Author Archives: wordfoolery

About wordfoolery

Grace Tierney is a writer and mother living in rural Ireland. Specialising in a humourous slant thanks to years of reading Wodehouse, Dickens, Pratchett, Brookmyre, and chick-lit galore, her fiction and non-fiction writing has been published internationally and locally in everything from the local paper to anthologies, online media, coffee tins, and glossy magazines in several different countries. She has published three books for writers; “Positive Thoughts for Writers”, “The Writing Contest Expert's Guide to Fiction Contests”, and “The Writing Contest Expert’s Guide to Nonfiction Contests” based on her long-running contest column for Writer Online (available at www.lulu.com/gracetierney). Grace is currently writing her second chick-lit novel. For more information about Grace’s work see www.gracetierney.com.

Slumgullion

Hello,

This week’s word is slumgullion. This one has been on my “to write about” list for a while because it looked like fun. I didn’t even know what it meant.

Thanks to Merriam Webster (and the audio pronunciation is available there too) for the definition. Slumgullion is a meat stew. Other dictionaries add that this one is an informal (a.k.a. slang) American English word, which probably explains why I hadn’t heard of it. Also they note slumgullion isn’t filled with the most expensive cuts of meat.

Finding a definitive recipe for a stew which was created when the cook needed to use whatever he or she could lay their hands on is a tricky prospect. Most of the modern recipes suggest using minced beef, various chopped vegetables, plus stock and perhaps tinned tomatoes. The Shared Tastes blog explored the older recipes and even includes one using moose meat (not common in my local shop here in Ireland). Various references to slumgullion in literature associate it with the whaling ships and pirates so it might be the stew cousin to my favourite historic seafaring dish, salmagundi. Either way, if you fancy cooking a pot of slumgullion, you can pretty much invent your own version.

Slumgullion was probably a word created by compounding slum and gullion around the 1840s. Slum in this case had nothing to do with urban ghettos. It was an Old English word for slime. Gullion was a dialect word for mud or a cesspool. It may have reached English from Scots, or Irish where the word goilín means a pit or pool.

Slumgullion may have started on whaling ships. One of the earliest print usages was spelled as slobgullion in “Moby Dick” to describe the watery gloop which drains from whale blubber, and perhaps reminded sailors of particularly poor stew in the galley. The word appears to have moved with the sailors to the mines during the Californian Gold Rush to describe the muddy sludge at a mining sluice. The use to describe a stew dates to the 1870s.

According to “The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” (Eric Partridge) there’s even a related word – a slubberdegullion who is a dirty slobbering fellow. Perhaps such a character created the first stew?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Eponym Series – Rugby

Hello,

With the group stages of the Ruby World Cup almost complete in Japan, it’s a good time to dip back into my nonfiction book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (available in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Kindle, Kobo, Apple Books, and Overdrive). Why? Because rugby is an eponym. Well, it’s a toponym actually (a word named for a place) so this week the word history of rugby is about the word, the people, and the place.

{extract from “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” copyright Grace Tierney}

The sport of rugby, a fast game of kicking and running with an oval ball involving moves like line-outs, rucks, mauls, and scrums, is named for the private boys’ school Rugby.

Popular legend has it that the game was created in 1823 when William Ellis Webb with a fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) took the ball in his arms and ran with it. There’s little proof this actually happened but it is so firmly entrenched in the minds of rugby players and supporters worldwide that when they came to name the Rugby World Cup trophy they called it after Webb. Webb played cricket, but not rugby, for Oxford University and became a clergyman.

Early forms of soccer had been played since the Middle Ages, and probably even in Roman times as a game called harpastum. It often resembled a mob rather than a sport with the entire village on one side or the other. Each side struggled to kick an inflated pig’s bladder through the town to markers to win.

Predictably the wildness of these games led them to be outlawed. In the period 1314-1527 nine European monarchs outlawed the playing of football and encouraged their subjects to practice their archery instead which was a nice useful skill for warfare. Youths continued to play football.

Saint Paul’s School Rugby Team in the 1950s

By 1750, the game of football, as played at the school in Rugby, allowed the handling of the ball and still involved huge numbers of players on each side, but nobody was allowed run with it in their hands towards the goal, at least until Webb presumably gave it a go. The introduction of running with ball in hand happened there sometime between 1820 and 1830 and was probably met with outrage on this “breaking” of the rules. However by 1841 it had become an essential part of the game. Rugby and soccer were different sports from that time.

