General ramblings

Ch, ch, ch, ch, changes

Words aren’t set in stone (well, except for the ten commandments, BOOM BOOM). Their meanings change over time, depending on how people use them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So here are five everyday words which started out meaning one thing, but have now morphed into something completely different.

1. Silly

Silly used to mean ‘pious’. It comes from an old English word, seely (which makes you sound like you’re saying ‘silly’ in a comedy/slightly offensive Italian accent if you say it out loud) which meant happy. Here’s how it evolved over time:

Happy

Blessed

Pious

Innocent (we’re up to around the year 1200 now)

Harmless

Pitiable (we’re at the end of the 1300s at this point)

Weak

Foolish (around the 1570s).

This final use was cemented by Sir Billy of Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hippolyta says: ‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.’

2. Nice

I had a teacher at primary school who used to say ‘nice is not a nice word’. I think she probably didn’t like it because we tend to overuse it. But turns out it literally wasn’t a nice word – it comes from the Latin word nescius, which means ignorant, and was previously used to describe stupid people.  

‘Nice’ has actually had loads of different meaning over the years. From about 1300 to the end of the 1600s it mainly meant silly or foolish. But it was also used to describe someone who was ‘very particular’ or ‘finickety’, as well as people who were flash dressers. At some point in the 16th century it took on a more positive meaning, and was used to describe things that were considered ‘refined’.

My primary school teacher was in good company when it came to thinking that ‘nice’ was used too much – Jane Austen evidently thought the same, as shown in this exchange from Northanger Abbey when Henry Tilney says:

‘…and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh, it is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything.’

3. Naughty

Back in the 14th century, ‘naughty’ meant ‘having nothing’. As in I have naught so I’m naughty. Because adding a ‘y’ to a word generally changes the meaning to ‘characterised by’ – think ‘juicy’, which means that something ‘has juice’ (that sounds a bit gross, sorry). And if you have naught, then you might have to do questionable things, like stealing or prostituting, to try not to have naught anymore. And that, it seems, is how ‘naughty’ took on the meaning it has today.

4. Pretty

Nowadays ‘pretty’ as an adjective means ‘attractive’ and is usually only applied to us ladies. And, as is so often the way (damn you patriarchy!) if it is used for a man it’s often derogatory, as in ‘pretty boy’. ‘Pretty’ first appeared around a millennium ago as ‘praettig’, which means ‘crafty’ (as in foxes, not sewing or origami) or ‘cunning’. This came from the word ‘praett’, which means ‘trick’.  Because being crafty or cunning isn’t always bad, it began to take on more positive connotations of skilful or clever, until we get where we are today. The skilful bit is also where we get the adverb from i.e. ‘pretty cool’ or ‘pretty rubbish’. (In case you fell asleep in English class the day they covered adverbs, they’re words that describe or give more information about verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Even I nearly fell asleep then.)

5. Bully

Bully = bad, right? Well, yes, it does now. But back in the 1530s it meant ‘sweetheart’. It was used for both boys and girls, and is thought to originate from a Dutch word ‘boel’, which means ‘lover’ (and also ‘brother’ which I’m going to gloss over, because ew). During the 17th century the meaning morphed into ‘fine fellow’. Still nice. But at some point people decided that a ‘fine fellow’ could also be a bit of a dick, which then developed into the idea of a bully (the fact that it has ‘bull’ in it might also have had something to do with this). The old meaning is still just about hanging around in the phrase ‘bully for you’ when someone does something good (although I’ve only ever used that sarcastically).

PS Don’t do bullying kids!

(See also word of the week ‘egregious’ which used to mean really good.)

I’m surrounded by idioms

Ah, English. It’s an illogical, nonsensical beast, which is one of the reasons why I love it. And one of the things that makes it so colourful is the idioms we use. So in this post I’m looking at the origins of some of my favourites.

Huh?

I’m sure you already know what an idiom is. But just in case you need a reminder, I googled it to see if there’s an easy way to explain it. And I got this: ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’. So it turns out there isn’t an easy way to explain it then. It makes more sense when you look at examples though. One famous idiom is ‘she flew off the handle’. If you’re a native English speaker then you know this doesn’t have anything to do with handles, or aeronautics. It means that she went freaking mental. So that’s an idiom – a phrase that means more than the sum of its wordy parts.

With that (hopefully) understood, here we go…

That really gets my goat

Translation: That really pisses me off

So this comes from a rather sweet tradition in horse racing. Racehorse owners used to put goats in stables to relax them (the horse, not the owner). In the dead of night nasty rivals would sneak in and remove the goats (BOOOOOO). The horse would miss its goaty pal, have a terrible night’s sleep and lose the race the next day. Awww.

Despite muchos googling, I can’t work out if goats still live in sin with racehorses. I hope they do though. I did find this article about an anxious horse being calmed down by a goat friend though, which I guarantee will make you day 77.3% better.

Here’s a picture of a rather coquettish goat I met recently.

Here’s a picture of a rather coquettish goat I met recently.

He turned a blind eye

Translation: He knows what’s happening but he’s choosing to ignore it

Picture the scene. It’s 1801. The naval Battle of Copenhagen is raging. Admiral Horatio Nelson stands on the deck of his ship. He’s watching for orders by signal flag from his superiors. They come, and he’s told to retreat. But he’s Nelson. He’s a badass. He doesn’t want to retreat. So he turns to the flag captain and says ‘…I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes.’ Then he holds his telescope to his blind eye and says: ‘I really do not see the signal,’ and continues to advance. Hence, ‘turn a blind eye’.

(The British fleet won the battle BTW.)

They’re buttering HER up

Translation: To kiss someone’s arse, usually because you want a favour

From what I can work out, the origin of this one is just an imagery thing – because spreading butter on a piece of bread is like spreading nice words on someone (which is a bit weird, but whatever floats your boat). There’s another more interesting theory though. In India, people used to throw little balls of ghee butter at statues of gods when they were asking them for a favour. Which is much nicer, right? So let’s go with that.

he let the cat out of the bag

Translation: he told someone SOMETHING he shouldn’t have

I found two origins for this one, neither of which are particularly cheery, sorry. The first one is about the infamous cat o’ nine tails, a super-nasty whip used by the Royal Navy to punish naughty sailors. So called because its nine knotted cords scratched (although ‘scratched’ seems like a bit of an understatement) unfortunate seamen’s backs, the whip was kept in a leather bag to protect it from the salty sea air. So when this particular cat came out of the bag something bad would happen, which in time came to be equated with letting something slip when you shouldn’t. (If you’d like to find out more about the cat o’ nine tails, you weirdo, go here.)

If that all sounds a bit tenuous, try this one on for size. A second origin story is that when a livestock merchant sold a piglet, they’d put it in a sack for the customer to take home. Then, when the customer wasn’t looking, unscrupulous vendors would swap it for a less-valuable cat, and still have a piglet to sell to someone else. This all sounds a bit made up to me. For a start, cats aren’t known for being passive animals, so I find it hard to believe that one would lie quietly in a sack and wait until someone got it home before making a sound. I also can’t find anything much online which says this type of fraud was common (although pigs were definitely sold in bags – that’s where we get the idiom ‘pig in a poke’ from). The Spanish equivalent of this phrase is dar gato por liebre which means ‘giving a cat instead of a hare’ which makes a bit more sense. Maybe.

They pulled out all the stops

TRANSLATION: They did absolutely everything they could to succeed

Photo by  Rachael Cox  on  Unsplash

Photo by Rachael Cox on Unsplash

This is about big organs. No, not those kind of organs, you dirty so-and-so. The pipe ones. Ready for some in-depth pipe organ info? Of course you are! So, pipe organs are made up of pipes (obvs), keyboards, pedals and stops. You play the keyboards with your fingers and pedals with your feet (again, obvs). You also pull out or push in the stops, knobs which control the pipes (newer organs have electronic stops). Closing a stop mutes a particular pipe, while opening it makes the sound of the pipe really loud. So pulling out all the stops will mean your organ (stop it) is particularly loud and amazing-sounding.

Got a favourite idiom?

Tell me about it in the comments. (I hate saying things like this, because no one ever comments and I look sad and desperate. So go on, throw me a bone.)

Take my word for it – Part 2

In my last blog post (which was quite a long time ago, sorry), I gave you six everyday words that were originally coined by authors. As promised, and definitely not because I’ve run out of ideas, here are five more.

Nerd: Dr Seuss

Originally an insult, but now generally rebranded as something to wear with pride (I’m a total word nerd), ‘nerd’ first appeared in print in 1950 in If I Ran the Zoo by Dr Seuss. The main character is a boy called Gerald who decides that normal zoos are boring, and if he owned a zoo he’d: ‘…sail to Ka-Troo, And bring back an IT-KUTCH, a PREEP, and a PROO, A NERKLE, a NERD, and SEERSUCKER, too!’ I don’t know what any of those things are, but I’d definitely go to that zoo.

