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.


Perusing the new additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, I was struck by the term non-refoulement. As a Francophile working with refugees in my free time, it is not an unfamiliar term to me, nevertheless it prompted some questions.

Non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are at risk of harm, was first expressed in the context of international law in 1933, and its opposite, refoulement, has been in English since the mid-19th century, albeit in the sense ‘an instance of water being forced back into the channel of a river’.

My first thought was, why have we (so recently) adopted this French word in English, instead of finding an equivalent term in English?

feb 2019It is not uncommon to find French terms in legal vocabulary, but often there is a clear historical reason for this. It makes sense, for example, that legal terms such as arrest, bailiffculprit, jury, mortgage and parole came to English via Old French (even though some of these terms in modern French bear no resemblance to the original), because they came here at the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

In this same Medieval period, it wasn’t just French that was mixed with English in legal terminology. Unsurprisingly, Latin played an important role, too. The linguist David Crystal has written about the feature of legal language whereby words from different languages were paired together, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to emphasize certain points[i]. Among others, Crystal gives the English/French examples of ‘fit and proper’ and ‘lands and tenements’, and the English/Latin pairing ‘will and testament’, all of which are still commonly used today.

But herein lies my confusion. This use of language is both logical and promotes a certain ease of understanding (or at least used to). Whereas, to a mind such as mine, untrained in the intricacies of law, unfathomable legalese now far outweighs legal language which is easily understood.

Among OALD’s legal topic lists, words abound such as despoil, purloin, infringe, justiciary, violate, testimony, void, writ, nullify, vest in … words which you’re unlikely to come across in everyday English transactions. Others I’ve had fun discovering in OALD include affidavit, a fortiori, corpus delicti, de jure, fiduciary, habeas corpus, lieutenant, malfeasance, obiter dictum, prima facie, sine die, sub judice, subpoena, ultra vires. I wonder if you can do a better job than me at pronouncing these in English? And if you can, do you know what they mean?

Very few native speakers of English would be able to explain all of these terms. So why do we keep such complicated terminology? Would it be better to scrap all these French- and Latin-derived terms? When used in the press or on the television news, they usually have to be explained, so shouldn’t we just replace them with something simpler? Or do they in fact serve an important purpose?

After all, one of the charms of the English language is its precision, richness and nuance, which can be attributed to its borrowing of words from other languages throughout the ages [see in silico post]. If they are used enough, they become familiar. The word refugee, for example, is commonly understood nowadays, but perhaps wouldn’t have been so clear when it originally came to English from French in the late 17th century:


More recently, force majeure was adopted into English legalese, and is not unheard of in ‘normal’ life (albeit in specific situations) – so perhaps the newer addition non-refoulement just needs longer to trickle into our consciousness?

You may have noticed a common thread throughout these tricky terms borrowed from French and Latin – each one has a very precise meaning, because the law is a domain (like medicine) in which linguistic precision is paramount, de jure and de facto!

[i] David Crystal, The Stories of English (Penguin Books, 2004), Part 7.4.

Isabel Tate is an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.


The green-fingered among you may be familiar with the concept of a hothouse: a heated building, usually made of glass, used for growing delicate plants, for example those which need protection from cold weather. Outside the plant world, the term has acquired another less literal meaning and is used to describe a place or situation that encourages, especially in an intense way, the rapid growth or development of somebody or something, such as ideas, emotions, skills or knowledge, as you can see from these example sentences:

In the hothouse atmosphere of college there are plenty of opportunities for falling in love.

My school was a thrusting hothouse of academic achievement.

The Second World War was a hothouse for technological advance, the military having to innovate to survive; it produced advances in jet engines, radar, and computing, to cite three examples.

When Kierkegaard was twenty-two years old, he made his first foray into this literary hothouse.

Senior faculty scour the world for young researchers, graduate students, and postdoctoral candidates who might thrive in this cross-disciplinary hothouse.

This is not a social club. It is a hothouse where children as young as eight experience tennis, not as a sport in which to dabble and then lose, but as a serious, demanding, aspirational career.

