Trigger warning

shutterstock-101581390In March this year, the entertainment company Netflix released the television series 13 Reasons Why. The fictional series, based on a novel by Jay Asher, involved graphic depictions of rape and suicide, prompting viewers to petition Netflix to add clear trigger warnings to the series’ opening credits.

Also in March this year, British prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, beginning Britain’s two-year exit process from the European Union.

The link between these two seemingly unrelated events, if you haven’t already worked it out, is the word trigger. First used solely as a noun (‘A movable catch or lever the pulling or pressing of which releases a detent or spring, and sets some force or mechanism in action’), trigger first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1621 as tricker and this form was still commonly used until around 1750. Trigger originates from the Dutch ‘trekken’, which means ‘to pull’. Hence, we pull a trigger.

For a long time, trigger was only used in the literal sense to talk about the trigger of a gun or another mechanism. It wasn’t until around 1978 when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an official diagnosis that the figurative sense of the noun trigger became common. In psychological terms, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a PTSD sufferer to be emotionally transported back to their original trauma. It could be a particular sight, sound or smell, for example a song on the radio or the smell of a brand of perfume or aftershave.

The use of trigger in a PTSD context has also helped form the term trigger warning, which was added to early last year. Trigger warning is defined by as a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. that warns readers or viewers that the subsequent media contains material that they may find upsetting. Advisory labels and cautions are not a new phenomenon. We are used to seeing age guidance ratings on films and hearing the words ‘with scenes some viewers may find upsetting’ before a particularly dramatic episode of our favourite soap opera. But the digital age and our increasing reliance on the Internet created the need for a simple term that could preface any social media post containing potentially upsetting content. Step forward trigger warning, or TW for short.

Whilst the term trigger warning originated online, it soon moved offline. Recently there have been calls for trigger warnings before university lecture material, on book covers, and, as highlighted above, at the beginning of television programmes. With such strong demand for the series 13 Reasons Why to carry clearer trigger warnings, Netflix had no choice but to comply. In May 2017 a trigger warning was added to the opening credits of the first episode in the series to caution viewers about the graphic content and to point them towards possible sources of support if necessary. Material can now be described as being ‘triggering’, an adjectival form to describe content that, intentionally or unintentionally, causes emotional distress.

As mentioned above, Article 50 was controversially triggered in March this year. Why was Article 50 triggered rather than activated or launched? I suspect it’s because trigger is the only word that successfully and neatly communicates the idea of the official start of something, much like pulling the trigger of a starting pistol in a race. The most appropriate synonyms tend to be phrasal verbs such as set off, give rise to, and set in motion, all of which would be less succinct than simply trigger, and the latter two would take up extra precious character spaces in tweets, Facebook statuses and news headlines. A cardinal sin in a world where we commonly read articles on six-inch mobile phone screens.

It seems safe to say that over the past 400 or so years trigger has managed to trigger a lot more than just the movable catch of a lever. Who knows what it will trigger in the next 400 years…

Stacey Bateman is a Production Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Spain and worked for a sports and local interest publisher in Derby before joining OUP in 2011.

Changes in the use of the subjunctive

Here’s a grammar question for you. Which form of the verb be would you use in the first sentence below, and which form of the verb take in the second?

I wish that Kirsty … here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam … his phone with him.

Prescriptive grammars, which tell you how you should and shouldn’t use language, will say that you must use were in the first sentence and take in the second.

I wish that Kirsty were here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam take his phone with him.

oup_56043_croppedThe forms were and take in the second pair of sentences are often called subjunctive verb forms which indicate that a particular situation is unreal or not the case (Kirsty is not at the party; Sam hasn’t (yet) taken his phone with him), but is nevertheless wished-for. The second example above illustrates the use of the so-called mandative subjunctive to indicate the importance or necessity of something happening. Subjunctive verb forms will be familiar to you if you speak one or more of the romance languages, such as Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese.

But are were and take the only correct forms in the sentences above? More descriptively oriented grammar books will tell you that you can also use was and takes, or should take, at least in British English:

I wish that Kirsty was here to celebrate with us.

It’s essential that Sam takes his phone with him.

It’s essential that Sam should take his phone with him.

