From alright to zap: an A-Z of horrible words

Is ‘epic fail’ an epic failure, should ‘to hot-desk’ make us hot under the collar, and is ‘like’ to be, like, deplored? A 21st-century guide to good grammar

Illustration by Stephen Collins


Alright, a merged form of all right, has long been trashed in conservative style guides. A typical work of 1939 says firmly: “Never – never – write ‘alright’. It is all wrong (not alwrong) […] the two ideas cooperate better than they unite.” (They what?) Kingsley Amis, in The King’s English, calls alright a “oneword travesty”. Simon Heffer, in Strictly English, tells us we should avoid it “fervently”. But if alright is a dismal illiteracy, what about dismal, a merged form of dies mali or “evil days”? Does anyone object to this? No. Nor do our advisers shrink from partaking, originally part taking; let alone from alone (all one)although, alreadyand always. To pick out alright and deride it is a form of lexical gang warfare.

baby language

True, there is a type of English almost no one can abide. The term “Namby Pamby” was coined as a nickname for the 18th‑century poet Ambrose Philips, and was first put in print by Henry Carey when he parodied Philips’s infantile rhyming: “NambyPamby’s doubly Mild, / Once a Man, and twice a Child […] Now he Pumps his little Wits, / Sh–ing Writes, and Writing Sh–ts, / All by little tiny Bits.” With the broader meaning of “sentimentally insipid”, namby pamby has proved useful ever since. And of course it is not just children that inspire sentimental insipidity. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell imagines a genteel lady “enthusing” over a book of dog photos: “a Peke, the ickle angel pet, wiv his gweat big Soulful eyes and his ickle black nosie – oh so duckyduck!” Who, overhearing this, wouldn’t reach for a sick bag? To speak publicly in baby language, even to a baby, is to risk making oneself repulsive.


Baby language from the Teletubbies

Gripers flinch at new (or newish) compounds, especially when they happen to be verbs: to friend-zonesense-checkcrystal-ballragequit, and so on. Anyone chided for using one of these can take heart from Shakespeare, who tried out both to weather-fend and to land-damn, which not even the OED can explain. Nor is it just verbs. Sir Philip Sidney coined fear-babes and navel-string. Milton gave homefelt a whirl. Gerard Manley Hopkins tried spendsavour; James Joyce, smilesmirk; John Clare, whopstraw. Yet more encouragingly, many of the efforts of our greatest writers have stuck. Shakespeare is also credited with giving us lacklustreeyeballdewdrop and fairyland; Sidney, with inventing the deathblow. Milton appears to have coined awestruck; Dryden, daydream; Coleridge, soulmate.

An utter ominshambles … Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker shows his mastery of compounds in BBC comedy The Thick of It
 An ominshambles … Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker shows his mastery of compounds in BBC comedy The Thick of It. 

double negatives

Committed pedants rule that a pair of negatives must be interpreted as equalling a positive. When this is the intended result (a not uncommon rhetorical device), it is called “litotes”. When it isn’t, and multiple negatives are used simply for emphasis, it is called (by linguists) “negative concord”. Pedants reject negative concord. Heffer calls it “a common feature of vulgar usage” and declares that he ain’t got no use for it: sentences on this model, he says, “can safely be regarded as already outside the lexicon”, and therefore we “need not trouble ourselves further with them”. I shouldn’t wonder if he didn’t, despite this, sympathise with David Cameron, who on Today, Radio 4, 18 January, vulgarly regretted the finding that, among the millions he governs, there are “38,000 Muslim women who really don’t speak hardly any English at all.”


