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 Grace is currently writing her second chick-lit novel. For more information about Grace’s work see

Loathing Expergefactors


This week’s word is an old one I stumbled across a few months ago – an expergefactor. It sounds like a gruesome remedy for a stomach ailment, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s worse than that.

An expergefactor is something which wakes you in the morning. This can range from your alarm clock to next door’s cat, the beep of your phone or the rattle of your letterbox. If you’re very lucky it will be a kiss from a loved one. Unfortunately the history of the expergefactor is shrouded in a sleepy mist. It dates to the 1800s but I can’t find an official etymology for it despite it appearing on several lists of Old English Words deserving a comeback. The closest I came to it is that factor is something which serves a purpose – a corn factor deals in corn, for example. The related verb Expergefaction probably comes from the Latin verb expergisci meaning to become awake.

How you feel about your expergefactor will be determined by a combination of elements including: the volume of disturbance, the time of day, the time you fell asleep, and whether you can now gently arise and eat a leisurely breakfast while reading your book, or you have to scramble around for food while convincing reluctant small people to find their shoes before school.

My least favourite expergefactor was a cockerel at Knockree Youth Hostel on a teenage hiking trip. He decided that despite the fact that we had talked until one in the morning it would be appropriate to perch outside our windows and repeatedly yodel at four a.m.. I recently re-visited the hostel with my son on a similar trip and was relieved to find the cockerel was no more. I suspect a disgruntled hiker ate him for dinner.

In writing about this word I’ve realised that I am now a redundant expergefactor. I used to wake my son, an easy task as merely opening the door was enough to have him bounce out of bed. He’s a morning person. Now he relies on Alexa and listens to the news headlines before rising. Waking my daughter was trickier. She, like me, was not a morning person and had to be coaxed and cajoled from her slumber with hugs and gentle chatter. Now she relies on her old-fashioned alarm clock and regularly has eaten her breakfast before I drag myself from the duvet. If this redundancy means I enjoy an extra ten minutes in bed before my expergefactor rouses me, I’m fine with it.

Who or what is your expergefactor?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I was delighted to be the feature interview over at Smart Thinking Books this week, a publication about nonfiction books.


Groak – to gaze at somebody else’s food


I found the word groak with thanks to the excellent word expert Susie Dent on twitter and I’ve been using it frequently this week. To groak is to gaze longingly at somebody else’s food in the hope that they might share it with you, or better yet simply hand you the entire plate. Its origins are vague with the best guess being Scots or Ulster Gaelic so perhaps the first groaker was longing for a bowl of porridge, or a “wee dram” of something stronger.

Pets of all types are good at this, January dieters too, and you must always keep an eye on those who virtuously announce they don’t want or need a dessert but would love a second spoon for yours. In my life the greatest danger of groaking comes from my children. The eldest, when they were only two, managed to quietly pull their father’s chicken caesar salad to their side of the table while pushing away their own toasted cheese sandwich.

A hungry Roman groaker

Now both of them are teens, with the legendary appetites which appear to “come as standard”, so when we proposed a trip to IKEA this week their immediate response was “Meatballs!”. This didn’t strike fear into my soul as I prefer the salad bowls, but my poor husband paled and whispered that this time he’d buy them extra large portions in the hope that he could eat his own meal in peace.

Yes, we have meatball groakers. They suction up their own food at supersonic speeds and then gaze at anybody who still had some food on their plate, i.e. their father, until he gives in and redistributes his grub.

So the next time somebody, be they family or family pet, stares at every mouthful on your fork, you’ll know they’re groaking.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve started a twitter list of the wordy people I follow there. You can subscribe to it. If you tweet about etymology and words let me know and I’ll add you. It’s a handy way to focus your twitter reading.


The Many Ways to Say You Need the Bathroom


I was shelving my copy of “The Horologicon” by Mark Forsyth this week and noticed I’d marked his section about how to say you need to use the bathroom. Apparently in Victorian times you would explain that you needed to visit Mrs. Jones. Jones isn’t a particularly unusual surname so I do wonder how Mrs. Jones felt about this phrase.

The need to urinate has spawned a vast array of euphemisms. Here is a selection. Feel free to add some in the comments as I’m sure I won’t be comprehensive. Some are more explicit than others so don’t read on if you’re easily offended. That’s why we have euphemisms in the first place, I suppose.

