Category Archives: parentings

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.




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)

Xenial Greeks Bearing Gifts


Today’s word is xenial which I came across in “The Slippery Slope” (Series of Unfortunate Events Book 10) by Lemony Snicket. The author delights in unusual words and I’m reading the entire series at the moment so I can “talk books” (and words) with my daughter who loves them. They’re quick reads for an adult so it’s helping my Goodreads 2019 book reading challenge too.

Xenial is one of the words where the X is said like a Z, by the way. You can get a pronunciation audio file here or just go with zee-knee-ull.

Snicket’s character implies that xenial is another way to say somebody is friendly or helpful and he’s on the right track. Xenial describes friendly relations and hospitality especially by the host for their guest and in particular when those two people are from different city-states or countries. It has its origins in ancient Greece, xenos was the Greek word for guest. For example, Walder Frey was far from xenial when he hosted the Red Wedding in “Game of Thrones”.

xenial gift wrapping

Xenial entered English in the 1800s as an adjective for hospitality but clearly the ancient Greeks were a friendly bunch way before that date. Although we should also probably recall the ancient advice to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, even if they appear xenial at first glance.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Hello & Happy New Year,

Today’s word is friggle and it has nothing to do with resolutions or a “New Year – New You”. You’re safe here.

Friggle is an English dialect word for fussing over trifles. I assume this means unimportant things rather than layered desserts. Friggle is not a dialect word I’d ever heard and I’ve been unable to identify which area of Britain is home to friggling. Do any of you know?

Its origins are lost but may include connections to fiddling, wiggling, or fumbling and there are definite links to the idea of finagling something. As somebody who likes the details to be right, I think there may be a link to niggle, that feeling at the back of your mind that some tiny thing has been overlooked.

Some of the words on this blog defy my efforts to illustrate them with images but I found inspiration this week with my daughter who likes all the small elements of her lego creations to be perfect. She spent an hour cleaning the cafe with a toothbrush yesterday. She’s definitely a friggler.

The waitress friggled all her cafe items

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



I hope you’re enjoying Christmas Eve. Preparations are well underway here at Wordfoolery HQ and the festive spirit has inspired me to explore the word tinsel today.

Tinsel edged noticeboard, with thanks to my daughter

I was surprised to find that tinsel can be a noun, adjective, and verb. The noun relates to threads, sheets, or strips of metal (or plastic) used to create a sparkling appearance in decorations and fabrics. The version I’m most familiar is the festoon of tinsel, a sparkling feather boa, slung around Christmas trees. Personally I prefer decorative ribbons on our tree, so the annual tinsel explosion happens in my daughter’s room instead.

Tinsel as an adjective describes anything which is like tinsel, or is gaudy. Tinsel as a verb is the act of interweaving or adorning with tinsel. I assume this means if you drape your tree in tinsel you are tinseling when you do it.

Tinsel is a surprisingly old word. Its first usage was as early as 1538. It entered Middle English as tyneseyle which was a cloth interwoven with metallic thread and the word probably came from Anglo-French tencelé which itself came from the verb estenceler – to sparkle.

The king of England at the time was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He’d buried three wives by that point and had a fondness for rich fabrics like cloth of gold so we may have him to thank for the fashion for tinsel as courtiers would copy his style.

By the 1650s the idea of tinsel had become associated with things which were showy but ultimately of little worth. Again this fall in tinsel’s reputation may be related to politics as by 1650 England had been rocked by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Charles II sat on the throne but had been forced to curtail some of the more over the top aspects of his court fashions for fear of following his father to the chopping block.

The use of Tinsel Town to describe Hollywood dates to 1972. Although it also describes my daughter’s bedroom at this time of year.

Happy Christmas, and until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



This morning I indulged in a little light time-travel. My youngest is attending a camp at Dublin City University this week and I had a few hours to kill so I wandered up to the library and asked if I could use the facilities as an alumni. The lovely librarian sorted me out and buzzed me in with the warm words “welcome back”.

Back in the stacks

The library isn’t even in the same building anymore, but it was a delight to sit in the new space and remember my younger self. I stacked a quiet cubicle with books and settled in. I started research on my next non-fiction book “Words the Sea Gave Us” which I’ll be drafting during NaNoWriMo this November, but I couldn’t help jotting down gems for Wordfoolery too.

Zigzag (also zig-zag, both are used) is the first on my library list. As noted before, I have a fondness for words containing neglected letters in the English alphabet and zigzag has two.

crochet zigzags

What’s a zigzag? It’s a line with sharply alternately right and left turns. They go way back, you’ll find them on the stone carvings at Newgrange (famous Irish stone age burial mound, older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza).

Zigzag entered English in the early 1700s and was used by Jonathon Swift in 1728. The word comes from French and before that from German zickzack where it was applied to describe fortifications. It’s worth noting that Zacke in German meant a tooth or prong which makes sense if you think about the sticky-out-bits (the technical term!) on castellations and fort walls. To perform one of these turns in your course you would zig, or possibly zag so it can be used as a verb too.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Cacography – the Curse of Bad Handwriting


Poor handwriting has been a hot topic in my house recently. In my daugher’s school pupils write all their work in joined script from age 10. I remember the pain my older child went through at this stage and I thought I was ready for it. Plus I know this child’s fine motor skills are much better than her older sibling’s. Perhaps she would escape my genes for terrible handwriting?

I wasn’t ready. She didn’t escape.

