Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

August 25, 2015

Laura Huxley’s essay ‘Love and Work’ (1962), a transcript and description of a guided psychedelic session she undertook with her husband, Aldous (he took psilocybin, she attended), contains an amusing and unusual expression I’ve encountered in an Irish context but have never heard spoken in person.

Towards the end of the session, Huxley is recalling the woodwork activity he practised as a boy. His school had a carpentry room which the children attended for 2–3 hours of official class time a week. They could also spend free time there, making whatever they wanted – a sledge, a bookcase, a box – and indeed were encouraged to do so.

Laura Huxley records Aldous saying the following:

There was this excellent man who did all the odd jobs around the school, but who was an old-time artisan who got through all this himself. But he was a very shrewd man: it was a pleasure to be with him. And he could talk; and he had delightful phrases – like when he sharpened a tool he said, ‘Now it is sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up.’ But all that is gone now. But what shouldn’t have gone is the perfectly sensible thing of providing boys with something to do.

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On behalf of my invite

April 17, 2015

On behalf of this fossilised phrase is a recent article I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog about the expression on behalf of:

On someone’s behalf, etymologically speaking, means ‘on someone’s side’, from an old meaning of half. It emerged in Middle English as a result of blending the two phrases on his halve and bihalve him, both of which meant ‘on [or by] his side’; thus Chaucer, ‘Spek thow thiself also to Troylus On my bihalve’. The word in modern use has two related meanings: 1. ‘instead of someone, or as a representative of someone’, and 2. ‘in order to help someone’. Sense 1 is more neutral, while sense 2 implies active support or defence of a person.

The post also looks at in behalf of and lesser known variants, transatlantic differences, the non-standard plural *on their behalves, and a recent development whereby on someone’s behalf is used to mean on someone’s part.


Is ‘invite’ acceptable as a noun? examines a disputed nominalisation, including its use in different registers and the criticism it has received from language authorities:

With another throw of the historical dice, invite as a noun might have developed as the norm, with invitation considered an inkhornish variant. But invitation got there first and established itself as the noun of choice. Flannery O’Connor and William Makepeace Thackeray both used invite as a noun – but in letters. When it appears in edited writing it quite often marks a light or jocular tone. It may even be framed by scare quotes to mark its less-than-wholly-proper stature.

But we can acknowledge all this without lambasting the word as a ‘needless barbarism’, as one critic did. Can we omit needless accusations of barbarity? That’s my invite to the critics.

Older posts may be found in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

‘Making strange’ in Ireland

March 4, 2015

Claire Keegan’s superb novella Foster, expanded from a short story published in the New Yorker in 2010, has an idiom I remember hearing in childhood and only seldom since. The book’s narrator is a young girl in an unfamiliar place, accompanied here by a woman, Mrs Kinsella, with whom she is staying temporarily:

Out in the street, the sun feels strong again, blinding. Some part of me wishes it would go away, that it would cloud over so I could see properly. We meet people the woman knows. Some of these people stare at me and ask who I am. One of them has a new baby in a pushchair. Mrs Kinsella bends down and coos and he slobbers a little and starts to cry.

‘He’s making strange,’ the mother says. ‘Pay no heed.’

The verb phrase make strange means to act up or be nervous or shy, etc., when encountering a stranger or strange situation. It’s normally said of babies or small children, but not always.

Claire Keegan - Foster - faber and faber book coverLike many expressions characteristic of Hiberno-English it seems to have been loaned from Irish, where coimhthíos a dhéanamh le duine literally means ‘to make strangeness with someone’, or to be shy or aloof in their presence; coimhthíos means strangeness, shyness, aloofness or alienation.

Another phrase, bheith deoranta le duine, means essentially the same thing with a different verb (be rather than make) and, said of adults, can also mean to be distant with someone.

John Banville, in The Untouchable, points to a sinister origin in folklore:

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Language cranks, hail-fellow-well-met

August 16, 2014

I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:

People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.

You can read the rest here.


Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.

Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

For older articles you can browse the archive.

When weather means time in Irish English

May 6, 2014

Ireland has a curious expression whereby this weather is used to mean “these days”. It normally occurs at the end of a clause or sentence, though it doesn’t have to. It’s a very colloquial phrase, more often heard than seen. But it appears sometimes in speechlike prose, such as these examples from the Irish chatroom

(1) He’s a sad man this weather.

(2) what coolant temp are you logging this weather?

(3) Wouldn’t imagine their stock was exactly flying out the door this weather.

(4) Hi, anyone else struggling with tacky paint this weather?

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Back formations and flag denotations

April 26, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, False and flying colours in metaphor, looks at a particular sense of the word colours that refers to flags, in turn an abstraction of identity:

Like many phrases now in common figurative use, with flying colours was literal at first (inasmuch as hanging a flag is literally flying it). But the expression, with its vivid imagery and connotations of success, has obvious appeal, and people duly broadened it to refer to achievements unaccompanied by flag-flying.

A related expression, also of naval pedigree, is to sail [or fight] under false colours, synonymous with under false pretences. It refers to an old seafaring trick associated with pirates but not limited to them, who misrepresented their identity by hoisting ‘friendly’ flags, and so were able to get close enough to a target ship to catch its crew unawares.

You can read the rest for more on the origins and uses of these metaphors.


Surveilling a new back formation considers the word-formation process known as back formation, focusing in particular on surveil, a recent entry to Macmillan Dictionary:

Some back formations are deliberately comical. Jack Winter’s essay ‘How I Met My Wife’ features such novelties as chalant and petuous (from nonchalant and impetuous); here, the removal of prefixes rather than the usual suffixes gives them a playful feel. Other back formations are obviously redundant, such as conversate, cohabitate, and evolute. The use of these and similar words is likely to invite criticism and complaint – sometimes unfounded, as with orientate. Certain others, such as enthuse, occupy a grey area of acceptability.

More often, back formations are developed because there’s a need for them. Surveil is a case in point.

See the full post for more discussion and examples of back formation, or my archive at Macmillan for older stuff.

“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmers Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

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