#Grammar's Blog of Wordliness

Accidental Acts of an English Evolutionary


As Shakespeare almost said: a name by any other word…

Dame Vera Lynn (who, way back in World War 2, was big up the front with our boys) is off the mother’s ruin.

Not me though. I’ll happily toss back a vera. Join me? What’s your poison? Bombay, London or bathtub?

Vera Lynn (vera only to the familiar) has long been a byword for gin in the rhyming slang lexicon. On the rocks with a slimline supersonic and a slice of lemon; that’ll do nicely. Then, I thought that after a few tinctures we might make a night of it: go on for a ruby.

Ahhh… even as the word ruby rolls off my tongue, I can almost taste tikka mingling with my table-mate’s madras, tingling in the curry-house air. There is nothing quite like a nice Ruby Murray.


Ruby, the reduced form of Ruby Murray, is a widely used, informal catchall for curry. Any curry. Generic curry. Rhyming slang curry.

Like vera before her, ruby has been absorbed into the fabric of everyday language. Ruby is a jewel in the vocabulary of many people who don’t have the faintest knowledge or care for etymology: ruby doesn’t rhyme with curry so why should anyone even think about it? It’s just a word and millennials have too much else to worry about. On the other hand, maybe you are of the number that call their curry Ruby Murray. In which case you may know (or guess) that our ruby probably is, or once was, someone’s name. But so what?

Screenshot 2019-12-21 21.32.32

Ruby Murray was a Belfast-born singer who enjoyed major success in the 1950s. Between ‘54 and ‘59, she chalked up 11 UK Top 20 hits, including Softly, Softly which got to the number 1 spot in 1955.

Pop fame may be ephemeral but a happy afterlife as a relaxed synonym memorialised Ruby Murray. There are unproven assertions of the slang Ruby Murray being in circulation in the 1960s. It was all a very long time ago; there is no question, however, that a Ruby Murray has been a part of the UK national diet since the 17th November 1983. Episode 2 of the third series of Only Fools and Horses was broadcast that night.


In case it passed you by: Only Fools and Horses was a much-loved BBC TV-sitcom written by John Sullivan.

The character Del Boy (played by actor David Jason – himself rhyming slang for a freemason) gifted Ruby Murray a linguistic form of immortality:

“Well, I thought I might go down and have a couple of light ales down the Nag’s Head, and then go on to the Star of Bengal for a Ruby Murray. Coming?”

Ruby Murray, herself,  is reported to have been ‘touched by the alternative use of her name’. She died at the age of 61 in 1996. Her fame had passed but her name lives on.

Years later, in May 2019 things got a bit complicated. Tariq Aziz a Middlesex businessman, director of a company called Murray Ruby Ltd (subtle, not), was granted an ‘exclusive rights’ trademark allowing him to use Ruby Murray for all things related to curry. There followed a brief flurry of fuss in the press. Tim Murray, Ruby’s son was outraged: ‘If anyone should profit from her name, it should be her family first, then her loyal fans.’

Ruby Murray meaning ‘curry’ is a part of our heritage. You may just as well trademark the word ‘curry’. How ridiculous. We know, by definition, that commercial interests are only in it for the money. But are we really going to let them steal the words from our mouths?

The berks at the Intellectual Property Office obviously thinks that kind of thing is OK.

The righteous Tim Murray had threatened legal action but, happily, there’s been no sign of any further activity. That was all more than 6 months ago, now, so fingers crossed, eh. Perhaps Tim and Tariq settled matters over a ruby. Who knows? But the ethical question lingers – is it actually any of their business? Either of them.

Ruby Murray is our word; everybody’s. We, the speakers, own it. The convenient rhyme behind the coinage was accidental and coincidental and, compared with some of the names that get lumbered as rhyming slang, very respectful.

Whist the commercial exploitation of Ruby Murray’s musical oeuvre is entirely the Murray family’s business and responsibility, the family does not own the linguistic heritage of the name. It has no rights over our way with words. Nor does any commercial entity have the moral (copy)right to own a word that has grown up in common usage.

Incidentally, most rhyming slang is lazily and wrongly ascribed as ‘cockney’. If you fancied a curry in Australia – back when Ruby Murray is  first attested – it was the American ballroom dancing teacher Arthur Murray who provided the inspiration; later,  Scottish slang served up tennis champion Andy Murray; and the American actor Fred MacMurray first curried favour in the Manchester area (some 200+ miles north of anything cockney).

Time to get our martinis on another Vera Lynn.


Fancy a double? Vera Lynn’s My Son My Son and Ruby Murray’s Heartbeat were both in the UK Top 20 in December 1954.

A brief bio of Vera Lynn is probably in order. To be fair, it’s more than likely that the young and trendy gin drinkers of today are more than happy in their ignorance of the 102-year old cultural icon that is Dame Vera Lynn. But back in WW2 (that’s 1939-45 in case you missed the anniversaries) Vera Lynn was known and marketed as the Forces’ Sweetheart. In movies and on record, her sentimental songs and vivacious charms captured hearts.

A shedload of successful albums have been given to ageing relatives down the years, but her final UK chart singles were in 1957. Since then she has moved, with decreasing relevance for a young audience, from pop(ular) singer to celebrity and thence icon.  She was made a Dame in 1975and continued to release albums and singles until her retirement in 1991. Her enduring celebrity, however, is forever connected to the military and that generation that saw the war. Vera Lynn,  however, has never gone away. Vera Lynn has been rhyming slang for gin since 1946.


Dame Vera Lynn didn’t get where she is today (quoting another sitcom that won’t mean anything to millennials) by endorsing gin.

Halewood International is a drinks company that recently they applied to trademark Vera Lynn. The idea was obviously to market a line of gin  under that brand name. Dame Vera took them to court and was successful in her challenge. She argued that her name on a bottle could be considered an endorsement of the products because she has been using her name as an unregistered trademark for music and charity work since 1939.

Nonsense: Dame Vera Lynn is not Vera Lynn.

Yes, Halewood International deserved to lose, of course it did, but for the same cultural reasons that Tariq Aziz ought to not to have been awarded the trademark on Ruby Murray. 

The rhyming slang Vera Lynn has been a part of our slang register since 1946  (although, no doubt, some of the consequent subliminal and below-the-line advertising has benefited the original owner/driver). I mean, come on: 1946! That’s seventy-odd years ago. More than two thirds of the current population wasn’t even born then and, with respect, the use of Vera Lynn is the people’s business not Dame Vera’s.

If Halewood International had won… well, you can imagine Del Boy’s night out down the Nag’s Head.

‘I’ll have a vera, thanks, Mike. No, not a Vera Lynn, what do you think I am? Any Vera Lynn but that Vera Lynn. I don’t like Vera Lynn Vera Lynn. Make it a large one and have one yourself.’

No matter whether the old Dame is agin gin in general or just the specific slang hi-jacking brand she took to court, it’s not on, and you can only wonder what she might make of the other rhyming slang lives of Vera Lynn. Perhaps she takes it on the Vera Lynn (chin). Among other things Vera Lynn is also recorded as meaning a cigarette paper (‘skin’) – especially in the context of joints, spliffs or what have you; heroin; and more.

Many, many words have more than one meaning, and down the years the slang life of Vera Lynn has provided a broader linguistic legacy than Ruby Murray. If you are interested I can recommend a good dictionary of rhyming slangs. That’s where you will you discover how martini came to be rhyming slang for hand? Although, given some of the book’s other content, Dame Vera may wish to toss both volumes in the Vera Lynn.

Yep, that’s me on the cover.

Ruby’s kin and Vera’s legal representatives did miss the point. The English language is all the richer for our two songbirds, it is our language not theirs. No one has exclusive rights to colloquial heritage. The English language is the greatest expression of democratic identity I know. It must not be privatised.




The estimable John Richards is getting on.  At the age of 96 he has decided to retire from the fray…


It is a given that our language evolves, subject to the needs and requirements of the moment. In its written forms punctuation sometimes tries to keep up. The poor old apostrophe never can nor never will.

Whatever were we thinking: expecting a simple squiggle on a page to serve all of the requirements made of an apostrophe? It is pure folly.

