This is a bit of a sad one (sorry). An endling is the last known member of a species – so once it dies, that species (it can be an animal or a plant) is officially extinct.

The word was coined in the scientific journal ‘Nature’ in 1996. Other equally gloomy words for endling include ‘ender’ and ‘terminarch’. And if there’s a couple left, then they’re referred to collectively as a ‘relict’.

[This isn’t actually a Sehuencas water frog, but I couldn’t find a royalty-free one of those. Sorry.]

[This isn’t actually a Sehuencas water frog, but I couldn’t find a royalty-free one of those. Sorry.]

Etymology-wise, the ‘end’ bit of ‘endling’ is self-explanatory, I hope. Adding the suffix ‘-ling’ to a word either denotes that the thing is younger, smaller or inferior to the thing at the start (which is a terrible explanation but hopefully you get the gist) – think duckling, hatchling and so on. Or it can just mean that the thing is in the category described by the root word (that’s a slightly better explanation), as in earthling, and some other words which I can’t think of right now.

You can find a list of notable endlings on Wikipedia. It’s incredibly depressing though, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re feeling at all maudlin.

Now that we’re all thoroughly glum, here’s a nice story about an endling called Romeo, which I saw on QI this week (where I first heard the word). Romeo is a Sehuencas water frog, a native of Bolivia. He lives in Bolivia’s Natural History Museum (I suspect not voluntarily), and is 10 years old, which is pretty darn old in frog years. To try to see if he really is an endling, conservationists put a profile for Romeo on REALLY – you can see it here. (If you can’t be bothered to do reading, his profile begins with ‘Well, hi there. I’m Romeo. I’m a Sehuencas (pronounced “say-when-cuss”) water frog and, not to start this off super heavy or anything, but I’m literally the last of my species.’) Romeo had much better luck that I ever have with internet dating, and with money raised through the profile, some other conservationists found his Juliet in a Bolivian cloud forest (which is the most romantic-sounding thing ever), along with four other froggy pals. A breeding programme will be happening soon, so hopefully lots of Sehuencas tadpoles will follow. Hurrah!

(You can read more about R&J here.)


Now, if you’re one of my more, erm, mature readers, you might be thinking of DCI Frank Burnside from ‘The Bill’ (I just googled him and his entry on ‘The Bill’ wiki – yes, that’s a thing – says ‘built his reputation on good detective work combined with his unique approach of putting informants’ heads down the toilet’. They don’t make ’em like that anymore). Unfortunately this doesn’t have anything to do with long-running police procedural dramas, but it does have a military background, which I’ll get to in a minute. It’s also my second (spoiler alert!) beard-related word in two weeks – make of that what you will.

Excellent facial hair, questionable military tactics

Excellent facial hair, questionable military tactics

So, burnsides are another name for sideburns – strips of facial hair growing down your cheeks and connecting to a moustache, but with a clean-shaven chin. They’re named after one General Ambrose Burnside whose face hair was so distinctive it spawned a whole new genre (?). Which was lucky, as he was a pretty crap general – his most notable achievement was a crushing defeat in the American Civil War.

The savvy among you will have realised that sideburns is just burnsides swapped round. Annoyingly, I can’t find out how or why this happened – maybe it just made more sense to people as (in a happy coincidence) they’re on the side of your face?

A sideburn fact for you: sideburns went out of fashion in the early 20th century. One of the reasons for this was war – to keep a gas mask on your face you needed to be clean-shaven (which meant ’taches were still okay).

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering what sideburns were called before the 1800s, the answer is, rather disappointingly, ‘side whiskers’.)


Nope, not a plug-in air freshener. I’m an ambivert and you’re (probably) an ambivert. It’s a person whose personality is a mixture of extrovert and introvert, AKA basically everyone, ever. Specifically, ambiverts change according to the situation they’re in. So if they’re at a party where no one’s talking to anyone else, then they won’t talk to anyone else either. But if everyone’s having it large (sorry) at the party, they’ll do the same.

