Though vegans may disagree, fishing has always seemed to me to be a fairly peaceful and innocent pastime, sitting all day by the water waiting for fish to bite. There has always been a figurative meaning of the verb too, of course, as we can see in the entry in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

fish for

And this meaning of ‘looking for something’ is extended to ‘trying to get something’, in the phrasal verb fish for something:

fish for sth

The deep waters of the Internet, though, provide a rich fishing ground, and a whole array of new fishing techniques has been spawned (spawning is, of course, how fish reproduce).


Almost as soon as people started to spend a large part of their lives online, it seems that other people began to devise ingenious ways of getting hold of their money. And so the catfish was born. A catfish is a type of fish, but in the murky world of online dating, it is someone who pretends to be someone else, perhaps using the picture of a model, in order to ‘catch’ their victim. If we look at the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that this is the second meaning given:


But where does this use of the word come from? According to the American TV documentary (2010) that led to the eponymous American TV series which films real-life cases of catfishing, it originated in the practice of transporting live cod caught in the icy waters of Alaska for sale in China. The cod would become lethargic and their flesh would lose its texture, and so catfish were added to the tank to nibble the cods’ tails and keep them lively. It may be more likely, though, that it refers to the practice in restaurants of passing off the cheap and plentiful catfish as a more expensive fish.

Soon after the noun catfish acquired its new meaning, we started to see the verb ‘to catfish’. According to our corpora showing data from the first decade of the century, this meaning was unknown before the coming of the TV show, with all examples related to fishing:


By 2019, though, the data tells a very different story, with most of the much larger number of examples showing the new meaning:


Catfishing apart, fishing for compliments is something more insecure people have always done, and in the world of social networking, where it now seems to be obligatory to have thousands of ‘friends’, this has led to the phenomenon of ‘sadfishing’, the practice of exaggerating your personal problems in order to generate sympathy. Media reports suggest that sadfishing is yet another threat to the mental health of young people, perhaps playing a role in the increase in online bullying.

Looking at other new terms connected with fishing, what about the homophone phishing? Here the word seems to have been given a new spelling, to distinguish it from good old fishing. Phishing is the practice of tricking people by email or on the Internet, getting them to give away their identity, bank details, etc. The first citation according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1996, at the very dawn of the Internet; the example given is “You could go phishing for passwords (not that I do it or recommend it)”.

Phishing quickly became part of our everyday language, spawning  spin-offs like spear phishing, where the ‘fish’ are individually targeted, with emails sent from known or trusted senders in order to make the phishing attempt more convincing and the fish more likely to swim into the net.

Who knows what other new fishing techniques our online lives will spawn?

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


Wind the clock back twenty years and most people, except perhaps a small proportion of vegans, would have described themselves as either vegetarian or, in the vast majority of cases, simply somebody who doesn’t exclude any major food groups. In recent years, however, eating habits and attitudes have changed considerably, and as a result, a flurry of new words have come into use.

One of these words is freegan. A freegan is a person who only eats food that they can get for free and that would usually be thrown out or wasted:

He is a freegan who claims to have subsisted on a largely Dumpster-based diet for a decade.

Maybe it’s time to give the freegan lifestyle a try.

shutterstock_344303615As well as freegan lifestyle, corpus evidence shows that freegan is commonly used as a modifier in a number of other expressions. You can be part of a freegan community or the freegan movement, get a freegan box (= a box containing food that would otherwise be wasted), go to a freegan restaurant, and even have a freegan wedding.

Dumpster diving, which appears in a Culture note at Dumpster™ in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, is a term that often crops up in the same context as freegan and is soon to be added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. This is the practice of taking things such as clothing, furniture and food from skips (BrE) or Dumpsters (NAmE) so that it can be used again:

Freegans are best known for recovering discarded food from commercial establishments, a practice known as ‘Dumpster diving’ […]

Some freegans and Dumpster divers are motivated by the desire to be eco-friendly and to participate as little as possible in the established economic system, while others simply want to save money.

From a linguistic perspective, freegan is a portmanteau word as it is formed by combining two words – free and vegan. The verb freecycle, derived from the name of an online service, also relates to the idea of minimizing the amount we consume as a society. A combination of the words free and recycle, it means to give something used or unwanted away as opposed to selling it or throwing it away, especially using the internet. Flexitarian is another portmanteau word that describes somebody who follows a particular type of diet. Flexitarians are ‘flexible vegetarians’ in the sense that they sometimes eat meat or fish, but usually avoid these types of food.

Many people are now embracing clean eating, which means eating only certain foods with the aim of becoming or staying healthy (see the New Words blog from April 2018). Other terms used to describe dietary practices that have recently gained in popularity include fruitarian, a person who eats only fruit, and pescatarian, somebody who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish – both formed on the same model as vegetarian; and locavore, a person who mainly eats food that is locally grown or locally produced, which follows the same pattern as carnivore, herbivore and omnivore.

Perhaps you’re a vegan freegan or a flexitarian locavore, or maybe you’re a plain old omnivore – whatever the case, there’s no denying that vocabulary we use to describe our eating habits reflects the fact that we’re becoming ever more mindful of what we put on our plates. Of course, people still change their dietary habits for health reasons or out of concern for animal welfare, but the focus seems to be shifting. The common denominator across most recent dietary trends is the desire to protect the environment. And as more and more of us choose to adopt a diet for a healthy planet, watch this space for more new terms to describe what people include or exclude from their diet (I’m looking at you, cheagan and veggan!*).

* cheagan = a ‘cheating vegan’, who usually eats vegan food, but sometimes eats meat, fish, dairy products or eggs; veggan = a person who avoids all of the foods that a vegan doesn’t eat, except for eggs

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. She is a non-freegan lacto-ovo-vegetarian and an all-round lover of good food.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Do you know the other words highlighted below?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Ironmen and goats

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a look at these examples:

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

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

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

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


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

May 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.