From 1952, a list of recommended ‘genteelisms’ to replace ‘normal’ words in your vocabulary.

polite words.png
(A Few Notes On Words & Other Things, 1952)


The Very First Written Use of the F Word in English (1528)


English speakers enjoy what seems like an unmatched curiosity about the origins and historical usages of their language’s curses. The exceedingly popular “F word” has accreted an especially wide body of textual investigation, wide-eyed speculation, and implausible folk etymology. (One of the term’s well-known if spurious creation myths even has a Van Halen album named after it.) “The history begins in murky circumstances,” says the Oxford English Dictionary‘s site, and that dictionary of dictionaries has managed to place the word’s earliest print appearance in the early sixteenth century, albeit written “in code” and “in a mixed Latin-and-English context.” Above, you can see one of the few concrete pieces of information we have on the matter: the first definitive use of the F word in “the English adjectival form, which implies use of the verb.”

Here the word appears (for the first time if not the last) noted down by hand in the margins of a proper text, in this case Cicero’s De Officiis. “It’s a monk expressing his displeasure at an abbot,” writes Katharine Trendacosta at i09. “In the margins of a guide to moral conduct. Because of course.” She quotes Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, as declaring it “difficult to know” whether this marginalia-making monk meant the word literally, to accuse this abbott of “questionable monastic morals,” or whether he used it “as an intensifier, to convey his extreme dismay.” Either way, it holds a great deal of value for scholars of language, given, as the OED puts it, “the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century” and the “quotation difficulties” that causes. If you find nothing to like in the F word’s ever-increasing prevalence in the media, think of it this way: at least future lexicographers of swearing will have more to go on.


Separated by a Common Language: Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK


When I started this blog, I wrote short little posts about things I noticed in British and American English. Few read them, and I usually managed to write three a week.  Since then, many more readers and commenters have appeared ([AmE] howdy! thank you!). As I imagine this larger audience responding to posts about X with “But what about Y?”, I try to fit the Ys in.  Sometimes the Ys are other expressions that I could discuss; sometimes they are beliefs about language that may or may not have basis in reality. As a result, my posts have got(ten) much longer and less frequent. (The latter is also due to parenthood and more responsibility at work. But [BrE] hey-ho.) I now look back on old posts and think: I can do better! So I’m going to have [more BrE than AmE] another go at the pronunciation of herb, which I first dedicated six sentences to in the second month of this blog.

I‘ve more sentences about it because I (BrE) go about/(AmE) go around discussing it in my talk: “How America Saved the English Language“. It’s one of a long list of differences for which the folklore is faultywith people like comedian David Mitchell (below) assuming and repeating that Americans don’t pronounce the ‘h’ in herb because we think we (or the word) are French. (The implication here is that the British are not under the illusion that they are French. Except of course that they eat auberginerather than eggplant and increasingly use -ise instead of -ize and spell centre with the letters in a very French order. And so on. And so forth.)

Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb as well as tidbit/titbit. Had he just looked it up, he would have found the following information.

From the Middle Ages, the word in English was generally spelled (or spelt, if you prefer) erbe, from the Old French erbe–but sometimes it was spelled with an h, after the Latin herba. From the late 15th century the h was regularly included in the spelling in English, but it continued not to be pronounced for nearly 400 years. This was not a problem for English, of course. We often don’t pronounce written h, for example in hour and honest and heir, and our ancestors didn’t pronounce it in humo(u)r, hospital, or hotel. Change and confusion about these things leads to the oddity of some people insisting that some (but not other) words that start with a pronounced h should nevertheless be preceded by an, not a, as if the h weren’t pronounced. (AmE) To each his/her own/(BrE) each to his/her own...

The h in herb finally started being pronounced in the 19th century in Britain. By this time, the US was independent and American English was following a separate path from its British cousin. Why did the English start pronouncing it then? Because that’s when h-dropping was becoming a real marker of social class in England. If you wanted to be seen as literate (or at least not Cockney) you had to make sure that people knew you lived in a house, not an ‘ouse. This 1855 cartoon from Punch (reproduced as a postcard for the British Library’s Evolving English exhibition) illustrates:

The result seems to have been more self-consciousness about pronouncing where it was in the spelling, and some h‘s got louder where they had not previously been heard. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir? I don’t know.

So, pronouncing herb without the h is the Queen’s English, if we’re talking Elizabeth I, rather than Elizabeth II.

And in case you were wondering:  Americans pronounce the h in the name Herb, which has a different history from the plant herb.

