Over the last three years, Spread the Word has intermittently taken an interest in the linguistic ramifications of the process currently embroiling UK politics, to the exclusion of almost all other business: Brexit.

Back in May 2016, in those carefree pre-referendum days, we dared to ask: will Britain exit the European Union? (See the WOTM on Brexit from May 2016).

After the referendum, the battle lines were drawn. Soon the two sides were entrenched: Brexiteers versus Remainers (See the WOTM from April 2018 on Brexiteers, Remoaners and frenemies.)

And in March this year, as the March 29 deadline approached and then passed, we asked: what is the Irish backstop anyway? (See the WOTM on backstop from March 2019.)

This month, the Brexit-related word on everyone’s lips is prorogue. Unlike most other Brexit-related terminology, prorogue is not a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in 1419, but with a different meaning – ‘to extend in time’ – which is pretty much the opposite of its second meaning, ‘to put off for a time; to defer or postpone’, first recorded in 1453. This is the general meaning that is in use today, but its use is much more specific and restricted: to end a session of parliament, but without dissolving it and calling new elections.

I actually first came across the term prorogue over 30 years ago, while researching my A level history project on the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII was a man who liked to get his own way and, as a sixteenth-century monarch, he was immensely powerful and did not scruple to use Parliament for his own personal and political ends.

In the seventeenth century, Charles I had a less productive relationship with Parliament, frequently disagreeing with it, until in 1629 he prorogued it and simply ruled without Parliament for eleven years. In 1640 he summoned Parliament again because he needed its consent to raise taxes for a war with Scotland. However, the Long Parliament refused to do his bidding, leading to the outbreak of the English Civil War, a period of great turmoil and bloodshed for the whole country, which ended most unhappily for Charles when he was convicted of treason and executed in 1649.

015aThat’s all history now, of course, and prorogue might seem like a term that only belongs in the history books, but it is actually more common as an action than you might think. It is still only the queen or king who can prorogue parliament but in modern times she or he always does so at the request of the prime minister. The present Queen has prorogued parliament nearly every year throughout her 67-year reign. It is the normal way to end a session of parliament before beginning a new one with the Queen’s speech outlining a new legislative programme. The prorogation lasts only a few days and is so normal that we don’t even talk about it.

This time it is different. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, asked that parliament be prorogued for five weeks between 9 September and 14 October, in order (he said) to prepare a new Queen’s speech. His critics complained that this would leave too little time for MPs to debate Brexit or scrutinize and amend the government’s Brexit policy before the current exit deadline of 31 October. The prorogation became the subject of a legal challenge in both England and Scotland. The English court ruled that it was lawful; the Scottish court ruled that it was not. It was then up to the Supreme Court of the UK to decide. On 24 September, the eleven judges of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. The Speaker of the House of Commons immediately summoned MPs back to Parliament.

Whatever happens next, it seems that the UK’s constitution is being tested. The principles and procedures by which the UK is governed have developed over many centuries. They are not written down in a single document that can be referred to in a dispute. Is it finally time for the UK to adopt a written constitution – like almost every other country in the world?

Diana Lea is a Managing Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


You may or may not have heard of FOMO. The abbreviation of fear of missing out, FOMO (pronounced ˈfəʊməʊ in British English and ˈfoʊmoʊ in North American English) is defined as “a feeling of worry that an interesting or exciting event is happening somewhere else”. It is a word that has been in common parlance since circa 2012 and was added to Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013. FOMO can affect our professional lives, making us log into our work emails outside of working hours to check that we haven’t missed anything momentous while we’ve been away, or to spend valuable time attending optional meetings “just in case” something relevant comes up. But it is with social media that FOMO is inextricably linked. Social media allows us to easily track what is happening in others people’s lives, sometimes even in real time. We are exposed to people’s posts about graduations, engagements, weddings, baby showers, new homes and swanky holidays (see our blog post on humblebrag). FOMO can prompt you to take part in things that you don’t really enjoy, to compulsively check your social media channels to ensure that you’re keeping abreast of all happenings, or to compare your own life to the lives of others. Understandably, this has a negative effect on mental health; FOMO has been linked to stress, anxiety and even depression.