The game, and its formal code of rules, came to be played at other private boys’ schools and gradually crept into mainstream sporting life. By 1871 the Rugby Football Union was founded and more detailed rules drawn up. Wasps, a well-known rugby union club, missed out on being a founding member of the Rugby Football Union because their representative went to the wrong pub for the meeting.

Later the sport spawned American football and Australian Rules football. In 1876 there was a schism, largely down to money and class issues, in the rugby world that resulted in rugby union and rugby league and eventual changes in rules on both sides.

In 1995 rugby union became a professional sport. The first Rugby World Cup was played in 1987. The winner gets the Webb Ellis Cup in memory of the man who probably didn’t invent the game at Rugby School, England.

Many of the national rugby union sides have nicknames, often related to animals – the Springboks (South Africa), All Blacks (New Zealand), les Bleus (France), the Wallabies (Australian), los Pumas (Argentina), the Eagles (U.S.A.), and the Dragons (Wales).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Consider supporting this blog by buying my eponym book. Then you can read more about the people who gave their names to the English language and their extraordinary lives. Everybody from chefs to fashion icons are there, from villains to scientists and inventors. It’s a perfect book for dipping into, packed with wordy trivia and history. All the book details are here.

Ineffable

Hello,

This week’s word is ineffable, a word which I use in conversation, usually when talking about somebody being ineffably cool, but didn’t fully understand until I delved into it today.

So let’s start with a definition – ineffable is an adjective to describe “that which is too great or extreme to be expressed in words”. It is also “that which must not be uttered”. The second meaning was the one that flummoxed me. I had no idea that ineffability had an association with taboos. Oh and in case you’re not sure – here’s the pronunciation audio.

Ineffably elegant telephone kiosk in Stockholm which would display ineffable trousers – the scandal!

Ineffable is one the Romans gave us and has been in English since the late 1300s when it arrived with the meaning of something being too great for words. It traveled via Old French (ineffable) and ultimately from Latin ineffabilis (unutterable) which was compounded from in (not, opposite as used in inimitable, for example) and effabilis (speakable). Effabilis itself was formed from effari (to utter) whose roots are in fari (to speak).

The taboo sense of ineffable arrived in the late 1500s, but it was the 1800s which had the most fun with the word and its meaning. In the 1820s, if you referred to ineffables you were talking about trousers. Yes, really.

Certain parts of British society at that time period (before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but not exactly the most progressive time all the same) would have been prudish so calling trousers unspeakable is far from remarkable. Perhaps the most popular version of such over the top modesty was the idea of table and piano legs being covered so scandalous legs wouldn’t been seen or mentioned, but sadly that’s not really true. If you’d like more info on that story I’ll direct you to Atlas Obscura’s excellent article.

Until next time beware of ineffable trousers,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Jinx

Hello,

This week’s word is jinx with thanks to the excellent Haggard Hawks twitter account. They mentioned a while back that the jinx was originally a bird and it intrigued me so I dug a little deeper.

The first thing I found is that this word has entered the English language twice – once in the USA and once in England but at very different time periods.

In the 1690s, jynx was used to describe a spell or charm. It was sometimes also spelled as jyng (the Tudors were erratic spellers). The word arose from iynx in Latin and in Greek which was a bird used in witchcraft and divination.

A shell bat in the Vendee, France – symbol of witchcraft

The jynx, or wryneck as it’s known these days, is a small woodpecker bird with dull brown and grey plumage native to Europe whose ability to turn its head through 180 degrees gives rise to its modern name. I wasn’t able to discover exactly how it was used in divination (although given the ancients’s love for reading entrails I fear the bird might not have survived the rites), but it features in Greek mythology too. In one story Lynx was a nymph, the daughter of Pan and Echo. She cast a love spell on Zeus and Hera turned her into a bird called the iynx in revenge. In another story she dared to pit her musical talent against the muses and was turned into a bird for her presumption. The bird could be used to create love through witchcraft.

In British English that connection with misfortune (although not always in love) persists. If I say I don’t want to jinx something it means that I don’t to cause it to fail.

Jinx only appeared in American English around 1911 and it arose originally as baseball slang.