The Apostrophe Protection Society was founded  in 2001 by the society’s chairman John Richards, a retired journalist. The purpose of the noble venture was to preserve the “much abused” apostrophe.

… On the 3rd of December 2019 the following statement appeared on the Apostrophe Protection Society’s home page:

John Richards has announced the he is disbanding the Apostrophe Protection Society.

Since the announcement, this site has had a 600-fold increase in traffic, which is proving expensive. So we have decided to close the site until the new year.

When it returns, the site will no longer be updated.

Thank you for your interest.

Yes, I am aware that there’s a typo and a bugbear/grammatical error in the statement. At least, that’s what my computer’s grammar check underlines. Honestly, who cares? It’s the laissez faire lingo of an online world and you can put it down to personal preference. Although, I am little disappointed that not one apostrophe is employed in that notice of surrender.

The official announcement that caused such an overwhelming funeral-surge in on-line traffic had been reported in the Guardian a couple of days earlier, under the headline:

‘Laziness has won’: apostrophe society admits its defeat

And on the next day, amidst a minor stir of media interest, the Metro freesheet chimed in with:

Society to protect apostrophes’ shut’s down because of barbarians’

– oh! the ironic punctuation!?

“Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language,” wrote Richards on the now suspended webpage. “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

Well, that’s one point of view, of course. If you are of an opposite opinion then you will be equally certain that the pedants have failed.

Neither position is tenable.

Alas, the Apostrophe Protection Society, for all that it waved a standard for the like-minded to group around, could never be anything more than a quixotic endeavour.

The tilting apostrophe-mongers enjoy a nostalgia for a time that never was, when the apostrophe was ne’er misused. Golden, literate days, eh.


Screenshot 2019-12-03 15.22.46

Shakespeare was deliberately mischievous with the apostrophe; George Bernard Shaw disdained the apostrophe and, in the main, omitted it. Nor sha’n’t Lewis Carroll’s pedantry be overlooked here. Golden, literate days. But somehow the English Language in general, and the apostrophe in particular, has managed to survive the intellectual assault, academic onslaught and a plurality of greengrocer’s.

The Apostrophe Protection Society was founded as the Internet was becoming the everyday and pervasive worldwide web of influence that we know and love.  Good thing too. So many special interest groups and fetish communities have found each other in the electronic embrace of online otherness.

Mr. Richards, again: “When I first set it up I would get about 40 emails or letters a week from people all over the world. Many were saying how it was about time that we had something like this. But then two years ago it started to tail off and nowadays I hardly get anything. It seems that fewer organisations and individuals care about the correct use. Those who do will get it right but those who can’t be bothered will just carry on sprinkling it about where they feel it looks nice.”

The admirable Mr. Richards is surely a contemporary Cnut, unable to stem the daily tide.  His frustration is apparent but that doesn’t mean the rest of us language users are either ignorant or lazy. My version of English is pretty perfect for me. I’m sure yours’s more’n adequate too. The relationship between speech and writing is necessarily adaptable; nevermore so than now when the world of the written word is exploding with binary bleeps, tweets and texts, and the possibilities of emojis.

Could the society John Richards dreamed of have even existed without the Internet? Perhaps. The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.  Imagine a pedant in the corner of every local library. Except that damn near every local library is now a bloody ‘community hub’ and where else can grammarian supremacists hang out.

I wish Mr. Richards a long and happy ongoing retirement. The apostrophe will survive. Adapt and survive.

No apostrophes were harmed in the making of this blog.

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This short (and necessarily incomplete) glossary comes with very little editorial commentary.  In order to present all types equally I have hidden behind alphabetical order; underlined terms are defined within the glossary

One way or another we all appear in this list.


AFAB; FAAB; DFAB acronym, initialism ‘assigned female at birth’; ‘female assigned at birth’; ‘designated female at birth. Also, in the nuanced variation CAFAB – ‘coercively assigned female at birth’.

agender adjective used of a person who does not self-identify as having a specific gender.

androgynous adjective used of a person having a blend of female and male physical qualities.

ally noun a straight and/or cisgender person who supports or advocates LGTB+ people.

AMAB; MAAB; DMAB acronym, initialism ‘assigned male at birth’; ‘male assigned at birth’; ‘designated male at birth’. Also, in the nuanced variation CAMAB – ‘coercively assigned male at birth’.

bigender (bi-gender); bi-gendered adjective used of a person whose sense of self is made up of two genders.

cis; cisgender adjective used of a person whose gender identity matches that assigned at birth.

cross-dresser; CD noun a person who, from time to time, wears clothing (also, cosmetics and accessories) culturally associated with the opposite sex as a form of gender expression. From the verb cross-dress. In social use ‘cross-dresser’ is now generally preferred to the earlier synonym transvestite.

deadname noun a given birth name that is no longer a trans person’s chosen identity.

deadname verb to use the given birth name of a trans person (instead of that person’s chosen and preferred name).

drag king noun a female entertainer who performs as a male character.

drag queen noun a male entertainer who performs as a female character.

FTM; ftm; F2M; f2m initialism ‘female to male’. Also used as hashtag on social media.

MTF; mtf; M2F; m2f initialism ‘male to female’, Also used as hashtag on social media.

gender dysphoria; GD noun a condition, manifested by emotional discomfort or distress, that recognises a sense of mismatch between one’s biological sex and gender identity.

gender expression noun the ways in which a person may convey gender identify, typically through use of preferred name and pronoun; clothing; hairstyle; behaviour and physical mannerisms; vocal and physical characteristics.

genderfluid; fluid adjective used of a person who is not confined by a single gender and may fluctuate wholly or partially between female, male, neither or both.

gender identity noun a person’s innate awareness and understanding of being of a particular gender, which may or may not be consonant with one’s biological sex.

gender nonconforming; GNC adjective used of a person whose gender expression differs from conventional expectations of feminine or masculine behaviour.

gender nonconformity; gender variance noun behaviour or gender expression that differs from conventional expectations.

genderqueer; GQ noun a person whose identity is not confined by conventional gender dividing lines, and who may self-identify as a personal combination of all or some of the gender identities that exist outside of, between and within the traditional binary categories of female and male. Also used as an adjective.

gender spectrum; spectrum identities noun the range of gender identities that exist between and outside of the traditional binary categories of female and male.

intersex adjective used of a person with a sexual anatomy and/or chromosome pattern that is not distinctly female or male but that has characteristics of both.

LGBT initialism, nounlesbian, gay, bisexual, trans’/‘transgender’/‘transsexual’ as an identifiable cultural and/or socio-political grouping. Also used as an adjective.

LGBT+ initialism, nounlesbian, gay, bisexual, trans plus’ as an identifiable cultural and/or socio-political grouping where ‘plus’ indicates the potential inclusion in the list of, for instance, asexual, intersex, queer, questioning, pansexual.

LGBTQIA initialism, nounlesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, asexual or allied (ally)’ as an identifiable cultural and/or socio-political grouping. Other extended initialisms intended to include the wider community may be deduced.

non-binary; enby; NB adjective used of persons whose gender identity is not defined by the accustomed binary opposites of female and male or heterosexual and homosexual.

misgender verb to address or refer to a person by the wrong pronoun [see featured text at the end of glossary] or by other means that do not correctly reflect that person’s gender identity.

out adjective used of a person who openly identifies as LGBT+.

out verb to reveal an LGBT+ person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that person’s consent. Hence outing noun an act of revealing an LGBT+ person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that person’s consent.

pangender; omnigender adjective used of a person whose sense of self is inclusive of the many genders on the gender spectrum.

pass verb (of an LGBT+ person) to behave and be accepted in social or professional circumstances as straight or cisgender.

queer adjective used of sexual identities that do not conform to conventional expectation; self-identification as ‘queer’ bypasses the limitations or cultural connotations of LGBT norms.

questioning adjective (used as a social label) of a person whose gender-identity and sexuality is not fully defined and subject to ongoing self-determination.

trans* noun used as an umbrella classification for a complex range of distinct transgender identities that exist within the gender spectrum. (Note: the asterisk is integral to the spelling.)

transgender; transgendered; trans adjective used of a person whose gender identity differs from that assigned at birth.

transsexual noun 1. a person who wishes to physically (surgically) transition to the gender with which that person identifies; 2. a person who has physically transitioned to a gender that differs from that assigned at birth. Now considered culturally dated by the more broadly defined transgender community. Also used as an adjective.

transition noun the variable process or duration of changing from one gender identity to another which, according to personal needs, will include appropriate legal, medical and/or social elements.

transphobia noun a prejudice against trans people. Hence transphobic adjective prejudiced against trans people; displaying negative feelings towards trans people.