Happy Girl Resting on Sofa While Reading a BookPersonally, when I first heard of FOMO, I was slightly nonplussed. The idea of worrying about what I might be missing out on while happily curled up on the sofa at home with my cat, a book and a cup of tea was baffling to me. So when JOMO entered the English language, I felt reassured that I wasn’t alone in my perspective and also relieved that there had finally been a backlash against FOMO.

JOMO (pronounced ˈdʒəʊməʊ in British English and ˈdʒoʊmoʊ in North American English) is the opposite of and the remedy for FOMO. It is the abbreviation of (you may have guessed it) joy of missing out and can be defined as the appreciation of the way you choose to spend your time, regardless of what anyone else seems to be doing. It means that not only is it perfectly OK to spend a Saturday night binge-watching your favourite television series instead of going out partying, it’s something to be celebrated.

JOMO is becoming more and more pertinent. At a recent conference, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, announced the company’s intention to bring users JOMO through the introduction of new features such as apps to track the number of times you check your phone. A school in London recently launched a #JOMO campaign to encourage pupils to spend time away from social media. It is now possible to go on JOMO retreats to learn how to be digitally healthy. There are over 100,000 instances of #JOMO on Instagram, which demonstrates a slightly odd paradox: pure JOMO happens away from our device screens, so why do we need to document it digitally with an accompanying hashtag? It could be argued that JOMO is becoming the new FOMO …

Nonetheless, JOMO still has value. Modern life can be busy, to say the least. Technology means that we are constantly connected and it is all too easy to lose yourself in the midst of a maelstrom of digital notifications. As such, over the last few years an array of concepts have sprung up to help us to reconnect with ourselves and ignore the digital hubbub. Mindfulness, self-care and self-awareness are just a few of these concepts, and JOMO is a joyous encapsulation of all three. It is about accepting and embracing the present moment, regardless of what else you could be doing; it is about turning your attention to your own well-being instead of competing with those around you; it is about taking the time to do the things that make you happy without judgement or comparison.

JOMO is the digital detox we’ve all been craving.

I didn’t get time to check Instagram yesterday , and I am feeling pure JOMO.

So if you find yourself in bed at 9pm on a Saturday with a book and a hot drink, or if your social media profile contains more photos of your pet than of exotic holidays and big celebrations, don’t let FOMO take hold  – just embrace the JOMO!

Stacey Bateman is a Development Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.


Climate change and organic have become household words, but are you familiar with a related new addition to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary?

The word permaculture (British English /ˈpɜːməkʌltʃə(r)/; North American English /ˈpɜːrməkʌltʃər/) was coined in the 1970s, and it is a portmanteau word, combining the beginning of permanent with the end of agriculture.  The OALD defines it as “an approach to life and growing food that copies the way things happen in nature in order to create ways for people to live without damaging the environment”. Many permaculture organizations promote permaculture as a way of imitating nature, reducing waste, and creating a healthier environment.


Permaculture is based on the idea of sustainability.  This can be difficult to achieve because single-use items have led to overflowing landfills.  Heavy pesticide use and monocultures have damaged biodiversity in many areas. Sometimes permaculture can help with the rewilding of some areas to encourage the return of wildlife and native plant species.

Do you know the other words highlighted below?

Terms which are now widely used include carbon footprint, which means “a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by the daily activities of a person or company”.  Microplastics are “extremely small pieces of plastic in the environment that come from consumer products and industrial waste”.

Businesses especially do not want to be named and shamed as polluters. This has led many companies to claim their products are sustainable or sustainably sourced: “involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment”. In fact, the All England Tennis Club at Wimbledon has recently installed a green wall, or living wall, at Court 1 to help promote biodiversity. This is “a structure covered in plants that can be attached to the wall of a building”.

