Category Archives: Top posts

Jolly hockey sticks, and other jolly posh stuff

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge Visits St Andrew's School

Do you ever have the urge to talk like a posh git Brit? When the need to sound like an overgrown English public schoolboy overwhelms you, just pepper your language with some of the following words and expressions – most of which are horribly outdated and only uttered nowadays by non-Brits pretending to be posh Brits — and you’ll be  well on your way to becoming a toff, a pompous twit, or a good old-fashioned Hooray Henry in no time at all. Jeeves and Wooster would be proud. Bottoms up, old boy!

By George! By golly! By ginger! By gosh!: Basically a posh old version of OMG! The “minced oath” or exclamation dates from the early 1600s, when “George” and the other g-words were used as substitutes for God to avoid blasphemy. The expression started off as “for George” or “before George,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.” Here’s Henry Higgins, in one of the expression’s more famous examples: Continue reading

Nylon: the fabric of two cities, or an acronym?


Nylon was invented in the mid-1930s by Wallace Carothers, the director of DuPont’s research center. The synthetic fiber comprising three basic ingredients was called “Nylon 66” by the chemists who brought it into the world because two of its components — adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine — each contain 6 carbon atoms per molecule. However, Carothers named it simply “nylon”, and that was the name by which it was patented in 1935. The durable fabric was fantastically successful when it started being sold soon afterwards, in 1939, most usefully and famously as a replacement for silk in hosiery. Nylon stockings were introduced that year at New York’s World Fair, and by the following year the plural of the word, “nylons”, was synonymous with women’s stockings. The versatile fiber/fabric was used to make everything from toothbrush bristles, fishing lines and surgical sutures to parachutes during the second world war, and later seatbelts and tents. It’s now the second most used synthetic fiber in the U.S.

But why “nylon”? There are two spurious theories about how it got its name. First: it’s been suggested that New York’s initials (NY) and the first three letters of London were behind the famous fabric, representing the two cities where the product started its life. However, London wasn’t involved in any way with the launch of nylon: that all happened on the other side of the Atlantic …

The other more outlandish theory is that it was an acronym for “Now You’ve Lost, Old Nippon” (or, alternatively, “Now You Look Out, Nippon”), supposedly referring to Japan’s apparent loss of the U.S. market for its silk exports as a result of this new synthetic product.

Neither of these suggestions holds water, and nylon’s real etymology is disappointingly more prosaic. As Wikipedia explains succinctly, “in 1940, John W. Eckelberry of DuPont stated that the letters “nyl” were arbitrary and the “on” was copied from the suffixes of other fibers such as cotton and rayon. A later publication by DuPont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978) explained that the name was originally intended to be “No-Run” (“run” meaning “unravel”), but was modified to avoid making such an unjustified claim. Since the product was not really run-proof, the vowels were swapped to produce “nuron”, which was changed to “nilon” “to make it sound less like a nerve tonic”. For clarity in pronunciation, the “i” was changed to “y”.”


Cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees and dog’s bollocks


“You’re the cat’s whiskers!” one of my colleagues said to me recently. And I realized I didn’t know exactly what he meant — and it wasn’t an expression I had ever heard said aloud, except in old movies or shows set in the 1920s.

It was during that time that a whole collection of American expressions were coined to mean “an outstanding or excellent person or thing”, with overtones of style, class or newness (thank you Max! — although I’m pretty sure there was a touch of irony in your compliment …). The fad was to use the names of animals, body-parts and clothes in peculiar combinations, such as the flea’s eyebrows, the canary’s tusks, the eel’s ankle, the elephant’s instep, the clam’s garter, the snake’s hips, the kipper’s knickers, the sardine’s whiskers and the pig’s wings. Whereas most of these nonsensical expressions disappeared relatively quickly, three feline-themed terms — “cat’s pajamas”, “cat’s whiskers” and “cat’s miaow” — managed to stick around and they remain in use today, as does the rather charming “bee’s knees”.

As old-fashioned and archaic as they might sound today, these phrases were considered modern, clever and rather daring by the free-spirited flappers of the roaring 20s and the emerging ‘cool cats’ of the jazz age who bandied these words about. (Pajamas, by the way, were a new and fashionable article of clothing in the 1920s and therefore suitably hip for inclusion in this mod lingo.) So popular were these expressions that by the late 1920s, the ‘cat’ ones were sometimes abbreviated to just “it’s the cat’s.” All American by origin, they soon caught on in England as well. The lexicographers William and Mary Morris suggest that the “cat” phrases might have originated earlier than the ’20s, since they were reportedly first heard in girls’ schools and women’s colleges earlier in the century — at which time the terms were considerably risqué.

It’s widely believed that Tad Dorgan, the American sportswriter and cartoonist, first coined all these expressions (especially the cat ones), or at least brought them into popular usage. Dorgan created or popularized a whole “slang vernacular”, introducing into standard English a slew of now common words and phrases such as dumbbell (a stupid person), for crying out loud (an expression of astonishment), hard-boiled (referring to a tough person), and “yes, we have no bananas”, which became the title of a popular song.

I’m guessing that “the bee’s knees”, another such term still in use, endured simply because of its tidy size and tidy rhyme. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it meant “something very small and insignificant”. However, its meaning changed in the 1920s — presumably to match its fellow “animal-body-part” expressions so fashionable at the time — to denote excellence. Some speculate that it derives from a comical mispronunciation of the word business, but there’s no evidence to support this idea. According to the Phrase Finder, another theory is that “bee’s knees” might have been connected to Bee Jackson, a 1920s dancer from New York who was said to have helped to popularize the Charleston by introducing the dance form to Broadway in 1924 (she went on to become a celebrated Charleston champion); “Bee’s knees” must have been fairly impressive. However, the phrase was in use before 1924, so this is also an unlikely scenario.

The British expression “dog’s bollocks”, which is thought to have originated as a printer’s term for the typographical colon dash “:-” (as Eric Partridge noted in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in 1949), is now widely used in the UK to mean the same as the “cat’s whiskers”. (Here’s another example of animal body-parts, with bollocks being the British slang for testicles.) The OED cites an early example of the canine term being used in the sleeve notes for the cassette tape recording of Peter Brewis’s play The Gambler: “They are of the opinion that, when it comes to Italian opera, Pavarotti is the dog’s bollocks.”

Why is a ship a she?


Why are ships called she?

“A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of bustle around her; there is usually a gang of men about; she has a waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking; it is not the initial expense that breaks you, it is the upkeep; she can be all decked out; it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable. She shows her topsides, hiders her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

Based on this prose posted in the wardrooms of most U.S. naval ships and printed on many a tacky tea-towel (take it as mildly cheeky or inexcusably offensive), this is the explanation most people will offer up. (See also the even more chauvinistic rendering by Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley below.)

But seriously: why are ships and countries (and sometimes cars and other vessels and vehicles) often referred to with the feminine pronoun? Continue reading

Songs my childhood taught me 1: Rhymes from the schoolyard



Glossophilia is taking a trip down memory lane with a series of posts on childhood songs and rhymes: when we skipped in the school playground, bounced on our parents’ knees, twisted our tongues around gob-stopping riffs, learned our lessons with nifty mnemonics, and recited —  delighted — silly nonsense.

Remember the days of the old schoolyard? If you’re a grown-up boy, you probably just remember the footie and the fisticuffs more than anything else. But we girls will never forget our hours and hours of hand-clapping and skipping-rope sessions,  the longer the better, with no-one ever tripping the rope or missing a beat, breathlessly counting, and chanting the rhymes and songs — often pretty rude — that gave it all reason, shape and momentum … Continue reading