If you have ever experienced the stifling temperatures of a hothouse, filled with flourishing plants, then you will not find it difficult to imagine how the term came to be applied to other similarly intense, or even oppressive, environments conducive to rapid development. Indeed, hothouse is a good example of how a word can evolve from a literal meaning to a figurative meaning. Interestingly, the evolution of hothouse has not stopped there: in its figurative sense, it is no longer used exclusively as a noun but now also as a verb. As a verb, hothouse means to train a child intensively, typically in academic work, music or a sport. It has not yet been added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online (although it will be in a future update), but is defined in Oxford’s native-speaker dictionary as follows: ‘educate or teach (a child) to a high level at an earlier age than is usual’. It is clear, then, how the verb was derived from the noun.

The often intense or stifling nature of a hothouse in its figurative sense means that it frequently has negative connotations attached to it. That said, the noun can also be used in a neutral or even positive way, as demonstrated by some of the example sentences above. However, as a verb hothouse seems to be predominantly negative: it is used to express disapproval of people or institutions and the way in which they approach child-rearing and instruction. That is to say, people or institutions are accused of hothousing by others – an accusation most would be quick to refute – and it is not generally a word people would use when describing themselves. Take a look at these example sentences:

The former Scottish national tennis coach has launched an online guide to the pitfalls of hothousing sporting prodigies.

‘My programme is the opposite of hothousing,’ she insists.

Sports academies are common in some countries, but many consider their hothousing of developing child athletes as cruel.

Her five year old so doesn’t want to be hothoused and forced into hateful activity after hateful activity.

She would become quite animated on the subject of early education for preschoolers – ‘absurd’ – or if encountering a real atrocity such as hothousing: ‘bloody absurd’.

The ethos of the school is strongly anti-hothouse.

It is important to remember that a hothouse, in the literal sense of the word, is not a natural environment: plants in hothouses are forced to flower or produce fruit earlier than they normally would, or in places where they would not naturally grow at all. It is this unnaturalness which is the crucial link to the negative meaning of hothouse as a verb.

shutterstock-68663449Hothousing is a controversial topic, as a quick Google search for the term attests. Multiple articles warn against the dangers of hothousing, with the suggestion that it does more harm than good and may cause untold damage to children. Advocates of the practice, meanwhile, maintain that hard work and discipline are good for children – certainly better than a laissez-faire attitude to parenting or education in any case – and essential if they are to fulfil their potential, excel in their field and generally make a success of their lives.

Parents who are strict disciplinarians and who push their children to achieve academic success can also be described in another way: tiger mothers or, more broadly, tiger parents. The term tiger mother was popularized in 2011 by Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she described the authoritarian approach she took to raising her own children and the ways in which her daughters responded to her methods. The book, which became a bestseller, caused great controversy, attracting both high praise and severe criticism.

A fearsome tiger is certainly an apt metaphor for a harsh, unyielding parent (and also suggests a parent who is fiercely protective), and we saw earlier how the literal meaning of hothouse makes for a powerful figurative meaning. So, rather than round off this post with my own opinions on hothousing and tiger parenting, I’m going to leave you with another couple of effective metaphorical expressions relating to parents and their children:

helicopter parent
boomerang kid

Consider the literal meanings of the words helicopter and boomerang and see if you can work out what these expressions might mean and how they originated, then follow the links to check your answers in OALD online.

Kallah Pridgeon is a Development Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.

Toxic masculinity

ImageThe phrase toxic masculinity seems to be much in the news these days. As we all know, recent years have seen a number of “strong man” leaders emerge all over the world, generally displaying exaggerated macho attitudes which seem to strike a chord in large sectors of the population who feel left behind by the potent cocktail of economic stagnation, increasing social division and social change which have come with globalization. At the same time the #MeToo movement has been active in naming and shaming prominent male figures whose power and sense of entitlement has led them to act abusively and with impunity towards women.

It is, then, perhaps hardly surprising that the two words toxic and masculinity have come to be used together so often. All of our dictionaries are of course based on language corpora, and corpus data from October 2017 to September 2018 contains 1,724 citations of toxic masculinity. Astonishingly, this represents nearly 25% of all uses of the word masculinity in the corpus during that period.

