The Worldwide History of Feather in Your Cap


This week I’m taking a look at the phrase “a feather in your cap. As usual with phrases the exact origin is less than clear-cut but it’s one with plenty of history, all around the world.

Having a feather in your cap has been symbolic of achievement in the English language since at least the 1700s, and probably earlier as the idea was discussed in “Description of Hungary” by Richard Hansard in 1599. Hansard was an English travel writer who explained the Hungarian custom that you could only wear a feather in your cap if you had killed a Turk, their enemies at the time. They claimed one feather per kill. He also said this was an old custom even then (with thanks to The Phrase Finder website).

The famous Elephant Detective added a feather to her cap when she solved the case

Feather has been a word since Old English feder which had Proto Germanic roots (fethro) which yielded similar words in Old Saxon, Norse, Swedish, Dutch, German and more.

The Hungarians weren’t the only ones to mark a slain enemy with a feather. Native American warriors would add feathers to their head-dress to mark such things too. Other cultures also observed this idea. It is recorded of the ancient Lycians (a nation in what is now Turkey which existed from the 14th century B.C. to 500 B.C.), China (a peacock feather was given to General Gordon after he put down a rebellion there in the 1800s), and in hunting circles a feather from the first bird killed may be given to the successful hunter for their hat.

The feather in the cap idea is also part of the Yankee Doodle Dandy rhyme where he sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni. It’s not the easiest lyric to understand, is it?

One explanation I found goes like this. Doodle was 1700s British English slang for a fool so calling the person a Yankee Doodle was calling them an American fool – which would make sense as the song was sung by British troops in the American War of Independence.

The word macaroni had nothing to do with the popular pasta shape but actually slang, again, this time for a dandy. The Macaroni Club in London was populated by young aesthetes who liked to show their stylishness by preferring foreign cuisine (including macaroni pasta, presumably). So if the American fool put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni they were trying too hard to be stylish and fashionable and hence were a person to be mocked.

You might need a time-travel machine to go back and see if that explanation makes any sense, but it does at least show that putting a feather in your cap can be done for many different reasons and won’t always make you look impressive.

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


p.s. Amelia over on the Politics Books and Me blog (about books, authors, and investing) was kind enough to interview me recently. You can check it out here.

The Rollicking Word History of Reprobate


This week’s word, with thanks to an old friend (she knows who she is) is the word reprobate. She dragged me out for cocktails and dinner in Dublin last weekend. I didn’t resist. Then she declared herself to be a reprobate. Naturally my etymology blog senses tingled and I made a mental note to explore the word today.

Cocktails for two reprobates

I hadn’t realised that reprobate is an adjective, noun, and verb. I’ll start with the oldest first, which is the verb. Probably the least used version of reprobate in modern times. To reprobate has been with us since the early 1400s when it was spelled reprobaten (to condemn or disapprove of). Despite the slightly Germanic spelling style this one was borrowed from Late Latin which had the verb reprobare (to reject or condemn). The meaning of the verb in English evolved with time and by the 1600s it meant to reject, put away, or set aside. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used – have you?

The next form of reprobate to arrive was the adjective. By the early 1400s you could use it to describe something as rejected as worthless. Same roots at the verb. The Latin word is formed from re (back, or again) and probare (prove to be worthy). A related legal word is the idea of a will or inheritance getting probate – proving it to be correct and worthy. By the 1650s you could describe a person at being a reprobate if you meant they were “abandoned in character, morally depraved, unprincipled”. Not sure my friend is that bad, but hey after a few cocktails all the rules fly out the window!

Finally, the noun form arrived in the 1540s and by then it had taken a distinctly religious tone. It was somebody who was rejected by God because they were given over to sin.

Essentially reprobate means a person, action, or event which is unworthy. This word is one the Romans gave us. All the other meanings are evolutions of the word in English.

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


Gargantuan and the Pilgrim Salad


This week’s word, gargantuan, is with thanks to the excellent copy of “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” which I found second-hand in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway city. It’s a wonderful maze of a shop and I struggle to leave without buying many books. You have been warned.

I’m reading slowly through the book and am currently on page 497 of 1213 because I’m making notes as I go – wordy inspiration for future books and of course for the Wordfoolery blog.

The word gargantuan is an eponym as Gargantua was a character created in 1534 by the French author, physician, and priest François Rabelais (1494-1553) for his four novel masterpiece “Gargantua and Pantagruel”. The books, written for an educated court audience, were satires which drew on legends, romances, and classical works. His life was varied in the extreme and his work was accused of heresy and obscenity. You can read more about him here.

