Doldrums and Dead Horses


This week’s word is doldrums, along with the related phrase flogging a dead horse which originated not on a racecourse, but on the open waves of the Sargasso Sea. I’ve just completed a massive editing project (an Irish historic fiction novel, a long-term plan of mine) during NaNoWriMo 2020 and today I’m putting up my feet and giving you an extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us”, my nautical words and phrases book. I hope you enjoy it and avoid the Monday Doldrums yourself.

Doldrums {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2020}

To be in the doldrums has been used since the 1800s to indicate boredom and low spirits but in the Age of Sail it was a more serious position for a ship.

The doldrums are areas of light winds around 30 degrees latitude in each hemisphere in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They were also called the Horse Latitudes thanks to Spanish ship’s practice of throwing horses overboard when becalmed there to preserve drinking water.

The expression flogging a dead horse is connected both to the Horse Latitudes and to the ceremony of the Dead Horse. Sailing as far the Horse Latitudes typically took about one month which was the time it took sailors to work off their advance pay (spent ashore before the trip commenced). When the month was up they tossed a stuffed canvas horse overboard to celebrate being paid again. Captains noted that getting the crew to work hard during that month was as easy as flogging a dead horse into activity.

Not Columbus’ ship’s compass

East of the Bahamas a strong current causes sargasso seaweed to cluster on the surface. This area is known as the Sargasso Sea. It rarely rains there and the winds are light to non-existant. It is often compared to a desert in the sea. Becalmed ships here often didn’t survive the lack of drinking water, and the area was believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the horses and the sailors who had perished. The area is also called the Doldrums or the Dungeon of Lost Souls (now that’s a perfect title for a fantasy novel in my opinion). Columbus sailed through the area with great difficulty thanks to magnetic variation issues with his compass.

During December I’m gathering Christmas words for my Wordfoolery Wednesday local radio slot on the 16th. If you’ve words you’d like me to investigate, please drop a comment below. Thank you!

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Figureheads and How to Cherish Them on Ships


Today’s word is figurehead as I’m currently working on a sea-faring novel for my NaNoWriMo 2020 project and my mind is aboard a fictional galleon this morning. Figurehead has a simple word history – a compounding of figure and head (the front of the ship), and plenty of associated nautical history before its modern use to indicate a leader without power, from the late 1800s.

Lion figurehead spotted at Irish Maritime Festival, Drogheda

Extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” copyright Grace Tierney 2020

The figurehead on a ship is a carved wooden figure attached to the front of the ship. You might conclude that a figurehead in a business or political setting also has a wooden block for brains, but that would be entirely your own affair.

The design of a figurehead is often related to the function of the ship it adorns. Figureheads can be male or female and often were associated with bringing good luck to the ship.

Adornment of the prow of ship goes back to antiquity – eyes on Greek and Phoenician galleys, holy birds on Egyptian boats, carvings of deities on Roman galleys, toothy large-eyed carvings on Viking longships etc. More elaborate carvings began in the 1500s. In a world where many couldn’t read, the unique figurehead identified the ship.

Mermaids were frequent subjects for figureheads thanks to superstitions around women on board vessels. Women were terribly bad luck in general and caused bad weather, but bare-chested women were fine. Luckily mermaids were always depicted without a top, so they bared their bodies on the figurehead to appease the sea gods and nature into staying calm.

The crew were often very fond of their ship’s figurehead. They tied a hammock across the eyes of the figurehead on the Royal George so it wouldn’t have to see a humiliating retreat and when the figurehead on The Brunswick had its hat blown off the captain donated his own as a substitute.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Codology – a Fishy Tale


This week’s word is codology and it was suggested by Sinéad Brassil, friend of the blog, and the LMFM radio presenter who kindly hosts Wordfoolery Wednesdays once a month. I should also mention that it’s one of my mother’s favourite words.

Firstly, what is codology? It’s the elevation of codding to the level of a science – the talking of utter nonsense. For example, “I wish that politician would stop his old codology. We all know he’s talking rubbish.” Then what’s codding? It is to joke around. I’ve spelled it with two Ds to differentiate it from coding (i.e. writing computer code) but honestly I’m not sure of the spelling when used as a verb.

Readers of a certain era will recall a telephone ad for British Telecom featuring the wonderful Maureen Lipman praising a beloved grandchild who had failed most of their exams but managed to pass one of the “ologies”, I wonder if I could pass an exam in codology?