The use of a third person personal pronoun is particular and significant. A person may expect to be referred to by a pronoun that directly represents gender identity – he; him; his or she; her; hers or, sometimes, they; them; theirs – and, more rarely, by deliberately gender-neutral or gender non-specific variations such as (this list in incomplete, so ask first) hir; hirs, xe; xyrs or ze/zie/sie; zirs or zhe; zhe; zher. It is also worth noting that the third person plural (conventionally: they; them; theirs) may have equivalents in a less familiar form.


All of the terms under this heading are defined here as nouns – unless otherwise shown – but are used both as noun and adjective.

aromantic; aro – a person who feels no need nor appetite for romantic relationships.

asexual; ace – a person who feels no sexual attraction or desire.

bi-curious adjective used of a heterosexual person who is interested in having a same-sex experience.

bisexual; bi – a person who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to both men and women.

bi+ adjective used of a person (or persons) who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to people with gender identities that exist outside of, between and within the traditional binary categories of female and male.

gay – a homosexual (this identity is not limited to homosexual men, however the separation of sexual identities implied in LGBT might suggest otherwise).

heterosexual – a person who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to persons of the (binary) opposite sex.

homosexual – a person who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to persons of the same sex: female to female and male to male.

lesbian – a homosexual woman.

omnisexual; pansexual; pan – a person who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to people of any gender identitythat exists outside of, between and within the traditional binary categories of female and male.

straight – a person who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to persons of the (binary) opposite sex. In widespread use as an informal synonym of heterosexual and direct opposite of gay.


This glossary has benefited from the work of the LGBT+ committee of Equity. 

Sexism in Dictionaries

‘All yams are sweet potatoes but not all sweet potatoes are yams.’

That’s a phrase I heard that so long ago that I don’t think I had, at that point, ever knowingly come face to face with a sweet potato.  I do remember looking up yam in the dictionary.


  1. the edible starchy tuber of a climbing plant, widely distributed in tropical and subtropical countries.

You know where you are with a dictionary. Looking it up now I find a second sense…

  1. the plant which yields the yam

…and a third, this one described as North American:

  1. a sweet potato

The logical and probable etymology gives West African origins via Portuguese or Spanish.

Most of that I knew, or could guess. But now I’ve found that there is a verb too, credited as Irish and Scottish:


(of a cat) ‘miaow’.

The example given is: ‘a cat slips up the driveway, yamming and trying to talk’.

Which in turn reminds me of yammer

My in-computer dictionary (Oxford via Apple) does not mention that Yam Yam is the informal name given to a Black Country dialect. It derives from “you are” which is rendered as “yo’am” and “are you” for which you get  “am ya”. But I definitely knew that already.

And look, I haven’t even started on the topic of this blog and I have side-tracked myself already. That’s the power and beauty of dictionaries. They start journeys of discovery.

sweet potatoes

So, there is an online petition  objecting to some dictionary content. It was reported (not for the first time) in The Guardian this week, and that story was picked up by other media; including a producer at BBC radio who in turn called for me to on-air my opinion.

In fact, the petition crossed my Facebook path during the summer. It arrived in the form of a link to a Guardian article by Emine Saner entitled:

Sexism in dictionaries: why are ‘hussy, baggage and filly’ still used to describe a woman?

Baited, I must have clicked the link to the petition…

I can’t remember whether I snorted or sighed (in a lexist way; not a sexist way) but I certainly dismissed it – as with so many soon-to-be-forgotten online invitations to be just a little bit outraged at this or utterly enraged at that. Ah, the joy of clicks.

The petition is aimed at the Oxford University Press [OUP] dictionary and thesaurus content offered by Google and Apple. Accordingly, in the spirit of the thing, for this particular blog I shan’t take a book from the shelves; I will restrict my research to Google and (conveniently, as I write) Apple.

So, here we are, as autumn arrives and the leaves turn red, it has been reported that nearly 30,000 people have cared enough to lend their names to this latest misbegotten ambition to censor our language. Thirty thousand! Actually, given the puff of publicity in the national press in early July, I am not sure if that is an impressive take up but, hey ho, it is certainly enough to make it newsworthy now.~   I am sure equal or greater numbers might call for weather forecasts to ban the word moist should they be given an easily clickable opportunity.

While putting these thoughts together over the last three of days, news of the petition has been reported  worldwide. The total number of signatures has enjoyed the fillip and crept beyond ‘nearly’ to ‘over’. At the time of rewriting this paragraph it stands at 30,150.

The focus of this petition is woman and her synonyms. In particular, the petition highlights bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy and filly.

The petitioners call upon OUP to “eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women”. The petition asks for OUP to enlarge the dictionary’s entry for woman – who could argue? – and “include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc”.

A lesbian woman? Really? Is there any other type (of lesbian)? Dear petitioner, if you must you can easily find lesbian in the dictionary, and see her in the in the company of other synonyms for female homosexuals when you check out the thesaurus.

However, transgender woman is not in the dictionary (but then neither is ‘cisgender woman’);what’s the point? –  transgender (also transgendered) is in the dictionary and so is woman, that should be enough.  Transwoman, however, has an unambiguous entry. For a number of the trans synonyms you will need a handy search engine.


I am really not sure what the petitioners are expecting. Deep down they must know that a dictionary is not there to reflect a personal zeitgeist, or the twisted eugenics of political second-guessing, but to record and explain the usage of our evolving vocabulary from as it has been to how it actually is.

That having been said, I have no wish to argue with the political or societal aims of the signatories. To various degrees they are laudable. So, I thought I might take a quick looksee at the words that failed to live up to in-the-region-of 30,000 expectations. Should they be subject to censorship or revision?

In order of appearance…

Here’s how bitch appears in my Apple dictionary:


a female dog, wolf, fox, or otter.

informal  a spiteful or unpleasant woman. • offensive a woman.   • informal a person who is completely subservient to another.   • US informal used as a form of address: I’m free, bitches! 

(a bitchinformal a difficult or unpleasant situation or thing: working the night shift is a bitch.

informal a complaint: my big bitch is that there’s nothing new here.


[no object] informal   make spitefully critical comments: everybody was bitching about their colleagues.

ORIGIN Old English bicce, of Germanic origin.

It pretty much tells me all I want to know without taking a book down but it’s a complicated knot of meanings to slice through and separate. We’d lose more than we’d gain: without bitch, in the sense that the petitioners are objecting to, we wouldn’t have the evolving richness of, for instance:



[with object] US informal deliver a stinging blow to (someone), typically in order to humiliate them: I would have bitch-slapped him for talking that way.

ORIGIN 1990s: originally in African-American usage, referring to a woman hitting or haranguing her male partner.

Without bitch-slap – if it were even possible to remove the term from our cultural consciousness – our language would be impoverished, maybe by a tiny bit but still….

In the words of Jay Z, ‘I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain’t one’.


Primarily, this is the sort of homemade rustic broom on which a witch flies.

The only other meaning (in Apple and elsewhere) is a contemptuous – but, it seems, not necessarily always negative – Scottish (and Northern English) term for an obstreperous woman, ‘loose woman’ or cheeky girl; first recorded in 1808.

The phrase “Yi gallus wee besom” proved a useful search term.



 informal, offensive  a woman.

No illustration is given. This sense is number 7 in the list: below ‘firearm’ and above ‘sandwich’.

In a number of phrases a piece itemises an example – piece of ass/cake/work or what you fancy.