Breaking the rules of grammar


Can grammar be glamorous? Due to its meticulous nature, the study of grammar has been saddled with an undeserved intimidating reputation.

Esteemed linguist David explains how grammar is an essential tool for communication. Demystifying the rules behind the English language can allow us to communicate effectively both professionally and casually.

In the following excerpt from Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, Crystal demonstrates how to break the rules by analyzing the grammatical risks taken in commercial advertising and journalism.

In occupational varieties such as religion, law, and sports commentary, the situational constraints of grammar are tight and well respected by practitioners. It would be virtually impossible for the professionals involved to use a kind of language that didn’t conform to the expected norms.

Indeed, in some circumstances, if the wrong kind of language was used, there might be social sanctions, such as (in law) a charge of contempt of court or (in religion) an accusation of blasphemy or heresy. However, not all occupations have their language so tightly constrained.

In commercial advertising and journalism, there are grammatical rules that are generally followed, but the bending and breaking of those rules is commonplace and privileged.

Take the most basic rule of all: that writing intended for national public consumption should display present-day standard English grammar. This means an avoidance of nonstandard items such as “ain’t,” regional dialect constructions such as “we was” or “I were” sat, and obsolete forms such as “ye” and “goeth. But it doesn’t take long before we see all these usages in print and online, often as eye-catching headlines for articles on web pages.

“We wuz robbed, viewers” – an article in Daily Mail Online

“There’s gold in them there hills” – report in The Telegraph of a Scottish estate which contains untapped gold reserves

“The corporate taxman cometh” – article in The Economist on taxation

“Abandon sleep all ye that enter here” – report in Trip Advisor

“Nigeria ain’t broke, it just needs to fix its tax system” –article in The Guardian 

Community memory holds a large store of archaic or regional forms upon which headline writers and journalists frequently rely, usually to produce a catchy headline or to add an element of humor or parody to an article. And it doesn’t take long before clever writers begin to play with the forms, taking them to new rhetorical heights. The idiomatic expression underlying the last example above  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has generated many variants:

“If it ain’t broke, break it” – an article about writing new kinds of crime novels

“Hey, Twitter: if it ain’t broke, don’t add 9.8K characters to it” – a post about a Twitter proposal to allow longer tweets

“If it ain’t broke, don’t upgrade it” – a post on a new release of Photoshop

“If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke” – a sign outside a car repair shop in the USA

An Internet search will bring to light many more.

Any grammatical rule can be bent or broken in the advertising world. For example, there’s no theoretical upper limit to the number of adjectives we can have before a noun, but it’s unusual to encounter more than two or three. Certainly not 12, as in this ad from a few years ago: “Why do you think we make Nuttall’s Mintoes such a devilishly smooth cool creamy minty chewy round slow velvety fresh clean solid buttery taste?”

Or again, we all have a free hand to make compound adjectives in a noun phrase, such as best-selling and far-reaching.

But none of us outside advertising would go in for such coinages as farmhouse-fresh (taste), rain-and-stain-resisting (cloth), and all-round-the-garden (fertilizer). A single instance might not be very noteworthy; but the repeated use of a grammatical feature becomes very noticeable in a longer ad.

Note the number of pre-noun sequences in this example from Geoffrey Leech’s classic English in Advertising (1966):

Fantastic acceleration from the 95 bhp Coventry Climax OHC engine, more stopping power from the new 4-wheel servo-assisted disc brakes and greater flexibility from the all synchromesh close ratio gearbox. These and many other new refinements combine to present the finest and fastest light GT car in the world.

There aren’t many words left!

When we see written ads, our eyes are inevitably drawn to the visual featuresthe product image, the graphic design, the colors, the dramatic vocabulary. With spoken ads, our ears immediately pick up the rhythm and melody of the words (the “jingles”), the repeated use of sounds (“Built better by Bloggs!”), and any melodramatic tones of voice. In neither case do we notice the role of grammar in making the words cohere, and yet it is critical. If we want to explain the effect of an ad, a newspaper article, a prayerany distinctive use of languagethen we have to pay careful attention to the grammatical features that give these styles their structure and coherence.

Explanations are what matter. It’s never enough to simply describe the features of a style. We also need to ask why these features have developed in the way they have. In the case of law and religion, we have to go back into history to see the reasonsto do with case-law precedents and biblical sources. In the case of sports commentary we look to the ongoing action to explain the style. With ads, we have to enter the minds of the sales and marketing teams, whose aims are fourfold:

  • To get us to notice the ad
  • To maintain our interest so that we want to read it or listen to it
  • To remember the name of the product
  • And then, of course, to buy it

Accordingly, a more judicious grammatical approach can be of benefit, in that it can help us think critically about the subtly persuasive ways in which advertising language operates.