Two alternative spellings, ‘nurd’ and, my personal favourite, ‘gnurd’ (who doesn’t love an entirely pointless silent ‘g’?) appeared in the mid-60s. Some people say these are derived from ‘knurd’ which American college students used to describe those weirdos who went to university to study stuff, instead of partying. Because it’s ‘drunk’ spelled backwards, see? Sadly both ‘nurd’ and ‘gnurd’ seem to have died a death since then though.

Dr Seuss’ real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and he wasn’t actually a doctor (shock horror). Interesting fact alert: Geisel worked for the US Air Force producing various propaganda and training films, including one about a rubbish solider with the excellent name of Private Snafu (army slang for ‘situation normal: all fucked up’).

Pandemonium: John Milton

In his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton named a palace in the middle of Hell ‘Pandæmonium’. We’ve switched the ligature (i.e. the æ – see my previous post on other letters of the alphabet that we don’t use anymore – more interesting than it sounds, honest) for an ‘e’ in the modern version, and it’s come to mean general non-Hell related chaos. ‘Pandæmonium’ is a portmanteau (a fancy term for when we squidge two words together) of ‘pan’, as in ‘all’ (like pansexual – literally the only example I could think of), and (you’ve guessed it) ‘dæmonium’ which is Latin for ‘evil spirit’. Here it is in action: 

‘A solemn Councel forthwith to be held At Pandæmonium, the high Capital of Satan and his Peers.’

Milton gets the gold medal for inventing words (or neology if we’re being fancy). He’s actually credited with more new words, sorry neologisms, than Shakespeare or Dickens. Some of the others he came up with include ‘lovelorn’, ‘enjoyable’ and ‘fragrance’.

Robot: Karel Čapek

Czech writer Karel Čapek (nope, me neither) gets the credit for this in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in the early 1920s. The play tells the tale of a factory which makes artificial people designed to work for humans. It was actually his brother Josef who suggested the term – Karel said he was originally going to call them ‘labori’ (for obvious reasons). Eventually the robots turn on their masters and wipe out the human race. So it’s basically Ye Olde Terminator.

Neither of the Čapek bros actually invented the word ‘robot’ though. It’s derived from a Czech term, ‘robota’ which basically means ‘forced labour’.

The BBC adapted Čapek’s play in 1938, making it the first piece of television sci-fi ever broadcast. Take that Doctor Who.

Oh, and prolific sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov later added a whole three letters to ‘robot’ to come up with ‘robotics’, which doesn’t seem that impressive to me, but whatevs.

Serendipity: Horace Walpole

Serendipity means an unplanned, fortunate discovery. It’s a lovely word which has been forever ruined for me by a terrible film starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (although I can forgive Becks for anything as she’s so hilarious on Instagram). Serendipity (the word, not the bad film) was invented by writer and politician Horace Walpole in a letter he wrote to another man also called Horace in 1754. In it he explains how he came across a lost painting. He refers to this as ‘serendipity’ after a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka). In the story the three princes were on the hunt for a lost camel (we’ve all been there) and ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. Sounds awesome.

Scientist: The Reverend William Whewell

The word ‘scientist’ didn’t exist before 1840, which is nuts, because science definitely did. (I actually looked at more than one internet site to make sure this is really true, and it really is. Promise.) Before this, people what did science were called ‘philosophers’.

The Reverend William Whewell first used the term in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (sounds riveting) where he said (and I’m trying really hard not to be cross about the male pronoun because olden times):

‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’

MIND. BLOWN.

Take my word for it – Part 1

If you’re a regular reader (hello Dad!) then you’ll know that every week (mostly) I post a word of the week, where I write about a word’s backstory. This has led me down many an etymological rabbit hole on the internet. Sometimes a word will have its roots in ancient languages like Latin, Greek or Middle something-or-rather. Sometimes it’s come to us via someone’s name – like boycott or bowdlerise. And sometimes it’s just fallen out of some random writer’s brain onto a page, and somehow caught on.

So, this time around I thought I’d look into everyday (ish) words that authors created in their own writing, and that have since stuck around.

Butterfingers: Charles Dickens

Dickens first used the term ‘butterfingers’ in The Pickwick Papers.

‘At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as “Ah, ah!”—“Stupid”—“Now, butter-fingers”—“Muff”— “Humbug”—and so forth.’

It’s no secret that Dickens came up with a lot of words. A couple of his other creations include ‘flummox’ and ‘to clap eyes on [something]’. He didn’t always hit the mark though – some of the terms that didn’t make the judges’ houses include ‘lummy’ (meaning ‘first rate’), ‘spoffish’ (used to describe someone who’s fussy) and ‘gonoph’ (another word for a pickpocket, which possibly didn’t catch on because it sounds like an STD).

Chortle: Lewis Carroll

‘Chortle’ is a portmanteau word, which means it’s two words smooshed together – in this case, ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’. Carroll came up with it in Alice Through the Looking-Glass:

‘“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” He chortled in his joy.’

Lots of the new words we get today are portmanteaus – think ‘bromance’, ‘hangry’ and ‘mansplaining’.

In a nice bit of head-fuckery, Carroll coined the term ‘portmanteau’ for these types of words, also in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty says:

‘“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ and ‘mimsy’ is ‘flimsy and miserable’. You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.”’

‘Portmanteau’ itself is a portmanteau of two French words: porter (to carry) and manteau (a cloak).

*HEAD EXPLODES*

Feminist: Alexandre Dumas Jr

Ironically (maybe? Much like Alanis Morissette, I’m never sure I understand irony), it was a man who came up with the word ‘feminist’. A French man in fact – Alexandre Dumas fils (not the one who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Musketeers – this is his less famous son, hence the ‘fils’). That’s all I’ve got I’m afraid – the internet is very vague about where he actually used it. And some of the articles say it was his dad who came up with it, which I imagine is the Dumas family’s fault for being so unimaginative with their naming conventions.

(Cards on the table, I also found an article which said ‘feminism’ was coined by a radical French philosopher called Charles Fourier. But as this blog post is about authors coining words, not radical French philosophers, I’m attributing it to Dumas. Because it’s my blog, m’kay?)

Gremlin: Roald Dahl

This one’s a slight cheat, as it wasn’t actually coined by Dahl – that honour belongs to the Royal Naval Air Service. But it was Dahl who popularised it in his first book, a children’s story called The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story, which was published in 1943. (And I refer you to my point above about this being my blog.)

In the story, gremlins are small creatures that cause mechanical problems in aeroplanes. RAF pilots had been using this as slang since the 1920s, and its earliest print appearance was in a poem published in 1929. There’s a theory that the term itself might come from an Old English word ‘gremian’ which means ‘to vex’.

In Dahl’s story (spoiler alert!), Gus, a fighter pilot and the main character, has his plane destroyed by gremlins. Eventually he convinces the gremlins to join forces with the Brits against the Nazis, and they end up repairing rather than sabotaging aircraft. And after they kick Hitler’s ass, they all live happily ever after.

Blatant: Edmund Spenser

Poet Edmund Spenser coined the word ‘blatant’ in his epic poem The Faerie Queene, which he wrote in 1596. He refers to a ‘blatant beast’ a few times (he obviously didn’t have access to a thesaurus – although even if he had it wouldn’t have been in there as he invented it, durr). The Faerie Queene is an allegorical poem where all the characters represent a quality, and in this case the blatant beast is a thousand-tongued monster, which represents slander.

Lots of authors copied Spenser and used the word ‘blatant’, although to mean different things – mainly to describe noisy people and things. It didn’t settle on its modern meaning (i.e. obvious or conspicuous) until the late 1880s.

No one’s quite clear where Spenser got it from – it might be he took it from the Scottish word ‘blatand’ for bleating, or the Latin word ‘blatīre’ which means ‘to babble’, both of which would fit with a super-chatty beast. Or praps it was just a typo (quill-o?) of one of these and we’re all making a big deal of nothing.

Bedazzled: William Shakespeare

Some sources say that Shakespeare came up with around 10,000 neologisms (which is just a poncy way of saying new words). Which would have made this blog post way too long. And scholars now think that most of these probably already existed – he was just the first person to write them down (obviously this assumes that you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays #conspiracy). He still gets the credit for around 1,700 though which is, y’know, pretty good going. Some of these include: assassination, belongings, eyesore, bandit and lonely.

I’ve gone for bedazzled here, purely because it’s where we get ‘vajazzled’ from. And I just wanted to make a connection between the bard and The Only Way is Essex. I bet somewhere in Stratford a literary skeleton is spinning in his grave…

Having said that, we actually owe our thanks (?) to the American actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, not the TOWIE crew, for coining the word ‘vajazzle’ on a US talk show in 2010.

Oh, I nearly forgot (I was distracted by genital decorations – two words which should never be put together, or Googled) – Shakespeare first used ‘bedazzle’ in The Taming of the Shrew. Katherine says:

‘Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes / That have been so bedazzled with the sun / That everything I look on seemeth green.’


The End

PS The keen eyed among you will have noticed that this is subtitled ‘Part 1’. That’s because there are loads more words like this, and I didn’t want to bore spoil you with too many. Read Part 2.