…is merely informal (by dictionary definition) for a girl or young woman, although the tone of the example the dictionary gives could be taken, if you are of the mind to be offended, as diminishing the young woman further: ‘he went and married some young bit half his age’.

bit, in this dictionary sense, is further up the list than a person’s bits (and bobs) below.

Meanwhile, doing my bit, I can tell you that the petition overlooks bit of fluff, bit of skirt and bit of stuff and the less gender-specific bit of all right and bit of rough.


British, informal, derogatory a woman: that crazy mare put three bullets in him.

Other negative senses are an abbreviation of nightmare.


dated a cheeky or disagreeable girl or woman: she was a mercenary little baggage.

Possibly related to bag and old bag which are described as informal and didn’t make the petition’s hit list.



1 archaic or humorous a girl or young woman: in the new film about Columbus, she plays the token buxom wench.

2 archaic a prostitute.


[no object] archaic (of a man) habitually associate with prostitutes.

DERIVATIVES wencher noun

ORIGIN Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel‘ child, servant, prostitute’; perhaps related to Old English wancol ‘unsteady, inconstant’.

The given example is layered with knowing irony, heavily signalled and nuanced by the use of ‘token’ and reliance on the familiar cliché  ‘buxom wench’.

In the words of Shakespeare, ‘O ill-starred wench!’ [Othello, 1604]

petticoat is not directly defined (OUP via Apple) as a woman.

That is not a slip: petticoat is there as a modifier:

informal, often derogatory

It is used to denote:

…female control of something regarded as more commonly dominated by men: ‘he was in danger of succumbing to the petticoat government of Mary and Sarah.’

frail is so pulp fiction – American, informal and dated as hell. Let’s leave that one there.



British, informal, a young woman or girlfriend

The phrase ‘his bird’ is almost a compound noun. Still used and, like so many words, used with and without ill intent; you really can’t blame the word.

bint is definitely derogatory, no question, but a girl or woman for all that.

Its mid-19th century origin is in the Arabic for ‘daughter, girl’ and how it is used says as much about our past international relations as the domestic patriarchal vocabulary. Dipping my toe in Twitter I found heavily ironic, self-nominated @ IDs such as ‘grumpy old bint’ and ‘loud bint’, and some aggressive and offensive name-calling; most everything else concerned the everyday Twitter lives of people with an Arabic name.

Should we perhaps also look to censor the dictionary to protect our modern sensibilities from where the foreign origins of a borrowed word overlap with unpleasant English? That’ll empty more than a few pages.

biddy, rarely stands alone but can often be seen as ‘old biddy’. Twitter quickly offers up interfering old biddy, boring old biddy, etc.

old biddy has the benefit of being a more precise sense than ‘old woman’ itself, which is often used informally (and affectionately) for wife, girlfriend or mother.


humorous a lively girl or young woman.

This equine allusion was originally found ‘humorous’ (and generally flattering) in the early seventeenth century.

filly and mare are from the same stable as bitch, each employed with different effect. The senses of bitch are, by far, the most varied.


As I said, I really have no desire to argue with the political or societal aims of the petitioners. However, whether it is an innocent lack of understanding of a dictionary’s purpose, a guilty attempt to manipulate the language to suit a narrow agenda, or merely self-promotion, an assault on a dictionary’s contents is not the way to change the conversation around the language we use.

A dictionary, any dictionary’s purpose is to accurately record the language as she is used (or abused). A dictionary is a record not an arbiter. It can offer guidance on usage, either directly or by inference with its choice of example. It doesn’t matter how much a word may upset a lexicographer’s gentler sensibilities, if there is sufficient evidence of its use then that sense of a word is bound to be included.

If OUP were to kowtow to this or any petition what authority would it have left? And without that authority what purpose is there in a dictionary?

You’ve done it for women, now do it for us‘; until all that is left is the minimal vocabulary of Big Brother’s Newspeak.


The petition was started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi who co-credits the Fawcett Society East London. While searching online for synonyms of woman she found herself shocked. Fair enough.

I thought I’d look her up online. I wasn’t shocked.

Giovanardi is self-described as:  ‘Italian born, US educated, she wakes up everyday eager to improve herself in order to be a part of the society and generation that will make the greatest sustainable impact on her beloved universe!

She is the aspirational CEO of LetEmbracea social enterprise focused on creating solutions that respond to the right of individuals to live in a safer world.’ There is also an app. ‘Its goal is to build a community – based database accessible to everyone and fully versatile, powerful and structured well enough to be transversally implemented also in many other ways in the future.’ Cut and pasted as I found it, without the benefit of sic.

Sorry, if that sounds a bit sneery. It’s not meant as anything other than an apt illustration: whilst dictionaries will define a thing, any thing, as accurately and simply as possible (as I have tried to evidence above), in the non-academic run words are less precise and considered.

I could find no trace of this anti-dictionary initiative in the wholly admirable Fawcett Society‘s official online presence.


The complaint that all the types named above are listed as synonyms for woman is simply disingenuous. That is how thesauruses work. They group words under a general type.  Bitch is the first listed in the petition and, without question, in some of its secondary senses, a bitch is a woman (but not all sweet potatoes are yams…) and clearly marked as offensive. In thesaurus terms it’s unavoidable.


Another quote from the petition:

“As well as all this, the definition of a ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of a ‘woman’ – with 25 examples for men, compared to only 5 for women.” 

I looked up man and got a bit nerdy about it. I count a standalone 20 (not 25) – including man as a piece use used in a game (like chess), the verb to man and the exclamation, man. Next in the dictionary come 32 idiomatic phrases (man of straw, man on the Clapham omnibus, etc); one phrasal verb (man up); the derivation manless; and the combing form, of which the examples given are Frenchman, chairman, layman and, as a ship, merchantman.

Next – the order is alphabetical, the differences historical – woman. 6 senses, some of which are the exact equal of man (e.g. female worker or employee); 7 phrases (which does represent an imbalance but is, at the same time, an accurate record of the language as it evolved);  the derivations womanless and womanlike; and the combining form – the examples given are Yorkshirewoman, saleswoman, chairwoman, needlewoman and oarswoman.

In the thesaurus the entry for woman is actually one line longer than man and guidance on choosing the right word is given. To my eye many synonyms for man and woman are missing. What price totty, cuddle and kiss, bimbo and dish? There are so many more words for woman some of which, whilst recognisably offensive, still deserve their place in the dictionary – if only to tell the future who we were.

But I’m not looking for trouble here. I can see no substantial difference between woman and man. But then I am not a woman.

It seems to me that this petition is little more than the unhappy outcome of Maria Beatrice Giovanardi’s displeasure at finding some offensive synonyms and wishing for censorship. I was in a threeway with her on BBC Radio 5 Live and, to be fair, she had a bad line, but I wasn’t convinced by her arguments. Nor, as far as I heard the programme afterwards, were the listeners.

Enough. I am yammering on. And that much I certainly have in common with the signatories to his petition.


noun, informal or dialect

loud and sustained or repetitive noise: the yammer of their animated conversation | the yammer of enemy fire.


 make a loud, repetitive noise: the seismographs were yammering for days.

• talk volubly: he was yammering on as if he had an enthralled audience at his feet.

DERIVATIVES yammerer noun

ORIGIN late Middle English (as a verb meaning ‘lament, cry out’): alteration of earlier yomer, from Old English geōmrian ‘to lament’, suggested by Middle Dutch jammeren.


PS. In some corners of the Twitterverse sweet potato is an endearment.


This article is about something you already know (probably) but, hey, most people don’t know they know, you know.

In particular, this is all about adjectives. The adjectives that precede a noun not those that follow a verb, I am very sorry/pleased/happy to tell you..

So, here’s a question: have you ever stopped in your tracks to consider the order of adjectives? Yes, I know, it’s one of those wordy nerdy questions.

And a question which has instantly raised another ‘wordy nerdy’ question: should I have used  a hyphen, or a comma, or left it as it is; ‘nerdy-wordy’, ‘nerdy, wordy’ or ‘nerdy wordy’? Good question. Does it matter?