The first sentence uses the regular third person past tense form of the verb be, and the second uses the regular third person present tense form of take. In the third sentence we have an example of mandative should, which offers an alternative way of expressing necessity. These sentences would sound perfectly normal to many (especially younger) British speakers, but they would sound ungrammatical, or at least unusual, to many American ears.

Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, the Fowler brothers famously claimed in their book The King’s English that the mandative subjunctive should be avoided because it can be ‘dangerous’ (!) and is often ‘unpleasantly formal’. In any case, they argued, the subjunctive is unnecessary and about to disappear from the English language. It turned out that the Fowlers were wrong, and that not only did the subjunctive survive, it had a revival in British English during the second part of the twentieth century. For some, this caused anxiety, as this passage from Catherine Nesbitt from the early 1960s shows:

Today I would like to draw attention to something far more serious, the unexpected revival of the Subjunctive Mood, which seems to have begun in this country less than ten years ago and is now spreading so rapidly that, if left unchecked, it will do real damage to the structure of the language, a far more harmful thing than any craze for the latest fashionable word.

The revival of the subjunctive is quite surprising because to many modern ears it does sound rather quaint and formal. So what could be the reasons for it? Linguists have speculated that it may have happened under the influence of American English, in which the subjunctive was always more frequent. American English has been influencing British English ever since films, music and television programmes made their way across the ocean. However, some recent research suggests that the increased use of the subjunctive has now stalled. Who knows, in the longer term maybe the Fowlers may still be proved right about the subjunctive disappearing from the English language.

Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is a founder of the Englicious website which contains free English language teaching resources and writes the blog Grammarianism for teachers of English.


Do you heart new words? Even when they are symbols? Or does a heart meaning the word love, but spoken as heart, irritate you as much as it did this writer back in 1983?

I’m delighted to see there’s finally been a revolt against the annoying use of a stylized little red heart in place of the word ‘love’—as in ‘I (heart) New York’.

200px-I_Love_New_York.svgUnfortunately for him/her, the revolt was not successful, and the symbol and verb to heart is now part of everyday speech, particularly popular with designers of mugs, T-shirts, baseball caps, etc.

The use of this symbol for love isn’t new. In the art world the heart has appeared in religious iconography over the centuries, usually as a bleeding or sacred heart of a suffering god or saint, representing sacrificial love. Less artistically, we’ve also seen it as a symbol of romantic love, pierced with an arrow linking two names, as in ‘Romeo 💘 Juliet’, and inscribed on walls, carved in trees and scribbled on notebooks all over the world. Here it’s usually read as loves and not hearts. This simple symbol has moved from fine art through graffiti and now into print, where its use as the verb heart seems to irritate people.

57249English is a very flexible language, and there’s nothing new about nouns being used as verbs. The use of heart as a verb goes back to Old English, and the eleventh century poem of Beowulf, although most of the various meanings are now obsolete. Shakespeare, that most inventive and innovative user of language, used heart as a verb in Othello, though with a different meaning (= being fixed in the heart):

I hate the Moor, my cause is hearted, thine has no less reason.

We’re still making new verbs from nouns. Have you architected, diagrammed or databased anything recently? How did this impact your work? Sometimes these words seem little more than substitutes for other perfectly good verbs, such as build for architect or affect for impact, but there may be good reason for their use. Architect in this sense refers to the making of programs and systems (by a data architect) rather than building physical structures; impact, with its connotations of hit, sounds stronger than affect, or perhaps it’s just simpler to use, when affect can be all too easily confused with effect. The verbs diagram and database are used here as shortcuts for ‘to represent something in a diagram’ and ‘to put something in a database’. Some might call this usage laziness, others might say it’s poetic.

The digital revolution gives almost everyone the opportunity to write and publish online, where websites, blogs, forums, social media are open to all, and so language is changing faster than ever. Readers and writers react quickly, keying (first recorded 1964) or texting (1998) their views, and often language is reworked, abbreviations are used, shortcuts taken. Some changes are passing fads, but others catch on, are copied and become established, entering the ever-expanding lexicon of the English language.

Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining Oxford University Press in 2004, she taught English in London to adults from many countries.

Fur baby

shutterstock_136164980_croppedMy children are a little different to the children of my friends and colleagues… The most obvious distinction is probably that my two boys both have four legs, a tail and a thick coat of fur. These are not conventional children – these are my fur babies.

