March 2019



Widdershins means ‘anticlockwise’. It dates back to the early 1500s when it first turned up in written form in a translation of ‘The Aenied’. It comes from an old German word ‘weddersinnes’, which literally translates as ‘against the way’. That’s because when you go round something anticlockwise, you’re going the opposite way to the sun, which was an important part of lots of pre-Christian religions. Hence the ‘against’.

You might well have come across ‘widdershins’ if you’ve ever read any fiction with a witch in it – they’re always running round stuff widdershins when they’re doing spells. Or if you’ve read any of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series – it’s one of the four basic directions (the others being hubwards, rimwards and turnwise).

Doing anything widdershins – i.e. to the left – was generally seen as wrong or bad luck. Here in Blighty, it was thought to be unlucky to go widdershins round a church – see the fairy tale ‘Childe Rowland’, where Rowland and his sister are whisked off to Elfland after she does just that.

The left has long been associated with bad luck and even evil. The Latin word for left is ‘sinistra’, which is where we get ‘sinister’ from. Left-handed people were often considered ‘touched by the devil’ (with apologies to my left-handed mum and any left-handed pals), I presume only because they were in the minority. The left was also often associated with femininity (for example by the ancient Celts who treated it as sacred), which might be another reason that people later became suspicious of it. I KNEW IT WOULD BE THE PATRIARCHY’S FAULT. There’s an interesting article about all that here.

I’m going to go and run round a church the wrong way now in search of Legolas.


You know what this means (cos you is well clever): to boycott something is to refuse to use or buy it because you don’t approve of it. I’ve chosen the word because the etymology is really interesting.

The word boycott is named for one Captain Charles Boycott. Here’s his story.

It’s 1880. The Irish Land War is in full swing (the details of which I won’t go into – basically Irish farmers were cross about stuff). Charles Boycott was the land agent of a landowner called Lord Erne. Harvests had been a bit rubbish that year, so Lord E told his tenants he’d knock 10 per cent off their rents. The tenants wanted a 25 per cent reduction, which he said no to. Boycott then tried to evict 11 of these tenants. Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist politician, did a speech where he said that people should shun any new tenants who took farms where other tenants had been booted out. Even though Parnell’s speech didn’t actually say anything about land agents or landlords, Boycott’s tenants decided to use this tactic as a protest against the evictions. So they stopped working in the fields and in his house, and stopped trading with him – apparently the local postman even refused to bring him his post. So he couldn’t order anything from Amazon, poor man.

Some more stuff happened (I know, I’m a regular David Starkey – if you’re really interested, google it) and in the 19th-century equivalent of putting a cat in a bin, Boycott's name was everywhere. It wasn’t long before it became synonymous with leaving something all on its own – in 1880, 'The Times' first used the word ‘boycott’ to mean organised isolation: ‘The people of New Pallas have resolved to “boycott” them and refused to supply them with food or drink.”

Charles Boycott went on to move to my neck of the woods (that’s Suffolk for anyone who doesn’t know), and apparently continued to go back to Ireland on holiday. So all the furore doesn’t seem to have done him any damage. His story has since been immortalised in several books and was even made into a film starring Stewart Granger in 1947 (called, unimaginatively, ‘Captain Boycott’).

(Even though it technically has nothing to do with the patriarchy, the word ‘girlcott’ also sort-of exists – it was coined in 1968 by American track star Lacey O'Neal during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. She actually used it to tell women competitors not to ‘girlcott’ the Olympics – because female athletes needed to focus on being recognised, not disappearing completely.)


Adumbrate is a verb which has four meanings (greedy). They are:

  1. To represent in outline. As in ‘I adumbrated the idea of how to make the perfect gin and tonic.’

  2. To indicate faintly. As in ‘the kitchen was only adumbrated by the light from the fridge as I poured my gin and tonic’.

  3. To overshadow. As in ‘Emma’s plans to vacuum her flat were adumbrated by her need for a gin and tonic’.

  4. To foreshadow a future event. As in… well, I can’t think of a gin and tonic-related example of this, so I’ll just give you the one on the OED page: ‘tenors solemnly adumbrate the fate of the convicted sinner’. Ooer. You might need a gin after that.

Now, I know all my readers are super clever, so you’ve probably already clocked some of the etymology here. The ‘umbrate’ bit comes from ‘umbra’, which is Latin for shadow. Other words we get from ‘umbra’ include: ‘umbrella’ (obvs – because it gives shade); umbrageous (future word of the week) which means (spoiler alert!) ‘affording shade’; and ‘umbrage’ as in ‘Professor’ and ‘to take offence’. In the past (vague, sorry) ‘umbrage’ was also a synonym for ‘shadow’. For an example of this see a poem (which doesn’t seem to have a name) by one William Drummond of Hawthornden:

‘About her flow’d a gowne as pure as light; Deare amber lockes gave umbrage to her face.’