apron strings, tied to

To be tied to apron strings is to be controlled by or unduly attached to one’s wife or mother. The phrase dates to 1848, first appearing in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string.

The metaphor is fairly obvious and the term apron string has been in use in reference to women since the mid-17th century. An apron string hold or apron string tenure referred to property of one’s wife, which was controlled by the husband during her life but which afterwards would revert to her original family.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Bogey is a term that today is usually only heard in the air force or on the golf course.  Both these aviation usages date to World War II, but the term bogey is much, much older, coming from an old Scottish word for a ghost.

That word is bogle, often spelled bogy, bogil, bogie, and other ways. The term dates at c.1507, in William Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (The Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow):

The luif blenkis of that bogill, fra his blerde ene
(As Belzebub had on me blent) abasit my spreit.
(The love blink of that bogle, from his bleared eyes
(As Beelzebub had me blinded) abased my spirit.)1

Bogle is the source for our modern bogeyman or boogieman.

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Several people have emailed asking how Humphrey Bogart’s name became associated with a term meaning selfishness. Ah, how soon we forget the intricacies of ‘60s drug culture. The selfish connotation comes from hogging a marijuana cigarette. Someone who kept the joint in their mouth, hanging from their lip like Bogey, would be bogarting the joint. Instead of bogarting, one should pass it on to another. The term can be used for hoarding items other than pot.

The term is first attested to in the song Don’t Bogart Me, by Elliot Ingber and Larry Wagner, which appears on Fraternity Of Man’s eponymous album, released 24 June 1968 by ABC Records:

Don’t bogart that joint, my friend Pass it over to me.

The song was featured the next year in the movie Easy Rider and is on that movie’s soundtrack. (The song was later covered by the band Little Feat under the title Don’t Bogart That Joint.)

In some circles, there is a slightly different definition of bogarting. It is to get saliva all over the joint before passing it on—again from the imagery of the cigarette hanging from Bogey’s lip. But this sense seems to be used by a minority.

There is an older, unrelated meaning of the term—to be aggressive or bullying. It comes from the fact that Bogart played toughs in the movies.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Bob’s your uncle

This British catch phrase means all will be well or all will be taken care. The origin is not known.

Popular etymology says that it derives from a particular act of nepotism in the British government. Robert, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister (left), appointed Arthur Balfour, his nephew (right), to the post of Secretary for Ireland in 1887. Balfour was, at the time, considered young and a political lightweight, and the post was a high-profile, political plum currently embroiled in the question of Irish independence. Unfortunately for this great story, there is no evidence to link this act with the origin of the phrase.

The first citation in the OED is from 1937, appearing as an entry in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 2nd Edition. Partridge dates the phrase to c.1890, but Partridge’s dates are notoriously unreliable (he tended to insert his best guess instead of relying on actual citations), so this early date is questionable. The 1890 date works well for the Salisbury-Balfour story, but if the date is indeed closer to 1937, then that story becomes less tenable.

For his part, Partridge says the phrase may stem from the cant phrase All is bob, meaning all is safe.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Partridge’s Dictionary of Catchphrases; Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition)


In the publishing trade, a blurb is a testimonial to the book that is printed on the dust jacket. It is meant as an advertisement for the book. The origin of blurb is one of the more humorous etymologies.

Blurb was coined by the American humorist Gelett Burgess in 1907. According to his publisher, B.W. Huebsch, Burgess’s book, Are You a Bromide?, had been published and was selling well. At the annual trade association dinner that year the publisher distributed some five hundred copies of the book with a special jacket, as was the custom. It was also:

the common practise to print the picture of a damsel—languishing, heroic, or coquettish—anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel.

Burgess provided a drawing of a particularly buxom and pulchritudinous blonde for the jacket and labeled her Miss Blinda Blurb. The name stuck, eventually including not only drawings of buxom women but also any excessive testimonial to the book.