The word’s been around since 1927, and was coined by an American social scientist with the excellent name of Kimball Young. The ‘ambi’ bit is from the Latin meaning ‘both’, as in ‘ambivalent’ and ‘ambidextrous’ (‘ambi’ also means ’round about’, as in ‘ambient’). The ‘vert’ is also Latin and comes from ‘vertere’ which means ‘to turn’ (vertere also has a starring role in words like ‘reverse’ and ‘revert’).

Bonus fact – you can also be an omnivert, which means you do the opposite of whatever situation you’re in. So omniverts would sit quietly in the corner at the fun party, but try to get everyone up and dancing at the quiet party. Omniverts sound like arseholes.

Bonus bonus fact: Kimball Young was the grandson of one Brigham Young, who was the second president of the Church of the Latter-day Saints i.e. the Mormons. He had 55 wives (boooooo!) but a most excellent beard (yay!).

Excellent beard. Bad marital practices.

Excellent beard. Bad marital practices.



When I was little and I heard someone describe a bath as ‘lukewarm’, I totally thought it had something to do with Luke Skywalker. You’ll be sad to hear that, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

You know what ‘lukewarm’ means – something (usually liquid or food) that’s not very hot. The ‘warm’ bit means ‘warm’, obviously (and doesn’t have very interesting etymology – it comes from the old German word… wait for it… ‘warm’). But what about the ‘luke’ part?

Photo by  Karla Alexander  on  Unsplash .

Well, we can trace that all the way back to the proto-Germanic (obviously you’re far too clever for me to need to explain what that means) word ‘hlēwaz’, which also means ‘warm’. Old English then nicked it in and used it for (again) ‘warm’. ‘hlēwaz’ then morphed into ‘lew’, ‘lewk’ or ‘leuk’ in Middle English, which meant ‘tepid’ (or ‘slightly warm’), which then, through the magic of language, became the ‘luke’ we know today.

You’ll be noticing a theme here. All the words I’ve mentioned, including ‘luke’, mean ‘warm’. So ‘lukewarm’ means ‘warm warm’. This makes it on a par with saying LCD display (liquid crystal display display) or PIN number (personal identification number number).


Photo by  Jay Ruzesky  on  Unsplash .

Photo by Jay Ruzesky on Unsplash.

‘Metathesis’ is a linguistic term (wait, come back – it’s interesting, honest!) which basically means to swap bits of a word round to create a new one. The word ‘walrus’ came about because of metathesis. It’s from an old Norse word ‘hrossvalr’ which means ‘horse whale’. At some point when the word made its way over to us, somebody switched it round (it was possibly more complicated than this) and we got ‘walrus’. ‘Foliage’ is another example. The word comes from a Latin root (BOOM BOOM), ‘follium’ which means leaf. Metathesis happened to it at some point and it went from ‘foillage’ to the better known ‘foliage’ we use today.

The most famous modern (or is it…?) example of metathesis is ‘aks’ for ‘ask’. ‘Aks’ actually came first from the Old English word ‘acsian’. Because of metathesis in ye olde times (scientific, I know), there was also another version floating about – ‘ascian’ – which won the linguistic fight and is how we ended up with ‘ask’ being the norm. (I used to absolutely loath it when I heard people saying ‘aks’ instead of ‘ask’, but now I know it’s from Old English and that Chaucer used it, I don’t feel so cross about it. Because I’m a pretentious wanker apparently.)

The word metathesis itself comes from the Greek word ‘metatithenai’, which just means ‘to put in a different order’. So that’s not very interesting, sorry. There’s also a super-poncy joke in here about metathesis being a thesis about a thesis, but I’ll spare you. Because I don’t think it’d be very funny, even to me.


After a few weeks of everyday words with interesting backstories, this time I thought I’d go for one that you probably haven’t come across before (and if you have, then I salute you, and you should probably be writing these instead of me). ‘Fanfaronade’ means empty boasting. And if you do it, which, let’s face it, we all do on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, you’re a fanfaron.

The word comes from ‘fanfarrón’, which is a Spanish word for a big old boasty mcboastface. It made its way into English in the 1600s, probably passing through French (‘fanfaronnade’) on the way.

Fanfaronade is probably where we get the word ‘fanfare’ from, although sources differ on whether there’s any definite etymological evidence for that. But since a fanfare involves a trumpet, and fanfaronade means blowing your own brass instrument, I think it’s a fairly safe bet. (Also, if you say it out loud and go up on the ‘nade’ bit, it even sounds like a fanfare. Or is that just me?)

