Feckless and Feckful

Hello,

Some words are best known in one negative variation – disgruntled, gormless, and feckless spring to mind. I mean, how often do we talk about being gruntled, gormed, or feckful? This week I’m taking a look at feckless and feckful.

Feck itself is a popular slang word in the English spoken in Ireland (hiberno-english). It’s used as a very mild version of a similarly spelled curse. Its history and use is explained brilliantly by Stan Carey in this Journal.ie article. He even explains that the Esperanto term for shit is fek, but this is likely to be coincidental. You can read more about hiberno-english and feck, or indeed fecker, on Blather.

However feck, feckless, and feckful actually entered English from Scotland. Feck is a Scottish term that means effect, essentially it was a shortening of the word effect. Robbie Burns and Robert Louise Stevenson both used it to mean a large quantity (“He had a feck o’ books wi’ him”). It reached English in the late 1500s as a term for effect, value, or vigour.

The witch Cailleach Beara felt feckful right up to the moment of her beheading

If somebody has feck then they are feckful – efficient, energetic, and powerful. Equally if they are feckless then they are lacking all those attributes and pretty useless as a result. The English language has plenty of ways to denigrate somebody as useless, but apparently we needed one more as feckless gained ground and feckful fell by the wayside over time to the point where we only really use feckless now.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Let’s not Hebetate

Hello,

This week’s word, hebetate, is a suggestion from blog reader, Allan Greenwill. If you too would like to suggest a word for the Wordfoolery treatment, you can do so here.

Hebetate, I confess, was a new word for me. It means to make or become dull , blunted, or obtuse. You’ll get the pronunciation here.

Don’t run with

Naturally, any seamstress or chef wants their tools as sharp as possible which is why my mother always yelped if we reached for her special “sewing scissors” to cut paper rather than fabric (apparently cutting tin foil will sharpen them again). Now I’m the keeper of the Special Sewing Scissors and am equally protective of their edge and would be very unhappy if they were to hebetate.

The dictionary definitions of hebetate, however, imply it’s not just your cutting tool which can blunt, but your mind, your debating powers. Nobody wants to become obtuse or blunted in their use of reason, logic, and language.

Hebetate has a pretty simple word origin. It entered English in the late 1500s directly from the Latin verb hebetare (to dull or blunt) and word hebes (dull, blunt). Hebetate is related to hebetude, another English word from the same roots which arrived a few decades later. It again means dull or blunt but is also used figuratively to describe somebody as sluggish or stupid.

In other news this week, the publicity round for the latest Wordfoolery book, “Words The Sea Gave Us”, is continuing. The lovely folk at the Marine Times (September issue is in shops now) gave us a plug. “Seascapes”, Ireland’s weekly radio show about all things maritime (broadcast on RTÉ One radio nationwide at 10.30p.m. every Friday) invited me to talk about the book. I started listening to the show, when I was supposed to be studying for school, thirty years ago and it was a huge thrill to see the studio where they record it and to meet the presenter, Fergal Keane. I rambled on about the beaufort scale, slush funds, blazers, and hammocks on the moon. The episode went out already, but you can listen to the podcast here.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

The Origin of Run Amok

Hello,

This week’s phrase is “to run amok”, although you may be more familiar with “run amuck”. In fact there are a few spelling variations on this one. Amok appears to be correct one for English language use.

You will find a few different stories about the origin of the phrase too, including a spurious nautical one about running a ship aground into the muck.

Etymology Online tells me it was a verbal phrase recorded in the early 1500s in “The Book of Duarte Barbosa – An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants” as Amuco “who go out into the streets, and kill as many person as they meet”. They add that the Malay word amuk meant to attack furiously and in Portugese amouco or amuco describes a frenzied Malay.

Either way, it’s clear that somebody running amok is somebody to avoid and something like a Viking berserker.

Viking Chessman from the Isle of Lewis. He is biting his shield, a beserker tradition

Phrases.org and “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald flesh out the story, but be warned it doesn’t become gentler.

In the 1600s, Malays occupied Malabar (on the west coast of India) and in their tradition the king was required to kill himself after 12 years of power, by cutting his own throat in public. With time, and I’m guessing at the request of the monarchy, this was modified to allow a team of warriors (amokers) run at the king and usually be cut down by the bodyguards. If one killed the king then he claimed the crown. Stories of this dramatic power struggle were brought back to Europe by shocked travelers.

