Wednesday word of the week

ickle*

These days we use this to mean ‘little’ (as in ‘Who's an ickle pickle?’ which I regularly ask my dog. Answer: it’s her). But it actually means ‘a frozen drop of water’. Which is where ‘icicle’ came from.

* Shamelessly stolen from Susie Dent’s Twitter feed. Except the bit about my dog. Susie Dent doesn’t ask my dog if she’s an ickle pickle.

A partridge in a pear tree? I’d rather have a blog on etymology

I blimmin’ love Christmas. I put my decorations up on 1 December every year without fail, then I get really depressed on Boxing Day because it’s ALL OVER. So, before that happens, here’s my Christmas gift to you – six Christmassy words and their etymology (I was going to do 12 – as in the 12 days of Christmas – but it was too many and I ran out of steam. Sorry).

1. Eggnog

Yum, eggy booze. Who on earth thought that sounded nice? Maybe that’s why we only drink it once a year. Anyway, the ‘nog’ bit of ‘eggnog’ is a 17th-century word for strong beer (looks like the English have always been lager louts) from Norfolk. And the ‘egg’ bit? Well, you can probably work that out for yourself. 

2. Carol

Nothing to do with Vorderman or King, we used to use the word ‘carol’ to talk about any celebratory song. It was the Tudors who started using it for Christmas songs only. We nicked the word ‘carol’ from our Gallic friends across the channel in the Middle Ages – a carole was French for a circle dance accompanied by singers. And they probably got it from the Italians (carola), who took it from the Latin (choraulēs – ‘flute player accompanying a chorus dance’), which came from the Ancient Greek word khoraulḗs (‘one who accompanies a chorus on the flute’). That has its roots in Proto-Indo-European language, but as you probably stopped reading a while ago, I won’t go into that.

3. Mistletoe

This one’s a bit of a mystery (a mistle-tery? Nope?). Well, ‘mistle’ is – the ‘toe’ bit’s fairly straightforward, as it comes from ‘tān’, which is an Old English word for ‘twig’. But no one’s really sure where the ‘mistle’ part came from. Wikipedia just says it’s ‘from Proto-Germanic *mihstilaz (“mistle”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₃meyǵʰ- (“to urinate”)’ which I feel merits more explanation, but sadly, doesn’t give any.

Mistletoe’s a parasitic plant, which means it sucks the nutrients out of other plants, either stunting their growth or killing them (which is why it stays green all year round, the bastard). And some of it’s poisonous. Kissing under the deadly parasitic twig doesn’t seem quite so romantic now, does it?

4. Poinsettia

The poinsettia is a Mexican plant which the ancient Aztecs called ‘cuetlaxochitl’. Presumably because no-one could pronounce that, when American ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett bought one back with him from Mexico to the US of A they decided to name it after him. The association with Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend (which I was in a production of at primary school). You can read it here (the myth, not my primary school production).

5. Tinsel

Beloved of 80s Christmas trees, ‘tinsel’ was originally the name for a cloth that was woven with gold or silver thread. It comes from the Middle French word estincelle which means ‘spark’ or ‘spangle’.

Tinsel was invented in Nuremberg in the 17th century. Originally made from real silver, apparently it’s supposed to mimic the appearance of ice. I never knew that, even though now I do it seems blindingly obvious.

I like saying the word ‘tinsel’.

6. Yule

Log lady.jpg

Like a lot of stuff to do with Christianity, this one was stolen from paganism (technically called ‘Christanised reformulation’ fact fans). It comes from the word jól, the Norse name of a pagan festival which took place in the 12 days leading up to 25 December. It’s connected with the myth of the wild hunt (which is a pretty frickin’ awesome myth). We nicked the word jól and added it to Old English as ġéol, which morphed into ‘yule’ some time in the middle of the 1400s. I’m not really entirely sure what we use it for these days, except for making bad puns (‘yule love this festive blog post!’) and the yule log. I totally thought a yule log was a cake, but it’s an actual log which also has pagan roots (BOOM BOOM).


So, there you have it. A little bit of Christmas cheer, in blog form. Oh, and thanks for reading my word-based musings this year – here’s to plenty more in 2018.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Immigrant song

According to the OED, there are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got everything covered. So sometimes we adopt words from other languages to fill the gaps. Chances are you’ve already come across ‘schadenfreude’, and new kid on the block ‘hygge’. But what about ‘tartle’? It’s a Scottish word for that panicky pause when you have to introduce someone whose name you’ve forgotten. Good, right? So here are my top 12 (because anyone can do a top ten) foreign words without an equivalent in English. Bloody foreign words, coming over here and stealing our words’ jobs.

Aktivansteher

I’m annoyed that the Germans have got this word and we haven’t. The literal translation is ‘energetic queuer’ – basically it’s for those clever people (of which I’m, sadly, not one) who always join the right queue.

Baggerspion

Another German one, the direct translation of which is ‘digger truck spy hole’. It’s the desire to peek into a boarded-up building site. C’mon, you know you’ve done it...

Bagstiv

A Danish word for something that I’ve obviously got no experience of – when you wake up in the morning still drunk from the night before (it translates as ‘backwards drunk’). Nope, never happened to me. And definitely not this morning.

Culaccino

This is an Italian word for the stain left on a table from a cold drink. Use a coaster people!

Gigil

A Filipino word for when you see something really cute and feel the urge to squeeze or pinch it. I get this every day for my dog Bella. Cue gratuitous picture...

IMG_4648.JPG

Greng-jai

Being as the English are known for not wanting to cause a fuss, it’s odd that the Thai have a word for this one and we don’t. It’s when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it’s a pain for them.

Iktsuarpok

This is an Inuit word for when you’re so excited about someone coming round to your house that you keep going outside to check if they’ve turned up yet. Like me and the Amazon delivery man.

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Mangata

I love this one. It’s a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on water. Gawjuss.

Mencolek

You know that thing when someone taps you on one shoulder from behind so you turn one way, when they’re actually standing on the other side? Well, the Indonesians came up with this word for it.

I actually already have a word for people who do this. It starts with ‘w’ and ends with ‘ankers’.

Politikerleden

This is a Danish word for being disgusted by a politician. So basically everyone in the world then.

