Blog group 1


In honour of the fact that it was World Emoji Day yesterday (or 🌍😀📆 if you will), I thought I’d look into the etymology of the word itself. So, it was coined in Japan in the late 90s, and is made up of ‘e’ for ‘picture’ and ‘moji’ for character – nothing to do with the word ‘emotion’ then. Its counterpart ‘emoticon’ is however – that’s ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’ smooshed together.

Strictly speaking emojis are pictograms and emoticons are characters i.e. 😉 vs ;-). It seems like the similarity in the two words is just a nice semantic coincidence. ❤️


This is inspired by (for which read: stolen from) Simon Mayo on last week’s Wittertainment podcast. You know what egregious means, right? It’s something that’s shockingly bad. And you’d be bang on the money. But only in the last 500 years or so. The meaning of egregious has completely changed over time – and not just a little bit like lots of other words. It now means the total opposite of what it did originally.

So, according to the OED in 1534, ‘egregious’ was a positive word which meant ‘remarkably good’. Etymology-wise, it’s made up of the Latin prefix ‘e-‘ which means ‘out of’, ‘grex’ for ‘flock’ (see also ‘segregate ‘, ‘aggregate’ and ‘congregate’) and then the English adjective suffix ‘-ous’ which means ‘full of’. So it literally meant to stand out from the flock (or crowd). But less than 40 years later, people were using it in the negative way we’re familiar with now. Why? Well, it looks like it all comes down to the fact that English people like to take the piss. The only explanation I can find is that people started using it sarcastically, and eventually the second meaning stuck. Typical.


I’ve chosen this one for two reasons: (1) because it’s nice to say (paaammmppphhhlet) and (2) because it has an interesting backstory. Unfortunately it’s nothing to do with small pamphs (because these are not a thing) – the word comes from a 12-century Latin love poem called ‘Pamphilus, seu de amore’. This anonymous poem was so popular that it was copied and passed around from person to person. The Middle French title was ‘Pamphilet’ and from this we get the English word ‘pamphlet’. Because the poem wasn’t bound, eventually ‘pamphlet’ came to mean any unbound text that’s shorter than a book.

The poem’s about leading man Pamphilus trying to woo (I like the word woo) a lady by the name of Galatea through the mediation of a procuress. I don’t know what this means but it sounds dirty. Pamphilus’ name comes from the Greek for ‘beloved of all’. Aw.


I can’t actually remember where I saw this, but I wrote it on my whiteboard some time ago as a potential WotW (as no one’s calling it), and who am I to disagree with the whiteboard?

So, prognathous is an adjective which describes someone or something with a protruding lower jaw or chin. You don’t see it so much in us homo sapiens these days, but it was common among Paleolithic humans. The etymology’s pretty straightforward – it comes from the Greek ‘pro’ for ‘forward’ and ‘gnáthos’ for jaw. ‘Normal’ people (by which I mean straight-jawed ones) are orthognathic, and people with overbites (i.e. me when I was at school) are retrognathic (or ‘goofy’ according to a particularly mean girl at St Mary’s Convent School).

Hmmm, this isn’t terribly interesting is it (it’s certainly no ‘avocado’)? I’m rather disappointed in my whiteboard.


But Emma, I hear you cry, everyone knows what an avocado is! They do indeed. But I’ve chosen it because it has really interesting etymology (not an oxymoron if you’re a word geek like me).

The word avocado comes from the Aztec (technically Nahuatl Indian) word ‘ahuácatl’ which means, wait for it... testicle. Whether that’s because of its shape or the fact that the Aztecs thought it was an aphrodisiac is up for debate. In 1915 a group of American avocado farmers met up to talk about the fact that they weren’t selling very well. They decided it was because ‘ahuácatl’ was too hard for people to say (and, presumably, they didn’t appreciate the whole testicle thing). So they just changed the name. They also decided that the plural would be ‘avocados’, not ‘avocadoes’ which was very conscientious of them (I appreciate that). They then wrote to dictionary publishers to let them know that they’d renamed the ahuácatl. And, somehow, everyone just got on board with it.

Avocados have also been rebranded much more recently. When M&S started stocking them in the 60s, they were sold as ‘avocado pears’ (even though botanically they’re actually large berries). They immediately got lots of complaints from customers who’d stewed them and served them with custard, which was obviously disgusting. So M&S stores then started giving out leaflets with each avocado explaining that they were for salads, not for dessert. (Thanks to the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast for the avocado info.)

Last year, M&S started selling stoneless avocados to try to reduce the amount of injuries that they cause. Yep, you did read that right. A&E departments now see regular cases of ‘avocado hand’ which can have serious surgical ramifications (even greatest-actress-of-her-generation Meryl Streep had to have hand surgery in 2012 after cutting herself while preparing an avocado – NO ONE’S SAFE). As someone who regularly injures herself in the kitchen (and elsewhere in the house – the other day I cut my thumb while I was in the bath), it’s probably quite lucky that I don’t like avocados.