The gargantuan head of the Cailleach Beara at Slieve Gullion park

It’s believed that Gargantua’s name came from the Spanish and Portuguese word garganta (gullet or throat). It’s worth noting that Old French had the word gargole (throat) whose roots lie in Latin’s gula (throat) and lead us to the verb gargle.

Gargantuan is nowadays used to describe something as large or nearly impossible (a gargantuan task, for example). Gargantua was a giant, but he was best known as a voracious giant so perhaps gargantuan should refer to a giant appetite rather than a large task. Either way the use of gargantuan as a word for enormous dates to the late 1500s in English.

Brewer adds some extra information to this giant tale. Gargantua was borrowed by Rabelais from either Celtic or Medieval legends where he was famous for his large appetite. In Rabelais’ story Gargantua once swallowed five pilgrims and their staves, in a salad. Somehow I hadn’t imagined pilgrim salad being standard giant fare, but I’m not an expert on the eating habits of giants. The giant later became proverbial as a big guzzler – he was referenced for this in “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare c. 1598, for example.

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


p.s. some subscribers to the blog have reported not getting the blog emails – please let me know in the comments if this is happening to you. I’m following up.

From Combs to Hecklers – a Word History


This week’s word is heckler with thanks to Susie Dent’s “Modern Tribes” which mentioned the original hecklers and set me on the etymological trail. The two areas where hecklers are most common today are at comedy gigs and political performances. In both cases the general public feel they have the right to yell out their disagreement. It can be witty, or simply angry, but either way it’s not easy to deal with the heckler if you’re the focus of their attention.

The origins of the heckler surprised me. It started with a comb and a woman.

The first use of heckle in English dates to 1300 when it was a flax comb and was spelled hechel. It either came from hecel in Old English or from a Germanic source. Middle High German had hechel and Middle Dutch had hekel, both of which come from a root word for a hook or tooth.

My favourite linen scarf (after heckling!)

Flax, in case you were wondering, is a plant also known as linseed, which is grown for food and fibres. Flax fibres give us linen yarn and fabric. Like other yarns, such as wool, the flax fibres need to be combed out before spinning, hence the heckle comb.

Shortly after the arrival of the comb we were using heckle as a verb, meaning to comb flax or hemp with a heckle. By the mid 1400s we had heckler as a noun for somebody who uses a heckle, although apparently it appeared as a surname a century earlier. It’s common for early surnames to relate to the work the person did – Smith, Baker, and more. There was even a feminine form of heckler, a hekelstere. The work was done by men and women.

It wasn’t easy work and according to Dent’s book the Scottish town of Dundee became known for their hecklers who dictated wages and working conditions through strength of numbers and plenty of shouting. When others in the industry followed their example the heckling shop became known as a centre for activism and the term moved into the world of politics and later comedy stand-up. By the late 1800s the Oxford English Dictionary mentions that heckling is applied in Scotland to the public questioning of a parliamentary candidate.

I found an excellent blog post here of a visit to a flax mill museum in Dundee which even includes a photo of a heckle tool and the extra information that the Dundee hecklers were mostly female and also led the charge in the suffragette movement later. I love that the first heckler was a Dundee woman sticking up for her employment rights.

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


Getting to the Bottom of Bohemian


Earlier this month I explored the Gypsy influenced roots of the word flamenco, and now I’m paddling in similar waters with the history of bohemian. The word is used now to describe a person, especially an artist, who lives a free life with little regard for social conventions. It is also use to describe a free-flowing colourful personal style.

Who or what was Bohemia? The geographers will tell you that Bohemia was a country between 1918 and 1939 and again from 1945-1992. Since 1993 the land known as Bohemia has been incorporated in the Czech Republic, the central and western areas of it to be precise.

How did it reach English as a way to describe artistic lifestyles? It arrived in 1848 from bohemién in French where it was a term to describe either a person from Bohemia or a Gypsy. In Middle English, however, they already had a word for a native of Bohemia, it was Bemener.

The French had been using bohemién as a word for a Gypsy since the 1400s but it was a mistake. The Roma people originated in India, not the Czech Republic. They arrived in Europe via that region and it’s possible they were confused with the Bohemian Hussite heretics (early protestants whose leader, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake in 1415) who were driven out of Bohemia around the same time.

You don’t have to live in a yurt to be bohemian, but it might help

By the 1800s the idea of bohemians living a life outside of conventional society and dressing in a colourful way had transferred from the Roma people to the artistic community in France and was popularised via stories by Henri Murger in “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme” (scenes from the Bohemian life), helped inspire Puccini’s famous opera “La Bohème“), and is explained in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” which helped cement the term’s use in English.