Tsundoku

Think ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘The Satanic Verses’, ‘The Alchemist’... yep, this is a Japanese word for when you buy books and then never read them. At least they look nice on the shelf.

Zeg

This is a Georgian word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and has equivalents in lots of languages including German (übermorgen) and Polish (pojutrze). I’m cheating slightly here because there is actually an English version – ‘overmorrow’. But unfortunately it’s ye olde middle English, so no one uses it anymore. There’s also the equally delightful ‘ereyesterday’ in English for ‘the day before yesterday’. I’m going to make it my mission to bring these back.

This woke blog post is lit AF

The other day I got an email from a company I buy quite a lot of clothes from. The subject line was ‘Something for your bae’. Now this threw me, as I have no idea who or what my bae is. After asking the internet I now understand that this is shorthand for my girlfriend or boyfriend. Good to know. But it got me thinking – how out of touch with the yoof am I?

It turns out, quite a lot.

So here’s my pick of some young people’s speak, along with what it actually means and some handy examples for if you want to chuck any into conversation. (And I’ve now instigated a rule that if a company send me an email with slang I don’t understand, then I’m too old to be buying whatever it is they’re selling.)

Woke

What? To be woke about something means to be well informed about it.

In action: I stay woke by listening to Radio 4. 

Lit

What? One of my friends used this the other day and I had to ask her to explain it (because I’m not woke about millennials). Confusingly it turns out it has a few meanings, depending on the context. It can mean that something’s really good, or drunk/stoned/had a great night. This second meaning’s actually been around for a long time, and first showed up in the 1910s.

In action: This cross stitch I’ve just finished is lit or Emma got lit at book group last night.

AF

What? Short for (sorry Mumsy) ‘as fuck’. Because who wants to type/say a whole FOUR extra letters?

In action: This Farrow & Ball paint colour I’ve chosen is delightful AF.

Glo up

What? When I googled this the first result was the village of Gloup in the far north of the island of Yell in the Shetland Islands. How did I not know there’s an island called Yell? It’s home to the most haunted house in the Shetlands as well as some trolls (the old-fashioned kind, not the internet ones).

Anyway, I digress. To glo up is to suddenly become really attractive.

In action: Plain Jane Superbrain did glo up in Neighbours (FYI I’m not entirely sure what the past tense is – maybe she glo'd up? Answers on a postcard please). 

I so wanted to be Plain Jane Superbrain when I was young. Check her out in action below (the clip also features some little-known Australians called Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue. I wonder what happened to them?).

Hangry

What? When you’re angry because you’re hungry, obvs. I like hangry because (a) it makes perfect sense and I can’t believe there isn’t a word for it already, and (b) I love a portmanteau. Who doesn’t?

In action: My Waitrose delivery is an hour late and I’m super hangry.

Mansplaining

When a man explains something to a woman in a patronising way, or by interrupting or speaking over her. It’s often about something she already knows, or is already an expert in. (Not to be confused with manspreading which is a whole different thing.)

In action: Check out these awesome examples. And it even happened to an ACTUAL ASTRONAUT.


So, that’s it for yoofspeak for the time being. If you’re as old as me, then hopefully this will help you out if you have to interact with any millennials any time soon. And if you’re a yoof yourself, feel free to correct me or give me some more examples (without mansplaining though please).

Fancy a fuksheet?

The English language is a wonderful thing. And one of the reasons for that is because we have lots of rude words. Think about it. There are loads of them. I can come up with five words for my you-know-what off the top of my head right now. But there are also a lot of words which sound rude but are actually perfectly acceptable in polite society. Here’s just a small selection of some of my favourites – why not see how many you can get into the conversation at your next dinner party?

1. Bumfiddler

Depending on which part of the internet you look at (and I wouldn’t recommend Googling this if you’re easily offended), to be a bumfiddler either means that you pollute or spoil something (like a document, not a bottom), or that you’re a fidget or a busybody. If you put a space in it (i.e. bum fiddler), it means to harm or attack. And if you look it up on urbandictionary.com, it’s to do with playing a fiddle with your arse. Obviously.

2. Cockchafer

It’s a big old beetle. It was almost eradicated with pesticides but numbers are on the rise again, you’ll be pleased to hear. And apparently Nikola Tesla once made an engine out of four of them (I don’t know how). 

Here’s a picture of one – it’s surprisingly cute for a family of bugs which can apparently ‘terrorise ... with their high-pitched screams as they leave a trail of destruction’ (a quote in this well-balanced article from the Daily Star which was published last summer. I must have missed the cockchafer plague).

cockshafer.jpeg

3. Copula

A copula is a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (i.e. the bit that describes or expands on the subject). So in the sentence ‘The cockchafer is furry’, ‘is’ is the copula. It also crops up in probability theory and statistics where it’s a multivariate probability distribution for which the marginal probability distribution of each variable is uniform. But you knew that already, right?

4. Formication

Nope, not that. It’s actually pretty unpleasant – a feeling that you have insects crawling over your skin. From the Latin formica which means ‘ant’. So you could legitimately say that you feel like you’re being formicated by cockshafers. If the situation ever arises.

5. Fuksheet

Okay, so ‘fuk’ with no ‘c’ is a Middle English word for a sail. So you attach a fuksheet to a fukmast. And then you fuk off in your boat.  

6. Invagination

Turning something inside out, innit. And the opposite is called ‘evagination’. One source said it also applies to putting one thing (not that) inside another (not that either), like a sword into a sheath. (If you’re anything like me you’re now singing ‘Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure invagination...’)

7. Jaculate

When you throw something, especially something like a dart or a javelin, you jaculate it. Yep. Not to be confused with ejaculate, which is when you eject something suddenly. And, you know, the other thing.

8. Peniaphobia

Nothing to do with being scared of winkies, this is the fear of poverty. It comes from the Greek penia.

9. Teasehole

Less ooh er, matron and more opening in a glassmaking furnace for putting fuel in.

10. Vagitus

Despite sounding like some kind of ailment you have to whisper over the counter at the chemist, this is actually rather nice – it’s the name given to a newborn baby’s first cry. Aw.

Punctuation drunk – part 2

After leaving you on a grammatical cliffhanger last time (kinda), at long last, here’s the second part of my foray into the world of obscure punctuation marks. Man, my life is exciting. Hold onto your hats people...