My big fat Greek blog post

Last weekend I was doing a general knowledge crossword with my parents (because I know how to party), and they were both very impressed when I knew the name of the blacksmith of the Greek gods (Hephaestus). They were not so impressed when it turned out the reason I knew it was because I’ve been playing too much ‘Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’ on the PS4, rather than through any reading I’ve done (although I do have a book on Greek mythology by my loo).

My horse in ‘Odyssey’ is called Phobos, which I’ve learnt from my toilet-reading (sorry), is where we get the word ‘phobia’ from – Phobos being the Greek personification of fear. And this got me thinking (thankfully not on the loo this time) about other words we get from Greek myth. So here are my top 10 Greek-y words, along with the myths behind them. (I’ve skipped some of the more well-known mythological Greeks/words like Atlas, Narcissus and Nemesis. Because otherwise this would be a top 13 and that’s just silly.)

Panic

The word ‘panic’ is derived from the Greek god Pan, who you’ve probably heard of because he has a bit of a reputation for debauchery and general naughtiness. So it seems odd that we get a word about uncontrollable fear or anxiety from him. It turns out that cloven-hoofed Pan wasn’t just about cavorting around forests with nymphs – he was said to have the power to send people fleeing from him in fear, which is where we get ‘panic’ from.

Interestingly (kinda), ‘panic’ in English started out as an adjective. So you’d use it to describe other nouns about being scared. Plutarch, for example, wrote about ‘Panique fear’. (You can find out more about this here – if you really want to.)

When he wasn’t scaring/boning people, Pan is also said to have invented panpipes. That must have been a short brainstorming session in the naming department.

Hygiene

This comes from Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and Epione, the goddess of healing. Hygeia’s associated with cleanliness and sanitation, lucky her. One of her four sisters is called Panacea, a word we still use today for a cure-all medicine.

Museum

This one seems obvious now I know it. The word ‘museum’ comes from ‘mouseion’ which is the name for a place or temple dedicated to the Muses. The nine Muses were goddesses of literature, science and the arts. I used to be able to name them all (because I’m really cool). Okay, I’m going to have a go. There’s Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Polyhymnia (religious music or something), Erato (porn, maybe?)… nope, that’s all I got. Hang on a second.

*Googles muses*

Right, so the ones I missed are Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance – I’m annoyed I forgot that one, ’cos it’s nice to say) and Urania (astronomy). Oh, and Polyhymnia is actually the muse of ‘sacred poetry’ while Erato looks after ‘love poetry’. Which is probably porn.

Echo

Poor old Echo. She was an oread (a mountain nymph – a divine nature spirit-type thing, usually depicted as a nubile, naked young woman, obvs). Zeus, the horny old bastard, loved cavorting with the nymphs. Echo wasn’t even part of the cavorting – she had a lovely voice, and just used to chat (commentate?) while everyone else was doing the nasty. Hera, Zeus’ long-suffering wife, was understandably annoyed and came down from Mount Olympus to open a can of whupass. Zeus ordered Echo to protect him, which she did. Hera punished her for this by taking away her ability to speak, leaving her only able to repeat the last thing someone said to her. Then Echo died, leaving only her voice behind. I’m not sure why Hera punished Echo when all she was doing was talking and Zeus got away scot-free, but there it is.

Erotic

Bet you’ve got that Madonna song in your head now, right? ‘Erotic’ comes from ‘Eros’, the Greek god of love and sexy time (the Roman equivalent is Cupid, he of chubby man-baby bow and arrow fame). The myths can’t decide whether Eros was one of the ‘primordial gods’ (i.e. one of the first four gods along with Chaos, Gaia and Tarturus), or if he came along a bit later. Some say he was the son of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite (even though she was married to crossword clue Hephaestus).

Which brings us on to…

Psychology

As I’m sure you know, the word ‘psychology’ means the study of the psyche, or the human mind. In Greek myth, Psyche was a beautiful woman, so hot that people stopped worshipping Aphrodite and starting worshipping her instead. This pissed off Aphrodite, so she sent her son Eros down with the mission to make Psyche fall in love with someone hideous. Long story short, Eros fell in love with her himself. Unlike most of the other Greek myths, this one has a happy ending – after making her do various tasks, Aphrodite got over her jealousy and granted Psyche immortality.

Hypnosis

Look into my eyes… ‘Hypnosis’ is named for Hypnos, the personification of sleep. He was the son of Nyx (goddess of night) and Erebus (god of darkness). Hypnos and his brother Thanatos (AKA Death – cheery) lived in a cave in the underworld which the sun couldn’t reach. He did get to marry one of the Charites, or Graces, though (minor goddesses of charm, beauty and other nice stuff) so it’s not all bad.

The Roman equivalent of Hypnos is Somnos, which is where we get the word ‘insomnia’ from.

Morphine

The name of the drug morphine comes from Morpheus. Nope, not the bloke from The Matrix – Morpheus is the son of Hypnos and his wife Pasithea, and the god of dreams.

Morphine is a naturally occurring opiate, most famously extracted from poppies. It was first isolated from opium in the early 1800s by one Friedrich Sertürner. He called it ‘morpheum’ in honour of the god of dreams because it made people fall asleep. Poor old Fred experimented on himself, and ended up addicted to morphium and suffering from chronic depression.

Chronology

Chronology comes from the god Chronos, the personification of time. Over time, Chronos has been confused with the Titan Cronus/Kronus who was Zeus’ dad. One of his claims to fame is that he ate his children and castrated his father (can you tell that it’s much easier to find info on Cronus and not so much on Chronos?).

Other words we get from Chronos include chronic, anachronism and chronicle.

Tantalising

So this word comes from Tantalus, a half god, half nymph (apparently there were male nymphs, but I don’t know if they were scantily clad or nubile). Tantalus got an invite to dinner with the gods up Mount Olympus, the lucky bastard. He said thanks by nicking a bunch of stuff, including ambrosia and nectar, which he gave to us mortals. He then, for reasons which I can’t quite fathom but possibly by way of an apology for all the stealing, decided to cook and serve up his son at a banquet for the gods. They found out about it and refused to eat it (and you’ll be pleased to hear they then brought the son back to life, minus a bit of shoulder that a goddess accidentally ate). Tantalus’ punishment for this was to be made to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree for all eternity. Whenever he tried to take a fruit, the branches raised up so he couldn’t get it. And when he bent down to drink from the pool, the water receded before he could have any. Hence, tantalising. Blimey, that took a long time, didn’t it?

So, there you have it. Right, I’m off to learn some more about Greek mythology. Where’s my controller?

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A rumball in the bummock

This time last year I wrote about the origins of six well-known Christmas words. And because I’m not terribly imaginative, this year I’m doing much the same thing, except with obscure ones. So here are six festive words that have fallen out of favour. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them relate to overeating and boozing. Well, that’s what Christmas is all about, right?

1. Ramracketting

To ramracket is to run or jump about playfully at Christmas time. The English Dialect Dictionary defines it as ‘Christmas gambols’. I don’t know about you but I shall be ramracketting like a demon on Christmas day after a couple of shandies.

2. Yulestarn

This is a Scottish dialect word for a bright star in the sky on Christmas night. I realise it just looks like I’ve spelled ‘star’ wrong then stuck ‘Yule’ in front of it, but it’s a real word, honest. You can buy a Yulestarn hamper from Debenhams, if you’re the type of person who does things like that. Apparently it will ‘illuminate your festive celebrations’ just like ‘the Yulestarn star brightens the sky on Christmas night’. #overenthusiastic-copywriter

3. Rumball

Rumball Night is an 18th-century nickname for Christmas Eve. That’s because a ‘rumball feast’ is a big ole meal served the day before Christmas.

There’s also a Rumball Night hamper at Debenhams (I promise I’m not sponsored by Debenhams). Somebody who works at Hampers of Distinction obviously went to a lot of the same websites as I did for this blog post.

4. Bummock

Stop sniggering. This is another old Scottish word. A bummock is a large quantity of booze made for Christmas (although a bummock’s not just for Christmas – you can also make them for other special occasions). A bummock is also an old name for a Christmas party given by landlords for their tenants. I don’t know why. And I’m not sure I want to. 

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there isn’t a bummock hamper on Debenhams’ website.

5. Bubblyjock

Yet another Scottish one. A bubblyjock is a male turkey. Unlike pretty much all the other words on this list, I’ve managed to find some actual etymology for this one. ‘Bubbly’ apparently refers to the noise a turkey makes, while ‘jock’ is an old word for ‘clown’ (apologies to anyone called Jock who might be reading this). I guess maybe because turkeys are a bit comedy looking…? (Apologies to any turkeys who might be reading this.)

Here’s a poem about a bubblyjock. Don’t say I never give you anything.

6. Crawmassing

Picture the scene. You’ve just finished Christmas lunch (which, if you’re anything like my family, means it’s probably early evening). You’ve eaten your body weight in roast food, and loosened your belt buckle a notch. Okay, two notches. But then you notice that there’s a particularly nice-looking roast potato left on your sister’s plate. And a whole pig-in-a-blanket on your dad’s. So you grab them, add some gravy, and polish them off. This going through the remnants of a Christmas meal is called crawmassing (we got there eventually).