  • Pay a visit to Mrs. Jones (Victorian)
  • Powder your nose (mainly used in US)
  • Caught short
  • Take a leek
  • Tinkle
  • Take the Browns to the Super Bowl (American)
  • Drain the snake
  • Use the restroom (American)
  • Visit the little girls’/boys’ room
  • I need to wash my hands
  • Spend a penny (English – public toilets used to require a penny to open the door to the cubicle)
  • visit the conveniences
  • call of nature
  • going to the loo
  • where’s the head (nautical)
  • going to the jacks (I think this one is Irish – can anybody confirm? May comes from jakes, the Tudor term for the toilet)
  • I’m going to talk to a man about a horse/package
  • I need to freshen up (American – not always understood in British English)
  • Going for a big greasy jobby (Scottish)
  • going for a slash/piss/wee
  • go potty (small children) presumably from the old-fashioned chamber pots originally
  • I’m going to the throne room

The toilet itself can be named john, pisser, loo, bog, can, throne, smallest room, privy (dates back to 1200s), washroom (especially in Canada), lav (short for lavatory), WC (water closet), crapper, outhouse, dunny (Australia), biffy (America), commode (from French), netty or necessary (Northern England), carsey/karzy (Cockney) etc. There’s a very good article about the etymology of many of those here.

The origin of the word loo is debatable. It is often seen as a shortening of the word lavatory from the early 1900s. Lavatory came from the French phrase lieux d’aisances (a place of ease) and was collected by British soldiers serving in France during  World War I but there’s also a chance that loo is a pun on Waterloo, based on the English use of WC or water closet.

Can you add to the list?

Until next time 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.


Nefelibata – the Cloud Walker


Happy New Year to all of you and Happy Nollaig na mBan (women’s Christmas) to all my female friends here. The old Irish tradition of Women’s Christmas is celebrated on the 6th of January (and features in several of my books). It is the time when women took the day off after the hard work of preparing for Christmas and visited their female friends, leaving the menfolk to cook their own dinners. In theory at least the tasks are more evenly distributed these days, but it’s still a good reminder to celebrate female friendships. I’ll be celebrating later today with hot chocolate, homemade gingerbread, “Anne with an E” on Netflix, and my daughter.

For now, however, I’m back writing after the Christmas break and living in my imagination again which made me think of the word nefelibata. I can’t recall where I found this one, possibly on a pretty online image, but it’s a beautiful word.

Dreamy clouds at sunset, Wexford harbour, Ireland

A nefelibata (pronunciation here) is somebody who lives in their imagination, an unconventional person who doesn’t always obey society’s rules. The word isn’t strictly speaking English, but like deja vu, pizza, and schmuck it’s one which deserves adoption by English-speakers. It is actually Portugese and is compounded from nephele (cloud) and batha (a place to walk) which means its literal translation is cloud-walker, a person who lives in the clouds of their own dreams. As my 2020 writing year begins with planning books, articles, and writing events I think I need to schedule a little cloud-walking too.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Bibacious and Keck – drinking words


The festive season can be a somewhat drink-sodden celebration and with New Year’s Eve approaching it’s time for some boozy words. The pair I’ve chosen I found in the “QI Second Book of General Ignorance”. I love QI, the BBC comedy show about unusual facts. The spin-off podcast created by the QI Elves (a.k.a. researchers) “No Such Thing as a Fish” is a wonderfully witty and entertaining listen if you’re looking for something fun to cheer up January 2020.

The first of the words is bibacious, a gem of a word, which QI found in Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary (sadly his famous dictionary appears to be out of print, but if any of you find a copy, please let me know). Bibacious describes somebody who is a binge-drinker or simply fond of drinking so you can decide yourself how insulting it is although Webster’s dictionary reckons it means you are addicted to drinking. It comes from the Latin verb bibere (to drink) and dates to the 1600s.

A bibacious cocktail menu

The second Dr. Johnson word is keck (pronunciation here) which is to heave the stomach as if about to vomit. Collins English Dictionary tells me this one has three meanings – 1) to retch or feel nauseous, 2) to feel/express disgust, or 3) an alternate name for cow parsley. The noun and verb forms are sadly disconnected so I can’t speculate about how much cow parsley you would eat before you retched. Keck dates to the late 1500s and its roots lie in its sound resembling that of a person being unwell.

I hope that if you have a bibacious New Year’s Eve, it doesn’t result in any kecking.

Until next time 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.



As promised, after last week’s review of my favourite books of 2019, we’re back to unusual words. This week’s word is skinflint which is a great way of saying that somebody is tight, canny, or mean with their money. Scrooge was a world-class skinflint, until he met the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

Skinflint came to my notice last week when I was reading “War and Peace” written by Leo Tolstoy in the 1800s, one of the books on my 501 Books to Read Before you Die list and actually one I read as a teen but wanted to re-read. It took me nearly two months, but it was worth it (just avoid the epilogue which is tedious). Anyhow, in it a soldier characters says “a German knows how to skin a flint, as the proverb says” and it made me wonder if Tolstoy had introduced the word to English, perhaps via a Russian proverb.

