The English Pedant – What real means today

At last I know whatreal love feels like.It's unreal.Well it was last week. Now it's real again. I think.

There is a term in the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) world: false friends. It means words in another language which look so similar to one in your own language that you think they must mean the same.

Unfortunately this is often not true and using them can be spectacularly embarrassing. Take the English word embarrassed, for instance. There is a Spanish word embarazada. This is so obviously from the same source that the Spanish one has got to mean that feeling of wanting  to drop through a hole in the floor because something has happened that is too humiliating to bear. Right?

Wrong. Embarazada means pregnant. Somewhere back in the mists of time they probably both meant one or the other, or perhaps something else entirely, but they went their separate ways and are now poles apart. It is even hard to imagine a situation where being pregnant is merely embarrassing – it is too highly-charged for that.

Most welcome, certainly. Inconvenient, maybe. Utterly unwelcome, in certain cases. But merely embarrassing, no.

Learning a foreign language is complex enough without the target moving all the time, but that is happening more than ever.

The British tennis player Heather Watson did quite well at the Miami Open this year and when she finally headed for home after a fourth round defeat, she tweeted “Thanks Miami Open. It’s been real”. What is a foreign student to make of that one?

In this case the false friend is the same English word, which most people know: real. It means genuine, true – something like that. And yet in recent years it has taken on a life of its own. First we had the expression “Keep it real”, for which there is no universally agreed definition and which can therefore mean whatever the user wants it to mean. Perhaps the most likely common meaning is “Don’t be pretentious. Keep it (your behavior, your attitude, your message or whatever it is) down-to-earth”.

So that’s something for the English-speaking population to wrestle with, never mind the poor language-learner.

Then there was unreal, which started to mean strange, weird, hard to believe. And not only that, but any of those things in either a positive or a negative sense. So Heather could equally well have said the Miami tournament had been unreal for her.

Unless, that is, it now means something else altogether and it just hasn’t filtered through to the Pedant  yet.

The English Pedant – How trendy are you?




Some people are very impressionable when it comes to new usages of words. They will leap on them as if it were a way of demonstrating their intelligence or at least making themselves attractive.

When whoever it was first said “I hear you” when they meant “I understand what you mean”, such trendies not only heard it but bandied it about with gusto. At about the same time – the late 90s – they also lapped up an expression someone had coined when they meant two people had similar attributes or characteristics: “They’re from the same place”. They dropped “in future” the moment they heard the totally unnecessary “going forward”.

They will leap on words and expressions without thinking them through. And that’s a sign of thoughtlessness.

But then there are those who use new expressions to persuade us that they are modern, forward-thinking people, on the ball but part of the crowd. “See? I’m one of you.”

Their life becomes “a roller coaster” because it makes everyday ups and downs sound more exciting.

British politicians are currently on a mission to use the expression: “it’s a game-changer” in every speech they give, because it makes them sound sporty, alert and “innovative”, to use a vastly overworked and often meaningless word.


Of all the mutant expressions currently worming their way into a new niche in the language, reach out is the most despicable. Until recently it was a needy person who reached out to friends – reached out for help, that is. Now it is being used by people who don’t need much help at all, but want to be seen as vulnerable and worthy of some sympathy and assistance.

When a politician talks about “reaching out”, he or she is reaching out for nothing more or less than your vote, your rubber-stamp, your approval. He is attempting to shrug off the intelligent public’s natural contempt for his kind. He’s saying it is tough out there and even if he might come across as slimy, manipulative and underhand, he is just Mrs Smith’s little boy doing his best in a dog-eat-dog world.

So beware the insincere person “reaching out” to you. They might well be reaching into your pocket rather than your heart.

The English Pedant – Death notice

The English Language

I was recently asked (by a Spanish-speaking teenager to whom I am teaching English) what “wanna” meant. It is symptomatic of the way the English language is going, now that the world and his wife (and their text-speaking kids) have the ability to communicate online without fear of being corrected or even challenged.

“Wanna,” I explained, ”is not really a word at all. It is the way want to sounds when we don’t pronounce it properly” (which for most of us is most of the time). Almost everybody says wanna and gonna and woulda and shoulda and coulda.

What happened with woulda, shoulda, and coulda is that they evolved via would’ve, should’ve and could’ve, all of which are happily accepted as correct.

