Catch a cold

shutterstock_511842424How are you? I hope as you read this you’re feeling better than I am as I write it! It’s the time of year when many of us suffer from coughs and colds and so when I realized that catch a cold is a new expression in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, I had to investigate. Of course the main meaning has been around for a long time, but now there’s a second sense that’s been added, one that means having more general difficulties:


The context of business and the stock market is typical. In our corpus of English, we find sentences like:

Coop Bank already messed up and caught a cold after the Britannia deal.

The stock caught a cold in February.

We’re very familiar with discussing the state of business in metaphorical ‘health’ terms. Read almost any business report in the newspaper and you will find medical analogies:

Not surprisingly, the major banks are celebrating their clean bill of health.

This time around, both the U.S. and German economies are flatlining, while that of Japan continues its slow downward spiral.

If allowed, market forces would naturally correct this, but few are willing to swallow the medicine needed to fix this mess.

With catch a cold, although many of the examples are from business, the corpus also shows us cases from sporting contexts:

It is tough rugby played on hard, fast grounds and the Lions almost caught a cold.

I assume that this has developed from expressions we’re familiar with along the lines of ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.’

This spawned all sorts of variations:

When Britain caught a cold, the periphery caught pneumonia.

When Apple sneezes, the supply chain shudders.

But now half of the pattern – the other illness – seems to have dropped away:

If China’s economy catches a cold, car sales will inevitably be impacted.

It’s not uncommon for idioms to end up truncated. Just think of ‘People who live in glass houses …

We don’t need to say the end of these expressions because people know what they mean. In fact, the older expressions may no longer be familiar to you in their full form. Can you finish these idioms?

‘What’s sauce for the goose … ’
‘If the cap fits … ’
‘Half a loaf … ’

… which goes to show that half an idiom is not to be sneezed at.

The full forms of the idioms are:

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the cap fits, wear it.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.

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.


A sausage. An old car. A loud firework. A really good song. It seems unlikely that these four things would be connected but connected they are!

They can all be described, in informal British English at least, as bangers.

Did you make the connection?

If you know the meaning of the word bang, you might be able to work out how some of these have earned their nicknames.

When sausages are fried, there’s a good chance they might go bang (= burst open with a loud noise), or at least that was the case in the past. In times when meat was scarce, sausages were bulked out with water and other fillers, making them noisier to cook and liable to burst. There is even a children’s counting song called Ten Fat Sausages, all about sausages sizzling in a pan until they gradually all go ‘pop’ and ‘bang’. While today’s meatier sausages are likely to result in a much more muted sizzle, it seems that this characteristic sound is why sausages became known as bangers. Bangers and mash – sausages with a serving of mashed potato – is as much a classic British meal as fish and chips.

An old car in bad condition might sputter and backfire as it struggles noisily along the road, so it would seem fitting to dub it a banger.

You’re not still driving that old banger, are you?

Americans would use the word beater instead, while a more old-fashioned (and more opaque) term to describe a dilapidated vehicle is jalopy.

And there are no prizes for guessing why noisy fireworks might be nicknamed bangers!

You will already find these three senses of banger in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. But what of the fourth sense, a really good song?

The loud noise denoted by bang can often suggest anger or impatience, or be perceived as an annoying sound, as you might surmise from some of the example sentences given in OALD:

She banged on the door angrily.

The baby was banging the table with his spoon.

A window was banging somewhere.

The door banged shut behind her.

This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider the etymology, or word origin, of bang:


A sound that is imitative of hammering is unlikely to be pleasant. Why then is banger used to describe a good song?

Well, in recent years, banging has come into use as an adjective in informal British English, with a couple of rather more positive meanings, and has been added to Oxford Dictionaries online (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website). When used to describe dance music, it means ‘having a loud relentless beat’, and when used more generally, it simply means ‘excellent’. It’s clear then how a banging song might have come to be described as a banger.


Unsurprisingly, considering its probable origins in banging, it seems that the term banger is primarily applied to dance music, meaning music for dancing to in clubs: there are 1,008 citations for ‘club banger’ in Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, making it the top collocate of all senses of banger. However, a quick Internet search indicates that banger can also be used to express approval of songs from other genres of music – indeed one of my colleagues said he first heard the term when his daughter, a fan of musicals, declared a 1930s show tune to be ‘a banger’.

