TIME language

This Is What ‘Eggcorns’ Are (and Why They’re Jar-Droppingly Good)

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

This week Merriam-Webster made the fullproof linguistic term official

Eggcorns are a special, productive kind of mistake. They are created when someone mixmatches the letters in a word—or the words in a phrase—but the result still makes sense. In fact, sometimes the messed up version makes even better sense than the original one. An eggcorner might, for instance, use mixmatches instead of mismatches. An eggcorner might assert that something is jar-droppingly good rather than jaw-droppingly. If you’ve ever told someone they’re a “real trooper” or said you’re “chomping at the bit,” then you are an eggcorner, too.

The term eggcorn, coined by British-American linguist Geoff Pullum, hit a milestone this week when Merriam-Webster added it to their unabridged online database. But despite recognition from America’s best-known dictionary, many people continue to mint and recycle eggcorns without ever knowing they’re doing it—or that the action has a name. When corpulent becomes porkulent, that’s an eggcorn. When another think coming becomes another thing coming, that’s an eggcorn. And while fusty rule-followers often treat these as mere idiotic slip-ups, more embracing linguists view them as delightful “reinterpretations” of English.

The name itself is pretty meta, because the word belongs to the category it describes. Back in 2003, some linguists on the blog Language Log were discussing the case of a woman who described an acorn as an “egg corn.” They noted that there was something special about that kind of mishap. After all, acorns are kind of shaped like eggs, and acorns are smaller than eggs just like kernels of corn are. When you think about it, acorns are to trees what eggs are to chickens, and humans for that matter—seeds that spring into new life. It’s not as if she called the “acorn” a “rainstorm” in some classic, just-mixin’-up-two-things-that-sound-alike malapropism.

So Pullum made a suggestion: “that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them ‘egg corns.'” And a star was formed.

This week, Merriam-Webster added eggcorn to its unabridged online dictionary, along with about 1,700 other entries. This is their editors’ definition:

a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase either on its own or as part of a set expression.

The Oxford English Dictionary beat them to the punch, adding this to their ranks in 2010. Their editors described it in a note as a cousin of the mondegreen, a misheard lyric like “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”—which Taylor Swift continues to insist is a mishearing of “Got a long list of ex-lovers.” That name is meta too, coined for Lady Mondegreen, a misinterpretation of the phrase laid him on the green in the fine old ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray.”

Eggcorns present us with some options for how we treat each other and our language. We can haughtily correct the anxious person who says they’re “chomping” at the bit, explaining that the original phrase is actually “champing” at the bit, for champ has meant to crush and chew by vigorous and noisy action of the jaws since the 16th century. Or we can take a moment to recognize that, to the modern speaker of English, chomp makes a lot more sense than champ—and to appreciate how convenient it is that a once useful idiom can evolve into a currently useful one by the accidental swapping of a vowel.

“That word champ as a verb only really exists now in that particular idiom,” said Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive editor of Vocabulary.com. “We don’t use it in any other context, so that’s a good candidate for reanalysis.” Zimmer is from that more embracing school of linguists who like to observe language rather than snap their ruler and instruct people on how to use something that is in a continual state of makeover. “Of course, with many of these eggcorns, there will be people who say, ‘No, no no, that’s not the way it is,'” he said. “They’ll mention the new form as proof that someone is uneducated. But this is something that we all do with language, whether we’re educated or uneducated … taking forms and relating them to things we already know.”

Zimmer presents the example of free rein, the original version referring to horses with loose reins that allow free motion, and free reign, the eggcorn that evokes the feeling of a ruler who can do whatever he or she might like with their kingdom. He also mentions “real trooper,” which is a corruption of “real trouper,” conjuring the image of an intrepid soldier rather than a dependable member of an acting troupe. Sure, it’s wrong in a sense, but the change is easy to see as more of an improvement than an error.

It’s a subjective exercise calling one thing an eggcorn versus a folk etymology (a popular but mistaken origin of a phrase) or even a malapropism. But the point remains that when all is set and done, eggcorns are better proof of how nimble and sly English is than how dumb anybody is—even though I’ll probably get plenty of polite corrections for the eggcorns sprinkled throughout this very piece.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME U.S.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Scripps National Spelling Bee Words?

