The big bad himself, ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight [or ‘theft’ depending on which bits of the internet you read] of death’ which makes sense considering the whole horcrux-hiding-bits-of-your-soul thang. 
  • The Malfoys: This one’s not too hard to decipher – ‘mal’ comes from old French for ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In the same language ‘foi’ means ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ which could well have something to do with the Malfoys putting their trust in the wrong dude. Draco is presumably a reference to ‘draconian’ or possibly dragon or snake (i.e. devious). (And hello to Jason Isaacs!)
  • Fenrir Greyback: One of the more minor characters, I put Fenrir in because I like the way it sounds. Fenrir was a big ole nasty wolf in Norse mythology, and a big ole nasty wolfman in Harry Potter land. It’s him who infected Lupin’s family with lycanthropy originally, and he also takes a chunk out of Bill Weasley. Bastard.
  • Argus Filch: Argus Panoptes is a Greek giant with a shedload of eyes. A perfect moniker for someone who’s always watching round corners. And obviously ‘filch’ is an informal term for stealing, which again fits for a man who likes to confiscate shiz. 

So, there you have it. There are loads more links in HP to Latin, French and Greek, as well as astrology, biology – the list goes on. Feel free to leave a comment about your favourite.

Bonus material

Check out this Harry Potter-based sock puppet video – guaranteed to be stuck in your head for DAYS. 

What’s in a name?

Nominative determinism. Go on, say it. Nominative determinism. Sounds nice right? And clever. 

Say what?

Now I know that my many (she says hopefully) readers are super intelligent, but just in case any of you haven’t come across this lovely term before, it’s basically the idea that people quite often end up doing jobs that match their names. Also called aptronyms, think William Wordsworth (poet, obvs), Usain Bolt (I confess I hadn’t actually made the connection until I started writing this), or Mr Greenacre, who was the man that looked after the hockey pitches at my school. Possibly less famous than the first two, but you get the point.


The term nominative determinism was coined in an article in the New Scientist. They gave examples including:

  • a man who wrote a book about polar exploration with the surname Snowman
  • an article on treating disorders of the urinary system by two researchers called Splatt and Weedon (BEST. THING. EVER).

The theory goes that this isn’t just coincidence – it’s possibly down to genetics, or a thing called implicit egotism. As this is a blog about words, I’m not going to delve into the science, just the funny names. So here’s a list of my favourite examples of this theory in action.

Sara Blizzard

She’s a blimmin weather forecaster for the BBC. And across the pond there’s an Amy Freeze and a Larry Sprinkle.

Igor Judge

Judge Judge innit.

Christopher Coke

He’s a big ole drug dealer

Lord Brain

Guess what he wrote books about? Neurology.

Sir Manley Power

He was a total military ledge

Dr Alter

He’s a plastic surgeon. Well of course he is.

Frances Crook

She runs an organisation that works to reform prisons. In a double whammy, ‘Frances’ means ‘free the criminals’ apparently.

Vania Stambolova

I’m not sure if this one really counts because she’s from Bulgaria and it only works in English, but I don’t care because it’s awesome. I bet you can’t guess it. She’s a... wait for it... 400m hurdler. Amazing.

Marion Moon

She was Buzz Aldrin’s mum. I can’t believe I only just found this out.  

Ann Webb

She founded the British Tarantula Society. REALLY.

Robin Mahfood

He’s the president of a charity called Food for the Poor. Even though his name says otherwise.

Dr Richard Chopp


So, dear reader, if you can beat Dick Chopp, please let me know in the comments. I’ll buy you dinner (chops, of course).

A myriad of wrongness

I got pulled up by a client today for writing that something came ‘in a myriad of colours’. She told me that ‘myriad’ doesn’t need an ‘a’ before it or an ‘of’ after it. Because I’m super-competitive and really don’t like being told I’m wrong, especially when it comes to anything word-related, I immediately consulted Google to check this. And turns out, I’m wrong (and I’ve been using it wrongly for as long as I’ve known what it means).

According to some very in-depth research (I looked at at least one website), myriad comes from the Greek for ‘murioi’ which means 10,000. Modern usage isn’t so specific – it’s now come to mean ‘a great many’. But either way, adding that ‘a’ and ‘of’ is officially bonkers, because you wouldn’t write that it came in a a great many of colours. It’s a bit like saying PIN number which is actually personal identification number number.

So this got me thinking – what other words have I been using completely wrongly for pretty much my whole life? Turns out there are loads. I mean, LOADS.

I think this may well be the start of a series of Emma-is-stupid themed blog posts.


WTF? I hear you say (or at least that’s what I said when I read this). Apparently you should only say poisonous when you’re talking about something that will kill you when you eat it. Not if it eats (or bites) you. So if you say a snake is poisonous, you’re actually saying that it will kill you if you eat it (which it might, but that’s not the point – I’m not flipping David Attenborough for god’s sake). Snakes are venomous, not poisonous.


I thought this meant a small fact. It doesn’t. It’s a false fact. Gasp! It was first used by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe a fact that people believe to be true because it appears in print (‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’). Hmmm, topical…

At least I know I’m in good company – DJ Steve Wright has published a couple of books about (true) small facts titled ‘Factoids’. So that makes me feel better (not really). And also brings me on to…


Don’t panic – when you say someone’s entitled to something, you’re not wrong. But it is wrong to say that a book (or anything else) is entitled [title]. As in The sequels entitled Fast and Furious 17. It’s just titled that. Which doesn’t really seem that hard to remember.


When you say that, for example, ‘Paris is the ultimate city break’ what you’re actually saying is that it’s last on the list. Yep, ‘ultimate’ means ‘last in a progression or series’ (think ‘penultimate’). So you’re actually being really mean about Paris. I know we’re leaving Europe and all, but there’s no need for nastiness.


It means flammable. Not not flammable. Even though the prefix in- almost always means ‘not’ in English, in this case ‘inflammable’ comes from the word ‘enflame’. So it doesn’t.

Sometimes English is stupid.


If you grew up in the English countryside in the 70s or 80s, chances are at one point you put your hand on an electric fence round a field just to see what it was like (this was before the internet kids). And you may well have then told your friends at school that you got electrocuted. Well, you didn’t, because then you would be dead – to be electrocuted means to die from an electric shock. So unless your best friend was Haley Joel Osment (dated reference) what you actually got was an electric shock.

The last word

Language evolves. It’s one of the things that makes it great. If enough people continue to use a word one way, even the wrong way, then eventually its original meaning doesn’t matter anymore. And that is a factoid.