Codology is an Irish English word which, according to the OED, first appeared in print in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” in 1922 (“The why and wherefore and all the codology of the business”). Eric Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” and Cassell’s “Dictionary of Slang”, however, both think codology dates to around 1910 so in all likelihood it was in use before Joyce but he helped it on its way.

American English has a similar term – kidology drawn from kidding around.

Fishing for codology

A cod, is more than a fish in this context. To cod somebody is to hoax them, to mimic them, to trick or joke with them. Cod used in this way pre-dates codology but I can’t find any source to explain how we made the linguistic leap from a fish to a joke, except perhaps the French tradition of Poisson D’Avril, their version of April Fool’s Day where the victim is slapped with a wet fish instead of a verbal joke.

There’s no link I can find to codswallop, by the way, as it doesn’t appear in print until the 1950s, although again it does sound a little like hitting somebody with a fish. Wallop was slang for beer apparently, I like that.

Until next time happy reading, writing, wordfooling, and duck if anybody comes at you swinging a fish,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Smart Thinking Books

p.s. SmartThinking Books, the book blog for nonfiction readers, kindly asked me to contribute to their Christmas Book Recommendations this week.


p.p.s. My short fiction “Volume Control” is in the November issue of The Secret Attic and tells the tale of the two sweet little old ladies who live next door.

Cenotaph – A Seafarer’s Tomb


This week contains the 11th of November and it’s one of the few history dates I can recall from my studies as a teen. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month has a significant ring to it and in 1918 it was the time of the signing of the armistice between Germany and the Allied Forces which ended what was then called The Great War.

I was reading this week about that moment in a biography. An observer was looking out the window onto a London street as the news broke, first one young woman ran out the door of her office building and then she was joined by more and more as relief swept through the city. One in ten of the service-aged male population died, the relief and grief of the moment must have been overwhelming.

My word to mark the 11th is cenotaph and it’s one the sea gave us (and hence features in my book). Cenotaphs, large stone structures to act as memorials to the dead who lie elsewhere, were first created in ancient Greece. They were monuments to those lost at sea and were always erected on headlands overlooking the waves. The word is compounded from two Greek words – kenos (empty) and taphos (tomb) which makes tragic sense as the sea doesn’t always yield up the bodies of those she takes.

The most famous cenotaph in the U.K. stands in Whitehall, London since 1920 and was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens to commemorate all those who died in World War One at sea and on land. It was unveiled on the 11th of November 1920 – it’s a hundred years old this week. Within a week of its unveiling it had been visited by more than one million people and it was 10 feet deep in flowers.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Many thanks to those of you who voted for the cover of “Words The Sea Gave Us” on AllAuthor. Voting has now closed.

p.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.

Vote for “Words The Sea Gave Us” in Cover Contest


They say not to judge a book by its cover but I need you to do just that. If you liked the cover of my book, Words The Sea Gave Us, please vote for it in the Cover of the Month contest on!

Vote via this link

I need as much support from you guys as possible. Please take a short moment to vote. It’s free and you don’t even have to register. Thanks so much!

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Ukulele – Leaping into the English Language


This week’s word is ukulele. This one has been on my list to research for some time after somebody mentioned its roots in passing and I was sure they must have made a mistake. I keep a list of words to investigate, this little guitar-like instrument joined the list and has been overlooked ever since which is unfair as it’s a fun way to get people involved in music.

Students in my teens’ school who study music all learn the ukulele in their first year of study, for example. During the first major virus lockdown in Ireland Niall Breslin (musician, and former Gaelic footballer and Leinster rugby player) sent 200 ukeleles in April to youngsters and older members of the community who had to cocoon due to health concerns and challenged them to learn to play. His online tutorials proved popular and the initiative became known as the Lockdown Ukulele Rockdown (not easy to say aloud after more than two lockdown cocktails). Then in July as restrictions eased he released a music video featuring 400 players (yes, he sent out another 200 instruments) in aid of stage technicians who were made redundant by the lockdown. It may be a small instrument, but they showed it could make a big difference.

What was the rumoured source of ukulele in the English language I heard months ago? Well, I heard it came from Hawaii and meant jumping flea. It sounded so crazy, it couldn’t be true. Yes, it could.

