Sunday, 8 December 2013

Byword - When Something Is the Proverbial ...

This is a giraffe. Eating a bone. Well you try illustrating byword.
(photo by Carrie Cizauskas)


[Old English biwyrde = Old High German biwurti, rendering Latin proverbium: see BY-, WORD noun.]

1 A proverb; a proverbial saying. OE

2(a) A person etc. taken as typical of a (usually bad) quality;
a quality in a person etc that is widely recognized. M16

2(b) A (usually scornful or mocking) nickname. Now rare. L16

3 obsolete.  A casual word; a hint; an aside. M16-17

A obsolete. A word or phrase frequently used, especially by an individual. M16-E18

Byword is an exceptionally useful word when one feels like having a little rant about someone or something, as it follows a very simple formula of connecting 'A' (disliked thing) with 'B' (negative attribute), running as such:

[Target of ire] + is a byword for + [Negative quality or attribute]

From searching news articles, I've discovered that government is a byword for corruption, Mark Byford is a byword for BBC excess, Brixton is a byword for disorder, Birmingham is a byword for Islamist extremist terror and Tony Blair is a byword for excess. Of course, a lot of these show that byword is probably being overused  (and misused) - after all, I don't think of Islamic extremism when I think of Birmingham - I think of the accent. And I don't think the average person first thinks of excess when Tony Blair is mentioned - they're more likely to think of the Iraq invasion or non-existent WMDs. There are true bywords out there though: to offer two Biblical examples, Solomon is a byword for wisdom, and Job is a byword for patience. And if I may add two of my own: Ryanair is a byword for cheap, uncomfortable travel and appalling customer service, and The Daily Mail is a byword for small-minded bigotry and scaremongering. There. I said it. There was no chance The Daily Mail was going to escape without a mention in this post ...

... or Ryanair, of course
(photo by Andy Mitchell)

Do you have any bywordial examples?

Do please leave your comments by and by in the box below.


  1. Oktoberfest is a byword for beer.
    I'll drink to that!

    1. Now there's an example of a positive byword - the Oktoberfest has long been on my list of future places to go. Cheers!