Words of the week

Every week, I add a word of the week to my Facebook page. Sometimes they’re words I don’t know, sometimes they’re words I know with unusual etymology, and sometimes they’re just words that sound nice (and, very occasionally, they’re words I’ve found after sticking my finger in the dictionary). I’ve collated them all below for your viewing pleasure.

‘Etymology illuminates – a mundane word is suddenly starlit.’

Robert Macfarlane, ‘Landmarks’

(PS These are in the order I posted them on Facebook – so the top one is the most recent. Sometimes they have topical references, which might not make sense if you’re reading this in the future. Sorry about that. And if you want to read them all, first of all, I salute you, and second of all, you might want to start from the bottom up. Trust me, it’ll make more sense.)


arseling

This is because I’ve been binge watching ‘The Last Kingdom’ on Netflix (when I’m not working really hard of course). If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fictionalised retelling of when the Danes came over here and pillaged all our villages in the 9th century (Wessex being the titular last kingdom as it was the last major stronghold against them). There’s lots of mud, blood and bare bums. The main character is called Uhtred of Bebbanburg, although his bezzie Anglo-Saxon mate calls him (you’ve guessed it), arseling.

Sadly, an arseling isn’t a baby arse. Nor is it quite as insulting as it sounds – it means, simply, ‘backwards’. The original spelling was ‘earsling’ and first turned up in written form in 1050 in a manuscript called the ‘Paris Psalter’. The exact phrase was ‘Syn hi gecyrde on earsling’, which means ‘Let them be turned backwards’. And that’s it. It’s not found in any other writing until a poem from 1768 called ‘The Fortunate Shepherdess’ by Alexander Ross (nope, me neither). This means that the OED has pronounced it officially obsolete, although this might well change now, thanks to its resurgence in ‘The Last Kingdom’. Who says TV rots your brain?

Interesting fact: According to one website I looked at (which I’ll give you at the end of this interesting fact, because the address has a big spoiler in it), ‘arseling’ might have been coined by royalty. That’s because the psalm in question was translated by one Alfred the Great. Find out more at https://dutchanglosaxonist.com/…/arseling-a-word-coined-by-… (see what I mean about spoilers?).


gallimaufry

No, not Doctor Who’s home planet*. A gallimaufry is a mixed-up jumble of things. It’s similar to ‘hotchpotch’, in that you can use it for any mixture of stuff. So, I could say there is a gallimaufry of socks in my drawer.

Interestingly (maybe), ‘gallimaufry’ has culinary origins. A ‘galimafree’ was a 16th century French stew. Apparently it wasn’t a very nice stew, as the name actually means ‘unappetising dish’ in Old French. ‘Galimafrée’ itself comes from ‘galer’ for ‘have fun’ and the Picard** word ‘mafrer’, which means to ‘eat copious amounts’. I’m not sure how they got from fun overeating to horrible stew, but somehow they did. And that’s one of the reasons words are great.

In a nice coincidence, the word ‘hotchpotch’ also has a foody background – as well as meaning a mixture of stuff, it’s a type of thick stew with mixed vegetables.

And now I’m hungry.
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* I literally only chose this word so I could make this joke.
** Nope, not Jean-Luc – this means from Picardy, a region of France. Wow, the geeky references are coming thick and fast today, aren’t they?


denizen

You probably already know what it means – a ‘denizen’ is an inhabitant of somewhere, or someone who goes to a place frequently (which means I’m a denizen of the Mason’s Arms in Bury St Edmunds).

I’ve chosen this one because I’ve been watching a lot of horror films and TV series recently (healthy), and it comes up loads in those. One case in point is ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ on Netflix. (It’s excellent, although I kept getting distracted by the beautiful cast and missing the background ghosts. The book it’s based on by Shirley Jackson is also well worth checking out, although it’s completely different to the TV show.) In an interview the creator Mike Flanagan said of the ghosts: ‘They are the denizens of Hill House from years past that the house decided to keep for itself.’ So, I thought I’d look into the etymology of the word and try to work out why, these days, it’s so often applied to things to do with hell, darkness and other supernatural scary-ass things.

Let’s start at the beginning. ‘Denizen’ comes from the Middle English word ‘denisein’ which in turn comes from the Old French word ‘denzein’, from ‘deinz’ for ‘within’, and‎ ‘-ein’ from the Latin deintus or ‘from within’. (I think that makes it ‘within from within’. Useful.)

‘Denizen’ was also a British legal category between the 13th and 19th century, for a foreigner who has certain rights in their adopted country. ‘Denization’ has since been overtaken by ‘naturalisation’, maybe because of its infernal connotations…?

