The third 'Untranslatables' month summary

This was the third year that I (kind of) declared October Untranslatables Month on my Twitter feed. (Here's 2011 and here's 2012.) Instead of offering a 'Difference of the Day', I offered an 'Untranslatable of the Day'. Except that I started on the 7th of October and occasionally I forgot to do it. (And I don't do 'of the Day' posts on weekends anymore either.) So maybe month is a bit of an exaggeration.

[Now that my union is on strike, I've finally got(ten) (a)round to writing up the summary. If it weren't for the fact that I'm not supposed to be doing work today, my work would be preventing me from blogging still. Next term should be better in terms of not drowning in (BrE) marking/(AmE) grading and quality control exercises all the time, and so there is hope that I will blog again, even if the academic pay dispute is settled.]

Now, before the complaints start, here are the Untranslatables Month facts:
  • I'm only talking about the relationship between British and American English here (as is my theme). These expressions may well have equivalents in other languages or dialects.  
  • By Untranslatable I mean that there is no lexicali{z/s}ed equivalent in the other dialect. And by lexicali{z/s}ed I mean that the expression is a word or an idiom--something that language users learn through hearing others say it, rather than something that one makes up anew. One can translate things by making up new sentences or phrases that describe the same thing, sure. But it's special when a language has lexicali{z/s}ed an  expression for something--it tells us something about the culture that invented and uses that expression.
  • Many of these have started to be borrowed between the dialects--and that's natural. If it's a useful expression and the other dialect doesn't have it, it's a prime candidate for international migration.
In some cases, I've discussed the expressions before on this blog, so I provide links to those posts. I also include here the links I provided with the tweets and I try to give credit to those who suggested them as untranslatables.

  • BrE chugger: Disparaging term for person whose job is stopping people on the street to ask for donations to a cause. It's a blend of charity and mugger. Chuggers are usually asking people to sign up for a Direct Debit to their charity (which is much more common in UK than US).

  • AmE to make nice: To try to be friendly/cooperative (with someone)--often because you've been told to do so. [Collins definition]

  • BrE in old money: in pre-decimalized currency and now also 'in non-metric measures' or in any other 'old' kind of measurement.  For example,  'What's 16°C in old money?'. [Down the Lane blog's post]
  • BrE the curate's egg: something bad in parts, good in parts, often euphemistically used: [Wikipedia entry] Suggested by Alan.

  • AmE through when used to link two time-designations and means 'to the end of', e.g. May through July. Suggested by @maceochi. But @AntHeald reminded us that there's a UK dialectal equivalent in while, which was discussed in the comments at this old post on whilst.
  • AmE furlough, which is discussed at Philip Gooden's blog  from a UK perspective. (Gooden translates furlough into BrE as unpaid leave, but that seems too broad. So we'll call it an untranslatable.) Suggested by @timgrant123
  • BrE adjectival sprung: 'having springs'. You can translate it into AmE with a prepositional phrase, but that's not the same as having a word for it. E.g. BrE sprung mattress (AmE innerspring mattress), BrE sprung saddle (i.e. a bike seat with springs). 
  • BrE to fancy: 'to like someone romantically/physically; to have a bit of a crush on'. Snaffled from @btransatlantic's blog post
  • AmE kick the can down the road: 'defer conclusive action by means of a short-term fix'. [Grammarist's post on this] Compare BrE kick into the long grass, which means to put something aside, hoping it'll be forgotten.  Suggested by @patricox
  • BrE (though sure many USers know it) plummy: 'having a "posh" accent'. Speaks volumes about accent and social place in the UK.
  • AmE howdy: suggested by DL, who says there's no BrE equivalent "in terms of exuberance".

  • BrE jolly hockey sticks: adjective used to describe a female of high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys people. For example, this television review describes a coroner's "jolly-hockey-sticks attitude towards death". My definition owes much to Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The OED has an appeal for information about its origins. Suggested by @philviner

  • AmE to eyeball (it): 'to estimate a measurement without a measuring tool'. My 2008 post on it
And slightly cheating, since this one I posted in November:
  • AmE to take the fifth: to not speak because to do so may incriminate you. From the 5th amendment of US constitution. Suggested by @SamAreRandom

Each year I say I won't do an Untranslatable Month again, so maybe this will be the last one.  Or maybe not!


