Number one for English language teachers

Word of the week: Wag

Type: Reference material

Do you often find yourself wagging a finger at students whilst daydreaming about living the life of a WAG? Tim Bowen explains the multiple meanings and origins of this Word of the week.

The word wag has a number of meanings. Dogs wag their tails to show pleasure. You can wag a finger at someone to indicate annoyance or convey a warning. Both of these uses suggest some kind of movement, probably from side to side. Wag in this sense is believed to derive from an Old English word meaning 'totter' or 'sway' and may be related to the word 'wave'.

In British English, the noun wag is a person fond of making jokes, as in 'Harry’s a bit of a wag'. This use of wag is generally thought to come from an obsolete word meaning ‘someone who swings to and fro on a rope’, in other words a person sentenced to be hanged.

However, 'Harry’s a bit of a wag' could be a bit confusing now as a result of a new use of wag entering the language during the World Cup in Germany in 2006. The collection of spouses and girlfriends who accompanied the under-achieving England team to their luxury headquarters in Baden-Baden became known in the British tabloid press as the WAGs, an acronym for 'wives and girlfriends'. This is now widely used to describe the wives or girlfriends of rich sportsmen with too much money and too much time on their hands. Victoria Beckham is a perfect example of a WAG.

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