Archive for the ‘the English language’ Category


Feeling Blue

November 26, 2013

by Kate Woodford

feeling_blueLast time we looked at the many words in English for ‘happy’. Happiness is, of course, a wonderful and important human emotion, but as Carl Jung once said, “The word ‘happiness’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness”. Always keen to provide a little balance on About Words, we are this month focussing on sad words and the different types and degrees of sadness that they describe.

Two very simple words which are often used to mean ‘sad’ are down and low: She seemed a bit down when we spoke this afternoon./Illness of any sort can leave you feeling low. Miserable is another such word: I just woke up feeling miserable.

Some words describe sadness when it is mixed with another emotion. Someone who is morose for example, appears slightly sad but also angry and unwilling to smile or speak: My lovely, chatty twelve-year-old has turned overnight into a morose teenager. Despondent means ‘very unhappy’ but also ‘without hope or enthusiasm’: He became increasingly despondent when she failed to return his calls. Read the rest of this entry ?


Mumpreneurs and staycations – the rise of the modern suffix

October 15, 2013

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a suffix as ‘a group of letters added at the end of a word to make a new word’. Examples of classic suffixes include -ness, which forms noun such as greatness and –esque, meaning ‘in the style of’, in adjectives such as Kafkaesque.

It may be easy to ignore these modest word parts, but suffixes have their fashions just like any other aspect of English. Once, we only had alcoholics. Then it became common to talk about workaholics, shopaholics, chocoholics, and just about any other kind of –holic one cares to think of. A quick Google search throws up bakeaholic, danceaholic, Kindleaholic, meataholic and many more. Read the rest of this entry ?



September 23, 2013

by Kate Woodford

With summer just over, a time when sunny weather and holidays put people in a good mood, we thought we would try to keep those good moods going by looking at words and phrases that mean ‘happy’ and how these words express slight differences in meaning.

Let’s start with the fairly common word cheerful. Cheerful means ‘happy and hopeful’: He was very cheerful when we spoke last night. A similar adjective, combining those two emotions of happiness and hope, is bright: She was a bit upset last night but she seemed a lot brighter this morning. Read the rest of this entry ?


Modern marketing; from click bait to page takeovers

August 13, 2013

by Liz Walter
half an hour of web ads by dno1967b on flickr

When British writer Norman Douglas wrote in 1917 that ‘you can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements’, he probably never imagined just how far that theory would be tested in the following century. While some advertisers have been content with pithy catchphrases and addictive jingles, others have pushed the boundaries of taste and social mores to their limits in their search for the arresting image that will imprint a product’s name into the consumer’s mind. Possibly the most famous (or notorious) examples were those of the fashion firm Benetton, which provoked outrage in the 1990s with images that included a man dying from AIDS and a nun kissing a priest.

In a less shockable age, it is difficult to imagine a similar advertising campaign having such an impact, but instead new techniques are being used.  Attack ads used to be only used by politicians wishing to denigrate a rival, but are now being produced by companies such as the communications giants T-Mobile and AT&T, who have recently been battling it out fiercely and expensively in the marketing arena with negative campaigns against one another. Read the rest of this entry ?


Just a sliver!

July 3, 2013

by Kate Woodford

sliverWe’re still looking at food and drink this month, or more particularly, the words that we use to refer to pieces and quantities. (There are a surprising number of them, each with a slightly different meaning.)

We’ll start with food. Many words for pieces of food refer specifically to the shape or size of the piece, and some refer to both. A very thin slice of food may be called a sliver: She took a sharp knife and cut a sliver of cheese.  A hunk of food, such as bread or cheese, is a big, thick piece of it, often with no clear shape: He pulled off a great hunk of bread. Chunks are fairly large, roughly cut pieces of food: big chunks of meat in gravy/Cut the vegetables roughly into chunks. A slab is a large, thick, flat slice of food, such as meat or cheese: I didn’t really fancy a big slab of meat. A wedge of food, meanwhile, is a piece in the shape of a triangle: a wedge of lemon/cheese. Read the rest of this entry ?


Janus Words – Two-faced English

July 1, 2013

By Hugh Rawson

HughAs if reading and writing English is not difficult enough, the language includes a number of words with opposite meanings within themselves. These are often called Janus words, after Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings. (January, the first month of the year, is named for him.) Janus usually was represented in art as having two bearded faces that faced in opposite directions, as do doors — and as do Janus words.