Added to Oxford Dictionaries online in 2015 (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website), fur baby is an informal term for ‘a person’s dog, cat, or other furry pet animal’. The phrase has positive connotations, at least in the eyes of animal lovers, and a corpus search reveals that fur baby is often combined with such favourable adjectives as beloved, adorable, precious and beautiful. By employing the term, we devoted pet parents can demonstrate to others just how important a role our animals play in our families and in our lives.

It must be acknowledged that some people will find the notion of fur babies very strange, especially those from cultures where animals are not treated in this way. While they may question whether a direct comparison can (or indeed should) be drawn between one’s biological children and one’s pets, I would argue that fur babies are in many ways very like their less furry, human counterparts. We welcomed a new puppy into our home last October and so ensued many a sleepless night, troubles with toilet-training, teething and picky eating, and tantrums galore, to say nothing of the difficulties we ran into when our little boy hit adolescence. Sibling rivalry is also a concern and we are still trying to reconcile the cat to having a younger canine ‘brother’.

Although fur baby may be a relatively recent coinage, the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals is not a new one. We even have a word for this concept: anthropomorphism. Defined in OALD as ‘the practice of treating gods, animals or objects as if they had human qualities’, anthropomorphism and its related adjective anthropomorphic and verb anthropomorphize are derived from the Greek anthrōpomorphos, itself from anthrōpos meaning ‘human being’ and morphē meaning ‘form’.

We don’t only anthropomorphize in everyday life: anthropomorphized animals figure very prominently in literature. Some classic examples from English literature are The Tale of Peter Rabbit (and Beatrix Potter’s other creations), Winnie-the-Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. While anthropomorphism is more prevalent in children’s literature, a famous work aimed at an adult audience, in which the majority of characters are anthropomorphized animals, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

There are also many examples of stories that anthropomorphize from other traditions. Aesop’s Fables, accredited to the Greek storyteller Aesop, and the Indian Panchatantra are collections of fables (= stories that teach moral lessons) about animals which behave in a human way. Anthropomorphic animals are also commonplace in fairy tales and folk tales, such as the traditional European story Little Red Riding Hood (versions of which were included in the compilations of tales put together by Charles Perrault of France and the Brothers Grimm of Germany), the West African folk tales (which later crossed to the Caribbean) about Anansi the trickster spider, and the Brer Rabbit stories of the southern United States.

Anthropomorphism is a well established linguistic device, with device in this sense being understood to mean ‘a form of words intended to produce a particular effect in speech or a literary work’. The OALD entry for anthropomorphic contains a link to the topic dictionary for Linguistic devices, where you can explore many more such terms, including others also of Greek origin, like chiasmus and zeugma. (Our topic dictionaries are groups of words related to common subject areas. You can browse all of our topic dictionaries here.)

So, whether in life or in literature, it is certainly not uncommon to ascribe human traits to animals and I, for one, am all for promoting our pets to full-blown family members: fur babies.

Kallah Pridgeon is mummy to Ludo the dog and Arthur the cat. When not tending to her fur babies, she works as an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.


Lee Blaylock Food StylistHave you ever found yourself in a restaurant or café, having made your choice but facing the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce it? Menus in English are often peppered with words borrowed from different languages; after all, just like our language, our cuisine draws on influences from throughout the world. And like the food itself, the words have become anglicized as our prowess in foreign languages falls a little short of our multilingual neighbours.

To the chagrin (or bemusement) of Italian speakers, ordering a panini is far from the only time we misuse foreign food words. An example soon to be added to OALD online in this category is biscotti – but the Oxford English Corpus quotes ‘I grabbed a latté and a biscotti’, a faux pas not uncommon among native English speakers. Both biscotti and panini are plural nouns in the original Italian, but even English plurals can be a source of inaccuracies, and can be found with a scattering of decorative apostrophes on menus and signs, so it is hardly surprising that we stumble over asking for bruschetta – is it /bruˈʃetə/ or /bruˈsketə/? You’re less likely to be understood in English-speaking countries if you pronounce it correctly, /bruˈsketə/. And what’s worse, you risk looking rather pedantic.

