Fiasco – a story of wine and plays


Today’s word is fiasco. I’m researching Old Norse words in English for my book “Words The Vikings Gave Us” and was enjoying “Words We Use” by Diarmaid √ď Muirithe (based on his language columns for the Irish Times) when I came across his linking of fiasco to bottles of wine. As a lover of both wine and words, I had to investigate.

An empty flasco

Fiasco entered English in 1855 and by 1862 is was being used to describe any disastrous flop, but in the beginning it was linked to flops in the theatrical world. It came to English from the French phrase “faire fiasco” – to make a fiasco – which originated as an Italian phrase “far fiasco” – to suffer a complete breakdown in performance – but which literally translates as “to make a bottle” as flasco is the Latin for bottle. It’s related to flask, as you might expect.

Now in slang here we’ve got the idea of “bottling it” to describe somebody being too afraid to do something, although it’s not confined to actors. I can’t help wondering if there’s any connection.

Naturally with such vivid mental images of bottles and disgruntled audiences it’s hard to avoid the idea that they might cast a bottle on stage in disgust over a poor production of a beloved play (Italians are passionate about their culture) but proof is thin on the ground. There’s a chance that the phrase is a corruption of the Italian expression “fare il fiasco” which describes game playing where the loser buys the next bottle/flask of wine.

Either way, the next time I encounter a fiasco I’m going to see if I’m entitled to a bottle of wine in compensation.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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The Origin of Anecdotes


Today’s word is anecdote with thanks to Everyday Etymology who mentioned it recently and sparked my interest.

Typesetter’s Case

Anecdote is used in recent times to identify a, usually brief, amusing story but this was not always the case. It entered English in the 1670s and originally described secrets and unpublished stories which is quite different from the little tales told by stars and authors promoting their latest movie or book on the sofa with a chat show host.

Anecdote either comes direct from the French word anecdote or from Greek roots (with a pit-stop in Latin). The Greek word anekdota means “unpublished things” and comes from an- (not) and ekdotos (published). Ekdotos itself means to “give out”. The whole concept amounts of anecdotes being something you do not give out or make public. An example of this was the “Anecdota”, the unpublished memoirs of the Roman emperor Justinian which were apparently packed with juicy court gossip, and this added to the original English anecdote’s meaning as being a secret story.

Human nature being fond of gossip and the inside story no doubt led to the erosion of the secrecy over time and now anecdotes are tidbits of news shared amongst friends, and on the chat show couch.

Where does this leave “anecdotal evidence“? By the original definition this is evidence which is not published and that’s where anecdote retains some of its original meaning as such evidence usually isn’t formally published but rather is gathered by oral stories. Good to see some secrecy has survived.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Persiflage & 2018 Word Quiz


The Wordfoolery Blog is ten years old this year so I decided to treat it to a new theme and banner, I hope you like it. Our weekly dose of word history won’t change though, never fear. This week there’s also a fun word quiz for you to try based on the unusual words explored here during 2018. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to share it – it’s free to try, short, and doesn’t save any personal details.

This week’s word is persiflage (pronunciation here). Perhaps you’re familiar with it, but I happened upon it last year and it sent me to the dictionary to discover it’s a noun for

“light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter” (OED)

Considering how much I enjoy a touch of persiflage, I’m stunned I never stumbled on this one before.

Persiflage entered English in the late 1700s as a direct acquisition from French where the verb persifler means “to banter”. It had formed in French by compounding the Latin word per (through) and the French word siffler (to whistle or hiss) which again came from Latin sibilare, to hiss, (think sibilant). A quick online search shows me the most common usage of persiflage now is to describe someone’s approach to a conversation as having “an air of persiflage“. I dare you to aim for that air today.

Until next time happy reading, persiflaging, and word quizzing,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Odalisque – a special type of woman


This week’s word is odalisque which I came across recently in a newspaper article in “The Irish Times”. The journalist was discussing the recent actions of Jeff Bezos versus blackmail threats. The male writer, explained that as far back as the 1700s women who had sexual or compromising liaisons with wealthy men would announce they were writing their memoirs and wait for the payments to roll in, a form of pension if you like.

I’m not convinced it worked like that. Wealthy people don’t surrender wealth easily and those who trade on their looks and allure are often cast aside long before they secure their financial well-being. How many of those memoir writers were desperately poor? How many died of diseases caught from their powerful and respected “benefactors” in an era before antibiotics?

The article then mentioned Harriette Wilson, who tried this move on the Duke of Wellington (a member of the exclusive “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (alternative UK link) club, thanks to his own special style of bootwear) who responded famously “Publish and be damned!”. Wilson was a “successful odalisque” according to this writer. But what’s an odalisque?

An odalisque (pronunciation here) historically was a female slave or concubine in the Sultan’s harem in Turkey. This doesn’t describe Harriette. The modern meaning is an exotic, sexually attractive woman. This comes closer, but doesn’t include the idea that odalisques extorted to supplement their incomes.