See if you can define the words that teenagers were able to spell

Spelling complicated words for the Scripps National Spelling Bee is hard enough, as this year’s co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam know. But if we give you the spelling, can you guess tricky words’ meaning by looking at them? We rounded up some of the hardest words from the 2015 bee to test you.

TIME language

Here’s a Theory About Why South Asian Americans Totally Rule the Spelling Bee

Anthropology professor Shalini Shankar shares her ideas with TIME

South Asian-Americans, whose forebears immigrated from countries like India or Pakistan, have now won the Scripps National Spelling Bee eight years in a row. At one point in the 2015 final, six of the remaining seven spellers were of that ethnicity, and in the end there were two: co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. That means that out of the last 16 years, spellers of South-Asian origin have lost only four competitions. And one Northwestern academic says it’s not a coincidence.

Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies, spent this week with the 283 elite spellers who qualified for the bee in National Harbor, Md., continuing her research into what, exactly, might have produced this string of success. TIME spoke with Shankar about her interviews with parents, the kids’ intense preparation and how immigrant culture might lead to dominance in “brain sports.” (Hint: It doesn’t hurt that there is a spelling bee circuit exclusively for spellers of South-Asian descent.)

Who exactly are we talking about when we talk about top spellers in South Asian cultures?

Primarily India and Pakistan and Bangladesh are the countries that appear to have a lot of spellers. And when you look at South Asians in the South Asian spelling bee, it’s a range across those three countries. Occasionally from Sri Lanka as well. But once you get down to the finals or the championship level, it tends to be more spellers just from India. So Indian-Americans. Usually they are second generation. They were born in the United States to parents who are first generation Indian immigrants.

Is there a chance the string of wins by South Asian-Americans is a coincidence?

I think we can safely say it’s not a coincidence. I hesitate to call it dominance, only because it sounds like something premeditated or strategized. These kids come from families where their parents are really well educated, many of them, and their parents really emphasize education and certain types of extracurricular activities. Combined with that, they seem to have a real love of words and language and their parents foster that.

What kind of extracurricular activities are we talking about?

The parents spend a lot of their time and resources taking [their kids] to participate in what some of them describe as brain sports. So rather that going to travel baseball or travel soccer, they’re traveling this academic competition loop. Part of why you’re seeing their success on the rise is they’re in constant preparation mode for these various academic competitions. And there are several competitions that are exclusively for children of South Asian parentage. So they have more opportunities to do what they’re doing.

If part of this is the parents spending money on the travel circuit, does income level come into play in explaining the phenomenon?

I can’t speak to income levels because I don’t have that data. But I can safely say there’s at least one professional parent in most of these families that have what they call elite spellers. So they’re certainly socially upwardly mobile families even if they may not be wealthy, per se.

How much have you found the kids are into this intense competition because their parents are pushing them, versus pursuing it themselves?

The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them.

But isn’t there something, even if it’s not Tiger-Mom tactics, like a value the parents are passing along about what kind of competition is worth winning?

I have some partially formed ideas about that. I’m still looking into it. Part of what I’m seeing is that there’s a lot of prestige in this community to winning something like a spelling bee or winning a geography bee or a math bee. And that is valued as much if not more than winning some sort of physical sport … These are very important bragging rights among South Asian-American communities. There’s some real status linked to it, that the kids feel too. The kids are really excited about the prospect of being on ESPN. They want to be on television.

 

Is there a more fundamental place in the culture that this value on academic prowess comes from, like what brought these immigrants to America?

Among the elite classes in India, both economically and socially elite, there’s a real emphasis on education and the use of education for social mobility. It’s not so different from other places in the world, but it’s certainly quite prevalent there. So I think that value is one that gets very magnified when you look at what Indian-American populations actually emigrated. It’s mostly professionals who immigrated post-1965. They are doctors or engineers or scientists, etcetera. So they are absolutely going to place a higher value on that than, say, other types of accomplishment. It doesn’t meant they downplay other types of accomplishments, but there’s an understood value of education that these contests jibe with very well.

What is it that drives these kids to dedicate themselves to spelling so intensely?

