Category Archives: environment

Finding Your Niche

Hello,

I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”

Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?

Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.

With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!

The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.

Can a rubber ducky’s nest or niche be said to be a bathtub?

As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.

Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.

Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).

So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.

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.

p.p.s. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.

Nettles and Fabric – A Twisted Word History

Hello,

Along with a passion for words, I also enjoy foraging. There’s something satisfying about finding local plants and using them in old recipes. Last weekend, for example, I took a walk to gather elder flowers and bottled up some elder flower cordial. I’m far from expert and take great care to pick sustainably and with careful identification, but with help from a handful of good books on the topic I’ve been expanding my hedgerow harvest from simple blackberrying to blackberry and apple jam, crab apple whiskey, and wild garlic pesto. Pinterest is a good starting place for information, if you’d like to try it yourself.

Beware of nettles

When I was walking back with my elder flowers I passed a large clump of nettles and remembered a strange fact about them from “Foraging” by John Lewis-Stempel – “In Scotland, the natives made cloth from nettles as late as the 18th century”.

Nettle’s word history ties in with the idea of cloth. Nettle entered English from Old English netele which in turn came from Old Saxon netila and related words netele (Middle Dutch), netel (Dutch), Nessel (German), and naedlae (Danish). All of these terms come from the root ned which means “to tie or bind”.

Twisted fibres used to bind are but a short hop to cloth via a loom and it wasn’t just done in Scotland. I recently read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales (for my ongoing quest to read the entire 501 Books list) and in one of them (The Wild Swans) a princess must knit nettle shirts to save her brothers from an evil queen. She suffers terribly during her task due to nettle stings.

The history of nettle cloth is well documented elsewhere online, if you’re curious, and dates back to 3000 B.C.. Nettle cloth, or ramie, which is like linen was widely used worldwide even during World War II, even next to the skin.

To nettle someone is a more recent verb use of the word. It means to irritate or provoke someone and is from the 1560s. I imagine touching a stinging nettle would provoke you alright.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be nettle stung I do have one piece of advice based on a foraging talk I attended a few years ago. The charming expert began with a demonstration of how to handle nettle stings. He was scathing on the common misconception that dock leaves help. They don’t and I can vouch for that from my own childhood. At best the application of dock (also called burdock) leaves makes you feel a little better as a distraction/attention thing.

Dock – pointless for nettle stings

He introduced us to another plant, smaller leaved than dock, which generally grows on the edges of paths worn through grassland – plantain (plantago major). Apparently it was called whitefoot by native Americans as it grew where the colonists walked. It has strong anti-histamine properties and is well known for this in some countries and totally unknown in others which is a shame. He demonstrated with sheer bravado, holding a fistful of nettles for a minute, showing us his red, welted hand (to groans from his audience), and then rubbing the welts with dampened, crushed plantain leaves. In half a minute the welts and pain were gone.

 

Plantain – try it on nettle stings

I’ve yet to try this myself but I spread the word and both my children have helped stung friends with good effect.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. Stay away from those nettles, unless you’re making nettle soup.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Hurricane – A Windy Word

Hello,

There’s only one possible word I could explore today – hurricane. It’s noon here on the east coast of Ireland and we’re due to experience ex-hurricane Ophelia this afternoon and evening. Although we love to complain about the weather in this country we’re lucky enough to have a temperate climate and while the rainfall helps our green fields we generally avoid hurricanes, earthquakes, twisters, and wildfires.

Hurricane Ophelia Over Ireland

That means that today’s Red Weather Alert is the the worst weather event in this country in 50 years. We’re expecting gusts of up to 150km per hour and 22,000 homes in the south of the country are already without power. I’ve spent my morning storm-proofing our garden and gathering items like torches, batteries, camping cookers, and filling our water containers. My children’s schools are closed and they’re fretting about losing our wifi! Others are more laid-back. Two of my neighbours haven’t even removed the nets from their garden trampolines. Those will act as sails this afternoon, worrying.

Hurricane entered the English language in the 1500s from the Spanish word huracán. The Spanish were busy in the Caribbean at that time thanks to the golden age of sail. Huracán came from the Taino language where Hurakán was their god of evil. The Taino people were indigenous to the Caribbean and Florida. They borrowed the word from the Mayans who used it to name their god of wind, storm, and fire. Hurricane isn’t the only weather word we took from Spanish sources. They also gave us tornado which comes from tronado (thunderstorm) and tornar (to turn).