A euphemism is a squeamish term for what might otherwise be named with more vigour and precision, eg no longer with us used to mean “dead”. Francis Grose, in his late 18th‑century Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, glossed numerous euphemistic expressions with a second euphemism. Tuzzy-muzzy: “the monosyllable”. Bottomless pit: “the monosyllable”. Black joke: “the monosyllable”. Mother of all saints: “the monosyllable”. And there’s more: Eve’s custom houseWatermillBrown MadameMiss Laycock: all, “the monosyllable”. Anyone innocently mystified by this, who turned to Grose’s definition of monosyllable itself, would have found it explained as “a woman’s commodity”. But those who knew enough to check the actual monosyllable in question, given in the second edition as “C**t”, would have found it defined as “a nasty name for a nasty thing”. The OED recognises thing in this sense, but not commodity, and tragically not monosyllable either.


Our suffixes give rise to all sorts of unjustified certainties. Ambrose Bierce, for instance, was sure that restive and restless should have “directly contrary meanings”. But restive has always suggested restlessness, and for the striking reason that a supposedly stationary quadruped (in particular a horse), when refusing to be driven forwards, is liable to dance about sideways and backwards instead. The Economist Style Guide declares with overweening scrupulosity that the word finally should mean, not “at last”, but “for the last time”, as though the remark “the shift workers finally ate” ought to suggest that, after this, the benighted shift workers never ate again. Why, though? Finally has meant “at last” for the entirety of its existence, which is to say, for roughly 700 years.



A “portmanteau” word or “blend” is created by mushing two or more words together. The regulation example is smog, blending smoke and fog. Some blends principally unite a pair of ideas: anticipointmentstaycation. Some focus on the blurring of distinctions: kidultinfomercial. Some are designed to be humorous: floordrobebeditationsheeple. And some, for whatever reason, go down really badly with our advisers. The Economist Style Guide classes guesstimate as “horrible” without stopping to wonder why it was ever wanted. It happens that in the late 18th century, as the accuracy implied by an “estimate” declined, the phrase precise estimate became increasingly popular. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, the guesstimate arrived, as, evidently, poor estimate now needed bolstering from the other side.



Gripers disparage the use of hopefully to mean, roughly, “it is to be hoped that”, or (as they would never say) “fingers crossed”. To them, “hopefully she sang” means “she sang in a state of hope”, not “let’s hope she sang”. Heffer, for one, condemns hopefully in the second sense as a “peculiarly horrific popular use” – which seems odd given the parallel uses, such as obviously and surely, that the gripers are happy to employ. (When Heffer writes “one can, obviously, extricate oneself”, does he mean to suggest extricating oneself “in an obvious manner”?) Never mind: even with the animus of naysayers focused on hopefully, this word can defeat them. In his Telegraph Style Guide, for example, Heffer allowed the following introductory sentence: “A newspaper develops a ‘house style’ that is recognisable and, hopefully, in tune with its readership.” Surely not!


The Guardian has winked at unforbidding (“The rugged, unforbidding wilderness”). And undoubtlessly is also on the rise. However, queen of all our one-word double negatives is irregardless. Our advisers deplore this word, and take it as evidence that the language is in decline. But English has been here before. In his great dictionary, Johnson called irresistless a “barbarous ungrammatical conjunction of two negatives”. A catastrophically bad paraphrase of the Song of Solomon by one of his contemporaries demonstrates what was getting Johnson down. In it, what the Authorised Version of the Bible gives as “Thou hast ravished my heart”, becomes “Love, irresistless, has possess’d / With all his Fires, my glowing Breast”. Was this supposed to suggest “love resistible”? No. And did the English language subsequently collapse?


Typically, a “backformation” is a verb derived from a noun, as to scavenge is derived from a scavenger. On this model, Shelley coined two backformations at once when he wrote of those who “sheepsteal, and shoplift” (verbs long predated by the nouns sheepstealer and shoplifter). In 1895, meanwhile, George Trumbull Ladd could write excitingly about how to “jeopard all sound argument in the philosophy of mind” (jeopard derived from jeopardy, not the other way round). To shoplift is now completely normal (lexically), and if jeopard sounds odd, that is only because it has since been vanquished by jeopardise. In short, English evolves. The gripers, however, strongly resist change. In 1870, Richard Grant White could describe donate (formed from donation) as “utterly abominable”: donate was then a mere quarter of a century old. And if few of today’s naysayers any longer flinch at, saysculptdiagnose or liaise, even the flyweights among them will still explode at emoteaggress and surveil.