As to why it comes up so often in horror films and literature, well, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe because ‘denizen of hell’ sounds more sinister than ‘occupant of hell’?


bowdlerise

If you bowdlerise text, you censor it by removing or changing anything you think is offensive or vulgar. The word’s named for an English doctor called Thomas Bowdler who was born in 1754. In 1818 he published a book called ‘The Family Shakspeare’ (not a typo – apparently no one knows how to spell Will’s name so it’s changed over time). This was basically the complete works of Shakespeare with all the fun stuff taken out, to make it suitable to be read to women and children. This makes him sound like a bit of a dick, but his expurgated version made Shakespeare accessible to young people. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne said of Bowdler that: ‘…[n]o man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.’ (No mention of the women, but c’est la vie.)

The inspiration for the book came from the fact that Thomas’ father used to read Shakespeare’s plays to him and his five siblings. But it wasn’t until he was grown up that he realised his dad had been taking all the rude bits out. I imagine that this realisation was like when I saw the unedited version of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ for the first time a few years ago, and realised there’s a whole scene of a guy snorting coke at a party that I’d never seen before. I’m still shocked about that.

Having said all that, Bowdler’s nephew wrote that the actual bowdlerising for ‘The Family Shakspeare’ was done by Thomas’ sister Harriet. In an ironic (I think – I’m never entirely sure I understand irony) twist, they probably had to publish under his name because a woman couldn’t publicly admit that (a) she was capable of this type of work, and (b) that she understood the racy stuff she was censoring.


bolus

This one’s kind of gross, but it’s been a while since I did anything disgusting so I think it’s time. A bolus is the big old ball of food and spit that forms in your mouth while you’re chewing, just before you swallow it. I bet you’re picturing that now, right? Ewww.

The word itself comes from the Latin for ‘ball’ and you can also use it for other round stuff, if you really want to. ‘Bolus’ has a couple of other meanings as well – in medicine, it’s a dose of a drug, and in veterinary medicine it’s a large pill.

Don’t confuse it with ‘bolas’, which is a type of throwing weapon made from weights on the end of two ropes. You wouldn’t want to try to swallow one of those.


pumpkin

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.


scurryfunge

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.


collywobbles

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’).


demiurge

*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.


termagant

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.


plangent

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.


growlery

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?


debunk

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?


thrawn

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.


star-crossed

So, I was catching up on my newest guilty pleasure this week, ‘Bondi Rescue’, and one of the lifeguards was putting together an elaborate proposal for his girlfriend (there was a helicopter). Just as they were flying towards the words ‘Marry Me’ written in the sand of Bondi, the voiceover guy described them as ‘star-crossed lovers’. This immediately had me reaching for Google, as I’m sure that the last time I checked, being a star-crossed lover wasn’t a good thing. And I was right – ‘star-crossed’ means to be ‘thwarted by bad luck’.

Etymology wise, there don’t seem to be any references to the word before Mr Shakespeare used it in the prologue of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (spoiler alert!):

‘From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.’

The word comes from the idea that our fates are ruled by the positions of the stars, and that some people are thwarted by evil or malign stars. Hence being ‘star-crossed’, like the unfortunate teen suicides, R+J.

You’ll be pleased to hear that lifeguard Harries and his wife Em are still married, and now have themselves a bub, so it doesn’t seem like they’re at all star-crossed. Not that I’m obsessed with ‘Bondi Rescue’ or anything.

Right, I wonder if I can fit another episode in before I have to earn a living…


paraphernalia

Okay, so you're probably used to using paraphernalia to mean lots of bits and pieces. It’s generally seen as negative as we tend to use it to mean too much stuff (or drug stuff, weirdly). Unfortunately, the origins of the word are actually a bit sexist.

Etymology-wise, it comes from the Greek ‘para’ for ‘distinct from’ and ‘pherna’, from ‘phernē’ or ‘dower’. So it actually means ‘distinct from dowry’, and referred to the personal bits and bobs a bride brought with her to a marriage, other than the all-important dowry. These fluffy female extras were generally regarded as superfluous to requirements, which is why the word now tend to refer to extra things we don’t need. Oh, and in English law up until 1870 (when the first Married Women’s Property Act was passed), all of a woman’s paraphernalia would have become the property of her husband anyway once he got that ring on her finger.


skive

So we all know what skiving is, right? It’s bunking off work or school. Well yes, but this is actually an almost exclusively British use of the word. Skive has another meaning which it seems is more well known away from our shores – to cut thin layers or pieces off a material like leather or rubber. This probably comes from Scandinavia, from ‘skīfa’ which is Old Norse for slice.