Percontation point: ⸮

Despite sounding like a place where teenagers went to snog in the 50s, the percontation point is actually a back-to-front question mark. And it might be my new favourite thing. You use it to show you’re being ironic or sarcastic. Nowadays the nearest equivalent is probably an exclamation mark in brackets, as in: ‘Yeah, blogs about punctuation marks are really interesting (!).’

Who came up with that? Henry Denham (a 16th century printer and my new celebrity crush) first suggested the backwards question mark as a way to end a rhetorical question. Sadly this didn’t make it past the 17th century, but it was resurrected by a French poet in the 1890s who used it to show irony or sarcasm. In fact, loads of people have tried to come up with a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm (including the excellently named sarcmark) but nothing’s really stuck yet.

Exclamation comma: not available on keyboards so see picture below

Exclamation comma.jpg

I’m not a fan of the exclamation mark generally – they can make you sound a bit mental and shouty! And with the exclamation comma, you’re no longer limited to only sounding mental and/or shouty at the end of a sentence. It’s a bit hard to give you an example as it’s untypeable, so using an exclamation mark as a stand in, it would look something like this:

‘We’re so excited about this punctuation mark! we can’t end this sentence.’

The exclamation comma’s actually pretty young compared to most of its other obscure cousins, and was created in 1992 by three American inventors (called Leonard Storch, Haagen Ernst Van and Sigmund Silber), who even took out a patent on it. Fortunately for us that’s now expired, so feel free to be surprised in the middle of sentences with gay abandon (but only in handwritten documents).

But what if I want to ask a question in the middle of a sentence? Fret not – our three intrepid inventors also created an unholy union between the question mark and the comma. They called it – wait for it – the ‘question comma’ (it’s no ‘exclamoquest’ is it?). And it’s also not available on keyboards, sorry.

Dagger: †

Possibly not that obscure – you’ve probably seen this one in action as it’s generally used for a footnote if the writer’s run out of asterisks. It’s another oldie and is believed to have been invented by a Homeric scholar called Zenodotus (which is what I’ll be naming my next dog). You can also use it next to someone’s name to show they’re dead, in which case it’s called the ‘death dagger’. Ooh. (There are actually loads more uses for the dagger, and thankfully someone much cleverer than me has collated them on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Or even still reading.)

Why’s it called a dagger (See what I did there?) The dagger has a second and, in my opinion at least, much more exciting name – the obelisk. This comes from the Greek word obeliskos, which doesn’t mean pointy statue, but ‘roasting spit’. Much better, right?

There’s also a double dagger, or ‘diesis’ (‡), and apparently even a triple one for people who don’t know that you can also use numbers for footnotes. 

Guillemets: « »

Not to be confused with the birds, or the indie rock band, guillemets are possibly a bit of a cheat, because they’re foreign. They’re basically a more exotic version of our quotation marks and are used in loads of languages including French, Greek, Italian and Spanish. I only really included them here because I like the word (and I wanted to make that indie rock band joke in the first sentence). 

Sheffer stroke: |

Not the prettiest of punctuation marks, the sheffer stroke is actually on your keyboard. I’ll wait here while you go find it. 

Got it? It’s the one next to the z (and the cleanest key on my keyboard, as I don’t think I’d pressed it before today). It’s named after one Henry M Sheffer, author of the 1913 paper ‘Transactions of the American Mathematical Society’ where he provided an axiomatisation of Boolean algebras using the stroke, and proved its equivalence to a standard formulation thereof by Huntington employing the familiar operators of propositional logic (which are, of course, and, or and not). I absolutely, positively didn’t copy and paste this from Wikipedia.

It’s also, rather boringly, called a vertical bar, and is a variant of the slash, presumably for people who are just too lazy to make it slope. 

The end?

That’s it for the moment for obscure punctuation. If you’re feeling a bit bereft (I know I am), then why not join me on my quest to come up with a new punctuation mark named after me? The Emmamark perhaps? Or the Wilkin Woggle (I don’t know what this is for, but I’m liking the name already)? Or, you know, go outside and talk to people or something.

Punctuation drunk – part 1

Alongside your everyday commas, question marks, semicolons and so on, there are other, more exotic, punctuation marks hiding in the shadows. Here are just a few of them...

The Pilcrow: ¶

I’ve got a pendant in the shape of a pilcrow (a present from my friend Bee – here’s a slightly smug-looking picture of me wearing it). You’ve probably seen a pilcrow in Microsoft Word (it’s the button which shows all the usually hidden formatting marks). Sometimes called a paragraph mark, it’s the elder statesman of punctuation, and can trace its roots as far back as Ancient Greece. I’m reliably informed by the internet that its name comes from the Greek word paragraphos, by way of French and Middle English.

But what the hells it for? In the Middle Ages rubricators used a pilcrow to mark a new train of thought in a manuscript. This was before it became usual to start these on a new line. What the hell’s a rubricator I hear you say? Nothing to do with the cubes I’m afraid – rubrication’s when a scribe adds text in red ink to ancient manuscripts for emphasis. I like to think of them as the medieval equivalent of a highlighter pen.

These days, apart from the button in Word which I’ve already mentioned, the pilcrow turns up in:

  • legal and academic documents – it’s used for cross references (it’s more complicated than that, but even I started getting bored writing about it so I gave up)
  • as a proofreading mark to show a paragraph should be split in two (sadly it’s pretty rare that us editors get to use a pen for proofreading these days, so this one might be a dying art)
  • in the order of service for some churches to show that the text following is an instruction to stand up, sit down or kneel (I feel like this could be used in hilarious, and probably blasphemous, ways in the wrong hands)
  • online for something to do with permalinks to avoid link rot. I don’t know what this means.

Interrobang: ‽

New-favourite-word alert! The interrobang is the weird lovechild of the question mark and exclamation mark. It’s the punk rocker of the punctuation world – the enfant terrible. (Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.) In 1962, Martin K Speckter, head of a New York advertising firm, decided it would be better to have a single mark at the end of a rhetorical or surprised question, instead of using ‘!?’ (e.g ‘How the hell did you lose your shoe!?’). It was him who came up with the name interrobang (from the Latin interrogatio and ‘bang’, printers’ slang for the exclamation mark), although he did write a magazine article inviting suggestions for alternatives. In the 60s equivalent of Boaty McBoatface, he got some awesome portmanteaus including ‘emphaquest’ and ‘exclamoquest’ (which might even be slightly better). But ‘interrobang’ stuck, and the mark was even added to a range of US typewriters in 1968. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough to save it, and the interrobang was doomed to fade into obscurity. I’ll be doing my very best to bring it back.