Many other ‘green’ words begin with eco, which comes from the word ecology. Eco– is commonly used as a combining form to show that something has a connection with the environment.  Can you link these eco- words with their definitions?

A. Ecocide 1. a new town that is specially designed to make it easy for people to live there with as little impact on the environment as possible
B. Eco-friendly 2. fashionable design or clothing that is produced with concern for the environment
C. Eco-chic 3. not harmful to the environment
D. Eco-warrior 4. the destruction of the natural environment, especially when this is deliberate
E. Ecotown 5. organized holidays/vacations that are designed so that the tourists damage the environment as little as possible, especially when some of the money they pay is used to protect the local environment and animals
F. Ecotourism 6. a person who actively tries to prevent damage to the environment

The terms global heating and climate crisis are now being used in some cases instead of global warming.  Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, even schoolchildren are using new terms, such as existential crisis, and protesting to demand that governments act immediately to stop damage to the environment.  Permaculture probably can’t stop an existential crisis on its own, but if these children grow up as eco-warriors, it will be in with a fighting chance.

To learn more words related to the environment, look at Nature in the Topics lists on the OALD website:

(Answers: A-4, B-3, C-2, D-6, E-1, F-5)

Lindsey Bowden is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

Of Ironmen and goats

If you are one of the 182 million people (as of mid-June) who have seen Avengers: Endgame at the cinema, the phrase “doing an Ironman” may well conjure up an image of superheroes performing out-of-this-world feats. However, in the world of sport, Ironman has a very specific meaning – still requiring formidable strength and stamina, if not quite on the Tony Stark level.

An Ironman is a form of long-distance triathlon* consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon. The first one was held on Hawaii in 1978 and the islands are still considered to be the spiritual home of the sport. Anyone who completes an event can also call themselves an Ironman.


Extreme sports like this are now common: as well as the triathlon itself, there are the duathlon (the running and cycling bits of a triathlon), the aquathlon (swimming and running), and the ultra-triathlon (anything longer than an Ironman). Then, if just running for very long distances is your thing, there is ultrarunning and ultramarathons, the most famous example of which is the six-day Marathon des Sables.

If, like most mortals, these sports are beyond you, why not try one of these other new sports when at the beach this summer: flyboarding, where you stand on a special board, connected by a hose to a jet ski, and are propelled into the air by water forced through the hose; or if you prefer something more sedate, have a go at stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).

The world of sport loves its heroes, often describing them in terms akin to superheroes, and it also loves its abbreviations. So whilst the MVP (Most Valuable Player) is awarded to the outstanding player in an individual game or team, when it comes to being rewarded for your whole career, it’s the unlikely sounding term GOAT that you should aspire to. No, not an animal with horns and a coat of hair, that lives wild in mountain areas or is kept on farms for its milk or meat, but the “Greatest Of All Time”.

* Avengers fans will know that there is a Marvel superhero character called Triathlon who had the strength of three men. He later changed his name to 3-D Man.

Patrick White is Product Director for ELT Dictionaries and Grammar. He has taught English in China and worked as a translator and dictionary editor. He can swim, ride a bike and run but has never been known to do any of them competitively, least of all in an Ironman.


Is it just me, or does it seem that there’s a lot of bad stuff in the world these days? That the daily news is full of doom and gloom?

Not only that, but things that used to be good have turned out to be bad. This may be due to the thing itself, or the way that it’s used. Single-use plastic, social media, a meat-rich diet might all have once been hailed as beneficial or a great symbol of modernity, but such things are often viewed less kindly nowadays, and for many different reasons.

But what about the other way around – can you think of any examples of things that used to be bad, but are now considered good? Things that have reformed, that have redeemed themselves?

Well, the word hack may be just such a thing. This word has evolved quite a lot over the last decades, and we can look at old editions of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to illustrate.