The question is, then, if we are prepared to write would’ve etc. without feeling we’re letting the language-loving side down, should we allow wanna and gonna into the legitimate world?

This brings into question the whole evolution of language, because if, as we have seen many times before in this blog, the dictionaries are just waving these words through like a Customs officer who wants to go home because he’s been on duty all night, sooner or later those dictionaries will in effect be written by people with no qualifications, no interest in what they are doing and no awareness of what they are doing.

That is why blogs like this exist – because we care.

Does it matter if a generation of internet-addicted young people use gonna without knowing or thinking about what it is and where it came from? Does it matter if people whose first language is English think there is a word upmost, which the rest of us know is really utmost? These people know what it means – they just get the spelling and pronunciation wrong. Something about up makes it sound right: up is good (and therefore down is downright bad), so if they’re doing their upmost to speak properly, that fits, doesn’t it?

Sooner or later the world is gonna wanna kinda dictionary (no, too long, let’s call it a dicsh) that telz it like it is. None of this old-fashioned correctness. If people can learn to drive on their own, do they also have to be subject to the rules of the road? Or is that like saying they can learn about sex from internet pornography (sorry, porn) and need no information or encouragement about how the physical acts can benefit by being accompanied by emotions such as love and affection?

Readers, I would like your opinions on this.

Do teachers still have a responsibility to point out right and wrong, develop skills, instill good habits?

In many countries society is less judgmental than it used to be. In some areas there is no such thing as failing a test – you just get a score of 0 out of 100, but that doesn’t reflect badly on you.

When a 14-year-old who is in the middle of a decent education reads me a passage with complete disregard for punctuation, running one clause, one sentence and one paragraph into another, do I have a responsibility to teach her what commas and full stops mean and why they are there? Or shall we give up the struggle?


The English Pedant – Me, myself and I

Pedant door
Whoever came up with this, congratulations and I’ll be happy to credit you if you let me know.

There is a basic bit of bad grammar that primary school teachers have been trying to eradicate for decades, possibly centuries. It is the child’s tendency, when talking about himself and another person, to say “Me and Charlie went to the beach yesterday”.

There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, out of courtesy we should put the other person first.

Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, it’s not me, it’s I. If were talking only about ourselves it would be “I went to the beach”. So why should it change just because there’s someone else involved?

Having learned that it should be “Charlie and I”, off we go down the conversational road with the impression that me is a bad word.

It’s not. Me is used when we’re the object, the person on the receiving and. So “I talked to him” is correct. But when the other person is the subject and we are the object, it’s “He talked to me.” Just as he and him change around according to who’s doing the talking, so I and me change too.

So far, so good. But then we get to the point where something happens to both of us – we are the objects, not the subjects. “It happened to him and me”. He changes to him, and I changes to me. It is not “It happened to him and I”.

It’s “between you and me”, not “between you and I”.

Going back to Charlie and me (not Charlie and I, because we are not doing the going back), maybe it is because the name doesn’t change that people assume the personal pronoun shouldn’t either. On the other hand, if we’re talking about “Charlie and I” as a concept, like the title of a book, then it wouldn’t change – and that may well be a confusing element in the murky depths of some people’s thinking.

There are people who will go to any lengths to avoid referring to themselves as “me”. They’ll say “There were just the two of us at the meeting. Myself and him.”

It’s done with the best of intentions – it’s just misguided.

And that’s all from me for now.

The English Pedant – If lawyers ruled the world

Job adverts often list the duties involved, but in the last few years they have been closing loopholes with the phrase “including but not limited to”.

That’s just in case you thought the unpaid “intern” position you’re desperate enough to apply for doesn’t also involve making the tea and going to the shop to get the dinosaur boss some cigarettes.

It’s a phrase that bears the restless, nervous, looking-over-the-shoulder mark of the lawyer, whose life revolves around loopholes but who only likes those that work in his favour. Bringing this sort of nonsense into the day-to-day sphere of activity for non-lawyers is not just a sign of the level of distrust we have in our fellow man. It is a step onto a slippery slope to a place where we can’t just be ourselves.

What does “including” mean, anyway? It means that those things referred to are part of a group of things. It doesn’t mean they are the group itself, in its entirety. And nobody ever thought it did mean that, until some lawyer planted the seed of doubt in a client’s mind.