Back to bunking off now (figuratively, not literally of course, for any clients who are reading). ‘Skive’ in this context first appeared in print in 1919 and was originally a British military expression. One theory is that it came from another earlier slang meaning of the same word which was ‘to move lightly and quickly, to dart,’ as someone who’s trying to get out of their duties might do. It likely comes from the French word ‘esquiver’ which means to dodge, sidestep or evade. From there we go on an etymological round trip of Europe – ‘esquiver’ probably came from the Spanish word ‘esquivar’ which means unsociable or shy, which itself came from a German word which came from an Italian word (I’ve stopped telling you the words now in case you stop reading/your head explodes), which finally takes us back to France and the Old French word ‘eschiver’.

Opinions differ as to whether you add an ‘off’ or not (as in ‘Emma never skives work’, or ‘Emma is definitely not skiving off work as we speak’).


causerie

Okay, so today I confess I’ve gone a bit poncy, and a bit meta. A causerie is an informal essay or talk, often on a literary subject. Which is what this is, y’see? META.

Causerie comes from ‘causer’, which is français for ‘to chat’. It was popularised by one Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (swoon – French names are so much better than English ones n’est-ce pas?), a writer and critic who published a weekly column in a French newspaper about literary topics called ‘Causeries de lundi’, or ‘Monday chats’ in rubbish old English. As there was no English equivalent (‘funny literary column’ just doesn’t cut it), in the 19th century we went for the age-old solution of just nicking someone else’s.

Whether you choose to say it in an over-exaggerated French accent is entirely up to you.


defenestrate

I’ve picked this one purely because I like it and I don’t think it gets used enough. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s a weirdly grand word for a pretty simple concept; it means to throw something or someone out of a window. The etymology’s straightforward – it comes from the Latin ‘de-’ for ‘out’ and ‘fenestra’ for ‘window’. If you’re the person going out of the window you’re a ‘defenestratee’. And you can also autodefenestrate, which is when you chuck yourself out.

The most famous use of the word is probably the Defenestration of Prague. There are actually two of these (people in Prague seem to like lobbing each other out of windows), but the most well-known was in 1618 when three Catholic officials were thrown from a top-floor window of Prague Castle by Bohemian (the kingdom, not the lifestyle choice) Protestant activists. Despite surviving the 70-foot fall, this event kicked off the Thirty Years’ War – one of the longest and bloodiest wars in European history.

The English poet RP Lister wrote a poem called ‘Defenestration’, which is all about how ridiculous it is that there’s a word for throwing someone out of a window (‘Why, then, of all the possible offences so distressing to humanitarians / Should this one alone have caught the attention of the verbarians?’) which is well worth a read if you have a spare couple of minutes. Oh, and it’s seems to be up for debate as to whether the window has to be open or not before you carry out a defenestration.


velleity

This week I’ve been reading poetry by T.S. Eliot. I’m not just saying that to be poncy – I really have. I realised I’d never read the whole of ‘The Waste Land’ which didn’t seem right, so I bought myself a collection and read it while sitting in the sunshine drinking beer (I find alcohol always helps me understand poetry. Possibly not correctly, but you can’t have everything).

Anyway, back to ‘velleity’. A velleity is ‘a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action’ (from the OED). So basically it’s when you want to do something, but just can’t be arsed. Like pretty much everything in this hot weather. Here it is in plural action in Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’:

‘…And so the conversation slips Among velleities and carefully caught regrets…’

Interesting fact alert: T.S. Eliot is widely credited with being the first person to use the word ‘bullshit’ in print. He wrote a poem called ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’ which is basically an up yours to the literary critics of the time. It also contains the beautifully written refrain ‘For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass’. So, next time you use either of those, you can legit say you’re being intellectual. You’re welcome.


emoji

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. ❤️


egregious

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.


pamphlet

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.


prognathous

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.


avocado

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.


whiffler

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:

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clodpole

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, courtesy of ‘Volpone’ by Ben Jonson, is: clodpole.

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’.)


tweener

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.


prebendary

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?

So, you can probably guess that the word of the week is: prebendary. 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 you get a special seat in cathedrals, usually at the back of the choir stalls, called, unimaginatively, the prebendal stalls.


femtometre

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.


shibboleth

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.


Anthropoglot

I worked out what last week’s word of the week was supposed to be! Drum roll please... The word of the week is: (wait for it) anthropoglot. 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.


dimorphous

The word of the week this week was going to be another one inspired by ‘The Chase’ (other daytime quiz shows are available). But unfortunately I spelled it wrong when I wrote it down, and now I can’t find it. I know it had something to do with animals that can mimic human speech. So after several hours of internet research on parrots (apparently the African Grey is the number one talking bird), the word of the week is: dimorphous.