I think we can all agree that it’s only when you pause to think about what you’re saying that the words tend to go adrift. You’re good to go if you keep up the flow. It’s the same for adjectives. Probably. (Can we overlook the split infinitive in the previous paragraph, please. Not that there is anything wrong with splitting an infinitive.)

Anyway, back on topic, have you ever paused to consider the ordering of adjectives?

Unless you are prone to pedantry, grammar is probably a thing you learn by immersion, and something that you catch when you aren’t looking. The sound, the shape, the music of the language(s) you are born into seep into your unconscious corners long before the education system gets its hands on you.

Well, OK, maybe not all grammar: some commas and apostrophes may demand a bit of extra concentration (…but that’s a whole different conversation; is punctuation actually grammar?). Word order pretty much takes care of itself, doesn’t it?

Dodge back and read that bracketed bit again. Is it a ‘whole different conversation’ or ‘different whole conversation’? The outcome is wholly different but nothing is set in stone. The choice is ours.

Most of the time our words fall into a right-enough order to make sufficient sense of what’s being said or writ. However, as with all things grammatical, there are rules that we follow. Thinking about the order of adjectives there are rules that you may well not have been taught (or may not have been taught well…). We tend to take it for granted but our adjectives do have hidden hierarchies.

So, presuming an instance where you might need more than one adjective to describe a noun (or whatever) here’s the official order of play, all the way from A to K:


If you wish to indicate the AMOUNT or NUMBER (of whatever) then that should be the first adjective in your list: some, several, few, one, billions, three, innumerable…



The next in order isa little more abstract: the CHARACTER or QUALITY (of whatever): good or naff, generous, fashionable, imaginative, dull or duff; cheap, filthy, racist…

‘Some good whatevers’ makes better sense to us than ‘good some whatevers’.



Character is followed by SIZE: big, small, sizeable, whacking great, teeny-weeny,  gi-fucking-normous…

‘Some good, big whatevers.’ Makes sense.



Then it’s the coming of AGE: antique, teenage, fresh, ten-year-old, antediluvian, adolescent…

‘Some good, big, antique whatevers.’

But you know all this, right? It’s obvious. You just hadn’t got around to putting it in words.



Moving on, we give whatever some SHAPE: rectangular, round, trapezoid, heart-shaped, dodecahedral, 3D…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular whatevers.’

To be honest, my example is beginning to bend under the weight of descriptive words. Just for a mo we could drop a couple of adjectives if you like: the same order will apply. Let’s drop ‘good’ and ‘antique’ and see what happens: ‘Some big, rectangular whatevers.’

Of course, some of the e-words could feasibly sneak into the k-part of this list if it sounds right to you.



So, now, let’s push it a bit further. Next up is COLOUR or SHADE: blue, flesh-toned, puce, oak-apple green…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue whatevers.’

Whatever may have come before it is, unquestionably, a blue whatever. Actually, sorry, blue whatevers. Whatever. Each preceding adjective refines the definition.



Now we come some adjectives, that are, in the main, written with initial caps (exceptions include some informal or slang terms that are often seen as offensive). These are words that are used to indicate a POINT OF ORIGIN: Welsh, British, European, Brummie, Liverpudlian, Mexican, ex-pat…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh whatevers.’



Which is where point of origin blurs into RELIGIOUS, SPIRITUAL or SOCIAL IDENTITY: Buddhist, Muslim, Conservative, Jewish, atheistic, socialist, trans, vegan…(and plenty of informal or slang terms that are often seen as offensive)

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh, Buddhist whatevers.’




Next in order: PROPER ADJECTIVES, BRAND NAMES and the like, and PROPER NOUNS when used adjectivally: Marvel, Aldi, Lidl, Apple, Nike, Waitrose, Poundland (other brand choices are easily available and inclusion in this list is not intended to imply any endorsement whatever)…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh, Buddhist, Marvel whatevers.’



Then we have STYLE or SORT: washable, all-weather, online, heart-warming…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh, Buddhist, Marvel, washable whatevers.’

However, even within these umbrella groups things can get a little nerdy-wordy: there are yet more hierarchical and grammatical distinctions to be made.  Or would you prefer ‘grammatical and hierarchical’? How about a ‘heart-warming, washable whatever’ or ‘washable, heart-warming whatever’? Does ‘heart-warming and washable whatever’ make it easier to use’? Is ‘washable and heart-warming whatever’ better? For me, the moment two adjectives from the same group are linked with everyone’s favourite conjunction their order is no longer bothersome. It’s a matter of taste.

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh, Buddhist, Aldi, washable and heart-warming whatevers.’



And, finally, the PURPOSE or USE of whatever: money-making, amplifying, mixing, self-improving, ordering…

‘Some good, big, antique, rectangular, blue, Welsh, Buddhist, Aldi, washable and heart-warming, money-making whatevers.’


Screenshot 2019-06-27 20.14.23

And, of course, so many adjectival elements can be intensified or given disparaging value as you go along, just as the nuance takes you. ‘Some bloody good, bloody big, bloody antique, bloody rectangular, really bloody blue, bloody Welsh, bloody Buddhist, bloody-fucking Aldi, bloody washable and absolutely bloody heart-warming, money-making whatevers.’

And there you have it: adjectives all the bloody way from A to K. What would we do without them?

The silly thing is you knew all of it already. These are rules you live by. Don’t believe me?  Try to use adjectives out of order in a conversation with an unsuspecting someone. It’s a pretty impossible challenge. I have no idea what might happen or where you might end up but don’t let that stop you. Give it a good, big, heart-warming go. You have freedom of speech. Don’t you?



When discussing ‘strong’ language the c-word is childish.

In the late 1970s, Desmond Morris, the famed Naked Ape zoologist, fronted a late-night UK TV prog that promised the discerning/dissolute audience a fully adult, live discussion of 4 letter words. Back then – I confess – I was tantalised and enthused by the prospect of finding the discreet corners of my vocabulary exposed on TV.  So late at night that it may well have been tomorrow. Did I mention this was the 1970s? Sexism and racism were everyday discourse; swearing was a no-no. My expectations were on an obscene-Damascene spectrum.


The promising broadcast was on BBC2, home of the arts as was. I’ve googled for clips but, failing that, I am forced, old school style, to rely on actual memory here.

Things of which I am certain: (1) it definitely happened and (2) alongside Desmond Morris a few academic & cultural commentators were involved – their putative purpose was, obviously, to lend dignity, scholarship and respectability to the programme. Unfortunately, these experts in etymologies and social significance were to be rendered mealy-mouthed and frustrated. Their plain-spoken learning was not required by a broadcasting hierarchy that obliged them to refer to the f-word and the c-word; they were  banned from using the shameful language of grown-ups and academics, as advertised.

To be fair, pretty much anyone who tuned in was likely to be expert in the personal usage of fuck and cunt; it was a certain academic validation that our lingo lacked. At that time, of course, ‘Auntie’ preferred to avoid the language of the green room live on-air. BBC radio producers still do. Shame.

One thing I definitely remember: (3) one of the discomfited contributors said something like “Cancer is a much more offensive c-word.”  That absolute truth has stayed with me and, perhaps, coloured my vocabulary down the years. I can’t recall if Desmond Morris squirmed. It was his name in the Radio Times after all.


So, something like 40 years on: a reverie prompted by a podcast.

Nowadays, fuck and cunt have achieved mainstream familiarity without conceding outlaw status. Fuck, in all its variant evolutions and senses, is one of the most ubiquitous vocabulary items of our time. Cunt retains the greater taboo value: it may be that resistance to the separation of anatomic and abstract senses is as much a matter of sexual politics as knowing the difference between a vulva, a vagina and an idiot.  However, when compared to a dim and distant 40 years ago, both words do enjoy far greater visibility in all levels of society and many branches of the media. Double standards apply: the Daily Mail, for instance, would have its readers believe that there is no reason to admit the existence of such language, yet the paper’s recently departed editor, Paul Dacre, was legendary for his vigorous application of cunt in most situations. We’ve moved on, for good or ill, your choice.

Screenshot 2019-06-07 15.37.08

The podcast-that-prompted is Something Rhymes with Purple, an entertaining lexical confection with philologist Gyles Brandreth (in some respects the Desmond Morris of this age) and much admired lexicographer (and Countdown maven) Susie Dent.