Perhaps it even first appeared in a legal firm’s own terms and conditions, covertly stating that not only would they be charging us a day’s salary for writing a letter, but they would also be adding on the cost of the ink and the paper, plus wear and tear on the printer and keyboard. And what about the typist’s nails? They don’t come cheap, and somebody’s got to pay for her to have 10 different designs on her fingers, including (but not limited to) various colours, the national flag and her family’s coat of arms.

The Lawyer's marriage contract

To take this sort of practice to its logical conclusion, we would all have our terms and conditions in a silicon chip in the skin on the back of our neck, much like dogs are electronically tagged. It’s just that the originators of all this – the ones who love a good term and condition because you never know when you can trip someone up with it – will have so much information that other people’s scanners couldn’t read them

For the rest of us, though – the man and woman in the street, going peacefully and honestly about our business – our T&Cs would read “Yeah, whatever. Here is the phone number of a psychiatrist who specializes in paranoia, although that is just one of her specialities and should not be construed as a limitation or a complete list of her abilities.”

The English Pedant – Kick back in anger

Get your slightly naughty enjoyment on Route 66

Kick is a word that has bounced along through the decades, picking up new meanings. Originally it meant simply to hit with the top or side of a foot, and many of us grew up kicking anything we found on the ground, from footballs and stones to empty cigarette packets and the heads of dandelions.

In the 1950s the expression ‘to get your kicks’ – i.e. have your fun – was popular, but had in fact been around quite a while. Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick out Of You was first heard in 1934.

Then came the beatnik-style “She’s on a health kick”, later to be neo-hippied up to a health (or whatever) “trip”.

chuck berry
Chuck Berry allegedly got his kicks by installing hidden cameras in the ladies’ toilets at his restaurant

While the force that hits the user when firing a gun was always known as a kick, it also moved into the language of describing bribery and corruption, where a sum of money paid for favours such as turning a blind eye became known as a kickback.

Spicy food or alcoholic drinks may be said to have “quite a kick”, which goes back to the original meaning, as does “kick the habit”, and it might have seemed that the heyday of the word was past.

Then along came a new use for it: what used to be “sit back and relax” became “kick back”, and here the delinquent word suddenly entered the lounge, the land of comfy shoes and the gentle art of taking it easy. How did this come to pass?

If it really is a sign that words have a youth, a maturity and an old age, it could refer to the phenomenon of the built-in foot rest in armchairs and sofas, which you activate with your heels. Thus to kick back is to put your feet up.

I can’t help thinking, though, that it is not the elderly who “kick back” but the comparatively lively, energetic young male adult who, exhausted from working all week, 10 pints of lager and a curry on Friday and Saturday night and playing football on Sunday morning, wants to recline in the comfort of his mock-leather lounger and doze off to the gentle sound of some 80s rock music while his wife or perhaps “WAG” (acronym of wives and girlfriends) makes the tea and slices the Battenburg as her mother did before her.

This guy is part of the generations of British young men incapable of saying “Thank you” because it sounds too soft, and who will use the drinking term “Cheers!” instead. Kick back belongs to them.

The English Pedant – to prey or to play?

Prey is a funny word. Sounds like pray, and while praying as a practice may be out of fashion at the moment, the word is very much alive. It’s e-toting doppelganger, though, is on its way out, or would be if there were an obvious alternative.

It’s an uncomfortable word, sitting awkwardly in the term ‘bird of prey’. We know what that means, but somehow it doesn’t look right. And when it is used as a verb, with criminals preying on the elderly and paedophiles preying on the young, again, we know what it means but it still seems unnatural.

Perhaps that is why the expression ‘preying on my mind’ has been unthinkingly replaced by ‘playing on my mind’. If something is preying on our mind, it is eating, pecking away at our sense of peace, but since we don’t use the word very much and don’t think about what it means, someone somewhere once said ‘it’s playing on my mind’ and the great lemming-like English-speaking community adopted it without challenge.

Maybe we would rather be played on than preyed on, so the ugly word has been dropped and the more acceptable, happier one brought in.

This is the sort of thing the Pedant notices (capital p because it refers to this blog and its author, but we could use the lower case if you agree and we’re all pedants together).