  1. 1AmE has "sprung floor," the kind that's preferred by dancers. A sprung floor doesn't have actual springs, however: the wooden floor is suspended over foam blocks.

  2. I am not sure about the untranslatability of some of these.
    Furlough has a perfectly good translation in the BrE concept of 'being laid off' and thence 'layoff'. It was used quite often when big strikes were more common than they are now - "a thousand workers are on strike, and another two thousand have been laid off". It's not used in a political context in BrE, but that's because the activity doesn't happen, not because we lack a word for it if it did.
    Buyer's remorse is not a particularly common term in BrE, but it's a perfectly acceptable one. I would feel comfortable using without feeling any need to translate it (though possibly with a need to explain it, which I don't think is the same thing).

  3. @marek:

    Interestingly, AmE "laid off", without further qualification, usually refers to a permanent termination of employment (BrE "made redundant").

  4. @vp

    That is interesting. A quick search turns up this article in the Guardian which is about the recent US government shutdown, but talks of "employees of the Labor Department being laid off without pay".

    But in another recent article, about the UK public sector, the Guardian uses 'lay off' in the US sense of permanent end of employment. As a native BrE speaker, I find that a slightly unexpected usage - but would be interested to know if that sense is shared by others.

    But even if the BrE usage of lay off encompasses the US sense of permanent end, I think my original point stands, that it is a good translation for furlough.

  5. Sprung, to me means the spring has lost it's springiness. Although I have heard of sprung floors, it seems specialized argot, not common usage. When surgical instruments that are supposed to snap closed no longer stay together, we call them sprung.

    Or the bit of doggerel.

    Spring has sprung/ the grass is riz/ I wonder where /the birdies is.

  6. Hang on -- "grading" is American English and "marking" is British English, right?

  7. Catherine: indeed, thanks. I'm now going to correct a number of things that I didn't get quite right while in my tired rush last night!

  8. AmE: I've used "fancy" in that romantic crush context, though it'd be more likely "take a fancy to" Probably read it in some British novel and took a fancy to it.

    Also, US management has started using "made redundant"; it sounds like Newspeak, but it's out there.

  9. 1. For me a blinder refers exclusively to sporting performance. (I've posted on the relevant thread.)

    2. I have a clear and vivid memory of Jolly hockey stocks! as a catchphrase of Monica, the schoolgirl in Educating Archie. The OED have been unable to confirm this. So either they didn't look hard enough or my memory is a false one.

    If it really is a false memory, it's a puzzle. Perhaps I was confused by one or more performer doing a Monica impersonation. Or perhaps I heard one or more comedienne performing a character similar to Monica — quite possibly in imitation. (Again, I've posted at the relevant point — on the Oxford Dictionaries site.)

  10. The character Monica for a while displaced As the actress said to the bishop in popular use. Her version, which the BBC ensured made the double entendre less blatant, was As the art mistress said to the gardener.

  11. Zhoen

    If sprung floor is seldom heard now, it's only because we don't talk so much about dance halls or ballrooms any more.

    The connection with metal springs is indirect. The adjective is the passive participle of the verb spring in its obsolete sense of 'make springy'.

    OK, so watches, mattresses, chairs and cars can be is some way sprung while actually possessing springs. But the adjective derived from the noun would be springed. Either it's a coincidence or there's something about the potential word springed that everybody disliked and so avoided.

    Your sense of 'lost its spring' doesn't seem to have escaped into popular usage. Certainly it hasn't reached the OED.

  12. Lynne:

    I think that chugger is probably the best neologism I've heard in donkeys' years.

    The combintion of Charity and mugger is spot on. I'm going to use it whenever possible; we need this word in the US!

  13. N.B.
    I meant to write "portmanteau word which I "assume" is a neologism.

  14. When I was in the US Air Force in the 1950's, furlough meant paid leave. And "howdy" in the US western states is not exuberant -- it seems to be equivalent to "hi" (in the midwest) or "hey" (in the south).

  15. Run interference is not just to intervene, but specifically to block a blocker, to prevent someone else from interfering with the person being protected.