When can I use it? Basically, every time anyone says or does something stupid. Like when you drunk text someone and then send a message the next day saying: ‘Don’t know what happened last night‽’

Asterism: 

The less popular cousin of the asterisk, the lovely looking asterism takes its name from a group of stars that’s smaller than a constellation. Nice, right?

Why do I need one of those? You probably don’t, to be honest. You can use an asterism to indicate a break in text that’s not as strong as a page break (or the end of a chapter), but bigger than a paragraph. I’ve used one below because it looks pretty, and I feel like it needs an outing. Sadly most people tend to use ‘***’ these days instead, possibly because it has the fabulous name of ‘dinkus’.

Want to know more?

If you can’t wait for part 2 of this post (and let’s face it, it’s pretty damn exciting), check out the book Shady Characters by Keith Houston, which I used when writing this post (a present from my dad – I get a lot of punctuation-based gifts). You can buy yourself one here.

Let’s talk about techs baby

This week I was working on some copy that told the reader to ‘dial’ a number. Which got me thinking – even though I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually used a phone with a dial (probably about 1985, when we also had a three-digit phone number – tru dat kids) – everyone knows what you mean when you talk about dialling a number. So what other tech terms live on, even though the technology that coined them is long dead?

CC

CC stands for carbon copy, which harks back to when people used to make copies of things (like receipts) by putting a piece of carbon paper under the sheet before writing on it. Then the ink transferred onto the other piece of paper (or something – it’s kinda hard to explain). We also used it for card payments in the dark days before electronic readers (and identity theft. Coincidence? Yes, probably).

We now of course use CC when we’re emailing people and BCC when we’re being sneaky. And we still use ‘carbon copy’ when we’re talking about someone or something being a dead ringer for another person or thing, which I used to think was something to do with Han Solo, but almost definitely isn’t. And I wonder how many people under the ago of 20 (or 30 even?) know where it comes from?

Rewind

Alongside ‘tape’ for ‘record’, this is left over from the days of VHS. These days there’s no actual tape being wound backwards – only different bits of a drive being accessed.

(Remember when you could only record one thing at a time, you needed a science degree to set the video and most of the time it didn’t record what you wanted anyway? Ah, memories.)

Tune in

Still applicable to some radios, this one’s from when you used to have to turn a dial to get a station. It also applied to TVs to pick up a channel. Luckily there were only three, so it didn’t take too long.  

Hang up

Another phone-related one here. Back in the days of yore we used to have to actually put the phone back on a cradle to finish a call. Whereas nowadays we never actually hang up anything – just press a button or swipe the screen (which makes angrily ending a phone call much less satisfying).

Wind down the window

Or up, for that matter. You’d be hard pushed to find many non-classic cars on the road these days where you actually have to rotate a handle and wind down the window. They’re all buttons these days. And thank god, because otherwise this awesome movie moment would never have happened...

All this makes me wonder what terms we’ll be using in, say, 20 years? With the speed technology’s moving words are becoming obsolete almost as soon as we learn them. Take ‘click’ for example – something I use a lot when I’m writing copy for emails or web pages. It’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as more and more people are using touchscreens which don’t involve any kind of clicking.

Or maybe we’ll still be talking about ccing people in 100 years’ time when we’re communicating entirely telepathically from inside our flying cars.

It’s not unusual (to hate double negatives)

  • ‘I don’t know nothing.’
  • ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’
  • ‘I can’t see no one.’

Yep, this time around I’m looking at the double negative. Beloved of songwriters and people in EastEnders, it’s one of the few grammatical mistakes that annoys almost everyone. 

Double trouble

So, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s look at the rules around double negatives. You’ll notice that the three examples at the start of this post all have one thing in common – they’re horrible. They also have two negative words in them. And if we correct them, they only have one. I’ve highlighted the negative words below:

  • Wrong: ‘I don’t know nothing.’ Right: ‘I don’t know anything.’
  • Wrong: ‘You ain’t going nowhere.’ Right: ‘You ain’t [are not] going anywhere.’
  • Wrong: ‘I can’t see no one.’ Right: ‘I can’t see any one.’

The simplest way to look at it is that, like in maths, two negatives make a positive (or cancel each other out). So you only need one to make a negative sentence. So far, so logical. But, as we so often find, the English language is a bit stupid sometimes. There are actually two types of double negatives – the ones I mention above which aren’t okay, and a second type, which are grammatically acceptable. (Honestly, I don’t know how anyone ever learns to speak this ridiculous language of ours.)

Double negatives that aren't not okay (i.e. okay)

Right, stay with me. It’s okay to use two negatives in the same sentence if you’re expressing a positive idea. Got it? No? Okay, here’s an example: ‘I can’t just do nothing.’ So you’ve got two negative words there – the ‘n’t’ of ‘can’t’ and ‘nothing’. But the sentence means I must do something, and actually expresses a stronger sentiment than just saying ‘I must do something’. This is called litotes – a figure of speech which uses negative words to make positive statements. It’s one of those annoying things that’s all about nuance (and is also terribly British) so is quite hard to explain. Here are some more examples of litotes in action:

  • he’s not hard to look at (i.e. he’s Brad Pitt’s better-looking brother)
  • it’s not too shabby (it’s blimmin’ awesome)
  • this wasn’t my best idea (this was the worst idea I’ve ever had, ever).

Finally, here’s one from a proper writer – master of subtlety Jane Austen in the excellently named Emma: ‘She owned that, considering every thing, she was not absolutely without inclination for the party.’ We’ve all been there.

So technically speaking, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd go straight to the bottom of the class for crimes against grammar (I Can’t Get No Satisfaction/We Don’t Need No Education), while Sir Tom of Jones gets a gold star for his use of litotes in It’s Not Unusual

Language never stays unchanged

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, language evolves. If I was writing this in the 17th century (on parchment, by candlelight) I’d be saying exactly the opposite – it wasn’t until then that people tried to impose more logical rules on English. Check out this impressive triple negative from a little-known writer called William Shakespeare: ‘I never was nor never will be.’