Ukelele entered English in the late 1800s directly from Hawaiian where ukulele translates literally as a leaping flea. Uku means louse or flea and lele means to fly, jump, or leap. The instrument was named in this way in Hawaiian thanks to the rapid finger action required to play it, reminding viewers of leaping fleas hopping across the strings. It may even be linked to the playing style of one early expert, an Englishman called Edward William Purvis who was an officer to King Kalakaua. The king was a keen patron of the arts and included ukulele music in royal concerts and entertainments. King Kalakaua (1836-1891), the last king of Hawaii, himself played the ukulele and was known as the Merrie Monarch, not a bad nickname to have.

The four-stringed instrument itself wasn’t entirely an Hawaiian invention, however. It developed from a Portuguese stringed instrument called a machete introduced to the islands by Portuguese immigrants around 1879. The ukulele is actually part of the lute family and comes in four different sizes – soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

In other news this week, “Words The Sea Gave Us” is taking part in the AllAuthors Cover Contest this month and is currently taking a hammering from manly torsos on romance novel covers so if you could take a moment to throw a vote our way (free and you don’t have to register) today it would be very much appreciated. Thanks very much!

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. It’s November and as usual I’m up to my neck in writing a book for National Novel Writing Month. I’m re-writing a historic fiction novel this year and of course supporting writers in my region of Ireland North East where I’m the Municipal Liaison. If you’re taking part this year I hope the words are flowing for you.

Burning Bones – the Word History of Bonfires


There’s something about the darkening evenings and falling leaves (at least in the northern part of the planet we call home) that makes me want to light a fire. There’s a joke “once a scout, always a pyromaniac” and it’s funny because it’s true. The ability to make fire with a flint and steel is one skill I’m proud to hold and keen to use at this time of year. If the weather co-operates on Halloween I’ll be lighting our garden fire-pit for a mini bonfire, as gatherings for large community bonfires are unwise this year.

The source of the word is suitably gruesome for this time of year when tradition holds that the veil between the world of the living and the dead is whisper thin. The bon in bonfire isn’t from the French word for good (no matter what the wonderful Dr Johnson thought), it’s from bone. The original bonfires were fires for burning bones.

Bonfire entered Middle English as banefire in the late 1400s but was defined early on as being for the burning of bones. Christopher Fowler, who pens the wonderful Byrant and May detective series and has a passion for London history, elaborates on bonfires in his novel “The Burning Man”. He reckons it started in Denmark when the bodies of the losing side would be piled up and burned in celebration by the victors. An alternative he provides is the story of Edward Bonner, the Bishop of London in Tudor times. In 1555, on his orders over 300 English men and women were burned at the stake for their faith and the fires became known as Bon’s fires as a result.

Sadly the burning of people for their faith was commonplace in those times and both sides did it. In the town of Lewes in Sussex there are bonfire societies who burn effigies to commemorate the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs by Catholics during Mary Tudor’s reign and of course burning a dummy of Guy Fawkes is popular on November 5th in the UK which again comes back to religious strife.

Here in Ireland we skip the 5th of November and save our bonfires for two specific dates – Halloween and St John’s Eve (the 23rd of June). The second of those was news to me as a Dublin girl but is a tradition in full swing in the west of the country. You can read more about it here. We’ve always liked a good fire in Ireland. Saint Patrick tapped into that by lighting a Pascal (Easter) fire on the hill of Slane, not too far from where I live, and in clear sight of the hill of Tara – seat of the pre-Christian king of Ireland.

The roots of the bonfire almost certainly reach back into Ireland’s pre-Christian past, but nowadays the inclusion of bones amongst your tinder is best avoided.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)






The Finishing Touch of the Colophon


This week’s word is colophon and unless you work in publishing, this may be a new one to you. It was to me. The colophon, in modern times, is the statement at the start of book stating details like date of publication, publisher’s name, place of publication etcetera.

The colophon from my book “Words The Sea Gave Us”

The colophon used to be printed at the end of the book, but “the first shall be last” and all that. Just as movie credits on old films used to be at the start and now they’re at the end, so too colophon has relocated. It’s a shame though because the word evolution of colophon is related to being at the end.