The origins of the word bohemian has a surprisingly military root considering the modern use for artistic types. It was first used for a central European kingdom in the mid 1400s thanks to the French word Boheme but came from Latin Boiohaemum (a name used by Tacitus) and drawn from a Celtic people, the Boii, who settled the area. It translates literally as warriors. Joining Boii to haimaz (Proto Germanic word for home) gives us Boiohaemum (home of the warriors). It’s hard to see a bohemian enclave these days as being a home of warriors. Words change, sometimes to a remarkable degree.

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


Baffled by the History of Bamboozle


I discovered this morning that I’ve never explored the history of the word bamboozle. Challenge accepted, I thought to myself, perhaps somewhat prematurely.

Bamboozle is one of my favourite words both for its meaning and how fun it is to say. Let’s be honest here, it’s almost as much fun to say bamboozle as it is to bamboozle somebody, try and embed it in your conversation today for the sheer joy of it.

To bamboozle somebody is to deceive or trick them, to baffle and confuse them. Other terms would include hoax, fool, bewilder, and dupe. Naturally Wordfoolery approves of such foolishness. It’s very appropriate that the word history of bamboozle is bamboozling.

How long have we humans been bamboozling each other? Probably from the dawn of time but the word entered the English language in the early 1700s, originally as slang. Officially its origins are listed as unknown, a regular thing with slang words, but of course that doesn’t stop word enthusiasts from attempting to find some plausible roots.

Scottish origins are suggested thanks to the word bombaze (confound or perplex). French has embabouiner (to make a fool, or baboon, of somebody). Italian has bambolo (a baby) which may be extended to the idea of an old foolish person although that appears to be a stretch in my opinion. expands upon these themes, while admitting that the origin is unknown. They note that Dean Jonathan Swift disliked the word as being “low language” and hoped it would pass from use. Swift was wrong, but then so were as they list him as British (he was born in Dublin and hence is Irish, albeit Anglo-Irish due to the time period of his life).

There’s an assumption that because bamboozling is deception the word must have come from the criminal underworld. This is possible, although bamboozling happens elsewhere too in my experience. Some link the term to bombazine fabric, often dyed black and used by widows in their mourning dress, but that’s probably thanks to the similarity in spelling rather than any proof.

In the 1800s the word bamboozle became a slang term for drunk when used on college campuses. There’s a rich world of words for being tipsy and bamboozle is a good entry in that list.

By 1876 Bamboozle was a board game created by Milton Bradley, it had the first ever folding game board. There have been a few since then with the same name so gamers must love being bamboozled. The Bamboozle is also a music festival in New Jersey apparently.

Bamboozle yielded word variants which sadly haven’t lasted. You could be a bamboozler, be plagued with bamboozlement, and in 1919 if you disabused somebody of their puzzlement and confusion you were de-bamboozling them.

To conclude, the origins of bamboozle are bamboozling. We have to settle for “origin unknown” in this case.

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


Dancing Through the History of Flamenco


I was watching an episode of the “Hairy Bikers” cookery show last week and they were enjoying the food of Spain. Along the way they took a turn or two with a fabulous troop of flamenco dancers and mentioned that the dance grew when displaced Moorish farmers joined up with Gypsy bands. Of course that got me wondering about the word history of flamenco.

Flamenco has been a word in English since the late 1800s and it came to us from the same word in Spanish where it described a style of Gypsy dancing in the Andalusia region in the south of Spain.

In Spanish flamenco had two meanings 1) a Fleming, i.e. a person from Flanders (in Dutch that would be Vlaming) and 2) a flamingo bird.

Flamenco dancers aren’t from Flanders, so why did they get this name and what does the bird have to do with it?

There are a myriad of possible explanations put forward by writers of the past and I’m unsure which to believe. Perhaps you can choose your own favourite?

Spain ruled Flanders during the 1500s and as a result many Flemish nobles visited the court of King Carlos I of Spain in Madrid so Fleming people were well known there.

One story says the dance was named for the bright costumes of the Flemish visitors.

Another says the Andalusians liked to name things by their opposites and because the tall, blonde Flemings were so different to the short, dark-haired Gypsies they gave them that name.

A third idea is that flamenco was the general Spanish word for all foreigners. I’m not sure of this one as they had already encountered Moorish culture at this point and traded extensively overseas so surely they had more terms for foreigners. I don’t speak Spanish myself, so can’t comment. Can you add anything?

