September 2018


So this is another one which came from a book I’m reading (‘Lud-In-The-Mist’ by Hope Mirrlees – ‘the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century’ according to Neil Gaiman). It means ‘having an expressive and especially plaintive quality’. So basically it’s a sad, melancholic sound. Like the pounding of waves on a lonely beach. Or a bell echoing through an empty church… *stares off dreamily into middle distance*

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. Back to the reason we’re here. ‘Plangent’ comes from ‘plangere’, a Latin word which has two meanings. The first is ‘to beat’ as in beating your chest in grief (like I did today when I realised my favourite cheese was out of stock at Ocado) and the other is ‘lamenting’. So, all in all, a plangent sound probably isn’t a particularly cheery one.


Now, if you ever watched ‘Bo’ Selecta!’ on Channel 4, then you might be thinking of a certain sketch involving pretend-Lorraine Kelly doing a Sharon-Stone-in-Basic-Instinct (that’s as much as I’m going to say for fear of breaching Facebook’s decency standards). Or at least that’s what immediately sprung to my mind when I saw this in a book I’m reading at the moment. As it’s set in the 1930s, I assumed this wasn’t the right meaning and immediately headed to Google.

According to Collins’ English Dictionary, a growlery is ‘a place of refuge or retreat when one is out of sorts or in ill-humour’ (unless you look on the Urban Dictionary where it’s something else entirely – I’ll leave it to you to look that up if you want to). So, literally somewhere to go and growl.

A ‘growlery’ is generally used to describe a man’s study. Dickens used it a lot in ‘Bleak House’:

‘…“Sit down, my dear,’ said Mr. Jarndyce. ‘This, you must know, is the growlery. When I am out of humour, I come and growl here.’”

Sadly, the word itself looks set to disappear, having been removed from the OED in 2011 (heart = broken). I suppose the closest equivalent today would be the horrendous ‘man-cave’. But why on earth would you use that when you can have a gender-neutral growlery?


I watched the British horror film ‘Ghost Stories’ this weekend (not great – it all felt a bit like it was patting itself on the back at how clever it is – the stage show was better and more scary). It’s about a man who debunks (i.e. exposes as false) ghost stories. Which got me wondering – where does the word ‘debunk’ originate from? And it turns out it has a very interesting backstory (which is lucky – otherwise this really wouldn’t be worth reading).

So, the ‘de’ prefix refers to reversing or undoing something. But it’s the ‘bunk’ bit that’s interesting. You might have already guessed that it comes from ‘bunkum’ meaning ‘nonsense’ (which is really nice to say – go on, give it a go. Bunkum. The louder the better. Assuming you’re not sitting on a train or in a library or anything like that). Bunkum is a phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina in the US of A. In 1841, one Felix Walker, who was something important which I don’t really understand in the US Congress, started a very long and boring speech. Despite everyone yelling at him to stop talking, he refused because he wanted to show the people of North Carolina that he was doing his job properly: ‘I shall not be speaking to the House,’ he said, ‘but to Buncombe.’ And from that moment on, ‘bunkum’ became slang for ‘a load of rubbish’.

Not the best thing to be remembered for, but still, better than nothing, right? Right?


I saw this in the book I’m reading at the moment (‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson – well worth a read). The author used it to describe the look on a violent husband’s face just before he got wife-beaty (that’s not cheery, sorry). It’s a mainly Scottish adjective which means misshapen or crooked, as well as obstinate or recalcitrant. It’s generally used in a negative way (as in the wife beater), but can also be used for someone who’s admirably determined to do something.

Etymology-wise, it comes from the Old English word ‘thrawen’ which means to twist or turn. This meaning survived in Scottish as the verb ‘thraw’. In 1881 Robert Louis Stephenson published a short story in Scots called ‘Thrawn Janet’ about a preacher who hires a local crone (funny how there’s no male equivalent of a crone) as a housekeeper. Suspected of being in league with the devil (probably just because she’s old and female), the preacher has her renounce Satan. The next day she appears with a ‘thrawn’ (for which read twisted) neck, as if she’s been hanged. Here’s our word in action:

‘For there was Janet … wi’ her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp.’

(If you want to find out what happens next, the whole story’s online here.)

‘Thrawn’ doesn’t turn up much these days, although (if you’ll just allow me to geek out for a moment), there is a Grand Admiral Thrawn in a series of novels in the Star Wars extended universe, before the latest films made them no longer canon. He’s got blue skin and is a bit of a bastard. This probably doesn’t have anything to do with the Scots word as it’s short for Mitth’raw’nuruodo (obvs), but it’s a nice coincidence nonetheless.