Here is the entry from the 3rd edition of OALD, published back in 1974:Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 3rd editionWe can see that the majority of meanings of hack refer to something bad: cutting something roughly or clumsily (including bodies – very gory!), coughing, a hard and boring job.

Now let’s fast-forward a quarter of a century to the publication of the 6th edition of OALD in the year 2000 and see what has happened to the entry for hack:file1-3The rough chopping of bodies still figures (see sense 1 above), and the computing meaning has been added (sense 3). This meaning is quite familiar to us these days – we often hear about hackers and hacking in the news, it’s one of those bad things in the news that I mentioned earlier.

And we’ve got an idiomatic newcomer in “I can’t hack it” (sense 4), used when you’re in a bad situation and you can’t cope. Still bad!

The noun still describes two bad-sounding jobs, and we’ve got some negative derivatives and compounds (hacker, hacked off, etc.).

And so as we entered the new millennium hack was still bad. But let’s bring things up to date to 2019, when we have more new meanings to include.

In addition to the old negatives, there is now a more positive computing sense for both verb and noun, referring to working quickly (although not necessarily officially or elegantly) to create something:

  • We spent the morning hacking around with HTML and building web pages.
  • I could maybe try to come up with some sort of hack to fix that bug.

And the newest meaning of the noun is undeniably positive: “a strategy or technique that you use in order to manage an activity in a more efficient way”.

So now a hack will actually make a task or an activity, maybe even your whole life, better or easier.

Have a look at these examples:

  • Another hack that will save time is to cover your side mirrors with a plastic bag when freezing rain is forecast.
  • Have you got any clever parenting hacks?
  • Why not try these genius food hacks to save time?
  • This useful website offers good lifehacks for better use of your time and your technology.

The Internet is full of hacks these days, from the best way to perfectly fold a T-shirt, to using duct tape to open tough lids (yes, honestly!), or how to create a watering can out of an empty milk container. They are always called hacks or lifehacks these days – try putting the terms in your Internet search engine and see what handy tips and tricks you can find.

So there you go folks, hack is something that used to be bad but is now good. Well, sometimes. You know, apart from the criminal activity of getting into someone else’s computer or phone, roughly cutting up things (often bodies, it seems), a bad cough, a poorly paid and boring writing job, etc. But still, it’s a chink of light in what can sometimes seem a gloomy world!

Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


There are moments in life when an everyday word isn’t enough. Sometimes you want an unfamiliar word that will add extra force to your opinion. So next time you’re stuck in bad traffic and want to let off some steam, instead of saying the traffic is awful or terrible, why not try hellacious? A word like this will make a listener or reader sit up and take notice – at least until they’ve heard it three or four times.

May 2019

In fact, according to the OED, hellacious is not actually a new word (apparently it dates from the 1930s), but in reality it has only become commonplace over the last few years. As well as describing traffic problems, it is often used for the weather (e.g. hellacious snowstorms/drought/heat) or a period of time (e.g. a hellacious week or summer). But the most common area of usage is sport. Boxing commentators may refer to a hellacious punch or a hellacious uppercut; in baseball, they talk about a hellacious pitch or a hellacious curve ball and in American football a hellacious hit. Occasionally, it even has a positive connotation:

Like I said, this is going to be one hellacious ride!

One of the things that strike you about the examples is that they are almost all from a North American, not a British, context. Hellacious is a popular word in the world of baseball, basketball, American football, but not in the world of cricket or soccer. It is only slowly crossing over into British English.

Hellacious is one of a number of ‘invented’ adjectives. In this case, the word is simply formed by adding a typical adjective ending (-acious) to the word hell. Another example is splendiferous (splendid + –ferous). In other cases, two adjectives are blended into one: for example, bodacious (a mix of bold + audacious), fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous), humongous (huge + monstrous) and ginormous (giant + enormous).