(It’s also used to describe people who beg for gifts at Christmas, but that doesn’t paint such a cheery picture.)


So, there you go. Happy Christmas lovely reader. I hope your festive season is chock-full of bummocks, rumballs and lots of ramracketting.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in 2019.

Bella.jpg

Always the bridesmaid

If you’ve ever used the word ‘disconsolate’, you might have wondered whether you can also be ‘consolate’. Or maybe you haven’t, because you have a life. Lucky for you, I don’t. So, in this post I’m looking at unpaired (awwww) words.

Single and ready to mingle

In grammar, an unpaired word is one that looks like it should have an opposite, but doesn’t. This is usually because it has a prefix like ‘dis’ or ‘un’. Sometimes these types of words come about because the opposite word (called an antonym, fact fans) has fallen out of fashion. Or it might be that it never existed in the first place, for example if we nicked the unpaired word from another language (although that would make for a very short blog post, so I won’t be including those here).

So, without further ado, let’s have a look at five now single words, and their lesser-known other halves.

Incorrigible and corrigible

‘Incorrigible’ refers to a person who can’t change or be reformed. So ‘corrigible’ means exactly what you’d expect – something which can be fixed. It’s usually used for things rather than people, unlike its partner. Iago uses ‘corrigible’ in ‘Othello’: ‘…why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.’ ‘Corrigible’ actually came about after ‘incorrigible’, appearing around about the 15th century, a good 100 years after its opposite number. No one seems to know why it never caught on.

Unkempt and kempt

I’m pretty unkempt at the moment (I’m writing this on a Sunday, okay?). It means to be untidy or dishevelled. ‘Unkempt’ has been around since the 14th century, and ‘kempt’ seems to be a backformation of it, which is just a fancy way of saying that someone knocked off the prefix – in this case ‘un’ – to make the opposite. Having said that, another source I found says it did exist but fell out of use some time in the 1500s, only to make a comeback 400 years afterwards. I don’t know who’s right I’m afraid. What they do all agree on is that both words are derived from the Old High German word ‘chempen’ which means ‘to comb’.

Disgruntled and gruntled

I know this seems like a comedy backformation, but it actually isn’t. ‘Gruntle’ did exist as a word, and it’s actually not the opposite of ‘disgruntle’ – it means to grumble or complain, and also to ‘utter small grunts’ (this makes me happy). This is a rare example of the prefix ‘dis-’ as an intensifier, rather than its more usual use which is to undo the meaning of the word it’s attached to. Ooh, interesting, right? Right?  

Unruly and ruly

‘Ruly’ means law-abiding. It comes from the word ‘rule’ which I enjoy – someone who follows the rules is being ruly. Someone who doesn’t is unruly. These days ‘unruly’ has softened a bit, and is more often applied to children. And hair.

Impervious and pervious

‘Pervious’ seems to have been overtaken by the more recognisable ‘permeable’ these days. It comes from the Latin word ‘pervius’ which doesn’t have anything to do with men in dirty macs – it means ‘having a passage through’. While we can use ‘impervious’ both literally (as in something being impervious to water) and figuratively (someone can be impervious to criticism), pervious, however, only seems to relate to physical things (like rocks), that water can run through.


There you have it – five words and their almost forgotten partners. Other words which didn’t make the cut include intrepid and trepid (meaning fearful), feckless and feckful (a Scottish word that means efficient), and innocuous and nocuous (which has now been almost completely replaced by ‘noxious’). So next time you use one of these, spare a thought for their neglected other halves, languishing quietly on the linguistic shelf.

Oh, and ‘consolate’ is a word btdubz (not to be confused with the place where diplomats go – that’s a consulate). It means ‘to console’ or ‘give comfort’. So that’s nice.

WY(M)DKAA or, words you (maybe) didn’t know are acronyms

You probably already know that scuba’s an acronym, right? (It stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Well, obvs.) But there are lots of other words we use every day that you might not know are actually short for something (okay, maybe you only use them every day if you work for NASA or are an American police person, but let’s just gloss over that, m’kay?). Here are my top five.

LASER

‘Do you expect me to talk?’

‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!’

That’s my favourite laser-based scene from the movies. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this post. Laser’s short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. This is bound to come up in a pub quiz at some point so I’ve tried to commit it to memory but so far I can only remember ‘light’ and ‘radation’. Half a point?

TASER

These aren’t all going to rhyme, honest. Even though it looks nothing like a gun, Taser stands for Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle. This actually has a weirdly nice backstory (considering it’s a not-so-nice thing). Tom Swift is the lead character in a young adult novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land (awesome title – although a bit of research reveals it’s now considered horrendously racist, so maybe don’t rush down to Waterstones) which was a favourite of Taser inventor Jack Cover.

Apparently he added in the ‘A’ – Tom Swift doesn’t have a middle name in the book – which is lucky as otherwise we’d all be trying to work out how to say TSER.

GIF

Speaking of working out how to say things, why, oh why, does no one know how to pronounce GIF? I favour a hard ‘g’ myself (like ‘git’) but apparently Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF image format, says it’s pronounced with a soft ‘g’, because it echoes the name of an American peanut butter brand, Jif (I don’t know why). Luckily, because lots of people on the internet have too much time on their hands, someone’s put together a whole website on why it should be a hard ‘g’. And here’s someone arguing the exact opposite.

Wars have been fought over less…

Sorry, I almost forgot to say what it stands for: Graphics Interchange Format. Which is much less interesting than the whole pronunciation thing.

SMART car

It’s not because they’re smart and you can fit them in teeny-tiny spaces. It stands for Swatch Mercedes ART apparently. This is because the cars were developed by Swatch (yes, the watch people) and Daimler Benz. They started life as ‘Swatchmobiles’ but this was scrapped (pardon the pun) for a reason I can’t find.

I can’t think of anything amusing to say about this, so here’s a link to some funny pictures of smart cars instead.

BASE jumping

The BASE bit’s short for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, which apparently is the stuff you can jump off of (although I’m not sure how you can jump off a span or the earth). If you make a jump from each of the four categories you get a BASE number. Whatever that is, I’m never going to get one.

Just in case you’re not clear on what BASE jumping is, here’s a video of some mental people jumping off what I think is an electricity pylon. Warning – contains some NSFW language (well, I’d be swearing too if I was going to jump off an electricity pylon) and dirty fingernails.

A note on acronyms v initialisms (and backronyms)

Loads of us (me included up until a few years ago) use and abuse the word ‘acronym’. An acronym only applies to an abbreviation that you pronounce as a word. So the ones on this list are all acronyms. If you pronounce the individual letters of an abbreviation (like BBC or FBI), it’s an initialism, not an acronym.

There are also things called backronyms, which are when we make words that aren’t acronyms or initialisms into, well, acronyms or initialisms (that’s a horrible sentence, sorry). It’s basically retconning a word, usually for a laugh. ‘Bing’ (the Microsoft search engine) has been backronymed (not a word) as ‘Because It’s Not Google’.

Apparently SOS is a backronym. It doesn’t stand for ‘Save our souls’ at all – the letters were just chosen because they’re easy to transmit in Morse code. WTF, right?

A collection of collectives

Collective nouns aren’t just for animals – there are also collective nouns for people and things. Excited yet? No? Okay, how about this – did you know that ‘a flight of stairs’ is a collective noun? And a ‘baptism of fire’? (Mind. BLOWN.) So, with the help of the lovely little book ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ by Chloe Rhodes, here’s a list of some of my favourite collective nouns. Because I know how to paaaartaaaay.

A note on the origins of collective nouns

Most of the nouns on this list have been around for yonks. They first appeared in 15th-century manuscripts called ‘Books of Courtesy’. Basically the ‘What not to wear’ of the 1400s, these were manuals on how to be a noble, designed to stop young aristocrats embarrassing themselves by saying or doing the wrong thing at court. One of the earliest of these is the Egerton Manuscript which dates from around 1450, and lists 106 collective nouns. I’m not entirely sure what collective nouns had to do with being a noble, but maybe if you used the wrong one you’d be executed? If so, that’s my kind of grammar police. Anyway, here we go…

A murder of crows

I love how menacing this sounds. And it has pretty menacing origins as well. According to Rhodes, medieval peasants saw crows (along with ravens and rooks) as messengers of the devil with prophetic powers. Seeing a crow on the roof of your house meant that you’d probably die soon (ouch) as well. So far, so sinister. But then it gets really weird. One of the other reasons they might have chosen the word ‘murder’ is after witnessing a crow parliament. This is essentially a crow court, where loads of crows gather together to apparently try one of their own. It quite often ends with the offender being ripped to pieces by its peers. I’m not even joking. Long thought to just be folklore, it’s been witnessed in modern times, as in this article. ‘Murder’ seems like the right choice after reading this.