The god Hurakán sounds like a lovely chap. This one-legged creator god is sometimes depicted with a second serpent-like limb. According to legend he lived in the mists above the waters and by repeating the word “earth” he caused the land to arise. Unfortunately the humans angered the gods and he was equally happy to send a deluge to wash them away. The cycle of creation and eradication happened three times. He even sent a plague of dogs and turkeys at one point.

I am hoping we won’t have swarms of turkeys later today, but anything is possible. If you’re in Ireland, I hope you and yours are safe through this.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (by torchlight!),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Coastal groins, not the other sort

Hello,

This week’s word is groin, or groyne. A groin is a long narrow structure in coastal engineering built out into the water to prevent beach erosion by trapping sand. It stabilises the beach on the updrift side but may cause issues in the other direction. As a result they are often built in groups known as groin fields.

Groins (pronunciation here) aren’t that common on the Irish coastline. There’s a small timber groin field at Malahide in Dublin and I also spotted some at Curracloe Beach in Wexford earlier this summer (see above) although these ones, made from tree trunks taken from the local pine forest, were not perpendicular to the shore, but parallel, to conserve the large dune network.

Even if you haven’t visited Curracloe yourself, you may have seen it on the big screen thanks to the amazing opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” and the beach-date scene in “Brooklyn”. The groins weren’t visible in either but those soldiers struggled almost as much as I did to climb the dunes. Mercifully I wasn’t under fire at the time.

Groin joined the English language in the 1500s as a dialect word meaning “snout”. That in turn came from Old French groign and Latin words grunium “pig’s snout” and grunnire a verb meaning “to grunt”. The next time I spy a line of timber posts running out to sea to disrupt erosion I will think of the land as snuffling its way out into the pig trough of waves.

One interesting side note – there’s some debate about the spelling – groin or groyne. Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary think the spelling in the US is groin versus groyne in British English. I’ve never seen groyne in a lifetime of reading British English and even the Encyclopedia Britannica thinks the British spelling is groin. Perhaps groyne is being eroded on this side of the Atlantic?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and Wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Forage – hunting out its roots

Hello,

This week’s word is forage. I was chatting about hedgerow harvesting this morning with Scout friends (it’s part of our Backwoods badge) and then couldn’t resist thoughts of foraging while walking. When I returned home I pulled out recipes for gorse wine and hawthorn blossom liquer. Foraging is addictive.

Hedgerow jam – damson & blackberry

Foraging entered the English language c. 1200s from Latin. Foragium was the Anglo-Latin word for fodder or food for horses and cattle. Around the same time it was in Old French as fourrage or fuerre which meant hay or straw, typically for animals. Frankish and old German had fuotar, fodr and fodr which all related to fodder or food.

Nettle soup anyone?

By the 1400s the word had moved on in meaning and related to plundering or pillaging. By the late 1400s that had changed to encompass the idea of roving around in search of provisions. From the 1700s onwards the notion had acquired a military twist. Foraging for provisions for the army’s beasts and soldiers was a vital skill when moving through the countryside. Those with the ability to live off the land were more likely to survive a campaign.

Plantain or Whitefoot – perfect for nettle stings

Luckily I don’t have to feed an army, although my teenage son gives me some insight into that particular challenge, but I love being able to use the environment around me to vary my diet and continue local traditions and folklore. Each year I add one or two new items to my foraging menu. If you’re interested there are great resources on Pinterest (you’ll find me and my foraging board there as GraceTierneyIRL) and the book “Wild and Free Cooking from Nature” by Cyril and Kit Ó’Céirín is a great starting point if you’re foraging in Ireland or the UK. There’s so much more out there than a few blackberries in the autumn.

Primrose – edible flower

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

Grace

Exquisite & Ferns

Hello,

This week’s word is exquisite. I was hiking on Sunday and admiring the new season’s ferns. I love the way they unfurl from the tightest little buds. A stem relaxes into existence and then each leaflet unrolls out from the stem itself. During high summer they’re easy to ignore, providing a green carpet under trees and along stone walls but on a bright spring day their exquisite growth dance is beauty in miniature.