The word ginormous, which entered the language in the 1940s and originated in Britain, is well used and widely recognized, but it hasn’t achieved the same popularity as its synonym, humongous. Despite being the newest of all these adjectives (according to the OED), humongous is by far the most frequently used. Originating in 1970s America, this word is now a regular part of informal English:

‘That was great Katie,’ he said with a humongous smile.

An already huge company would become truly humongous in terms of its wealth and power.

All of these adjectives would be considered informal and are marked as such in dictionaries. However, they are not rare or unusual. So, for example, all of them (apart from splendiferous and fantabulous) are sufficiently well-established to occur in predictive text if you’re using an Apple device.

I think we can be certain that more adjectives like this will be invented but whether they will become embedded in the language is another matter. Craptacular and ridonkulous, for example, are ones whose usage remains low.

A new one that I’ve come across recently is monumentous. It has been used on more than one occasion to describe Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. I wonder if, in fact, it may simply be a slip of the tongue or the pen, but it seems appropriate (whichever side you’re on) to reach for a word that goes beyond simply monumental or momentous.

Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

What is a core vocabulary?

It’s very difficult to say exactly how many words there are in the English language because it depends how you count them and, of course, language is changing and growing all the time. But even at a conservative estimate, there are well over a quarter of a million distinct English words . That makes the task of teaching vocabulary to learners of English seem a rather daunting one.

Thankfully, Zipf’s Law comes to our rescue. This states that a handful of the most frequent words in the language account for a disproportionately large chunk of any text, either written or spoken. The top 2000 most frequent words, in particular, make up somewhere around 80% of most texts. That makes frequency a good rule-of-thumb indicator of the words we should probably focus on teaching first.

The Oxford 3000TM: then and now

With this aim in mind, the Oxford 3000 word list was first put together back in 2005. Since then, the list has been widely used by learners, teachers, syllabus designers and materials writers to help them choose which vocabulary is worth spending most time over. Fourteen years on, however, it was time for an update. The new Oxford 3000 has had a thorough revision including a new look at the criteria for inclusion and the use of new frequency data based on a much larger and more up-to-date corpus.

Ox3000 logo

Frequency vs. relevance

Whilst frequency is the guiding principle behind choosing which words to include on the list, it doesn’t quite work as a basis for selection on its own. That’s in part because there are a surprising number of words that describe basic things in the world around us and that learners would expect to learn quite early on that actually wouldn’t qualify for a top 3000 on frequency alone. So, words like apple and passport, for example, probably wouldn’t make the cut.

Thus, the new Oxford 3000 balances frequency with relevance to the average learner. As well as how common they are, the list compilers took into account whether words are typically used to talk about the kinds of themes and functional areas common in an ELT syllabus, and the types of tasks and topics needed in English exams.

A core vocabulary as a starting point

It would be wrong, however, to assume that 3000 words will be enough on their own for a learner to read and communicate successfully in English. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary, that is, a solid basis that students can build around.

At the lowest levels, words on the list are likely to make up the bulk of the learner’s repertoire. So, for an A1 learner, for example, 90% of their vocabulary might consist of basic core words. As learners progress and want to read about and express a wider range of ideas, though, while they will still rely heavily on that core, they will also need to supplement it with vocabulary from other sources. The Oxford 3000 aims to provide a core vocabulary for learners up to roughly B2 level. By this stage, more and more of the vocabulary they acquire will reflect the unique interests and needs of each individual learner.

Click here to access the Oxford 3000, Oxford 5000 and Oxford Phrase List.

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher. She’s written a wide range of ELT materials, but has a particular passion for words and always gets drawn back to vocabulary teaching. She’s worked on a range of learner’s dictionaries and other vocabulary resources, including the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles.

Watch Julie’s webinar to find out more about how the Oxford 3000 and Oxford 5000 were compiled, how the words have been aligned to the CEFR to guide learners, and how you can use the word lists in your teaching.

Why do we need EAP word lists?

