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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Do you know the other words highlighted below?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Ironmen and goats

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a look at these examples:

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

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

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

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


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

May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

17845893_lel (1)

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.

Image 1

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:

Image 2

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:

Image 3

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:

Image 6

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.