Old English

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.

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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.

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

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).

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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:

 

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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.