crash blossom

A crash blossom is a poorly worded headline that can be read in more than one way. In most of the common examples one of the readings is humorous. (Non-humorous crash blossoms aren’t usually selected as examples, presumably because they’re not exciting enough.) An example of a crash blossom is:

Girl found alive in France murders car
BBC News, September 2012

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To boycott someone or something is to refuse to buy goods or otherwise engage in commerce with them. Boycotts are usually undertaken as a form of political or social protest.

Boycott is an eponym, or a word that comes from a person’s name. The namesake is Captain Charles Boycott, who managed the Irish estates of the Earl of Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo, Ireland. In September 1880, Erne’s tenants and laborers were demanding reduced rents, and Boycott evicted them. In response, the Irish Land League, under the leadership of Charles Parnell, organized the tenants and neighbors to resist the evictions, refuse to rent a farm from which someone had been evicted, refuse to work on the estate Boycott managed, and even to refuse to deliver the mail to Boycott. Boycott managed to get the autumn crop harvested, but at a loss, and by the end of the year he had resigned his post and returned to England.

The word was evidently coined by one or more of the local protesters. The first recorded use of the verb is in the Glasgow Herald of 1 November 1880. The noun appears in the Times (London) on 9 December.

The rapidity with which the word boycott caught on is astounding. It even managed to make its way into French by the end of the year. Also surprising is that the term has lasted. Most such eponyms rapidly fade as the events that inspired them recede into memory. For example, how many people still use to bork, meaning to defame someone in order to prevent them from attaining public office, a word inspired by the treatment political opponents gave U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Boycott has not only survived, but most people who use the word don’t even know who Charles Boycott was.


“boycott, v. & n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition.

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booty, bootylicious

Singer Beyoncé Knowles has claimed to have coined the word bootylicious in her 2001 song of that title. The word means “sexually desirable, having a very attractive and shapely buttocks.” Her claim is quite false; by the time the song was released the word had been in use for almost a decade—since Knowles was in elementary school.

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berserk, berserker

Today, to be or to go berserk means to be frenzied, crazed, and the word and phrase carries a connotation of violence. The phrase to go berserk is relatively recent, only dating to the opening years of the twentieth century, but the noun and adjective is about a hundred years older than that, or at least it is in English usage.

The word comes from the Icelandic berserkr, meaning a powerful Norse warrior who displayed a wild and uncontrolled fury on the battlefield. In other words, a stereotypical Viking, or at least how Vikings appear in modern, popular imagination. The etymology of the Icelandic word is disputed, but it probably comes from bear + sark, a type of shirt or tunic. So a berserk or berserker was literally a bearskin-clad warrior.

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basket case

It is not uncommon for a grisly or shocking term to lose its impact over the years, to meliorate. Such is the situation with basket case. As the term is commonly used today, a basket case is someone who is under physical or, more usually, mental distress to the point where they can no longer function. It is also used to refer refers to a dysfunctional organization or situation. But the origins of the term are much more grim and rooted in the horrors of the First World War, or as we shall see, rooted in something of an urban legend that arose from that war. 

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How Many Languages?

Geoffrey Pullum examines the question.

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Literally is getting a lot of press nowadays and is the target of many grammar scolds and pedants. What the reporters are writing about and the scolds are carping on is the figurative use of the word, as in “I was literally glued to my seat.” The word literally comes to us, via French, from the Latin literalis ”pertaining to letters.” It literally means “word for word, actually, exactly.” So, according to the scolds, when someone says they were “literally glued to their seat,” it is a pretty good bet that they are not actually attached to a chair with some sort of mucilage. 

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Podcast: Evolution of Language

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one that I regularly download is Desiree Schell’s Skeptically Speaking. It’s a weekly syndicated radio program out of Edmonton, Alberta that discusses a variety of topics related to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Schell’s 19 July 2013 episode is on the evolution of language and features an interview with Noam Chomsky in which the MIT linguist explains his hypothesis of universal grammar, UC Berkeley anthropologist Terrence Deacon who dispute Chomsky’s claim that language is biologically and genetically based, and biologist Con Slobodchikoff, who discusses his work animal language.

If you’re interested but don’t know much about the topic, it’s well worth a listen. Those who have read widely on the subject, however, will probably not find much new.

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hard-nosed, soft-nosed, dum-dum

Someone who is hard-nosed is stubborn, obstinate, or unyielding, tough, uncompromising. This slang sense has been around since the late 1920s. The OED records a 1927 theater program glossing the term, indicating that the usage was not completely familiar. And in 1928 the journal American Speech records it as carnival slang ("Contributor’s Column,” American Speech, Vol. 3, No. 3, February 1928, 253–57). But where does the term come from? What does an impenetrable proboscis have to do with being stubborn or unyielding?

The answer is that the term comes from the world of the military and munitions. It started out as a retronym for a type of bullet. In the late nineteenth century, ammunition makers started producing bullets that deformed upon impact, increasing the damage caused. The most famous of these soft-nosed projectiles were produced at the British arsenal in Dum-Dum, India.

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See hard-nosed

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