Difficulties with words. Part 1

From the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993).
From the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993).

Here’s some vexatious, misunderstood and underused words and phrases.

Collins = Collins English Dictionary, OED = Oxford English Dictionary

Just sayin’

The phrasal equivalent of adding a smiling or wink-smiling emoticon after some insulting, controversial, strange, trite or otherwise doubtful remarks. The idea is to transform aggression into passive-aggression or absolve oneself of blame for something barely worth saying. It can also imply something like ‘I am making a statement, not entering into a conversation’ or ‘I’ve said my piece and I’m done’.

Perhaps it would be better to reconsider what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, but that’s not my real beef—it’s how the thing sounds, to my ear it’s prissy and arch, possibly something else disagreeable. There’s also no British accent I know of that can make this sound natural, especially with the apostrophe*. This applies equally to the written form, which you can hear with your mind’s ear.

‘You’re a blight on humanity and you should be shot like a rabid dog. Just sayin’!’

‘Well, at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. Just sayin’.’

‘Can I lick your face? Just saying.’ (Message sent to a friend by a stranger via a dating app)

‘It rains a lot in the UK. Just sayin’!’


If Pavlov’s dogs slavered when he rang a bell because they expected food, most healthy people probably yawn when they hear/read ‘facilitate’; it’s a warning of jargon and boredom to come. The word is often used a little imprecisely, but that’s by the by.

‘We trust that Facing the Future was produced in partnership or with involvement from other government departments to help facilitate the joint working that will be necessary to achieve housing outcomes that benefit all government departments.’ (CIH, Facing the Future)


It isn’t a fancy or archaic synonym for noisy, it means unpleasant in general and stinking in particular: ‘that noisome pond where even ducks fear to paddle’. Pronounced noy-some, the first part a bit like someone from Belfast saying ‘now’.

‘Man is a noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey.’ (Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Eruption)

Fish and fishes

Fish is the usual plural for fish, except where a mix of different fish species is involved, when it’s fishes. You can also say fishes for effect, to be archaic or whatnot.

‘I remember being indifferent to the passing of a couple of goldfish.’ (Chris Benson, e-mail)

‘Imagine a world ruled by fish! Long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the mighty rivers of the Central West teemed with bizarre ancient fishes—armoured fishes, fishes with lungs, and some huge predators with jaws like crocodiles. Thousands of their fossils were found at Canowindra and give us a unique glimpse into life during the Devonian period—the “Age of Fishes”.’ (Age of Fishes museum website)

‘Men lived like fishes; the great ones devour’d the small.’ (Algernon Sydney, Discourses Concerning Government)

Reach out

An emotionally intelligent alternative to ‘ask’, ‘speak to’, etc. Forget the old binary days of I ask/you answer, this is a question/answer spectrum and we’re both on it—together. Another difficult one to say in anything other than a certain kind of American accent.

Epigram has reached out for an official statement from the fire station, and will continue to provide updates as the situation develops.’ (Epigram—Bristol University student newspaper)


An underused, somewhat antiquated British exclamation. Pigeons coo (Collins: ‘a characteristic soft throaty call’) and people coo (Collins: ‘to speak in a soft murmur’ or ‘murmur lovingly’), but folk rarely now say ‘Coo!’ to express ‘surprise or incredulity’ (OED). It’d be difficult to say this in anything other than a certain kind of British accent, probably a cheerful Cockney one.

‘Coo, Bert,’ he said. ‘Look at this; that’s rich, ain’t it?’ (Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies)


Another underused, somewhat antiquated British exclamation, used to express ‘contempt, impatience, or disgust’, or to ‘depreciate or dismiss some statement or notion’. Best said with a verbal snap of the fingers. The accepted pronunciation varies a little, but for me the ‘p’ isn’t silent or fully sounded, it’s like the vermouth in a dry martini—it just hints that it’s there.

‘As for wrinkles—pshaw! Why shouldn’t we have wrinkles? Honourable insignia of long service in this warfare.’ (C S Lewis, letter)

Wringer, ringer

A wringer is a device for extracting moisture from fabric (pre-tumble drier), while a ringer could be an outsider brought in to make, say, your sports team unfairly better, or someone who rings bells and the like. If you’ve had an unpleasantly squeezing experience, you’ve been put through the wringer. Not the ringer, unless that person ate, digested and passed you, which would be a shame.


Thrifty, good value, sparing, etc, not ‘pertaining to economics’.

‘In shopping for monthly toiletries and other items a larger tube of toothpaste or a larger tin of powder may prove more economical than a smaller one.’ (Rupa Chatterjee, Smart Housekeeping)

‘Spark’s economical, elliptical prose is alive with understated comedy: one has the sense that her talent for farce is constantly held in check by the seriousness of her ideas.’ (Guardian newspaper)

Lightening, lightning

The former is a verb that indicates that something is becoming lighter, while the latter is an electrical discharge—and a noun. They’re often and understandably confused.