Crows are also super clever, which possibly makes them even more murdery. They’re one of the few members of the animal kingdom that can recognise human faces, and there’s evidence that they might have their own language. I’m literally terrified of crows now.

A parliament of owls

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This is a relatively new one, as it doesn’t turn up in any of the medieval manuscripts that coined most of the collective nouns on this list. In fact, it’s technically wrong – ‘parliament’ was traditionally ascribed to rooks, not owls. We can blame CS Lewis for this – he called a chapter in ‘The Silver Chair’ (my favourite of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, followed closely by ‘The Magician’s Nephew’) ‘A Parliament of Owls’, as it involves a group of owls getting together to discuss Narnian affairs. He nicked it from a poem by Chaucer, which is called ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ (or ‘The Parlement of Foules’ to give it its proper name – I did try to read it, but then I remembered that I hate Chaucer), where all the birds in the world get together to find mates (hmmm, I could do with organising one of those). ‘Parliament’ has now completely superseded the original (although for the life of me I can’t find out what that was, which shows how ingrained ‘parliament’ is now).

A misbelief of painters

The first human collective noun on my list, a ‘misbelief’ is exactly what it says on the tin – ‘a wrong or false belief or opinion’. It seems that this one came about because painters of the Middle Ages generally tweaked their paintings to flatter the sitter – so they’d flatten a stomach, take out the wrinkles and so on. Apparently as long as they got the heraldry and clothes right, everything else was up for grabs. So it was basically the medieval equivalent of airbrushing.

A superfluity of nuns

This one seems a bit mean, but is probably just factually accurate – when it was coined, there were apparently a shedload of nuns about. Between 1270 and 1536, there were around 140 nunneries in England, several of which were really overcrowded. That’s because going off to the convent was seen as the natural step for nobles’ daughters who’d passed marriageable age, and dads pressured prioresses to take in their girls even if there wasn’t any room at the convent (I’d so be in a convent if I’d been alive then). It might also have been a reference to the fact that the seeds of the Protestant Reformation had been planted – when this first appeared in print it was only 50 years before Henry VIII would do his dissolution thang.

An abominable sight of monks

Unlike the nun-noun, this one is mean. Basically everyone hated monks in the 15th century. They were seen as having ruined all the pagan fun the peasants were having before Christianity took over, and latterly as being too well-off and well-fed (think that guy that Kevin Costner boots out the window in ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’, although I don’t think he was a monk, but you get the idea) while everyone else wasn’t well-anything. ‘Abominable’ actually means ‘causing moral revulsion’ which makes sense in this context – I confess I didn’t know this and just thought it was something horrible. Or a big old snowman.

A shrewdness of apes

So this one sounds quite nice, right? Wrong. When it was coined, ‘shrewdness’ actually meant wickedness, and was given to apes due to a ‘playful mischievousness’ which 15th century scientists saw in them. As Rhodes points out though, it’s rather nice that now we know how clever they are (apes, not 15th-century scientists), this one still makes perfect sense today, even though ‘shrewd’ now means something else entirely.

An unkindness of ravens

Similarly to crows and their murdering, this one’s down to people being a bit scared of ravens. As carrion birds, their habits aren’t the nicest, and they were also seen as harbingers of death and destruction in medieval Britain. The name might have come from the fact that ancient writers thought they kicked their young out of the nest leaving them to fend for themselves, and also that they left their older birds to die of starvation rather than help them out (which was probably payback for the whole nest-kicking thing). I can’t find any modern evidence for this, so fingers crossed those medieval Bill Oddies were wrong. I did find that an alternative collective noun for ravens is ‘a conspiracy’ though, which is a bit nicer, though still fairly sinister.


So, there you have it. If you’re intrigued by the world of collective nouns and venery (that’s the collective noun for collective nouns relating to animals – kinda) then I thoroughly recommend Rhodes’ book. And even if you’re not, it looks very nice on the coffee table.

IMG_1473.jpg

(I definitely didn’t have to clear mountains of crap off the coffee table before I took this photo.)

Just my type

Everyone has their favourite font (right? That’s not just me, is it?) and at least one they hate. In fact, people can get really cross about fonts. And by people, I mean me – I’ve been known to change a document I’m editing from Times New Roman into something more aesthetically pleasing (to my eye at least), then change it back before I send it to the client. But when you’re scanning through the list on Microsoft Word, have you ever stopped to wonder where they get their names from? Here are the origin stories of some of the most common fonts we use every day.

Times.jpg

Let’s start with the big daddy of the fonts. As you’ll have gathered from the intro to this post, I’m not a huge fan, but it’s many people’s go-to typeface for everything. This is the oldest font on my list, and was born in 1931 at The Times newspaper, after the paper hired a typog­ra­pher called Stan­ley Mori­son to cre­ate a new text font for them. He worked with a lettering artist in the paper’s advertising department named Victor Lardent to come up with the now ubiquitous TNR (as no one calls it).

Because it’s a newspaper font, it’s a bit narrower than others, which means you can fit more words on a page. Oh, and ‘Roman’ is a reference to the regular style of a conventional font (we use ‘roman’ as an instruction in copyediting when something’s bold or italics and it shouldn’t be).

Comic.jpg

Ah, Comic Sans. If it was a person, it would wear a Hawaiian shirt and describe itself as ‘a bit wacky’. This travesty of a typeface (a bit harsh maybe, but I like the alliteration) was created by one Vincent Connare, a type designer who worked for Microsoft and also created Trebuchet (which I used to like, but now I know they came from the same brain I’ve gone off). The name’s not particularly imaginative – it’s so-called because it was inspired by comic book lettering. Comic Sans was originally invented for Clippy – that irritating little paperclip b*stard that used to pop up on MS Office (remember? ‘It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like some help with that?’ NO, BECAUSE I’M NOT AN IMBECILE).

There’s a house sign in a village near me that’s in Comic Sans, and it irritates me every time I drive past it. And it seems I’m not the only one – according to this experiment people are less likely to believe a statement when it’s written in Comic Sans.

Courier.jpg

Maybe because I’m an old-fashioned girl at heart, I’m a fan of Courier. If you’re of a certain age then you’ll know that Courier looks like typewriter text (any millennials reading – ask your parents). It was designed by a man called Howard ‘Bud’ Kettler (most American name ever) in 1955, and later redrawn by Adrian ‘Not Bud’ Frutiger (also a font) for an IBM series of electric typewriters. When asked where the name came from, Kettler said that he was originally going to call it ‘Messenger’, but he chose Courier instead because: ‘A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige and stability.’ I think Mr Kettler possibly had too much time on his hands.

Courier’s a monospaced font, which means each letter takes up the exact same amount of space on a line (something which actually makes it more difficult to read than other proportionally spaced fonts). For reasons I can’t quite fathom, it’s the preferred font for screenplays.

Georgia.jpg

Georgia’s a relatively young font, and was created in 1993. It was designed to be easy to read on computer screens. And the name? When I looked this up on Wikipedia, I thought someone unauthorised had got in and started mucking about with the page. But I’ve found it on a few different sites, which means it must be true, right? So, according to at least three different web pages I looked at, they named it after a tabloid headline, ‘Alien Heads Found in Georgia’. Unfortunately this isn’t a real newspaper headline – it was one of several sample sentences they were using while they worked on the design.

Verdana.jpg
Tahoma.jpg

Tahoma and Verdana were invented by the same person who came up with Georgia (one Matthew Carter). Tahoma was named after Mount Rainier in Seattle, which is called Tahoma by native Americans. And Verdana is a combination of the word ‘verdant’ and the name Ana, after Ana Howlett, daughter of Virginia Howlett, one of the first designers at Microsoft. I wish someone would name a font after me.

Helvetica.png

Helvetica is a font which had an identity crisis. It was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger and was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk (yuck). It’s a neo-grotesque style, apparently (I won’t even attempt to tell you what that means – if you’re really interested, have a look at Wikipedia) and was renamed in an attempt to make it more marketable across the world. The new name comes from the Latin name for Switzerland, ‘Helvetia’. But with an extra ‘c’. I don’t know why.

The rebranding definitely worked, as these days Helvetica is everywhere. Lots of organisations use it for their logos (BMW, Panasonic and IBM to name three) and apparently the American government uses it for all its official forms. It’s also the font used on the whole of the Brussels transport system (although it’s not a patch on Johnston, AKA the London Underground font). Oh, and in 2007 somebody made a whole film about Helvetica. That. Is. Commitment. 

Trebuchet.jpg

As mentioned above, Trebuchet was also invented by Vincent Connare, the man responsible for Comic Sans. Much less controversial than its sibling, Trebuchet is a sans-serif typeface (i.e. it doesn’t have serifs, which are those little lines which appear on some fonts like TNR) that Connare designed in 1996. As you probably guessed, it is named after the medieval siege engine. And the reason for it is quite nice. The name came from a puzzle question Connare heard at Microsoft HQ: ‘Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away? Mathematically, is it possible and how?’ (Those Microsoft guys know how to party.) Connare thought ‘that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the internet’.

