I finally made a visit to the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire last weekend, with family in tow, so it’s time for another entry in Wordfoolery’s Nautical Series – tonne.

anchor When over-burdened with shopping (or an anchor like this lovely example outside the museum) I’d often say that it weighed a tonne. However I’ve edited the phrase out of my writing because I couldn’t get clarity on the correct spelling (tonne or ton?).

Imagine my surprise to find a detailed explanation of the phrase when researching for my coastal novels in the museum. Tonne comes from the idea of a ship’s tonnage but has little to do with the weight of the ship. Tonnage, or as it was originally know tunnage, was measured for tax purposes and related to the number of tuns of wine the ship could carry. All good ships transport nothing but wine, of course.

One tun held 252 gallons of wine (tax-men despise even numbers) which is approximately 1,150 litres or 2,2,40 pounds of weight. So when I said my bags weighed a tonne, I should have said they weighed a tun, although I’m not strong enough to lift 2,240 pounds of groceries, or wine!

Pirate Captain Grace

Pirate Captain Grace

If you want to get into nautical detail the gross tonnage of the ship is the volume of its cargo space while deadweight tonnage (DWT) refers not to – “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” – but to the total weight of passengers, cargo, fuel, stores minus the weight of the ship herself.

As for the origin of tun as a word, that has the fingerprints of many languages – Old English tunne, Old Frisian tunne, Middle Dutch tonne, Old High German tunna, German tonne, Latin tunna, Old French tonne and possibly even Middle Irish tunna and toun (meaning hide or skin). I’ve noticed that words relating to ships often have a mixed source like this. I assume this is because the ships and their sailors moved around, pilfering words from languages when it helped them communicate with their polyglot crews and traders. Seas are fertile places for creating vocabulary.

If you’re visiting Dublin, I can heartily recommend a visit to the maritime museum in Dun Laoghaire (just hop on a DART train out from the city centre) – there are great hands-on exhibits for the kids and it’s small enough for the whole family to avoid museum fatigue. Run by volunteers (hence the reasonable entry fee), it is crammed with details on the huge and varied contributions made by the Irish to seafaring life – inventing submarines, founding several nation’s navies, shipwrecks, polar exploration, Atlantic cable-laying, the Beaufort scale, and I discovered Marconi had an Irish mother.

Museum Teddy wasn't sure about this whole breeches buoy thing

Museum Teddy wasn’t sure about this whole breeches buoy thing

They were even kind enough to indulge my curious children by showing how the museum’s teddy travels between ships by breeches buoy.

Until next time, happy reading,writing, and wordfooling,


Please don’t forget to vote today for Wordfoolery in the Arts&Culture section of the Irish Blog Awards – thanks!



Great news, Wordfoolery has made the shortlist of the Arts&Culture section of the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards Ireland 2016, hurrah!

Moving from this stage to finalist is based 80% on judging and 20% on public vote – which is where you come in. The public vote is open today (Monday 22nd) and tomorrow (Tuesday 23rd) until midnight. Just press the button below. You’ll need to pick Wordfoolery from the Arts & Culture shortlist and create an account to vote but it’s pretty easy.


Thanks for your support, Grace (a.k.a. Wordfoolery)


This week’s word is inspired not by urban pitfalls but by my own mountain clumsiness. I spent last Saturday climbing Lugnaquilla in the Wicklow Mountains and managed to dip first my right foot and later my left foot in the lovely, cold, brown water of the rushing streams we needed to cross during the hike. There appears to be a magnetic attraction between my boots and running water, most annoying. My, more experienced, companion remained dry-shod and laughing.



I may lack her agility in the mountains but at least I built up a good immunity to the Georgian beau traps of Dublin when I frequented the city.

A beau trap is early 19th century slang for a paving stone which is loose enough for rainwater to gather underneath. Dublin city dwellers will know that we get a spot of rain now and then. Stealthy puddles gather under the large Georgian stone footpaths (sidewalks for my US friends) and unless you avoid those slabs or hit them in the exact right spot it “tips up and pumps half a litre of rainwater up your trouser” (as Terry Pratchett points out in “A Slip of the Keyboard”).  This rainwater is always a murky grey shade and invariably ice-cold.

Douglas Adams (the reason why all my novels have 42 chapters) once created an alternative word for this – the affpuddle – which I rather like too.

Why is it called a beau trap? The elegant young men of the 1800s (also known as beaus) wore those tight white stockings to show off their well turned ankles and calves and such a sinister pool of city rainwater was a trap for those beaus.

Whether you’re walking in cities or hills beware of wobbly stones and beau traps this week.Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


This week I’ve been staying up late and watching the Olympics so I couldn’t resist a related word – medal.