The fourth is that Flemish nobles at the court enjoyed spending time with the Gypsies and the name stuck.

I even found one story that people watching the male flamenco dancers with their short jackets and tall posture compared them to the flamingo birds.

Flamenco is one of those words which proves how difficult it is to find the roots of a word. However we know more about how the dance itself evolved. It’s a form of dance, song, and guitar music which is associated with the Andalusian Roma (Gypsy or Gitano) people of Southern Spain.

It appears to have come to Spain thanks to a Roma migration from northwest India between the 9th and 14th centuries. They brought tambourines, bells, castanets, and their songs and dances with them. In Spain they met the cultures of the Sephardic Jews and the Moors who were increasingly being driven out by Christian Spanish rulers, and flamenco was born, primarily as something done in family groups.

The golden age of flamenco was between the end of the 1700s and the middle of the 1800s, although at that time singing was the main art form, with dancing and the music being secondary.

Flamingos probably don’t have much of a connection to flamenco but I took a quick look at their etymology too. Their name arrived in English in the 1560s from Portuguese and Spanish where is translates literally as flame-coloured (yes, they’re pink, but I can see the link). In Greek they were called phoinikopteros (red feathered) and flamenc in Provençal (flaming). They’ve always been associated with fire, and yet it’s the phoenix we most think of when talking of such ideas.

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


The History of Hearing Through the Grapevine


Regular Wordfoolery readers will know that when I’m not hunting down the history of unusual English words, I’m fond of my garden. One of the craziest plants in that garden is the grapevine. I spent time this week pruning it. At this time of year it’s dormant and I can admire the gnarly branches and train them against the garden fence. In a couple of months the apparently dead vine will put out a couple of buds. About a week later the entire thing will be covered in new growth and by mid summer the vine will be trying to invade my neighbours’ gardens, stretching to the sky with questing tendrils, and announcing to the entire country that yes, you can grow grapes outdoors in Ireland.

Watch out, Grace! The Grapevine is lurking behind you.

Sadly the grapes themselves are seeded and rather bitter, but the local blackbirds love them in the autumn and the vine’s sheer exuberance has secured its place in my garden.

The idea of hearing on the grapevine is widespread, whether you grow vines or not, but I only recently happened across a reference to its history. First let’s look at the words themselves. Grapevine (or grape-vine) is compounded and with us from the 1700s in English. Grape in Old English was winberige (wine berry) but from the mid 1200s we grabbed grape from Old French. Its origins beyond that point are somewhat disputed but the theory goes that graper meant to steal, grasp, or pick grapes thanks to various Germanic words about hooks. The idea is that a vine hook was used for grape-picking and that’s where we got the word. Certainly when I went grape-picking in France we used a hook-shaped blade to cut the bunches from the vines.

Vine also arrived to English in the 1200s (along with the wine drinking Normans, no doubt) again from Old French vigne (vine). This one came from Latin vinea (vine, vineyard) and vinum (wine) which arose from the Proto Indo European root word win (wine). The word vine spread to refer to any plant with long trailing and winding stems. The grapevine wasn’t native to England, but yes they do make wine there now, and even in Ireland now, although in small quantities.

Grapevine in English was originally all about the plant itself but in the 1860s it gained another meaning. The grapevine became a secret or unconventional way of spreading information and the term arose thanks to the grapevine telegraph, a secret information source during the American Civil War. It was derided as untrustworthy and a possible source of misinformation by the Union supporters who believed it to be Confederate propaganda.

The wonderful invention of the telegraph in 1844 was already embedded in American life and by 1852 grapevine telegraph had been added to the dictionary there. It described the informal network of news in a small community as being like the curling tendrils of a vine rather than the straight telegraph wires stretching across the country. Those informal grapevine tendrils worked particularly well amongst the rural poor who worked among the actual vines.

The grapevine telegraph carried the news, often quicker than the official news on the telegraph and perhaps most importantly, for free. It was associated particularly with African American and Native American communities.

There are two variations of the term, although grapevine works just fine here in Ireland. In Australia you’ll find the bush telegraph for the informal network that passed information about police activity to convicts on the run in the bush (first recorded in 1878). Meanwhile in the U.K. it was the jungle telegraph for similar communications in the far flung reaches of the British Empire in the 1800s.

Perhaps the real reason we still use grapevine in this sense in English today is thanks to Motown. “Heard it Through the Grapevine” was recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967 and by Marvin Gaye in 1968 and we’ve been humming it ever since. The telegraph system may be gone, but we’re still hearing it through the grapevine.

