Holiday Visits From the Outlaws

January, 2022 Word Stories

In recent months the holiday gift-giving season has added to the pandemic spike in home delivery. Porch pirates have been working overtime to steal packages left on doorsteps, and reverse porch pirates have been working to stop them. This month’s Word Stories instalment explores the ways that outlaws, heroes and villains have informed the words we associate with piracy.

Feeling Positively Perplexed About Positive and Negative

December, 2021 Language Matters

Out of all the words in the English language that could lead you down a rabbit hole, positive and negative would probably not immediately come to mind. Positive and negative are often roughly equated to “good” and “bad” respectively, but if we dig a little deeper, we discover it’s not always quite so simple. This basic equivalence may work when talking about the optimistic attitude of a friend, or the dismal critical reviews for a new movie, but as we’ll see, scientists, mathematicians and lawyers all have their own distinct takes on the terms. After all, hearing “positive results” in a doctor’s office can be just as wonderful when discussing a new treatment as it might be horrifying when receiving test results.

Where Magic and Medicine Meet

November, 2021 Word Stories

The history of antidotes and elixirs is a world where myth, magic, and medicine intermingle. The 25th anniversary of Antidote seems like a perfect time to explore the ways in which antidotes have fired the human imagination and enriched our language.

Using Contractions: The Long and Short of It

October, 2021 Language Matters

Despite their ubiquity and usefulness, contractions are sometimes frowned upon—especially in formal language or in print. This Language Matters instalment outlines some context to keep in mind when it comes to better understanding and using contractions.

Ping-Pong Words

September, 2021 Word Stories

Every once in a while, a word that gets passed from one language to another can get passed right back, like a ball in a game of ping-pong. This Word Stories instalmnet shines a spotlight on this phenomenon, by showing how the game can be played out between English and French.

Periods: The End of the Line?

August, 2021 Language Matters

Few punctuation marks require less explanation than the period. As English’s default symbol of final punctuation, it tends to cause far fewer linguistic headaches than commas, semicolons or em-dashes. The fact that periods mark the end of a sentence is easy to grasp and has rarely been the subject of debate. Straightforward and uncontroversial though they are, nowadays, people end their sentences with periods a little less often than they used to.

Plot Twists: Words that Have Taken Sharp Turns

July, 2021 Word Stories

In today’s instalment, we look at some words that have stretched and drifted in directions so unpredictable they’ve rotated a full 180 degrees away from their original connotations.

Same Land, Different Brand: Investigating Variation in Place Names

June, 2021 Language Matters

Place names, or toponyms, are said to be one of the stablest aspects of language, with many toponyms carried down through generations and surviving immense transformations in the civilizations that inhabit them. And yet, there are times when a location changes its toponym or has more than one. For example, should we prefer Eswatini or Swaziland; Czech Republic or Czechia? This Language Matters article investigates why toponyms sometimes compete or change over time.

Tangled Roots

May, 2021 Word Stories

Modern English is the result of a grand linguistic experiment in creative packaging, in that the roots of its grammar are characteristically Germanic, but its vocabulary is dominated by the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. It’s been a long time since English-speaking children learned Greek and Latin in school, but the effects of traditional “Western” classical education are still all around us. Greek and Latin have shaped about half the words English speakers use today, including almost all of our technical and scientific terminology. This Word Stories instalment looks at what can happen when this profusion of Greek and Latin roots gets tangled up in English, for example in the popular temptation to use Latin endings for words that look Latin, like octopus.

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