Dickens used the word ‘fanfaronade’ in place of ‘fanfare’ in a short story called ‘Somebody’s Luggage’ (good name for a band):

“And hark! fanfaronade of trumpets, and here into the Great Place, resplendent in an open carriage, with four gorgeously-attired servitors up behind, playing horns, drums, and cymbals, rolled ‘the Daughter of a Physician’ in massive golden chains and ear-rings, and blue-feathered hat.”



You know what it means: something which represents a typical or perfect example of something. But do you know where it comes from? Yes? Well, you can look smug and stop reading. No? Strap in, you’re in for a fun ride. No, seriously, stay with me – it actually has a surprisingly mystical back story.

You might have already worked out that the ‘quint’ refers to five (as in quintet, quintuplets, and so on, but not the guy from Jaws). But what does that have to do with being perfect? Well, the ‘essential’ bit comes from ‘essentia’ which means essence. So ‘quintessential’ actually means the ‘fifth essence’. Still none the wiser? Me neither. We need to go all the way back to ancient Greece for this, so run and get your toga. All set? Let’s go.

Aristotle, the head honcho of western philosophy, introduced the idea of a fifth element (nope, not the Bruce Willis film), to the existing four (i.e. 70s disco group earth, wind and fire, plus water). The fifth one was an airy-fairy thing that made up the heavenly and divine bodies, also called ‘aether’.

According to the A-man, a little tiny bit of this perfect, god-like substance was supposed to exist in all things (including us human beans). So that’s why the word’s since come to mean the most refined version of something.


Usually I like to pretend to be super clever by using big long words here, which ‘clue’ obviously isn’t. But I’ve picked it because it has really interesting etymology. It actually comes from Greek myth. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. (This is a long one, sorry.)

Minos, king of Crete, was married to Pasiphae. She had sex with a bull (because, Zeus), and gave birth to a hideous beast called the minotaur (I don’t know why it was named after Minos as he didn’t have anything to do with it, but I digress). Minos was a bit embarrassed by this, but decided to put his bovine stepson to work rather than just killing it (again, I don’t know why, as he was a bit of a git – he must have been feeling uncharacteristically charitable that day). So he imprisoned it in a huge labyrinth, then stuck anyone who pissed him off in there. They then couldn’t find a way out and were eventually eaten by the minotaur. Which saved on the Ocado bills.

Cut to Athens, where Minos’ actual son gets killed by the same bull that boffed his mum (what are the chances!). Minos is understandably miffed about this, and demands that Athens send him human sacrifices every year to make up for it. I told you he was a bastard. This goes on for a few years, until an Athenian named Theseus thinks ‘f*ck this, my people shouldn’t be ending up as hors-d’oeuvres for a cow-man’, and decides to kill the minotaur. So he sails to Crete, where he meets another of Minos’ offspring, Ariadne. They fall madly in love, and she gives him a ball of wool (he’s a cheap date). He then heads off into the labyrinth, kills the minotaur and uses the wool to find his way back out. Then he pops Ariadne on his ship and takes her back to Athens where they live happily ever after.* What does this have to do with ‘clue’, I hear you shouting? Well, the old word for a ball of wool was ‘clew’ (sorry it took so long to get there). Because of the way Theseus used it, i.e. as a clue to get him out of the maze, it slowly took on the meaning it has today.

Bonus fact: I’ve used the word maze above, because I didn’t want to write labyrinth again. But in fact they’re different things. A maze has choices of paths and directions, and can have different entrances and exits, and dead ends. A labyrinth only has one single path which leads to the middle, and only one way in and out. And David Bowie lives in one.

Well done for making it to the end BTW.

*Due to a mix up over some sails, Theseus’ dad thought his son had been killed by the minotaur and, in his grief, chucked himself off a cliff. So it wasn’t an entirely happy ending, sorry.

(Like what you just read? Check out the other words of the week. There’s loads.)