And let’s not forget – language isn’t maths. So why do we feel the need to impose logical rules on it? Maybe it’s just so we can break them?

Why so Sirius?

Monday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Apart from making me feel well old (I know, I know, you’d think I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye 20 years ago (!), but in fact I’d just started university when it came out), it reminded me of how much I admire J.K. Rowling – she’s created a world that people of all ages, myself included, have come to love. (When the last book came out I once hid in the loo at work in the middle of the day so I could finish a chapter.) So this week, I thought I’d take a look at the etymology of the names of some of my favourite characters in the series. Rowling studied French and classics at university so the origins of her character’s names are often very pertinent – she put a huge amount of thought into even minor characters’ names. 

FYI: I find it hard to believe there are many people who haven’t read an HP book or seen a film, but just in case you are that one person, be warned that this way spoilers lie...

‘You’re a wizard Harry’

  • Sirius Black: Oh Sirius. I was convinced right up until the last page of the last book that you’d somehow come back from the dead. Sigh. Anyway, Sirius is the name of the brightest star we can see from the earth. Because he’s lovely, you see. And of course it’s also called the Dog Star, which refers to Sirius’ status as an animagus.
  • Remus Lupin: My second favourite after Sirius (which apparently is the kiss of death for HP characters), this one’s a bit of a double whammy. ‘Remus’ must be a reference to ‘Romulus and Remus’ who, as I’m sure all my highly educated readers already know, were the legendary twin brothers who were abandoned then brought up by a wolf (obvs), and then went on to found the city of Rome. So that’s our first clue to Remus’ wolfy secret. Secondly, presumably Lupin is a reference to ‘lupine’ (rather than the flower), which of course means ‘of, like, or relating to a wolf’. Boom.
  • Albus Dumbledore: ‘Albus’ is Latin for ‘light’, which makes sense as he’s number 1 good guy. And ‘Dumbledore’ is apparently an English dialect word for bumblebee. Nope, me neither. Maybe JK just liked the sound of it? (Some further googling reveals that apparently she imagined him bumbling round his office like a bee. Why not, I guess?)
  • Severus Snape: Fantastically portrayed on film by the much-missed Alan Rickman, Severus was a complicated character who ultimately turned out to be working for the good guys (he just had a really long endgame). So, ‘Severus’ means ‘stern’ in Latin (which is where we get ‘severe’ from), which makes sense as he was a fairly scary teach. And according to the lady herself, JK Rowling took the name ‘Snape’ from a village in Suffolk (where I’m writing this right now – Suffolk, not Snape), but it also means ‘to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to’ which is a nice coincidence (although probably entirely intentional).
Me and Sirius.jpg

‘I solemnly swear I’m up to no good’

  • Voldemort: The big bad himself, ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight [or ‘theft’ depending on which bits of the internet you read] of death’ which makes sense considering the whole horcrux-hiding-bits-of-your-soul thang. 
  • The Malfoys: This one’s not too hard to decipher – ‘mal’ comes from old French for ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In the same language ‘foi’ means ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ which could well have something to do with the Malfoys putting their trust in the wrong dude. Draco is presumably a reference to ‘draconian’ or possibly dragon or snake (i.e. devious). (And hello to Jason Isaacs!)
  • Fenrir Greyback: One of the more minor characters, I put Fenrir in because I like the way it sounds. Fenrir was a big ole nasty wolf in Norse mythology, and a big ole nasty wolfman in Harry Potter land. It’s him who infected Lupin’s family with lycanthropy originally, and he also takes a chunk out of Bill Weasley. Bastard.
  • Argus Filch: Argus Panoptes is a Greek giant with a shedload of eyes. A perfect moniker for someone who’s always watching round corners. And obviously ‘filch’ is an informal term for stealing, which again fits for a man who likes to confiscate shiz. 

So, there you have it. There are loads more links in HP to Latin, French and Greek, as well as astrology, biology – the list goes on. Feel free to leave a comment about your favourite.

Bonus material

Check out this Harry Potter-based sock puppet video – guaranteed to be stuck in your head for DAYS. 

What’s in a name?

Nominative determinism. Go on, say it. Nominative determinism. Sounds nice right? And clever. 

Say what?

Now I know that my many (she says hopefully) readers are super intelligent, but just in case any of you haven’t come across this lovely term before, it’s basically the idea that people quite often end up doing jobs that match their names. Also called aptronyms, think William Wordsworth (poet, obvs), Usain Bolt (I confess I hadn’t actually made the connection until I started writing this), or Mr Greenacre, who was the man that looked after the hockey pitches at my school. Possibly less famous than the first two, but you get the point.

lt-les-mcburney-best-firefighter-name-ever1.jpg

The term nominative determinism was coined in an article in the New Scientist. They gave examples including:

  • a man who wrote a book about polar exploration with the surname Snowman
  • an article on treating disorders of the urinary system by two researchers called Splatt and Weedon (BEST. THING. EVER).

The theory goes that this isn’t just coincidence – it’s possibly down to genetics, or a thing called implicit egotism. As this is a blog about words, I’m not going to delve into the science, just the funny names. So here’s a list of my favourite examples of this theory in action.

Sara Blizzard

She’s a blimmin weather forecaster for the BBC. And across the pond there’s an Amy Freeze and a Larry Sprinkle.

Igor Judge

Judge Judge innit.

Christopher Coke

He’s a big ole drug dealer

Lord Brain

Guess what he wrote books about? Neurology.

Sir Manley Power

He was a total military ledge

Dr Alter

He’s a plastic surgeon. Well of course he is.

Frances Crook

She runs an organisation that works to reform prisons. In a double whammy, ‘Frances’ means ‘free the criminals’ apparently.

Vania Stambolova

I’m not sure if this one really counts because she’s from Bulgaria and it only works in English, but I don’t care because it’s awesome. I bet you can’t guess it. She’s a... wait for it... 400m hurdler. Amazing.

Marion Moon

She was Buzz Aldrin’s mum. I can’t believe I only just found this out.  

Ann Webb

She founded the British Tarantula Society. REALLY.

Robin Mahfood

He’s the president of a charity called Food for the Poor. Even though his name says otherwise.