Illustration by Stephen Collins
 Illustration by Stephen Collins


Lingering arguments about whether the Latin plural data can legitimately be treated in English as singular are enough to cause one to lose the will to live. For variety, Bill Bryson, in Troublesome Words, takes a stand against treating the Greek origin singular kudos as an English plural. But all in vain: the kudo is on the rise. And one or two kudos are certainly due to those who, in attempting to provide a faster broadband service across Britain, are simultaneously instituting the single property as a premise. The publicity material for the broadband network provider “Superfast Worcestershire”, for instance, explains that the speed “is affected by the distance that a premise is located from its serving cabinet” (how intriguing that sounds!). Before you grow indignant, ask yourself this: do you weep at the cherry, a singular derived from the singular cheris; or at the pea, long ago conjured from the singular pease? And do you spurn your trousers, a multiplication of the already bifurcated trouse and trews?


 Miriam Margolyes on the word ‘like’ on The Graham Norton Show


In Beyond Words, John Humphrys dreams up an imaginary “bunch of Californians”, and writes that, to them, “awareness” is something “you just, like, accept and respect”. Similarly, he imagines the thoughts of those who fear alienating teenagers: “Might, like, turn off the kids … know wha’ I mean?” But if he must scorn this use of like, should he not equally scorn himself? He writes, “Well, that’s true”, and, “the demand on them to, well, demand”, and so on, repeatedly. And, well, his use of well is, like, grammatically identical to the mocked use of like (“Like, that’s true”; “the demand on them to, like, demand”). Does he kick himself in the shins each time he commits the identical offence?


Through a popular misconstrual of their parts, and by a process known as “folk etymology”, words can change form without much change of meaning. Today’s upside down was once up so down, whatever exactly that implied. And shamefaced was once shamefast (fast as in “hold fast”, or “fastasleep”). Still, our gripers continue to resist commeasuraterenumerationand sacreligious, and will be aghast when they notice that harbringer is on the up.

They also despise miniscule, though it is now a variant entry in the OED. “Frequently misspelled,” notes Bryson. “Troublesome,” agrees Heffer. In theory, the problem hinges on whether you understand the word to be minus plus the diminutive suffix cule, as in molecule, or mini attached to scule – meaning who knows quite what. But really, as a challenge to civilisation, is “miniscule” not even smaller than minuscule?



The gripers perhaps hope that the expression a whole nother is where the rough handling of another begins and ends today. But if so, this hope (like so many of their hopes) is going unanswered. Take the advertising slogan “Want a(nother) tattoo?” In formal English this might be expressed: “Would you like a tattoo, or – should you happen to have one already – another tattoo?” It cannot be denied that “a(nother)” is seductively deft; that translating it into formal English produces a sentence that is not deft; and that to say “Want a / another tattoo” is no help at all. And if “a(nother)” seems to be a special case, consider that other nothers out there are being shown the respect of the definite article, as when “the only nother minor complaint is the pitch of the motor”.


 Word play … Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett negotiate a linguistic minefield in BBC comedy The Two Ronnies (1976)


In Strictly English, Heffer writes wearyingly: “Many believe that for a person to be an orphan he [sic] must have neither parent alive. This is not so. An orphan is someone who has lost either parent; those who have lost both are double orphans.” What a pity he didn’t swish past boring old orphan to seize on the word it replaced in the language: stepchild. Would he not have had more fun (could he not have become even more indignant) exhorting us to unpick the etymology of stepchild instead, trying to make us understand this word as it always used to be understood (some thousand years ago), when steop meant “bereaved”? He could be fighting for printers to worry about “widows and stepchildren”; for orphanages to be renamed “stepchildrenages”.