  16. Also, US management has started using "made redundant"; it sounds like Newspeak, but it's out there.

    It's less Newspeaky in BrE, because of the differences in employment law and culture. Although it's often used somewhat loosely, technically being made redundant means losing your job not for cause, and there's a specific process the company must follow (including statutory notice periods, compensation and trying to find alternative employment elsewhere in the company).

  17. "To fancy" in the context of "have a romantic crush on," as well as "to like something," are also used in American English, although the former use is a bit archaic.

  18. Interesting as always. Thanks.

    But a couple of comments. I'd say some of these AmE terms are quite well used in today's BrE so I wonder how much the origin counts as determinative. So it hadn't even occurred to me that "run interference" "make nice" or "eyeball" were of AmE origin. I'd use them quite naturally. I would also have said the same for "furlough" although I'd only come across it in BrE usage a narrowly specific context of "home leave for missionaries" and I can see the possibility of AmE influence thee now you point it out..

    Personally, I wish we could reach on lexical/morphological agreement| to use "thru" for an inclusive time period and "through" for it's other uses.

  19. @ marek:

    You said "But even if the BrE usage of lay off encompasses the US sense of permanent end, I think my original point stands, that it is a good translation for furlough.

    Because the both words already exist in AmE with very narrow definitions, if one of those words exists in BrE but with a definition that might encompass the definitions for both AmE words, there's too much of a chance for confusion for me to consider it a "good translation".

    The current U.S. sense* of "furlough" specifically refers to only a temporary un-paid period of not working, while "layoff" refers only to being permanently losing one's job without cause. Two very different things and too much explaining would be needed specify the meaning.

    If the BrE "layoff" doesn't encompass the AmE definition, you point is on much firmer ground.

    *That is, the non-military sense; although, I don't know if any of our military divisions still use the "temporary leave" sense these days.

    — Still Anonymous in New Jersey

  20. I'll agree on layoff -- if it isn't permanent, it's specifically called a "temporary layoff" meaning you will be called back to work when business picks up again.

    The football phrase "run interference" reminds me that I once had to explain to someone what I meant by "time to punt" which also comes from football. That seems not to translate well either.

    The OED may not have caught up with "sprung" meaning "to have lost its springiness" but I think I've heard it used in that sense since childhood. Could it be regional?

    I don't know about fancying someone, but fancy-free has been around in AmE in the phrase "footloose and fancy-free" although it's rather old-fashioned.

    Somehow, even though AmE doesn't use cheeky, it seems like we've heard it for longer than that, but I can't for the life of me pin down why. Disney's Mary Poppins? James Bond??

  21. Mistake not to broaden this comparison to include two other very dynamic and very different "mainstream" Englishes: Hiberno-English and Australian English. They are capable of being very different (AmE) than / (BrE) to the two Englishes you're comparing.

  22. In response to starwefter:

    I remember being exposed to "The Avengers", "Monty Python's Flying Circus", "Dave Allen at Large", and (a bit later) "The Benny Hill Show" when I was considerably younger than I am now. As time went on, we were able to access more and more British television shows, including "Doctor Who", "Masterpiece Theatre" (which may have been entirely a PBS creature, but the programs hosted were, usually if not invariably, of British origin), "Are You Being Served?", "Inspector Morse", "Yes, Minister", "Keeping Up Appearances", "The Young Ones", etc. I won't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure "cheeky" was not uncommon in those programs.

    The term has increased in popularity due to Mike Myers without a doubt, but it wasn't entirely unknown (obscure, perhaps, but some of us were very well aware of its meaning) before his SNL run and subsequent "Austin Powers" movies.

  23. As an American, I've never heard "to take the Fifth"; I know the expression as "to plead the Fifth."

  24. TV isn't necessarily a good place to seek origins of British slang - the BBC radio and it's large menu of comedy (BrE) programmes / (AmE) shows that flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s was much more dominant in its impact on the language. British TV was rather posh until the mid-1960s. There are a number of sites streaming samples of those broadcasts. For example Radio Rewind and Goon show radio.

    I had the experience of attending the Monty Python film "And Now For Something Completely Different" at a cinema in New York's Upper East Side in 1972. The sophisticated uptown audience laughed cataclysmically, but only at the unfunny link material between the jokes, and then, failing to get the point, sat in stony silence through the punchlines of the actual gags. The "divided by a common language" truism never seemed truer to me.