In April 2019, Lalochezia, the third in their podcast series, discussion turned to the self-same vocabulary items that had challenged the standards of 1970s’ broadcasters. Gyles Brandreth, mischief adorning his every extended syllable, gleefully dropped a selection of fucks and bollocks into his mic. Oh the joy! But… But the podcast restricted itself to uttering the c-word as if it was afraid of soiling the nice shiny internet (or upsetting The Economist, its advertised sponsor). 40 years and we’re 50% of the way there.

Speaking of The Economist, it was a mere matter of weeks before Something Rhymes with Purple‘s delightfully sweary interlude that Why we swear?, a short You Tube film presented by Lane Greene, the Economist’s Language Columnist was released. It’s fascinating clickbait, as much for what it allows itself to say as what it says. The Economist, it seems, is OK with cocksucking motherfucker  but still troubled by cunt which gets bleeped out and subtitled c***.

(40 years ago, familial relationships aside, I don’t think I’d heard of, let alone knowingly met a motherfucker.)

Tuning in to BBC2 TV that night back in the day I had expectations of definitions, etymologies and cultural impact. Oh well…

Should you still need educating – even if you don’t – I can thoroughly recommend the Channel 4 shorts that make up Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing.

This blog  is not really concerned with such detailed specifics. Not today anyway. My intention with these words is purely therapeutic. I hope to exorcise the naked ape-like ghost of Desmond Morris that, thanks to Something Rhymes with Purple, has been haunting some darkened corners of my mind.

Here’s what I have managed to learn by dint of googling: an edition of Friday Night and Saturday Morning, a BBC2 series, was broadcast on October 3rd 1980. (OK. 1980, not late -70s. I was close. It’s a long time ago.) One of the guests that night was the greatly esteemed linguist Professor Randolph Quirk. I can’t picture him. It is likely that the cancer quote can be attributed to the journalist Lynn Barber. Heady stuff.

The BBC were obviously happy with the show. Desmond Morris was invited back to present another episode in the following year. I didn’t see that programme. It was a Friday night and I was young. As far as I can remember.

Forgive me, I have taken it for granted that you know who Desmond Morris is. Maybe not. Here’s a link to his Wikipedia page in case. He’s a fascinating man with so much to his credit: author, artist, biosociologist, surrealist and zoologist. His books Gestures and Bodytalk rub shoulders on my bookshelves.


Which leaves me with just one question. Why do we pronounce zoologist as if it has an extra o?



If we are to be honest, Brexit was ill-conceived. The word Brexit that is.

You can make your own mind up on the concept of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union but the word that was contrived and compounded to carry that shedload has proved singularly unhelpful. Brexit has been easily adopted by politicians and headline writers which can never be a good thing.

Let’s break Brexit down. Adapted from a word coined by economists the Br of Brexit is taken from Britain or British or British Isles. Such a confused and partial etymology (and muddled notion of sovereignty) for a young and unsophisticated word to take on board. The exit of Brexit takes either its noun sense of ‘a departure’ or the equivalent verb sense ‘to leave’. So, broken down, the Brexit we have to work with is a word that doesn’t quite know what it represents, nor if it’s a thing or an action. Great start.

And if that was all that was wrong with Brexit that would be quite enough but the Br of Brexit is not just muddled, it’s dishonest. Uninformed, if you are feeling charitable. Britain is not a political entity, not in terms of EU membership anyway. At the very least that should be Great Britain (still wrong) or more precisely since ‘sovereignty’ has long been claimed as a point at issue in the binary debate, Great Britain & Northern Ireland. (Yep, still wrong.) It is the United Kingdom which should be at the root of our misnomial Brexit. We are definitely talking about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Anyone for UK-xit?

It must be acknowledged that, like so much of the English language, Brexit is a word of Greek origins. Brexit derives from Grexit, a compound of ‘Greek’ and ‘exit’ that denotes a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Not from the European Union. That’s an altogether different thing. Grexit was contrived as useful economist-jargon. It was coined in February 2012 and in no time it made front page headlines.


Graccident (an accidental Grexit) was coined around the same time in case Greece should exit unintentionally. Not coincidentally, Braccident was in circulation months before the British accident actually happened in June 2016.

The B word. The bloody B word.

Brexit is:

  • A portmanteau compound based on a limited understanding of which sovereign body is involved.
  • A word that divides the nation and the nations, repeated ad nauseum until its definition is in and of itself, and its unthought-out ambitions are all but inescapable.
  • Freighted and nuanced with literally millions of varied hopes, dreams and Brexpectations, myriad fears, alternate facts and knee jerks. Brexit means Brexit.

Brexit could so nearly have been the slightly more logical Brixit, first seen in The Economist in June 2012. It didn’t catch on.

Brexit, on the other hand – What a word! It was a strong contender for the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014; wheedled its way into wider currency during campaigning for the 2015 UK general election; come 2016, Brexit was Collins Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’. Please, don’t blame the lexicographers: inclusion in a dictionary does not validate any word, it merely records the language as it stands. Blame the economists. And, if you must, blame the Brexiters. And journalists.

That’s how Brexit started. Yet, as with so many awkward entities in this marvellous linguaverse, Brexit had a hidden superpower: a seemingly endless capacity to wriggle into diverting variations that have the ability to reduce quality of debate, and the force to overwhelm cogent argument simply by repetition of its magic formula.  Like, wow! Shazaaam!!! Brexxxxit!!! We should have seen this monster coming before it morphed into so much wordplay.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 21.33.07

Now, of course, everyone has a favourite Brexit-derivative. Meet the Bremoaner aka the Remoaner. Used by Brexiteers as a derogatory term, this little mongrel word  is a groaning, weaponised pun (remoaner – geddit?) and 2016 entry in the dictionary.

Here for your delectation is an excerpt from the Brexit lexicon, in no particular order, not even alphabetical:

  • Bregret
  • Bremain
  • Bremorse
  • Brexistensial Crisis
  • Brexile
  • Brextension
  • Brexpertise
  • Brexpats
  • Brexiety
  • Brexitannia
  • Brexchosis– a compound of Brexit and psychosis courtesy of ‘Bojo’ (himself a tacky compound of Boris and Johnson)
  • Brexodus
  • Brexthrough
  • Brextra Time
  • Brexitosis
  • Brexorcist
  • Dog’s Brexit
  • Regrexit.

No! Please… No more!

And that’s not to mention the Marx brothers tribute act Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit and Blind Brexit. There’s any number of ‘em: Clean BrexitDirty Brexit, Green BrexitRed, White & Blue Brexit, and so on. And on.  Blind Brexit, in case you are wondering, would be more honestly expressed as a vague Brexit. Your nearest Brexit may be behind you.

By a process of lingo-bingo Brexit has invoked:

  • Auxit Oustria (Austria leaving EU)
  • Bexit & Byegium (Belgium leaving EU)
  • Quitaly & Italeave (Italy leaving EU)
  • Chexit & Czechout (Czech leaving EU)
  • Departugal (Portugal leaving EU)
  • Califexit & Caleavefornia (California leaving US)
  • Texit Texodus (Texas leaving the US)
  • Trexit (US residents leaving Trumpland)
  • Scoxit (Scotland leaving the UK)
  • Mexit (fotballer Lionel Messi’s retirement)

And more! There is always more. Ask the Chancellor of the Brexchequer.

The truth is that, whatever your point of view, Brexit encompasses or connotes ill-defined or dishonestly expressed nuances of process, national identity, splendid isolationism, xenophobia and outright racism. And, honestly, the Brexit word is not up to the job.

The process of Brexit itself has poisoned the water around these islands with a toxic backstop / project fear get over it / meaningful Chequers cliff edge / indicative gammon & red line snowflake cocktail. How much damage can one little word do?

Where does Brexit go from here?

Politics aside, where does the Brexit word go from here? What can we expect as our Brexit language dividend? Great Brexpectations, indeed. If, as Brino Brexpert Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested, it could take a 50-year journey on the Brexit Bus to properly see the benefits of Brexit what further linguistic treasure might the blunderbus have delivered by then? (In case you are wondering Brino is ‘Brexit in name only’.)