And this risk isn’t limited to ordering food – perhaps at your next coffee klatch with friends you might stumble over what to drink, too. If you search for latte in OALD, it will redirect you to caffè latte, which would be understood in Italy. But in English-speaking countries it has become the norm to ask for a latte (pronounced by most /ˈlɑːteɪ/), which might confuse an Italian. Why would a fully-grown adult just be ordering milk? But not only this; sometimes we go even further in our attempts to be exotic, adding superfluities such as the accent you might have noticed sneaking in above (‘I grabbed a latté…’).

Ironically, we seem to think this lends more authenticity to a foreign word. Here’s another example from the Oxford English Corpus:

There’s a salsa bar of sorts from which you can choose your heat, from mild to habañero. The place feels authentic.

Well, perhaps it feels authentic to those who don’t know that Habanero has no tilde – but maybe the confusion comes from the similarity to jalapeños, which, like fajitas and tacos, English speakers make a good stab at pronouncing authentically. Having taught modern foreign languages to secondary school students, I became more aware of this rather endearing tendency to pop an accent on a word to make it seem less like an English word whose translation has been guessed at. Or we go to the other extreme and treat foreign borrowings as English, such as adding the regular ending to make the French past participle sauté an English one, to make sautéed potatoes.

And speaking of confusion, a recent TV cookery competition in the UK sparked debate (even anger) over the pronunciation of chorizo, with the sausage being pronounced in three different ways: /ʃəˈriːzəʊ/, /tʃəˈriːtsəʊ/ (perhaps because people think it’s Italian?) and /tʃəˈriːθəʊ/. We seem to be able to pronounce churros, so why not the /tʃ/ of chorizo?

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry that languages are not really our forte: the English language is a melting pot of words borrowed and tweaked from others throughout the centuries, why stop adding to the mix now?

(Incidentally, forte comes from French, so why do we pronounce it as though it were Italian?!)

Isabel Tate is Dictionaries Assistant in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Learning languages is her forte and, when not sipping lattes and baking lasagnes, she has taught languages in the UK, France and Italy, and biscotti-making in Peru.


You know the situation when you and a friend are talking about someone, and that person overhears you?

In the past, you might have described this situation as ‘awkward’, but now you can describe it as ‘awks’, as in ‘OMG, she was standing right behind me! Awks!’ (pronounced /ɔːks/).


After all, why use a whole word when just half a word will do? It’s fewer letters to write, and a whole syllable shorter to speak, thereby saving valuable nanoseconds in our busy, 21st century lives! It’s also fun to play around with shortening words in this way, and there’s a lot of it about.

As usual, this is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been shortening words for centuries. Contracted words such as bye, phone and exam are so thoroughly entrenched in our everyday vocabulary that we barely notice them as such, although in a formal or technical context we may use the word ‘examination’ instead of exam, and might prefer ‘laboratory’ to lab. One of the earliest recorded examples of word shortening is that of gent (for ‘gentleman’), which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as occurring as early as 1564. And we’ve been happily slicing bits off words left, right and centre ever since, leaving a trail of unwanted syllables and letters. Any part of the word could be rejected in the trimming process:




refrigerator (at least this one gets an extra ‘d’ to compensate for the loss of eight other letters: fridge)

It seems that nowadays we are abbreviating words with a new energy; and we’re no longer just lopping off syllables, we’re modifying those that are left and tweaking spellings accordingly:

So ‘awkward’ becomes awks (/ɔːks/), ‘totally’ becomes totes (/təʊts/), ‘natural’ becomes natch (/næʧ/), and ‘jealous’ becomes jel (/ʤel/). Even ‘emotional’ can become emoshe (/ɪˈməʊʃ/), and ‘casual’ cazh (/kæʒ/).

For now, these truncated words can only be used in informal English – in informal spoken conversation between friends, in light-hearted social media postings, etc. For example:

This is embarrassing but I was totes asleep.

He passed all his exams, natch (= of course).

I’ve got a new phone, my friends are gonna be well jel (= very jealous)!