Among the most commonly encountered Janus words are cleave, hew, and sanction. For example, one can be said to cleave a block of wood, meaning to split it, or to cleave to one’s principles, meaning to cling to them. Hew is almost synonymous in both senses. When a lumberjack hews a tree, he is cutting it down, but a politician who hews to a party platform, or a party line, is adhering closely to it. (Party line, by the way, usually is associated with the Communist Party, but is a lot older:  Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri used it in a political context in a memoir published in 1854.) Sanction, meanwhile, may refer either to formal approval or permission, as in “Some states now sanction gay marriage,” or to an official ban, penalty, or deterrent, as in “The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Japan’s biggest organized-crime syndicate, known as the yakuza” (New York Times, Feb. 24, 2012). Read the rest of this entry ?


Yet More Yiddish

June 24, 2013

By Hugh Rawson

HughYiddish has enriched the English language with many lively, often earthy contributions to everyday speech.  A previous post listed a number of examples of what is sometimes called Yinglish. Here are some more:

kibitz. To look on at a card game or other activity in an officious way; by extension, to stick one’s nose into another person’s business. The person who does this is a kibitzer. The word stems from the German name of a bird, kiebitz, the lapwing or pewit, a member of the plover family. The lapwing has long symbolized forwardness because it is so active so soon after hatching. This is the bird that is often portrayed in cartoons as running around with its head still in its shell. Read the rest of this entry ?


A sad farewell

June 12, 2013

Hugh Hugh Rawson, a regular contributor to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog for the two and a half years of its existence, died unexpectedly on June 1st. He was 76.

Hugh’s love of the English language was evident in his posts. All aspects of the language engaged him, and his enthusiasm came through in his writing. He also loved talking about words with others, as can be seen from the responses to readers he posted in the Comments. He loved puns and word play, and was fascinated by the ways words can be used to disguise or expose the truth. Hugh felt that people – especially politicians – are too easily tempted to obfuscate what they mean, and he was amused by linguistic efforts to disguise reality, especially with regard to bodily functions, behind “polite” terms. He understood the power that language can have, and the responsibility we all share to use language wisely, and well.

His three books about language – Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk, Wicked Words (which covers personal insults, ethnic slurs, political attacks, and the so-called four-letter words, among others), and Devious Derivations which explores folk etymologies) – are classics in the field. He also wrote Unwritten Laws: The Unofficial Rules of Life as Handed Down by Murphy and other Sages and, with his wife, Margaret Miner, co-authored five dictionaries of quotations: The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations, The New International Dictionary of Quotations, A Dictionary of Quotations from the Bible, A Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare, and the American Heritage Dictionary of Quotations.

Earlier in his career, Hugh worked as an editor at various New York publishing houses. I was lucky enough to land a job as his assistant when I started to work in publishing, and learned a great deal from him not just about how to deal with the text on a page (or, later, on a screen) but about how to deal with the people whose work is being published and the colleagues who are also involved in that effort. His warmth, intelligence, and decency touched everyone who came into contact with him and served as an example. It was an honor, all these years after he first took me under his wing, to be able to publish his posts and bring his insights to a new audience.

All of us at Cambridge Dictionaries Online who worked with Hugh were touched by his humanity. We will miss him, and we suspect a lot of you will miss him too. He was, to use a term from one of his last posts, a real mensch.

by Paul Heacock


Nudge, nudge – off to the adult playground with you!

June 3, 2013

by Liz Walter
The phrase ‘nudge, nudge‘ used to be synonymous with saucy innuendo. Nowadays, nudge theory (based on an influential book by US economist Richard Thaler) is all about gently persuading people to do what is best for them, from insulating their lofts to taking out pensions to eating more fruit and veg. The UK prime minister, David Cameron, was so impressed by Thaler’s ideas that he decided to set up his own ‘Behavioural Insights Team’, quickly dubbed the ‘nudge unit’.
Read the rest of this entry ?



May 27, 2013

by Kate Woodford


Just before Christmas we looked at the words that we use to describe different types of meals. In this blog, we will consider the many adjectives that we use to describe the food that we eat – some positive, some negative and some neutral.

We use the adjective good to describe food that is nice: My soup was really good. If food is very good we often use the stronger adjective delicious: The fish was absolutely delicious. Yummy also means ‘tasting very good’ but is informal: Rebecca makes a really yummy chocolate cake.   Read the rest of this entry ?


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