There is bruited abroad a serious suggestion that -exit as a suffix may serve in much the same way that ‘-gate’ is tacked on to a meaningful noun (pig, pleb, pussy) to indicate a scandal. Except that ‘-gate’ didn’t mean scandal in the first place but exit means exit; ‘-gate’ evolved from a useful syllable caught up in a genuine presidential scandal: Watergate. Quite what an -exit suffix might be used to convey come 2069 is less clear. Any mutation will no doubt depend on political fallout.

There is an acceptance (in my social media bubble) that the promise of Brexit was missold.  There is a consensus that the Brexit process has been/is being mismanaged and, certainly, no one will get what they voted for (or what thought they were voting for). So, with that in mind, perhaps, -exit will come to mean a dishonest omnishambles. It’s quite possible. Brexit-exit. It depends on who is writing the history books. Brexit may eat itself.

My serious prediction of what the word Brexit will gift to future English-speakers concerns the opening Br. Not to be confused with, ‘Brrr!’ (how cold it is!) in 100 years I confidently expect that Br! (pronounced bruh) will be used as:

  1. a nuanced expression of disappointment or dissatisfaction
  2. a dismissal of lies
  3. an exclamation of disdain.

…and that Brexit itself will serve as an archaic swear word with comic overtones.

What am I thinking? I mean Wrexit the Fixit do I know? It’s not for me to say. Obviously we can trust politicians to know what ‘the people’ are thinking.

Br! and I mean BR!!!

Screenshot 2020-01-21 17.20.58

This blog was written in response to an invitation from BBC producer Sharif Shahwan. The plan was an in-studio on-air conversation about what Brexit is doing to the language. All very lighthearted. Until it was realised that the spectre of the EU elections was now hovering (BBC rules are very strict about that kind of thing) and it might be prudent if we were to change the subject. Anyway, Farage, the arch Brexiconman has formed a new party called the Brexit Party (he never gets invited; always has to form his own party) and I might not be able to maintain my BBC balance.

The blog draws on the following works:

  • Lalić-Krstin, G. and Silaški, N. “From Brexit to Bregret: A morpho-sociolinguistic analysis of Brexit-induced neologisms in English”, Susret kultura, 1st December 2016.
  • Sean O’Grady, “Brexicon: A full dictionary of Brexit-related jargon”, The Independent, 21st February 2018
  • “Brexit: Jargon-busting guide to the key terms”, 24th January 2019
  • Christine Ro, “How Brexit changed the English language”,, 14th March 2019


The English language really is a funny old thing. We speak it, we write it; we expect our words to mean what they say. Yet other people can and may conspire to devalue our words and presume to know better. Don’t believe me? Just take a quick troll through your social media bubble.

Today, is October 11th 2018. Florida stands in the path of Hurricane Michael. US President Trump has tweeted:

‘We are with you Florida!’

Hardly a great comfort to the affected residents, you may say, but good words nonetheless. However, the satirical riposte

‘What he means to say is save the golf course’

is quick in coming. It’s a joke, right? Depending on your point of view, it’s reasonable or snarky, right? And anyway he can’t be with you if he’s hiding in a golden tower miles away so what does he mean by using the word ‘with’?

As I write at least two are dead.

Here’s an illustration of what I am getting at (if that’s what I mean).

Do you understand?


My illustration is ‘yes’. That’s pretty unequivocal, wouldn’t you say? Yes. However, if that ‘yes’ were spoken aloud it may be expressed with a great deal more shade and nuance.

Yes, tell me more.

Yes, I am not sure.

Yes. [I am only saying ‘yes’ to be polite.]

Yes, I do.

Oh yes.

Yes, no.


In written English those shades of meaning are baldly unavailable and so it remains the reader’s choice to reinterpret words as the reader wishes.


So, let’s employ some punctuation to make ‘yes’ more explicit. Make it reader-proof. Yes, I mean, obviously a full stop won’t do the job but there’s not a lot of punctuation choice in a one-word sentence.

Do you understand?

Shall we try a question mark?


Yes? but tell me more.

Yes? I am not sure.

Yes? I didn’t hear the question.

Yes? [Can you tell I am being ironic?].

and so on.

Also, to be honest, the question mark itself can be interpreted as disrespecting the original question. If you had a mind to do so.

So, what next?  Let’s give the exclamation mark a go!


Yes, of course I do! [Don’t patronise me].

Yes, I knew you were going to ask that!

Yes, at last someone has asked the question!

and so on.

Perhaps we should give ALL CAPS a try next.


YES, what a stupid question.

YES, I am SHOUTING in frustration.


and so on.

OK. Italics

Yes, I am shouting in a loud whisper.

Yes, but

and so on, stressing or diminishing willy nilly, making ‘yes’ stronger or weaker, probably; whatever it does it changes the meaning.

So… Ellipsis…


… to which any number of positive or negative imaginings may be added.

When all that you meant was ‘yes’. Didn’t you?


But then if enough people are led to misinterpret the ‘yes’ you express then your intentions are overruled. It’s linguistic mob rule.

There have always been people who may judge you disdainfully on your choice of words or the accent in which your vocabulary is couched. These are the people that don’t listen to other people: these are the types who categorise by social class and use their high opinions to look down upon whole strata of society.

None of us is above that, if we are honest. We all classify, exclude or include one another in our circles by our slangs, jargons, regional variations and other such clues and impressions. But…

Is it accent or vocabulary? If that were all there was to it then that might suggest that political and practical power rest on the rhetorical facility to wield a more educated vocabulary and more expensive accent. That’s patently widespread but not necessarily true.  The sharpened pencil and sharper tongue that can reinterpret a simple ‘yes’ as a weasel word is where the damage is done. Politicians and various would-be manipulators of opinion put words into others’ mouths. More insidiously, some abusers wilfully misinterpret another’s meaning and devalue denials of the put-upon sense with knowing innuendo. It’s the tactical use of language as a weapon. Day to day, common or garden propaganda.

The answer to the question ‘do you understand?’ was ‘yes’. Trigger faux outraged shock. It manipulates a conversation and sells a point of view. Obviously, if you say ‘fake news’ often enough someone will listen and that ignorance supports discrimination.

The binary referendum question, yes or no?


Many years ago I heard a short, very funny radio sketch in which two lovers used nothing but the word ‘yes’. They conducted a complete start-to-finish relationship, from  initial hesitation and attraction, through passion, giving way to comfort, and finally hate and alienation, with nothing more than the word ‘yes’ being traded back and forth.

If you can achieve that range of coherent expression with a single word then perhaps we would be wise to never commit to whole phrases or, heaven forfend, sentences. Never risk a figurative expression, that’s for sure; that’s a whole different can of worms.

English, in its myriad forms, is one of the richest and most wonderful sources of expression. Along with body language, gestures, and so on, the mutual expression of our humanity lies in all of our tongues. Yet I am watching the way that deliberate (or narrow-minded) misunderstandings seek to hijack, manipulate, neuter and propagandise public discourse. Or simply argue that black is white. And when, for safety’s sake, we have been reduced to mumbling unambiguous clichés we will still not understand each other any better.

We are already way beyond serious here.

This is from a Tweet I found, dated 6th July this year. The content and context of the thread is apparent I think.

‘Because here’s the thing there’s NO WAY to tell that that NO was a YES. No way to be absolutely sure. You can’t stand in front of a judge and say, “she said no but I know she meant yes and just wanted me to seduce her.”’

‘Yes’ does not mean ‘I consent’. I simply means that there is a dialogue. Social intercourse.

Do you understand? If you can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer please don’t judge my use of language by your standards.

On the other hand, if you are determined to find cryptic messages in my words, this is me trolling me:

The US in US President Trump is obviously shorthand for useless.

You knew that, right?




Tank fly boss walk jam nitty-gritty
You’re listening to the boy from the big bad city…

No, honest, your honour, this is jam hot.  These arresting words tripped and fell into the tank.