Dr Richard Chopp

HE DOES VASECTOMIES. Honest.

So, dear reader, if you can beat Dick Chopp, please let me know in the comments. I’ll buy you dinner (chops, of course).

A myriad of wrongness

I got pulled up by a client today for writing that something came ‘in a myriad of colours’. She told me that ‘myriad’ doesn’t need an ‘a’ before it or an ‘of’ after it. Because I’m super-competitive and really don’t like being told I’m wrong, especially when it comes to anything word-related, I immediately consulted Google to check this. And turns out, I’m wrong (and I’ve been using it wrongly for as long as I’ve known what it means).

According to some very in-depth research (I looked at at least one website), myriad comes from the Greek for ‘murioi’ which means 10,000. Modern usage isn’t so specific – it’s now come to mean ‘a great many’. But either way, adding that ‘a’ and ‘of’ is officially bonkers, because you wouldn’t write that it came in a a great many of colours. It’s a bit like saying PIN number which is actually personal identification number number.

So this got me thinking – what other words have I been using completely wrongly for pretty much my whole life? Turns out there are loads. I mean, LOADS.

I think this may well be the start of a series of Emma-is-stupid themed blog posts.

Poisonous

WTF? I hear you say (or at least that’s what I said when I read this). Apparently you should only say poisonous when you’re talking about something that will kill you when you eat it. Not if it eats (or bites) you. So if you say a snake is poisonous, you’re actually saying that it will kill you if you eat it (which it might, but that’s not the point – I’m not flipping David Attenborough for god’s sake). Snakes are venomous, not poisonous.

Factoid

I thought this meant a small fact. It doesn’t. It’s a false fact. Gasp! It was first used by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe a fact that people believe to be true because it appears in print (‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’). Hmmm, topical…

At least I know I’m in good company – DJ Steve Wright has published a couple of books about (true) small facts titled ‘Factoids’. So that makes me feel better (not really). And also brings me on to…

Entitled

Don’t panic – when you say someone’s entitled to something, you’re not wrong. But it is wrong to say that a book (or anything else) is entitled [title]. As in The sequels entitled Fast and Furious 17. It’s just titled that. Which doesn’t really seem that hard to remember.

Ultimate

When you say that, for example, ‘Paris is the ultimate city break’ what you’re actually saying is that it’s last on the list. Yep, ‘ultimate’ means ‘last in a progression or series’ (think ‘penultimate’). So you’re actually being really mean about Paris. I know we’re leaving Europe and all, but there’s no need for nastiness.

Inflammable

It means flammable. Not not flammable. Even though the prefix in- almost always means ‘not’ in English, in this case ‘inflammable’ comes from the word ‘enflame’. So it doesn’t.

Sometimes English is stupid.

Electrocute

If you grew up in the English countryside in the 70s or 80s, chances are at one point you put your hand on an electric fence round a field just to see what it was like (this was before the internet kids). And you may well have then told your friends at school that you got electrocuted. Well, you didn’t, because then you would be dead – to be electrocuted means to die from an electric shock. So unless your best friend was Haley Joel Osment (dated reference) what you actually got was an electric shock.

The last word

Language evolves. It’s one of the things that makes it great. If enough people continue to use a word one way, even the wrong way, then eventually its original meaning doesn’t matter anymore. And that is a factoid.

Gender bending

I volunteer at my local theatre as a steward (because I’m a really good person, and definitely not because I get to see all the shows for free). Last night I saw a production put on by the local womens refuge made up of songs, poems and readings written by women from the shelter. I was so moved by this show of female solidarity that I decided I needed to express it in blog form. So as this blog is officially about words and grammar, this time around I’ve decided to talk about (TENUOUS LINK ALERT!*) gender neutrality in writing.

Say what?

All English third person singular pronouns (he, she, his, hers and so on) tell you the gender of the person or people you’re talking about. So for a long time the default setting has been to use ‘he’, basically alienating half the population. As in:

‘If a member of your family needs advice, he can call this number.’

I see sentences like this a lot in the legal texts I work on (especially in the ACTUAL LAW), and they make me grind my teeth/raise my eyebrows/sigh about the patriarchy every time. But the good news is that this lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English has now given rise to the singular ‘they’ (‘If a member of your family needs advice, they can call this number’). And the bad news is that technically it’s grammatically wrong – it’s disagreement peeps. 

Smashing the grammatical glass ceiling

Obviously, this is one of those few** grammar rules that’s downright ridiculous. And thankfully proper writers have been breaking it forever: 

  • ‘She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • ‘“A person can’t help their birth,” Rosalind replied with great liberality.’ (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair)
  • ‘I know when I like a person directly I see them!’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

Just in case you’re still not convinced by these literary luminaries, the American Dialect Society† chose the gender-neutral singular they as its word of the year in 2016. And who are we to argue with them?

So, dear readers, please go forth and use the singular they with gay abandon. Just make sure you’re following the other, more sensible, grammar rules while you’re doing it.

Hypocrite, moi?


* Yep, this is an extremely tenuous link. But the women’s refuge is amazing so I don’t care. And if you’ve got a spare fiver burning a hole in your pocket, why not bung it their way?

** Some people might disagree with my use of the word ‘few’ here. 

† Nope, I don’t know who they are either. But they sound very important.


PS This is what I’d look like if I was a man apparently. I think I’d rather earn the 18% less...

Manly.jpg

There’s loads of sunshine when she’s gone

I was singing along to Kelly Clarkson* in my car today, specifically Save You. Now I love a car-based singalong as much as the next guy, but there’s one line that it galls me to belt out every time – because of the terrible grammar. KC tells the person she wants to save that she’s ‘not going nowhere’. Which, as I’m sure you’re aware is a double negative and means she is, in fact, going somewhere, and not saving anyone. Okay, I’ll admit that ‘I’m not going anywhere’ probably wouldn’t have worked with the tune (although if you sing it really fast in the car you can MAKE IT FIT). All of which got me thinking – who else is playing fast and loose with grammar for the sake of a good tune?

Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine 

Yes, it’s an amazing song. But the double negative in the title means that technically he’s saying it is sunny when she’s gone. Which is sad. Probably also accurate, as there’s sun pretty much everywhere at least some of the time, but sad nonetheless.