The adjective exquisite entered the English language in the early 1400s from a Latin source and it meant “carefully selected” as it was a direct borrowing of the Latin word exquisitus which meant “careful choice” from the verb exquirere. Exquirere is compounded from ex for out (think exit, for example) and quarere meaning “to seek” (think query, for example).

It’s unclear how but exquisite’s meaning in English mutated with use. By the late 1500s it had changed to mean “something of delightful excellence”. By the 1700s it had refined to mean “something of delightful excellence produced by art rather than nature”. By the early 1800s it had a noun form which was used as another term for a dandy or foppish character.

Hence I shouldn’t describe the delicate tendrils of the new ferns as exquisite. They require no artist to tend them, but I still think they out-shine any sculpture.

Until next time, enjoy the small details in life. Happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Hazelnut Wars, I Blame the Greek Squirrels

hazelnutsHello,

This week’s word is squirrel. They have been on my mind this week as I beheld my tiny hazelnut harvest (pictured left) and muttered darkly about “bushy-tailed urban criminals”.

I grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for my family’s table. I planned my garden to be productive, including as many native plants as I could. This involved me planting a hazelnut tree in my front garden. I researched it in the hope I could get hazelnuts (my favourite nut) but the books all said to plant at least three together if you wanted nuts and I didn’t have the space, so I selected a contorted hazel with curled stems that looks great in winter and an unholy mess in the summer.

We wind lights around it at Christmas and during the unwinding process one January I was stunned to find a scattering of hazels on the (hazelnut coloured) gravel beneath. I shouldn’t have been shocked. As I explored the lanes around our village I noticed other bushes in gardens and the motorway embankment is planted with native trees, including hazels.

Contorted hazel covered in ice

Contorted hazel covered in ice

I came to depend on a small hazelnut harvest each Christmas, growing as the tree grew in size. Not this year. This year it has halved and many of the nuts show signs of attack by tiny claws. I’m blaming the squirrels. There’s a healthy population of red squirrels in old woodlands nearby and I’ve spotted one clinging to the wall of my neighbour’s house. I’m all for squirrels and I’m happy to support our native reds over invasive grey squirrels any day but do they have to eat my hazelnuts?

Squirrels have been with us for some time (about 36 million years according to the fossil record) and they get everywhere, not just at my hazel tree. The word entered the English language  in the early 1300s. It came from the Anglo-French word esquirel. That came from the Old French word escurueil which was used for the beast or its fur (perhaps culled by angry nuttery owners). It came from scurius and sciurus in Vulgar Latin and Latin but it’s when we reach Greek that the fun starts.

The Latin words came from the Greek word skiouros which is formed from skia (shadow) and oura (tail or backside) with the idea being that the squirrel was a beast whose tail cast a shadow. I have a vision of ancient Greek squirrels using their tails to shade themselves from the relentless Greek sunshine, probably while nibbling on stolen hazelnuts.

Until next time remember to share the hazelnuts, the squirrels need them too,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Feculent

Hello,

It was feculent weather on Saturday at Slieve Gullion Forest Park. We cajoled our short-legged Beaver Scouts uphill (children aged 6-8), settled for a picnic and instantly the heavens opened. We grabbed a few wet bites of pinics, enjoyed watching the local hunters training their gundogs with dummies on the hillside in a brief window of dry weather, and then sauntered back downhill. We waited, out of the rain but watching very happy ducks in their rain-lashed pond, for the Cubs and Scouts (on longer hikes) to join us for our transport home.

We thought we were wet, but we weren’t really. When the older scouts arrived, drenched to the skin through multiple layers of “waterproofs”, we understood what feculent really meant. Their off-road trail had turned to a slippery morass down which they had slithered.

So, feculent (pronounced fek-ull-ent), first defined in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary of English (a book I really must buy), means that something is foul, turbid, muddy, or containing the dregs of fecal matter. Delightful.

I’ll be spending my week washing the feculent remains of that hike from our gear and praying the weather isn’t similar at our overnight camp next weekend. I keep reminding the world that June is meant to be summertime in Ireland, but the world isn’t listening. It’s raining as I write this.

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

Grace

Windy Words

Hello,

Hurricane Irene grabbed all the weather headlines recently, but it was the tail-end of Hurricane Katia that caused trouble for me this week. She created 6-10 metre swells on the west coast of Ireland and the ferry to InishBofin for my writing weekend was cancelled (wisely) by the skipper. As a result I won’t be posting any idyllic island images today, sorry.

