Archive for the ‘Scouting’ Category


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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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,


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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)


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I include words here for various reasons. This week’s word, quagmire, is a favourite of mine because it’s fun to say. It even sounds squelchy.

Quagmire has two meanings, one practical, the other more conceptual. In reality it is soft boggy ground that gives way underfoot. We have a plethora of quagmires in the hilly areas of Ireland thanks to our slightly damp climate and extensive peat bogs. The example above is rather mild, little more than a grumpy puddle, but somehow despite hiking through plenty of quagmires I don’t have any photos of them. This is probably because I usually have my mind focused on avoiding falling in rather than on photography. I do have a plan to photograph proper boggy ground next time though. I need visual aids to explain to parents why their Scouts come home covered in mud and why dispatching them without rain trousers is a poor idea. Some fault may fall on the teens themselves – rain trousers aren’t cool and some prefer to get soaked in the name of fashion, sigh.

Quagmire can also refer to a complex or hazardous predicament that is difficult to escape. We’ve all tangled with those and while the resultant mud may be metaphorical, which washes out excellently, it is an uncomfortable experience.

Quagmire dates back to the 1600s in the boggy sense and had the second meaning by the 1700s. It was formed from the joining of two words – quag and mire. Quag meant bog or marsh, possibly because the ground quaked underfoot. Mire goes back even further, the 1200s in fact, and again had the joint meaning of to become entangled and also of bog or swamp. Myrr, which entered English as mire, was a Norse word for moss than probably came from Old German originally. So quagmire really means a boggy bog.

Until next time, watch where you tread and I wish you happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


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Lambing is in full swing


Did you know today is the vernal equinox? I didn’t. I was more focused on the clocks going forward this weekend (for European Daylight Saving) which will mean I can do evening outdoor Scout meetings again and hike longer in the day. Yes, that’s the way my mind works.

But I had noticed that it was pretty springy around here today. The clue was the frantic baa-ing from the fields I passed on my morning walk as ewes sought to protect their new lambs from my gaze, the upswing in temperatures, and the consequent blooming of wild primroses, dandelions, and wood anemones on the banks.

So what’s the vernal equinox anyhow? It’s one of two times per year when the sun is positioned directly above the equator and hence we have equal day and night. The vernal (or spring) equinox marks the point in the year when the northern hemisphere begins to tilt towards the sun and we get longer, warmer days. It’s the astronomical start of spring (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere in which case it’s the start of autumn) and certainly in these parts it is when the countryside wakes up and the farmers stay up later. A brightly-lit tractor passed me this evening on its way to sow fields in the dark.

Wild Primroses (an edible flower)

Vernal equinox has Roman roots. Ver is Latin for spring and vernal means “of spring”. The Romans gave this word to several other languages in fact – Norse, Greek, Lithuanian, Armenian, Sanskrit, Slavonic, and Persian. Equinox is an almost direct import from Latin too. Aequi means equal and nox means night and the term entered English in late middle English.

The Romans can’t claim to have discovered it, however, as even megalithic people marked the equinox with stone circles and cultures worldwide have marked the date with various celebrations and rites, many associated with fertility. Knowing when to sow crops has always been an important consideration after a long dark winter.

The Romans took a typically imperial approach. They named the month, March, in honour of Mars their god of war for one simple reason. The weather in March, thanks to the equinox, dried up enough to allow war season to commence. They regarded it as the first month of their year.

I wish March marked such a dramatic change in weather in these latitudes. Sadly this morning’s sunshine has now vanished into a sudden temperature drop and a snow forecast. Spring takes a while to unfurl in these parts.

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




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I missed posting a blog last Monday because I was off on Scout camp with a great bunch of teens. Amongst learning other skills, like tossing a tomahawk (seriously – it’s a competitive sport), I got the chance to make a keychain from paracord. On the walk back to our camp site I couldn’t help wondering about the origin of para.

paracord keychain

Para crops up in so many terms that clearly it’s a prefix – paralympic, paramedic, parachute, parapluie (umbrella in French), paracord, paramilitary, paralegal, paragraph, parallel, etc. Thinking about it I became convinced it was something to do with air, but thanks to a little digging in the dictionaries, I’ve discovered I was totally wrong.

Dictionary.com informs me that para usually comes with loan words from Greek and generally means “to one side of” or beside – for example a paralegal works beside a legal team, a paramedic works with medical teams. This works well for parallel, too.

The Online Etymology Dictionary adds to this by adding “beyond” and “against”. I imagine the “beyond” meaning is the one used for paralympic. Might even link into paragon?

This still left me confused on parachute and parapluie but it turns out that these uses of para have a unique French twist – it is “protection against” – chute meaning fall and pluie meaning rain.

That brings me back to my paracord, the tough mini-rope I used in my keychain at Camp North East. It’s named for the cords used on WWII parachutes. Soldiers learned to cut the cords from their chutes after landing as they were handy for tying gear to packs, setting up shelters (something we teach our Scouts too), and the inner strands could even be used for sewing damaged gear. So rather than being the against-cord, I reckon it’s the beyond-cord.

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


p.s. if you’re interested in paracord projects – check out this link.

Also, crocheters – you can use paracord instead of yarn for more rigid objects.

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