Many thanks to the wonderful Phrase Finder website for some details in today’s blog post. Finding the origins of phrases is a tricky task and they do it brilliantly.

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


Eyes and Stars – the Word History of Orbit


It’s a new week and I had a new “I wonder” moment. Ever wonder why planets orbit the sun but our eye socket is also called an orbit? Is it because we roll our eyes?

Orbit has a few different meanings depending on context –

  1. The bony socket which protects the eye
  2. A circular path of one object around another such as the earth around the sun or an electron around the atom’s nucleus. This also adds the idea of a sphere of influence or activity.
  3. As a verb to orbit is to follow a path, like a satellite orbiting our planet.

To orbit has the easiest etymology. It’s been with us since 1946 and means to revolve around. If taken to be used solely for spacecraft it’s rather worrying that de-orbit only arose in the late 1950s. Were they stuck up there for a long time?

All forms of orbit are related to the word orb, as you’d expect. It’s a mid 1400s word for a sphere or the path of a heavenly body and came from Old French orbe and before that from Latin orbem (circle, disk). Orbem may be related to orbita (a Latin wheel track or rut) whose roots are disputed. Orb was originally used in English for the planets and stars and only later (in the mid 1600s) as relating to eyes.

A glass token to avert jettatura, or the evil eye

Orbit as the word for the eye socket dates to the late 1300s in English. It came from Old French orbite and Latin orbita (wheel track as mentioned earlier). This was a major language upgrade in my opinion at the Old English word for eye socket was eaghring which to my modern eye looks like a victim’s scream in a comic book.

Here’s one more orbit-related word to finish. An orb-weaver is a spider which makes webs whose lines radiate from a central point, as opposed to tube or tunnel weaving spiders. This term arose in the late 1800s, although the spiders probably knew the difference for a while before that.

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


Anecdotes and Antidotes – a Word History


As you may be aware, I love getting suggestions of words to investigate from readers of the Wordfoolery blog. You can do that here, if you’d like. Mary suggested antidote recently and I thought I’d throw in anecdote too as it can be fun to see if two seemingly similar words are connected.

Let’s start with antidote. It is a remedy to counteract a poison and the word has been with us since the 1400s. It was originally antidotum and came from Old French antidot, Latin antidotum, and ultimately from Greek antidoton. Antidoton translates literally as “given against” and is created from anti (against – a prefix which is used in plenty of English words) and didonai (to give). Didonai comes from a Proto IndoEuropean root word do (to give).

lollygagging skeleton
Didn’t make it to the antidote in time

The story of antidote is pretty straightforward. Anecdote, as you’d hope given the meaning, has more of a story.

Anecdote has two somewhat conflicting definitions. The one I’d use is that it’s an short amusing story about real people. It can also be an unreliable account, or one regarded only as rumour.

Anecdote has been with us in English since the 1600s to describe secret or private stories. It was the 1700s before it gained the meaning of a brief amusing story. We borrowed the word, and the spelling, directly from French in the 1600s. It had arrived there from Medieval Latin as anecdota and before that from Greek anekdota (things unpublished). When you break it down you find the link to antidote.

Anekdota is formed from an (not) and ekdotos (published). Ekdotos is formed from ek (out) and didonai (to give), again from the Proto IndoEuropean root word do (to give). So yes, the dote in anecdote and antidote is the link between the two words. You can’t escape the Greeks in the world of English etymology.

I can’t leave anecdote without giving the perfect, and original, example. The word was used as a title for Procopius’ book “Anecdota” written around the year 550. Procopius was a scholar who accompanied the Roman generals during Emperor Justinian’s wars. Riding with the army he witnessed massacres, battles, and mutinies. He became the main Roman historian of the 6th century and published many books, all of them favourable to the emperor’s reign.

The “Anecdota” however was not published during his lifetime and was far from positive about the emperor. In fact it was packed with court gossip. The book was discovered centuries later in the Vatican library and published in 1623 – bringing the word into popular use and ultimately to the English dictionary.

Like modern “tell all” books, Procopius took his chance to expose the secrets of his emperor’s reign and portray the private lives of the leader, his wife, and his generals. The emperor is shown to be cruel and incompetent and in one passage he even claims he was possessed by demons. Theories abound on why Procopius took the risk of writing the book. He may have been waiting for the main characters to die, in order to avoid retaliation (as he mentions in the book), or he could have written it as insurance so that if the emperor was overthrown he could survive the change.

Procopius never published the “Ancedota“, but thanks to the Vatican Library we can read it today and use the word, without fear of reprisals from demon-filled emperors.

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