Gift – a present from the Vikings

Hello,

This month I’m taking part in CampNaNoWriMo. It’s a spin-off from the main National Novel Writing Month in November and runs in April and July instead. Rather than striving for 50,000 words in one month (a hefty challenge but one I’ve been enjoying since 2007) you can set your own goal – 30 hours editing your poetry book, 10,000 words of short fiction, two acts of your screenplay, whatever you want. I’ve signed up to write 25,000 words of “Words The Vikings Gave Us”, another book in the series inspired by this blog and I’m doing OK so far (22,000 words, thanks for asking).

Anyhow, as a result my mind is obsessing with words from Old Norse and I thought I’d share one with you today on the blog. I hope you enjoy it.

Gift wrapping

{extract from “Words The Vikings Gave Us”, copyright Grace Tierney, 2019}

Gift became an English word in the mid 1200s for “that which is given” from Old Norse gift (gift or good luck). Gift was part of surnames from the 1100s. Old English also had gift (from similar Proto Germanic sources) but it was only used for dowries, a bride-price, or a marriage gift given by the groom which were all very important at that time.

Shortly after gift arrived in English it gained a second meaning, that of a natural talent or inspiration (perhaps given by God) which leads to the word gifted.

Vikings exchanged gifts during courtship even though some matches were made more for power and family influence than for love, as was common elsewhere during the era too.

A woman would make her suitor a shirt if she liked him and he might give her purple flowers. During the wedding ceremony the bride would give her groom a new sword. He’d then thrust it into the central pillar of the house and the depth of the cut determined how successful their union would be (the sexual link on that gesture is pretty clear).

The bride typically brought fabric, a spinning wheel, a loom, and a bed to the marriage. Richer women might bring jewellery, animals, and even farms too. Whatever a woman gifted to the marriage remained her property (even in widowhood or divorce) and could be left to her children.

The groom also made key gifts as part of the marriage. First there was mundr – a set price from groom to bride’s father essentially to prove he had the means to support a woman and any offspring. Second was the morgengifu (morning gift) from the husband to the wife the morning after their wedding which she retained in her own right. This could be land, slaves, animals, money etc. depending on the wealth of her husband and gave her much more independence than woman in other societies of the time. Lastly came the heimanfylgia – the woman’s inheritance from her father which was given to the groom for his use. However in the event of a widowhood or divorce this had to be repaid to the woman for her use.

Generally the meanings of related words in Proto Germanic langauges are similar to that in Old Norse but gift is an exception. It means married in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

I hope you enjoyed the extract. Gift isn’t the most unusual word in English but Viking gift giving certainly was. If you’d like to read more about the history of words you can check out “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (2018) about eponyms and available as paperback & ebook, “Words The Sea Gave Us” (coming 2019), and “Words The Vikings Gave Us” (coming 2020).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Cunctator

Hello,

Today’s word is cunctator which I tripped over online this week and felt was fitting for a week where all the political talk in Britain and Europe is about postponements.

Like many others I can be a world class procrastinator. I can even put off procrastinating for another day, but I hadn’t realised I’m also a cunctator (pronunciation available here, be careful with how you say it!). I’m guessing the reason the word has fallen from regular use is thanks to its rather tricky pronunciation.

So what is a cunctator? They are one who puts off tasks, typically from sheer laziness.

Detail of a carving at Rome

The most famous cunctator of all was the Roman statesman and general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus  (c. 280-203 B.C.) whose overly cautious military tactics against Hannibal and the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War (c. 200 B.C.) earned him the nickname which is the Latin for delayer. He attacked supply lines and made small attacks on favourable ground against the famous commander with much larger numbers. In this he is now seen as an originator of the tactics of guerrilla warfare. His strategy was undermined by his younger officers but gained him respect from Hannibal. You can read more, if you’re curious over at Wikipedia.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Wigs on the Green

Hello,

Today’s word is the phrase “there will be wigs on the green” with thanks to my friend Rita from Dublin who said it recently and reminded me of its existence. it’s such an evocative phrase for a verbal or physical argument that I had to investigate and was delighted when I discovered it is of Irish origin.

St Stephen’s Green in the past

As you might guess, the idea of wigs falling onto the green relates to powdered wigs being pulled off during a fight. Duels were a relatively common way to resolve disputes amongst the gentry in 1700s Dublin. Before the duel started the combatants would remove their wigs (and some clothes) and place them on the ground so they could fight unencumbered. Removal of wigs was only sensible as otherwise they might have “the wool pulled over their eyes” if their opponent pulled down their wig.

St. Stephen’s Green in more recent times

I had never realised, however, that the green in the phrase wasn’t just any piece of grass. The green in question was St. Stephen’s Green, a public park and popular city centre venue for such duels at that period. It’s still a busy park today and well worth a visit if you’re in Dublin. You won’t find any duels now but you might be able to spot bullet holes in the Fusilier’s Arch at the Grafton Street entrance to the park from the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, although they filled in the trenches dug by the rebels since then.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note – images in this post are with thanks to http://ststephensgreenpark.ie, run by the Office of Public Works who manage the park.

Radiance

Hello,

This week’s word is radiance because it’s elegant and inspiring. In my corner of the world there’s more daylight available now. Combined with the blossoms on the trees, there’s plenty of radiance in my garden at the moment.

Radiance entered English in the 1600s with a descriptive sense of a “brilliant light” from the word radiant. Radiant came from the Latin verb radiare (to beam or shine), which also gives us the word radiation.

By the 1700s radiance had acquired a more figurative sense so if you described the object of your love as being radiant you weren’t comparing them to a lighthouse or the dazzling light of the sun anymore.

Language scholars believe William Shakespeare may have been responsible for giving us the word radiance. He was fond of dialect words and had no qualms about fooling with words to suit his needs. As a result he may have added up to 1700 new words to the English language during his career.

Radiance is used by Helena in Act I Scene I of “All’s Well That End’s Well”

‘Twere all one

That I should love a bright particular star

And think to wed it, he is so above me:

In his bright radiance and collateral light

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare…

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m taking on the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge this month – starting the first draft of “Words The Vikings Gave Us”, another book in my nonfiction series covering everything from beserk to saga. If you have an English word of Viking origin (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) you’d like to see included – please reply to this post. I’ll acknowledge any reader suggestions in the published book. Thanks!

Fiasco – a story of wine and plays

Hello,

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 Ó 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

Hello,

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

Hello,

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)