Photo by  Austin Neill  on  Unsplash

Yes, yes, smarty pants, I know you know what it means – it’s when a person’s (or animal’s) movement is restricted for a certain amount of time to make sure they don’t pass on any nasty diseases. But it has quite an interesting origin story. Allow me to take you back to the 17th-century. Trading ships are travelling from one country to another, sometimes bringing unwanted cargo like typhoid, cholera and yellow fever alongside their goods. In a bid to stop these spreading, authorities order them to be isolated in port for 40 days before people can come ashore. And that’s where we get the word – ‘quaranta giorni’ which literally means 40 days in Italian.

Why 40 days? No one really knows, is the short answer. And it actually started out as 30 days, and was called, unimaginatively, ‘trentino’. At some point an extra 10 days was added, possibly just as a precaution as people began to understand incubation periods a bit more. Or it might be because the number 40 has lots of Biblical significance – it was the number of days and nights J-Christ spent in the desert, and also the time Moses spent up Mount Sinai doing something very important that I can’t remember (commandments, maybe? You can tell I went to convent school can’t you?).

Interestingly (kinda), lots of us use ‘quarantine’ wrongly. You can only be quarantined if you’re not actually ill i.e. you don’t have a medical diagnosis. If you’re already sick and you have to be kept away from healthy peeps, then you’re in ‘medical isolation’, not quarantine. There’s also a thing called ‘cordon sanitaire’ which is similar, but refers to restricting people’s movement in or out of a specific geographic area to stop an infection from spreading.


Nothing to do with the Alien quadrilogy (not an actual word BTW) – that’s a xenomorph. A skeuomorph is a derivative object that keeps non-functional ornamental design cues from structures that were inherent to the original. Nope, me neither.

Photo by  Bruno Nascimento

Okay, so in everyday words, it’s a thing that imitates another, older (or retro) thing, just for show. An example is the rivets in jeans – they used to be there to reinforce areas of denim trews where stitching might break. But obviously thread is much better these days, so now they’re only there because they look nice.

Skeuomorphs are most common on electronic gadgets – think the ‘Save’ icon in MS Word which is a picture of an old-school floppy disc (look it up kids). Or the noise your phone camera makes when you take a picture. It obviously isn’t coming from a mechanical shutter – but the skeuomorphic sound lets us know we’ve actually taken a picture. Having a quick look at my iPhone I can see at least three skeuomorphs:

  • the phone symbol itself: an old-fashioned handset

  • email: an envelope

  • the notes app: a yellow legal pad

  • the Facetime icon: an old-timey video camera.

I’m not sure what’ll happen when all the people who remember what these icons really mean are pushing up daisies though – maybe it’ll be time for some new designs?

The word itself was coined by one Henry Colley March who, I gather from Mr Google, was a researcher of some kind (this is very vague, sorry – but I couldn’t find much about him, except he wrote a book called ‘The Mythology of Wise Birds’ which would make a brilliant album name). Being as Hank was around in the 1890s, obviously he wasn’t using an iPhone. He came up with the term after looking at ancient artefacts like old pottery which had patterns carved in it to resemble a woven basket. He formed it from the Greek words ‘skéuos’ for ‘container’ or ‘tool’, and ‘morphḗ’ meaning ‘shape’.

(Extra special thank-you-muchlys to my friend Hannah Walbridge for telling me about this word at the weekend, which I’d never heard of before. So cheers Hannah.)


If something is apotropaic, it means it’s designed to avert evil. The word comes from the Greek – ‘apo’ means ‘away’, while ‘trópos means ‘turn’. There are lots of obvious apotropaic symbols and actions that we still use today, like horseshoes, rabbit’s feet (yuck) or knocking on wood.

Now, if you’re easily offended (a) why are we friends, and (b), you might want to stop reading now. Still here? Good. While I was researching this, quite far down the Google search page I noticed the heading ‘Genitalia, As Apotropaic’. Obviously, I had to click on it (god knows what targeted advertising I’ll be getting from now on). And according to this article, people have been waving their rude bits around for 1,000s of years to fend off bad stuff. The article says that exposing your ladygarden in ancient Greece could scare off devils, evil spirits and gods, attacking troops and dangerous animals, while simultaneously stopping whirlwinds and thunderstorms. If you did it in old-timey Russia you could calm the sea and/or see off a bear. Handy.

