Word of the week


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.



No, not a fear of cowboys (because it has ‘lasso’ in it, geddit?). Thalassophobia is a fear of the ocean. It also includes fear of water or waves, fear of the vast emptiness of the sea, fear of distance from land and/or fear of all the scary-ass freaky things that live in the ocean. I think I might have thalassophobia.

Photo by  Jakob Owens  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The word comes from the Greek thalassa which means ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ and phobos meaning ‘fear’ or ‘dread’. Phobos is the personification of fear in Greek myth. His twin brother was Deimos, the god of terror. Probably not fun at dinner parties.

Want to find out if you have thalassophobia? Take this not-at-all-scientific test. Or watch this video of a colossal squid *shudders*

Thalassophobia is not to be confused with ‘aquaphobia’ which is the fear of Danish-Norwegian bubblegum pop music. Not really! It’s actually the fear of all kinds of water bodies (including, for some poor souls, fear of water in the bath). There’s also ‘hydrophobia’ which is the fear of any type of water, including drinking it. People with advanced rabies get hydrophobia, meaning they have difficulty swallowing, panic when given water to drink, and can’t quench their thirst.

Well, that ruined the mood, didn’t it? This will cheer you up (or make you want to rip off your ears):


Nope, I haven’t suddenly gone all political – this doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit. Ironically, it means ‘a sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story’ – so a happy ending when it looks like everything’s lost, basically (I think this is ironic – as previously mentioned I’m not entirely sure I understand irony. Not an Alanis Morissette level of not-understanding, but I do sometimes have to go on isitironic.com to check).

The writer JRR Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe by sticking the Greek prefix ‘eu’, which means ‘good’, in front of ‘catastrophe’ (you know what that means). An example of eucatastrophe in ‘Lord of the Rings’ is (spoiler alert!) when Frodo gets all caught up in the ring’s thrall and Gollum appears out of nowhere to try to steal it from him, then he and it fall in the lava. Oh, and the bloody eagles (if Gandalf had just called the eagles right at the start to fly Frodo and the ring to the Cracks of Doom immediately, they all could have been home in time for second breakfast).

So, whether you’re a leaver or remainer, we can all hope that the current EU catastrophe ends with an eucatastrophe.

SHAMELESS PLUG: If you’re interested in other words that authors have coined, check out my blog.


First of all, I’d like you to hazard a guess as to what this means. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Okay, got something? If you’re anything like me, you probably decided it means something religious. Because it looks like ‘ecclesiastical’, right? (If your brain went somewhere else entirely, do let me know in the comments. Or if you already know what this means, then well done you – you get a metaphorical gold star.) Well, I’m afraid you’re wrong. In fact, you couldn’t be wronger (which I know isn’t a word). An ‘ecdysiast’ is… wait for it… a stripper. The clothes-taking-off kind, not the painter and decorator one.

The word was coined by HL Mencken, an American journalist and English scholar. He took it from the Greek word ‘ekdysis’ which means ‘a stripping or casting off’. ‘ekdysis’ is generally used scientifically to describe an animal which sheds its skin (like snakes and… some other animals which I don’t know).

‘ecdysiast’ is described on a couple of pages I looked at as ‘facetious’, so I don’t think Mr Mencken was being entirely serious when he came up with it…


I’ve picked this because it’s nice to say. Go on, give it a go. Ab-squat-ulate. And, because it sounds like ‘sasquatch’ which is also nice to say.

Now we’ve all finished saying it, we should probably talk about what it means. It’s a relatively young word, only appearing in the mid 19th century. It means to leave quickly or abruptly. So you could say ‘the sasquatch absquatulated’. I’m not sure what situation you’d have to be in which would make it appropriate to say this, but never mind.

 ‘Absquatulate’ came about as part of an odd trend in 1830s America for making up words that sounded vaguely Latin (and therefore, presumably, clever). It’s probably a blend of ‘abscond’, ‘squattle’ which means ‘squat down’, and ‘perambulate’. Some other words that came out of this include ‘discombobulate’ and ‘bloviate’, which are also fun to say.

We had something similar on this side of the pond with grammatical rules, where the Victorians decided to impose Latin grammar rules on English, even though they don’t actually apply. That’s one of the reasons lots of us were taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ when in fact, it isn’t (don’t believe me? Here’s the OED saying that it’s absolutely fine).


Nope, not a super-relaxed epic Greek poem (and the award for the most obscure joke ever goes to…). A chiliad is a noun for a group of a thousand things. You can also use it for years – so it’s a somewhat poncy alternative to ‘millennium’ (and also works in that Robbie Williams song, if you sing it slowly). ‘Chiliad’ is actually older than ‘millennium’, and first appeared in the late 1500s, whereas the m-one (I have trouble spelling it, so I’m not typing it again) didn’t turn up in written English until the following century. Unsurprisingly, both words come from other words for ‘thousand’ – ‘chiliad’ from the Greek word ‘chilioi’, and ‘millennium’ (I copied and pasted it that time) from the Latin ‘mille’.