The word odalisque comes directly from the harem. It entered English in the 1680s from French but ultimately from the Turkish word odaliq (maidservant) and from odah (room in a harem).

Underside of the harem’s roof in Sultan’s palace, Istanbul

Harriette did publish her memoirs (US edition / UK edition) after Wellington’s challenge. She was one of 15 children in her lower class family, four of whom became mistresses to wealthy men. She claimed she published because of the broken promises of her former lovers to support her as she aged. Her book discusses assaults on her, and outlines the stories of others like her who died paupers. Her name is less well known than Wellington, but nonetheless she was a brave woman.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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The Strange Story Behind Hocus Pocus


This week’s word is the exclamation “hocus pocus!” as used by magicians. You might also hear abracadabra or shazam, but we all prepare to be amazed if someone twirls a wand and calls on hocus pocus. But who was hocus pocus? Is it Elvish?

Ready for a magic trick?

Hocus pocus has been used by conjurors for centuries. It dates to the 1630s and as there was also hocas pocas as name for a juggler or magician in the 1620s, it might be older. Hocus pocus is also used as a noun to describe tricks, again from the 1640s.

As early as the 1650s astute observers were remarking that the phrase, used to distract and entertain the crowd during tricks, might have its origins in the Latin words spoken during catholic religious services. The phrase “This is my body” used during the consecration was spoken in Latin as “Hoc est corpus meum“. Few of the faithful would have understood enough Latin to follow the details of the priest’s words. It would be the 1960s before those words were spoken in the local language of a church, instead of Latin.

Jugglers and street entertainers were known for “borrowing” other common Latin phrases to use on audiences who generally wouldn’t be familiar with the language. In the 1670s the phrase hiccus doctius was a phrase used by jugglers during their performances and sometimes was used as another word for juggler, just like hocus pocus. Hiccus doctius is likely to have been a twist on hicce es doctus, “here is the learned man” in Latin.

Words change with use and mispronunciation in English, and in all languages. It’s not surprising that this process would happen especially with words from a language spoken often but only understood by the learned in society. The 15th century jugglers and conjurors took a solemn phrase and gave it new life on the streets. The reaction of the priests is not recorded.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)
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What a load of Bunkum


This week’s word is bunkum, which I came across this week while researching nautical words for “Words The Sea Gave Us”, my next nonfiction book. Bunkum, sometimes shortened to bunk, isn’t a word I ever use, but I may take it up purely because its history is wonderfully foolish.

Bunks (not bunkum) on the Dunbrody Famine Ship

On Feburary 25th, 1820 Felix Walker (1753-1828), who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina in the American House of Representatives (a.k.a. Congress) wanted to contribute to a long-running Missouri statehood debate in Congress. He began a speech which was quickly discerned to be “long, dull, irrelevant”. He was called upon to cut it short. He refused, insisting that he wanted to prove to his voters and their newspapers that he was active in the House. “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe”.

To the frustration of the other representatives he insisted on finishing his long “speech for Buncombe”. Thereafter buncombe (later spelled phonetically as bunkum) came to describe meaningless political nonsense. By 1841 it was a word (a toponym in fact) for any kind of nonsense.

Today’s politicians rarely talk any bunkum, of course.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Welcome to all my recent subscribers. It’s great to have you around. Feel free to suggest a word for Wordfoolery to investigate¬†and to chat in the comments.

The Word History of Time


The temptation to call this post “A Brief History Of Time” in honour of Stephen Hawking is strong, but I can promise there are no physics here today. Instead, I’m exploring the word history of time. I usually look at the history of unusual words and time is everyday in comparison but has plenty of unusual roots.

Starting with time itself, did you know we get this one from the Vikings? Time entered English as Old English tima (a limited space of time) which has roots in Old Norse timi (proper time) and Swedish timme (an hour).

The concept of time as an infinite abstract idea dates to the 1300s and by 1509 there were images of an old man carrying an hour glass and scythe to personify time.

Time works harder as a word in English than in other European languages. Time in English can mean the extent of time, a specific point in time, and an hour. Whereas in French you’d have temps, fois and heure for those ideas and in German you’ve zeit, mal, and Uhr.

“The Times” as the name of a newspaper dates to 1788. Time in science fiction has always been important. The first time-traveling story was “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells and the first time capsule was created in 1938 for the New York World’ Fair.

Although time reached England with the Norse invaders, the wearing of time pieces wasn’t important in a largely agricultural society until the arrival of the train, the timetable, and the industrial revolution. The idea of “being on time” arose in 1854 as a result of the railroads.

To “do time”, i.e. serve a prison sentence, first appeared in 1865. The phrase “in the nick of time” dates to Tudor times and the nick in question is the precise mark or notch on a tally stick, an early method of recording quantities precisely. The earlier phrase for the same concept was pudding time. Pudding (dessert) was served first so if you arrived in time for that course, you were just in time.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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