One of the remarkable things about language is that it’s so central to our being that most people are wholly and completely unreflective about it. The racist elements in our cultural history are coming under increased scrutiny, among them the racist roots of some everyday language.

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The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is probably still best known for the toppling of colonial era statues that it has inspired. In parallel, however, another project has been underway for some time: the ‘decolonising of the curriculum’ – the uncovering of racist assumptions, the explication of imperialist and colonialist attitudes – embedded in teaching syllabuses in Higher and Secondary Education across the Anglosphere. Part of that venture has been a search, which began as long ago as the seventies, for a new descriptive terminology with which to discuss ethnicity and colour*. Now, two weeks after Merriam Webster dictionaries changed their definition of the word ‘racism’ itself** and one week since they decided that the word ‘Black’ is henceforth to be capitalised, the focus has once again moved to the linguistic elements of racialisation and the racist origins of parts of our vocabulary, and whether and how these can be addressed. MIT has taken offline its highly cited Tiny Images dataset*** that trained AI systems to potentially describe people using racist, misogynistic and other problematic terms; real estate agents have been urged to stop referring to the ‘master bedroom’ when describing accommodation and on social media and in the UK press the expression ‘(get down to the) nitty gritty’ was once again castigated, although its supposedly racist origins are unproven. (Even Washington’s NFL ‘Redskins’ team is mulling a name change after a twenty-year campaign.)

Academics: it's time to get behind decolonising the curriculum ...

The campaign to pull down statues in the context of BLM has opened up an even wider debate which I think is long overdue. The US is an edifice built on genocide (of native Americans) and enslavement. The UK’s wealth and global status is a direct result of slavery and the oppression and exploitation of colonialised peoples. Australia has never acknowledged its displacement, ethnic cleansing and oppression of the First Australians. I would go much further than simply urging these nations to recognise past injustices. I think that once people are made fully aware of their histories, those nations should publicly atone for what was done.

A necessary first step is to understand and recognise what the symbols (statues among them) around us refer to, but also to understand that language itself is implicated and has to be deconstructed. We have seen with populist politics in the USA, Brexit in the UK and the messaging surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, now with Black Lives Matter, too, that language is rarely neutral or innocent. Words can have apparently simple meanings – what linguists call ‘denotation’ (basic definitions), but words have histories and resonances and implications that go beyond definitions – what linguists call their ‘connotations’.

We usually only engage with the immediate, surface meanings of words, but it’s important to see that, for example, language is part of the cultural matrix that rests on oppression and discrimination, even if we are not at first conscious of this. Therefore, I think that identifying the troubling origins of popular words and expressions is not, as conservatives insist ‘Political Correctness’ taken too far, or an irritating gesture by the ‘woke’ generation, but worthwhile and overdue. Word histories reveal how deep-seated are the attitudes which we all inherit and the behaviour that we all perpetuate – even if often unknowingly. I talked to US journalist Brittany Wong about this, and her article for Huffington Post is here…

The list of terms Brittany has highlighted should all be called out and people should be encouraged not to use them. This will be difficult since they are memorable and colourful(!) and useful and are part of our mental furniture and cultural landscape: there will be protests that they are being used without malice and that nobody cares any more about their hidden origins. Children in the UK used to have ‘gollywog’ dolls which were caricatures of black people and innocently cherished them, but the toy and its name, like minstrel bands, blackface and ‘blacking up’ are rightly taboo today. Language is an intimate and deep-seated part of an individual’s identity which is why when people encounter strange new usages or are asked to abandon long-established usages it makes them feel very uncomfortable.

Looking at Huffpost’s list of terms, there are one or two – ‘grandfathering’ and ‘peanut gallery’ which are exclusively American and I’m not at all sure that Hip Hip Hooray is actually based on murderous German shepherds – ‘Hip Hip’ or versions of it are very old indeed as hunting cries, but horseback hunting, not typically of slaves or Jews. (‘Indian giver’ was recognised by some in Britain when I was a child but I haven’t heard it used for several decades.)

Other terms, ‘mumbo jumbo’, ‘eenie meenie miney mo’, ‘gypped’ and ‘paddy wagon’ all sound old-fashioned and are becoming rarer, at least in the UK, but this is not because their origins have been denounced, simply that they belong to the vocabulary of an older generation (as does ‘uppity’ whose connection to racism is quite unknown in the UK and Australia but which, if it is used at all, is typically used by braggarts and bullies). Polls and surveys have shown that younger people, especially Generation Z, are very conscious of the toxic nature of some language and are very resistant to ethnic and sexist slurs.

