Sunday 27 June 2010


Pass the milk

Synecdoche: you you refer to the whole of something when you just mean a part of it, or vice versa. "Whole for part, part for whole" is a shorter way of putting it.

He was a famous face. (The whole of him was famous.)
Rendoosia will stand firm! (Its people will.)

Another form of synechdoche is container for the thing contained:

Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction. (it was her clothes that went AWOL.)
The speaker addressed a packed hall. (He addressed the people in it.)
The kettle’s boiled! (It was the water that boiled.)

And then there's thing contained for the container:

Pass the milk. (You mean the bottle the milk's in.)

And how about these? They seem to fit here. An adjective takes in the meaning of a noun it once qualified, but is now usually dropped. If you say "The atmosphere was fraught" or "I’m feeling rather fraught", listeners will understand that the atmosphere was strained, and that you feel tense. The entire phrase "fraught with tension" is taken as read. "Explicit" has come to mean explicitly sexual, "graphic" means graphically violent. Or sometimes a noun from an adjective-noun pair takes on the meaning of the whole.

a travesty (of justice)

abuses for human-rights abuses

acute for acutely ill (acute beds)

aesthetic for aesthetically pleasing

albatross for albatross round neck, or millstone (However, many scientists believe the project is a waste of money and will end up an albatross for the medical research community. Guardian February 23, 2006)

ashen for ashen faced, ashy pale (presumably pale grey like wood-ash)

astronomical As in "The cost was astronomical", meaning "astronomically high". From the vast numbers bandied about in astronomy.

attitude for bad or negative attitude

Augean task An Augean task is as difficult as cleaning out the Augean stables was for Hercules. He had to complete 10 (or was it 7?) labours, one of which was cleaning out these enchanted stables which became dirtier the more he toiled.
beady for beady eyed “Just ask a few beady questions.” Jeremy Bullmore Guardian 4/7/07 Men will now become such suspicious quarries, beadily eluding marriage. C Bennet, Guardian May 25, 2006

beset for beset by problems

bitter “they will bitterly defend their young” New Scientist 29 April 06 From bitter quarrel? “Sold much of Broadway Market to private developer. Bitter evictions followed.” Evening Standard May 4, 2006 Bitterly contested?

bitter for bitterly quarrelling rather than embittered “has split Socialists into increasingly bitter factions”

blown out of proportion for blown up out of all proportion (like blowing up a photograph, not a bridge) Guardian December 31, 2005

breakneck growth for breakneck rate of growth

broached for broached the subject Have you broached x about y? Merriam Webster: to pierce (as a cask) in order to draw the contents; also : to open for the first time b : to open up or break into (as a mine or stores)) When you have broached something you have probably created a breach - once more into the etc.

brooding for “broodingly handsome”. Not at all the same thing as broody.

budget for low budget

bypass for heart bypass

calibre for high-calibre (a calibre cast)
carbon emissions, capture etc for carbon dioxide emissions

cellophane for cellophane wrapped There are no cellophane flowers, poignant plaques or sombre marble headstones. Guardian, Saturday August 19 2006 Emma Cook

chamber for chamber pot (obsolete.)

character building for building good character. Character building experiences - like spending several years at boarding school or abseiling down a cliff face - are always assumed to encourage desirable character traits. A spell in prison might be character building, encouraging the development of aggression, deception, callousness etc. Or would this be destruction of character?

character for good character

charge for child (means child in your charge)

chauvinism for male chauvinism

cheese plant It’s a Swiss cheese plant because it’s full of holes like Gruyère.

chronic for chronically ill. (The hospital has a shortage of chronic beds.)

class for top class

comfortable for comfortably off

conducive for conducive to happiness (It wasn’t very conducive)

Thursday 24 June 2010


When Alice went Through the Looking Glass she came across a strange poem called Jabberwocky, which was full of unfamiliar words. So when she met egg-head Humpty Dumpty, she asked him what some of them meant. "Slithy", for example. He replied:

Well, "SLITHY" means "lithe and slimy." "Lithe" is the same as "active." You see it's like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.'

These days, we reserve "portmanteau" for two-in-one words – its "suitcase" meaning is no more.