Something works “better”? That’s an unspecified comparative.

Better than what? When? Where? This is economic linguistics.

Grammar can save us money.


The new lexicon of hate: a disturbing A-Z of alt-right language

Learn to understand the baffling language of the alt-right

Learn to understand the baffling language of the alt-right

Do you know your cucks from your libtards? Here is The New European’s guide to the baffling online jargon of the alt-right

The new lexicon of hate



For reasons Dr Freud may be able to elucidate on, alt-righters are obsessed with masculinity and manhood. Men who they approve of – leaders like Trump, for instance, – are considered ‘alphas’. ‘Betas’ are those seen as weak or emasculated (effectively, all men who disagree with them); see, also, low energy

Beta (derog) 

See Alpha


The upset that libtards / cucks etc feel at the rise of Trump and Brexit, and in which the alt right revel, the implication being that the hurt feelings are excessive and self-indulgent. Can be used as an adjective or a noun

Crybaby (derog) 

Opponents who disagree with them; see Snowflake

Cuckservative, cuck (derog)

A conflation of cuckold and conservative; used an insult (who’d have thought it?) against someone who was previously right-leaning, but who is perceived to have sold out, or sacrificed his dignity, by expressing views that are not as hard right or intolerant as those of alt-righters

Ethno-demographics (nonsense) 

For a group of people obsessed with race, this lot can be sensitive about being called racist. Hence the use of euphemisms like this, as if it suggests there is a hint of science behind their views on race

Fashy (adj)

Adjective to describe, fascism, a subject on which the alt-right are obsessed, even when they claim they aren’t advocates

Feminazi (derog)

Oh-so-clever word play, conflating feminist and Nazi, to describe a woman whose views on gender issues are different to your own

Glorious (adj)

The superlative of adjectives, applied to many things. As with other terminology, it echoes the rhetoric of the Third Reich

Libtard (derog) 

A portmanteau of ‘liberal’ and ‘retard’, and another catch-all insult of those who don’t hold the requisite ultra-right views. It serves the double purpose of also using an outdated term, now considered offensive in its own right, thus emphasising the way these (self-styled) rebels revel in their rejection of political correctness

Low-energy (derog)

More obsession with manliness; as with the term Beta, low-energy is used to imply an opponent, or their argument, is not as virile as you are

Lugenpresse (trans ‘lying press’) (derog) 

The term is used to attack articles in the press with which the alt-right disagree. The word has strong echoes of the Nazis, who also used to throw it around freely. This doesn’t discourage the alt-right, who take great pleasure in pointing out it was used actually before and since the Nazi period – perhaps missing the point. Perhaps deliberately. See, also, MSM

Mangina (derog)

More clever word play by those alt-right boys; a term for a male supporter of feminism

Masculinism (nonsense) 

Intended as the opposite of feminism (at least, the alt-right perception of feminism); to these people, feminism long ago overstepped the mark, so masculinism is a reaction to that, emphasising a return to traditional gender roles, advocating “men’s rights”


Anyone not from the alt-right; a bit like a muggle, in the world of Harry Potter

MSM (derog)

“Mainstream media”; this, again, plays to the group’s perception of themselves as dissenting voices, and is used to describe the mass media, which cannot be trusted, since it only espouses liberal views. See also Lugenpresse

Neoreactionaries (nonsense)

Also known as NRx, or the Dark Enlightenment; pretentious term for a group who consider their supposed superior intellect makes them more capable of rational thought than others; guess what? They reject egalitarianism and advocate libertarianism, traditional gender roles and extreme reaction

Race mixing (nonsense)

One of the ways, along with immigration, in which alt-righters think ‘white genocide’ is being accomplished; Used to be called miscegenation

Snowflake (derog) 

The alt-right’s breakout term. Said to have been coined in the Fight Club book and film, but popularised by these keyboard warriors and now mainstream. It is (surprise!) a derogatory term for people who disagree with you. Specifically, it is used to describe those considered to be particularly sensitive or prone to taking offence at contrary views. In reality, it is anyone who dares disagree

SJW (derog) 

Or “social justice warrior”; allencompassing taunt to target anyone espousing views that are in anyway progressive, liberal or culturally inclusive; often, though not always, reserved for young women