From Burgess’s Burgess Unabridged, 1914:

Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher...On the “jacket” of the “latest” fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the “sensation of the year.”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Mencken, The American Language, Supplement I)

blue moon

Some pedants maintain that a blue moon is the second full moon of a calendar month—a rather rare occurrence. While this is certainly one of the meanings, the original meaning is more general, referring to any rare occurrence.

The original sense of blue moon is that of an absurd event that can never occur. The moon is never really blue and once in a blue moon is akin to when pigs fly. (Well actually, when a lot of dust is kicked up into the atmosphere, the moon can appear blue. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused the moon to turn blue, as did late Indian monsoons in 1927 and Canadian forest fires in 1951.)

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Book Review: New Partridge Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English

Two weeks ago I received my copy of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, from Amazon.com. This is an update of the work started by lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979). First published in 1937, his slang dictionary was revised six times during his life and once by Paul Beale after his death. This new work is essentially a new reference rather than just a revision and updating of the earlier work. One can still see the influence of the Partridge originals in some of the entries, but it is quite different in research, scope, and presentation.

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General Knowledge

If you listen to the television news long enough, you will hear someone address the Attorney General of the United States as General Gonzales. This usage always grates on my ear. The Attorney General is not a military officer and there is something unsettling about the chief law enforcement officer of a democracy assuming military pretensions. But as much as I dislike this particular form of address, the linguist in me recognizes that it is probably an inevitable development in the language.

The addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration. The problem with this form of address is that the general in the title functions as an adjective, denoting that the holder of the office is empowered to act in all cases to which the state is a party. The attorney general has general legal authority in all matters and the scope of his or her authority is not limited. The attorney general’s antithesis would be an attorney special or attorney particular, legal terms that are not used much today.

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Bloody Hell

It seems that British television has banned a new Australian tourism ad campaign for using the phrase "bloody hell."

The ad, which pitch the sights to see and activities to do in Australia, ends with a bikini-clad woman asking "so where the bloody hell are you"? Evidently British television censors deemed the ad too offensive.

The ad still runs in movie theaters and a print version is also running in Britain. The ad is running on American television without controversy.

Tourism Australia, the organization that created the ad, is reveling in the ban. Scads of Britons, hearing of ban are flocking to the internet to view it. As is typical with such censorship, the ban is boosting the ad’s appeal and success.

"Bloody" has traditionally been a very offensive word in Britain. The 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was scandalous as Eliza Doolittle utters the phrase "not bloody likely" in the third act. In recent decades, the word has lost much of its offensive character in Britain and is often heard on British TV.

In Australia, the word is only the mildest of oaths, more an intensifier than anything else. In the US, the word has little currency, but where it does it is not considered offensive at all.

The banned ad can be seen at http://www.wherethebloodyhellareyou.com.

Beyonce: Budding Linguist?

From "Beyoncé’s Boost," The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 9 March 2006, by Justine Parker and wires:

Bootylicious, the term coined by the former Destiny’s Child star for her own dangerous curves - and made famous by the hit single of the same name - will reportedly be added to the dictionary.

But the Naughty Girl singer is not too impressed by her newfound status as a wordsmith.

“I’m not very proud of that. It’s in the dictionary - it’s crazy,” she said to Britain’s TV Hits magazine.

The 24-year-old, who is famous for her hot hip-shaking in film clips for songs such as Crazy In Love, says she would have stuck it out and put more thought into the term if she had known it would be recorded in the lexicon.

“I wrote the song, but I wish there was another word I could have come up with if I was going to have a word in the dictionary,” she said to the pop mag.

The budding linguist, who is dating rap king Jay-Z, hasn’t yet had a chance to see if the dictionary’s definition is by the book, but she has offered her own spin on the word.

“I don’t know what it says in the dictionary but my definition is beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able,” she said.

Stories about Beyoncé Knowles’s coining of bootylicious have been appearing in English-language newspapers around the world of late. Now, I know better than to expect deep, linguistic scholarship from news reporters who write about pop stars and their music. But there are so many things wrong with the articles like the one quoted above that I just have to speak up.

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