There was a story in the London Evening Standard this week (it’s halfway through September 2018). Anyway, there was this story in the Evening Standard. Oh, how I wish it was fake news.

A senior police officer – that’s a ‘senior Scotland Yard officer’ in Standard journalese. So, the story is that this officer used the phrase ‘whiter than white’ in a briefing and now, it seems, he could face an internal investigation for gross misconduct. This is serious, like big man ting. Someone somewhere has complained that ‘whiter than white’ is racist language.

My primary source here is the Evening Standard and that mighty organ reports its sources saying that this top rankin’ Scotland Yarder – a detective superintendent no less – ‘addressed colleagues about the need to be faultless and above reproach in carrying out inquiries, saying that they needed to be “whiter than white”.’

Gross misconduct!?  Not.

The same Standard article reports a belief that an inquiry is running into another police officer’s use of the phrase ‘pale, stale and male’.

Oh dear. That’ll be me standardised, pigeonholed and discounted then. Should I be offended?

And all this hot news within a week of socialist good egg John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, taking offence at the phrase ‘call off the dogs’, claiming that clichéd  idiom was ‘grotesquely offensive’ because ‘our party members are not dogs’.


Woah! Tempted as I am to flounce off in a partially political huff – no, hang on a mo! – he may have a point. Dogs are legendarily loyal.

‘Good egg’ – oops! sorry John, that compliment has been rescinded on police advice. Yes, ‘good egg’ is another toxic turn of phrase, long reported as a no-no in popo ranks. Because someone somewhere decided that it should be associated with the rhyming slang ‘egg and spoon’. I’ll leave you to work that out. Or consult a dictionary.


Meanwhile, back in 2002, the Government’s Police Minister, John Denham, was admonished for using the phrase ‘nitty gritty’ at a conference. Constable Chris Jefford of the Metropolitan Police’ Directorate of Training told the then minister: “As a serving police officer, if I used the term nitty gritty, which you used a moment ago, in our modern politically correct society I would be facing a discipline charge. ‘Nitty gritty’ is a prohibited term in the modern police service as being a racist term.”

Yes, someone somewhere had convinced the police that ‘nitty gritty’ had racist overtones. A false or folk etymology placed the term’s origins in the detritus gathered at the bottom of a slave ship.

Forgive me, but what a load of bollocks. I wonder if it’s the same s*me*ne s*mewhere who puts offensive asterisks in words like f*ck and c*nt. What is going on here is a struggle to control language as a means of power. When you get down to the nitty gritty the ambitions of weaponised words and strategic censorship are not whiter than white. Not even a whiter shade of pale, however you dress it up.


In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare gives us the earliest instance of ‘whiter than white’ that we know of. His words skip the light fantastic and turn cartwheels on the floor as he gets hot and sexy with ‘a whiter hue than white’. This springing fancy of young Will’s pen is a contrast of virginity and carnality. His base colour is that of a bed sheet or, figuratively, the flesh of a virgin. Or, perhaps, the clean white sheet of an unwritten page on which the youthful poet spills his erotic metaphor.

Who sees his true-love in her naked bed,
Teaching the sheets a whiter hue than white,
But, when his glutton eye so full hath fed,
His other agents aim at like delight?
Who is so faint, that dare not be so bold
To touch the fire, the weather being cold?

Hot stuff innit. Jam hot.

‘Whiter than white’ is a time-served idiom. Closely related to keeping ‘a clean sheet’. One way or another, we use it for being above reproach. Only a time-serving idiot could possibly think it a racist phrase. Well, at a push … who else uses white sheets to make a statement?

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.03.52

No, I don’t suppose the KKK’s sheets are particularly whiter than white with all the sweat and bile they exude.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.08.47

‘Whiter than white’ is advertising nonsense, that’s what it is. Use All New Multinational Branded Household Detergent! and get your tighty-whities whiter than white.  When you stop to think about it, it’s a scientific impossibility is what it is. Persil used the slogan ‘Persil washes whiter’ on TV from 1955. It made some kind of sense when the world watched in black and white.

OK, let’s leave the sex and laundry tumbling and get back to the feds in Scotland Yard.

‘Whiter than white’ is a well-established figurative expression.  There’s a good bet that the very concept of whiter than white is a bureaucratic impossibility, eh, Detective Super? Whiter than white? Not in my spectrum of reality where the black hat doesn’t always enter from stage left.

But racist? No. You don’t have to be a Scotland Yard detective to understand that intention and expression are important distinctions here.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The basics. The essence of the matter.

The earliest reference I can find for ‘nitty-gritty’ is 1942. It’s in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 2010. It antedates previous authorities by 2 years. (Ah, the benefits of hindsight.)  But everyone agrees that ‘nitty-gritty’ is a black American coinage.

One way or another, ‘nitty-gritty’ had been in circulation for around 60 years when ‘In the early 2000s, the belief that term originally applied to the debris left at the bottom of slave ships when the slaves were removed from the ship circulated with speed, certainty and outrage.’ I am quoting from The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English; well, to be honest, I am quoting me in 2005.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.17.12

The thing is, all authorities agree, if this were a term from the slave ships it would surely have been recorded by someone somewhere some time before 1942. And offence would rightly have been taken. How anyone could imagine that itty bitty ‘nitty-gritty’, this euphonious, reduplicative treasure, has a racist heritage stretches the boundaries of credulity (and, perhaps, wishful thinking).

Something along the lines of …

But ‘nit’ is the egg of a louse (do y’all see where I am going with this?) and ‘grits’ is a maize dish eaten in the Southern States of American. The slave states. So it must be racist. It’s historical.

Except that grits have been on the menu since before the New World settlers arrived and eaten by all regardless of ethnicity.

Oh and ‘nit’ is also slang for an idiot.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.21.57
Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.31.41

I started this blog with a quote from Beats International’s 1990 hit Dub Be Good to Me and I think it bears repeating.

Tank fly boss walk jam nitty-gritty
You’re listening to the boy from the big bad city

1990. A mixed race, mixed gender band from Brighton. How inoffensive.

This is jam hot

This is jam hot

Language is freedom and censorship is pernicious. You don’t have to be a Scotland Yard detective to understand that expression and intention are the important distinctions here. But, if you are too niggardly to buy a dictionary you could just rearrange the words to fit a conveniently guilty description.

We’re through the looking glass here, people. Yeah, That’s a Simpson’s quote.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.45.54

But the Simpson’s are quoting the movie JFK.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 17.49.14

Is it a conspiracy?

Here’s Lewis Carroll on the subject:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Speaking of egg: a ‘good egg’ is a good thing. Not in the slightest racist. It was first recorded in 1871. It’s in Middlemarch by George Eliot. (For conspiracy theorists that’s the same year as Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass…) And a ‘good egg’ has been a commendable person since 1907. ‘Egg and spoon’ doesn’t turn up as casually racist rhyming slang until 1990. And then a good few years more pass until somec*nt f*ckwhere decided that a ‘good egg’ was no longer a good thing.

It can’t be easy for the police. All those words they know and aren’t allowed to use for fear of censure or complaint. Still…

By 2005 it was no longer politically correct for the police to refer to a gypsy as a ‘Thieving Gypsy Bastard’ (More than mere discrimination, this was a learned reference to a culturally significant comic strip in Viz). Even the abbreviation ‘TGB’ was frowned upon by the authorities, once they caught on. So, keeping things whiter than white, and keen to set a good example, the police moved the linguistic goalposts and swerved any further offence with the denotation ‘Still’, a shortening of the phrase ‘still a thieving gypsy bastard’. Expression or intention?

On a brighter note and bang up to date, it has been good to see the fuzz getting down with the kids on Twitter. Around the same time as the whiter than white story appeared in the Standard a picture of a loaded whiteboard, credited to Lancashire police, was shared on social media by the jokesters at Surrey Police @ReigateBeat.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 15.46.25

It was greeted with gleeful media derision but, to be fair, it underscores the problems going forward that the police have with our evolving language.

By the by, I swear down, English is the GOAT but the Welsh have a way better word for police: Heddlu.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 18.05.39

Its literal translation is ‘peace force’.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 18.07.55

Whiter than white out.


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