It is also interesting to note that banging and banger bear no relation to a couple of other informal musical terms you may have heard of – headbanging and headbanger. These words apply to fans of heavy metal, rather than club music, and the way they shake their heads violently up and down in time to music.

So now you know: if you’re ever driving along in an old car, listening to a great song, on your way to a fireworks display where there’ll be sausages on the barbecue, one word is all you’ll need.

Do make sure to look out for the new sense of banger in a future update to OALD online.

Kallah Pridgeon is an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press where she works on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.


21957549-LLFancy going to that new barbacoa place tonight?

Where?! That might be your reaction, but a few years down the line having barbacoa for your dinner might just be as normal as paella or sushi are today.

As globalization brings English-speaking countries into ever closer contact with other cultures, so English borrows words from these cultures. In fact, it seems the appetite of the English language is becoming ever more voracious. And because we all like to eat, and many of us like to try new foods, these loanwords are particularly common in the world of food.

Recent additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, and words we may consider adding in future updates, include foods such as arancini and pecorino (from Italian), queso and chorizo* (from Spanish), challah (from Hebrew), pad thai (from Thai) and tempeh (from Bahasa Indonesia). And then there are more words related to ways of serving food, like omakase (from Japanese), or barbacoa (from Mexican Spanish).

Let’s look at barbacoa, for example. In Mexican Spanish, and now in English too, this is a slow-cooked meat dish originally cooked in an underground oven, but in the Maya lands of southern Mexico it still refers to the oven itself – a barbacoa is a hole dug in the ground which is used as an oven for cooking.

But does barbacoa remind you of another English word? It wouldn’t be surprising if it does, because the word barbecue has been part of the English language for over three centuries. It has certainly been part of popular culture in English-speaking countries long enough to have morphed into a verb too, as nouns often do in English as they become more common. English grammar is very flexible in its ability to transform itself in this way, and this flexibility certainly helps it to absorb foreign words.

Let’s not forget that many other older words, which are now so familiar that some of us may even think of them as English words, such as restaurant, cafe and sommelier, are also of foreign origin. These older words often came from French, as France was seen as the height of gastronomic sophistication, and was therefore the source of most of our innovations in food. As our horizons have widened, though, more recent introductions are more likely to come from other languages.

But we’re getting distracted… now what’s that delicious smell? Back to the barbecue!

As well as changing their meaning, sometimes these words don’t even come from the language you might expect. Barbacoa, for example, came into Spanish from the language of the Native American Taíno people, who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus and the European colonists. If we look at the Word Origin box in the entry for barbecue in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that in the Caribbean islands of the Arawak-speaking Taínos it was a structure made of sticks used for drying fish or meat, and only when it reached the mainland of the nearby continent was it transformed into a way of cooking the fish and meat, and finally, as the word migrated northwards through Mexico and into Texas, into a specific meat dish not even cooked in a pit.


So as you can see, barbacoa is quite a good example of how words can change their meaning over time!

*Read about the confusion surrounding the pronunciation of chorizo and other culinary borrowings in our previous Word of the Month post on biscotti.

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. His professional duties included eating barbacoa of all kinds.


As winter and the festive season approach (in the northern hemisphere anyway – apologies to those of you who may instead be enjoying a barbie on the beach), I have chosen snowflake as the Word of the Month. Let us consider what most of us know about snowflakes:

Even to those who hate snow, an individual snowflake is surely a thing of beauty and wonder.

All these qualities have given rise to a new, figurative use of snowflake – to be added at a future update to OALD online. Parents who love their children very much, think they are special and unique, and want to protect them from any possible harm, think of them as precious ‘snowflakes’.

Except they don’t. I can find no evidence of snowflake being used in a loving and positive way by parents. Instead, this new meaning of snowflake seems to date back to the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, later adapted into a film, and containing the line:

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

The concept of the ‘special snowflake’ was negative and ironic from the beginning. If we look at lines containing snowflake in OUP’s New Monitor Corpus, we can see that it is never parents who use the snowflake metaphor about their children, but always other people:

And please can we stop making parents and their unique little snowflakes the single most important thing in Australian society.

the kind of beautiful, unique snowflake your mother always told you you were before you realized she was lying to you

She has a horrendous case of ‘special snowflake syndrome’.