The amokers, or amuco, were dedicated warriors who believed failed missions were punished with dishonour and fallen soldiers became favourites of the gods. Captain James Cook, who traveled in the region in the late 1700s, mentioned opium use in connection with this tradition so it’s possible the warriors combined skill, faith, and narcotics before running amok.

I used to accuse my children of running amok when they played rowdy games or scattered toys throughout the house, but having discovered more about the amuco, I have to retract that allegation.

The lovely Andrew Doherty of Tides and Tales blog has been kind enough to read and review “Words The Sea Gave Us” on his blog this week. As a landlubber myself I was relieved to find somebody from a nautical family giving it the stamp of approval. His blog is fascinating to anybody with an interest in Irish maritime history and illustrated with wonderful photos, both old and new. Andrew has already published one book about maritime history and his second, “Waterford Harbour, Tides and Tales” is launching this month with the History Press.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Kerfuffle

Hello,

With the excitement of the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” mostly behind me now it’s time for a non-nautical word this week – kerfuffle.

A kerfuffle is defined as “noise, excitement, and argument” (thanks to the Cambridge Dictionary, the pronunciation is available there too). Some other dictionaries note the word is informal British English. Apart from the argument, that sums up last week for me.

I guessed kerfuffle would be an old word but Etymology Online, usually reliable on dates, says it only entered English in the 1970s, was used with a variant spelling (kafuffle) from the 1940s, and in Canadian English from the 1930s.

The spelling variation leads us back further in the word’s history as the previous version is carfuffle, when it was being used by Scottish writers. The car to ka or ker change is pretty natural as there is no letter K in the alphabet for Scots Gaelic (or Irish Gaeilge for that matter), so you have English speakers adjusting the spelling when they adopted the word.

The fuffle part, however, didn’t change and it gets us further back in time. Fuffle dates back to the 1500s and was a Scottish verb meaning to disorder or dishevel (can one be hevelled, I wonder?).

The Scottish roots explain, in my opinion at least, the connection to Canadian English as the point where carfuffle crossed into English and became kerfuffle. Many Scottish emigrants settled in the eastern coastal regions of Canada during the 1800s. Apparently if you visit areas like Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island you’ll find plenty of Gaelic accents and language influences. I hope to explore that in person myself some day.

I enjoyed the kerfuffle of the book launch last week and I’m very happy to welcome new blog readers who found Wordfoolery as a result <waves>. A few readers have already been kind enough to review the book favourably, thank you, it really helps the visibility of the book online, even if it’s only a few words.

Those of you who read ebooks on Apple devices (phone, tablet, macbook) may find it worthwhile to hop over to my twitter account as I’m currently running a giveaway of a free Apple Books / iBooks edition. It’s free to enter and open internationally in any country where such books are sold (US, UK, Canada, Ireland etc).

Last week also found me participating in my first ever radio interview when Sinéad Brassil of LMFM radio kindly asked me to chat about my books and the history of words. She podcasted the interview so if you’re curious you can listen to it here. It’s about 15 minutes long and includes the history of boycotts, booby traps, and more. My teens are now referring to me as a word history celebrity and hoping their friends don’t find out. Sigh.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Words The Sea Gave Us

Hello,

Today is the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” so instead of exploring one word I’ll be talking about my book which features 370 words and phrases the English language borrowed from the sea. From baggywinkle and gollywobbler to tempest and flotsam, the sea in all her moods has given us a boatload of words throughout history. This book explores their origins along with a cargo of old sailor’s yarns. Cast your line for the salty history of skyscraper, mollgogger, strike, cyber, and phrases like getting hitched, red herring, hot pursuit, and taking them down a peg.

Out now!

I investigated the parts of a ship, sail names, crew titles, surfer slang, marine monsters, nautical navigation, flying the flag, and, of course, how to talk like a scurvy pirate. Then I stowed  some sea fables, fashions, and weather in the hold too. You don’t have to be a maritime expert for this one. It’s ideal for word geeks, sailors, and beachcombers.

