Have you ever wished there was a simpler way to say ‘the day after tomorrow’? Well, I’m here to provide you with the ideal word: overmorrow.

morning-sunrise-in-the-alpsIt is probably modelled on the German word übermorgen (über meaning ‘over’ and morgen meaning ‘morning’ or ‘tomorrow’). The German language has retained the use of übermorgen, but sadly overmorrow has become obsolete in English. I think that’s a shame – overmorrow expresses a useful concept concisely and without confusion.

The OED gives the first recorded use of overmorrow as in 1535, but I’m disappointed to report that I haven’t been able to find many examples. I’m slightly surprised as I had thought it might be popular in contemporary fantasy or historical fiction; it would certainly fit in nicely.

“‘Eh, no good. We’ll change that,’ she said. ‘You’ll start overmorrow.'”

– Greer Macallister, The Magician’s Lie, 2015





macaqueRebarbative is a borrowing from French. I’ve decided to add it to my vocabulary because one can never have too many synonyms for ‘objectionable’, ‘repellent’ or ‘fearsome’.

The French word rébarbatif means ‘repellent’ or ‘disagreeable’, and it is derived from the Middle French word rebarber. Rebarber means ‘to oppose’ and itself derives from the Old French words re (meaning ‘back’ or ‘again’) and barbe (meaning ‘beard’). It is therefore thought to have the literal meaning of ‘to stand beard to beard against’.

The OED’s first listed usage is from 1892 but I like this example:

“Still, everyone appeared to be extremely nice, except that that Dr. Greenfield man was a trifle rebarbative. (This was a word which Toby had recently learnt at school and could not now conceive of doing without.)”

– Iris Murdoch, The Bell, 1958





Old writingHave you ever wondered why the contraction of will not is won’t?

Do not becomes don’t, cannot becomes can’t, and shall not becomes shan’t. Won’t does not follow the same pattern.

That is because won’t is actually a contraction of woll not. Woll is an archaic form of will; many Germanic languages have or had a similar word with a similar meaning.

Won’t fought off competition from other forms including wonnot, woonnot and wo’nt to become the standard contraction we use today.

We may no longer use woll, but it is easy to see why English has retained won’t instead of using willn’t or even win’t.


‘Faun’ and ‘fawn’

FawnThis post is an excuse to use a cute photo. The delightful creatures you see when walking your dog are fawns; the mythological creatures you read about are fauns.


  • a deer aged under one year
  • (of a deer) to produce young
  • a pale brown colour
  • to give a display of insincere or exaggerated flattery
  • to try to please someone by a show of extreme friendliness or affection


  • a being that is part human and part goat (usually in Roman mythology)

‘Climactic’ and ‘climatic’

The similar spelling here makes it so easy to use the wrong word, accidentally type the wrong word, or miss the incorrect usage when you are reading over your own work.

Climactic means ‘forming a climax’:

  • The viewers gasped during the climactic final fight scene
  • Mounting tension gave way to a climactic resolution

ClimateClimatic means ‘relating to climate or weather’:

  • My hair doesn’t react well to these climatic conditions
  • The researchers are worried about climatic change

My advice is to try to remember there is no extra c in climatic because climate does not have an extra c. Or there’s a more complicated association with climactic and cinema (because that’s where you often watch films with big climactic scenes).

Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, Jeremy Butterfield

I was given a copy of Damp Squid: the English language laid bare for Christmas. I’d like to say one of my best friends knows me so well that this was a gift he picked himself, but I asked for the book and he called me a nerd when he gave it to me.

This is the publisher’s description:

How many words are there in the English language and where were they born? Why does spelling ‘wobble’ and why do meanings change? How do words behave towards each other – and how do we behave towards words? And what does this all mean for dictionary-making in the 21st century? This entertaining book has the up-to-date and authoritative answers to all the key questions about our language.

Source: Damp Squid

Jeremy Butterfield edited the recent edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and I have shared some of his articles on Twitter. I admire his work; I think he is an eminently sensible man.

Damp Squid is aimed at a British audience but I am sure an American reader would understand most of the references (or at least understand them enough in context).

I think it is fair to describe the book as a love letter to the Oxford Corpus. The corpus is made up of global English texts, of all types, that can be read electronically. From this, researchers can draw conclusions about how the English language is being used.

BookshelfButterfield uses the corpus to explore the evolution and usage of English. He focuses on how the language is used rather than on prescribed ideas of how it should be used. If you have read some of my previous posts, you are probably aware that I usually write about standard usage rather than ‘correct’ usage. The book gives a good overview of how standard is determined and the problems that arise from trying to present one ‘correct’ version of English.