  25. Eamon: Of course other Englishes can be very different, and that's exactly why I don't cover them. The little corner I've set up for myself here are the Englishes that I have some insight into through my dual nationality, and I hope (not in this post so much, but in 'normal' blog posts) to cover them in some depth. The more different things one covers, the more superficial one ends up being.
    I would hope that others with interests and insights into other dialects would stake those corners of the blogosphere for themselves--or if they're not up for that, they're welcome to mention things in the comments here.

    On English in Ireland (and lots of other interesting things), I recommend highly Stan Carey's blog 'Sentence First'.

  26. "Run interference" makes perfect sense to me (British, Southern, married to an Ulsterman for over 30 years - which has had its own effect on my particular dialect), but I had no idea that it came from American football. It is, I suspect, a true untranslateable - I mean, how else would one express it?

  27. In response to Eamon:

    Perhaps I wasn't very clear in my most recent comment, so allow me to clarify.

    By no means was I suggesting that the origin of the term "cheeky" could be found in television programs. The very idea seems fairly strange (although television has certainly been responsible for coining slang and popularizing phrases which, in themselves, would be non sequitur expressions, but in the context of pop culture are less so).

    I was, rather, replying to starwefter's observation that we here in the States have heard "cheeky" for a longer time than the author's mention of Mike Myers would suggest. In *that* context, I listed a number of British television programs going back to the 60s, which we were able to watch here in America long, long before Mike Myers was on "Saturday Night Live" (much less before his "Austin Powers" movies), suggesting that those programs (and others which predate Myers' television and film career) are likely the reason.

  28. OMG, love "in old money." I will now try and use it in everyday speech. Or everyweek.

  29. In Lynne's link to the discussion of cheeky. I believe that Farrah Jarral covered only part of the picture.

    If you go by the OED cheeky means 'impudent' or 'insolent', both rather serious adjectives with far from joyful connotations. And yet they are in a real sense synonyms — because that's things are (or were) in most British schools and families.

    The sense which Dr Jarral recognises is a slightly odd phenomenon of adults using a word from childhood, overlaid with an adult perspective. It now means

    'what some authority figure would see as impertinent and impudent, but we now know better and find amusing'

    This is close to the way we use naughty, which earlier in life meant

    'doing something that's wrong because a grownup doesn't like it'

    The difference is that cheeky was

    'saying (or communicating non-verbally) something that's wrong because a grownup don't like it'

    When in adulthood we describe something as naughty or someone as cheeky, we are recognising

    • that 'offence' is actually quite trivial as in the naughty nineties, even endearing as in Hello cheeky! (River Song's regular loving greeting to Doctor Who)

    • or that the accuser isn't to be taken seriously He isn't the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!. When we called Max Miller the cheeky chappie, it reflected the view that those who found him offensive were pompous, humourless and themselves to be laughed at.

    At least some adults still use naughty and cheeky as serious accusations, but only when directed at children.

    Strangely, though, people still use the noun cheek in accusations. You've got a cheek! (like You've got a nerve!) means 'you've gone too far in your lack of respect'.

  30. The Max Miller reference calls for an explanation, not only to non-Brits perhaps.

    For a few generations before mine, Miller was the epitome of cheekiness. He was audacious, and his near-the-knuckle gags were part of that audacity. There's a film of an impression of his act made compatible with a feature film here. There's a sound recording which those who saw him at other shows tell us was toned down a bit here.

    I was too young to see him on stage, although I did hear him on the radio. Sadly, it went completely over my young head.

  31. I (English 60+) have never encountered 'run interference' and would not have been able to guess from context what it meant. I've also never encountered 'to eyeball' with the meaning 'estimate' The idiomatic use of 'eyeball' to me means 'to go head to head with someone aggressively' as in 'eyeball to eyeball'.

    I'd also guessed 'kick the can down the road' wrongly, to mean 'to make a noise in a yobby fashion and waste time without getting anywhere'.

    I have heard of pleading 'the fifth' via a friend who is an expert in comparative constitutions.

    Incidentally, does US English use 'to spring' as a transitive verb in the sense of enabling someone else to escape from prison?

  32. Dru

    One entry in Michael Taft's Blues Concordance. From Dying Pickpocket Blues record by Nolan Walsh in 1929.