I feel like I can forgive him for Comic Sans just for this image.


So there you have it. Feel free to leave me a comment about your favourite font, or even a defence of Comic Sans. I won’t read it, but I’ll applaud your efforts.

PS A note on fonts vs typefaces

I’ve used the terms ‘typeface’ and ‘font’ interchangeably in this post. Technically this isn’t right – they’re actually different things. I’m hoping you’ll forgive me this, as they’re increasingly losing their individual identities and definitions these days. But I’ve added this note for any typographical experts who’ve accidentally stumbled across this blog post and are currently all red in the face and shouting at their screen at my ignorance.

So, in brief: a typeface is a particular design of type, and a font is a type in a certain size and weight. Still none the wiser? Here’s someone with much more knowledge than me explaining it.

It’s a no from me

We all know the alphabet, right? WRONG.

(Well, not completely wrong, but ‘ONLY A BIT WRONG’ didn’t work as well dramatically.)

I was watching Only Connect the other day (the hardest quiz on TV™ – if I get one question right I do a little dance and feel like I’m winning at life), and one of the questions was about letters of the alphabet which we don’t use anymore. After an obligatory not-at-all in-depth internet search I discovered there are at least 12 letters which didn’t make it through the audition stages of the competition. 12, I hear you splutter? I can’t handle the excitement! Don’t fret, I’m only going to tell you about six now – I’ll save the rest for a later blog post (I wouldn’t want to spoil you).

So, in no particular order, here we go...

1. Thorn

You know when you see a sign that says ‘Ye olde something shoppe’? That ‘y’ at the start of ‘Ye’ actually isn’t a ‘y’ – it’s a whole other letter which means we should be pronouncing ‘ye’ as... ‘the’. Okay, so that’s not terribly exciting, but in days of yore (or should that be thore? No, no it shouldn’t), there was a single letter for the ‘th’ sound called thorn. Here’s what it looks like:

þ

So, what happened to the thorn? Turns out it’s those pesky printers’ fault. When the printing press made its way to our shores from Europe, it didn’t have a thorn, as no one else used it. So some bright spark decided that the closest thing to it was a ‘y’ (really? Not a ‘p’?). And that’s where we get ‘Ye’ from.

Thorn itself was an Anglo Saxon rune from the Elder Futhark runic alphabet which looks pretty awesome and I wish we still used today. And thorn is actually spelled þorn (hee hee hee).

2. Ampersand

Yep, you did read that right. The ampersand (&) was originally a proud member of the alphabet (in fact, it was the last letter of the alphabet), and was only downgraded in the 19th century. Don’t believe me? Here it is in all its glory in an 1863 book called The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks (you can see the whole of that book here).

moor5.jpg

Interesting (kinda) fact: it wasn’t always called an ampersand. When people were reciting the alphabet, they’d say ‘X, Y, Z, and’, which sounds a bit stupid. So, some very clever person decided to say ‘and per se’ instead, which basically means ‘by itself’ (I bet that person got punched in the face a lot). Eventually the three words were run together, and we ended up with ‘ampersand’. 

I love ampersands (except when people use them instead of ‘and’ for no reason). This is a picture of a shelf in my house which demonstrates just how much:

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3. Ash

We do still use this one today. Although when I say ‘we’ I mean pretty much no one. Here it is:

Æ

This is a ligature, which is a posh way of saying it’s two letters smushed together. Like thorn, ash comes from the Futhark alphabet. It managed to survive the Norman conquest and was around until the 13th century before it fell by the wayside. It did stage a comeback in the 16th century when writers started to borrow from Latin and Greek for words we didn’t have at the time, but you’re unlikely to see it anywhere in English these days. It does still appear in the alphabets of some languages though, including Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

Here’s a list of some everyday words which used to contain ash:

  • archæology
  • curriculum vitæ
  • fæces (because I have to get something poo-related in every blog post I write)
  • hæmorrhage
  • pædiatrician
  • vertebræ.

There’s loads more here.

4. The long S

You’ve definitely seen this one. It’s basically what it says on the tin – that long ‘s’ that everyone thinks is an ‘f’. Here it is in a book only to be sold by Spiderman:

 

Milton_paradise.jpg

Confusingly, the long s wasn’t superseded by the ‘s’ we use today – they were both in action at the same time. Madness. I won’t even try to explain this lexical anomaly because thankfully another blogger has already done that for me. Find out about that here.

5. Yogh

In a weird coincidence, I was having a chat with my sister’s partner over the weekend, and he informed me that the shop John Menzies* should actually have been pronounced John ‘Mingis’ (I can’t remember why we were talking about John Menzies – conversational gold, I’m sure). It turns out that the reason for this is the old English and Scots letter yogh. Here it is, looking suspiciously like a 3:

ȝ

Yogh actually had three (!) different pronunciations, depending on whereabouts in the word it appeared. So in modern English it could either be spoken as a ‘y’ as in ‘yes’ or a ‘g’ as in ‘night’, while in Scotland it would be the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’. 

So, what happened to yogh? Once again, it’s the fault of the printing press. In English-English it was rendered in print as a ‘y’, while in Scottish-English it was replaced with a ‘z’. Hence the FUBAR John Menzies pronunciation**.

I’m concerned about what this means for how I say the word ‘yoghurt’.

6. Eth

Here’s an eth for you:

ð

Eth comes from Irish, and originally represented a slightly different pronunciation of ‘th’. It was essentially a softer version of thorn (depending on your regional accent) – so more like ‘thing’ than ‘them’. (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, while the second is the voiced dental fricative. Well, OBVS.)

It was thorn that killed off eth – people just started using thorn all the time, so eth didn’t have a job anymore. So it eth-ed off. 


I’ve said it (many times) before and I’ll say it again – the English language is an ever-changing beast. And that’s a great thing. Who knows what kind of alphabet kids will be singing in a few hundred years’ time (assuming the impending apocalypse hasn’t happened of course). I have a suspicion it may well be emoji based...


* For any young people reading, John Menzies was a WH Smith-type shop that was around in the 90s. I used to frequent the café when I was a student because it was the only one in Colchester you could smoke in. Ah, memories.

** This also applies to Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell and Dalziel in Dalziel and Pascoe (which should be pronounced Dee-ell). Unfortunately it does not explain why Mainwaring is pronounced Mannering.

Sard off, you bescumbered rantallion!

The inimitable Eva Price, of Coronation Street fame, uses the word ‘pigging’ (I presume) in place of swearing. She uses it a lot. And that got me thinking – leaving aside all the gangsters, murder, affairs etc, the inability to swear (not even the mildest of rude words like a ‘bloody’ or a ‘bugger’ seems to be allowed pre-watershed) is one of the things that makes soaps less believable (that and how people always just order ‘a pint’ when they go in the pub – A PINT OF WHAT!?!).

It must be tough for scriptwriters to come up with a decent insult when a character’s slept with someone’s husband/wife, murdered their family, stolen their baby (and so on), and the worst they can call them is a git or a pillock. If I was a soap opera writer, I’d be plundering the English language’s glorious back catalogue for swears* – there are ye olde insults galore which could definitely slip by the censors. Here are eight of my favourites.

1. Cumberworld

Nope, not a theme park devoted to Benedict Cumberbatch (although how I wish that was a thing), a cumberworld is a person who’s so useless that all they do is take up space. Think Piers Morgan, most politicians, etc.

2. Gillie-wet-foot

This is an old Scottish word for a businessman who swindles people out of their money, or someone who gets into debt then legs it.

3. Scobberlotcher

A scobberlotcher’s someone who never works hard. So not me then (because I’m definitely not looking up swear words on the internet when I should be working). It probably comes from scopperloit, which is an old English dialect word for a holiday (which I’ll be using in my next out-of-office).

4. Wandought

No, not a spell from Harry Potter – a wandought is a weak and ineffectual man (wandoughty is an old word for impotence. Say no more). 

5. Sard

This is basically the f-word of its day (which was pre-18th century). Apparently it first turned up in a 10th-century Old English translation of the Bible which said ‘...don’t sard another man’s wife’. Good advice. Especially as it leaves us ladies free to sard as many husbands as we like apparently.

6. Beardsplitter

An alternative for ‘dick’, this is Victorian slang for penis. I’m not going to walk you through the why as you can probably work it out for yourself. Paints a vivid picture, doesn’t it?

7. Rantallion

Another uncharacteristically graphic Victorian insult. It means a man whose scrotum’s longer than his penis. So basically someone with a teeny weeny winkie.

8. Bescumber

Still nothing to do with Cumberbatch (although when I open Cumberworld I might adopt it as a ride name where you get covered in Benedicts), to ‘bescumber’ someone is a swear that means to ‘discharge ordure’. Regular readers (hello Dad!) will know ‘ordure’ means poo. So if you say you’re going to bescumber someone, then you’re going to cover them in poop.

So, there you are scriptwriters – eight alternatives to bitch, pratt, idiot, etc. I’m sure we’ll be hearing Phil Mitchell yelling ‘You sarding wandought!’ in the Queen Vic any day now.