Unless you really love language and reading and words, it becomes very hard to care about preparing to the extent that one needs to for a spelling bee at this level. Kids who do this love words and they love thinking about words. They read the dictionary, among other things. And not all of them prepare to win. They set their own goals, like ‘I want to make it to Scripps’ or ‘I want to make it to the semi-finals’ or the finals and proportionately spend time preparing in whatever ways they think will allow them to attain those goals.

What is that preparation process like?

That process is usually every day, if not almost every day, they spend a few hours after school, after their homework, sometimes after their parents get home so they can quiz them. They spend several hours each weekend day preparing, maybe not year-round but certainly in the weeks and months leading up to the bee. Some of these spellers who compete in their school bees as well as these South Asian spelling bees, they don’t let too much time go by when they don’t have to be preparing for something. They’re kind of constantly keeping this fresh in their minds. So it’s an ongoing process for them, during the years in which they’re able to compete. And then suddenly it ends when they’re 14. It can be a very abrupt ending.

How do competitions like this affect the way we think about childhood?

If anything, the continuum of what childhood means is being expanded in productive ways to accommodate things that might have seemed extremely marginal or relegated to this untouchable nerd kind of activity. It’s something that has more mainstream cachet. I mean, being on ESPN is something very few kids get to do and these kids are very proud of participating in something that has such national recognition. It’s just expanding our ideas about what childhood means in ways that are keeping up with how the world is changing.

TIME language

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Has Co-Champions, Again

The winning words in the nail-biter final were 'scherenschnitte' and 'nunatak'

In a dramatic, flawless final round, two eighth-graders proved to be joint winners at the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. One a girl and one a boy, one from Kansas and one from Missouri, one a five-time finalist and one a four-timer, 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar and 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam put both their hands on the trophy and thrust it into the air on Thursday evening—after spelling word after word that few people could even hope to pronounce correctly.

Shivashankar’s winning word was scherenschnitte, meaning the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. Venkatachalam’s was nunatak, a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.

This is the second year in a row that the final has yielded co-champions. Last year was the first time in 52 years that two people had shared the trophy, and 2015 marks the first time in the bee’s 90-year history that there have ever been co-champions two years in a row. This is only the fifth tie ever.

How do two people win the bee? If three or fewer spellers are left when a round begins, the officials move to a 25-word “championship list.” As Scripps explained last year:

Once there are three spellers left in a round, the next round begins with a 25-word list. Ordinarily, a winner is declared if one speller misspells and the remaining speller correctly spells two words in a row. If no winner is declared before the list has been exhausted—or there are not enough words left for two consecutive spellings—co-champions are announced.

In the last minutes of the final, Shivashankar and Venkatachalam navigated—and sometimes breezed—through the championship words with poise, like tennis players returning near-impossible shots. And the announcers from ESPN, which broadcasts the competition held in National Harbor, Md., each year, espoused due color commentary.

Shivashankar started with bouquetiere.

“If they do want only one champion, the words are going to have to get tougher than that one was for Vanya,” the announcer scoffed.

Venkatachalam countered with caudillismo.

“It’s not the first time in this competition he’s proven he can handle a Spanish-derived word.”

She spelled thamakau, a word of Fijian origin that describes a large canoe.

“Very obscure.”

He spelled scytale, a message written in a method of cipher used especially by the Spartans.

“That’s how good these too are. For most spellers, that would be a nightmare,” the announcer explains. “That dictionary is no mystery to them.”

Tantieme. Cypseline. Urgrund. Filicite.

“I don’t know that either one of these is capable of not winning that trophy.”

Myrmotherine. Sprachgefuhl. Zimocca. Hippocrepiform.

Neither one betrayed much emotion as they cycled up to the microphone. The announcers explained that Venkatachalam was wearing a LeBron James jersey under his button-up. The audience learned that Shivshankar’s sister had previously won the bee. It was no wonder they kept so cool.

Nixtamal. Paroemiology. Scacchite. Pipsissewa. Bruxellois. Pyrrhuloxia.

At this point, there were only four words remaining. That meant that if both spelled their next words correctly, both would go home winners—because there would be just two words left, not enough for a winner to spell two correctly in succession.