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If we look, though, at the Oxford English Corpus from 2014 (those far-off days before Trump, Weinstein et al.), there are only three citations:

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So as we can see, developments in society have led to this expression becoming rapidly more common.  But let’s look in a bit more detail at how the use of the word toxic – which has just been announced as Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2018 – has evolved.

The prime meaning of the word toxic is, of course, “poisonous”, as we can see from the entry in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

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The word derives, not surprisingly, from the Latin toxicus:

Image 4

It seems, though, that it is only in very recent times that the word has begun to be used in a figurative sense, to mean “poisonous” in a non-physical sense. The first citation of this type of use is in relation to debt, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as late as 1990:

Image 5

This example does now of course seem quite prescient, given the origins of the financial crisis that would hit the world economy some 17 years later and that would in turn lead to the coining of toxic masculinity itself.

The figurative use of the word toxic seems to have mushroomed since 1990, though, and now it is very common. In addition to the 1,724 citations for toxic masculinity, there are in the same corpus over 1,000 for toxic environment and over 800 for toxic relationship, for example.

As well as the debt sense highlighted above, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary does cover this relatively new figurative use, in relation to people:

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Because of its core meaning of “poisonous”, the word toxic is clearly a powerful one in a figurative context, with strongly negative overtones. If an issue is politically toxic, it is certainly something that no politician will want to dirty their hands with. And so toxic masculinity is invariably viewed as a negative phenomenon (if you want to use a somewhat more neutral term, you could try hypermasculinity).

And what about masculinity? Sadly, it seems from our corpus that masculinity itself is today often viewed negatively, though perhaps this is not so surprising given the social context of our times. Here are some of the most common adjectival collocates:


Just how recent the figurative use is seems quite remarkable given how common it is these days, but this shows how quickly the meaning of words can and does change, and how quickly we get used to the new meanings and collocations, as if they had been part of the language for centuries. And as the world continues to change and language evolve at breakneck speed, hopefully we shall see some less toxic masculinities evolve too.

Image 8

Before becoming an editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, Mark Temple lived another life as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America.


Picture this scenario: you’ve just received a big bonus at work and treated yourself to a flashy new car. Do you …

a) post a photo of it on all your social media forums, along with a comment about how pleased you are,
b) post a photo of it, but accompany it with a complaint about how much it will cost to run the car,
or c) not mention it at all on social media?


If you picked b), you might be accused of humblebragging: a faux pas that’s common on social media, and that seems to get peoples’ backs up as much as outright boasting. Humblebragging involves complaining or making a modest or self-deprecating statement, while at the same time drawing attention to something that you are in fact proud of. The word humblebrag, which currently appears in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online as a noun, can also be used as a verb, and somebody who humblebrags regularly can be called a humblebragger. Although these informal terms mainly appear as hashtags in social media posts, they also crop up elsewhere, as shown in the examples below:

She humblebragged about how ‘awful’ she looks without any make-up.

[…] social media has given the sport of humblebragging new life […]

The endless inspirational quotes, nauseating humblebrags, pics from far-flung exotic locations […]

[…] a humblebragger must always maintain the appearance of awe and disbelief at his or her success […]

According to online sources, the word humblebrag was coined in 2010, when the late comedy writer Harris Wittels created a Twitter account with that name and used it to poke fun at celebrities and others he considered to be humblebraggers. He then went on to write a book called Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty. Of course, false modesty isn’t a new phenomenon, and it has probably always been considered more socially acceptable to mask a boast than to be a braggart. But in an age when people can inform everyone they know about their achievements in a matter of minutes, it’s hardly surprising that the humblebrag seems to have become ubiquitous, at least for anyone who’s active on social media.

In linguistic terms, humblebrag is an oxymoron as it combines two words that seem to be the opposite of each other. The adjective humble, derived from the Latin humilis, meaning ‘low’ or ‘lowly’, is defined in OALD as ‘showing you do not think that you are as important as other people’. The verb brag, on the other hand, means ‘to talk too proudly about something you own or something you have done’. The oxymoron has been used as a linguistic device for many years, as shown in this well-known speech from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. How many oxymorons can you spot?