But the wind, which caused a fair bit of damage to my own garden on the east coast, got me thinking about windy words.

As a child I was delighted to discover that the inventor of the commonly used Beaufort Wind  Scale in 1805, was Irish-born like me, Sir Francis Beaufort. Many thanks to Wikipedia for the following details on how it works which I had forgotten despite learning the indicators as part of my geography studies aged 12. The modern version of the scale used in Ireland and Britain (with some additions for tropical cyclones on the China Sea area) is as follows  –

Zero – calm – smoke rises vertically

1 – light air – ripples without crests

2 – light breeze – leaves rustle

3 – gentle breeze – light flags extended

4 – moderate breeze – whitecaps on waves

5 -fresh breeze – small trees begin to sway

6 – strong breeze – umbrella use becomes difficult and empty rubbish bins (garbage cans) tip over – I love this description!

7 – high wind – effort needed to walk against the wind

8 – gale – cars veer on the road

9 – strong gale – large amounts of seaspray reduce visibility, some tree branches will break

10 – storm – trees broken or uprooted

11 – violent storm – widespread damage to trees and roof-tiles

12- hurricane – huge seas, totally white with waves and spray. Extensive damage to weaker structures like barns, mobile homes etc.

A sombre read, isn’t it? Reminds me of the power of the wind, and wave. The highest up the scale I’ve experienced personally is only 10 and I’m very glad of that. Yesterday, the end of Hurricane Katia, who had dropped to Atlantic storm level came through my village as a puny 7, but she still managed to wrench up a badly planted fruit tree and rip several fruit-laden branches from my tomato-patch.

 

Other windy words you might enjoy weaving into your weather-related small-talk this week include –

zephyr – a soft, gentle breeze

el Nino and la Nina – linked air pressure events in the Pacific which have massive influence on weather patterns globally. Explained here.

draught, gust, puff, squally, tempest, tornado, blustery

Chinook, Mistral, Monsoon, Sirocco and several other famous regional winds identified here.

 

My two final words relate to wind too. Do you know what they mean? Windbag and windjammer.

 

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

And may your umbrella always remain the right way out,

Grace

 

 

 

Paraprosdokian (and Earth Hour)

My Earth Hour 2011 Lantern

Hello,

Now before I get onto the meaning to paraprosdokian, can you take a look at the image on the left? This is a lantern I created to show my support for Earth Hour 2011. You can create your own at Earth Hour Lantern and post it on your blog or facebook page. If you’re not aware of Earth Hour, it’s an annual event, taking place in more than 126 countries, where individuals, communities, and governments turn out the lights for one hour to raise awareness of climate change and the damage it is doing to our planet. This year’s Earth Hour will take place at 8.30pm on Saturday 26th March (GMT) and details of events near you can be found at Earth Hour. Last year many Dublin pubs held candlelight trad music sessions. I like that idea.

I’ve taken part for the last two years. It is wonderful to walk around the house, switching off the lights (and computer, television, etc), lighting the candles, and peering out to see if my neighbours have joined me in this simple protest. The added advantage is that it makes me realise how much energy we waste in our home, and gets me talking to my family, rather than just slumping in front of a flickering television.

Now, onto the words!

This week’s word is paraprosdokian which Wikipedia defines as “ A figure of speech (from Greek “παρα-“, meaning “beyond” and “προσδοκία”, meaning “expectation”) in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.”

Paraprosdokian is pronounced para-proz-doke-ian (audio here) but it doesn’t exactly trip off my tongue. However my friend Marie kindly sent me a few examples of paraprosdokian sentences (source unknown)…

I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way.   So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
Light travels faster than sound.   This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
We never really grow up; we only learn how to act in public.     (as a mother I fully agree!)
War does not determine who is right — only who is left.
To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism.  To steal from many is research.   (my friends in academia chortle over this one)

Here’s my own attempt – “Save the planet, drive to your recycling centre with your recyclables”.

Have a try yourself and stick it in a comment on this post. I’d love to see what my readers come up with.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and fooling with words,

Grace

p.s. for those of you with unpublished novels under the bed – consider the Pageturner contest at UK agent Tibor Jones. It’s free to enter and open to all genres written in English. Deadline is 8th March 2011 and submissions can be emailed.