For now at least, these newer clipped words and others like them have not quite made it into the mainstream, and many people will not be familiar with any of them. There’s actually been an entry for totes in OALD online for a couple of years now; we also have entries for comms and even fam – two more words that can lose their endings in our modern-day, quick-fire language. However, there’s nothing in OALD yet for awks or jel. Will they make it into a future update? And will long, polysyllabic words eventually become a thing of the past? Surely not, at least not for an extremely long time. For now, we can amuse ourselves and each other by cropping some of our words down to just one or two syllables – fab!

Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Before joining OUP, she spent many years teaching students and training teachers.

In silico

57916_2‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a saying that languages have always ignored. Judging by the number of English words that have been adopted by other languages over the last century or so, its status as one of the top ‘lenders’ must be unchallenged. But a borrower?  Yes, a number of new ‘English’ words are borrowed from other languages, too – Japanese, for example, has given us more than just emoji, kakuro and sashimi – most recently manga and mecha. We even borrow and then refashion words. The Italians have given us many words to do with food (which we mangle grammatically as well as in the pronunciation – think of ‘a panini’) and, enjoying so much good weather, they may like to dine al fresco. We borrowed that expression a long time ago – it sounds so much more exotic than ‘outside’. But even those of us who can’t even make it to the park at lunchtime can console ourselves by giving the expression a humorous twist and eating al desko.

It might seem surprising, though, to import new words from a dead language. And yet there are a number of words queuing up to get into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that look very much like Latin. Latin hasn’t been spoken as a vernacular for more than a millennium, so why would we want to import new words from it into English? Well, Latin is still around us, e.g. in specialist fields, viz. medicine, science, and so on, ergo if we need a new expression to fit in with terms we already use, yes, we make up some Latin.

We all know from science about in vivo and in vitro but nowadays experiments can be conducted without living creatures or even cultures in Petri dishes. They can be done virtually, using computer simulations, or in silico. When I was at school, ‘dissection’ meant cutting up a smelly fish in a biology lab – now science is so much more sophisticated:

Single-cell sequencing data enables in silico dissection of the drosophila embryo.

Scientists are turning to ‘in silico biology’, building computer models of the intricate processes that take place inside cells, organs, and even people.

Understanding how humans function is not just a matter for biology, but also for economists. In evolution, we are familiar with the progression from Homo habilis through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, but when commentators wanted to define the type of person who would rationally choose the solution which provides the greatest benefit, they called him Homo economicus.  Although the term has been around for about a century, apparently Homo economicus has turned out to be a mythical creature, because modern humans – thankfully – do not typically behave this way. But modern human beings are not totally blameless creatures. In fact we are having such an effect on the planet that a new geological term has been suggested to describe our times, the Anthropocene period. The epoch we are currently in is called the Holocene, which followed the Pleistocene, but it has been suggested that we need a term to reflect the fact that the geology of the world is now more affected by the activities of humans than anything else. So to fit the pattern already established a new word has been made from the Greek anthropos, ‘human being’ and kainos, ‘new’.

In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary we have an example at language:

Why study Latin? It’s a dead language.

But the classical languages haven’t met their nemesis yet!

Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. NB she taught languages for ten years before joining OUP and working on learner’s dictionaries e.g. the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Das Groβe Oxford Wörterbuch, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, q.v. for an explanation of these abbreviations!

Modal verbs: how their use has declined in recent times

mustAs is well-known, English has a number of core modal verbs, including can/could, will/would, shall/should, may/might, and must. These make it possible for us to express meanings such as ‘possibility’, ‘necessity’, ‘obligation’, ‘permission’, and the like. In an earlier blog post I discussed the declining use of the modal verb must over recent decades. A very likely reason for this is that speakers have become less willing to appear to be telling others what to do, even in situations when they are entitled to do so.

What about the other modal verbs in English? The table below shows how their use has declined across the board in written and spoken British English between the 1960s and the 1990s:*

Changes in modal usage, calculated as a percentage change per million words of text. Bold figures are statistically significant.

Notice first of all that the rate of change is different for the various modals in written and spoken English. For example, the use of can has increased more in spoken than in written English. This may be due to speakers using this verb more often to ask for permission than may, which has declined in use.

Let’s now take a closer look at shall, which is much more common in British English than in American English. Like must, it has also dropped dramatically in use. When used with first person subjects shall alternates with will:

I shall look into this.

I will look into this.