Trouser snakes also have an apotropaic function. Representations of winkies were often carved above doorways in ancient Greece (you wouldn’t want to bang your head on that doorframe), while in ye olde Japan there was a whole set of gods who were represented as massive dongs. These were erected (hee hee) on bridges and roads to stop evil spirits. Unfortunately when Western travellers got that far they were super offended and the Japanese took them down. Damn us oversensitive Westerners.

(PS If I die tomorrow and the police check my internet search history, please let them know that it was all in the name of research. Thanks.)

Read the other words of the week.


Unless you’re a retired army colonel or elderly lord of a manor, you probably don’t use this word very much. But if you’re a native English speaker then you’ll know what it means – it’s a harmless, inoffensive way of calling bullshit. But my (as always, very in depth) research reveals that the word poppycock has some shady etymological origins.

Before you start, it’s nothing to do with cocks (stop it). Or, indeed, poppies. ‘Poppycock’ comes from a Dutch word ‘pappekak’. (This is where it gets a bit minging.) ‘pappe’ means ‘soft’ and ‘kak’ means, well, cack. Yep, if you tell someone they’re talking poppycock, you’re saying that ‘soft poop’ is coming out of their mouth. What a lovely image.

Read the other words of the week.


In case you’re reading this in the future, or you don’t live in the UK, it’s really hot at the moment. Like BASTARD hot (not in my freezing cold basement flat though. It’s just about comfortable in here which makes a change. Although I still need a cardi in the evenings). So I’ve gone for a clammy word of the week.

‘Calescent’ means growing warm, or increasing in heat. So you could say ‘sitting on a faux leather office chair is making me calescent’.

(Sorry it’s a bit short this week. But it’s really hot.)

Read the other words of the week.

Look, hot!

Look, hot!


This is for my friend Jenny who got very cross last weekend when she discovered that the colour puce is not, as she thought, a pinky-red colour, but in fact a not-very-nice purply brown. (I thought it was a yellowy green colour, probably because it sounds a bit like ‘puke’, but let’s gloss over that.) So, in an attempt to make her feel a bit better about this, I thought I’d find out some more about it and word-of-the-week it. My apologies for using that as a verb.

Photo by  Cyril Mazarin  on  Unsplash

‘Puce’ is actually the French word (so I guess we’ll have to give it back after Brexit) for ‘flea’. It’s named after the bloody smudge you get when you squash a flea that’s full of someone’s blood. Gross, right? Having said that, fleas were actually considered quite romantic in ye olde times and turn up in a lot of saucy poems (i.e. porn). One of the most famous is by John Donne (I HATE John Donne – I’ve written many a boring essay on him in my time. Sorry Mr Donne). It’s called, you’ve guessed it, ‘The Flea’. Basically it’s an extended chat-up line about how a flea’s already bitten both the narrator and some poor woman he’s trying to boff. So their bodily fluids have already mingled and they might as well just have some sexy time as they’re already halfway there. *slaps forehead* Although I’ve heard worse chat-up lines to be fair.

If you feel so inclined, you can read the whole poem here.

The colour puce was very popular in late 18th-century France. So much so that when Marie-Antoinette wasn’t eating cake or getting her head cut off, she counted it as one of her favourite colours.

Read the other words of the week.


Last weekend I went to a wildlife park* which had, among other things, a dinosaur section (not real dinosaurs, obviously – don’t worry, Jurassic Park hasn’t quietly happened in Hertfordshire). And I saw this word on one of the information signs. A thagomizer is the spiky bit of a stegosaurus’s tail (other dinosaurs are available). Here’s one in animatronic glory:


The term ‘thagomizer’ was invented in 1982 by a cartoonist called Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side, beloved of humorous birthday cards everywhere. The cartoon shows a caveman lecturer giving a slideshow with a picture of a stegosaurus’s tail. He’s saying: ‘Now this end is called the thagomizer ... after the late Thag Simmons.’

Before the cartoon was published, the arrangement of spikes wasn’t called anything at all. And because palaeontologists are a wacky lot (I’m assuming they’re all like Ross from Friends, right?), one called Ken Carpenter from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science adopted it when describing a fossil at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s AGM in 1993. It’s now widely used in respected scientific circles including at the Smithsonian, and in the BBC documentary series Planet Dinosaur.

