Header image of books

Recent changes

To learn when this page is updated, either follow World Wide Words on Facebook or Twitter or subscribe to my RSS update feed. New pieces are also included in issues of my newsletter.

17 September 2016

Joe Soap (updated) It remains moderately common but its meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She would have had in mind a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. These ...
[Read the whole piece]

Fair to middling (updated) As you hint, the phrase is correctly fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality, sometimes ...
[Read the whole piece]

3 September 2016

Nimrod Let’s start, as all good stories should, at the beginning. In the Bible, Nimrod was said to be the great-grandson of Noah. Genesis reports “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a ...
[Read the whole piece]

Isabelline (updated) Isabelline refers to a colour. The dictionaries variously describe it as greyish-yellow, light buff, pale cream-brown, dingy yellowish grey or drab. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged ...
[Read the whole piece]

No soap (updated) From my vantage point in the UK, this classic Americanism appears to have largely died out, remembered and occasionally used only by older people. A speaker usually means by it that ...
[Read the whole piece]

27 August 2016

Umquhile (updated) I’ve previously written about whilom, one of three words, I said then, with closely related meanings of formerly or previously, the others being erstwhile and quondam. There is a fourth, as ...
[Read the whole piece]

Steal one’s thunder (updated) A splendid story is told about the origin of this striking phrase. John Dennis was a literary critic whose life straddled the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Having spent his ...
[Read the whole piece]

13 August 2016

Katy bar the door (updated) Various sources down the years have suggested at least three origins. However, the more one investigates, the further away a simple answer seems to get. The idiomatic expression ...
[Read the whole piece]

Simoleon (updated) This bit of US slang for one dollar or money in general now sounds rather dated, though it still turns up from time to time, especially in humorous journalistic writing. One example: “Today I ...
[Read the whole piece]

6 August 2016

Dope Dope has several senses that aren’t obviously linked, though investigation shows there are clear connections. Historically, the word has had a wide variety of slangy associations. They include not only the ...
[Read the whole piece]

23 July 2016

Lord love a duck (updated) It’s a mild and inoffensive expression of surprise, once well known in Britain and dating from the latter years of the nineteenth century. I doubt very much if it was ever a euphemism ...
[Read the whole piece]

2 July 2016

Yarely Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, preferred words of native English origin over those from French and Latin. He’s credited with bringing many old words back into ...
[Read the whole piece]

Upset the apple cart A figurative sense of apple cart has been around since the eighteenth century. For an unknown but probably trivial reason it’s actually slightly older than the literal use of the phrase. In the earlier ...
[Read the whole piece]

Snooter It’s possible to get an impression of the meaning of this very unusual word from the contexts in which P G Wodehouse uses it. To be snootered is to be harassed, vexed or tormented. ...
[Read the whole piece]

Fard I was consulting an old book when the Empress Poppaea’s name came up. You surely remember her: second wife of the Emperor Nero in ancient Rome, notorious for her intrigues, and commemorated in the ...
[Read the whole piece]

4 June 2016

By hook or by crook This curious phrase has bothered many people down the years, the result being a succession of well-meant stories, often fervently argued, that don’t stand up for a moment on careful examination. As good ...
[Read the whole piece]

Polish off It does indeed often appear in connection with food, the key idea being that of consuming it completely and probably quickly: “I could easily polish off a packet of biscuits throughout the afternoon, before my ...
[Read the whole piece]

Loggerhead This word appeared in the caption to a photo I saw recently in a whaling museum in the Azores. (I spare no effort to bring you interesting words.) The caption mentioned the groove that had been worn by ropes ...
[Read the whole piece]

7 May 2016

Lame duck Lame ducks, of course, can be incompetent or ineffectual firms or governments as well as individuals — British political life has seen many examples of both described as lame ducks down the decades ...
[Read the whole piece]

But and ben I can. It’s a phrase steeped in Scottish history and culture, traditionally crofting but also rural life generally. It can evoke a poverty-stricken hardscrabble life that has at times been romanticised, as in ...
[Read the whole piece]

Logomaniac You, dear reader, would almost certainly happily admit to being a logophile, a lover of words — why else are you here? But what if somebody called you a logomaniac? I suspect you might reject the ...
[Read the whole piece]

Type louse The species has not been well studied scientifically but has been identified on occasion as Pediculous typus or Pyroglyphidae typographicus; at one time it was called the typographical beetle. British printing shops ...
[Read the whole piece]

Corium We must forgive your favourite dictionaries for not including corium. Though it’s a real word with a distinct meaning, it’s part of the specialist jargon of nuclear safety experts and almost totally unknown ...
[Read the whole piece]

2 April 2016

Lie Doggo Though we assume that it’s British in origin, Australians and New Zealanders know it, too, and it has turned up from time to time in the USA, though I don’t think it’s at all well-known there. Some ...
[Read the whole piece]

Fewmet “The fewmets have hit the windmill,” cried a character in Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings. Readers not familiar with archaic English hunting terms will have missed the joke. Fewmets — also ...
[Read the whole piece]

Dingbat It’s a rather splendid word, not least because it seems to have been considered useful for all seasons and situations. It is definitely American in origin and has been recorded as variously meaning a type of drink ...
[Read the whole piece]

27 March 2016

Kibosh (updated) Many words in English have obscure origins, particularly those that first appeared in argot, cant or slang. None is more mysterious than kibosh, which is commonly encountered in the phrase ...
[Read the whole piece]

5 March 2016

Caucus Current political events in the USA have again brought this word to the forefront of newspaper reporting. Its accidental similarity to Caucasus and Caucasian, the only other words in English that look anything like it ...
[Read the whole piece]

Oryzivorous Though oryzivorous appears in a scientific glossary in 1857, there is no example of its appearing in print before modern times and even then almost exclusively in works that specialise in strange and exotic ...
[Read the whole piece]

Kick the bucket (updated) This is one of many idioms created down the years to avoid making too blunt a mention of the unpleasant subject of death by cloaking the idea in euphemistic, elevated or humorous ...
[Read the whole piece]

6 February 2016

Satisficer The idea here is the paradox of choice. The classic story is the one about the donkey which was placed exactly halfway between two bales of hay. Unable to decide which one of the two bales was the more enticing ...
[Read the whole piece]

Beside oneself It puzzles us today because language has changed but the idiom hasn’t. The phrase appears first in the language a long time ago. In 1490, William Caxton, who established the first English printing ...
[Read the whole piece]

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Last updated 17 Sep. 2016.

Advice on copyright

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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/index.htm
Last modified: 17 September 2016.