I was half-hoping this one would have a Greek origin to fit in with the whole Olympic theme but this word, which entered the English language in the 16th century, originates primarily with those other classical word creators – the Romans.

Medal‘s history starts with medialis, a Latin word which means medial – the half or middle of something. Confused? Bear with me. Next step is medalia in Medieval Latin which means a coin worth half a denarius. The half theme continues when the word moves into Italian as medalgia which was a copper coin worth a halfpenny. A quick hop to French brings us médaille (finally meaning medal) and the final move is as medal in English c. 1570.

It is easy to see how medals may have originally looked like coins but it did make me wonder about the cost of medals. That half denarius intrigued me. A denarius was the price of one day’s work for a skilled labourer, sometimes paid in bread. Online sources suggest that nowadays a half denarius would be about 25 US dollars. A Rio 2016 gold medal (in pure metal terms) is worth 570 US dollars or 315 for a silver. Although, of course, they are priceless to their owners.

One theory on word origin traces the word even further back from Latin as metallum which means metal and came from the Greek word metallon, meaning mine. Seems only fair to give the Greek’s the final word on this one.

Until next time happy reading, writing and wordfooling. If only reading were an Olympic sport, we’d all be in with a chance.

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)



This week’s word comes from new Wordfoolery subscriber, Philip (check out his writing here) via the Nominate a Word page. I’m happy to take word nominations anytime.

Philip’s word was phantasmagoria (pronunciation here) which means a confusing or strange scene that is like a dream because it is always changing in odd ways. It can also be a bizarre collection or an exhibition of optical illusions.

Wikipedia tells me that phantasmagoria was a form of theatre using magic lanterns invented by a Belgian inventor & physicist called Étienne-Gaspard Robert in the late 18th century. The images, mainly of ghosts, demons and skeletons were projected onto screens or smoke and could be made to move to change size by moving the projector(s). He even included sound effects in his shows. Phantasmagoria shows gained great popularity in 19th century England and I can’t help thinking that they were early horror/sci-fi movies.

Phantasmagoria entered the language around 1802 from the French word phantasmagorie (same meaning) which is a combination of the old French word fantasme and the Greek style ending -agorie (from agora which meant assembly). Hence a phantasmagoria is a gathering of fantasies – a perfect title for a collection of short fantasy stories and yes it has been used as such. I didn’t know that Lewis Carroll had written a poem of that name, but it makes sense. Any man who can create the Jabberwocky must consort with phantasmagorias.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. @wordfoolery)

Littlewoods Blog Awards 2016_Judging Round Button_LonglistHello,

Well it isn’t the Man Booker, the Nobel or, mercifully, the Darwin Awards, but I am happy to announce that I’ve scrambled onto the Long List of the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards Ireland 2016.

After this comes the Short List stage (80% judged and 20% public vote – I’ll let you know when it opens for voting, hint hint), then Finalist judging and the awards ceremony is sometime in the autumn.

Congrats to all the other 45 entries on the Arts & Culture Long List – it takes hard work and passion to maintain a blog week after week and a large dash of confidence to risk entering the awards. I’ll be trying to visit my fellow long-listers over the next month.

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)


This week’s word is purloin, simply because I like the way it sounds when you say it. Of course there are many ways to say you’ve stolen something – lifted, nicked (which can land you in the Nick), thieved, burgled, poached, scrumping etc but for me purloin implies a theft that isn’t entirely serious – a wig borrowed for a disguise, thieving a trifling item, not performing a major heist.

I would love to report that purloin came from the sound of a cat burglar (a purr, of course) combined with the preferred meal of a sneak-thief (loin of pork with apple sauce – apples scrumped of course), but sadly that is not the case.

We can blame the French for purloin, without implying any greater propensity amongst that nation towards theft. In Anglo-Norman French the word pur meant forth (I assume this works in purpose too) and loign meant far (as in distance). Combined they gave the verb purloigner which meant to put away. I must remember that one the next time I request my darling son to purloigner his clean socks. Just as the Normans invaded Britain, so too did many of their words and hence we find purloin (to put at a distance) in Middle English and gradually changing to mean stealing.

I think that ties in with my approach to purloin. If I purloin those socks from my son, there’s nothing to say that I won’t return them from that distance at some future time, right? I wouldn’t recommend relying on that reasoning in court though – purloin is clearly defined as theft in legal dictionaries.

I’m aware that some of you are writers as well as readers. I’m planning a post/article on the topic of The Secret Language of Writers (ARC, maid&butler, POV etc) – if you’d like to suggest a term for inclusion, jot a comment below. Thank you.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


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