Virtue signalling 

A surreal line of attack: allows you to criticise people for caring – or expressing an opinion about – politics, the environment, foreign affairs, without the need for rebutting their arguments. The height of smug posturing – which is ironically what it is meant to call out in “virtue signallers” themselves

White genocide (nonsense)

At the fringes of this fringe, this sort of crass hyperbole is used to describe the perceived consequences of liberalism, immigration and race mixing

Zionist (derog)

Classic alt-right word; meaning: Jew / capitalist / involved in world domination

7 False Etymologies from Merriam-Webster

7 Good Stories That Just Aren’t True

No, that’s not where that word comes from


    Definition: a call or request for help or rescue

SOS entered our vocabulary in 1910, and, despite what you may have heard/cleverly figured out on your own, it has nothing to do with saving our souls, ships, or any other word that begins with S.

SOS was proposed, and adopted, as it is an easy sequence to type in Morse code (‧ ‧ ‧ - - - ‧ ‧ ‧), then the preferred method of communication for ships at sea. It replaced the existing distress code, which was CQD (The CQ indicated an alert, and the D indicated danger). Had the code not switched to SOS it seems likely that we would have come up with some fanciful origin stories for the initial signal (“Come Quick, Dammit!”)


Definition: the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot (as to overturn a government)

A popular story about cabal is that the word comes from the initials of five dastardly plotters (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale), high ranking officials in the government of King Charles II. This tale, which appears to have sprung from the pen of Charles Dickens, sounds plausible enough that it is still encountered today.

However, cabal is not an acronym; it comes from the Late Hebrew qabbālāh, meaning “received (lore),” and has been in use in English since the 16th century, well before Charles II came to the throne. The initial meaning of the word was concerned with Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, and the sense relating to plotters emerged in the middle of the 17th century.


Definition: rumor or report of an intimate nature

Many of the etymological myths we come across are based on an imaginary significance of initials. The imaginative origin of gossip differs from this model, insofar as it is thought to be part of a compounded phrase, rather than initials. The proposed origin for gossip is that once upon a time politicians who were interested in learning what their constituents were thinking about would send their surrogates out to taverns to eavesdrop, with the directive “go sip some ale.” There are some problems with this explanation.

The first problem is that we have no actual evidence of the phrase being used in writing with this apparent meaning; virtually all the mentions of it come up as theories for the origin of gossip. Additionally, these theories only begin to be seen in the late 20th century. We do have evidence of gossip being used from before the 12th century, well before there would have been politicians sending their lackeys to the local tavern. Gossipcomes from the Old English word godsibb, which was a person, such as a godparent, who was a sponsor at baptism.


Definition: a game in which a player using special clubs attempts to sink a ball with as few strokes as possible into each of the 9 or 18 successive holes on a course.

We are not entirely certain about the origins of the word golf. We do know that it comes from the Scots variety of Middle English, but past that things get a little hazy. What we are certain about is that it is not an acronym for the phrase “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” How do we know this?

The game of golf is thought to be quite a bit older than its name, but there is evidence of the word in use from almost 600 years ago. There is no evidence of “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” until the late 1980s. The chance of a pithy phrase such as this serving as the basis for a common word (but never having been mentioned for over 500 years) is slim enough to not merit consideration.


Definition: elegant, fashionable

The notion that posh is an acronym for “port out, starboard home” is one of the more enduring myths of English etymology, resistant to common sense, probability, and copious amounts of research. This phrase is not the origin of posh.

“Port out, starboard home” is thought to refer to the desirability of certain cabin accommodations on ships traveling between Britain and India; on the way out the port side of the ship would be preferred, as it received less sun, as was the case with the starboard side on the way back. Despite what you may have heard, tickets (or at least all the surviving ones from that time) were not stamped with the letters POSH.

We do have a good deal of evidence of the word’s use from the early 20th century, and one thing about it that is striking is that most of it comes from the British military. These uses were generally by lower-ranking troops, not the sort who would be picking which cabin they wanted for a liner voyage to India. The actual origin of the word is unknown.