The EAP vocabulary challenge

If you are like me, and your English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching typically consists of a mixed group of students from a variety of language backgrounds and a variety of academic disciplines, then you know how difficult it can be to satisfy everyone’s needs. The pre-sessional PhD student who is going to go on to study cosmic black holes may get frustrated if the teacher spends a lot of time engaging with the special terminology of medicine for another student in the class. It is far more straightforward if you are teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), the special language needed for groups who share the same discipline, for example a class of marine biologists or a group of town planners.

Given the size of the vocabulary of all our academic disciplines put together, with a total specialist terminology that probably runs into tens of thousands of words, we are faced with what would seem to be an impossible task. However, thanks to the power of corpora (computer-searchable databases of written and spoken texts), we are able to establish a common core of vocabulary which is used across a wide range of disciplines, one that we can use in teaching. You may well already be aware of general English word lists for EAP that are freely available online or which have been incorporated into some of the text books you and your students use. Nonetheless, a general English word list only tells us part of the story, and we need to do more to arrive at something which will genuinely be usable and useful for our EAP students.

A common core?

Let’s consider what a common core vocabulary for EAP might look like. There are different options for exploiting corpora, and each one has PROS and CONS:

  • A straightforward frequency list going from the most frequent to the least frequent words that are shared across many or all disciplines.

PROS: Easy to produce at the click of a mouse if you have lots of academic texts stored in a computer. We can focus on different segments of the list for students at different proficiency levels.

CONS: The list will still be very long, and much of it will be common, everyday words your students already know from general English.

  • A keyword list: this tells you which words are significant and distinct in academic English, when compared with any other type of English.

PROS: More powerful and targeted than a frequency list. We can concentrate on the ‘fingerprint’ or ‘DNA’ of academic English.

CONS: It’s not immediately obvious why a word might score so highly as a keyword. ‘Terms’ is an academic keyword. Is it because universities and colleges break the year up into teaching terms, or is it something else?

  • A list of chunks: chunks are recurring patterns of words. Most corpus software can produce lists of the most frequent 2-word, 3-word, 4-word, etc. chunks in a corpus of texts.

PROS: Chunks are extremely common in all kinds of texts and are fundamental in creating meaning, for example, structuring academic arguments, linking parts of texts, etc. They take us way beyond single words.

CONS: The computer often finds chunks that are incomplete or not easy to understand out of context (e.g. in the sense that).

Is one set of lists enough?

All these different ways of approaching a common core for EAP have pros and cons, as we have seen, and in most cases, it’s true to say that the pros outweigh the cons. But there is another factor, too. Much of a student’s experience of academic life will come through speaking and listening. The students I teach typically must write essays, dissertations and reports, but they also have to attend lectures, take part in seminars and discussions and give presentations. So good academic word lists will consist of different lists for spoken and written EAP, taken from different corpora. Spoken EAP often overlaps in surprising ways with conversational English and yet is still first and foremost concerned with transmitting, creating and sharing academic knowledge. How is that achieved? The big question is: what do we learn from separating spoken and written EAP lists?

Then what?

Even if we build an ideal set of lists, the question remains as to how we can use them. Simply drilling and learning lists is not enough; the real challenge is how to harness the words, keywords and chunks to create continuous texts in speaking and writing. First comes the problem of meaning, so it will be necessary to experience and to practise the common core words and chunks in context; we may find that a particular word or chunk has developed a special meaning in one or more disciplines but not in a wide range of disciplines. It will also be important to exploit technological resources such as links between word lists and online dictionaries and other resources. No one, simple approach will deliver the results we hope to get from word lists, and an integrated approach will serve us best.

Click here for a collection of four different word lists that together provide an essential guide to the most important words to know in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP): OPAL (the Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon).

OPAL logo

Michael McCarthy is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. He is author/co-author/editor of 53 books, including Touchstone, Viewpoint, the Cambridge Grammar of English, English Grammar Today, Academic Vocabulary in Use, From Corpus to Classroom, and titles in the English Vocabulary in Use series. He is author/co-author of 113 academic papers. He has co-directed major corpus projects in spoken English. He has lectured in English and English teaching in 46 countries.