Colophon entered English in the late 1770s from Late Latin, but originally from the Greek word kolophōn (summit, final touch) and the root word kel (hill, summit). Graeme Donald’s book “Sticklers, Sideburns, and Bikinis” elaborates on the hill part. Colophon is actually a toponym, a word named for a place. Colophon was a mountain city state in Ionia. They had great cavalry in their army who were renowned for always holding out until the very last moment to make a final and decisive contribution to battles. Hence the colophon should be the final, and most important, finishing touch to a book.

Colophon is 15 miles northwest of Ephesus in the Izmir region of what is now modern Turkey. The ruins of the city, high on the hills, can still be seen today.

Last week, at the kind invitation of Sinéad Brassil, I started a regular monthly slot called “Wordfoolery Wednesdays” on LMFM radio. We chatted about feckless, doom-scrolling, macabre & eldritch (with Halloween coming soon), and the local origins of the Beaufort Scale. If you missed it live, you can listen back to the podcast here. I’ve added a new page to the blog for the various audio interviews and this monthly chat. You’ll find it under the Listen to Wordfoolery tab at the top of the page.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Irish Books I love 2020


To celebrate Irish Book Week, I’ve written a bonus post about books by Irish authors. Readers from outside Ireland can be forgiven for gravitating towards the classics like WB Yeats’ poetry or James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Edna O’Brien, etc. but Irish writing is so much broader than those writers. So varied, in fact, that I’ve no hope of including everybody. This is my personal selection from my own bookshelves.

For #IrishBookWeek, I dare you to dabble in the library, bookshop, or online and discover your own taste in Irish writing. It may surprise you.

The books are not ranked because asking me to say which is my favourite is simply cruel and impossible.

The Complete Plays – Oscar Wilde (

I know I said I wouldn’t cover the classic Irish writers but Oscar is brilliant and my copy of this book is tattered with good reason. Witty, observant, and gets us to laugh at ourselves in the sharpest of ways. This includes “The Importance of Being Earnest”, “Lady’s Windermere’s Fan”, “Salomé”, and “An Ideal Husband”. If you can’t get to these in the theatre (and I strongly suggest you do) reading the plays is almost as much fun.

This is Happiness – Niall Williams (

Niall Williams is a beautiful writer but not only is his prose elegant, his characters stay with you after you close the book, and his plots are compelling. I have an entire section of his books on my shelves (a rare honour). This one follows a small town when the team arrives to bring electricity. Part coming-of-age and part love song to the past, it will transport you to rural Ireland in the mid 1900s.

The Burning – Jane Casey (

Did you know Ireland has been having a surge of great crime fiction in recent years? Yep, and most of it by female authors. My fav is Jane Casey and her London (from an Irish family) police detective Maeve Kerrigan has already featured in nine books. This is the first in the series. Trust me on this one. It’s a brilliant series beloved by my entire crime and thriller addicted family.

Firefly Summer – Maeve Binchy (

Before we had Sheila Flanagan, Patricia Scanlan, Marian Keyes and a slew of great female Irish writers of contemporary women’s fiction we had Maeve. Much missed, I read all her books and Firefly Summer was my favourite, but you can safely choose any, and escape to tales of female friendship, women finding their feet in the world, and maybe a dash of romance. Notorious for listening, and even lip-reading, on public transport she was brilliant at describing the dramas of female life so well that you feel you know these women.

Redeemer – CE Murphy (

A slight stretch here as CE is from Alaska but she lives and writes in Dublin so I’m claiming her! This time Rosie the Riveter meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as a factory worker at the end of WWII discovers she has a rare talent for fighting demons. It’s just that she wants to sort out her life before her boy comes home from the front line, so could the demons hang on a minute please?

No Stone Unturned – Pam Lecky (

This is the first in the Lucy Lawrence Mysteries. If you ever wondered how Holmes would have coped if he were female this is the series for you. Lucy is trapped in a boring marriage until she finds her husband in the Victorian London morgue and a ruthless gang on her tail. Rejecting her smelling salts she turns detective.


The Snapper / A Star Called Henry – Roddy Doyle (Snapper / Henry)

Roddy Doyle is the best writer of dialogue I’ve ever read (except Shakespeare, possibly). If you want to know how Dublin sounds – his work is for you. Two books this time to show his range. “The Snapper” is the funny and touching tale of what happens when working class Sharon declares she is pregnant but won’t name the father (it’s related to “The Commitments” which Doyle also wrote). “A Star Called Henry” tells us about a young lad in Dublin in the run up to the Easter Rising in 1916. Henry Smart happens to be about for the major events. It’s the best book on the period I’ve ever read.

