Word of the week: obesogen

If it ends with -ogen, it means something is being produced – in this case something that will make us dangerously overwight

Is your house a disgusting swamp of peril and sickness? The latest everything-is-terrifying news is the suggestion this week that dust and other particles around the home can be “obesogens” and stealthily cause us to become dangerously overweight.

The suffix -gen or -ogen (from the Greek for birth; compare “genesis”) indicates that something is being produced. An “immunogen” is any substance that produces an immune response in an organism. The substance originally known as “burnt air” or “mephitic air” was christened nitrogen after it was found to be present in nitric acid.

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Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz review – a prequel to Casino Royale

We meet again Mr Bond … but this time 007 is still learning the ropes of spycraft, in this enjoyable spinoff authorised by the Fleming estate

One of the many pleasures of Ian Fleming’s Bond books is the fact that he doesn’t bore us with too much of his hero’s background. There is no tiresome origin novel featuring a teenage Bond experimenting with murder techniques on small forest animals. To the reader of Fleming, Bond is a fully formed force of nature, elegantly inevitable.

Related: Danny Boyle's 007: what can we expect from the next James Bond?

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Is ‘gammon’ racist or just stupid?

Pork-based insults have a long history, but should pink-faced politicians really be offended?

This week’s lexical meat-fest was gammongate, or perhaps Armagammon: a row about whether calling people “gammon” was racist or just stupid. For certain leftwingers, “gammon” is a contemptuous label for middle-aged white men with pink faces and (presumably) less than purely Momentum-esque political views.

Pork-based insults are of course very old. “Gammon-faced” is an insult from 1604, and no actor likes to be called a ham. In 18th-century thieves’ cant, a “gammon” was an accomplice who distracted the victim’s attention. And “gammon” could also mean nonsensical talk or ideas – it is used by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers, but had existed for decades. In John Liddiard Nicholas’s 1817 travelogue, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, our doughty explorer, visiting Maori chiefs, decides that their customs are “all gammon”: they retort, not unreasonably, that the preaching ...

‘Cocky’: romance writers are weak at the knees for a double-entendre

Cocky Cowboy author Faleena Hopkins has trademarked the word ‘cocky’. What romantic potential could she possibly see?

The world of romance fiction was flushed this week as it turned out that the word “cocky” had been trademarked. Faleena Hopkins, whose oeuvre includes Cocky Cowboy, Cocky Biker, and Cocky Soldier, wrote to rivals demanding that they retitle their own novels containing the word “cocky”. The genre guild, Romance Writers of America, is consulting its lawyers. Meanwhile, is such use of “cocky” just a silly double entendre?

A cock, of course, is a male hen, as well as a night watchman, part of a gun, the gnomon of a sundial, or “a spout or short pipe serving as a channel for passing liquids through”, according to the OED, which gently suggests that last sense as giving rise to the word’s common use for the male member. “Oh ...

‘Compliant environment’: is this really what the Windrush generation needs?

Home secretary Sajid Javid has advocated a compliant environment for immigration – so how does that differ from a hostile one?

When is a hostile environment for immigration not a hostile environment? When it has been rebranded as a “compliant environment”. Following Amber Rudd’s defenestration over the Windrush scandal, fresh-minted home secretary Sajid Javid explained: “I don’t like the phrase hostile. So the terminology is incorrect and I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful ... It is about a compliant environment and it is right that we have a compliant environment.”

In war, you turn a hostile environment into a compliant one by shooting all the bad guys. Or, perhaps, deporting them

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‘Compliant environment’: is this really what the Windrush generation needs?

Home secretary Sajid Javid has advocated a compliant environment for immigration – so how does that differ from a hostile one?

When is a hostile environment for immigration not a hostile environment? When it has been rebranded as a “compliant environment”. Following Amber Rudd’s defenestration over the Windrush scandal, fresh-minted home secretary Sajid Javid explained: “I don’t like the phrase hostile. So the terminology is incorrect and I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful ... It is about a compliant environment and it is right that we have a compliant environment.”

In war, you turn a hostile environment into a compliant one by shooting all the bad guys. Or, perhaps, deporting them

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Don’t call me baby: the birth of the gender-neutral ‘theyby’

Theybe is the hip new thing for parents who want to bring up their offspring in gender-neutral fashion. Bring on the theycare

Babies are so passe, even royal ones. The hip new thing to have is a “theyby”, according to a trend spotted by New York magazine that sees parents bringing up their offspring in a gender-neutral fashion.

