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Hello,

The word thumb has been on my mind this week as I sprained mine at the weekend – not via excessive texting but by putting too much weight on it during a rock scramble on a mountain hike in Kerry. As a result I’m typing very carefully today with a swollen thumb.

Teermoyle Mountain, Kerry

Thumb fascinates me as a word because it’s so different to the word finger. Does the lack of a joint really make it so different? One thing I can vouch for this week is a) a swollen thumb is no joke and b) thumbs are really important in human evolution for a reason – they’re vital.

The word thumb has ancient roots in the Indo-European base language where tum meant swell (very appropriate for this week). By the time it reached the prehistoric West Germanic it had become thûmon. From there we get daumen (German),  duim (Dutch), and thumbe in Middle English. This was pronounced as two syllables, thum-be, but over time the second half became silent and we ended up with thumb in English.

Thumb in other European languages has Latin roots instead. Italian pollice and French pouce come from Latin pollex which means strong rather than swollen.

I assume the idea is the thumb looks like a swollen finger. Interestingly the words tumour and tumult have the same root. Phrases involving the thumb are pretty ancient too. We have rule of thumb where it’s a rough approximation of an inch from the 1500s and to be under the thumb was known since the 1580s.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. mercifully I passed the finish line on NaNoWriMo 2017 before I hurt my thumb, but I’m still mentoring my region.

 

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Hello,

This week’s word is courtesy of Linda Keller in my local knitting & crochet group. I’ve been crocheting for thirty years and she surprised me with a yarn term last week I’d never encountered before – nepp (pronunciation here). As I was crafting a scarf with the yarn in question, I decided to investigate.

Neppy yarn – Northern Lights by James C Brett

A nepp yarn is one which has tiny flecks of a contrasting colour twisted into the fibre during the spinning process. This technique is particularly popular in tweed style textiles. Technically a nepp yarn creates a nub or knot by tightly twisting an effect fibre around the base fibre, typically in a different colour. I hadn’t heard of a nub either, except in the idea of “getting to the nub of an issue” which I presume refers to exploring a knotty topic until you uncover the final core tangle.

Some US dictionaries contain neppy as an adjective to describe fabric containing neps (note the single p) but if you check out nep you’ll stumble into New Economic Policy which doesn’t help us. Nepps can be regarded as flaws in a fabric such as denim but most yarn-crafters would see the little flecks as decorative rather than defective.

Be careful to avoid neppy confusion with nap. Nap refers to the plush pile on fabrics like velvet and moleskin.

As for word origin, nepp’s history is a knotty problem. I did find it in German, however, where it refers to a rip-off or highway robbery so perhaps the idea of nepps indicating poor quality comes from Germany. My own neppy yarn looks great, so I don’t think I was a victim of highway robbery when I bought it last week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. NaNoWriMo Update – I made it to 40,132 words today and hope to pass the 50,000 word finish line by the end of the week. I’m participating in the All Ireland Word War (a friendly team writing event) so I’ll push on with “Nit Roast & Other Stories” until the end of November. As usual, I’ll need to invest more time in finishing my story after NaNo is complete.

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Hello,

The recent outcry about workplace harassment reminded me of the interesting history of the phrase “making a pass at somebody”. While the two things should be entirely different, of course, it’s undeniable that there’s now concern that making the first move romantically could cause trouble if either party is reading the signals wrong and this has been true with this phrase from the very beginning.

There are two possible sources for this phrase, both of them more military than romantic.

To make a pass in swordplay is to make a lunge or thrust and it’s used with this meaning in “Hamlet” in 1604.

This very likely entered military parlance from the high seas during the Age of Sail where making a pass wasn’t between two combatants but between warships according to “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald. The ships would make a side by side pass of each other to enable the captains to assess their gun-power. This would sometimes involve firing at the same time because the guns were primarily mounted in the sides of the ships. To fire a broadside, the ships had to be roughly parallel.

This nautical origin for the phrase isn’t listed in any of the dictionaries I checked but does seem reasonable. Sailors could easily have brought the term ashore to their notorious romantic lives when the mutual “checking out” was a precursor to a dalliance if acceptable to both parties.

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

Grace

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,000 words in NaNoWriMo. If you’re trying it this year I hope your story is flowing well.

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Hello,

This week’s word is a phrase, I hope you won’t mind. The expression “to handle with kid gloves” has an intriguing origin story and I couldn’t resist.

vintage white leather gloves

Kid gloves have nothing to do with children, well not human children. Kid is a soft white leather from the skins of goat kids popular among the wealthy from the 1700s. Sometimes they were made from lambskin.

Kid gloves are very thin so if you’re wearing them it is as if you are barely wearing any gloves at all. We’ve all had the sensation of wearing thick, bulky gloves and having to remove them to perform a delicate task. Here the idea is that even delicate tasks are possible while wearing kid gloves.