You can see the actual cartoon here.

me dino stupid.JPG

*With my friend and her child. Not on my own. That would be weird.


This is the official word for ‘navel gazing’. The etymology is pretty straightforward. It’s a combo of two Greek words: ‘omphalós’ which means ‘navel’ and ‘sképsis’ for ‘viewing’ or ‘examining’. So far, so good. It’s when you get to what it means that it gets a bit more complicated.

These days ‘navel gazing’ is an idiom for contemplating life, the universe and everything at the exclusion of everyone else. So basically being self-centred. But it also has another, more literal, meaning. Omphaloskepsis actually a mediation or contemplation aid in Eastern mysticism. In yoga, the manipura chakra is in the navel. When this chakra is in balance you’ll be filled with feelings of wisdom, self-confidence and wellbeing. So omphaloskepsis is literally staring at your belly button while meditating, in the hope of entering a mystical trance. (I think – on the rare occasions I’ve tried meditation or yoga I’ve just got hysterically giggly, so this is all a bit of a mystery to me. If you’d like to read something much more sensible about omphaloskepsis, including a how-to guide, have a look at this.)

PS I was going to cover ‘heteromaton’ this week, which is the opposite of ‘automaton’. So that means it’s something that has to be moved by someone or something else. Like a puppet. But I couldn’t think of any jokes to make that weren’t horrendously un-PC/downright rude. So I’ll leave it here as a footnote.

Two for the price of one? I know, I spoil you.

PPS If this has given you an urge for more idioms (and who wouldn’t want more idioms?), watch this space – I’ll soon be publishing a blog on weird English idioms and where they came from. Try to contain your excitement…


I’ve chosen a Spanish word this week, inspired by my all-time favourite tennis player, Feliciano Lopez and his epic double-header at Queen’s tennis tournament. Before you say it, it’s obviously only his excellent serving technique I’m interested in. And this entire post is definitely not just an excuse to look for pictures of Feli on the internet and call it ‘work’.

Anyway, ‘duende’ is a lovely word which we don’t have an English equivalent for. It describes those chills you get from a beautiful piece of music, art, dance or Spanish tennis player. Popularised by the poet Federico García Lorca in a lecture he gave in Buenos Aires in 1933 (‘Play and Theory of the Duende’ or ‘Juego y teoría del duende’ – it sounds much more romantic in Spanish, doesn’t it?). The word was previously used to describe the powerful force given off by a performer of flamenco music or dance which draws in the audience. Nowadays it’s used for anything which has charm or allure.

A ‘duende’ was originally a word for a creature from Spanish, Portuguese and Filipino folklore, a mischievous goblin which lived in people’s houses. That name came from the phrase ‘dueño de casa’ which means ‘owner of a house’.

My dad took this picture when he and my mum were at Queen’s this week. It’s a bit better than this one which I took (I didn’t get to see him play unfortunately).

My dad took this picture when he and my mum were at Queen’s this week. It’s a bit better than this one which I took (I didn’t get to see him play unfortunately).


PS I wrote a blog post on other foreign words we don’t have equivalents for a while back. It features such gems as ‘the desire to peek into a boarded-up building site’, ‘energetic queuer’ and ‘still drunk from the night before’.



This week I’ve been bingeing* on the TV show ‘Good Omens’, a story of angels and demons, Armageddon and the Antichrist (with jokes). It’s based on a book by the late great Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, my second-favourite author (a title I’m sure he’d appreciate). There are lots of imaginatively named characters in ‘Good Omens’, including Newton Pulsifer, Agnes Nutter and Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St Beryl. But my favourite is Anathema Device – so her first name gets the dubious honour of being my word of the week.

The meaning of ‘anathema’ that you’re probably familiar with is ’something or someone that one vehemently dislikes’. As in ‘people who say “could of” instead of “could have” are anathema to Emma’. But it has a second, less well-known (to me at least) meaning which plays into the story of ‘Good Omens’ (and which I’m sure Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman were well aware of). An anathema is also a ‘formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine’. Which is a fancy way of saying the top Catholic dude is sending you straight to the hot place downstairs (can you tell I went to convent school?). Whoah. Ain’t no Hail Marys gonna get you out of that one.

