A Timeline of Phrases.org.uk

Back in the day, the BBC broadcast radio shows like Beyond Our Ken and The Goon Show. Listening to them as an impressionable youth in the 1950s I acquired a lifelong love of comic wordplay. I wrote my first computer program in 1960 and my first thoughts were “Computers are great at adding up; wouldn’t it be good if they could write jokes.”.

I set up the Phrase Finder website in 1997. It grew out of a research project in computational linguistics called Writer’s Workbench that I worked on at Sheffield Hallam University in the late 1980s. The project used early artificial intelligence techniques to develop aids for writers.

I later became the university’s Web Manager (actually at that stage the web department was just me) and, as an early attempt at a computer program that could write puns, I created a large database of idioms, with an intelligent search, called Phrase Thesaurus. This could take input words like “fish” and output phrases like ‘There’s no plaice like home’ and ‘The piece of cod that passeth all understanding’. Not the greatest puns in the world, but it was the early days.

To make the program publicly available I put it online at the address http://phrases.shu.ac.uk.

Discussion Forum

In 1998 a discussion forum was added to the site, where anyone could ask questions on the meaning or origin of phrases and sayings in English. It contains an archive of 50,000 questions and answers about phrase origins and their meanings. The majority of the posted replies were contributed by a hard-working and exceedingly persistent group of unpaid enthusiasts, some of whom began contributing daily in early 1999. The forum is now closed to new queries but remains online as a reference archive. At that point the website looked like this…

The phrases.shu.ac.uk website

Meanings and Origins

In 1998, I began adding meanings and origins to the phrases that the Phrase Thesaurus produced. As it turned out, that kept me busy for the next 25 years and that list of idioms and phrases has grown to more than 2,100 entries – making it the largest such public reference on the Internet.

In 2001, the Phrase Thesaurus had become popular with copywriters and journalists and I decide to move the site to a commercial web server, at http://phrasefinder.co.uk – like this…

The phrasefinder.co.uk website

In 2004, the site moved to its current address https://www.phrases.org.uk, at which time it looked like this…

The www.phrases.org.uk website

In the intervening years, various phrase-related additions have been made:

  • A list of Famous Last Words
  • A collection of quotations
  • A searchable database of idioms, intended for people learning English
  • The A-Phrase-A-Week mailing list (between 2005 and 2013)