Racist Language on Twitter | Dr Matthew J Koehler

Sadly, racist, sexist and other cruel, bigoted and prejudicial epithets (the n-word, in the UK the p-word for South Asians, the b-word, the f-word for gay men) are still in use in private, if no longer in the public conversation. Feminism, LGBT activism and anti-racism, for example have made great progress in outing those terms and shaming their users, but we can go further.

I have found in my own work (which in this case I suppose risks invoking the new buzz-term ‘performative white allyship’) that exposing the dark side of language, just like defending new language (which I constantly have to do) can be effected not by adopting hostile stances or lecturing or preaching by professional linguists, but by telling the fascinating stories of words and tracing their evolution as they morph through different communities and take on different subtleties and senses. Etymology can be a corrective but is always revelatory and enlightening.

I spoke to Australian journalist Gary Nunn about the same topic in May this year and his article is here…

Here are the links to the issues referred to above…




On this site I’ve posted previously on the subject of racist language and slurs…

i find your racist language problematic - giorgio a. tsoukalos 1 ...








And on Shrove Tuesday when the bell does ring

we will go out at hens and cocks to fling

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Today is Shrove Tuesday. A propitious time for hanging laundry according to English tradition, which holds that whites will dry to yield an even brighter white on this day.  There are 46 days between tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and the Holy Saturday at Easter. If the abstinence required of the faithful is relaxed for each of the coming Sundays then Lent will last for 40 days. Today marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the three-day period of indulgence and revelry known since 1530 as Shrovetide, culminating in the tossing and sharing of pancakes, formerly a way of using up the sinfully fattening contents of the larder prior to fasting.

In old tradition believers were summoned by a bell rung at eleven in the morning to be ‘shriven’, that is given confession by a priest and forgiven for their sins. The verb to shrive, meaning impose a penance, was Middle English shriven, scrīfan in Old English, and is related to modern German schreiben, to write. Old Germanic borrowed the Latin verb scribere, to write, (itself descended from Proto-IndoEuropean *skribh -, to cut) in the form *skrībaną on the basis that, even for an illiterate community, religious proscriptions were written down. The confusion of penitence and indulgence resulted in the old phrase to ‘go a-shroving’ denoting not seeking confession but making merry and misbehaving.

By the 19th century the shriving bell had become the pancake bell, which in Toddington in Bedfordshire brought village children to Conger Hill to put ears to the ground and listen for the sizzling of the local witch’s pan. In Chester the wild communal street games played on Shrove Tuesday were said to have originated when the townsfolk decapitated a Viking prisoner and used his head as a football: in Derby in 1839 the army had to intervene to stop, once and for ever, the mayhem occasioned by this annual festivity. Other communities celebrated with bull-baiting and tugs-of-war, or as in Brighton played variations of ‘cock-in-the-pot’ or ‘cock-squailing’ whereby weighted sticks were thrown at a captive chicken (or in Somerset at a ‘Lenycock’ – not a bird but a daffodil). Cocks and chickens, though, had a hard day of it almost everywhere. In Scotland children could bribe their teachers with a ‘cock-penny’ to abandon lessons in favour of a cock fight – the dominie was allowed to claim and eat or sell any bird that fled from the ring.

The name of the coming period of penitence, Lent, is a shortening of Middle English lenten, from Old English lencten, coming from  *langatinaz,  a ProtoGermanic word for springtime using the prehistoric ancestor of ‘long’ and evoking the arrival of longer days.


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…at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily

-John Taylor c.1642


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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody


The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.



Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.


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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)



The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…


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The history of the Vampire – the being and the word that names it – is fascinatingly convoluted. We know that the word came to us in the 18th century via German from Serbian vampir (вампир) but its ultimate origins and meaning are complex. Here, in fragments from a quite old – if not truly ancient –  publication are some thoughts on the enduring legend of the thirsty undead…





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In fact the figure of the bloodsucking or life-draining revenant is recurrent and attested in almost all prehistoric and most early modern cultures. There are examples from China (so-called ‘hungry ghosts’), Malaysia, the Americas, and, most interestingly from a linguistic point-of-view, the Kipchaks and Karachays of Caucasia and their relatives, the Tatars, and other Turkic-speaking peoples of Anatolia. Their languages give us yet another possible ancestor for the many names, culminating in today’s ‘vampire’, listed above. In modern Turkish obur denotes a glutton or greedy person, but in older folklore the Obur (Tatar Ubyr) was a bloodsucking night-demon that could shapeshift into a cat or dog or a beautiful woman. Here, then, is another possible – and rather plausible – antecedent for later slavonic upirs or vampirs.


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Vampire-like creatures were described, too, in classical writings, as Sententiae Antiquae relates here:

Ancient Greek Vampires 1: Empousa


The ‘old book’ extracts above are from my own 1999 title, Children of the Night: