Difficulties with words. Part 2

'Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.' Samuel Johnson.
‘Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.’ Samuel Johnson.

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

Collins = Collins English Dictionary, OED = Oxford English Dictionary

Sly boots (also sly-boots, slyboots)

According to Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), ‘A cunning fellow, under the mask of simplicity.’ Bailey’s Dictionary of Thieving and Canting Slang (1736) says: ‘a seeming silly, but subtle Fellow.’

Some would say that the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is a sly boots, hiding his intelligence under a bumbling facade. No one seems to know for sure.

‘This Ginger, Sire—oh, he’s a slyboots if ever a cat was—said he was walking past the tree to which those villains bound your Majesty.’ (C S Lewis, The Last Battle)

Here’s a painting called Sly Boots.


To act as a butler. Now sadly rare.

‘Will you buttle for me, Benson?’

‘I left my employment at the call centre to take up buttling.’

Imply, infer

I implied that there’s some confusion about these two words, and you inferred from my remarks that I’m a crashing bore.

Wrong: ‘The furore regarding the self-described billionaire’s appendages even spilled over into a Republican presidential debate in March, when Trump inferred his hand size did not mean he had a small penis.’ (Guardian)

Right: ‘Trump implied that his small hands don’t mean that he has a small penis and I inferred that he’s an insecure buffoon.’


A word with which to open almost every sentence.

‘So I was drinking a cup of tea and then Jules came in and said “Would you like a biscuit with that?” and I was like “No way, I’m on a diet!”‘

Cappabar (also capabarre, capperbar)

Misappropriation of government property, especially in the Royal Navy. A certain amount of cappabar was regarded as being among the perquisites of certain jobs. Just as now perhaps some people regard the office stationery cupboard as a semi-personal treasure store, while you could also say that Members of Parliament used to view their expenses as cappabar. Where it becomes outright theft is hard to say, but there is a distinction. It’s a useful term for not quite legal but customary benefits from employment, etc.

‘Disposing of His Majesty’s property was an immemorial practice among His Majesty’s servants … and in the Navy it went by the name of cappabar.’ (Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command)


Coleslaw comes from the Dutch for cabbage salad, koolsla. Kool for cabbage, sla for salad. So slaw is just nondescript salad. It doesn’t have to be just that forever because etymology says so, but I experience a moment of quiet pleasure when a pub menu is old-fashioned enough to say coleslaw. They might even serve food on plates.

‘The sticky honey Jack Daniels ribs constitute a signature dish, served with a portion of slaw and triple-cooked chips.’ (Culture Trip)


Originally, this was ‘The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6)’ (OED). Now it means something like ‘a word, catchphrase, habit, manner of dress, etc that identifies someone as belonging to a certain group or being a certain kind of person’.

Using ‘slaw’ on a menu implies that you also serve artisan burgers in brioche buns and thrice-cooked hand-cut chips, probably not on a plate.

If someone habitually says Zanu Liebour, Red Tories, EUSSR, Feminazis, David CaMORONTony BLiar, MSM (mainstream media), sheeple, or whatnot when commenting below the line on newspaper websites, then you might infer that they subscribe to a particular package deal of opinions.

There are many, many shibboleths, good, bad and indifferent.

‘For most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind.’ (Osbert Sitwell, aka Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, Bt, JP)

‘Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.’


Someone who suffers from migraines. Makes it sound dashing and almost romantic. How about, say, asthmanauts? Alas, it usually features in dry scientific publications.

‘This study provides evidence that migraineurs have low heat pain thresholds between migraine attacks.’ (Cephalalgia)


When naming scandals in the UK we mostly just add the suffix ‘-gate’, especially if there’s a political element. This is in honour of the 1970s US ‘Watergate’ scandal involving President Nixon. It’s lazy and a bit tiresome, and surely we should have own nomenclature? How about using, say, the homegrown Marconi scandal of 1912, and adding ‘-oni’ to everything? At least it’d be our own laziness. Having said that, ‘gategate’ was mildly amusing.

‘ANDREW MITCHELL has poured fuel onto the fire of “gategate” by giving a statement to the press that fell well short of the expected denial that he used the devastating put-down “f***ing plebs” to the police.’ (The Week)

NB Increasingly ‘-gate’ is used for almost any event of any kind.


I thought I’d coined this as a vague, all-purpose, work e-mail-/firewall-safe term of affectionate or mildly derisive abuse. But it already existed. The top definition in Urban Dictionary says ‘It literally means “pig”, but is used for a person who is “ungrateful, cheap, selfish, greedy, stingy or flagrantly unfair”.’ I prefer the friendlier, more indeterminate meaning. Together, we can change its meaning.

‘Why did you volunteer to give a talk at the company meeting, you chozzer?’

Work colleague

Is there another type of colleague? If so, you’re probably better off describing that person as an associate, which means that you can then introduce them as ‘My associate, Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms X’, which is agreeably cold and mysterious. Otherwise, colleague on its own will do.


This is often used to mean ‘full, enthusiastic’, usually in the context of praise, but really it means ‘excessive or insincere, especially in an offensive or distasteful way‘ (Collins). Or I should say that it now means that, historically it had various meanings, and these changed a good deal. And many people misuse it anyway. So if you want to express yourself precisely to a broad audience, perhaps you should use another word. It’s quite a good one, though, with a hint of onomatopoeia.

‘Jenkins greased up to the teachers using a Machiavellian combination of  gift-apples and fulsome compliments.’

Taedium vitae

Weariness of life; extreme ennui or inertia, sometimes regarded as a pathological state.’ (OED)

I’m not sure the dictionary does it full justice. It can also be used in a way that hints at something else, the ineffable tedium or perhaps ultimate futility of life, and not just our weary response to it. So you can say ‘It’s the taedium vitae, me old china, you can’t escape it.’ Perhaps that’s not approved, and perhaps it misunderstands the original Latin, but I like it.

‘Some acronyms referred to clinical states, perhaps the most common being TATT, for Tired All The Time. A person who is TATT is not thought by the doctor to be suffering from a discoverable physical illness, but rather with a form of taedium vitae, which he, the doctor, is ill-equipped to combat.’ (Theodore Dalrymple, The Spectator)

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, October 2016)

3 thoughts on “Difficulties with words. Part 2

    1. Thank you, Susan, kind of you to say that. Ah, it could’ve been, but actually it refers to a friend of yours, a gentleman who used to work at Waterstone’s. A gentleman with a gravely helpful demeanour and a certain innate dignity.

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