The New York Mets, City Park

If a player or team is subject to a jinx then they will have a losing streak until they can shake it off. It’s unclear if the Greek myths, the bird, or some other source brought jinxes to baseball, but there they have stayed.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Forlorn

Hello,

This week’s word is forlorn, with thanks to my DS who says it’s his favourite word at the moment. I considered telling him mine is floccinoccinihilipilification (to make little of something) but I knew I’d get an eye-roll in return.

Forlorn arrived in English as forloren during the 1100s from Old English forleosan (to lose or let go). Forleosan was compounded from for (completely) and leosan (to lose). Similar compound words about loss existed in Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Gothic, and Old High German so its Germanic roots are clear.

Forlorn boots at Lugnaquilla, Wicklow

Forloren’s original meaning was disgraced or depraved and it wasn’t until the 1530s that it changed to mean forsaken or abandoned. Then in the 1580s it changed again to describe somebody who is miserable or wretched.

The most common use of forlorn in modern English is the phrase forlorn hope which dates right back to the 1570s and was a loose translation of verloren hoop in Dutch where hoop means a troop or group of soldiers. A verloren hoop was a military suicide mission, but forlorn in English is more likely to describe a faint hope rather than anything quite so dramatic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Rigmarole

Hello,

This week’s word is rigmarole. It’s one I use in speech fairly often (usually entreating my teens to get to the point of their story) but I hadn’t seen it in print for a while so when I spotted it in “A Crown of Swords”, the seventh book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan, which I’m enjoying at the moment, it reminded me to hunt up its origins.

A rigmarole (pronunciation here) is defined as a confused or meaningless story or a complex and sometimes a ritualised procedure. Hence it can either be a verbal thing like the rambling story which never reaches a logical conclusion, or it can be an overly elaborate approach to a task. As a writer, both those things are to be avoided.

Rigamarole doesn’t have the clearest of origin stories but I’ll do my best. It arrived in mainstream English in the 1700s to describe a long, rambling verbal story, possibly from a local expression in Kent. In the 1500s, in Middle English, there was a thing called a ragman’s roll and that was probably the source of the Kent expression.

What was a ragman’s roll? I assumed it was a rolled up pack by a traveling salesman, but apparently not. The roll in this case was more akin to a school roll (list of enrolled pupils). The roll was a long list or catalogue, in this case describing, in verse, characters in a medieval game of chance called Rageman. The fact that the game was complex probably added to the meaning of rigmarole over time.

Rageman probably came into English from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon (Ragemon the good) who was both a character on this list and the title of one of the verses.

A long list – my rigmarole of craft projects to be completed

I was unable to get clear instructions on how to play Ragman’s Roll but it was widely popular in Anglo-Norman households. Some descriptions claim there were up to 50 mini verses (often bawdy) from which each player would draw one at random to tell their fortune, particularly as it related to matters of love. Thanks to Philip G Hunt’s blog for those details.

By 1939 the idea of a rigmarole being a long list had transformed into foolish or complex activities as well as such stories and lists.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you order through them, this blog earns a small fee. Thank you.

Banjax

Hello,

This week’s word is banjax (pronunciation here). It’s an informal word which teeters on the edge of slang but does get a definition in several major dictionaries. Although it might not be acceptable in an English essay for an exam, it is a mainstream word, albeit one which is most widely used in Ireland (Hiberno English) than in other English-speaking countries.

So what does banjax mean? Well, it describes something, or someone, who is worn out, tired, broken beyond repair. If the mechanic has given up on your car then it would be banjaxed, or if you had worked nights for a month and could barely put one foot in front of another you would be banjaxed.

My Dad as a Schoolboy

The best description I ever heard of banjax came from my father. He told me when he was growing up in Killester (Dublin) there was still an undeveloped field opposite his house on the Howth Road. It was home to one sad, lonely donkey who had retired after a long life as a working animal. The way he described the creature it reminded me of Eeyore in the A.A.Milne stories. The local kids loved the donkey and would pull up juicy grass to feed it through the gate. They named it Banjax.

Sadly, like the end of the donkey’s story, banjax’s origins are lost to us. The word appeared in Ireland around the 1930s. The only guess I found was that it could be connected to the word banjo. You will sometimes hear a person say they are banjoed when they are tired, so there may be a connection, but it remains to be proven. If you’ve theories of you own, please let me know in the comments.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

This post is made in memory of my Dad who died last week. He filled his home with books, his time with crosswords, and his daughters with a love of words and history.