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* So it’s probably lucky I’m not a soap opera writer.

Welcome to the masquerade ball

Have you ever heard a lovely word, then realised it actually means something horrible? Here are six terms that are masquerading as pretty things, but have not-so-nice meanings.

*Warning: Contains references to faeces. A LOT of references to faeces.

Oh, and some swears.

1. Tenesmus

Okay, so this sounds like some kind of beautiful landscape feature. Come my darling, stroll with me along the tenesmus and we can watch the sun go down together...

What it actually means

Cramping rectal pain. Yep, it’s when you really need to poop, and can’t. Nice.

2. Nugatory 

Mmmm, this must be an adjective for something creamy and delicious. Maybe something chocolatey...?

What it actually means

From the Latin nugari (‘to trifle’) it means unimportant, of no value or useless. Futile basically.

So definitely not chocolate then.

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3. Meconium

Ooh, it’s science-fictiony, right? I’m sure I remember Captain Kirk asking Scottie to fire up the warp drive with some meconium.

What it actually means

Well, it’s kind of science-y. Nope, who am I trying to kid – it’s poop again, sorry. Originally it was used to describe a brown, syrupy substance made from crushed poppy heads (from the Greek word mekon for ‘poppy’). But we now use it to describe the poos a baby does when it’s born. Oh.

4. Moribund

Maybe just because it sounds vaguely like ‘fecund’, this one could be something to do with being bountiful or fertile. Or maybe relating to mushrooms? I don’t know why.

What it actually means

Close to death. Sorry.

5. Ordure

This one’s got a certain air of respectability about it. I can just imagine Dickens writing about a well-dressed gentleman with a double-barrelled name exuding an air of ordure. He’d be wearing a very smart stovepipe hat.

What it actually means

Once again, I apologise, because this one’s also poo. Ordure literally means excrement or dung, and goes all the way back to the 14th century. So you’d probably want to avoid any gentlemen exuding it, stove-pipe hat or not.

6. Coprolalia

Wait, I know this one. It’s the name of a 19th-century ballet about a mechanical doll. Nailed it, right?

What it actually means

No smarty pants, that’s Coppélia. Coprolalia is a psychiatric term for the involuntary use of obscene language. Still, at least it’s nothing to do with motherfucking shit this time.


So, the moral of this blog post is that you should never judge a word by the way it sounds. And that the English language has a lot of words about poo.

It ain’t necessarily so

I’m a big EastEnders fan (I even have a weird crush on Danny Dyer). One of the soap’s most famous lines after ‘Hello Princess’ came about when Zoe Slater bellowed at her ‘sister’ Kat, ‘You ain’t my muvver!’ (spoiler: she is). After reeling for a moment at this revelation my mind then obviously turned to grammar* – why is ‘ain’t’ considered persona non grata in the world of contractions? We’ve embraced ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘aren’t’ and the like. So what’s made ‘ain’t’ so universally reviled?

Contractions – not just for babies

When we’re speaking, we naturally run words together. So we’ve been using contractions for pretty much as long as we’ve been using English. I encourage my clients to use them all the time, even in formal writing – without them, words can sound stilted and robotic. And even though I get the occasional die-hard who just won’t accept that, most people are happy to embrace the likes of ‘we’re’, ‘shan’t’ and ‘don’t’ (one notable exception was a client from a large accountancy firm who, when I suggested we say ‘we can’t do that’ instead of ‘we cannot do that’, told me he didn’t want any of ‘that hip-hop rap-speak, thank you very much’).

Having said all that, I’d never use ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘am not’ or ‘has/have not’ in business writing. But why the hell not?

Fear of the unknown

One not-particularly-feasible theory for our suspicion is that it’s not immediately obvious which words ‘ain’t’ is formed from. We can easily see where (for example) ‘don’t’ and ‘we’ll’ come from. And if we’re using ‘ain’t’ in place of ‘am not’, we should probably follow the style of its more acceptable cousins – which would make it ‘amn’t’ (which is quite hard to say) or ‘an’t’ (which isn’t). So where did the ‘i’ come from? Maybe it snuck in from ‘isn’t’ via ‘in’t’ – another reviled contraction. (I can’t even hazard a guess about how ‘has/have not’ –  as in ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – turned into ‘ain’t’, so I’m just not going to go there.)

Unfortunately this whole theory falls flat when you look at ‘won’t’, which is short for ‘will not’. According to the five seconds of internet research I just did, this comes from ‘woll not’ which is ye olde English (y’know, from yore). And we’re all alright with ‘won’t’, right?

What the dickens?

So, the next place we need to look is Dickens (it’s almost always either Dickens, Shakespeare or Carroll when it comes to word origins). Some of the earliest appearances of ‘ain’t’ in writing appear in his novels. And it’s generally a Cockenee, and – quite often – criminal type, what says it:

  • ‘Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got!’: Magwitch in Great Expectations
  • ‘She ain’t one to blab. Are you Nancy?’: Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist (I’m still traumatised by that bit in the musical when Oliver Reed bludgeons Nancy to death. IT’S A KIDS’ FILM FOR CHRISSAKES).

It seems that this is an association that stuck – authors generally use ‘ain’t’ to indicate a character comes from a, ahem, less salubrious background. So it looks like our fear of ‘ain’t’ is simply down to a lingering Victorian snobbery which we’re yet to get over. So despite the fact that ‘ain’t’ does appear in the OED, it doesn’t look like it’ll be making the leap from EastEnders scripts into polite conversation/writing any time soon…


* And then 17 years later I wrote a blog post about it.

A partridge in a pear tree? I’d rather have a blog on etymology

I blimmin’ love Christmas. I put my decorations up on 1 December every year without fail, then I get really depressed on Boxing Day because it’s ALL OVER. So, before that happens, here’s my Christmas gift to you – six Christmassy words and their etymology (I was going to do 12 – as in the 12 days of Christmas – but it was too many and I ran out of steam. Sorry).

1. Eggnog

Yum, eggy booze. Who on earth thought that sounded nice? Maybe that’s why we only drink it once a year. Anyway, the ‘nog’ bit of ‘eggnog’ is a 17th-century word for strong beer (looks like the English have always been lager louts) from Norfolk. And the ‘egg’ bit? Well, you can probably work that out for yourself. 

2. Carol

Nothing to do with Vorderman or King, we used to use the word ‘carol’ to talk about any celebratory song. It was the Tudors who started using it for Christmas songs only. We nicked the word ‘carol’ from our Gallic friends across the channel in the Middle Ages – a carole was French for a circle dance accompanied by singers. And they probably got it from the Italians (carola), who took it from the Latin (choraulēs – ‘flute player accompanying a chorus dance’), which came from the Ancient Greek word khoraulḗs (‘one who accompanies a chorus on the flute’). That has its roots in Proto-Indo-European language, but as you probably stopped reading a while ago, I won’t go into that.

3. Mistletoe

This one’s a bit of a mystery (a mistle-tery? Nope?). Well, ‘mistle’ is – the ‘toe’ bit’s fairly straightforward, as it comes from ‘tān’, which is an Old English word for ‘twig’. But no one’s really sure where the ‘mistle’ part came from. Wikipedia just says it’s ‘from Proto-Germanic *mihstilaz (“mistle”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₃meyǵʰ- (“to urinate”)’ which I feel merits more explanation, but sadly, doesn’t give any.

Mistletoe’s a parasitic plant, which means it sucks the nutrients out of other plants, either stunting their growth or killing them (which is why it stays green all year round, the bastard). And some of it’s poisonous. Kissing under the deadly parasitic twig doesn’t seem quite so romantic now, does it?

4. Poinsettia

The poinsettia is a Mexican plant which the ancient Aztecs called ‘cuetlaxochitl’. Presumably because no-one could pronounce that, when American ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett bought one back with him from Mexico to the US of A they decided to name it after him. The association with Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend (which I was in a production of at primary school). You can read it here (the myth, not my primary school production).

5. Tinsel

Beloved of 80s Christmas trees, ‘tinsel’ was originally the name for a cloth that was woven with gold or silver thread. It comes from the Middle French word estincelle which means ‘spark’ or ‘spangle’.

Tinsel was invented in Nuremberg in the 17th century. Originally made from real silver, apparently it’s supposed to mimic the appearance of ice. I never knew that, even though now I do it seems blindingly obvious.

I like saying the word ‘tinsel’.

6. Yule

Log lady.jpg

Like a lot of stuff to do with Christianity, this one was stolen from paganism (technically called ‘Christanised reformulation’ fact fans). It comes from the word jól, the Norse name of a pagan festival which took place in the 12 days leading up to 25 December. It’s connected with the myth of the wild hunt (which is a pretty frickin’ awesome myth). We nicked the word jól and added it to Old English as ġéol, which morphed into ‘yule’ some time in the middle of the 1400s. I’m not really entirely sure what we use it for these days, except for making bad puns (‘yule love this festive blog post!’) and the yule log. I totally thought a yule log was a cake, but it’s an actual log which also has pagan roots (BOOM BOOM).