    The eponymous prisoner is in the New York City Workhouse and sends a message to

    my friend back in Cincy, although I know she will feel blue
    Although she has been a real pal : and she answers to all my calls
    I've ruined her health : trying to spring me from this vault

  33. "Chugger" in AmE would have the sense of "one who imbibes a beverage rapidly, as beer or milk", from the verb 'to chug', if it were to be used as a neologism.

  34. This comment has been removed by the author.

  35. @Dru,

    I (Western American - early 40s) have never heard "to spring" used as a transitive verb to mean "escape from prison" (what's an example? It sounds like it should have an intransitive use). For me, the transitive use of "to spring" means to surprise - as in "I have just sprung the news on her."

    @Brits in general,
    For me, there is a distinction among furlough, lay-off, and fire. A furlough is always a temporary lay-off. To lay-off is the most general - but tends towards the permanent. Lay-offs are also often regulated by state laws. To fire is to get rid of an employee for personal reasons. A person who is furloughed or laid-off can receive unemployment benefits, while a person who is fired cannot

  36. As an American, I know for a fact that I learned about the British sense of "cheek" from Doctor Who. The Doctor uses it at the beginning of The Invasion of Time, and K9 doesn't understand what he means. Neither did I, so I looked it up in a dictionary.

    "Spring from prison" sounds completely unremarkable to me. I would say that it does not necessarily imply that the person escapes, merely that they get out unexpected, which could be managed entirely through legal means.

  37. I (American from above) agree with Brett. I understand what "cheeky" means but certainly deem it a Briticism. That being said, I think the term is widely known. There is a bar down the street (here in Denver) that serves only Belgian beer. It's called the 'Cheeky Monk'. The name plays off the Trappist (monk brewed) style of Belgian beer as well as the hopelessly British sounding phrase (to American ears that is) of cheeky monkey.

  38. Wouldn't "a mixed bag" work as an AmE equivalent of "the curate's egg"?

  39. Scott Wood

    For me at least, a mixed bag presents a rough balance of good and bad. A curate's egg is predominately bad. Follow the link to the Wikipedia entry and the cartoon which created the phrase.

  40. @David Crosbie:
    "endearing as in Hello cheeky! (River Song's regular loving greeting to Doctor Who)"

    That's "Hello sweetie".

    Hello Cheeky, on the other hand, was a popular light entertainment Radio 4 comedy programme (as I'm sure many of us remember well) with many well-known comedy names such as Garden and Brooke-Taylor. Its tone was indeed cheeky in the grand tradition of British innuendo. "Your round". "Maybe I am, but I'm a whole heap of fun". Ah they don't write 'em like that any more.

  41. Anonymous

    That's "Hello sweetie".

    So it is! I did actually check that by the simple test of googling, but managed to find someone who'd made the same mistake.

    I could only guess what the radio show Hello Cheeky was like. I must have been living outside Britain when it was on.

  42. As an American, I've never heard "to take the Fifth"; I know the expression as "to plead the Fifth."

    A somewhat random counterexample: the closing lines from I'll Never Tell from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  43. The wikipedia article on "curate's egg" says, "Some authorities define it as something that is an indeterminate mix of good and bad and others say it implies a preponderance of bad qualities."

    The relevant definiton of "mixed bag" on is "Paradoxical or contradictory. Has both good and bad aspects and/or sides, but the bad may or does outweigh the good."

    While I'd hesitate to call an "authority", the above matches my sense of the idiom.

  44. Scott Wood

    Many, quite possibly most of us who habitually use the expression a curate's egg are aware of that cartoon as we say it. Although parts of the thing were 'excellent', it was unquestionably a bad egg. It took 'true humility' to find any merit in it.

  45. "Curate's egg" definitely implies something that's mostly bad, but "good in parts" (and those two phrases in quotation marks are closely associated). It also implies an effort being made to find and appreciate whatever tiny flecks of good there might be.

    Without context, I would take "mixed bag" to mean a miscellany of any kind. It doesn't necessarily imply a mixture of good and bad aspects of the same thing.

    I only think of "furlough" in terms of US armed forces on leave. Is its more general application to the workforce something new?

    An approximate BrE translation of "furlough" might be "gardening leave", although this is usually restricted to politicians and civil servants. It's involuntary time off work, either as punishment or while an investigation or the like is conducted.