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

And just to test you further, I wonder if you can match the words in the two groups below to form some of the most common oxymorons used in the present day? (You can check your answers at the end of this blog post.*)

Group 1

Group 2

Well, on that note, I’d better wrap up this piece. It’s getting late and I still need to share it with my friends and followers on social media, of course with a comment about how hard it is to write a good Word of the Month blog post. (#humblebrag)

* bittersweet, original copy, old news, deafening silence, open secret, passive aggressive

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She doesn’t do much bragging on social media, humble or otherwise, but she doesn’t mind reading other people’s humblebrags.

Selfhood: new words in the age of the individual

shutterstock_61682320It’s now been five years since ‘selfie’ became the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, and yet selfie culture appears to be ever on the rise. Some see the selfie as a sign that our culture is becoming increasingly narcissistic (i.e. people admire themselves too much, particularly their appearance), while others argue that selfies can empower people to present themselves as unique individuals and encourage supportive online behaviour. Whatever you think about selfie culture, it would be hard to deny that in modern society, the emphasis on ‘self’ is all around us. It should therefore come as no surprise that the latest batch of new words we’ve added to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online features a number of expressions relating to the importance of the individual in today’s society.

Those who condemn selfie culture often accuse people who continually post selfies of being self-obsessed, meaning that they only think about their own life and circumstances, and not about anything else.

He’s a typical arrogant, self-obsessed celebrity.

She never thinks about anyone else – she’s completely self-obsessed!

Similarly, a person who thinks so much about themselves and their own interests that they don’t pay enough attention to anything else can be described as self-involved. Self-aggrandizement, which involves making yourself seem more powerful or important than you are, is a criticism that is sometimes directed at some of the people at the forefront of today’s selfie culture.

Constantly looking at images on social media that have been contrived to show ‘perfection’ may also provoke feelings of self-loathing, which means hatred of yourself, particularly among people who suffer from low self-esteem (= a feeling of not being happy with your own character and abilities). As a coping strategy, or a way of dealing with their problems, people with a negative self-image might self-medicate (= drink alcohol or take drugs) or engage in other self-destructive behaviours.

It may seem as though a lot of words starting with ‘self-‘ have negative associations, but this certainly isn’t always the case. For example, the activity of self-reflection, which involves thinking carefully about your own character and actions, often has a very positive outcome. Returning to the selfie debate, posting selfies can be viewed as an expression of selfhood, the quality that gives you an individual identity and makes you different from others, and can help people develop a positive self-identity.

Our concern with our needs as individuals is also reflected in several new entries relating to elements of our lifestyle. As consumers, nowadays we often seek out products that are customizable, meaning that they can be made to suit our individual requirements. Another term that seems to be cropping up more and more frequently is the adjective aspirational, which, in its newest sense, describes a goal or target that is very ambitious and may be more than you can achieve. This word can also describe somebody who wants very much to be successful in their career or to improve their social status and standard of living.

young, aspirational and independent women

advertising aimed at the aspirational classes

While the rise of the aspirational classes may be positive for the people who belong to that elite sector of society, several other recently added words highlight the struggle that other, less fortunate people face in today’s culture. The figurative sense of food chain, for example, reminds us that, while some people achieve success, there will always be other people ‘at the bottom of the food chain’.

The people working at the bottom of the food chain […] are effectively working for whatever you decide to pay them directly.

These people are the wage slaves, depending entirely on the money they receive for the jobs that they do, jobs that are not seen as skilled or important.

Beyond the world of work, the difficulties faced by those who are struggling against a seemingly uncaring society are also highlighted in the news and media, where increasingly we come across references to fuel poverty, the state of not being able to afford to heat your home, and rough sleepers, people who have no home and sleep outside.

But to end on a positive note, if you scan our list of new entries, you’ll see that we’ve added a number of compound nouns starting with the word ‘community’: community church, community garden, community hospital and community theatre. The words empathetic, meaning able to understand how somebody else feels because you can imagine what it is like to be that person, and empathetically also appear in the list. I’d like to think that these words offer a glimmer of hope for the modern age and show that, despite our increasing need to be seen and treated as individuals, society still has a heart after all.

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011.