So, there you have it. A little bit of Christmas cheer, in blog form. Oh, and thanks for reading my word-based musings this year – here’s to plenty more in 2018.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Immigrant song

According to the OED, there are at least a quarter of a million words in the English language. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got everything covered. So sometimes we adopt words from other languages to fill the gaps. Chances are you’ve already come across ‘schadenfreude’, and new kid on the block ‘hygge’. But what about ‘tartle’? It’s a Scottish word for that panicky pause when you have to introduce someone whose name you’ve forgotten. Good, right? So here are my top 12 (because anyone can do a top ten) foreign words without an equivalent in English. Bloody foreign words, coming over here and stealing our words’ jobs.

Aktivansteher

I’m annoyed that the Germans have got this word and we haven’t. The literal translation is ‘energetic queuer’ – basically it’s for those clever people (of which I’m, sadly, not one) who always join the right queue.

Baggerspion

Another German one, the direct translation of which is ‘digger truck spy hole’. It’s the desire to peek into a boarded-up building site. C’mon, you know you’ve done it...

Bagstiv

A Danish word for something that I’ve obviously got no experience of – when you wake up in the morning still drunk from the night before (it translates as ‘backwards drunk’). Nope, never happened to me. And definitely not this morning.

Culaccino

This is an Italian word for the stain left on a table from a cold drink. Use a coaster people!

Gigil

A Filipino word for when you see something really cute and feel the urge to squeeze or pinch it. I get this every day for my dog Bella. Cue gratuitous picture...

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Greng-jai

Being as the English are known for not wanting to cause a fuss, it’s odd that the Thai have a word for this one and we don’t. It’s when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it’s a pain for them.

Iktsuarpok

This is an Inuit word for when you’re so excited about someone coming round to your house that you keep going outside to check if they’ve turned up yet. Like me and the Amazon delivery man.

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Mangata

I love this one. It’s a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on water. Gawjuss.

Mencolek

You know that thing when someone taps you on one shoulder from behind so you turn one way, when they’re actually standing on the other side? Well, the Indonesians came up with this word for it.

I actually already have a word for people who do this. It starts with ‘w’ and ends with ‘ankers’.

Politikerleden

This is a Danish word for being disgusted by a politician. So basically everyone in the world then.

Tsundoku

Think ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘The Satanic Verses’, ‘The Alchemist’... yep, this is a Japanese word for when you buy books and then never read them. At least they look nice on the shelf.

Zeg

This is a Georgian word for ‘the day after tomorrow’ and has equivalents in lots of languages including German (übermorgen) and Polish (pojutrze). I’m cheating slightly here because there is actually an English version – ‘overmorrow’. But unfortunately it’s ye olde middle English, so no one uses it anymore. There’s also the equally delightful ‘ereyesterday’ in English for ‘the day before yesterday’. I’m going to make it my mission to bring these back.

Why so Sirius?

Monday marked 20 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Apart from making me feel well old (I know, I know, you’d think I was barely a twinkle in my mother’s eye 20 years ago (!), but in fact I’d just started university when it came out), it reminded me of how much I admire JK Rowling – she’s created a world that people of all ages, myself included, have come to love. (When the last book came out I once hid in the loo at work in the middle of the day so I could finish a chapter.) So this week, I thought I’d take a look at the etymology of the names of some of my favourite characters in the series. Rowling studied French and classics at university so the origins of her character’s names are often very pertinent – she put a huge amount of thought into even minor characters’ names. 

FYI: I find it hard to believe there are many people who haven’t read an HP book or seen a film, but just in case you are that one person, be warned that this way spoilers lie...

‘You’re a wizard Harry’

  • Sirius Black: Oh Sirius. I was convinced right up until the last page of the last book that you’d somehow come back from the dead. Sigh. Anyway, Sirius is the name of the brightest star we can see from the earth. Because he’s lovely, you see. And of course it’s also called the Dog Star, which refers to Sirius’ status as an animagus.
  • Remus Lupin: My second favourite after Sirius (which apparently is the kiss of death for HP characters), this one’s a bit of a double whammy. ‘Remus’ must be a reference to ‘Romulus and Remus’ who, as I’m sure all my highly educated readers already know, were the legendary twin brothers who were abandoned then brought up by a wolf (obvs), and then went on to found the city of Rome. So that’s our first clue to Remus’ wolfy secret. Secondly, presumably Lupin is a reference to ‘lupine’ (rather than the flower), which of course means ‘of, like, or relating to a wolf’. Boom.
  • Albus Dumbledore: ‘Albus’ is Latin for ‘light’, which makes sense as he’s number 1 good guy. And ‘Dumbledore’ is apparently an English dialect word for bumblebee. Nope, me neither. Maybe JK just liked the sound of it? (Some further googling reveals that apparently she imagined him bumbling round his office like a bee. Why not, I guess?)
  • Severus Snape: Fantastically portrayed on film by the much-missed Alan Rickman, Severus was a complicated character who ultimately turned out to be working for the good guys (he just had a really long endgame). So, ‘Severus’ means ‘stern’ in Latin (which is where we get ‘severe’ from), which makes sense as he was a fairly scary teach. And according to the lady herself, JK Rowling took the name ‘Snape’ from a village in Suffolk (where I’m writing this right now – Suffolk, not Snape), but it also means ‘to snub or rebuke or give a hard time to’ which is a nice coincidence (although probably entirely intentional).
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‘I solemnly swear I’m up to no good’

  • Voldemort: The big bad himself, ‘Vol de mort’ means ‘flight [or ‘theft’ depending on which bits of the internet you read] of death’ which makes sense considering the whole horcrux-hiding-bits-of-your-soul thang. 
  • The Malfoys: This one’s not too hard to decipher – ‘mal’ comes from old French for ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In the same language ‘foi’ means ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ which could well have something to do with the Malfoys putting their trust in the wrong dude. Draco is presumably a reference to ‘draconian’ or possibly dragon or snake (i.e. devious). (And hello to Jason Isaacs!)
  • Fenrir Greyback: One of the more minor characters, I put Fenrir in because I like the way it sounds. Fenrir was a big ole nasty wolf in Norse mythology, and a big ole nasty wolfman in Harry Potter land. It’s him who infected Lupin’s family with lycanthropy originally, and he also takes a chunk out of Bill Weasley. Bastard.
  • Argus Filch: Argus Panoptes is a Greek giant with a shedload of eyes. A perfect moniker for someone who’s always watching round corners. And obviously ‘filch’ is an informal term for stealing, which again fits for a man who likes to confiscate shiz. 

So, there you have it. There are loads more links in HP to Latin, French and Greek, as well as astrology, biology – the list goes on. Feel free to leave a comment about your favourite.

Bonus material

Check out this Harry Potter-based sock puppet video – guaranteed to be stuck in your head for DAYS. 

What’s in a name?

Nominative determinism. Go on, say it. Nominative determinism. Sounds nice right? And clever. 

Say what?

Now I know that my many (she says hopefully) readers are super intelligent, but just in case any of you haven’t come across this lovely term before, it’s basically the idea that people quite often end up doing jobs that match their names. Also called aptronyms, think William Wordsworth (poet, obvs), Usain Bolt (I confess I hadn’t actually made the connection until I started writing this), or Mr Greenacre, who was the man that looked after the hockey pitches at my school. Possibly less famous than the first two, but you get the point.

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The term nominative determinism was coined in an article in the New Scientist. They gave examples including:

  • a man who wrote a book about polar exploration with the surname Snowman
  • an article on treating disorders of the urinary system by two researchers called Splatt and Weedon (BEST. THING. EVER).

The theory goes that this isn’t just coincidence – it’s possibly down to genetics, or a thing called implicit egotism. As this is a blog about words, I’m not going to delve into the science, just the funny names. So here’s a list of my favourite examples of this theory in action.

Sara Blizzard

She’s a blimmin weather forecaster for the BBC. And across the pond there’s an Amy Freeze and a Larry Sprinkle.

Igor Judge

Judge Judge innit.

Christopher Coke

He’s a big ole drug dealer

Lord Brain

Guess what he wrote books about? Neurology.

Sir Manley Power

He was a total military ledge

Dr Alter

He’s a plastic surgeon. Well of course he is.

Frances Crook

She runs an organisation that works to reform prisons. In a double whammy, ‘Frances’ means ‘free the criminals’ apparently.

Vania Stambolova

I’m not sure if this one really counts because she’s from Bulgaria and it only works in English, but I don’t care because it’s awesome. I bet you can’t guess it. She’s a... wait for it... 400m hurdler. Amazing.

Marion Moon

She was Buzz Aldrin’s mum. I can’t believe I only just found this out.  

Ann Webb

She founded the British Tarantula Society. REALLY.

Robin Mahfood

He’s the president of a charity called Food for the Poor. Even though his name says otherwise.

Dr Richard Chopp

HE DOES VASECTOMIES. Honest.

So, dear reader, if you can beat Dick Chopp, please let me know in the comments. I’ll buy you dinner (chops, of course).