  46. I am familiar with both 'cheek' and 'cheeky' from years of growing up reading British literature (Winne-the-Pooh, Dr. Doolittle, etc.) but even now it sounds ineffably British to my AmE West-Coast ear. I've heard both 'plead the fifth' and 'take the fifth' all my life, though the latter is often the start of a pun around acquiring a bottle of whisk(e)y, i.e. the 'fifth of a gallon' that used to be the standard size of a hard liquor bottle.

  47. 'Gardening leave' is paid. So it sounds as though it isn't quite the same as furlough.

    The essence of gardening leave is that the person is not working but is under restraint from going to join a competitor. There's a widespread belief (which usually turns out to be correct) that if an organisation sacks someone, rather than they leave of their own accord, the organisation can't then restrain them under any covenant that stops them working for someone else and taking their contacts etc with them. But if they are still employed and being paid, even though not actually doing anything, they can still be required to serve the employer's interests.

    If a person is laid off, and not paid, then if they find other work during the period of lay off, good luck to them. They also can't be required to come back if they don't want to or have meanwhile found something they prefer.

  48. In the U.S. we generally refer to 'gardening leave' as 'administrative leave', i.e. paid leave for a specific business or administrative purpose but with the expectation that the person placed on such leave MAY eventually return to work. For example, most U.S. police forces have a policy of automatically placing an officer on administrative leave if they are involved in a shooting, and they remain on admin leave until the investigation of the shooting is completed and the officer exonerated or terminated.

  49. On a Tuesday National Public Radio story about fighting HIV in Africa, a South African doctor is speaking about how the government there once denied that the virus was the cause of AIDS: "It was a really tragic time. The Minister of Health, the President, the whole Cabinet were just "running interference".

    So the expression has made its way to English speakers worldwide, but its US meaning - intervening in some way to distract in an attempt to clear the way for someone else - is sometimes lost. Here it seems the doctor meant to imply direct interference with health care workers by a misguided government.

  50. I am familiar with all but one of the Americanisms, but:

    I am surprised to learn "buyer's remorse" is AmE; I would have classified it as academic jargon (albeit somewhat popularised) rather than dialect-specific.

    I had an inadequate understanding of "kicking the can down the road", which I inferred meant "delaying making a painful decision" without any necessity for a short-term fix in the meantime.

    The one AmE term I don't remember ever having encountered at all is "run interference". My knowledge of American football is minimal; what I thought was "interference" is apparently "pass interference", which is illegal, whereas the metaphor of "run interference" is apparently a legal action, and indeed the primary role of most players.

  51. I, in the UK, have heard and used 'furlough' in a very specific but related sense for missionaries who are spending time back in their home country. I'm pretty sure US missionaries use it in a similar sense. Depending on the particular circumstances, it may or may not be paid leave, but it is always temporary.

  52. As an AmE speaker from the western US, I don't perceive "howdy" to be a part of everyday language. For me it's an outdated dialectical expression. I could use it for effect, but I'd definitely be laughing. In my mind I'd be hearing Minnie Pearl, a long-time performer at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, who had a great time spoofing her unsophisticated, uneducated country roots.

  53. I grew up in Texas and have spent time in various other places since then (mostly the South, but elsewhere as well). I have heard "howdy" used in most of these places, fairly commonly in Texas and among mountain folk -- not all of whom are "unsophisticated" or "uneducated." Language variation has often been perceived as indicating these negative qualities in the speaker (witness for another example the attitudes of some English persons, and even some Scots, towards speakers of the Broad Scots language), but isn't it past time for such prejudice to disappear into the past?

  54. May I (BrE) propose another untranslatable? "Cut" in the sense of "muscular and having low-body fat" (I think) - it might also contain an element of "nice to look at" and I wonder if it is only/usually applied to males. For example the dopey female sidekick in the first Thor film says "You know, for a crazy homeless person he [Thor] is kinda cut..."
    Apologies if you've done this before. I'm quite new to your blog and haven't read all of it!

  55. Massachusetts-

    I'm pretty sure fancy in "footloose and fancy-free" actually refers to ideas, thoughts or imaginings, as in "flights of fancy" or more clearly "fancy that!"


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