“What colour are you painting the living room?”



“You know, ecru. Kind of like magnolia, or eggshell.”



“Ah, ok! Why didn’t you just say that then?”

Is there a more useful suffix than -ish?

Sometimes we really don’t want to express ourselves in too extreme a way. If we don’t want to say something is fantastic or amazing, we can say it’s nice. Or, if it’s better than that, it’s great…ish. Continue reading

You’ve Made it: You’re an Adjective!

Orwellian has become the go-to adjective to describe any situation of seemingly heavy-handed government surveillance or intervention. In a way it’s kind of a compliment, that you produced a work so evocative, so incisive that it comes to be seen as an ideal summation of a specific notion. A part of me also thinks that it’s a shame that those things we usually describe as Orwellian are really only relevant to Nineteen Eighty-Four, and not Orwell’s quite varied body of work.

Kafkaesque is another literary proper adjective (an adjective derived from a proper noun), which is more fitting, as much of Franz Kafka’s work has that sense of an individual dwarfed and alone in a world of uncaring, overwhelming bureaucracy that the adjective describes. If you’re a psychologist you might describe yourself as a Freudian or a Jungian. Much has recently been made of Donald Trump’s Keynesian economic policies. Continue reading

It was a Stormy and Dark Night…

Sounds strange, doesn’t it, that title? Of course, it should be It was a Dark and Stormy night… But why? The information is the exact same in both, so why does our brain insist that dark has to come before stormy? First of all, I want you to look at something near you. Anything at all. Now, describe it out loud in one sentence, using as many adjectives as you can. Don’t overthink it.

You might have come up with something like me: a small, black, analogue watch, or a thin black Toshiba laptop, or a tall, clear glass. Now try changing the order of the adjectives you chose. It sounds wrong, doesn’t it. And that’s because there’s a rule that all native-speakers follow without thinking about it, or even knowing about it at all. That rule determines the order of types of adjectives we use. The correct order is as follows: Continue reading


He’s a pretty nice guy.

Oh, that’s a nice picture of the two of you!

The food there is quite nice.

Nice is a word that’s come in for a lot of criticism. It’s quiet common to hear people say they hate it because it’s too weak, too soft: too nice. There are so many specific adjectives in English to describe something you like, they argue, that it’s a shame not to use them.

And I see their point. English is an incredibly extensive language, and it can be frustrating when people don’t make the most of the opportunities it affords them, and use the same words over and over.

And yet: sometimes something is just… nice. It’s not amazing, it’s not incredible, it’s not transcendent: it’s nice. It’s great to have all those adjectives at one’s disposal, but it’s important to select the best times to use them. Continue reading


I’ve written before about how we use words and phrases associated with temperature, and specifically heat, in the English language. Today, I was struck by the word cool, and how it seems to contradict, yet also agree with, some of these words and phrases.

If we consider that we often associate heat with excessive passion and anger, coolness makes sense, describing someone who doesn’t get angry or overly excited easily; who keeps calm and doesn’t get stressed or worried.

And yet, it’s a short step from there to being cold: unfriendly, uncaring and unkind. Things get very confusing when we start talking about blood. Being hot-blooded means getting angry and excited very quickly, and in contrast, a cold-blooded individual is cruel, emotionless, pitiless. They’re at opposite ends of a spectrum, and equally undesirable because of it. One can be harmful to themselves and others by being too quick to anger. On the other hand, one can be so devoid of feeling for other people that they’re willing to do any number of harmful things to them, or fail to intervene, simply because the plight of others stirs no emotion in them. Continue reading

Awfully Kind of You Old Chap


Figure 20 for Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Caption reads “FIG. 2. – Terror, from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne.”



If someone gave us a choice between having an awful meal or an awesome one, we probably wouldn’t hesitate in making our decision. 300 years ago, however, we may have taken our time. While the difference between the two in modern-day English is immediately evident, things were not so clear-cut in the past. The root word for both awesome and awful is awe, which is now generally considered to be a positive condition, but was until relatively recently more flexible. Awe was a concept much considered by the Gothic and Romantic writers of the late 18th and 19th century. It was defined as a feeling or reverence, admiration or fear, or a combination of the above in the face of the sublime: that which is so elevated beyond the ordinary, so transcendent, that the only natural response is awe.

Continue reading