Even the lines that seem to be positive are actually dripping with sarcasm:

You are a perfect snowflake and it’s everyone else who’s wrong.

58009Young people of the ‘snowflake generation’ are often criticized for being very sensitive and easily offended. These are the students who no-platform speakers whose opinions they find offensive (see the WotM for March 2017); and who request trigger warnings (WotM September 2017) when difficult issues are to be discussed in class. One lecturer at Cambridge University has recently vigorously defended his use of a trigger warning (for a lecture discussing rape scenes in Shakespeare and modern drama) after his students were – quite unfairly, he felt – criticized as ‘snowflakes’.

Call me a snowflake, but I also find the term snowflake unsettling, for two main reasons: one, because it has appropriated something innocent and beautiful and turned it into something pejorative and nasty; and two, because it seems to be an intergenerational thing – the older generation insulting the younger. It is undeniably an example of the creativeness of language and metaphor, and the power of culture in spreading memes. However, there is already a backlash against the term – the ‘snowflake generation’ may prove they are not such snowflakes after all.

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 Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.


Halloween sweetsHave you ever been ghosted? Or perhaps you’ve been the ghoster? If you haven’t come across these terms before, you might think these questions have something to do with the paranormal, especially given that the date of this post coincides with Halloween, the evening when children in the US, Canada and Britain often dress up as ghosts, witches and other spooky characters and go trick or treating. Ghosting in this sense doesn’t in fact relate literally to apparitions and spirits, although that’s not to say that being ghosted won’t leave you haunted by the emotional after-effects. The act of ghosting involves abruptly withdrawing from all communication with a partner or friend, and thereby ending the relationship – with the ghoster in this scenario being the person who purposely ‘disappears’.

As shown in these examples, a ghoster can ghost a relationship as well as a person:

Not only did she leave him, she straight up ghosted him.

… if your bestie has just ghosted you for someone, make sure to tell them, honestly, about your feelings.

I ghosted my last relationship.

Evidence from our corpus (= the language database that we use to track how words are used) reveals that the preposition on is sometimes added in, turning the expression into a phrasal verb:

He complained that girls were ghosting on him and standing him up.

You might be surprised to learn that before this meaning of ghost materialized, the word already had two verb senses. Ghosting a book or written piece means ghostwriting the work (or writing it for someone who then publishes it as their own):

He ghosted the autobiography of a famous pre-war footballer…

In its intransitive form, the verb ghost can also mean to move from one place to another without making a sound:

They ghosted up the smooth waters of the river.

The most recent use of ghost probably derives its meaning from the fact that the ghoster takes on the ghost-like quality of being present yet unreachable. Ghost Mode, a feature that was recently introduced on Snapchat, also plays on this idea. Enabling this mode prevents other users from being able to see your location, which in a sense makes you ‘invisible’.

Of course, as I’m sure anyone over the age of twenty will confirm, the ghosting phenomenon existed long before we started using this word to describe it. However, maybe it’s no coincidence that ghosting has become a hot topic in this digital era, when many daters are using online dating apps and websites that not only make it easier to meet potential mates but perhaps also make it easier to vanish into the ether when it doesn’t work out.

Ghosting is by no means the only word with creepy connotations to come into use with the rise of online and app dating. Take, for example, the verb haunt. As you may already know, when a ghost is said to be haunting someone, the ghost is seen or heard regularly by that person:

He said he would come back to haunt her.

Increasingly though, the verb haunt is being used in the context of relationships. If a ghoster from your romantic past is haunting you, that person has recently reappeared in your life (or has metaphorically ‘come back to haunt you’) via some indirect form of interaction, such as liking a post on one of your social media feeds. This practice is also known as zombieing, drawing a semi-humorous comparison between the ghoster and a zombie – in this sense, a fictional creature often depicted as having come back from the dead.

If all this talk of ghosting, zombieing and haunting hasn’t spooked you, look out for these words in future updates of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. As the world of dating continues to evolve at a somewhat frightening pace, you might well find that these aren’t the only new terms to add to your dating vocabulary list.

Leonie Hey is a Development 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.

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.


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.