After cycling through her questions about the origin, part of speech, definition and alternative pronunciations, Shivashankar nailed the byzantine mess of letters that is scherenschnitte. (She also won the Lifetime reality show Child Genius earlier this year, which was starting to look like an omen.)

Then Venkatachalam headed up to the microphone. The pronouncer said the word. The boy asked no questions and spelled nunatak like he was spelling his own name.

The ticker tape rained down on the stage and the spellers hugged each other. He held the left side and she held the right. “This is a dream come true. I can’t believe I’m up here,” Shivashankar said. But with nine bee appearances between them, it’s pretty easy to imagine that something this fitting would happen.

TIME language

The U.K. Children’s Word of the Year Isn’t Really a Word

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#kidsthesedays

The children’s word of the year in the UK isn’t exactly a word. It’s hashtag, or the symbol #.

After analyzing over 120,000 short story submissions by children to a BBC Radio contest, Oxford University Press found that there was a huge uptick among children using hashtags outside of Twitter, the Guardian reports.

Words such as Snapchat, selfie and emoji all appeared in the top of the list, but Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press, explained to the Guardian why hashtag was No. 1. “Hashtag, or #, is word of the year because it is entering children’s vocabulary in a new way,” he said. “Children are not tweeting and using Twitter, but they are using the word hashtag and the symbol # for dramatic effect, it is heightening tension.”

A statement about the findings gave two examples of children using hashtags in their writing: “She then picked it up and ran out of the cave… the cave exploded and she didn’t look back at it exploding, she just kept on walking forward # super cool.” And, “The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get eaten (# frightened!!!).”

Among other trends, the study found that children used a lot of words related to technology, current affairs and popular culture. But it also found that gender stereotypes persisted in word use. According to the statement, “Girls write enthusiastically of cupcakes, unicorns, marshmallows, and flowers, and they love words associated with beauty and fashion… For boys, it is all very much about burgers, space, cars, and farting!”

TIME language

7 Things You Should Know About the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee

TIME's guide to the B-E-S-T week of the year

In the first on-stage round of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, only four of 283 kids heard the dreaded ring of the elimination bell. Most breezed through words like ubiquitous, flamenco, autopsy, howitzer and oregano at the front of a giant ballroom outside Washington, D.C. But when the spellers returned for the second on-stage round Wednesday afternoon, some adjustments had clearly been made to thin the flock.

Wearing giant placards and nervous grins, some 13-year-olds navigated the likes of panophthalmitis (inflammation involving tissues of the eyeball) and triumphantly threw their thin limbs in the air. Others held back tears after missing a vowel in the likes of guayabi (a highly valued hard tough wood from South America) and were politely sent off the stage with the same sound used to summon bellhops in fancy hotels.

By Thursday evening, when ESPN broadcasts the finals at 8 p.m. ET, there will be just a dozen spellers left. Here are seven things that will help viewers fully appreciate this harrowing, inspiring American ritual.

Americans are about three times more likely to be struck by lightning in their lifetime than to make it to the national finals. The odds of being zapped by lightning in one’s life are about one in 12,000, according to the National Weather Service. Of the 11 million kids who compete in the bee on some level, only 283 made it to the competition in National Harbor, Md., this year. That’s roughly 0.000026%, or one in 38,869.

There’s an app for that. Scripps, the sponsor of the bee, debuted an app called Buzzworthy this year. When you sign up, you’re automatically assigned five spellers that are essentially your fantasy football team for the competition. They spell words right, you get points. And each has an endearing bio so there’s no way to remain unattached. (Dear Jeffery “Eager to Embrace Tropical Flavors” Thompson: I’m counting on you.)

The process for picking the spelling words is top secret. The officials at Scripps who put on the bee guard their process for developing the word list like nuclear launch codes. There is a word committee, whose members are secret. The sources they use are secret. The qualities they look for are secret. “The nature of how that comes to be is something that needs to be protected,” says Scripps spokesperson Valerie Miller. There are whispers that some word committee members are dictionary officials, while others are former spelling champions themselves.

It is known that words get harder as the competition goes on. Words in the preliminary rounds come from study guides of about 1,500 words that are given to the spellers when they advance to the national finals. But once spellers get to the semi-finals and finals, the words they face could be any of the roughly 472,000 that are in Merriam-Webster’s Third Edition. When the contest comes down to three or fewer spellers in the final, officials advance to a special “championship list.”