Lady Gaga – Bad Romance and You and I

Gaga’s a repeat offender. In Bad Romance she sings ‘You and me could write a bad romance’, which should obviously be ‘You and I could write a bad romance’. Then, presumably just to add grammar insult to grammar injury, she wrote a song called ‘You and I’ which should be called ‘You and me’. SIGH.

She’s not alone either – Bryan Adams has also fallen victim to the I/me confusion. In Run to You (choon!) he sings ‘But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I’ when it should be ‘you and me’. As mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s a simple rule – just take out the ‘you and’. Does it still make sense? No Bryan, it doesn’t. 

Justin Timberlake – What Goes Around

‘When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl.’ What?

Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind

‘Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.’ I say again; what? 

Timbaland – The Way I Are

It’s right there in the title. And all the way through the blimmin’ song, including the unforgivable line: ‘Can you handle me the way I are?’ No, I genuinely can’t.

Eminem and Rihanna – Love The Way You Lie

I already wrote a blog post about these lyrics in my previous incarnation working for a writing agency. But the ridiculousness of them means they deserve repeating. Brace yourselves...

‘Now you get to watch her leave,
Out the window, guess that’s why they call it window pane.’

Okay, not technically a grammar issue, but definitely rubbish.


I realise it’s probably not very cool to admit my love of Kelly Clarkson but I’m old now and I don’t really care what people think of my music taste. In fact, I’ll quite happily admit that I own every album she’s ever made. Although I also own every album Marilyn Manson’s ever made, so they may well cancel each other out. 

Don’t get your homophones in a twist

Inspired by this card, which I’ve both bought and had bought for me, in this blog post I thought I’d look at homophones. Nothing to do with prehistoric man, these are words that sound the same but mean different things*. Like bare and bear, cereal and serial, etc.

I’ll endeavour not to insult anyone’s intelligence with the basics like your/you’re here. But I will mention a few I’ve come across in my proofreading career that seem to trip up even the most diligent of writers.

Practice and practise

‘Practise’ with an ‘s’ is a verb, and with a ‘c’ is a noun. So a doctor practises medicine, but they do it at their practice. The same goes for ‘license’ and ‘licence’ (two for the price of one – don’t say I never give you anything). So James Bond has a licence to kill, but he’s licensed to do it. It might help to think of it like ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ which are the same (three for one! I‘m really spoiling you now), unless you get confused by them too, in which case don’t think of it like that and ask Google.

Oh, and if you’re in America you can ignore everything I just said about practice and licence – our transatlantic cousins only use the ‘s’ for these, regardless of whether they’re verbing or nouning. Those crazy cats.

Complimentary and complementary

Compliment with an ‘i’ has two meanings:

  • someone’s saying nice things about you (lucky you), or
  • something’s free (also lucky you).

The other type, complement, is when you’re saying that something goes well with something else. Like this sauce complements this food (as you’d never say). Think of it like one thing ‘completing’ something else if that helps. (Or ask Google again.)

(You also use the second spelling if you’re talking about the number of people in a group e.g. a ship's complement. Although I can’t see that coming up very often unless you’re Captain Phillips.)

Stationary and stationery

SIGH. This one drives me a bit nuts. Like this annoyingly inconsistent tweet (names have been redacted to protect the guilty):

In fact, I used to work for a writer’s agency and even they couldn’t get it right (they had a cupboard marked ‘stationary’ which, quite frankly, pretty much all cupboards are – with the arguable exception of the wardrobe that sometimes leads to Narnia). Thankfully this one’s super simple to remember – ‘e’ is for envelope. Easy.

Dual and duel

I once sat through a presentation by an energy company where they’d used ‘duel’ instead of ‘dual’ in ‘dual fuel’. Every. Single. Time. Now even though pistols at dawn would make paying energy bills much more exciting, it’s wrong. Dual with an ‘a’ is an adjective that means something’s made up of two parts, while duel with an ‘e’ is a verb or noun for the fighty thing. And also Stephen Spielberg’s first full-length film, fact-fans. 

I'm afraid I don't have an easy-to-remember solution for this one, so it’s back to Google if you’re not sure I’m afraid.

Personally, I sometimes struggle with reign and rein. I know that Queen Elizabeth reigns but sometimes I get confused about which ones a horse wears. But maybe that’s just me.


* The word ‘homophone’ is usually used to describe words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they’re spelled. But technically speaking if they’re spelled the same then they’re also homographs (and homonyms). And if they’re spelled differently then they’re heterographs. BUT THIS WAY MADNESS LIES.

Splice up your life (actually, don’t)

The photo above is of the side of my dad’s cereal box (and a bit of the side of my dad). It’s made by a company called Rude Health. All in all they have a pretty nice way of writing (although they’re a bit inconsistent) – they say things like this on their packaging: ‘You’re in rude health when you have muscles in places where most people don’t even have places.’ Nice, right? But the text in the picture above is let down, at least in my super-fussy opinion*, by the presence of a comma splice in the fourth sentence:

‘The proof is in the taste, try it for yourself.’

Splice the mainbrace**

A comma splice is when you use a comma to join two independent clauses. Which you shouldn’t. Why not? Because a comma’s too much of a wimp for the job. Here’s another example of a splice in action:

‘Dean loves chips, he eats them once a week.’

Both parts of that sentence are main clauses in their own right. So that means you need something more hardworking than a comma to join them. In fact, you have a few grammatical choices, you lucky thing. You could:

  • split it into two sentences
  • use a dash
  • swap the comma for a semicolon (ooh, fancy)
  • put in a conjunction (a word we use to connect clauses or sentences like and, but or if).

All of which would change our example to:

  • ‘Dean loves chips. He eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips – he eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips; he eats them once a week.’
  • ‘Dean loves chips and he eats them once a week.’

Just not a comma. Never a comma. It’s a pretty easy one to remember – if the two parts of your sentence can stand on their own (or are two separate thoughts, if that’s easier to spot), then you’ll need to bring out the punctuation big guns. Because in cases like these the comma just isn’t up to the job.


* They also have three dashes in three consecutive sentences which is annoying. But as someone who uses way too many dashes I’m letting that one slide – although a good proofreader should have picked up on it. I would have got rid of at least one of them.