I chose this purely because it’s fun to say. Go on, give it a go. Nice, right?

A whiffler is someone who constantly changes their mind or opinion – one who whiffles. Etymology-wise, it’s onomatopoeic, which might be why it’s so nice to say. It’s named for the sound the wind makes. Aw.

There are actually loads of definitions of the verb ‘to whiffle’ – so many in fact that I’m amazed it’s not still in general use. If you’ve got some time on your hands you can find out what they are on Wikipedia (and also more about the game Whiffleball. That’s really a thing). Oh, and there’s also a Wetherspoon’s pub in Norwich called The Whiffler. When I googled it I found this gem in the Q&A section, apparently from former Bond actor Roger Moore:



The word of the week was going to be something I heard at the choir I sing in last night (‘chromatic’). But I had a couple of beers last night and now it seems way too complicated to work out what it actually means. So instead I stuck my finger in the nearest book, which happened to be the ‘Norton Anthology of English Literature’ (I definitely didn’t have to move loads of Jilly Coopers and Stephen Kings out of the way before I got to that). And the word of the week, clodpole, comes courtesy of ‘Volpone’ by Ben Jonson.

A clodpole is a foolish, clumsy or awkward person. ‘Clod’ is middle English for a lump of earth and ‘pole’ means ‘head’. So it’s ye olde worlde version of ‘blockhead’.

Interesting fact alert: Ben Jonson was buried standing up in Westminster Abbey (he’s the only one – everyone else is in the more traditional lying-down position). Apparently this was because he could only afford a plot that was two feet by two feet. And just to add insult to injury, they then spelled his name wrong on his tombstone (‘Ben Johnson’). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – everybody needs a proofreader. (If you fancy some insults from days of yore, have a look at my blog, featuring gems like ‘scobberlotcher’, ‘beardsplitter’ and ‘gillie-wet-foot’.)


Inspired by the French Open tennis tournament which is on at the moment, a tweener is a between-the-legs shot, when a player runs to return a lob and doesn’t have time to turn round, so hits the ball backward between their legs. It’s generally a last reserve in competition, although it turns up a lot when people are showing off in exhibition matches.

Beloved of modern players like del Potro, Kyrgios and Radwańska, the tweener pioneer is retired Argentine player Guillermo Vilas. He used it a lot throughout his career in the 70s, and his version was called the ‘Gran Willy’ (literally ‘the great willy’, snigger – I don’t know why). In fact, he claims to have invented it (as does a French player by the name of Yannick Noah), but it’s a bit hard to prove this. Gabriela Sabatini was also a fan, and her version was called the ‘Sabatweenie’. Famously, Federer used a front-facing tweener to get himself a match point in the 2009 US Open semi-final, and called it ‘the greatest shot I ever hit in my life’. Here’s a video of some awesome tweeners.



This week’s word of the week is in honour of a little event which took place last Saturday – Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Despite swearing that I wasn’t going to watch it, I accidentally switched over to the coverage and then couldn’t drag myself away. For three hours. Yes, there were tears. But there were also two exclamations when Rose Hudson-Wilkin did her reading at the ceremony:

  1. Yay, there’s a Wilkin at the royal wedding! and

  2. What the heck’s a prebendary?


Luckily, the internet knows everything. So, a prebendary is a senior member of the clergy, who used to be supported by money from an estate or parish, called a prebend. Nowadays only Wells Cathedral (been there – it’s lovely) and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin (haven’t been there) still call their canons (the religious kind, not the ones you shoot people with/out of – that’s cannons) ‘prebendaries’. For everyone else it’s an honorary title given to senior parish priests to recognise long service.

Oh, and if you’re a prebendary, you get a special seat in cathedrals, usually at the back of the choir stalls. It’s called, unimaginatively, the prebendal stall.


According to Rachel Riley on BBC News this morning, it’s National Numeracy Day today. So I thought I’d find an interesting word to do with maths. I failed at this (not to say there aren’t any interesting maths words – just none of them interested me this morning. I have a very short attention span).

Obviously my next port of call for an idea was the box set I’m watching at the moment – a Danish drama on Netflix called ‘The Rain’. That took me to English words we get from Danish. And one of these is femto, a prefix in the metric system from the Danish word for 15, ‘femten’. A femtometre is equal to one quadrillionth of a meter (we got there eventually). Which is really freaking small. To put that into some kind of context, a proton has a diameter of roughly 1.6 femtometers. Like I said, they’re really freaking small.


According to the internet, it was World Password Day on 3 May (although their definition of ‘World’ seems to mean ‘American’). So, this got me thinking – when did the word ‘password’ come in to being? And is its etymology as simple as it looks? Well, it turns out it is, so I decided to not make that the word of the week. Instead, I went with a word I found while doing my (very short) research on ‘password’.

A shibboleth is a word, phrase, custom, etc, that’s only known to a certain group of people, so you can use it to prove you’re a real member of that group. Think Michael Fassbender in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ when he blows his cover as a German after using the wrong hand gesture.