You’ll find out about the last Royal Navy cutlass attack (1940s), where cyber really comes from, the icky origin of a slush fund, and how London ships gave us the first ever strike. Other discoveries include the simple line which saved thousands of seafarers, why Long John Silver didn’t have a peg leg, the origin of a booby trap, and the meaning of scuttlebutt, mollgogger, and gollywobbler. If you don’t know the difference between being one or three sheets in wind I can enlighten you with a side trip to the Great Rum Debate in the UK parliament.

What more would you expect from a book that reached Number One in Ship History upon its ebook release?

“Tierney navigates us through a whole archipelago of word histories, in categories including pirates, surfer slang, and sea monsters. She writes with aplomb, extensive knowledge, and the occasional dash of droll humor.”

You’ll find all the buy links for it on my books page. Or just hop over to Amazon. Some readers have already been kind enough to let me know that they’ve enjoyed the book.

“The man who has everything certainly covers it but your book was a complete surprise and also a joy to him to receive.”

I’ve also setup a PayPal system for you to order signed books direct from me, if you’d prefer the personal touch, and don’t mind my terrible handwriting. If you’re interested, comment on this post with your email address or contact me.

Today I’ll be chatting on facebook and twitter about “Words The Sea Gave Us”, running a nautical word poll, and sharing snippets from the book, so if you’re about, please drop by. If you’d like to hear me read from “Words The Sea Gave Us” then check out the Bunny Trails podcast, episode 86.

Thank you to the blog readers and other friends who donated word and phrase suggestions for this book and whose names are in the book beside their words. Thank you to Peter Sheehan, Brendan Tierney, Nell Jenda, Rick Ellrod, Kimberly Sullivan, ZZNewell, Christine Byrne Carroll, Paul Powell, Rita Fitzsimons, Paddy “PJ” Callahan, IrishSmuggling, and Clíodna Johnston.

Don’t forget the Various Vessels download is available here on the blog to help you know your arks from your ketches.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Signed Wordfoolery Books

Hello,

When I released “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” I was surprised by how many people wanted to buy signed paperbacks. Naturally I was happy to help, although I still feel that anybody who wants me to write on their book clearly hasn’t seen my dreadful handwriting.

If you would like a signed copy of the book (either of the books, or both!) posted to you here’s what you need to do.

  1. Get in touch with me – email grace at gracetierney dot com / message me on facebook or twitter / comment on this blog post with your email address
  2. I’ll need a) what you’d like written. For example – my name / a message to a gift recipient / Ahoy! , b) your full name and address, c) which book(s) you want, d) payment in advance at PayPal
  3. The cost (including post & packaging) is –
    Ireland €14
    United Kingdom £15
    Europe €16
    Other countries available on request

I’ll send you a message when the parcel is dispatched.

Typically parcels from Ireland will arrive in Ireland in less than one week, UK in less than two weeks, Europe in less than two weeks, but books may take up to six weeks to reach US, Canada, Australia.

Thanks!

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

The Nautical Roots of Heave-Ho

Hello,

Are you ready for some nautical nonsense? Wonderful, welcome aboard!

This week Wordfoolery’s desk is awash with “book jobs”, apologies for it spilling over here with another nautical expression, heave ho. The end is in sight as I now have the official book launch date to announce – next Monday, the 31st of August. It will all be happening here on the blog and over on my twitter feed (@Wordfoolery) and you are all formally invited to join in as this blog is the reason this book exists. It will be a relief and joy to finally unleash “Words The Sea Gave Us” on the word lovers of the world.

You can <voice drops to a whisper> buy an ebook or paperback copy already as I did a sneaky “soft launch” to test the cover printing, but if you wait you’ll have the option of a signed paper copy direct from me to you (or to a friend with a gift inscription, of course). If you’d like to get on the list for that you can comment on this post or drop me a message.

In fact some of you lovely people had already bought and read the book. Thank you so much, it helps so much in the making the book visible and attractive to other readers!

Alright, enough about book launches, what about heave-ho?

Heave-Ho! {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney}

Heave-Ho! is a common call in sea shanties but to understand what it means you have to explore the two parts individually.

Heave entered Old English as hebban from German, Dutch, and Old Norse roots all with the same meaning of lift or take up, but with a variety of different spellings. It was only in 1944 that heave took on the second meaning of a dismissal.