You might think that a book taking a close look at spelling and grammar would be dry and a bit dull. On the whole, Damp Squid is entertaining and interesting. Butterfield is mostly successful in balancing depth of information with amusing examples (“spam rage – the incandescent anger caused by dozens of emails offering to enhance parts of your anatomy you were perfectly happy with”). The discussion is accompanied by explanatory tables of usage statistics and illuminating quotes from such figures as Samuel Johnson.

All the chapters are clearly written and accessible. You don’t have to be a language expert to enjoy the book but an interest in the English language is probably required.

Two of my favourite chapters are those on where words come from and words that often group together. You might recognise the eggcorn in the title: damp squid. It appears in the chapter discussing idiomatic phrases, and the chapter is fascinating (especially the section comparing idioms from different languages).

I read Damp Squid in a few enjoyable hours (it is 165 pages excluding notes and index). You can find more reviews on Amazon, and you can probably acquire a second-hand copy for a reasonable amount if you fancy adding it to your bookshelf. Or you could start your Christmas list early.

‘Foul’ and ‘fowl’

Here’s a faintly seasonal mix-up with an accompanying adorable picture.


  • offensive, obscene or vulgar; unpleasant
  • foul smelling or dirty; full of dirt or offensive matter
  • evil, wicked or immoral
  • bad tempered, cross or irritable
  • unfair or dishonorable; against the rules of a sport
  • to make dirty or polluted; to spoil or damage
  • to come into conflict with (‘fall foul of’)


  • a domesticated bird such as a chicken
  • a bird raised or kept for food, or hunted as game
  • the meat of fowl
  • a bird; a collective term for birds

Ducklings are fowl and not foul. (Although, like all baby things, they are full of offensive matter that will go everywhere. And it stains. So I think that illustrates foul/fowl is a matter of perspective.)

‘Burger’ and ‘burgher’

I can’t claim that incorrectly spelling burgher as burger is a common, everyday mistake. But the mix-up does occur, especially in student essays.

BurgerBurger and beer

  • a flat round of meat or other food that is fried or grilled and often served in a bread roll


  • a (typically wealthy) citizen of a town or city
  • (in southern Africa) an Afrikaans citizen of a Boer republic; a civilian member of a local militia
  • (in Sri Lanka) a descendant of Dutch or Portuguese colonists

The spelling of burgher does vary in historical texts – the versions include burger, bourger and burgar. This is because the word was adopted from the original German or Dutch burger (meaning ‘citizen of a fortified town’) and only later assimilated to the English burgh (meaning ‘borough’).


I don’t think I ever say this word to human beings – I reserve it for when my cat is being particularly obstructive. It sounds nicer than ‘get a sodding move on’.

SticksQuicksticks means ‘quickly’ or ‘without delay’. It is apparently shortened from the phrase in quick sticks. The meaning of quick here is ‘living or animate’ rather than ‘fast’.

It has been suggested that the stick referred to is a type of walking stick, but it might be more useful to compare it to stick as a nautical term for a mast or yard. That’s the sort of stick referenced in the phrase up sticks, meaning ‘to prepare to move’, ‘to pack up and go’, or ‘to remove oneself’.

I especially like this early usage from 1867:

“This is a bad business, Bob: if that ‘ere doctor ain’t here pretty quick-sticks,..it’s all over with this chap.” Example Better than Precept, M. A. Mackarness.

Quicksticks has a modern usage as a type of hockey, played to introduce children to the sport. It has 4 players on each side and uses a large, light ball.

Possessive apostrophes

Trask writes that possessive apostrophes are the most troublesome of apostrophes, and apostrophes are the most troublesome of punctuation marks. (I think commas must give apostrophes a run for their money.)

The basic rule for possessive forms is that ’s is added to the end:

Henry's book

If the noun ends with s, the same rule usually applies:

Charles's shoe

The first exception is for a plural noun that already ends in s:

my parents' holiday
the ladies' bathroom

These words are not pronounced with an extra iz sound, and so we don’t indicate an extra s in writing.

This brings us to the second exception. If the possessive form of a noun ending in s is not pronounced with an extra s, it only takes an apostrophe:

Aristophanes' plays
Bridges' marmalade

The final exception is for pronouns:

Whose is this? 
The essay is hers

But this does not apply to possessive indefinite or impersonal pronouns:

one's conscience
someone's lunch

I have previously covered its as a possessive form, and it is perhaps the pronoun most commonly incorrectly assigned an apostrophe.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage gives a comprehensive breakdown of exceptions and usage in more complicated situations, and I highly recommend it if you are worried about using apostrophes correctly.