A similar thing has happened to ‘my old stamping ground’. We know what it means, but it doesn’t stand much scrutiny. Our old stamping ground is a place where we spent much time in the past, but were we actually stamping? Hitting the ground deliberately with our feet? If it was a field with long grass, the effect of our stamping, or even just walking, would soon be seen, so maybe it has something to do with that, but no attempt at an explanation seems to be out there.

The vagueness may well account for the fact that many people now say stomping ground rather than stamping ground. When checking this out in the Oxford Online, I was surprised (and actually quite pleased) to find that the stomping version had yet to be included, and for once, a dictionary had stood up for itself and suggested that we may have meant stamping. Quite right too.

Several other online sources have accepted stomping, but this sort of thing should be stamped out.

The English Pedant – Footballish

Ah, footballers! Some of them can barely speak, but they provide excellent material for this blog. (Apologies to American readers: this is about what you call soccer.)

Have you noticed how they have taken to using one adjective twice for emphasis? “It’s a massive massive game.” “He’s a top top player.” No commas required, and hardly a need for a space, either: he’s not just good, but a toptop player.

At the end of the day, Gary, it's a massive massive game. I can't stress enough how massive massive this game is

Massive, of course, means very big, and there are many ways of expressing it in this context – vital, crucial, hugely important, potentially season-defining, big – but no footballer seems to feel complete until he has faced a TV camera and said massive twice. It shows he is taking it seriously. That and the assertion that he’s going to be giving it 110% or whatever mathematical impossibility he feels is sufficient.

On the other hand there is also a tendency, particularly among managers and pundits, to play things down. They do this by saying “a little bit” to dilute what could be seen as strong comments. Thus they will say that a defensive midfielder should “get stuck in a little bit”, when what they would be saying to him in private would be something like “Knock the b***ard’s head off.”

Then there is the banishing of that difficult word “consecutive”. Nasty one, this, with its four syllables likely to trip you up. Far better to say “back to back”, even if, when taken literally, this would mean they were facing in opposite directions.

Thus when they talk about “back to back fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal” they mean those are the next two in a line of matches that, in the Pedant’s opinion, would all have been going the same way.

Obviously Messi and Ronaldo are both top top players. But for me, Messi is top top topper

It’s not all shame for these people’s English teachers, though. England squads at international tournaments have been known to dare each other to incorporate certain song titles into their interviews, so if you ever wondered why Alan Shearer once mentioned 24 Hours from Tulsa when talking about a match against Denmark, that was probably the reason.

The obvious counter argument here would be that a team of language lovers would probably not fare too well in the Premier League. But then after we have done our stuff, we’re not called upon to demonstrate our ball skills, are we?

It is one of the sports fan’s little pleasures in life to find a football figure who we’ve never heard speak and who actually turns out to be articulate. The recent appearance of the former Leicester City captain Matt Elliott on BBC World’s Football Focus is a case in point. He could do it all: words of more than two syllables, coherent sentences, answering the question – everything. He was trying a bit too hard, maybe, but he probably wants a job as a regular pundit. He is certainly Champions League material in a field full of pub team players.

The English Pedant – Random fabulous thoughts

As we have discussed before, many of the changes in English – or any language – come about as a result of frequent misuse due to people not knowing exactly what something means but using the word anyway.Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo_

Another agent of change, though, is the playful subverting of words by young people. This can probably be traced back centuries, but for the purposes of this article, let’s begin in the 1960s.

Someone somewhere took the underused word fabulous and gave it a new lease of life with different connotations. It was originally the adjective of the word fable, meaning a story designed to create wonderment in the reader, particularly children. So if something was fabulous it was as if from a wonderful story.

The impact of The Beatles reinforced the new youth category of teenagers, and they, seeking to establish themselves as a group unconnected with children and, heaven forbid, adults, needed its own vocabulary. While their parents persisted with words such as super and , indeed, wonderful, the image-makers of the teenagers (probably grownups, in fact, working as journalists and advertising copywriters) wanted something more in keeping with their brave new world. So, enter fabulous, abbreviated to fab, and then groovy and all the other hippy verbal manure.

What do I love about you_ Well hun, you're so,like, random

A small group at my school took to saying things were ted when they meant excellent. I don’t know where that came from, but it didn’t catch on.