You’ve probably guessed from the spelling, but shibboleth is a Hebrew word. It comes from the story of the Gileadites in the Hebrew Bible. They used the word to identify Ephraimites who couldn’t pronounce the ‘sh’ sound – so if they tried to say ‘shibboleth’ it came out wrong. I’m not sure what happened to them once they were identified, but I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t good.


I worked out what last week’s word of the week was supposed to be! As mentioned last week, an anthropoglot is an animal with a tongue like a human, meaning it can mimic human speech (one dictionary I looked at said it was an ‘animal with a tongue like that of man’ which sounds gross, and a bit sexist). So, that’s parrots and that dog off the telly who can say ‘sausages’.

There’s more about anthropoglots, including an ELEPHANT THAT CAN SPEAK KOREAN, here.


Sometimes the word of the week is something topical, or something with interesting etymology. And sometimes, it’s just because it’s nice to say. That’s what I’ve gone with this week.

I heard tubercle on ‘The Chase’ the other day (for those of you who work 9 to 5, ’The Chase’ is an afternoon quiz show hosted by the super-giggly Bradley Walsh). A tubercle is basically a knobbly thing on a plant or animal. Specifically, that’s a protuberance at the top of a rib; various sticky-out things in the central nervous system, organs or on the skin; and finally, a lesion caused by tuberculosis. Well, I said it sounded nice, I didn’t say it meant something nice…

If you’re still reading, here are some videos of Bradley Walsh completely losing it on ‘The Chase’.


When I was doing the word of the week last week, I used the word ‘bugbear’. And then I realised that I don’t actually know where the word ‘bugbear’ comes from. You know what it means: it’s a thing that’s annoying (although having looked it up in the dictionary, it actually means a thing that causes obsessive anxiety – so a thing that’s REALLY annoying). But the etymology itself is interesting (not an oxymoron).

A bugbear’s a mythological type of hobgoblin used by parents to frighten naughty children. The name comes from the Middle English word ‘bugge’ which means a frightening thing (there are also similar words in old Welsh and Scottish – ‘bwg’ and ‘bogill’), and it’s probably where the more well-known term ‘bogeyman’ comes from. In a 1565 Italian play called ‘The Buggbear’, it was a bear that lurked in the forest to frighten those poor kiddies again. Scary.


Okay, so this one stems from a bugbear of mine (I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I have one or two of these. By which I mean hundreds). If you’ve ever watched a fantasy film or TV show, you’ve probably heard a Gandalf-esque character yell something about sending some monster back ‘from whence it came’. But ‘whence’ actually means ‘from which’ or ‘from where’ – so they’re saying they’re going to send said monster back ‘from from where it came’. Which is just stupid.

Even bloody Elrond in Lord of the Rings gets it wrong at the unimaginatively named Council of Elrond – ‘[The ring] must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came’. For shame Elrond. It’s the olde-worlde equivalent of saying ‘pin number’.


Now, I thought memes were the remit of the young folks, and always preceded by the word ‘internet’. But the word itself has actually been around since 1976. It was coined by Richard Dawkins and refers to how ideas can spread from person to person by repetition and replication. So things like fairytales, jokes, rhymes, and so on, are in fact memes. Interesting, right? Here’s the bit of text from ‘The Selfish Gene’ where Dawkins coined it:

‘We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene”. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory”, or to the French word même.’


Despite the fact that lots of us, myself included, spent last weekend huddled round a log fire/radiator/bottle of whisky to escape the snow, it was officially the first day of spring yesterday. So this week’s word of the week is: equinox.

The equinox is when night and day last for the same amount of time. There are two a year, and Wikipedia tells me that it’s when the northern and southern hemispheres are equally illuminated (along with lots of other more complicated sciencey stuff). So that’s nice.

‘Equi’ means ‘equal’ and ‘nox’ means ‘night’ in Latin, which is weirdly logical for the English language. This one’s called the vernal equinox, vernal being from the Latin for spring, and the other one’s called the autumnal equinox which is, well, it’s just English isn’t it. There’s more on equinoxes here.


Nope, that’s not a typo (even though there’s lot of red underlining under it while I’m writing it). Masculate is exactly what you’re imagining – the opposite of emasculate. So it means to make something more masculine. You can also say that you’re masculinising something (which sounds made up but really isn't).

I came across this because I was investigating whether there’s a female equivalent of ‘emasculate’ (as in to deprive a man of his male role or identity, rather than the more literal definition of castration). Turns out there isn’t. *shakes fist at patriarchy*


Sometimes we just like words because of how they sound, and this is one of those. You can probably guess what it means – it’s the last stage of human decomposition when all the fleshy bits have gone (there are three others: autolysis, bloat (lovely) and active decay). Nice.

PS I don’t recommend a Google image search of this like I just accidentally did (especially not if you’re feeling a little bit delicate after the night before). Not nice.