There’s also a thing called ‘chiliasm’, which is nothing to do with orgasms, sorry – it’s a religious belief that before the final judgement, we’ll get a paradise or golden age on Earth (it’s safe to say that doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon). And if you’re one of those religious people, then you’re ‘chiliastic’.

Sadly, chiliad is actually pronounced with a hard ‘c’ – think ‘cat’ or ‘Cillian Murphy’ (because it’s always nice to think about Cillian Murphy). This obviously makes it less fun, as it no longer sounds like it’s related to ‘chillax’, which is why I’ve left it til the end to tell you that.


A catafalque’s a raised box or platform used to support a coffin, casket or dead body at a Christian funeral or memorial service. If someone super-famous dies and then gets to lie in state (so people can pay their respects/check out their dead bod), the thing the body is on is called a catafalque.

Sources can’t seem to agree where the word itself comes from. It might be from ‘catafalco’ which is an Italian word for ‘scaffolding’, although that seems a little bit disrespectful to the deados. The OED basically says it doesn’t know (which is useful). I presume the ‘cat’ bit probably shares its origins with ‘catacombs’. This comes from the Latin word ‘catacumbas’, the name of an underground cemetery near Rome.

Believe it or not, there are a couple of quite famous catafalques. You can even go and see one of them – the Lincoln catafalque, which was built in 1865 for Abraham Lincoln’s casket. This is described on Wikipedia as ‘hastily constructed’. If it’s anything like any of the flatpacked furniture I’ve put together over the years, this doesn’t bode well for it supporting the weight of anybody’s body. But whoever built it apparently had access to more tools than just a free B&Q Allen key, as it’s still standing. Over the years it’s played host to several ex-prezs, including JFK, both Hoovers, Eisenhower and Reagan. There’s more on the Lincoln catafalque here.

Interesting fact alert: generally speaking, you can only lie in state in a government building. If you’re displayed anywhere else, then you’re ‘lying in repose’.

I realise I might have misused the word ‘interesting’ there, sorry.


Right, confession time – when I was younger I thought ‘hubris’ was a good thing. I was a bit vague on what that was, but I was under the impression that it was positive. It was only in the fairly recent past that I realised it’s not (see also: ‘acrimonious’ – for ages I thought all those people going through ‘acrimonious’ divorces were having lovely, civilised break-ups. WRONG).

Anyway, as I’m sure you’re much cleverer than me dear reader, you probably already know that hubris describes the quality of extreme pride or over confidence. It’s often applied to people who are so full of their own self-importance that they’ve lost touch with reality. (There are so many world leaders, both past and present, I could use as examples here. Instead I’ll just leave it to you to fill in the blank.)

The word ‘hubris’ comes to us from Greek. It meant something different originally – it referred to someone getting pleasure from carrying out a crime or similar action that humiliated their victim. Due to a linguistic mix-up, some Greek poets, possibly Aeschylus or Hesiod, changed its meaning to refer to pride so great it offended the gods (apologies for being a bit vague here, but it’s quite a long boring explanation which you won’t care about – trust me).

Here are some famous examples of hubris in literature.

  • Icarus – Daedalus, Icarus’ dad, designed and built the Cretan labyrinth for King Minos, who then imprisoned them in it (which seems a bit out of order, Minos). They escaped using wings made of wax that Daedalus invented. Despite being able to build a FREAKING LABYRINTH, Daed apparently didn’t think to tell his son that wax melts in the heat, only not to go too high. Icarus didn’t take any notice of his pa (because, hubris) and flew too close to the sun. And you know the rest.

  • Oedipus – he tried to defy a prophecy from the gods that said he’d kill his dad and boff his mum. Even though it seems a bit mean, this apparently counts as hubris (the prophecy defying, not the patricide and incest – the gods actively encouraged that). He was punished for this by accidentally doing both those things anyway. Ouch.

  • Lucifer – the whole ‘I’m-better-than-you-dad’ thing didn’t end well for Lucifer (assuming being king of hell counts as a punishment which depends on your point of view, and which TV shows you’ve watched – I’m looking at you ‘Lucifer Morningstar’).

  • Dr Strange – portrayed by Benedict Cucumberpatch in the Marvel movie, Steven Strange thinks he’s the best neurosurgeon in the world. His arrogance leads him to have an accident which ruins his hands and means he can’t operate any more. To be fair, he then *SPOILER ALERT* goes on to become an all-powerful wizard who can manipulate time and space, so it’s not all bad.

  • Victor Frankenstein – god knows we’ve all wanted to build a man at one point or another, but this hubristic idea never ends well, as Vic can attest to after his monster murders most of his friends and family. This also applies to Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He may have been a sweet transvestite, but ‘making a man, with blond hair and a tan’ also proved to be his downfall.

Oh, I almost forgot – the word ‘hubris’ itself might have come from the name of a minor Greek goddess called Hybris, who was the deity of insolence, violence and outrageous behaviour. I bet she’d be a riot at a party.



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.’