The etymology

As per usual, we nicked the word ‘anathema’ from Latin which itself nicked it from Greek. Weirdly, the Greek root actually means the opposite – it literally means ‘placed on high, suspended, set aside’. I realise this doesn’t sound like the opposite of eternal damning, but the being-up-high-ness meant it was closer to god/the gods/your deity of choice. So it came to mean a divine offering. At some point (the internet doesn’t seem to know when or why), it changed to mean something bad or cursed (see also previous word of the week ‘egregious’, which now means the total opposite of what it did originally).

Interestingly (maybe), ‘anathema’ is one of the few nouns we use without an article i.e. we don’t say ‘an anathema’. I don’t know why not, sorry – maybe because ‘an anathema’ is a bit of a tongue twister? Oh, and because English is wonderfully illogical and confusing, anathema is also an adjective, as we can use it to describe a noun e.g. ‘rain is anathema to my dog’. Except it goes after the verb, not before. Presumably to get around this, the OED describes it as a ‘quasi-adjective’ which seems like a big old cop out to me but never mind.

* I spent quite a long time while writing this post trying to work out how to spell ‘bingeing’ – I was torn between this and ‘binging’. Turns out I’m not the only one, and some not-very-in-depth research reveals that either is fine, despite both getting an angry red underline as I write this. I’ve gone with ‘bingeing’ because ‘binging’ sounds like something the microwave does when it’s finished.


Inchoate is an adjective which describes something that’s (in the words of the Carpenters) only just begun, or is not quite fully formed yet.

Its first recorded use was in 1534, and it’s derived from ‘inchoare’, a Latin word which means ‘to start work on’. Confusingly, because it’s Latin, ‘inchoare’ literally translates as ‘to hitch up’. It was formed from the prefix ‘in’ and the noun ‘cohum’. A ‘cohum’ is a strap used to attach a pole to a yoke. Stay with me. In case you’re not a medieval farmer, a yoke is, among other things, a wooden bar or frame which you use with cows or oxen (other working animals are available) to attach (I think) them to a plough or a cart. This sort of makes sense with its modern meaning, as attaching the animals to your plough is the first step in the larger task of ploughing your field. I said ‘sort of’.

You can also use ‘inchoate’ to describe something that’s imperfectly formed or formulated. According to Merriam-Webster, this second meaning seems to have come purely from the fact that it kinda looks a little bit like the word ‘chaos’, if you knock off the first two letters and squint a bit.


Photo by  Robert Bye  on  Unsplash

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

A sluttery is an untidy room, much like the one I’m sitting in as I type this. (Credit where credit’s due – I unashamedly stole this word from Sir Simon of Mayo on the Wittertainment podcast. Thank you Simon.) ‘sluttery’ dates from 1841, and is obviously derived from the word ‘slut’. You know what a slut is – a sexually promiscuous woman or girl. But ‘slut’ hasn’t always had sexual connotations, which is why the Victorians used it to describe a messy room – the OED’s first definition from 1402 is: ‘a woman of dirty, slovenly, or untidy habits or appearance; a foul slattern.’ There’s an even earlier use of it in print in a description of a man (yes, really) in Geoff Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, published between 1340 and 1400. Chaucer wasn’t throwing shade on anyone’s sexual practices either – he used the term ‘sluttish’ to refer to the man’s messy appearance (it’s in the prologue to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: ‘Why is thy lord so sluttish, I thee preye’).

The sexual connotations don’t seem to have come into general use until the 20th century, when ‘woman who’s bad at housekeeping’ somehow morphed into ‘woman who can’t keep her knickers on and is therefore a bad person’.

On a more serious note, despite attempts to reclaim the word ‘slut’, most notably by SlutWalk (an international movement calling for an end to rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming sexual assault victims), it looks set to remain a pejorative word resolved solely for women – there’s no male equivalent. In fact, Wikipedia notes that there are 220 words for sexually promiscuous women, all (all!) of which have negative connotations, and 20 for men, many of which are seen as positive (so that’s things like ‘stud’ or ‘player’). Unfortunately it looks like language still has a long way to go when it comes to levelling the gender playing field.