October 2018


This is of course in honour of Halloween. So, etymology. The word pumpkin comes from ‘pepon’, which is Greek for ‘large melon’. The French changed this to ‘pompon’, which we then changed to ‘pumpion’. Then at some point American colonists changed it to ‘pumpkin’.

The term ‘pumpkin’ doesn’t have an agreed botanical or scientific meaning. So it can refer to basically any kind of winter squash-type vegetable.

Some pumpkin facts for you (feel free to use these to bore any trick or treaters tonight).

  • The oldest pumpkin seeds were found in Mexico and are believed to date from between 7000 and 5500 BC.

  • According to www.giantpumpkin.com, the record for the largest pumpkin is 2,624 pounds. It was grown in 2016 by a surprisingly attractive Belgian man called Mathias Willemijns, and weighed a whopping 300 pounds more than the previous winner.

  • Although you might think it’s an American tradition, carving pumpkins for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man named ‘Stingy Jack’. To cut a long legend short, Stingy Jack is a drunkard who attracts Satan’s attention because of all his drinking and general bad-deed-doing. Through various shenanigans and trickery Jack manages to get away from the devil, so much so that when he dies, he ends up wandering the world, doomed never to be able to enter heaven or hell. And the only thing that lights his way is an ember inside a hollowed-out turnip. At some point turnips were superseded by pumpkins, apparently for the only reason that they’re easier to carve.

  • Pumpkin chucking (also called punkin chunkin and pumpkin chunking), is the ‘sport’ of throwing pumpkins as far as possible using mechanical things including slingshots, catapults, trebuchets and pneumatic cannons (I don’t know what a ‘pneumatic canon’ is but I want one). The record is 5,545.43 feet (1,690.25 meters). Unfortunately the last event in 2017 ended in a lawsuit (someone got hit in the head), so the future of punkin chunkin is uncertain. Shame.


To scurryfunge is to rush around cleaning when you find out someone’s on their way over. Another definition I found has it as ‘a hasty tidying of the house between the time you see a neighbour and the time she knocks on the door’.

I’ve struggled a bit to find the etymology of this and it’s not entirely clear where it comes from. It’s described as Old English (which means it appeared any time from 450AD to the Norman Conquest) on a lot of sites, and it definitely sounds like that. But the earliest proper reference I can find to it is in the late 18th century, where its meaning is shown as ‘to beat or lash’, and later ‘to rub or scrub clean’. It then disappeared for a while before reappearing in the mid-19th century with the meaning mentioned above. It looks like this might have happened with some confusion around the word ‘scurry’ i.e. ‘to move in or as if in a brisk pace’ or ‘to move around in an agitated, confused or fluttering manner’.

Thanks to my friend Lorna for telling me about this word when she came round for tea at the weekend. I don’t know why she thought of it when she came to my house though.


So, I thought having the collywobbles was the same as having the heebie-jeebies i.e. being a bit scared of something (like spiders or lack of wi-fi coverage). And while that is one of its more common uses nowadays, it used to mean an upset stomach or, as I prefer to call it, the squiddly dits.

No one’s entirely sure where ‘collywobbles’ came from, but it might have some fairly dark origins. One is that the ‘colly’ bit comes from the Middle English word for ‘coal’. This refers to the dodgy stomach you get from breathing in coal dust down in the pits or up a chimney if you’re an urchin. Or it might be a corruption of the medical term for cholera, ‘cholera morbus’.

‘Collywobbles’ first turned up in a book called ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ by Francis Grose which was published in 1785. It’s a compendium of slang that Samuel Johnson (he of dictionary-writing fame) decided was too rude or just not good enough for his book. Grose apparently compiled it by boozing with the hoi-polloi in less salubrious areas of London. Now that’s my kind of academic research.

You can find the whole of ‘A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ here. There’s also an excellent list of now-obsolete slang including ‘captain queernabs’ (a ‘shabby ill-dressed fellow’) and ‘chimping merry’ (to be ‘exhilarated with liquor’ – which I imagine Mr Grose was after all that ‘research’).


Nope, not a small urge.

*clears throat and puts on posh voice*

In the Platonic, Middle Platonic, Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean schools of philosophy, the demiurge is responsible for building and arranging the physical universe. He/she/it isn’t necessarily the same as ‘god’ though – depending on the belief system, they might be, but they might also have been created by some other all-powerful being to do all the hard work so they don’t have to.

The word itself comes from the Greek word dēmiourgos (via the Latin ‘demiurgus’). It was originally an everyday noun which meant ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan’. Gradually it came to mean ‘producer’, and then ‘creator’.

Having said all that, I also found a source where ‘dēmiourgos’ is translated as ‘public worker’. This is my favourite definition as (in my head at least) it has connotations of admin and paperwork. I like the idea of all-powerful beings still having to fill in spreadsheets and raise purchase orders.


A termagant is a shrewish woman. Because, patriarchy. Grrr.

Okay, sorry. Actually, termagant only started being applied to women around the 16th century. Before that it was a name given to a god which Christians believed Muslims worshipped (for various reasons which mainly involve Christians being confused about every other religion). By Shakespeare’s time a ‘termagant’ had become a theatrical archetype for a ranting, bullying type (see ‘Henry IV, Part I’ for an example: ‘that hot termagant Scot’). And probably because the termagant often wore long robes, and because all the parts were played by men anyway (grrr again) audiences starting thinking of them as female. By the late 17th century this was firmly entrenched – Thomas Shadwell's play ‘The Squire of Alsatia’ had a character called Mrs Termagant who’s described as a ‘furious, malicious, and revengeful woman’.

Termagant still gets used these days, and actually turned up fairly recently in an equal opportunity insult (yay!). In 2008, the Australian politician Kim Beazley called his opponent Tony Abbott a termagant.