There was of course nothing gender-specific about the “ba-“ part of “baby”, which is already a diminutive form of the original English word “babe”. The Oxford English Dictionary says that its origin is probably onomatopoeic – two syllables of “ba”, which is a typical “early infantile vocalisation”. So while a baby can call itself a baba, even if by accident, it will take much longer to pronounce itself a “theyby”.

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Don’t call me baby: the birth of the gender-neutral ‘theyby’

Theybe is the hip new thing for parents who want to bring up their offspring in gender-neutral fashion. Bring on the theycare

Babies are so passe, even royal ones. The hip new thing to have is a “theyby”, according to a trend spotted by New York magazine that sees parents bringing up their offspring in a gender-neutral fashion.

There was of course nothing gender-specific about the “ba-“ part of “baby”, which is already a diminutive form of the original English word “babe”. The Oxford English Dictionary says that its origin is probably onomatopoeic – two syllables of “ba”, which is a typical “early infantile vocalisation”. So while a baby can call itself a baba, even if by accident, it will take much longer to pronounce itself a “theyby”.

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The Good Friday agreement is a ‘shibboleth’? What’s a shibboleth?

The shadow trade secretary has apologised for his misuse of the word. But what does it mean? An ear of corn? A stream in flood? A way of identifying enemies?

It was reported this week that the shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, had called the Good Friday agreement a “shibboleth”. Critics pounced on social media, complaining that Gardiner didn’t know what the word meant. But did anyone?

Since the 1930s, 'shibboleth' has meant simply an outdated view

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Macbeth by Jo Nesbø review – Shakespeare reimagined

Scandinavia’s king of crime turns the tragedy into a deliciously oppressive page-turner

The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites modern novelists to reimagine some of his most celebrated plays. After such entries as Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice, Shylock Is My Name, and Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear, we now have a Macbeth by the king of Scandi-noir crime, Jo Nesbø. It turns out to be rather an inspired choice: the bloody tragedy of political ambition translates well to a corrupt police department in a lawless town, where the cops are just one more armed gang.

The Scottish play is here transplanted to a geographically agnostic place that mixes terms of Scottish and Scandinavian origin (the area is Fife, the sharpshooter named Olafson), along with allegorical touches: the capital city is known simply as the Capitol. But we spend most of our time in ...

Women are too ‘modest’ to host a comedy quiz show? Well have I got news for you …

From the late 16th century, the word ‘modest’ when applied to women has meant ‘not forward or lewd’ – a quality so often policed by men

Why have so few women hosted Have I Got News for You? Ian Hislop said this week that it wasn’t for want of being invited. “On the whole,” he mused, “women are slightly more reticent and think, maybe modestly: ‘I can’t do that.’”

The trouble with this sort of thing is that modesty has a decidedly gendered history. A gentleman who was “modest” (from the Latin root for “moderate”) acted temperately, or didn’t brag about his achievements, but from the late 16th century the word acquired a special meaning for women: “not forward, impudent, or lewd” (OED). In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve “yielded with coy submission, modest pride”, which is of course the only acceptable way for a woman to ...

Plogging: the fitness craze that’s sweeping the streets

It’s time to embrace the Scandinavian trend for picking up litter while jogging – even if the word ‘plogging’ is a bit rubbish

Fitness crazes, like much else, are born of lexical innovation: “spinning” for riding stationary bicycles, or HIIT (high-intensity interval training) for running fast then slow. The latest happy innovation, from Scandinavia by way of France and Thailand, is “plogging”: jogging while picking up litter.

Until the 1960s, jogging meant walking or riding a horse at a slow, jerky pace

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The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater review – we have no hidden depths

There is no subconscious, no ‘inner life’ that holds the secret of understanding ourselves, argues a behavioural psychologist. We improvise and can change

You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths. The book could equally have been called “The Mind Is Shallow”, though potential readers might have found that more off-puttingly rude.

This is one of those books that is a superb exposition of scientific findings, from which the author proceeds to draw highly polemical and speculative inferences. There are beautiful discussions of how little we ...

Data harvesting: why the agricultural metaphor?

Cambridge Analytica has been accused of unauthorised ‘data harvesting’ from Facebook accounts – but why do we call it that?

The political data firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of unauthorised “data harvesting” from millions of Facebook accounts. This handily avoids allegations of “theft” or even just “mining”, but why the agricultural metaphor?