Yep, I couldn’t work out what the word from ‘The Chase’ was, so I’ve gone with this one instead, which came up a lot during my ill-fated parrot research. Despite sounding like a supervillain from a Marvel comic, dimorphous is when something comes in two distinct forms. It’s mainly used in biology to describe species where the male and female look very different. Think ducks, lions and those weird fish where the female is 50 times bigger than the male. Ewww. Here’s a picture of the eclectus parrot (the green one is male and the red one is female).

Oh, and if anyone saw that episode of ‘The Chase’ and knows what the word is (it definitely maybe started with ‘anthro’), please let me know.

Still, at least I’ve learned a lot about parrots today.

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tubercle

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’.


bugbear

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.


whence

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’.


meme

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.’


equinox

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.


Masculate

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*


skeletonise

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.


blizzard

Definition: thing which is currently ruining all my lovely birthday plans. Boo.


planetesimal

As you’d expect, this means a small planet. But it also refers to the bits and bobs (that’s the technical term) which can come together to make up a planet. Apparently there’s a theory that that’s how the earth was formed. Called, rather unimaginatively, the planetesimal hypothesis, it states that planets form out of cosmic dust grains that collide then stick together to form larger bodies.

Etymology AND science? I know, spoil you.


gyves

This is an old word for manacles or fetters*, and cropped up in a book I’m reading at the moment (no, not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – it’s a medieval murder mystery-type thing called ‘Beloved Poison’ by E.S. Thomson which my sister bought me purely because she liked the cover). A not-very-in-depth internet search tells me that ‘gyves’ possibly comes from the Welsh ‘gefyn’ for ‘fetter’ or ‘shackle’, or the Irish ‘geibbionn’ (‘fetters’) or ‘geimheal’ (‘fetter’, ‘chain’, ‘shackle’).

* Had I remembered to post this yesterday, you would have got a nice fluffy, lovey-dovey word for Valentine’s Day. Although if you’re reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ then maybe manacles are your idea of romance...


gatecrash

This is American slang which seems to date back to the early 20th century. And that's all I got folks – the etymology is surprisingly hard to find. This leads me to think that it’s just what it says on the tin – that to enter an event without an invite you have to literally crash through the gate. Maybe?


booze

It’s FINALLY the end of January which means many people (not me) will be jumping back on the alcohol wagon after a month off (I had a drink last night). So the word of the week is in honour of this fact.

The etymology of ‘booze’ is actually quite hard to find. Disappointingly it doesn’t come from the name of a 19th-century American distiller, E.C. Booz (some nice nominative determinism there for you, folks). It looks like it first appeared way back in the 14th century as ‘bouse’ (also how I spell it after a few shandies), which possibly came from the Dutch word ‘búsen’ which means to drink excessively.

Go forth and get hangovers, my friends.


anarcho-syndicalism

This is in honour of Ursula K Le Guin who very sadly passed away this week. A central part of Le Guin’s novel ‘The Dispossessed’, this is a form of anarchism which is very complicated and far too difficult for me to give a full explanation of here because as per usual I’m very late doing this and I don’t have time to type it all (have a look at Wikipedia which explains it much better than I can).

Please come back next time, I promise it’ll be better.


Arpeggio

I sing in a choir on a Wednesday, so this is inspired by that. For those of you who aren’t musically inclined (which includes me), an arpeggio is the notes of a chord played in rapid succession, either ascending or descending. It comes from arpeggiare which is Italian for ‘play the harp’.


portmanteau

As well as being a type of bag, a portmanteau is also a word made up of two other words, like ‘smog’ (smoke and fog) or ‘breathalyser’ (breath and analyser). It was Lewis Carroll who first used ‘portmanteau’ in this way. Here’s Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’:

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” ... You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

Modern slang continues to embrace the portmanteau with words like ‘chillax’, ‘bromance’ and, a personal favourite, ‘craptacular’ (something that’s so crap it’s also spectacular).

Weirdly, and rather pleasingly (at least if you’re a wordy geek like me – maybe not so much if you’re a normal person), ‘portmanteau’ itself is a portmanteau. It's made up of ‘porter’, French for ‘to carry’ and ‘manteau’, also French for cloak. MIND. BLOWN.


Scumbag

This was inspired by a documentary I’ve just watched on BBC 4 about the song ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl (well worth a look if you have the time).

In British slang scumbag just means a horrible person. But in US slang it means condom. Yep. It comes from ‘scum’ which is US slang for ‘semen’ and ‘bag’ which means, well, ‘bag’. So, there you go.

Happy Christmas.


Ickle*

These days we use this to mean ‘little’ (as in ‘Who’s an ickle pickle?’ which I regularly ask my dog. Answer: it’s her). But it actually means ‘a frozen drop of water’. Which is where ‘icicle’ came from.

* Shamelessly stolen from Susie Dent’s Twitter feed. Except the bit about my dog. Susie Dent doesn't ask my dog if she’s an ickle pickle.