Kid gloves are also easily marked. If you handled an object roughly while wearing such a glove you would acquire stains on the glove, not a good thing. Equally if you’re wearing visibly white gloves then those around you can see you’re not adding any dirt or damage to whatever you’re handling. This is why servants wore white kid gloves to avoid smudging the silverware. Many believe curators do the same but there is evidence to suggest a clean, un-gloved hand may be best, depending on the artifact, and they only wear gloves on TV because they’re tired of complaint letters!

The phrase came to mean over-cautious in the 1840s but when it crossed the Atlantic from England in the late 1840s to North America it regained its early positive association with delicate handling of sensitive situations and people. By 1865 the well-mannered White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” carried a pair.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling with or without gloves,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve the first week of NaNoWriMo 2017 behind me now and 15,000 words of “Nit Roast & Other Stories” in the bag.

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Hello,

This week I’m taking a brief look at brevity which is a key tool in any writer’s toolbox. I once had a staff job for the Good Book Guide where I reviewed books in a short paragraph. It was vital training in how difficult it is to use one words when you could use ten. Mark Twain was right when he claimed “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

Anybody who writes flash fiction or haiku will be familiar with the difficulty of brevity. Shakespeare understood. He has Polonius, a notoriously wordy character in Hamlet, declare that “Brevity is the soul of wit”.

Brevity entered English in the late 1400s and means shortness in speech or writing. It arrived there from Latin where brevis means short or brief. Before England brevis travelled from Rome to France as brievete meaning brevity – although it looks more like a vet for brie cheese in my opinion. Unlike many words with hundreds of years of use, brevity moved between languages with little change and has retained its meaning to modern times.

Brevity is something I shall be avoiding next month as I dive into my annual NaNoWriMo adventure. The challenge is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days so excess words are encouraged. I’ll be mentoring the writers in my region (Ireland North East) as usual, running writing events, and writing my own novel too. I’ll let you know how it’s going. Are any of you taking the NaNo challenge this year?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I bet you know the expression “under the aegis of”. For example “The negotiations for a settlement in the dispute took place under the aegis of the Conflict Resolution Board”. We know it means the discussions were under the protection and guidance of that board.

But what exactly is an aegis (pronunciation here) and how did it enter English?

This is one we can blame on the Greeks, those pesky ancients practically wrote the first English dictionary, but at least we have a very clear idea of what an aegis (also spelled egis) is. It’s a shield, specifically the shield of Zeus or Athena. It’s made of goatskin (not gold or bronze, most surprising) and at its centre is the head of a gorgon.

The word aegis entered English in the late 1600s, via Latin. The aeg part was originally aig or aix, meaning “related to a goat” and the –is suffix tells us it was a type of shield. If you were under the aegis of Zeus or Athena you were in a very safe place indeed.

Now I think I’d prefer a metal shield to one made of goat’s hide but I must admit that the addition of a Gorgon’s head does give you the luxury upgrade. The gorgons were three sisters who Greek legends tell us lived in the west, near the setting sun. They all had snakes instead of hair, which must have made a visit to the hairdressers a real nightmare.

They were named Stheno (the strong), Euryale (the wide leaping), and Medusa (ruler or queen). The only one you’ve heard of will be Medusa. She’s the one whose very look would turn you to stone. I can see how having her head affixed to my shield would give a certain edge in battle.

The next time a dry news report tells you about some event being under the aegis of a person or organisation, remember that if you mess with them they may turn their deadly shield against you. Even Captain America would be jealous of that bit of kit.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)

p.s. If you’re curious my adventures in CampNaNo this July have been productive so far despite external circumstances forcing me to change my project, twice. The DS is still chipping away at his story too, very proud of him.

 

 

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nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_winnerHello,

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo 2016. Everywhere around the world crazy-eyed, caffeine-hyped writers are scrambling to pull words from their imaginations and pin them to the page. I know the novelists in my region are busy because our forums have fallen silent. There’s no more time for procrastination, there’s writing to do.

My own writing space is quiet too. It has transformed into a reading space. Why? Because I passed 50,000 words on Monday and my reward is a couple of days off, curled up with a mug of hot chocolate and a Neil Gaiman novel.

I’ve learned from previous NaNos (this is my tenth year in the challenge and my eighth win) that I can’t keep up the pace straight into December. So although I do need to write another 8,000 words to finish the first draft I won’t be tackling that immediately. I’ll take time to catch up on work for Scouts. I’ll finish my gift shopping. I’ll remind my garden that I love it. I’ll re-connect with my family and loved ones.

The last couple of chapters will come in their own good time. I certainly won’t forget to write about my eponymous villains. How could I omit Ponzi, de Sade, Machiavelli, Sacher-Masoch, and Quisling?

Starting NaNoWriMo is always scary, even with practice. You can’t be sure you’ll make it. You never know what November has in store. This year was no exception. The school strike stole writing days. As always, I ended up on antibiotics at one point. Our heating broke. I completely forgot my monthly column deadline and had to rush one together at very short notice. None of that matters now. I’ve a huge start made on “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” and that’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Until next time (when I’ll get back to unusual words) happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

(November word count 50,300)

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