The harvest is the collection of ripe crops in the autumn, which has its own church festival: we gratefully collect what the all-powerful has put there for us. This sense of gathering up what is natural persists in the talk of “harvesting” cells in biological experiments (from 1946), but has become irreparably perverted in the euphemistic use of “harvesting” to mean hunting whales. “Data harvesting” itself emerged from scientific information management in the late 90s, and soon became a buzzphrase for online marketers. In other words, data harvesting is about as old as the modern web, and might even ...

From battlefield to basket of goods: our long love affair with leggings

They are now one of the consumer products used to measure the UK’s inflation rate, but leggings have been around for 300 years

The basket of goods used to calculate the rate of inflation was this week updated to include quiche (at the expense of pork pies) and also “leggings”. But why are leggings called that? Long gloves are not called “armings”, and a jumper is not a “torsoing”.

Related: Quiche in, pork pies out! UK inflation goods basket changes for 2018

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Johnson’s Brexit Dictionary by Harry Eyres & George Myerson review – a satirical A to Z

What would the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson have made of Britain’s ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU? A squib of a lexicon offers the answer

The official language of Brexit promotion has if nothing else been a masterclass in sonorously noncommittal windiness – who knows to this day what the “deep and special partnership” we seek with the EU actually involves? – allied to carefully implied falsehoods, as in the promise to “take back control” of what we already had perfectly good control over. It is a ripe subject for a case study in contemporary Unspeak by some cynical saboteur intent on talking down Britain’s glorious post-EU future.

That indeed seems to be the aim of this tiny squib of a lexicon, the conceit of which is that it is written by the great Augustan lexicographer Samuel Johnson himself. So there is a sprinkling of 18th-century grammar and archaic ...

How Frances McDormand’s Oscar-grabbing ‘inclusion rider’ got its meaning

Word(s) of the week: the most thrilling phrase at this year’s Oscars has its roots in rock stars’ backstage demands and the politics of 1950s America

The biggest lexical thrill in the Oscars came when Frances McDormand dropped the phrase “inclusion rider”, something that would ensure better representation of minorities in a film’s cast and crew. But why does it mean that?

Most familiarly, a rider lists a rock band’s backstage demands – crates of booze, bowls of M&M’s with no brown ones, and so on. (Van Halen insisted on the latter to check the venue paid attention to detail.) It derives from the sense of “rider” as anything that goes atop something else: so a rider, from the 17th century, was an addition to a legislative bill or a contract.

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What’s the difference between a troll and a sockpuppet?

Word of the week: Moscow’s Internet Research Agency paid ‘trolls’ to express pro-Putin and pro-Trump views – but why do we call them that?

The latest in the story of Russian meddling in last year’s US election is that the Russians ran a “troll factory”, which is not a manufacturing centre gearing up to produce heartwarmingly ugly dolls for children’s Christmas presents. Instead the troll factory, at Moscow’s Internet Research Agency, paid young people to create fake online identities expressing pro-Putin and pro-Trump opinions.

Trolling is a method of fishing, the “troll” being the lure, and so from the 1990s online “trolls” were people who antagonised others in the hope of getting an angry reaction. This usage is possibly also influenced, the OED notes, by the troll in Scandinavian mythology, a small creature that lives underground, in its parents’ basement for example.

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What does Boris Johnson mean by a ‘teleologial construction’?

Word of the week: the foreign secretary’s attempted slur on the EU backfires

The British public has been gratefully exposed to almost every conceivable way of insulting the EU, but Boris Johnson has offered a novel one. Johnson, who gave a key speech on Brexit this week, calls the EU a “teleological construction”; it is “ends-driven”, towards total political unity. In ancient Greek philosophy, teleology is the study of things that have a purpose or are directed towards a goal (telos). So beware the goal those foreigners are plotting towards! Shun teleological constructions!

Related: Boris Johnson warns thwarting Brexit vote would be disastrous

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The Genius Within by David Adam review – to what extent is intelligence determined by genes?

Zapping his brain and taking ‘smart pills’, Adam’s fascinating history of how we define intelligence raises intriguing questions about our future

The old myth that you only use 10% of your brain is obviously rubbish. If an iron spike went through the 90% you never use, why would you care? But what might be true is that we only typically use a small part of our brain’s potential function. What if you could zap your head or take a pill, like Bradley Cooper in the film Limitless, and become insanely clever? Over the last decade, this sci-fi possibility has started to approach reality, and David Adam’s book is a timely prologue to the brave new world that might await us.

On the internet you can now buy gizmos to stimulate your brain with low doses of electricity. There is some evidence that this helps with depression and other disorders, ...