‘His lightnings lightened the world: The earth saw, and trembled.’ (American Standard Bible)

Mother lode, mother load

It’s lode, not load, a mother lode is the main vein or area of veins for metal ore or minerals. Mother here means something like originating, source or principal rather than stupendously huge; you probably wouldn’t say the mother of all lodes. Metaphorically speaking, a mother lode is a prime source of something, with the implication that its discovery will bring great good fortune to the discoverer.

‘Son of a bitch, we struck the mother lode!’ (Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet, Network (film))

It stands to reason

In my experience, anything that stands to reason is almost certainly factually and/or logically incorrect in some obvious way.


Wild, overmastering emotion. Now it’s an employer/HR cliché and we’re all supposed to be passionate about anything from answering phones in a call centre to practising accountancy. I was once told that I didn’t get a copywriting job because the other candidate on the final shortlist had shown greater passion for children. (It involved writing quite a bit about children’s books.) On the whole, I didn’t mind not having shown passion for children in my interview. Note: the Passion (capitalised as a proper noun) refers to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

‘There is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?’ (Lord Byron, letter)

‘The mechanism of our redemption by the “Passion and Cross” of Jesus is not simple.’ (Christopher Howse, Daily Telegraph)

‘Applicants must be passionate about Drones & Multirotors and demonstrate sound knowledge, as well as an interest in other RC Model Aircraft disciplines.’ (Traplet Publications, job advert)


The newer (late 20th century?) usage means exploiting something, often some innocent feature of life, for cash. There is nothing wrong with making money, but monetisation has an implicit worldview attached to it, where everything has a cash value to be realised: ‘O reader, to what shifts is poor Society reduced, struggling to give still some account of herself, in epochs when Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to men!’ (Thomas Carlyle, Chartism)

Both monetise and monetize are correct in UK English, while in US English it’s always monetize.

‘Papa, I should like to monetise your parental love: pray give me some money for chocolate.’

Ye olde English

Short answer: ‘the’ could be written as ‘þe’ in Old English, employing the letter thorn (þ), which is not in the modern English alphabet. Thorn represented a ‘th’ sound. As chance would have it, þ and y looked very similar in the medieval English blackletter typeface, leading the two to become confused later. It’s not ‘ye olde’, it’s ‘þe olde’, pronounced ‘the old’.

Old English was probably spoken from some time in the fifth century until some time in the twelfth century, and was followed by Middle English, Chaucer’s English. Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, was the first English work of literature of any kind, at least that we know of. Here are the opening lines:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!

Throw under the bus

Sacrificing someone connected to oneself to preserve oneself or advance one’s interests. A cliché frequently employed by contestants in competitive reality television programmes. In the UK they seem to think it makes them vibrantly transatlantic. Almost always used in complaint and/or defiance: ‘Don’t throw me under the bus, I won’t be thrown under the bus, you/he/she just threw me under the bus’.

‘She threw me under the bus because she’s threatened by strong personalities and I’m a strong personality, I have opinions and I am very creative.’


You probably know all about this: properly, it means ‘exactly’ or ‘actually, not metaphorically’. So, a ‘literal translation’ of a book translates the original word for word rather than recreating it imaginatively, while if a ship literally split in two and sank, it actually split in two and sank. It’s often now used for emphasis, so ‘I was literally dead on my feet’ means something like ‘I was bloody dead on my feet, absolutely shattered’.

This sort of thing is easy to mock, but it’s also easy to enjoy and hard to misinterpret. It’s a rarity in that the misuse doesn’t just change the meaning of the word, it usually reverses it, so literally means metaphorically, and yet at the same time no one is confused, the meaning is obvious from the context, so the word hasn’t really been corrupted. In fact, even the misusers often understand the distinction. Saying that you were literally hopping mad is harmless and mildly entertaining, while those who know better can enjoy a feeling of superiority; it adds in a small way to the gaiety of life for everyone. Having said that, I still correct it when editing, unless it’s been done deliberately for effect.

‘She literally threw herself under the bus.’ (Contestant, The Apprentice)


A word that isn’t used enough.

‘A person who is offensively punctilious and precise in speech or behaviour; a person who cultivates or affects supposedly correct views on culture, learning, or morals, which offend or bore others; a conceited or self-important and didactic person.’ (OED)

There seems to be a lot of priggishness on social media. Just sayin’.

Disclaimer: some of the words have multiple meanings, especially historically, but I’ve confined myself to the most relevant; it’s also possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, March 2016)

* Except possibly Brummie, and it still doesn’t do the speaker any favours.

2 thoughts on “Difficulties with words. Part 1

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