Skip to main content


Showing posts from March, 2011

OMG! Why did the Oxford English Dictionary include OMG?

Because the OED tries to reflect the language as spoken and written. English is as Richard Lederer pointed out 'the most democratic language in history'.  To learn about the process by which words are selected see this interview with the OED editor.

Oxford Dictionary of English
Concise Oxford English Dictionary: 11th Edition Revised 2008
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: Sixth Edition

Where does the word tsumami come from?

Tsunami is a Japanese word combining 'tsu' meaning port with 'nami' meaning wave. This word seems to have replaced the more technical 'tidal wave' in public discussion.

More Japanese words in English (with audio) here:

Japanese Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide

How do children learn language?

What is mission creep?

Mission creep is when an original plan or objective is progressively widened by events on the ground.

Significantly the phrase has military origin
Originating in Somalia in 1993, the modern term “mission creep” became part of official U.S. Army vocabulary a decade later. Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations and Support Operations (February 2003) acknowledges two types of mission creep. The first occurs when “the unit receives shifting guidance or a change in mission for which the unit is not properly configured or resourced.” Lewis and Clark In other words you start with a limited objective but this expands to the point where it is no longer clear. This phrase has also been used to describe non-military matters - financial regulation, for example.

The Dictionary of Military Terms

Where does the word 'dude' come from?

dude, now perhaps most familiar as a slang term with a wide range of uses (including use as an all-purpose interjection for expressing approval: "Dude!")
Read more:

The use of 'dude' to describe a male person is becoming increasingly universal amongst young English speakers. Its origins are disputed but certainly date back a little further than Dude, Where's my Car? (2000).  According to the American Heritage Dictionary:
Originally it was applied to fancy-dressed city folk who went out west on vacation. In this usage it first appears in the 1870s. Dude makes an appearance in and in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and pops up in the letters of that unlikely hipster P.G Woodhouse  ('the only English characters the American public would read about were exaggerated dudes' )

The word maintained its cult status, appearing in two classic rock songs 'All the Young Dudes' (1972) Mott the Hoople/David Bowie and Steely Da…

What is a Ponzi scheme?

Texas Governor Rick Perry caused some controversy in recent Republican Presidential Debat by referring to the US social security system as a Ponzi scheme. Here's what he was alluding to:

A Ponzi or pyramid scheme attracts investors by offering very high and consistent profits. In reality these 'profits' do not exist - early investors are paid with the money contributed by later ones.

The original Charles Ponzi (1882 -1949) was not the first to run a pyramid scheme, but the collapse of his Boston-based financial fund in 1921 became an international scandal.

All Ponzi schemes are eventually destroyed by the thing that sustains them: confidence. While the scheme is successful there does not appear to be a problem. The infamous Madoff fund prospered for decades until the financial crisis of 2008. It was when investors tried to withdraw their capital that the fraud was revealed.

The use of the term Ponzi Scheme is no longer restricted to describing direct financial fraud. Nassi…

What is 'black swan' theory?

Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan (2007)puts forward the theory that the most important events are usually impossible to predict. The title refers to the fact that all swans were believed to be white - until a black one was discovered.

This unpredictability is particularly important in relation to finance. A trader can calculate what he thinks is likely to happen in the market, taking into account known contingencies. What can't be predicted is what Donald Rumsfeld called - 'the unknown unknowns',
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know.

But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002Taleb puts it like this
The events that impact on our lives most are impossible to predict. After they occur we find rationalisations for them but we should accept that ran…

Is the misuse of the apostrophe a modern problem?

Not according to Henry Hitchings new book: ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English'
in the 18th-century authors were sprinkling apostrophes over everything. Though you may think the shopkeeper is ignorant and wrong to advertise “CD’s & Video’s”, he has history on his side.From the Economist

Hitchings goes on to suggest that the apostrophe may be nearing its sell by date. Tell me this isn’t true, I can’t live in a world without contractions ....
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

Which language has the most a) native speakers b) 2nd language speakers?

The discussions on how to save the euro were, bizarrely conducted in English, though there were not a Briton in sight.The Sunday Times 14/02/10

More on this & related topics below. (English language level: Upper Intermediate CEF (B2)

According to David Graddol's extensive survey for the British Council, the number of non-native or second language speakers of English now outnumbers those of primary or native speakers. At the same time there is an ever increasing need for speakers of different languages to communicate with each other:

international tourism is growing, but the proportion of encounters involving a native English speaker is declining (1.9). There were around 763 million international travellers in 2004, but nearly 75% of visits involved visitors from a non-English-speaking country travelling to a non-English-speaking
destination. This demonstrates the ... growing role for global English.

(free) Interview with Robert McCrum: The rise of Globish
Recommended Reading: Glo…

Why is 1611 a key year in the evolution of the English language?

The publication of the a translation of The Bible into English authorised by King James. Leading linguist David Crystal describes its impact:
I think the King James Bible did something that nobody else had done ... and that is increase the idiomatic range of the language.  The Bible has had an enormous influence on the evolution of the English language. It not only expanded vocabulary but introduced new ways of  expressing complex ideas. Until recently most educated English-speaking people had at least some knowledge of  the Bible. Many words, phrases and idioms have entered the language. The translation with the greatest influence on modern English is the what is the translation authorized by King James in 1611. This became the version used in Anglican (protestant) churches in England. It is widely admired for the beauty of its language.

More on the role of The Bible in the evolution of English here:
Audio interview with David Crystal about the KJB here

Begat: The King James Bible and t…

Is English an 'easy' language to learn?

Not according to millions of student of English as a foreign language! But English does have some 'user friendly features as an OUP lexicographer explains in this short extract from a BBC interview

Easy English (ESL)

What is a 'hair cut' for a financial trader?

A 'haircut' is a loss in the value of a security: see here for an example.The term is currently in the news as bond holders face having to write-off a large percentage of the money owed by the Greek government.

Looks like the European banks are going to be wearing their hair very short this year!

The word for someone who admires American culture?

There does not seem to be an agreed term as you can see from the number of Google references here:

yankophile 945
americanophile 716
americophile 233
americaphile 150
usaphile 14
usphile 1

Contrast this with the situation for lovers of French, English, Chinese or Japanese culture
anglophile 102,000, francophile 84,700, japanophile 20,400, sinophile 3450Why is this? Snobbery, perhaps - a 'new' culture looked down on by traditional ones? Or is it just linguistically awkward - americaphile really isn't a pretty word.

You might want to check out: 
(audio) discussion about the relationship between British and American English here.Time Magazine piece on The Next American CenturyThe New American CenturyAlistair Cooke's America

What is TOEFL?

The Test of English as a Foreign Language. TOEFL  is the standardised test used by American universities and many employers to test the language level of non-native speakers of English.  Nik Peachey guides you through a typical reading activity or you can try a free practice test here,

English as a foreign - or second or other - language has many obscure acronyms.