Difficulties with words. Part 3

NYC opium den
The stuff that pipe dreams are made of. Opium den, NYC.

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

Collins = Collins English Dictionary, OED = Oxford English Dictionary

Pipe dream

We all know this is ‘a fanciful or impossible plan or hope’ (Collins), but tend to forget where the phrase comes from—the dreams you get from smoking a pipe of opium. Most of the things we call pipe dreams seem a bit tame. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, now there’s a goddamn pipe dream.

‘About a month ago, we had this idea of building an office bike, a motorcycle we could all use for quick trips around town. It was a pipe dream, really.’ (coolmaterial.com)


‘Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of diarrhoea.’ (OED)

An underused adjective outside medicine.

‘His diarrhoeic tweeting was the wonder of the world.’

‘As diarrhoeic samples were the focus of our study, we considered all hard or soft samples that retained their shape in the collection cup to be formed or semiformed.’ (Journal of Medical Microbiology)

Debt versus deficit

Imagine that your combined monthly outgoings (rent/mortgage, utilities bills, food bills, etc) are £1,800, while your total monthly income is £1,700—you have a monthly budget deficit of £100. If you’re borrowing £100 per month to cover this, you will have a debt of £1,200 after a year, if you ignore interest. If you don’t ignore interest, both the deficit and the debt will be larger, as the interest will be an additional and ever-growing outgoing.

‘Debt. Deficit. The two most loaded terms in all of macro finance, their connotations inspiring legislation and executive decisions that affect us all. Yet every year, you can find a few congressional candidates who don’t know the difference between these two important concepts.’ (Investopedia)

Crypts of Lieberkühn

They sound like German biscuits in an H P Lovecraft story, but in fact they’re intestinal glands.

Wrong: ‘Bite through a thin veil of bitter chocolate to discover the eldritch horror of biscuit within.’

Right: ‘Further examination of the intestinal mucosa from infected pigs showed that colonized two sites preferentially: the mucus-filled crypts of Lieberkühn and the mucus gel covering the epithelium.’ (Microbiology) 



‘Some of my colleagues drank chatter-broth ten times a day, talking while they brewed it in the office kitchen, talking as they drifted back to their desks, and then talking again as they arranged the next brew-up.’


Now that banter/bantz is hopelessly compromised, try badinage: ‘humorous or light-hearted conversation that often involves teasing someone.’ (Collins)

This badinage the poor wretch took with stoical good grace;
In fact, he smiled as tho’ he thought he’d struck the proper place.
“Come, boys, I know there’s kindly hearts among so good a crowd—
To be in such good company would make a deacon proud.”

(John Henry Titus/Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, The Face Upon the Floor)

Car crash

Something that happens when people are interviewed on television or radio.

‘Abbott in car crash interview over Labour police policy.’ (Scotsman)

Hear, hear!

Not ‘Here, here!’, it’s short for ‘Hear him, hear him!’, which is to say ‘Attend to what this person is saying’, with the implication that he or she is right. It’s said to have originated in parliament in the 17th century.

Also ‘Hear! Hear!’ or ‘Hear-hear!’, with derivatives such as ‘Hear-hearers’, i.e. toadies.

‘This wasn’t what he said verbatim, but it was the gist of it, and it went down extremely well with the flattered—they moaned their reverent acclamation: “Hear! Hear!” they cried, exhorting us via the state broadcaster to pay attention to how absolutely fabulous they were—and then they got on with the hard democratic graft of behaving like a bunch of minor public school boys huffing amyl nitrate. I believe it’s called Prime Minister’s Questions.’ (Will Self, New Statesman)

Promoted X, Y, Z

Something unwelcome, intrusive and untrustworthy; a pebble in the shoe of life.

‘Promoted content might weaken long-term company growth and brand power.’ (Native Advertising Institute)


A shirker. Scrimshankers like to swing the lead.

‘As for you, you scrimshanker, Dr Wapenshaw cried at him, “I’ll deal with you in a minute. I know you, leadswinger as you are.”‘ (Anthony Burgess, Enderby Outside)

Bowdlerize, bowdlerise

To bowdlerize is to ‘remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective.’ (OED)

Henrietta Maria Bowdler (1753–1830) and her brother Thomas (1754–1825) were model prudish Victorians—or rather proto-Victorians, they actually died before Victoria ascended the throne—and became famous for publishing the Family Shakespeare, an edition in which they had carefully removed the indecent bits. Hence bowdlerize, bowdlerism, etc.

Bowdlerism now refers to any sort of expurgation on religious, ideological, or other moral or quasi-moral grounds.

Although the delicacy of the Bowdlers is now scoffed at, every age seems to have its own version of bowdlerism.

‘They bowdlerised Burns. Made him into a crass, sentimentalised conformist.’ (Scotsman)


Literally, these are ‘hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter [“a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”], by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held.’ (OED)

Figuratively, being on tenterhooks means that you’re ‘in a state of tension or suspense’ (Collins), but you already knew that.

‘The tenter loft, a very unusual survival in Devon, was used for drying cloth slowly, stretched on tenterhooks.’ (Historic England website)

‘I’m on tenterhooks here, time-honoured pessimism giving way to a strange sense of pride that started taking hold midway through yesterday’s afternoon session.’ (Guardian live cricket coverage)

Paul Fishman (Windermere, March 2017)

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