Sometimes portmanteaus just arise spontaneously:

(tempestuous, impetuous)
inferior decoration
(inferior, interior)
(sporadic and erratic)
(caterpulted and vaulted)
(clamp and cling with a suggestion of limpet)
intertwingle (twine and mingle)

Sometimes they incorporate names:
parentokil (to be applied to love rats – yahoo news)






Slockney (Sloane plus Cockney)

-style coinages are more deliberate:




(for elected dictators)
(Ben Goldacre’s blog)


(nostalgia for somewhere you’ve never been, a time when you weren’t alive)
gargantoplex (Roger Ebert)


(sense of who can afford it/who has paid what when)
(prog rock fans)
(Is it because I is black?)
(Andy Giddings)

tentalow (tent and bungalow)


Friday 18 June 2010


Sometimes people garble a well-known phrase because they’re too young to remember what it refers to – or because they’ve just got no imagination.

Since the 1950s, this suburban district on the edges of Farnborough, Croydon and Bromley has been considered Desperado Central: a lawless terrain of mock-Tudor homes and gated communities where retired armed robbers, Cockney racketeers and their kohl-drenched partners in crime used to retire to spend their ill-gotten gains. John Walsh, Independent June 5 10 Kohl drenched? Even allowing for hyperbole, a kohl-drenched person would be a Goth, not a gangster’s wife.

Most of Egon Ronay’s obituaries repeated his experience at the Victoria Station buffet, where he was shocked to find a communal teaspoon on a bit of string. In some accounts, this became a spoon suspended from a string, which became a spoon on a string suspended from the ceiling.

Few people wear “bottle-bottom” specs any more. They had lenses so thick they looked like the bottom of a glass bottle. Bottle bottoms were sometimes flattened and used as window-panes for that 18th century, Quality Street look. But if you’ve never seen the specs, or the window-panes, or even a glass bottle, you may end up with:

bottle top glasses Times Aug 1 09
milk-bottle specs Guardian March 31, 2008
coke-bottle spectacles Guardian

Auctions are not the preserve of people with double-barrelled names and big chins. Observer May 23 2010 Upper class people are traditionally chinless due to inbreeding and unwillingness to have their teeth fixed.

More misunderstandings here.

Saturday 12 June 2010


Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off 

Journalists use short words to write headlines. Sometimes they string them together to create a compound adjective: Poppy Cash Theft Couple Are Caught on Camera, Met Denies MP Probe “Trick” Claim. Beware of using headline words in copy.

act aid aim balk ban bid blaze boost cap curb cut din draw due ease ebb eye (v) fix flap flay foe fray hike hit howl ire irk jam jar key kin lash mar mull mum nab nip pit pledge post probe pry raid rap rid rip rout rout row set to shelve slam slap slash spat spur stir stun talks tie tiff toll tout try up vet vie vow weigh whip yank

Sunday 6 June 2010

Collective Nouns

How does it feel
to be one of the
beautiful people?

Haven't you always wanted to be one of the in crowd? But if the beautiful people won't have you, how about joining one of these collectives? Collective nouns, that is.

confreres (especially when these are fellow-tramps)
dark forces shadowy group blamed for anything you like
dwarf stars and bit players Richard Lacayo on the NY art market (
fashion pack
God squad
mutual admiration society
Prawn sandwich brigade football liggers who only turn up for the corporate hospitality
self-righteous eco-prigs Times Aug 8 07
The Hay Stack Hay on Wye groupies
the high heid yins what the Scots call TPTB

Saturday 5 June 2010

Howlers for June

Tim Wonnacott and his bouffanté hairstyle

They look alike, they sound alike and they mean something entirely different.

ambient for atmospheric (what an ambient shot!) Ambient means surrounding. If you say something’s “atmospheric” you mean it calls up ideas and feelings of mystery or menace or the uncanny.

assay for essay Gordon Brown has been assayed by a surprising number of actors G May 12 10 When you essay a role you give it your best shot; you assay gold to see if it is genuine.

astronaughts for astronauts (Web)

blithe to for innocent of? a woman over 25 blithe to the rigours of botox Obs Nov 22 09 Blithe means happy. What are they trying to say? Innocent of botox? Why the “rigours of” botox?
boarding for bordering boarding on painful (Web)

bouffanté for bouffant Tim Wonnacott on Bargain Hunt February 9, 2010

carnage for damage A resident of New Orleans surveys the carnage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina G Dec 2009 People think it means wreckage: it means “1.Massive slaughter, as in war; a massacre. 2. Corpses, especially of those killed in battle.”

claque for clique David Aaronovitch Nov 09 A claque is a group of hired applauders; a clique is a closed set of cronies.