Is there a difference between these two ways of talking about a future event? From a stylistic point of view there is: the first of these alternatives sounds more formal, and is more likely to be used by older speakers. However, there is really no difference in meaning: both sentences are used to speak about a situation in the future.

Not everyone would agree with what I just wrote. Some writers would say that with first person subjects (I/we) will should be used to convey the idea of ‘wanting’, whereas shall should be used to talk about a neutral future. With other persons (he, you, they, etc.) shall should be used for promises/guarantees (Cinderella shall go to the ball), in ‘regulatory language’ (Students shall not enter the premises after midnight), or to express something that the speaker wants (You came for the action, and action you shall have). The journalist Simon Heffer explains the difference with a well-known anecdote in his book Strictly English (2012):

The Victorian schoolmaster had a way of impressing this distinction upon his charges, with the story of the boy who drowned: for he had cried out ‘I will drown, and no-one shall save me’.

Heffer regrets the fact that speakers no longer know how to use shall and will in the right way. Maybe it’s true that a useful distinction in English is lost. However, another way of looking at this development is to recognize that the language has changed in such a way that the difference between shall and will (other than in questions) is slowly disappearing because speakers no longer sense a meaning difference between these verbs. This would mean that speakers need only one verb, and it looks like will has won out. The increased use of will shown in the table above supports this hypothesis, but the increase is not as high as you would expect, so perhaps the table only offers a partial explanation for the trends in usage. What’s interesting is that the decline of shall is slightly higher in spoken English than in written English. This may well mean that the decline will spread in the future because changes in spoken language often make their way into written language.

Bas Aarts is Professor of English Linguistics at UCL and the author of Oxford Modern English Grammar. He is a founder of the Englicious website which contains free English language teaching resources and writes the blog Grammarianism for teachers of English.

* The data are from Bas Aarts, Jill Bowie and Sean Wallis (2015) Profiling the English verb phrase over time: modal patterns. In: Irma Taavitsainen, Merja Kytö, Claudia Claridge and Jeremy Smith (eds.) Developments in English: expanding electronic evidence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) and from Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith (2015) Change in contemporary English: a grammatical study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


Life is a contest – how idioms evolve

baseballIn their classic book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson argued that the whole way we view the world – the way we think, act and live – is governed by underlying concepts which are metaphorical in nature: for example ‘argument is war’ or ‘time is money’. We often think of metaphors as something unusual and poetic, challenging us to look at things in a different way, and literary metaphors may do just that. Everyday metaphors – idioms – on the other hand, may do the opposite. New idioms catch on because they fit into the way we already view the world.

The language of sport is a very fertile source of idioms. We love to view life, business or politics in terms of a game or contest. For Americans, the national sport above all others is baseball. Inside baseball means expert knowledge about baseball but it is also used for technical information about any subject (especially when there is too much of it, as in Don’t give me all the inside baseball.) Batting average is a term in both cricket and baseball but only in American English does it also mean ‘the level of success or achievement that a person or company has in an activity’. (The company’s batting average with new technologies has been spotty recently.) Wheelhouse has spread from its literal meaning in sailing to idiomatic uses in both baseball and life: right in your wheelhouse is the area where it’s easiest to hit the ball and also where you feel most comfortable and in control. If the situation gets more challenging, however, you may need to put on your game face (= a serious expression) so as not to let your opponent know what you are thinking. And if things get really serious, you may even find that life has stopped being a game and become a battlefield. If you are lucky you will manage to dodge a bullet but there is always a risk that innocent people will get caught in the cross hairs.

A conceptual metaphor that we can apply to language itself is the survival of the fittest. Words and expressions must adapt or die. There are many examples of idioms that have outlived their literal meanings. Some recent idioms reference items that are already old-fashioned or obsolete. Others have extended their use by changing their form. Some people keep repeating the same thing over and over in a way that is very annoying like a broken record (but who actually listens to records any more?) ‘What’s that in old money?’ we Brits of a certain age might ask when faced with ‘newfangled’ measures like kilograms. (The UK and Ireland decimalized their currencies in 1971.) new words_1A long time ago people used to wear hats in all weathers and to take your hat off to somebody was a sign of respect. The expression I take my hat off to you survived even when it became a metaphorical hat, not a literal one. Now there’s a new twist: in electronic communication, the preferred form of this expression is the ultra-concise hat tip, as in Hat tip to Jen Bradbery for the link to this blog.