In Middlemarch, George Eliot has Fred Vincy make the splendid observation that “correct English is the slang of prigs”. The word slang started as a low term for low terms – an example of what it named. But by the 1870s, when Middlemarchwas published, its meaning had widened so that it could now suggest the special vocabulary of a particular group. How the prigs managed to nab the labels “correct” and “proper” for their particular form of slang is another matter. But the fact is, they did. And it is in a spirit of dauntless righteousness that they continue to dismiss the English of lesser mortals as “uncivilised”, “vile”, “fatuous”, “abominable” and so on.


It is one thing to sneer, but even mere hedging, when there is enough of it, can start to seem a little shabby. “We live a life of many dinners, many haircuts, many nappy changes. You can’t narrate them all […] You (in the unlovely vernacular of our time) curate” (Guardian); “People feel – jargon word – empowered” (Guardian); “a series of advertisements featuring, for want of a better word, ‘real’ people” (Guardian); and so on. Many of these qualms will one day seem quaint, as it is now quaint to read Coleridge ranting on about talented as a “barbarous vocable”, or Fowler calling optimism “repulsive”, or AP Herbert describing personalise as “obscene”.



Our verbal “register” is the type and grade of our language measured against the circumstance in which we are using it. How we measure is something else again. But picture the poor lexicographer at the OED who wrote that to bog is a “low word, scarcely found in literature, however common in coarse colloquial language”. Witheringly, this person then defined bog as meaning to “exonerate the bowels”, or “defile with excrement”. “Defile with excrement” couched in the register of bog itself, would seem to be “shit on”. Meanwhile, exonerate in the sense of “discharge” is, as the OED notes, long obsolete. It very much looks as though the lexicographer used high language and a fancy archaism to “exonerate” dismay, thereby achieving the comfortable sense of having bogged bog.

semantic bleaching

It is a popular trick to drag strong terms away from their literal or customary context in order to exploit the hyperbolic qualities they impart elsewhere. But the effect can be shortlived; and when the rhetorical force of a word dwindles, it is said by linguists to suffer “semantic bleaching”. In this way poor stratospheric has been lowered, wretched abysmal has been raised, and cataclysmic (in the manner of a mighty flood) now mops up after workaday exaggerations. In a Telegraph sports report, what is referred to first as a referee’s “highprofile error” becomes, later in the article, a “cataclysmic cock-up”. Anyone clinging to a traditional understanding of cataclysms will hardly know where to look.


Transitivity gets our senior advisers going. Heffer declares that “one cannot” use collapse transitively (as in: “The search party that located the bodies […] simply collapsed the tent over them”, Telegraph). And Humphrys confides that he is unmoved by the “sweet smile” of a waitress who says “Enjoy!” to him, wanting to ask her, “Don’t you know that ‘enjoy’ is a transitive not an intransitive verb?” A linguist would explain that, in this instance, there is an “unexpressed object”. The waitress herself, compelled to serve Humphrys, might like to reply that the OED cites intransitive uses of enjoy from 1380 on. Or she could just recite the example given from 1549: “Yet he neuer enioied after, but in conclusyon pitifully wasted his painful lyfe.”

Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. The character gave rise to the term ‘malapropism’
 Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. Sheridan’s character gave rise to the term ‘malapropism’. 


A “malapropism” is a farfetched, usually accidental instance of word switching. For example, behind the sentence “Everything was so clear & poignant to my situation” dimly lurks the word pertinent. A couple of centuries ago, English also had the term slipslop as a label for more plausible errors of this kind. Slipslopping today gives us deep-seededfor deep-seatedin cohorts with for in cahootsunkept for unkempt, and this, from the Guardian: “I want my manhood to be something that isn’t seeped in irrational entitlement” (quite so). Using upmost for utmost is a slipslop that the gripers particularly love to hate. But utmost (which is to say “outmost”), and upmost (500 years old), are often equally fitting in a sentence. And if keeping them distinct seems desirable, rather than fuss, why not embrace upmost and quietly use it as itself?



