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Hello,

This week’s word is checkmate.

I help out in my local school library on Mondays. Sadly, due to funding cuts, the school wouldn’t have a library if parents didn’t volunteer to run it. One of my regular tasks is to reset the numerous chess boards scattered around the room. I don’t play chess, but I researched how to set out the board. In doing so, I stumbled upon the origin of checkmate.

English doesn’t take many words from Persian in comparison to languages such as Greek or Latin, although tiger, musk, and paradise are wonderful contributions. I was delighted to examine a Persian word import.

In chess, if a king is in check and cannot escape, they are in checkmate. The word entered English from Old French eschec mat (it’s ├ęchec et mat in Modern French). The phrase is also in Spanish as jaque y mate and in Italian as scacco-matto. All three come from the Arabic and Persian shah mat. There’s some debate on the translation of shah mat. Many think it’s “the king is dead” which is literally true as the king is dead within the game, but it’s more likely to be “the king is astonished, stumped, or left helpless” which is more true within the game.

Either way I love the idea of checkmate referring to this tiny king being in trouble in his wooden world.

Lewis Chessman

I had no idea Persia was the source of chess. I believed the Vikings were behind it and it’s true they played a similar strategy game called Tafl or Hnefatafl. If you’re curious there’s more about chess-like games played in Viking countries, Scotland, Ireland etc here. The oldest existing chess set (1120) was found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland which was a Viking outpost at the time. A replica of a fierce Lewis chessman guards my keys from behind his oversized shield.

In fact, chess originated in India in 550 A.D., but was popularised in Persia where the chess army was comprised of foot soldiers, cavalry, a chariot, and an elephant. Once chess was accepted by the Muslim world it spread with the Moorish invasions to Spain and the rest of the western world. The teens in the library are playing an ancient game used for 1,400 years to educate the mind in strategy.

I just wish they’d kept the elephant.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and checkmating,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I was editing this morning and one scene included a jolly roger flag. I already knew this pirate flag wasn’t linked to an actual pirate called Roger (although King Roger II of Sicily tries to claim it), but it seemed like a good time to delve deeper.

Unfortunately the origins of this catchy flag name are confused at best. Experts disagree on when it entered English with dates ranging from the 11th to the 18th century. Stealing on the high-seas is an old tradition so I’d lean towards the earlier dates.

The best explanation I can find for its origin comes from British naval history. In 1694 the British Admiralty commanded English privateers (state-approved pirates) to fly a plain red flag to identify themselves. This makes sense as otherwise they might be mistaken for mere thieves (heaven forbid!) or the Royal Navy itself. Thereafter the term “red jacking” came to mean piracy.

However a plain red flag already had a meaning well-known to sailors – danger. In particular, the red flag signaled an explosive cargo or illness aboard. The red flag meaning “this ship’s captain will not give quarter” became known as La Jolie Rouge (the pretty red in French) but the confusion was there.

Privateers went for a plain black flag instead. If you were attacked by a ship flying such a flag you knew to give up or face death. Over time the privateer captains embellished their flags, to be more fearsome I imagine. Each pirate captain ended up with a unique version of the jolly roger.

It probably helped that in English slang Roger was alternative name for the devil.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and avoid those pesky pirates,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Hello,

This week I’ve dug out my Sherlock hat and taken on a missing persons case. The person in question is Janey Mac and while rumours of her being a Dublin girl like myself persist, it now appears Janey Mac may have been a man.

Janey Mac is an expression of surprise, originating in Ireland and dating back at least 50 years, probably much longer. Some claim it for the west of the country, others for Dublin, but it’s definitely from Ireland and has spread into other countries along with Irish emigrants. Janey Mac hasn’t made it into the dictionary, yet, but is under consideration.

Charmingly, Janey Mac comes with a rhyme

Janey Mac me shirt is black,
What’ll I do for Sunday?
Go to bed and cover your head,
And don’t get up till Monday.

There are three possible origins for Janey.

The first is she was a Dublin girl, one of a pair of sisters. Given that mac is a common prefix to Irish surnames (MacCarthy, MacCabe, MacAuley etc) thanks to mac meaning “son of” in Irish, you would expect to find a Janey MacCarthy (or other Mac surname) at the bottom of this but I couldn’t find a real surname or time period for her anywhere and why would a girl be so surprising anyhow?

The second is the exclamation is an avoidance of taking God’s name in vain. Instead of yelling “Jesus Christ” when you drop a hammer on your toe, you’d call out Janey Mac instead. This is possible. Some alternatives include jeez and “cheese and rice” and many parents in Ireland would say sugar instead of sh**, but Janey Mac really doesn’t sound like Jesus Christ. I’m not convinced by this.

The third option is intriguing and may be complete hokum but it’s a good story. Every Irish schoolchild has heard tales of Fionn MacCumhaill, the ancient Irish warrior (probably mythological). He’s our version of Hercules – super strong, amazing warrior, constantly having adventures and nearly dying. You could see how his surname could be shortened to Mac, right?

His first name, Fionn, was actually a nickname. It means blonde in Irish. Fair hair in the Irish population (pre-viking times) was pretty rare so it makes sense he’d get that as a nickname, just as those with red hair are now rare and might be called Red.

Fionn’s real first name was Deimne which in certain dialects is pronounced Janey.