Other new idioms reflect the activities and concerns of the time. During the 2016 elections for Mayor of London there was much discussion of dog whistle politics. It is well known that dog whistles sound at frequencies that dogs can hear but humans can’t. The term can be applied to a political message that is only intended for and heard by a particular group of people. (He made use of the dog whistle on issues like immigration and crime.) And President Obama popularized the mic drop. This is the act of deliberately dropping your microphone at the end of a performance or speech that you think you did particularly well. If there’s no microphone, never mind, you can drop it metaphorically: Wow! Boom! Mic drop! The US now has a new president and we may be entering a new era of fake news, post-truth and extreme vetting – three of the most recent items to be added in this update. Preliminary analyses in the media of Donald Trump’s language suggest he favours simplicity, repetition and hyperbole over metaphor. Is this the new normal?

Nonetheless, there’s a golden thread that runs through all of this. That’s an idea or feature that is present in all parts of something, holds it together and gives it value. It’s that language can express anything in human experience. If there is no word for the precise idea you want to convey, you can use your creativity and make one up. Metaphors are an easy way to do this, because of the extent to which we already view the world in metaphors. If other people recognize the concept behind your new expression, they may start using it too.

Finally, and on a completely unrelated note: buggy, glitchy, laggy, spammy, techie. Do you notice a trend in these new informal adjectives connected with computing? Which is the odd one out? Check out all the new words and meanings added to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site this month here.


Lakoff G. and Johnson M., Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press; 1980, 2003

Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurusa dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.


shutterstock-9929686In February 2016, equal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell found himself on the receiving end of accusations of racism and bigotry. Fran Cowling, a National Union of Students representative on LGBT issues in Britain, asked for Tatchell to withdraw from a university debate, saying she wouldn’t share a platform with him.

Tatchell defended himself vigorously, mobilizing support from other veterans of radical campaigns from the 1970s and 80s. In the end Ms Cowling was the one to step down, but not before a ferocious debate had been launched about the NUS no-platform policy and the limits of free speech.

So what is no-platforming?

Originating in the 1970s, the no-platform policy was designed to prevent racist, far right organizations from promoting their views on university campuses, and was a feature of student politics in the 70s and 80s.

It has come alive again recently, but this time veteran progressives such as ex-politician George Galloway and feminist writer Germaine Greer have found themselves under scrutiny for their outspoken opinions. New student leaders say that they are simply upholding the no-platform tradition of the 70s and 80s, to prevent social reactionaries (regardless of their past credentials) from spreading hatred and bigotry. The older generations accuse today’s student activists of being part of a ‘snowflake generation’, which is oversensitive and unable to face the challenges of free speech. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the argument between two generations of radicals has been very public and very acrimonious.

The word no-platform is not only of interest for its topicality but also linguistically, because it showcases the way words in English can transition from one part of speech to another. (Notice how I’ve cleverly shoehorned in examples of nouns that are now also used as verbs.)

The possibility of making verbs from nouns is a long-standing feature of English. What’s particularly interesting about no-platform is that it’s not a simple noun, but a two-word phrase that has been transformed into a verb. What’s more, it’s used as a transitive verb – you can ‘no-platform someone’. In fact, corpus data suggests that this use of the verb, and particularly the passive form, is a recent occurrence. See, for example, this headline:

Ignore the excuses – Peter Tatchell has been no-platformed.

This type of transformation isn’t limited to nouns or noun phrases. There are even examples of adverbial phrases being turned into verbs. For example, these two words come from the area of business (which seems to be a particularly rich source of this kind of linguistic change):

offshore: Thousands of these jobs have been offshored.
onboard: My focus has been restructuring how we do things when we onboard a client.

It’s hard sometimes not to wince (inwardly at any rate) when you hear some of these usages. But is that the right reaction? Should we decry their use as a decline in standards among contemporary speakers of English? Or should we embrace these words as a sign of the flexibility and creativity of English? It’s rather like the argument about no-platforming – what is offensive to some is a matter of freedom for others. And like that argument, it’s a debate that is likely to run and run.

Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department. Although he has authored books and online resources for learners of English, this is the first time that he has blogged on grammar.