Fast forward to the 21st century and fab and groovy are only ever used ironically, while the hunt is on for something original for da kids to say. And so came random, meaning … it’s hard to say, really. People just seem to enjoy using the word.

It breaks my heart to say this, but my heart belongs to another

And then there was quality, used as a term of general approval.

Meanwhile, the humble word like had spread like chlamydia as a universal substitute for, like, a pause while we think. It had also mutated, clinging to personal pronouns and verbs to replace expressions such as so I said or this was his reply. I’m like “Did you know she’s seeing Jack?” And he’s like “Whatever”.

There’s another one. Whatever can now mean I don’t care or that’s fine with me.

At the more serious end of the spectrum, the arts community took a word which used to mean nervous and made it a description of a work of visual, literary or other art which is not comfortable to see, read, listen to etc. Edgy probably came via cutting edge, which itself had been trendy for a while but needed a trim and a bit of wax or gel to bring it truly up to date.

What’s next? This column can only comment on things that it comes across, and that is largely British English, so if you have anything to report, please feel free to email your observations to the address on the contact page..

The English Pedant – Fool is a superstar word

two fools collide
There are country fools…

As the festive season approaches (it’s all right to call it that, isn’t it, PC people?) there are going to be a lot of foolish things done. People are going to be acting the fool and making fools of themselves. Only a fool would think otherwise, and that is why in this Pedant post we are not pointing out the way some words are being misused; we’re playing with this word.


Dictionary definition (Oxford Online): a person who acts unwisely or imprudently. A silly person.

There are lots of synonyms: that dictionary suggests idiot, ass, halfwit, nincompoop, blockhead, buffoon, dunce, dolt, ignoramus, cretin, imbecile, dullard, moron, simpleton, clod – and that is a pretty wide range. Do dunce and ignoramus really belong in there? They’re not fun words, but critical ones.

fool to cry
Rock’n’roll  fools…

The list of informal options is more in the spirit of the word. Dope, ninny, chump, dimwit, goon, dumbo, dummy, dum-dum, dumb-bell, loon, jackass, bonehead, fathead, numbskull, dunderhead, chucklehead, knucklehead, muttonhead, pudding-head, thickhead, wooden-head, airhead, pinhead, lamebrain, pea-brain, birdbrain, zombie, jerk, nerd, dipstick, donkey, noodle.

Notice how it went a bit American in places? And yet it includes dipstick, as popularised by the UK sitcom Only Fools and Horses.

They then give us a category called British informal, which ranges from old fashioned (nit, nitwit, twit) to the current favourite numpty, along with such essentials as berk, prat, pillock, wally, git, wazzock, divvy, nerk, dork, twerp, mug and muppet.

fools gold
Film fools…

I remember a conversation a few years ago in the office of a local radio station, where a rather strange young man had just started appearing, on work experience. He wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t unpleasant, so he wasn’t really a berk or a pillock, or a git; he was just a bit slow and a committee of us decide the word was plonker (another Only Fools staple). Not even a fully-fledged one, but a bit of a plonker.

One very minor question which has been puzzling the Pedant since teen years is this: where exactly did twit come from? The explanation that has accompanied it in the deep recesses of my mind all these years is that it actually means a pregnant fish. Now, though, thanks to seeing it in that list just after nitwit, it occurs to me that perhaps it is an abbreviation of that word. Lose the ni and you’ve got twit.

However, this is The Fool Show, and twit will have to get its agent to try harder to bring it the attention it deserves.

Fool is a superstar among words, celebrated countless times in song. Poor Little Fool (Ricky Nelson), Fool if you Think it’s Over (Chris Rea), You Little Fool (Elvis Costello), Foolish Little Girl (The Chiffons), Fool on the Hill (The Beatles) – and that’s just where it appears in the title.

fool for your loving
Heavy rock fools…

But then there is one that takes us into the murky world of Americanisation: Fooled Around and Fell in Love (Elvin Bishop). Suddenly the word isn’t so innocent and harmless. Because what starts out as a boy and girl playing, or fooling around, can lead to sex, and that, as we know, can lead to all sorts of trouble. The trouble in Elvin Bishop’s case was that it ceased to be play and became serious, which, to a man who tells us at the start that he “must have been through about a million girls”, is bad news.

You may or may not think he’s a fool for thinking that.

immaculate fools
and Immaculate Fools