The Regiment was inspected by the G.O.C. Commanding 2nd Army. The parade looked very “posh” and everything appeared to pass off satisfactorily.
The East Kent Yeoman, 1915

Deakins of old ‘D’ Company, is now a Battalion H. Q. Cook—a very ‘posh’ job.
The Londoner: The Journal of the 1/25th Battalion, 1918

And there is a compensation for the hard work. It consists of our “posh” clothes. When you see a swanky looking lad in an officer’s uniform wearing a white band round his cap, you will know that he is one of us.
The Times of India (New Delhi, India), 2 Nov. 1917

Sir,—Your contributor “O. S. P.,” in his article “War Words and Phrases,” omits one word in common use among soldiers at the front. It is the word “posh,” which appears to have more than one meaning, as in the case of “strafe.” I have heard a good meal described as “very posh,” and it is also use as a substitute for “swank” on occasion.
—J. Wallace Black, (letter) Daily Mail (London, England), 3 Nov. 1916


Definition: an extraordinary one of its kind

The Duesenberg car company produced very fine cars in the early 20th century. The word doozy appears in writing somewhere near the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore doozy must be a shortening of Duesenberg, mustn’t it? Isn’t this how etymology works? No, it mustn’t, and no, it isn’t.

The obvious problem with saying that doozy comes from Duesenberg is that the former is older than the latter. The car company did not start producing vehicles until 1920, and the word had been in use for more than 20 years by that time. The argument that the name of the car may not have come first but possibly helped doozy become popular is also problematic, as we have no evidence linking the two terms in the early 20th century. Doozy most likely came about as an alteration of daisy, which in 19th century slang was something or someone considered the best.

How do farmers like it? It is just simply a doozy.
The Democrat (McKinley, TX), 26 Mar. 1896

The Democratic party would soon become what Cy. Lyle might call a “doozy” under the leadership of such men as Mr. Davis.
The Comet (Johnson City, TN), 17 Mar. 1904

He nailed a “doozy” toward center field which looked like a hit.
Daily Illinois State Register, (Springfield, IL), 25 Aug. 1907


Definition: a race or contest in which an artificial advantage is given or disadvantage imposed on a contestant to equalize chances of winning

Yes, handicap does come from “hand in cap.” But no, it does not refer to maimed veterans of war, who were granted the right to beg on the streets on London, with cap in hand. Handicap, which has been in use since the middle of the 17th century, comes from the name of a game (which involved two players, one umpire, a hat, and some hands).

The word progressed from one sport to another, and by the middle of the 18th century it began to be used in horse-racing, in reference to additional weight borne by a horse thought to otherwise have an advantage. From horse-racing the word spread to other sports, such as golf, and from there began to be used to refer to any encumbrance. It was not until the end of the 19th century that handicap was used to refer specifically to a physical disability. It should be noted that this use of handicap is offensive to many (disability is preferred); so this specious etymology manages to err on two fronts.

Guy Deutscher Vs Jean Aitchison

damp spoonAccording to Deutscher, the motives for language change are:

  1. Economy

“Economy refers to the tendency to save effort, and is behind the short-cuts speakers often take in pronunciation.”

“…when these short-cuts accumulate, they can create new sounds, just like a new footpath cutting through a field.”

E.g. “wasn’t”, “innit”, “bruv” – these are instances where our language is getting more efficient – not more sloppy and careless – as Jean Aitchison’s damp spoon syndrome prescriptivists would have us believe.

2. Expressiveness

…the constant battle against cliché and stale language / language bleached of meaning – “good” wasn’t good enough anymore, it began to lack effectiveness, so people resorted to metaphors, such as “brilliant”, “awesome”, “incredible”, “unbelievable”, “amazing”, “fabulous”… which made our language more effective – but only for a while, eventually these fresh metaphors got stale, became clichés and eventually died. As dead metaphors we don’t see them as figurative any more. And we are in need of new fresh metaphors to keep our language fresh and effective.

Compare this to the infectious disease assumption?

“Expressiveness refers to speakers’ attempts to achieve greater effect for their utterances and extend their range of meaning. One area in which we are particularly expressive is in saying “no”. A plain “no” is often deemed too weak to convey the depth of our unenthusiasm, so to make sure that the right effect is achieved, we beef up “no” to “not at all”, “not a bit”, “no way”, “by no means”, “not in a million years”, and so on.”

“…the results of this hyperbole can often be self-defeating, since the repetition of emphatic phrases can cause an inflationary process that devalues their currency.”

3. Analogy


“…the mind’s craving for order, the instinctive need of speakers to find regularity in language.”


Deutcher points to the reduction in irregular plural nouns in the English language: whatever happened to “shoen” and “housen”? As in “brethren” and “oxen”? Why do all new plurals now take the regular “-s” ending? And why have we gotten rid of the irregular “-en” ending? How come “snuck” was the last ever irregular past-tense form to sneak in to our language? We don’t say “he gugled” we say “googled”. This is the direct opposite of the Crumbling Castle Theory with which Aitchison mocks some prescriptivists.