There can be up to three co-champions of the bee. Once the spellers have advanced to the championship list of 25 words, there’s no other place to go. If everyone still in the game at that point spells all the words correctly as the officials go through the list, then everyone wins. That’s why there were two co-champions in 2014.

Spellers of South Asian descent have long dominated the bee. For the first time, bee director Paige Kimble recently talked about an obvious but sensitive trend: the spelling domination of Indian-American students. They’ve won the last seven years and all but four of the past 15 years, which led to some ugly comments on social media last year about “real Americans.” Miller says some research into the trend—by academics like Northwestern’s Shalini Shankar—has found that “grit” is the winners’ key attribute. Accomplishment, competition and early literacy are also important in South Asian cultures, Miller says: “When you pair up that love of competition with encouragement and emphasis on education, [spelling bees] are a natural fit.”

The real killer at the bee isn’t nerves; it’s the schwa. There are some obvious characteristics that make words tough to spell, like silent letters (mnemonic), double letters (braggadocio) or single letters where you might expect double letters (sassafras). But the true nemesis of spellers is the schwa, the vowel sound that we hear in words like America, belief and history. The schwa can be rendered as any vowel and even be silent in words like rhyth(ə)m. “The schwa is the richest source of guesses in the final rounds, the most common source of confusion,” says Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski. “These are championship spellers and that’s the most common error at highest, highest level.”

TIME language

Merriam-Webster Adds ‘Jeggings,’ ‘NSFW,’ and ‘Sharing Economy’

Dictionary
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The American dictionary added 1,700 new words to its ranks

Have you ever struggled to define exactly what WTF means when awkwardly responding to a curious grandparent? Well, flounder no longer. That acronym, along with about 1,700 new entries, have just been defined in Merriam-Webster’s latest update to their unabridged online dictionary.

The American reference provided a selection of the new words on its blog. Many embody our modern obsession with digital life (clickbait, NSFW, emoji). Others will teach future generations about the curious fashion choices of people living in the early 21st century (jeggings). And still others provide a linguistic term for our tendency to mishear Elton John lyrics as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” (eggcorn).

Here are the definitions that the lexicographers at M-W came up with for this latest reflection of who English speakers are and what we care about:

WTF (abbrev.)
Definition: what the f—, used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion or bemusement.

NSFW (abbrev.)
Definition: not safe for work; not suitable for work, used to warn someone that a website, email attachment, etc., is not suitable for viewing at most places of employment.

jeggings (n.)
Definition: a legging that is designed to resemble a tight-fitting pair of denim jeans and is made of a stretchable fabric.

photobomb (v.)
Definition: to move into the frame of a photograph as it is being taken as a joke or prank.

eggcorn (n.)
Definition: a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase either on its own or as part of a set expression.

meme (n.)
Definition: an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

clickbait (n.)
Definition: something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

colossal squid (n.)
Definition: an extremely large squid occurring in deep waters of the Southern Ocean that is the largest known living invertebrate.

net neutrality (n.)
Definition: the idea, principle or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source or destination.

emoji (n.)
Definition: any of various small images, symbols or icons used in text fields in electronic communication (as in text messages) to express the emotional attitude of the writer, convey information succinctly, communicate a message playfully without using words, etc.

sharing economy (n.)
Definition: economic activity that involves individuals buying or selling usually temporary access to goods or services, especially as arranged through an online company or organization.

click fraud (n.)
Definition: fraud committed by clicking through an advertisement on a website multiple times to spuriously increase the cost to the advertiser.

dark money (n.)
Definition: money contributed to nonprofit organizations that is used to fund political campaigns without disclosure of the donors’ identities.

upcycle (v.)
Definition: to recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item.

sriracha (n.)
Definition: a pungent sauce that is made from hot peppers pureed with usually garlic, sugar, salt, and vinegar and that is typically used as a condiment.

twerk (v.)
Definition: sexually suggestive dancing characterized by rapid, repeated hip thrusts and shaking of the buttocks, especially while squatting.

vocal fry (n.)
Definition: a vocal effect produced by very slow vibration of the vocal cords and characterized by a creaking sound and low pitch.