When Christianity came to the island the first battle was against the ancient myths and stories of demi-gods. Saint Brigid was created to cover for an Irish goddess, it’s not beyond the bounds of belief to see Fionn MacCumhaill being transformed into Janey Mac and it being used as an exclamation or oath, over time becoming confused with those swearing by Jesus Christ.

The true origins of Janey Mac are unknown but I enjoyed the search for her. I love that a mythical Dublin lass may actually have been a mythical demi-god warrior.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Thanks to Paddy PJ Callahan who suggested this topic for the blog.

Hello and Happy May Day,

I’ve an extra fondness for May as it’s my birthday month and I wish this first of May had less rain hereabouts, but I’ve enjoyed learning about Irish May Day traditions this morning on twitter. Apparently the day is celebrated with bonfires. I don’t fancy my chances of lighting the fire pit in today’s driving rain. Maidens would go out and wash their faces in stream junctions to avoid sun-burn. I’d try, but sun-burn isn’t looking too scary right now. Finally, wildflowers were gathered and placed on doorsteps to avert evil spirits. Now that I can do.

Rainbow wildflowers on a doorstep

This week’s word is bumptious. I came across it in an interview with the author Deborah Moggach who used it to mean being intolerant in relationships. I hadn’t met it before and scurried to my dictionary. It told me that a bumptious person is unpleasantly confident, arrogant, and conceited. The example given was of a bumptious young man but I’m sure this can apply to all genders and ages.

Bumptious doesn’t have ancient roots. It first appeared in English around 1800 and is believed to be a wordplay on the words bump and fractious (quarrelsome). Bump is older though, possibly from Scandinavian origins. It joined English in the late 1500s with the meaning of a blow, or the sound of a blow. One variation was bumpsy which was slang for drunk and certainly provides an image of a bumptious drunk staggering around, bumping into things.

Until next time enjoy the May Day traditions and avoid being a bumptious bumpsy,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I won my April CampNaNoWriMo challenge with 50 hours of editing.

 

Hello,

This week’s word is champion. If you’ve ever read or watched the “Game of Thrones” series by GRR Martin you’ll be familiar with nobles in trouble invoking the right to Trial By Combat and that’s where the champion enters the story.

In medieval times a king could only fight their peer, another king. Unless they met on the battlefield this was an unlikely event as the monarchs had to be protected at all costs. Instead the king would nominate a champion to meet any challenge on his behalf.

My Champion is Ready for Combat

 

Champion entered English during the 1200s but there are earlier mentions and given the prevalence of French as the language of nobility at the time it is unsurprising to find champion’s roots in French soil, with a light dusting of compost from Latin.

In Old French a champion was a combatant in single combat on the champ (field) and came from the Latin word campus which means field of combat and makes me wonder what transpires on university campuses.

Related words to champion are the French words for countryside (campagne) and mushrooms (champignon) which make sense in relation to fields, but the one I like is scamp – one who flees the field.

The British monarchy retains the concept of a Royal Champion since 1066A.D. This noble, whose family was given lands as a reward for the work, had to ride up and down before coronations asking if anybody objected. This tradition persists but without the horse these days. The current Royal Champion is also a chartered accountant.

The idea of a champion being a superior sporting star dates from the 1700s.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. My CampNaNoWriMo 2018 project is coming along well. I’m editing my middle grade adventure book “Red Sails” and enjoying the company of other dedicated writers in the “Editors Unite!” camp cabin.

 

Hello,

This week’s word is xylophile and you may not find it in your average dictionary, but it is certainly a real word and with Greek roots too.

Driftwood

A xylophile is someone who loves wood, just as a cartophile loves maps and presumably a xylocartophile would love wooden maps or perhaps maps of woodlands? The prefix xylo- is used in compound words relating to wood and comes from the Greek word xulon which means wood.

woodland path

I came across xylophile while dallying on the backwaters of the internet but I like it and as there’s a lack of words starting with the letter X in English (have a look in your dictionary, it’s pathetic) I think we all need to get behind this one.

Plus I must confess to being a xylophile (and a cartophile but that’s a post for another day). It’s not entirely clear if a xylophile prefers wood in timber or woodland shape but I love both. There’s something glorious about following a winding path through a forest and there’s a real tactile joy to holding crafted wooden objects or slowly whittling a creation from a fallen bough.

wood stacks

So the next time you’re struggling to use the letter X, consider xylophile rather than xylophone (literally – wood sound)

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling in the woods,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

beautiful carpentry showing various different woods

 

 

Hello,

This week I’m taking a look at a word that isn’t in the dictionary, but should be. If you’re lucky enough to be an aunt or uncle you’ll know how much fun it is to have younger family members without the burden of parental responsibility. I mean, who doesn’t like being the “cool aunty”?

Niblings at play

I’m delighted to have two nephews and four nieces who I’ve watched from babyhood to young adulthood but they do present one problem – a lack of a collective noun like siblings, parents, or children. However there is a good candidate – nibling. This word, first used in the 1951 by Samuel Martin, is the niece & nephew version of sibling and it makes perfect sense. So much so I was sure I’d find it in Webster or the OED, but I was wrong.

In 2004 a group of ten year old school children in Somerset, England began a campaign to raise nibling’s profile but it looks like they haven’t met with success, yet. It has been suggested to Webster in 2014 and maybe if we all start using it, and spreading it around, nibling can still make it.

If you’d like to help you can use these links to suggest nibling to Oxford English Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, and Urban Dictionary. In fact, now I know this is possible I am tempted to suggest a plethora of words. Are there any words you would add if you could?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfoolery,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)