I’ve been unable to source the Russian proverb (it’s possible Tolstoy invented it, or it was short-lived soldier slang) but I did find a similar expression in French – tondre un oeuf (shave an egg) with thanks to, in the early 1600s, so clearly this phrase has cousins in other European languages.

However skinflint definitely existed as an English word before Tolstoy’s time. It dates back to the 1600s and flay-flint was also used with the same sense. In the 1700s you might call a miser a nipcheese which I rather like as everybody in my house gets very fussy if their favourite cheese is nibbled without permission.

An early use of skinflint in print was the 1656 poem called “The Legend of Captain Jones” about one of the first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in North America which had the line –

“Jones was one would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when he h’had done”

Flint (top) and steel (below)

It’s still unclear to me how, or why, you would skin a flint. Flints are stones used most often in the past as either arrowheads, basic knives or to generate a spark (when struck by steel) to light a fire. My own flint and steel are pictured here and yes, there’s a bit of a knack to getting that spark but it’s possible.

I did find some suggestions that the skinflint would split a flint stone (easy enough to do) in order to get a second for free. Typically only one stone would be needed per person so that’s pointless penny-pinching of the sort Scrooge would approve.

Until next time 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.

Wordfoolery’s Favourite Books of 2019


As you might guess, I read compulsively. I’ve taken a look back at my reading (60 books so far this year) during 2019 with help from my Goodreads account and here are ten of my favourite books of the year. They’re not all recent releases, as books often wait in my Towering To Be Read Pile and because I’m still working my way through the 501 Books to Read Before You Die List. If you want to buy a book for somebody as a gift this year, or you want to treat yourself, I’d recommend any of these books. If you order through the links provided below a tiny fee is paid towards supporting this blog.

If you’re not a reader, or prefer posts about unusual words, don’t worry normal service will resume next Monday.

They’re listed in random order. I can’t rank books, I love them too much.

Godsgrave – Jay Kristoff

Book 2 in the Nevernight Chronicles. The first book was “Harry Potter meets assassin school” but now our heroine is qualified and on a mission which puts her undercover as a gladiator. Luckily she has some magic up her sleeve. I adore this series.


Crown of Swords (Book 7 in Wheel of Time Series) – Robert Jordan

I read books 4-8 of this series this year. Epic fantasy in a medieval style world with plenty of magical creatures and quests. Along with strong male characters we also have feisty female characters from queens to village healers to leaders of rebel magic organisations. Crown of Swords is the 7th book and well worth a look.


Mistletoe and Murder – Robin Stevens

I read this one so I can “book chat” with my 14 year old daughter. Suitable from age 10 up but good even for adult readers. If you love Agatha Christie-era detective fiction mixed with boarding school stories you need this series in your life. Hazel and Daisy (the school-girl detectives in 1930s England) are in Cambridge this time and solving murders amongst the stone spires and Christmas joy of the university.


Off The Rails – Christopher Fowler

The aging detectives Bryant & May and the rest of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit are back on the case – this time with strange goings on in the Underground train system. If you love London, clever crime fiction, and wit – this series is perfect.


The Trespasser – Tana French

Tana French’s work reached a wider audience with the recent BBC-RTE-Starz version of “Dublin Murders” and this one features the same detective. I hadn’t read her work before and am delighted to jump on the band wagon. Murders, contemporary Dublin, tough cops, and messy home life – what more could you want?


Vikings – Neil Oliver

I was researching Viking words for a forthcoming book this spring and used this book. It takes a broad look at Vikings from Russia to Vinland and covers hundreds of years. It is easy to read but rich in detail and knowledge that will be new to most readers.


Shadow of Night – Deborah Harkness

Book 2 of the All Souls Trilogy. This series has been referred to as Twilight for Adults as it features vampires and romance but I enjoyed the academic and wicca elements she weaves in. The best of the three books is this one, in my opinion, because the two leads time travel back to Tudor London. Book 1 has already been a big hit on Sky One tv. Books 2 & 3 will follow (release date unconfirmed as at Dec 2019).


84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

if you love books and bookshops this is an essential read. True story of when a witty American reader corresponded with a stiff-upper-lipped English bookseller. Short but perfect.


Stardust – Neil Gaiman

A deceptively simple tale of a boy on a quest to catch a fallen star and win his lady. He crosses into a strange world and finds it might be his real home. Fantasy from a master.

How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary – Grace Tierney / / Apple Books / Kobo

Inspired by this blog, a fun journey through the lives of the people who gave their name to the English language. From apgar to zeppelin with stops for casanova, guillotine, sandwich, and cardigan, each one of them lived an extraordinary life. Packed with wordy trivia and perfect for history buffs.


Right, that’s enough book chat. Next week I’ll be back with strange and unusual words. Wishing you happy reading in 2020.

Until next time 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 to say thanks for this year’s words.

p.p.s. You can read about my 2018 Books of the Year too.