Words

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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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?

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.

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

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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.

This woke blog post is lit AF

The other day I got an email from a company I buy quite a lot of clothes from. The subject line was ‘Something for your bae’. Now this threw me, as I have no idea who or what my bae is. After asking the internet I now understand that this is shorthand for my girlfriend or boyfriend. Good to know. But it got me thinking – how out of touch with the yoof am I?

It turns out, quite a lot.

So here’s my pick of some young people’s speak, along with what it actually means and some handy examples for if you want to chuck any into conversation. (And I’ve now instigated a rule that if a company send me an email with slang I don’t understand, then I’m too old to be buying whatever it is they’re selling.)

Woke

What? To be woke about something means to be well informed about it.

In action: I stay woke by listening to Radio 4. 

Lit

What? One of my friends used this the other day and I had to ask her to explain it (because I’m not woke about millennials). Confusingly it turns out it has a few meanings, depending on the context. It can mean that something’s really good, or drunk/stoned/had a great night. This second meaning’s actually been around for a long time, and first showed up in the 1910s.

In action: This cross stitch I’ve just finished is lit or Emma got lit at book group last night.

AF

What? Short for (sorry Mumsy) ‘as fuck’. Because who wants to type/say a whole FOUR extra letters?

In action: This Farrow & Ball paint colour I’ve chosen is delightful AF.

Glo up

What? When I googled this the first result was the village of Gloup in the far north of the island of Yell in the Shetland Islands. How did I not know there’s an island called Yell? It’s home to the most haunted house in the Shetlands as well as some trolls (the old-fashioned kind, not the internet ones).

Anyway, I digress. To glo up is to suddenly become really attractive.

In action: Plain Jane Superbrain did glo up in Neighbours (FYI I’m not entirely sure what the past tense is – maybe she glo'd up? Answers on a postcard please). 

I so wanted to be Plain Jane Superbrain when I was young. Check her out in action below (the clip also features some little-known Australians called Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue. I wonder what happened to them?).

Hangry

What? When you’re angry because you’re hungry, obvs. I like hangry because (a) it makes perfect sense and I can’t believe there isn’t a word for it already, and (b) I love a portmanteau. Who doesn’t?

In action: My Waitrose delivery is an hour late and I’m super hangry.

Mansplaining

When a man explains something to a woman in a patronising way, or by interrupting or speaking over her. It’s often about something she already knows, or is already an expert in. (Not to be confused with manspreading which is a whole different thing.)

In action: Check out these awesome examples. And it even happened to an ACTUAL ASTRONAUT.


So, that’s it for yoofspeak for the time being. If you’re as old as me, then hopefully this will help you out if you have to interact with any millennials any time soon. And if you’re a yoof yourself, feel free to correct me or give me some more examples (without mansplaining though please).

Fancy a fuksheet?

The English language is a wonderful thing. And one of the reasons for that is because we have lots of rude words. Think about it. There are loads of them. I can come up with five words for my you-know-what off the top of my head right now. But there are also a lot of words which sound rude but are actually perfectly acceptable in polite society. Here’s just a small selection of some of my favourites – why not see how many you can get into the conversation at your next dinner party?

1. Bumfiddler

Depending on which part of the internet you look at (and I wouldn’t recommend Googling this if you’re easily offended), to be a bumfiddler either means that you pollute or spoil something (like a document, not a bottom), or that you’re a fidget or a busybody. If you put a space in it (i.e. bum fiddler), it means to harm or attack. And if you look it up on urbandictionary.com, it’s to do with playing a fiddle with your arse. Obviously.

2. Cockchafer

It’s a big old beetle. It was almost eradicated with pesticides but numbers are on the rise again, you’ll be pleased to hear. And apparently Nikola Tesla once made an engine out of four of them (I don’t know how). 

Here’s a picture of one – it’s surprisingly cute for a family of bugs which can apparently ‘terrorise ... with their high-pitched screams as they leave a trail of destruction’ (a quote in this well-balanced article from the Daily Star which was published last summer. I must have missed the cockchafer plague).

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3. Copula

A copula is a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (i.e. the bit that describes or expands on the subject). So in the sentence ‘The cockchafer is furry’, ‘is’ is the copula. It also crops up in probability theory and statistics where it’s a multivariate probability distribution for which the marginal probability distribution of each variable is uniform. But you knew that already, right?

4. Formication

Nope, not that. It’s actually pretty unpleasant – a feeling that you have insects crawling over your skin. From the Latin formica which means ‘ant’. So you could legitimately say that you feel like you’re being formicated by cockshafers. If the situation ever arises.

5. Fuksheet

Okay, so ‘fuk’ with no ‘c’ is a Middle English word for a sail. So you attach a fuksheet to a fukmast. And then you fuk off in your boat.  

6. Invagination

Turning something inside out, innit. And the opposite is called ‘evagination’. One source said it also applies to putting one thing (not that) inside another (not that either), like a sword into a sheath. (If you’re anything like me you’re now singing ‘Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure invagination...’)

7. Jaculate

When you throw something, especially something like a dart or a javelin, you jaculate it. Yep. Not to be confused with ejaculate, which is when you eject something suddenly. And, you know, the other thing.

8. Peniaphobia

Nothing to do with being scared of winkies, this is the fear of poverty. It comes from the Greek penia.

9. Teasehole

Less ooh er, matron and more opening in a glassmaking furnace for putting fuel in.

10. Vagitus

Despite sounding like some kind of ailment you have to whisper over the counter at the chemist, this is actually rather nice – it’s the name given to a newborn baby’s first cry. Aw.