Watch Michael’s webinar to find out more about the power of corpora to create EAP word lists. See some examples from OPAL, and get some practical ideas for using the word lists in your teaching.

People smuggling

Smuggling is nothing new. As long as there have been borders between countries and laws about what can and can’t be taken across them, there have been smugglers who have made money by breaking those laws. The coast of Cornwall, with its many inlets and caves, was in past centuries notorious for smuggling, in particular of gin and brandy. Today drug smuggling remains a lucrative business for criminals and gangs around the world.

The smuggling of people is not a new phenomenon either, but it is only recently that the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) has added people smuggling and people smuggler as entries. Why is that?

The reason is that with the dramatic rise in the number of refugees trying to reach Europe and then cross into various parts of the EU, people smuggling has become a common experience for many refugees, and in turn the discussion around the plight of the refugees has been critical of the often deceitful role played by people smugglers. Millions of people have paid smugglers large amounts of money to take them from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea, in lorries from France to England, and to cross heavily guarded borders within the European continent. People smuggling has become enough of a phenomenon in contemporary life that the term has entered everyday language. People trafficking is a similar term that is also fairly new to OALD, but implies something even worse: that the people are being transported against their will to work in the sex trade or other forms of forced labour.

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People have left their homes and travelled across the globe at different times and for different reasons throughout history. Different waves of migration have generated language specific to them.

Émigré entered the English language at the time of the French Revolution, and was used during the Cold War in relation to people who left countries of the Eastern Bloc for the West for political reasons. It is rarely heard these days. Similarly, (political) exile tends not to be used about the contemporary situation.

Before the Second World War, people who arrived in the UK from other countries were often referred to as aliens. Now for British children that word will only conjure up space creatures!

A term adopted directly from German and from the more distant past is Kindertransport, which refers to a special operation to evacuate Jewish children from Nazi-controlled areas of Europe to the UK between 1938 and 1940.

The Vietnamese who fled their country by sea after the Vietnam War were known as boat people.

The main terms used today to refer to people moving from one country to another are: refugee, immigrant, migrant and asylum seeker. A refugee is defined as ‘a person who has been forced to leave their home or country, because there is a war or for political, religious or social reasons’. Until the claims of people on the move are assessed, it is not possible to say how many are refugees according to the strict definition. All of these people are often referred to broadly as refugees in the meantime.

The basic meaning of immigrant is someone who has entered a country from somewhere else intending to stay. (Emigrant, which means a person who has left a country for another, is no longer in common use.) Migrant covers people both leaving and arriving. As with any subject which arouses strong differences of opinion, these words are not free of certain connotations. Immigrant is often used critically together with the adjective illegal.

Concerns often centre around whether the people on the move are eligible for asylum or not. Asylum seekers as a group might gain broader public sympathy, but governments vary in how they interpret the criteria for being granted asylum.

While migrant can be used neutrally, terming people economic migrants suggests they have left their country voluntarily to earn more, to have a higher standard of living, not through force of circumstance, when the reality can in fact be more complicated and the distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants consequently more blurred. Whether economic migrants are seen as a good or a bad thing and given assistance to settle elsewhere is one of the political questions of the day.

Interestingly, UK citizens who have gone to live in other countries are not generally referred to as emigrants, immigrants or migrants but as expats (or using the full word, expatriates) – a term free of the critical connotations the others can carry.

A new term – Dreamer – has emerged for children of parents who have settled in the US, who do not yet hold US citizenship but could be eligible for a temporary US work permit.

There are also a lot of terms, mostly too specialized for OALD, that are connected with the refugee experience. When I was working with refugees in Sarajevo earlier this year, refugees of various nationalities spoke in English of “going out on game”,  referring to their attempts – in some cases repeated several times over –  to cross the Bosnian–Croatian border in particular into the EU. I doubt this expression would be understood by people outside that setting. Those attempts to move on from Bosnia were fraught with danger: difficult routes through mountains, wolves, freezing temperatures in winter, and often brutal border guards. Border violence is a meaningful term now for the various NGOs monitoring and campaigning against such treatment of refugees, along with pushback: forcing refugees back into the countries they are trying to leave (a new sense of an existing word).

