Olly Olly Oxen Free

English is a weird and wonderful language. It steals and adapts words from other languages faster than any other, it has words that literally mean their opposite and its grammar rules are so nonsensical that many are widely ignored.

But gosh, it can be beautiful. This year, I’ll be looking at my favorite English words and trying to explain why they’re so special. I hope you will join me by making suggestions in the comments or on Twitter.

Today’s word is bucolic.

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Bucolic means: Of or relating to the pleasant aspects of country life. That is, idyllic.

The first time I heard bucolic, I assumed it was related to colic, a horrible condition that affects otherwise healthy babies and makes them cry for hours on end. Now, I am hardly the mothering kind but that does not sound idyllic to me!

It turns out bucolic has a Greek root – bous – meaning ox. And ox, despite being a German word, is one of only a few English words to take on the Old English collective ending -en to become oxen. (The other two are children and brethren.) And the uniqueness doesn’t end there: When talking about a group of oxen, you use one of a handful of recognized collective nouns, one of which is yolk.

A yolk of oxen. Maybe that sounds bucolic after all.

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