The teacher, to encourage the children, has a system whereby good handwriting (calligraphy) is rewarded with a smiley face stamp on their work. Gather enough of these (an unspecified number which really irritated my highly numerate daughter, and her mother) and you get a coveted “pen license” and may use a biro instead of a pencil. In my day it was an ink pen, which actually does force you to form letters properly, but apparently that’s not a thing now.

On the first day 75% of the class got the stamp at least once. Not my little one.

Two weeks later, still no stamp, although her handwriting looked fine to me. Very unhappy daughter.

Finally she gets a stamp. The reason for the delay? She wasn’t leaving an empty line between each sentence.

She still hasn’t earned that pen license but at least we know it’s not down to her cacography (pronunciation here). The word dates from 1580 and comes from the Greek kakos meaning bad (perhaps leading to the slang description of food/clothes as being kak or cack-handed for clumsy or left-handed?).

I’m lucky they invented computers in my lifetime and you can enjoy a neat font on this blog rather than my usual scribble which was poor age 10 and has worsened over time, particularly thanks to speed-note-taking in my university years.

An example of my own cacography

An example of my own cacography

There are two benefits to cacography in my experience –

  1. nobody can decipher your private notes or diary
  2. you can read the worst hand-writing in the world with ease – even doctor’s prescriptions

Until next time happy reading, wordfooling and writing (be it calligraphic or cacographic),


Dapper – an elegant gent or new teen slang?


This week’s word is dapper. I complimented my pre-teen son on looking dapper last week and while he was happy to take the praise he pointed out that dapper is modern slang and I’m way too old to be using it. As he would say “I got burned”. Ah the joys of parenthood.

Urban Dictionary confirmed his slang usage – it’s pretty close to “swag” – e.g. “OMG that new game is dapper.” I am trying not to worry that I need to refer to Urban Dictionary to understand my children, sigh.

Those of us over the age of 20 will recall that dapper describes someone (often male) who is neat, trim, smart, active and typically well-dressed and mannered. For me the perfect dapper gent was Cary Grant, but I am sure you have your own examples.

I guessed dapper dated to the 1920s, there’s something about a man in a sharp hat that just screams dapper to me. However dapper actually dates back to Late Middle English daper about 1400. It has roots in  Middle Dutch dapper meaning nimble and German tapfer meaning brave.

I’m just relieved that the new usage of dapper to mean cool or trendy doesn’t stray too far from the dapper I know and can still be applied to a well-styled outfit.

Until next time happy reading, writing and wordfooling and good luck in deciphering pre-teen slang,



Googolplex – perfect word for maths lovers


Until recently I’d forgotten that I love maths. I’ve had an on-off relationship with it. Adored it up to age 12, got distracted by other subjects from 12-15, struggled from 15-19 (integration – I’m looking at you), but warmed to it through the rest of my university and computing career.

Image from

Image from

Now as a writer and mother it gets used here and there, unlike words which are the bricks of my trade.

Then I read “The Martian” by Andy Weir (brilliant book, can’t recommend it enough) and it reminded me why I loved maths in the first place. It is how the world works. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, baking, finance, art, music, computing, gaming, graphics (and much more) are fundamentally underpinned by mathematics and frankly, that makes it cool.

My kids already had that worked out (and really enjoyed “The Martian” movie last weekend). They’ve been fascinated with the concept of mathematical infinity ever since I mentioned it in passing one day. Well here’s another one for you – googolplex. This is the number represented as 1 in base ten (i.e. “normal numbers”!) with a googol of zeros after it. What’s a googol then? It is 10 to the power of 100 and was coined by a nine year old in 1920 as being “keep writing zeros until you get tired”.

According to QI, this means a googolplex is a number so vast that it can’t be written down as the universe isn’t vast enough to contain all the zeros.

See? Maths is cool.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and word (or number) fooling,


Today is Auld Handsel Monday


Serendipity is on my side. I investigated a word my mother uses – hansel – and discovered the term has a direct link to today. The term cropped up in a book I read recently “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke. It formed part of a summoning spell and the handsel was a gift to bind the person who was summoned.

I wish these were all full

I wish these were all full

Every time my mother (of Scottish descent, way back) gave me a new purse, bag, or wallet she always insisted on placing a coin in it before formally giving it to me. I loved the idea. Who dislikes the idea of a present that comes with free cash? I do it myself with my own children. But over time I noticed that we were the only family honouring this tradition.

Wikipedia informs me that handseling a purse is a British tradition to ensure good monetary luck for the receiver. The word handsel is found from 1050. It comes from a Saxon root (also used in Danish) and means “to deliver into the hand”, which makes sense.

I also found that Handsel Day (c. 1825) was the day when tips and small gifts were expected by servants, postmen, etc. Money is the most common handsel gift on the day, but if giving an object make sure it’s not sharp or it will cut the relationship, apparently. Handsel Day was supplanted by British Boxing Day traditions over time. Here in Ireland we much prefer St. Stephen’s Day for the 26th of December  (there’s much tutting if you use the other term) and those who tip service providers do so in the run up to Christmas, not on the 26th.

Thanks to a dispute in Scotland about the Julian vs. Gregorian calendars you may celebrate Handsel Day on the first Monday in January or Auld Handsel Day on the first Monday after the 12th, and yes, that would be today.

I think we should revive Handsel day (on whichever date suits) as a way of brightening up January and easing the post-Christmas-financial-blues. What do you think? Does your family follow any rare or unusual traditions?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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