Read More: Get Your Creak On: Is ‘Vocal Fry’ a Female Fad?

TIME Research

Why Moms Are Better at Baby Talk Than Dads

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Do dads baby talk to their little ones? Researchers recorded hours of audio of parents interacting with their toddlers to find out

Most mothers do it without thinking: cooing to their young children in a sing-songy, high pitched way that seems to help them connect better with their youngsters. But do fathers who spend time with their toddlers do the same?

MORE: Who’s Better at Baby Talk, Mom or Dad?

Mark VanDam, a professor in speech and hearing sciences at Washington State University, wanted to find out in his new study presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. While previous studies have looked at how moms and dads interact with their preschoolers, most of these have been in the rather artificial setting of a lab. So researchers led by VanDam strapped recording devices on both parents and their toddlers for an entire day in order to hear what parents were really saying to their children—and how they were saying it—in a more natural setting.

They found that mothers do indeed adopt “motherese” when addressing their preschoolers, but fathers did not—even those who spent more time with their children. In fact, the fathers talked to their young children in the same way they conversed with adults.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

That may be because mothers vary their intonation more and tend to speak in a more infantile way in order to bond better with their toddlers, according to a theory proposed in the 1970s. Mothers are supposed to teach their children how to connect on a more intimate level, and speaking in a more melodic way introduces children to this way of communicating, the theory goes. Fathers, on the other hand, are the bridge for preschoolers to the outside world, and fathers’ more varied vocabulary and adult intonations help to familiarize them with this way of connecting with others. “The basic idea is that moms provide the link to the domestic, more intimate type of talk, while dads provide the link to the outside world,” says VanDam. “In that sense, moms and dads provide different kinds of experiences that give kids more comprehensive exposure to what kinds of language they need in the real world.”

In his present study, both parents lived full time with the child, and in some families, mothers worked outside of the home. VanDam is hoping to extend the study to look at single-parent families, as well as same-sex households, to see if the gender-specific ways of interacting with toddlers stay the same.

TIME language

This Is the Speech That Made Winston Churchill’s Career

Winston Churchill
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the speech on the BBC that he just delivered at the House of Commons : "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat..."

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he said

A full 75 years after the “Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat” speech was delivered by Winston Churchill — on May 13, 1940 — it remains one of the most famous of his prolific career. Which is only appropriate, as it was the speech that set the course for his historic leadership of Britain during World War II.

Here’s what happened: Until mere days before the speech was delivered, Churchill wasn’t Prime Minister. He was First Lord of the Admiralty and, in fact, a “longtime political enemy” of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, per TIME’s account in 1940.

The previous month, British forces had responded to a Nazi incursion in Norway with all confidence of success. “Instead, all the pushing—and a lot of punching, hammering, rushing and blasting—had been done by the Germans. It was the British who went out backwards, faster than they had come in,” TIME reported two weeks later. Chamberlain, called to account for the failure, merely reassured his country that, though the military operation had been a total failure, at least the retreat had been successful. His statements that it hadn’t been a total disaster were met with derision; many called for him to resign if he could not promise stronger action.

Though Chamberlain begged his parliamentary colleagues to remain unified in the face of the enemy, his case had little heft in light of recent events. When Churchill spoke, he also asked for unity—but he admitted that Norway was a failure, and galvanized support with his candor and confidence. The Labour party refused to join a national coalition government unless Churchill was in charge of it.

Churchill took office as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. On the 13th, he delivered that famous speech, as TIME reported:

As soon as he had made up his Cabinet he appeared before the House and, mincing no words, told it what was in store for Britain: “If you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our might,” said Winston Churchill. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The House gave him a 381-to-0 vote of confidence and Neville Chamberlain smiled a tight-lipped smile.

His words established a new British attitude toward the growing conflict—and a reputation that would keep him in the Prime Minister’s office through the end of the war in Europe.

Indeed, the speech was so effective that, in 2003, TIME named included it on a list of 80 days that changed the world. “The opposition Labour Party would serve in a government of national unity only if it were led by Churchill, and on the evening of May 10, as German troops massed against France, he accepted office from King George VI,” wrote TIME’s Michael Elliott. “Three days later, Churchill promised Britain only ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ What he gave his country, above all, was leadership.”