“Do not force nouns or other parts of speech to act as verbs,” says The Economist Style Guide; while in Lost for Words, Humphrys writes similarly that “verbs can refresh a sentence any time they are needed – but not if they earned their crust as nouns in an earlier life.” This goes beyond mere lexical Nimbyism: “wordclass conversion” is absolutely vital to English. Take cloud. In the ninth century it was a noun meaning a pile of rocks or a hill (cloud is related to clod and clot). Around 1300, clouds became (as they still are) heaps in the sky. Then in the 16th century, cloud was converted into a verb, meaning to “darken” or “obscure”. Catastrophe? No: good news. Gripers rate the expression epic fail to be an example of what it names, decrying this use of fail as a noun on the grounds that fail is, and should only be, a verb. Yet in the expression without fail, they accept the noun failexactly as the phrase describes.

word inflation

The impulse to beef up a word by sticking on a prefix and interpreting it as an intensifier (“morphemic pleonasm”) is one that inspires considerable hostility among those who care about such things. Bryson dismisses co-equal as “fatuous” before going on to suggest that the pre- of precondition “should be deleted”. The Economist Style Guide remarks that pre-prepared “just means prepared”, and of proactive, declares, “Not a pretty word: try active”. What then, one wonders, of predominate? Is this “not a pretty word”: try dominate? And should we be deleting the front ends from prerequisite and despoil? How about intertwined and intermingle? Is intermingle really more minglesome than mingle on its own? Warned is armed: though the naysayers are once again hopelessly inconsistent here, if you break their little rules, they will confidently mark you down.


XQs me?

In the Daily Mail in 2007, Humphrys asseverated that “vandals” who use “grotesque abbreviations” in their text messages are “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary”. Text-speak, he explained, is “destroying” our language. If he were to maunder through an old churchyard idly rubbing the moss from any 18th-century headstones, he would soon encounter a slew of highly contracted forms: “Eliz Relict of Edwd”; “of much Honr”; “Feb ye 9 An Dom 1753”; “who depd this life”. This is not ephemeral chitchat, but language used to summarise whole lives, chiselled into stone for the ages. Would Humphrys wax wroth at this too? Would he call these “grotesque abbreviations”? And is their use also a “raping” of our vocabulary?

‘yada yada’

Repressive English speakers, though they vaunt brevity and clarity, do not love brief, clear uses that they haven’t made their own. These they will dismiss as unsubtle, slangy, American, or whatever criticism can be made to fit the bill. The compound verb to hot-desk, for instance, they condemn as unpleasant. But why? Is it not an impressively neat way of saying, “to maximise the value of a single workspace by splitting its use between several workers across more hours than one alone would be able to labour”? As for tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) in the sense of “to sum up”: this may be taken as abrasive by those who do not use it, but hey, can they not enjoy a popular use of the semicolon? Gripers flinch from Latinate vocabulary in the mouths of lesser white-collar workers and parvenus in general: to resideapprisedesistterminate and so on. But see how they like it if you switch from the Latin origin et cetera to the American origin yada yadayada yada.


Though Heffer argues that we should in the main “stick to simple words”, he believes that “tabloidism” is where this all goes wrong, supplying a “fuel that feeds” what he calls without a blush “the vice of exaggeration”. In his view, poshdosh and scam have “no place in respectable writing”. It is true that his “simple” words in headlines may be interpreted as cartoonish substitutes for the text they represent. In “How milk zaps tooth decay” (Daily Mail), zaps represents “can neutralise”. In “Hacked nude pix: Google zaps links” (Guardian), zaps stands for “has removed two”. In “Our boys zap Syria” (Sun), zap means “have been bombing”. But is zap really no more than crassly imprecise? Is it not perhaps interestingly adaptable? And rather than deride it as “horrible”, would we not be better off thinking of it as very possibly the start of something good?

 Horrible Words by Rebecca Gowers is published by Particular Books on 31 March.



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