Governments and legal systems use vast amounts of terminology, or jargon, in discussing the handling of refugees. The term unaccompanied minors was widely heard during the debate over how many of the child refugees in Calais the UK Government would agree to bring over and take care of. Calls to broaden the scope for family reunion continue. Immigration detention is in the news again now as legislation is debated that might result in the adoption of a limit (28 days) on the time someone can be detained in the UK solely in connection with their immigration status. And see our February blog, which features non-refoulement (= the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are at risk of harm).

Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in the Department of ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar. During her recent sabbatical, she spent a month in Sarajevo working with refugees for the charity Aid Brigade.


What do these expressions have in common?

left field
curve ball
step up to the plate

They’re all expressions used in baseball, but they also all have another, figurative meaning. Backstop is perhaps the word we’ve heard most in the UK in recent weeks. In the context of the UK’s border with Ireland, I think many of us would struggle to explain exactly what it means. Fortunately the third definition of the word in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary helps us to understand what it represents:


Now, most of us would not claim to be experts on the legal details of Brexit, but nor, I suspect, would all that many people on the Eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean claim detailed knowledge of baseball. Yet we seem to have no problem adopting figurative expressions without knowing their original literal meaning. All of these examples come from British English sources:

Here is a movie straight out of left field.

That seemed so far out of left field that no one saw it coming. Robot dinosaurs.

The defence barrister told the judge that the evidence from the detective sergeant had “come out of left field this morning”.

And similarly, although we Brits might be used to facing a googly on the cricket pitch, and metaphorically in life in general, it seems we are also happy to talk about a curve or a curve ball without really knowing what that would mean in baseball.

curve ball

We now find plenty of evidence on the British English corpus of curve ball being used in this metaphorical sense:

Sometimes life throws you a massive curve ball.

… political and economic risks that could throw markets a curve ball

but so far we haven’t really started using wheelhouse in a figurative sense. We have a wheelhouse on a boat, but we’re less aware of the baseball meaning:


and it is from this that the transferred meaning must come:


We don’t find this use in the British English corpus unless American speakers are being quoted:

Biden told a crowd in Missoula … “The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life …”

Those are kind of in my wheelhouse, those types of golf courses

“Please stay in your wheelhouse – you can have an opinion but let’s acknowledge that you have no legal expertise”

shutterstock_144635219Maybe this will eventually also filter into British English, because as we’ve seen, we aren’t worried about the original meaning if the figurative sense turns out to be useful. In British English we are happy to step up to the plate, even though we might not be sure where that is on the baseball pitch.

In fact, this has always happened – figurative meanings become so common that they may overtake and eventually completely eclipse the literal sense. We frequently talk about the mainspring of something without perhaps realizing that this originally referred to a part of a watch. The idea of ‘the most important part of something’ is now listed as the first sense of the word, with the watch meaning relegated to second. For a similar word, linchpin, the literal meaning – the pin that keeps a wheel in position – no longer appears in the OALD at all. Nor does the original meaning of broadside, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, which covers historical meanings, as ‘the whole array or the simultaneous discharge of the artillery on one side of a ship of war’. Naval historians might still be familiar with that use, but now we only think of a broadside as ‘an aggressive attack in words, whether written or spoken’.

We can see this happening in our own times. How long will it be before the first meaning of carbon copy moves to second place, and maybe disappears completely?

carbon copy

Interestingly, the expression lives on in the digital age – but how many younger speakers (who might never have seen a piece of carbon paper) realize when they say ‘cc me in on the email’ what that first ‘c’ stands for? Strangely enough, words can have a longer life than the things they represent!

Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.