** I thought I should Google this to check exactly what it means in the world of nautical expressions. Something to do with sails and ropes, I thought. Well, I was half right. Back in days of yore it was an order used on naval vessels to carry out a really difficult repair. But these days it’s an order to get the crew an alcoholic drink. That’s because once a crewman had survived doing the difficult repair, they were rewarded with celebratory booze. And when sails were later replaced by steam, they cut out the middleman and just used the order when the crew deserved an extra tot of rum.

Wow, this blog is super informative.

Me, myself and I

Lots of people (even, although I’m sure you won’t believe it, yours truly) sometimes struggle with when to say ‘I’ and when to say ‘me’ when there’s more than one pronoun in a sentence. As in ‘Dean and me went for a beer’ or ‘Dean and I went for a beer’*. But more and more I hear people abandoning ‘I’ and ‘me’ in favour of ‘myself’ (same goes for ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’). So we get sentences like ‘Send the payment to Sam or myself’ or ‘We’ll give the new details to yourself’. Shudder.

Ive been to paradise but Ive never been to me

For reasons I can’t really fathom, people seem to be afraid of the word ‘me’, even when it’s grammatically correct. Maybe it’s a misguided attempt to sound posh or more professional – the logic that longer words make you sound clever (they don’t).

Thankfully, unlike a lot of other grammar-type stuff, this one’s really straightforward. You should only use ‘myself’ in a sentence that already has another first-person pronoun in it (like ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘my’). So you can say ‘I gave myself a good talking to’ because you already have the personal pronoun ‘I’. But if there’s no ‘I’, then you shouldn’t need to use ‘myself’. For example I just heard someone on the radio say ‘there are other people in the same situation as myself’. Wrong.

So there you go. Remember, it’s all about ‘me’.


* The answer is the second one BTW – ‘Dean and I went for a beer’. That's because the pronoun ‘I’ and the proper noun ‘Dean’ are the subject of the sentence, which means you need to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’. Still with me? No? Okay, an easy way to check if you’ve got it right is to take out the other pronoun and see if the sentence still makes sense. So in this case that would be ‘I went for a beer’ – you wouldn't say ‘Me went for a beer’ (unless you’ve already had a lot of beers). Easy.

(Es)stating the bleeding obvious

As a freelancer, there are (obviously very rare) occasions when I end up watching daytime telly. And on those rare occasions, one of the things that sometimes finds its way onto my telly box is Homes Under the Hammer. The title’s pretty self explanatory, but just in case you’ve never seen it, the idea is that people buy houses at auction, then do them up and (fingers crossed) sell them on for a profit. Part of this process involves a couple of estate agents giving the hopeful owners a value for the rent and sale prices they might get. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t matter which agency they’re from, or where in the country – they all use the same jargon. And it’s pretty much universally awful.  Here are just three that set my teeth on edge.

‘Property’

No one ever says ‘Damn, I left my wallet at my property’. Or ‘Have a good day darling, I’ll see you at our property later’. So why do estate agents do it? It seems that flat, house or, god forbid, home are dirty words.

‘Per calendar month’

This drives me nuts. Why do they need to say ‘calendar’ month? Every. Single. Time. I do understand that there’s a technical reason behind it to do with the fact that some months are longer than others. But for TV purposes, can’t we just take that as a given? If they just said ‘month’ then we’d all still understand what they mean. And the programme would probably be done in half the time.

‘Benefits from’

AAGGRRRH! ‘Has’. You can just say ‘has’. If I went around saying that ‘My flat benefits from a garden’ or ‘My face benefits from a mouth’ people would think the lights were on but no one was home. Sorry, at the property.

So what do you think? Any particular professional (estate agent or otherwise) pointless jargon that drives you nuts?

PS If you’ve never watched Homes Under the Hammer, it’s worth it just for the fact that the person who chooses the incidental music is a comedy master. For example, there was one episode featuring a place in Blackburn. When they revisited it later in the programme, they played AC/DC's Back in Black. Because they were back in Blackburn, geddit? GENIUS.

Slaughterhouse semicolon

On Only Connect (hardest quiz on TV) last week, Victoria Coren-Mitchell quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s views on semicolons. In his book A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut writes:

‘…do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

Now, I’m not one to contradict a literary luminary like Vonnegut, but I think I have to take issue with this. And this is why.

Here comes the science

Semicolons have two uses: for complicated lists, and to link two separate sentences that are closely related. It’s the second one I’ll be concentrating on today. Here’s an example:

‘Dean was fed up with working; he’d rather be in the pub.’

semicolon.jpg

A comma would be wrong here and would cause a comma splice (don’t get me started on comma splices; I hate them). That’s because grammar rules say you can’t link two independent clauses – i.e. two clauses that are sentences on their own but are closely linked – with a comma. It has to be a semicolon, or a dash. On the other hand, comma splices are fine in some languages, and in fact some well-known quotes in English are comma splices. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ is one.

In real terms, a semicolon offers more of a pause than a comma, but not as much as a full stop. Read the sentence above out loud and you’ll hear it.

You could, of course, use a dash here (‘Dean was fed up with working – he’d rather be in the pub’). Speaking of which…

Dashed good grammar

Another issue with semicolons is that they can be hard to see online. If you’re reading text on a phone screen for example, a semicolon and a comma can look pretty similar (unless you’re a massive pedant like me). So the en dash (not the hyphen – I’ll have a rant about this in a later post) is rapidly stealing the semicolon’s job. Grammar books generally say you should use an en dash to mark off information that isn’t essential to the rest of the sentence, so they’re not technically interchangeable. And the OED says that you should avoid dashes in formal writing, although I definitely disagree with that.

My verdict…

All of this brings me to the conclusion that there definitely needs to be something in between a comma and a full stop. But whether that’s a dash or a semicolon is up to you.

In out, in out, shake it all about

I’m rewriting some call centre scripts at the moment which need details about various forms people can download. I’ve been saying to fill these in (as in ‘fill in your details’) but someone else working on the same project has gone with ‘fill out your details’. This has left me in a bit of a quandary. A trip to Google tells me that ‘fill out’ is favoured (or favored) in America, while ‘fill in’ is the more acceptable version on this side of the pond. And the OED doesn’t seem to have a preference (although apparently everyone ‘fills in the blanks’). So what do you think? Are you in or out?