Peeking, peeving, and grubbing around

October 6, 2020

I have three new posts up at my column for Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Grubbing around for etymology digs into the origins and development of grub:

The noun grub has two common senses, but the connection between them is not widely known. It’s used informally to mean ‘food’, and it can also refer to ‘a young insect without wings or legs, like a small worm’ – in other words, a larva. The two grubs are related, etymologically, but not in the way you may be imagining – depending on your diet.

Piqued by peek and peak sorts out these often-confused homophones, offering mnemonics for each:

To peak (v.) means to reach the highest amount, level, or standard. Phrases that use peak include off-peak, peak oil, and peak time. This meaning explains why people sometimes write the eggcorn peak one’s interest instead of pique one’s interest – they may picture that interest peaking. To remember when to use the spelling peak, think of how the capital letter A is like a mountain. Picture the spelling as peAk, if that helps.

Policing grammar on the radio looks at an example of usage-peeving, wherein a journalist who spoke on Irish radio was criticised by one listener for her grammar:

According to Muphry’s Law (yes, that’s how it’s spelt), any complaint about grammar or usage will itself contain an error. Sure enough, the pedant misspells Moore’s name, and his punctuation is a mess. More importantly, he fails to understand that the rules of formal written English are not universal. Different norms apply when you’re having a conversation, for example, and speaking in your own dialect. So those ‘rules’ don’t even apply in most situations.

Landscape photo, with a mountain range in the background and one prominent peak near the centre. Blue sky and wispy clouds. Below the mountains, a swathe of trees, and in the foreground some light-brown sand and tufts of grass - the photo was taken from near ground level.

Grubbing around in the sand in County Mayo,
the Croagh Patrick peak in the background

The Trouble with Harry’s grammar

August 21, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller The Trouble with Harry (1955), amidst all its talk of murder and romance, has a fun little exchange of sociolinguistic interest between John Forsythe (‘Sam Marlowe’) and Edmund Gwenn (‘Capt. Albert Wiles’):

John Forsythe sits on the ground, amidst dirt and leaves, wearing a light grey shirt with sleeves rolled up, black waistcoat, and dark grey trousers. He rests his left elbow on his raised left knee, looks up to his right, and says, "I think, Captain Wiles, we're tangled up in a murder."

Edmund Gwenn stands beneath a large tree branch, with leaves covering the space behind it. He wears a black sailing cap, a dark tie, a white shirt and suspenders, and says, "Murder? If it's murder, who done it?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

Read the rest of this entry »

Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

May 3, 2019

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

Read the rest of this entry »

Metaphors, dilemmas, and dictionaries

February 11, 2019

I have three new posts to report from my monthly language column at Macmillan Dictionary.

We’re keen as mustard for condiment words’ explores extended uses of words such as salty, saucy, and vinegar:

Metaphors are part and parcel of English. Language lets us map the world around us, and metaphors are an important way of doing this. We take an image or idea from one domain and apply it in another, extending its use. This often takes the form of a physical idea being expressed in a figurative way.

Food is one such domain. The language of food is rich and varied, and refers to very common and tangible feelings and experiences. So food words lend themselves well to metaphorical use. So well, in fact, that we can take one small section of food – condiments – and find an array of these metaphors in use.

Resolving a usage dilemma’ examines the debate over the meaning of dilemma, whose first use in English, in the 16thC, was rhetorical:

Within decades, dilemma was being used in more general ways. Shakespeare, in All’s Well That Ends Well, has Parolles say: ‘I will presently pen down my dilemmas, encourage myself in my certainty’. From the early sense of a choice between two undesirable options, it came to mean a choice between several such options, then simply a difficult situation or predicament.

This was too much for linguistic conservatives, who felt the word was being unduly weakened.

Finally, ‘How to use (or misuse) a dictionary’ describes some of the many uses for dictionaries beyond simply checking definitions:

Dictionaries offer lots of other information about words and phrases, including their pronunciation, secondary senses, grammatical category, inflections, and use in the language, shown through example sentences.

A dictionary may also provide synonyms, etymology, and information about a word’s frequency in the language. Readers looking for one particular thing may end up browsing an entire page or clicking through to other entries, curious about the many facets of a word and the different relationships it can have with the language. Serendipity abounds.

The Usage Panel is dead, long live the Usage Panel!

December 5, 2018

If you write (and you probably do), you’ll inevitably be unsure about English usage sometimes. Can refute mean ‘reject’? How should I use whom? Is expresso wrong? Is snuck? What’s the difference between militate and mitigate? Can they be singular? Can I say drive slow? Very unique? What does beg the question really mean?

The language has so many areas of dispute and confusion that we have to turn to authorities for the answer, and this raises – not begs – the questions of who these authorities are and why we should trust them. Last year, in an A–Z of English usage myths, I wrote:

We are (often to our detriment) a rule-loving species, uncomfortable with uncertainty and variation unless we resolve not to be. We defer to authority but are poor judges of what constitutes good varieties of it.

There is no official authority in English, despite occasional misguided attempts to create an Academy like in French. Some people, by virtue of their learning and trade, gain a measure of authority; they may be grammarians, linguists, editors, lexicographers, columnists, and so on. But they often disagree. Look up different usage manuals, dictionaries, or articles, and you’ll find plenty of mutual dissent.

For those who want categorical answers to knotty questions of grammar, usage, or style, these discrepancies between experts can be frustrating, and may be dubiously resolved by picking one authority and sticking to it. For the linguistically curious who don’t need a quick answer before a deadline hits, these grey areas can be fascinating, especially when traced through history.

Read the rest of this entry »

Presently ambiguous, and till vs. until

November 19, 2018

In my language column at Macmillan Dictionary, I’ve been writing about whether presently is ambiguous, as some authorities warn, and about the uses of and differences between till, until, and their abbreviations.

Ambiguity is presently unlikely shows my conclusion in the title, but the detail is worth examining. I’m usually reluctant to warn against using certain words or phrases, and so it is with presently in its primary sense of ‘currently’:

Bill Walsh, in Lapsing into a Comma, recommends avoiding it as a synonym for currently. So does R.L. Trask, in Mind the Gap. Harry Shaw, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, calls the usage ‘inaccurate’, while Garner’s Modern English Usage finds it ‘poor’ because it causes ambiguity. . . .

[But] if I tell you that something is happening presently, you’ll naturally infer that it’s happening now. If I tell you it will happen presently, you’ll infer that it will happen in the near future. The verb tense and the broader context tend to establish what is meant.


The difference between till and until is something I’ve been asked about a few times over the years. In TIL about till and until, I sort out these synonyms and related forms, describing how they differ, how they don’t, where you can use them, and which ones to avoid. There’s also a bit of history:

People often assume that till is simply an abbreviation of until, but in fact till is a few centuries older. It shows up in the runic inscription on the ancient Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, where its original sense was the same as ‘to’.

There is an abbreviation of until: ’til. Some critics reject it, because we already have till. They may even call it incorrect. ’Till is still more disparaged, because the apostrophe is superfluous, and although this form was used by George Washington, of all people, I can’t recommend it. Apostrophe-less til is occasionally used, but spelling-wise it falls between the two stools of till and ’til.