confessional for confession (it’s the box where you make your confession)

cut a caper for cut a figure cut a similarly impressive caper Daily Telegraph Nov 09 To cut a caper is to perform a tricky and acrobatic dance step. To cut a figure, or cut a dash, is to make an impression. He cut quite a figure – from a cut-out paper silhouette?

cut to the quick for cut to the chase Let us cut to the quick here Times Oct 30 09 In early silent movies, you didn’t want to bore your audience, so you cut to the chase (car chase, cowboys on horseback etc). “Cut to the chase” means “come to the point”. If you cut someone to the quick it’s like cutting through the bark to the living tree (quick means “alive”).

despoil for disfigure (It doesn’t mean “spoil” it means “remove loot”.)

diamonties, diamontee for diamanté (but you may have to misspell them if you want to buy them on the internet)

eschew for reject or waive (it means avoid)

fanfair for fanfare

furmulative for formative (Web – his furmulative years)

hymnal for hymn (it’s a hymn book)

innate for inane The most vapid, smug and innate commentary that has come out of the “village” for some time. Jonathan Zasloff UCLA

issue in for usher in

Katharine of Aragorn for Katharine of Aragon She came from Aragon in Spain and was no relation to the Lord of the Rings character.

Long and drawn out for long-drawn-out Long-drawn-out means it was drawn out for a long time but everybody says “long and drawn-out” now.

lush for parched Greek desert island described as “craggy and lush” in Times Mar 5 – it’s definitely parched, not lush

novist for novice (Web)

novitiate for novice (it’s the condition of being a novice)

plumb the truth for plumb the depths (find out how deep they are by dropping a plumb line)

prancing for posturing

quotient for quota The rear seats are unsuitable for humans with the usual quotient of limbs Daily Telegraph April 10

reeling from for suffering under or enduring

reign in for rein in high time these parasites were reigned in Times Dec 09. Monarchs reign, you control a horse with reins.

reside for preside Whatever Kingdom she resides over, please tell me so I can avoid it.

roll call for roll (you do a roll call by reading the names off a roll)

secede for cede “seceding political and economic control” Guardian Nov 14 09

short shrift for short work Asteroid made short shrift of the dinosaurs

slather for slaver Times Sept 09 09 “slather like kids in a sweetie shop”

slightless for slightest It doesn’t suit her in the slightless! Timesonline commenter on Mariah Carey’s Oscar dress, April 2010

slipshod for roughshod It’s sad that they’re going to run slipshod over this lovely road. Person quoted in Times Oct 27 09 If you ride roughshod over something, you’re trampling over them on a horse with heavy iron shoes. Somebody slipshod is wearing only backless slippers on their feet and is forced to shuffle about. A slipshod approach is sloppy and ill-thought-out.

spiral for rise Don Justo has been defying all laws of gravity and health and safety – for 50 years to build his spiralling, surreal cathedral outside Madrid Guardian cap Mar 31 10 Perhaps people think “spiralling” (as in inflation) means “going up and up like a spire”. Don’t they know what a spiral is? Have they never seen a spiral staircase or bedspring?

stultifying for stifling David Cameron says health and safety causes a “stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear” A thick blanket would make it difficult to breathe – but it wouldn’t make you stupid.

the ploy thickens for the plot thickens – Guardian

the stuff of legend for legendary (If something’s the stuff of legend it could become a legend; if it’s legendary it already is a legend.)

the writing is on the wally (Web)

virtual circle for virtuous

vulpine for lupine: Last year Taylor Lautner revealed his true colours in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, assisted by CGI effects that instantaneously transformed the teenage hunk into a vulpine beast. (That would make him a were-fox.)

winnow for worm He winnowed his way into her heart.

wolverine for wolfish "I just like to write about pervert killers with wolverine teeth". James Ellroy, Nov 09 Think he means "wolfish".

More here, here, here, here and here.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Solution to Binge Drinking?

Here's a letter that appeared in the London Times this morning. I'd post a link, but the Times has disappeared behind a paywall.

there is very little hope of conquering binge drinking in this country when the drink culture is so prevalent that even Times columnists refer, in a way that is supposed to be endearing, to their drunken exploits. Caitlin Moran's Magazine article (May 22) about her drunken spree with Lady Gaga was a particularly horrific example, but there are frequently coy references to being hung-over, or staggering home after a "good night out" from many of your writers.
To be against getting drunk is regarded in many quarters as synonymous with unattractive puritanism and until we get rid of this attitude from all sections of society, binge drinking will continue.
Sandra Downes, Stratford upon Avon, June 3 2010

Thank you, Sandra!