Turbulent Priests – Colin Bateman (

Another witty Irish novel. If you enjoy the dark humour of the thrillers by Christopher Brookmyre then you’ll love Bateman’s books about Northern Ireland. Dan Starkey arrives on Wrathlin Island to investigate the residents’ belief that the Messiah is alive, female, and about to start school. Plot is best summed up as “chaos ensues”. Be prepared to laugh aloud in public places when reading this one.

Walk the Blue Fields – Claire Keegan (

I wanted to include a short fiction collection and this is my favourite one by an Irish author. Beautifully written, evocative, Keegan puts you inside the heads and hearts of modern Irish people with stories that will stay with you after you close the slim volume.


Holding – Graham Norton (

I am cynical about celebrities writing books, but Norton is a big reader, a keen student of human nature, and a skilled writer as is shown in his debut novel (to date he’s penned two more, so no fly-by-night here). Set in his native West Cork, the tale follows a slightly inept policeman seeking the truth of a body uncovered on farmland in a village. But the truth lies in the past and he will have to step up to solve the case. Note: my 14 year old daughter loved this one too.

Words The Sea Gave Us & How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary – Grace Tierney (

My first two books inspired by this blog are out now in paperback and ebook (all the ways to get them are listed here along with reader reviews etc). “Words The Sea Gave Us” covers nautical words and phrases from ahoy to skyscraper. “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” explores the lives of the people whose names became part of the English language including Boycott, Sandwich, Guillotine, Casanova, and Fedora.

If you like to chat about books and authors, or watch big name authors chat about their own favourite books in “Shelf Analysis”, then check out the Rick O’Shea Book Club on facebook. I joined when they’d reached 7,000 members but we’re now on 34,000 readers so you are bound to find others will similar taste. Be warned, it may cause you to spend all your free cash on books, if you don’t already.

Until next time I hope you enjoy Irish Book Week. 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. I write an annual review of my favourite books at year end. You can find 2019 and 2018 here.

The Obscure Origins of the Game of Poker


This morning, for some strange reason, my mind is on the game of poker. Not the poker you use to stir up your fire (which dates to the 1530s in English and yes, it does relate to being a object used to poke the fire).

As I’ve found before when looking at words around card playing, there’s little definitive clarity to be found when it comes to poker. This seems appropriate to me as a total poker amateur. On the rare nights when our family sits down for a game we all have to refer to the sheet of rules on which hands beat others. I suspect this means we would be easy prey for any hustler in a hundred mile radius. Luckily we play only for the plastic chips, and the bragging rights of being the winner.

Sadly this is not the hand I usually get when playing

Bragging is appropriate as it turns out. An earlier version of the game was called Brag. I think I recall them playing it in Jane Austen novels?

Even if you’ve never played a hand of poker in earnest I’m sure you’ve seen it played in movies – by cowboys in a saloon, gangsters in a back room, or grifters in a casino. The game first appeared around the late 1820s, perhaps starting amongst riverboat gamblers on the great Mississippi river. As a result the word entered English with thanks to the Americans.

It wasn’t entirely American however. There was an earlier card game called Pochspiel in German. Spiel means play or game, and the Poch part of the word comes from pochen (the verb to brag or bluff). There may even have been a French game called poque which was very similar. It appears that several countries had card games involving bluffing around the same time period and any of them could have been the original source but the American gamblers slipped the word into mainstream English usage and usually take credit on this one. Whist, another very popular card game (this time taught to me by a nun in the 1980s!) also involves bluffing and it dates back to the 1660s, so poker isn’t the first by any means.

The related term is, of course, poker face. Early examples of its use to describe somebody controlling their facial expressions to improve their chances in the game date back to the 1870s. This is something I’ve yet to achieve so it’s probably best that I stick to playing with plastic chips rather than cash.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m delighted to announce that starting this Wednesday (14th Oct) I’ll be joining Sinéad Brassil on LMFM radio once a month to chat about the history of unusual words and phrases on Wordfoolery Wednesdays. If you live in the Louth Meath area you can tune in live on 95.8fm, listen live via the internet, or listen to the podcast afterwards (I’ll share the link on the blog and on my social media when it’s available).