Read the full 1940 story here, in the TIME Vault: Warlord for Peacemaker

TIME Careers & Workplace

15 Words You Need to Eliminate From Your Vocabulary

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Start with 'things' and 'stuff'

The Muse logo

Newsprint is on life support, emojis are multiplying faster than hungry Gremlins, and 300 million people worldwide strive to make their point in 140 or fewer characters.

People don’t have the time or the attention span to read any more words than necessary. You want your readers to hear you out, understand your message, and perhaps be entertained, right? Here’s a list of words to eliminate to help you write more succinctly.

1. That

It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with that in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without that. If the sentence works without it, delete it. Also? Don’t use that when you refer to people. “I have several friends that live in the neighborhood.” No. No, you don’t. You have friends who. Not friends that.

2. Went

I went to school. Or the store, or to church, or to a conference, to Vegas, wherever it is you’re inclined to go. Instead of went, consider drove, skated, walked, ran, flew. There are any number of ways to move from here to there. Pick one. Don’t be lazy and miss the chance to add to your story.

3. Honestly

People use honestly to add emphasis. The problem is, the minute you tell your reader this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not. #Awkward

4. Absolutely

Adding this word to most sentences is redundant. Something is either necessary, or it isn’t. Absolutely necessary doesn’t make it more necessary. If you recommend an essential course to your new employees, it’s essential. Coincidentally, the definition of essential is absolutely necessary. Chicken or egg, eh?

5. Very

Accurate adjectives don’t need qualifiers. If you need to qualify it? Replace it.

Very is intended to magnify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. What it does is makes your statement less specific. If you’re very happy? Be ecstatic. If you’re very sad, perhaps you’re melancholy or depressed. Woebegone, even. Very sad is a lazy way of making your point. Another pitfall of using very as a modifier? It’s subjective. Very cold and very tall mean different things to different people. Be specific. She’s 6’3″ and it’s 13 degrees below freezing? These make your story better while also ensuring the reader understands the point you’re making.

6. Really

Unless you’re a Valley Girl, visiting from 1985, there’s no need to use really to modify an adjective. Or a verb. Or an adverb. Pick a different word to make your point. And never repeat really, or very for that matter. That’s really, really bad writing.
If you are visiting from 1985? Please bring the birth certificate for my Cabbage Patch Doll on your next visit. Thanks.

7. Amazing

The word means “causing great surprise or sudden wonder.” It’s synonymous with wonderful, incredible, startling, marvelous, astonishing, astounding, remarkable, miraculous, surprising, mind-blowing, and staggering. You get the point, right? It’s everywhere. It’s in corporate slogans. It dominated the Academy Awards acceptance speeches. It’s all over social media. It’s discussed in pre-game shows and post-game shows.

Newsflash: If everything is amazing, nothing is.

8. Always

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

9. Never

See: Always.

10. Literally

Literally means literal. Actually happening as stated. Without exaggeration. More often than not, when the term is used, the writer means figuratively. Whatever is happening is being described metaphorically. No one actually “waits on pins and needles.” How uncomfortable would that be?

11. Just

It’s a filler word and it makes your sentence weaker, not stronger. Unless you’re using it as a synonym for equitable, fair, even-handed, or impartial, don’t use it at all.

12. Maybe

This makes you sound uninformed, unsure of the facts you’re presenting. Regardless of the topic, do the legwork, be sure, write an informed piece. The only thing you communicate when you include these words is uncertainty.

13. Stuff

This word is casual, generic even. It serves as a placeholder for something better. If the details of the stuff aren’t important enough to be included in the piece? Don’t reference it at all. If you tell your reader to take your course because they’ll learn a lot of stuff? They’re likely to tell you to stuff it.

14. Things

See: Stuff.

15. Irregardless

This doesn’t mean what you think it means, Jefe. It means regardless. It is literally (see what I did there?) defined as: regardless. Don’t use it. Save yourself the embarrassment.

Whether you’re ghostwriting for your CEO, updating a blog, selling a product, or finishing your master’s thesis, you need to keep your reader engaged. These 15 words are a great place to start trimming the fat from your prose. Bonus? You’ll sound smarter.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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