If, like me, you’re a member of the legion of the word-obsessed, here are some websites to keep you going on the long march:
Take a look, for starters, at harm•less drudg•ery, the blog of an actual working lexicographer. It’s literate, amusing, and full of the inside-dictionary baseball. A sample quote:
English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.
From there, you can go to separated by a common language, a blog that deals with the differences between American and British English. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from a post on the difference between American and British mattress sizes, and the terms for same:
The short version: the basic sizes for American beds are twin, full, queen, and king, in ascending order. The basic sizes for British beds, respectively, are single, double, king,and super-king. Single bed and double bed are understood and used in the US, but they are not precise bed sizes there. For example, in AmE I could say that a (AmE) cot/(BrE) camp bed is a ‘single bed’ (it fits a single person), but not that it’s a ‘twin bed’, because twin is a particular size. Two twins make an AmE king–as one can find to one’s back-breaking and love-dampening horror in hotels where they make AmE-king-size beds out of two twins and a king-size sheet. (You said king-size bed! Singular! I want my money back!!)
So, if you buy king-size fitted sheets in one country, they won’t work as king-size in the other. Will the other sheets transfer? Probably not exactly.
Finally, there’s languagehat, the most venerable of the three — its archives go back to 2002. It’s full of interesting stuff on word histories and origins, along with a lot of good book reviews. A sample:
I’ve started Gene Wolfe’s Peace (recommended by Christopher Culver in this thread), and on the very first page he used a phrase unfamiliar to me: “I took the cruiser ax and went out…” (It’s not at all unusual to have to look things up when reading Wolfe; he has an extensive vocabulary and is not reluctant to deploy it.) There is definitely such a thing (here‘s one for sale: “2 1/2 lb. Double bit axe head 28″ Hickory handle. Overall length approximately 28″. Weight 3.63 lbs.”), but it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, and I wanted to know where the name came from. Google Books told me it was sometimes called a cruiser’s ax (“And don’t forget to bring a light ax—a cruiser’s ax. Where you’re going, you could freeze to death without an ax and matches”—John Dalmas, The Reality Matrix, 1986), but that didn’t help much, since no definition of “cruiser” seemed appropriate… until I heaved my ancient and well-used Webster’s Third New International up from its honored place on my dictionary shelf and found definition 4a, “one who estimates the volume and value of marketable timber on a tract of land and maps it out for logging.” I’d still be interested to know exactly why and how that particular job description got matched with that particular ax, but the general idea is clear, and I am satisfied.
At all of these blogs, the comment sections are as lively and full of good stuff as the entries themselves.