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28 October 2014

Boot and trunk Boot is an excellent example of linguistic conservatism. I’ve mentioned this before with dashboard and with carriage, the usual British term for one car of a railway train. The latter word is a relic of ...
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18 October 2014

Zoilism A correspondent by the name of Hooker wrote an anguished letter to the Lady’s Newspaper in January 1863 about slovenly and unhygienic rural servants in France: “If I were to do more than ...
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Fish-faced It’s been a long time, I suspect, since this playground taunt has had any reference to the shape of a person’s face, if it ever did. It might have come about to describe a person with bulging eyes ...
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11 October 2014

Immensikoff I was leafing, if that’s the right word, through a digital copy of an issue of the Strand Magazine, most famous as the publisher of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes, when ...
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Poach You might guess that we have yet another case of English words of the same spelling and pronunciation that have arrived in the language from different sources. But that may not be true ...
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4 October 2014

Habiliments It means clothes. It was more widely used centuries ago, because it had several senses, based on its Old French source, habillement or abillement, which come from the verb habiller, to fit out or render ...
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The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker Professor Pinker claims to love reading style guides. However, in much of his book — the last 115 pages especially — he points out their deficiencies and dismisses the views ...
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27 September 2014

Agister Having just spent some time in the New Forest in southern England, I have been reminded of this ancient word for an officer of the Forest. It might sound like one of those ceremonial positions ...
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Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking This is a delightful folk saying. Like so many it’s sufficiently opaque to make the casual reader or viewer stop and blink. The expression is usually a way for a person ...
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The Word at War We are hearing so much about the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War that another sad date has largely passed us by, the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second ...
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20 September 2014

Draw a line in the sand I’ve not been able to find an example of this exact event, but the idea behind it clearly fits the meaning of the idiom. By literally or figuratively drawing such a line, a person ...
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Peely-wally This is a Scots word that means to be pale and sickly or insipid and colourless in appearance. Note that the second half rhymes with sally, not holly. It can refer to Scots’ national skin colour ...
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13 September 2014

Porphyrogeniture If we had this inheritance principle in Britain, Prince Charles would lose his pre-eminent right to succeed to the throne to his younger brother Andrew. That’s because porphyrogeniture ...
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Set one’s cap at It’s often set one’s cap at, though both forms now feel rather dated. The idiom conventionally refers to a woman who sets out to gain the affections of a man, often with a view to ...
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6 September 2014

Epicaricacy Occasionally, I come across a word that’s so rare and mysterious that it’s a struggle to find out anything about it. This one turned up in an article in the Observer on 10 August by Lauren ...
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Hide one’s light under a bushel For once I can give you chapter and verse for the origin, literal chapter and verse as it happens, since it’s from the Bible: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under ...
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30 August 2014

Furthest and farthest That word isn’t in my vocabulary. It’s likely that a speaker of American English, such as yourself, would prefer farthest, because that spelling has survived in the US longer ...
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Jentacular Slug-a-beds or slow-waking readers may not appreciate the virtues of this rare word, and will particularly dislike one of the compounds formed from it, ante-jentacular. That’s because ...
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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Last updated 28 Oct. 2014.

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996– All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 28 October 2014.