Let’s talk about techs baby

This week I was working on some copy that told the reader to ‘dial’ a number. Which got me thinking – even though I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually used a phone with a dial (probably about 1985, when we also had a three-digit phone number – tru dat kids) – everyone knows what you mean when you talk about dialling a number. So what other tech terms live on, even though the technology that coined them is long dead?

CC

CC stands for carbon copy, which harks back to when people used to make copies of things (like receipts) by putting a piece of carbon paper under the sheet before writing on it. Then the ink transferred onto the other piece of paper (or something – it’s kinda hard to explain). We also used it for card payments in the dark days before electronic readers (and identity theft. Coincidence? Yes, probably).

We now of course use CC when we’re emailing people and BCC when we’re being sneaky. And we still use ‘carbon copy’ when we’re talking about someone or something being a dead ringer for another person or thing, which I used to think was something to do with Han Solo, but almost definitely isn’t. And I wonder how many people under the ago of 20 (or 30 even?) know where it comes from?

Rewind

Alongside ‘tape’ for ‘record’, this is left over from the days of VHS. These days there’s no actual tape being wound backwards – only different bits of a drive being accessed.

(Remember when you could only record one thing at a time, you needed a science degree to set the video and most of the time it didn’t record what you wanted anyway? Ah, memories.)

Tune in

Still applicable to some radios, this one’s from when you used to have to turn a dial to get a station. It also applied to TVs to pick up a channel. Luckily there were only three, so it didn’t take too long.  

Hang up

Another phone-related one here. Back in the days of yore we used to have to actually put the phone back on a cradle to finish a call. Whereas nowadays we never actually hang up anything – just press a button or swipe the screen (which makes angrily ending a phone call much less satisfying).

Wind down the window

Or up, for that matter. You’d be hard pushed to find many non-classic cars on the road these days where you actually have to rotate a handle and wind down the window. They’re all buttons these days. And thank god, because otherwise this awesome movie moment would never have happened...

All this makes me wonder what terms we’ll be using in, say, 20 years? With the speed technology’s moving words are becoming obsolete almost as soon as we learn them. Take ‘click’ for example – something I use a lot when I’m writing copy for emails or web pages. It’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as more and more people are using touchscreens which don’t involve any kind of clicking.

Or maybe we’ll still be talking about ccing people in 100 years’ time when we’re communicating entirely telepathically from inside our flying cars.

A myriad of wrongness

I got pulled up by a client today for writing that something came ‘in a myriad of colours’. She told me that ‘myriad’ doesn’t need an ‘a’ before it or an ‘of’ after it. Because I’m super-competitive and really don’t like being told I’m wrong, especially when it comes to anything word-related, I immediately consulted Google to check this. And turns out, I’m wrong (and I’ve been using it wrongly for as long as I’ve known what it means).

According to some very in-depth research (I looked at at least one website), myriad comes from the Greek for ‘murioi’ which means 10,000. Modern usage isn’t so specific – it’s now come to mean ‘a great many’. But either way, adding that ‘a’ and ‘of’ is officially bonkers, because you wouldn’t write that it came in a a great many of colours. It’s a bit like saying PIN number which is actually personal identification number number.

So this got me thinking – what other words have I been using completely wrongly for pretty much my whole life? Turns out there are loads. I mean, LOADS.

I think this may well be the start of a series of Emma-is-stupid themed blog posts.

Poisonous

WTF? I hear you say (or at least that’s what I said when I read this). Apparently you should only say poisonous when you’re talking about something that will kill you when you eat it. Not if it eats (or bites) you. So if you say a snake is poisonous, you’re actually saying that it will kill you if you eat it (which it might, but that’s not the point – I’m not flipping David Attenborough for god’s sake). Snakes are venomous, not poisonous.

Factoid

I thought this meant a small fact. It doesn’t. It’s a false fact. Gasp! It was first used by Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe a fact that people believe to be true because it appears in print (‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’). Hmmm, topical…

At least I know I’m in good company – DJ Steve Wright has published a couple of books about (true) small facts titled ‘Factoids’. So that makes me feel better (not really). And also brings me on to…

Entitled

Don’t panic – when you say someone’s entitled to something, you’re not wrong. But it is wrong to say that a book (or anything else) is entitled [title]. As in The sequels entitled Fast and Furious 17. It’s just titled that. Which doesn’t really seem that hard to remember.

Ultimate

When you say that, for example, ‘Paris is the ultimate city break’ what you’re actually saying is that it’s last on the list. Yep, ‘ultimate’ means ‘last in a progression or series’ (think ‘penultimate’). So you’re actually being really mean about Paris. I know we’re leaving Europe and all, but there’s no need for nastiness.

Inflammable

It means flammable. Not not flammable. Even though the prefix in- almost always means ‘not’ in English, in this case ‘inflammable’ comes from the word ‘enflame’. So it doesn’t.

Sometimes English is stupid.

Electrocute

If you grew up in the English countryside in the 70s or 80s, chances are at one point you put your hand on an electric fence round a field just to see what it was like (this was before the internet kids). And you may well have then told your friends at school that you got electrocuted. Well, you didn’t, because then you would be dead – to be electrocuted means to die from an electric shock. So unless your best friend was Haley Joel Osment (dated reference) what you actually got was an electric shock.

The last word

Language evolves. It’s one of the things that makes it great. If enough people continue to use a word one way, even the wrong way, then eventually its original meaning doesn’t matter anymore. And that is a factoid.