Ho is always an interjection of some sort. English has numerous version from gung-ho (see the Flying the Flag chapter) to heigh-ho and tally-ho. Using a series of ho-ho-ho to indicate laughter dates back to the 1100s, probably thanks to Saint Nicholas.

Ho used with a place name (for example, Westward-Ho) was used by boatmen to indicate departure for that place from the 1500s and ho would have been used solo from the 1300s to attract attention and demand silence, for example to stop chatter amongst the crew.

These two nautical versions of ho give us the clue for heave-ho – the call to work demanded the hands listen for the rhythmic call of when to lift or pull (for example a large sail, a new mast, a net full of fish, or the anchor). Each time the caller said Heave, they’d pull, then the Ho was the pause. The call was repeated, perhaps with the addition of a sea shanty for morale and team rhythm, until the task was completed.

In more recent land-based usage to get the heave-ho is to be dismissed from your work or relationship.

{end of extract}

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Always Mind Your Tittles

Hello,

That’s not a typo in the title of this post, by the way. I really did mean to spell title with an extra t. This week’s word is tittle and yes, it does have a link to the phrase tittle-tattle, but more on that in a moment.

A tittle is a small stroke or point in writing (or printing) and has been an English word since the 1300s, although not much used outside certain circles. You use a tittle when you dot your lowercase i or j, for example.

A tittle can also be used in many languages to indicate specific pronunciations. French-speakers will recall the acute accent, cedilla, circumflex, grave, and trema while German-speakers know the umlaut (the scharfes S is officially a letter in the alphabet), and Spanish experts will be familiar with the wavy tilde amongst others. Tittles used in this way allow written languages to indicate how they should be spoken.

A tittle can also be a stroke, or dot, to indicate omitted letters in a word. For example, in English we use a tittle to show missing letters such as the missing letter O in the word don’t.

Tittle, because it is a small thing is also sometimes used as a word to describe a tiny amount or a part of something, along the same lines as the word jot. For example, “There wasn’t a tittle of common sense in the politician’s speech”.

Tittle entered English as a translation of apex from Latin. Apex came from the Greek word keraia (little horn), which itself came from Hebrew word qots (thorn) which described little lines projecting from letters to distinguish them from each other. Each of those languages used such flourishes and needed a word to describe them.

Related words are titulus (title) from Latin for a stroke to show missing letters (like my example “don’t”). There’s also the Provençal word titule (the dot over an i), and tilde which is the Spanish form of the same word.

You may also know the phrase “to a T”. It is likely this has it’s origins with the word tittle as an earlier phrase “to a tittle” had been used.

Another phrase also sprang to mind when I stumbled across tittle, “tittle-tattle” meaning gossip or idle chatter. Tattle arrived in English after tittle (the late 1400s) and meant to stammer or prattle possibly from Middle Flemish tatelen (to stutter) or East Frisian tateren (to chatter or babble). It wasn’t until the 1580s that tattle became associated with the telling of secrets. Certainly in my school-days you didn’t want to be tagged as tattle-tale, one who told incriminating details to your teacher about other students.

Tattler is now perhaps best known without its double-T, Tatler magazine had a run in the early 1700s and is still popular today, perhaps because everybody loves to know secrets?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Listen to Wordfoolery on the Bunny Trails Podcast

Hello,

Last weekend I had a great chat with Dan and Shauna on the Bunny Trails podcast (a whimsical exploration of words and turns of phrase coming from Kansas, USA) all about my latest book “Words The Sea Gave Us”. I really enjoyed taking part in my first ever podcast session (despite a massive cargo ship full of nerves) and I hope you enjoy listening too. At the very least it offers you a chance to finally hear what I sound like! And yes, I know, I speak far too fast, call it an Irish thing.

You can read the transcript of the episode if you click the image below, listen to the audio here, or search for Bunny Trails wherever you usually pick up your podcasts. I’ve tried some of their back catalogue too and they are well worth a listen.

There won’t be a Monday blog post for the next two weeks as Wordfoolery and family are heading away (beside the sea, of course!) but I’ll be back on Monday the 17th of August with more strange and unusual English words.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

Finding Your Niche

Hello,

I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”

Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?

Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.

With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!

The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.

Can a rubber ducky’s nest or niche be said to be a bathtub?

As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.

Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.

Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).

So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

p.p.s. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.