Archive for the ‘travel’ Category


This week I’m looking at money, currency to be precise. My local currency is the Euro and it wouldn’t take a genius to discover its link to the European Union. Other names of currencies, however, have more intriguing histories.

A selection from my coin box

Weight is at the core of many currency names. It’s easy to imagine early merchants using scales to assess the value of goods being traded and it certainly provides the origins of a surprising number of modern currencies.

The Mexican Peso is one example, its name means weight in Spanish. Turkish Lira and the Italian Lira (now replaced with Euro) come from the Latin word libra which means pound (a unit of weight). The pre-Euro Deutschmark in Germany and the Finnish Markka also took their names from units of weight. The British Pound (and the pre-Euro Irish Pound or Punt) came from the Latin word poundus, meaning weight. Other countries whose currency is a Pound include Egypt, Lebanon, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria.

The idea of currency as weight is involved in Rubles and Shekels too. Russia and Belarus use the Ruble as currency and it is named after a measure of weight for silver. The Shekel is a noun created from the verb shaqal, meaning to weigh, in ancient Hebrew. The Shekel was the chief silver coin and also a unit of weight.

Currencies aren’t all related to weight. Another way to lend legitimacy to your currency back in history was to link it to your monarchy.

Roman Coin (replica)

The Latin word regalis, meaning royal, is the origin for the Omani and Iranian Rials. Similarly, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen use a currency called the Riyal. Spain used Reals in the past too. The Scandinavian version of this concept is currencies named for the Latin word corona, which means crown. You get Sweden’s Krona, Norway’s Krone, Denmark’s Krone, Iceland’s Króna, the Estonian Kroon (now replaced by the Euro), and the Czech Republic’s Koruna. Readers of an older vintage may recall the crown and half-crown coins in British currency too.

If you’re not pinning your currency to the worth of your monarchy then you may choose to draw attention to valuable metals instead.

The Indian and Pakistani Rupee and the Indonesian Rupiah all come from the Sanskrit word rupya which means “wrought silver” while the Polish Zloty translates as “golden”. The South African Rand is inspired by gold too. Rand is a shortening of the Dutch name for the South African city Witwatersrand which is located in an area rich in gold deposits.

I was surprised to find the word Dollar has its roots in silver rather than gold. The Low German word joachimsthal means Joachim’s Valley where silver was once mined. Coins minted from that silver became joachimsthaler which shortened to thaler and ultimately to Dollar. It’s worth noting that Dollar is a currency for the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Fiji, and New Zealand.

One exception to the weight, metal, and monarchy generalisations comes from Asia. The Chinese character 圓, meaning “round” or “round coin”, is responsible for the name of the Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen, and the Korean Won.

My favourite currency origin is the Pula from Botswana. Pula means rain in Setswana. Rain is scarce in Botswana, — home to much of the Kalahari Desert, and therefore seen as a valuable blessing.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m sure I haven’t covered every currency in my exploration – if you know another interesting one, please drop a comment.


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This week’s word is jettatura (pronunciation here) which is a term for the evil eye or bad luck.

A glass token to avert jettatura

Jettatura entered English in the 1800s with the earliest use found in “The London Magazine”. The word originates in Italian, particularly in the southern regions, and is formed from iettare (to jinx or curse) and -atura.

What is jettaura or the evil eye? Accounts vary, as they often do for occult terms. In one version the person who is cursed with the evil eye will cast bad luck upon anybody they look at. This seems particularly unfair as you’re bound to curse those you love. The advice was to wear horns on your person to avert the curse.

The version I’ve encountered personally in the Greek islands and in Turkey (not a million miles away from southern Italy) is that anybody with blue eyes is deemed to carry the evil eye and may accidentally cause bad luck to those in their vicinity. This can be turned aside by a blue eyeball token (on your person or in your home) or by making the sign of horns with the fingers of your hands.

I have blue eyes and would sometimes find brown-eyed locals discreetly making the horn sign when they encountered me on the street or in marketplaces in the much the same habitual way my mother would make the sign of the cross when an ambulance passed us – partly to bless the efforts of the medical crew in helping the person inside and partly in hope that such trouble would bypass her and her family.

In Turkey particularly the glass eye tokens were everywhere and traders would sometimes slip one into my purchases either as an extra bonus or to ensure my blue-eyed jettatura went away with me rather than resting upon their business.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


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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)

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Wordfoolery was gallivanting last week but as always I had my ear tuned in for unusual words. Amongst other nautical locations (my DS now blanches if I mention nautical history or maritime festivals) we took the excellent tour of the Dunbrody Famine Ship which is moored in New Ross, Co. Wexford.

The Dunbrody

Having studied the Great Famine (1844-1849) endlessly during school lessons in Ireland, I thought I knew everything about the ships dubbed “coffin ships” that stacked the emigrants high and shipped them from Ireland to Britain, Canada, America and elsewhere in search of survival. I was keen to see the ship however as she was built about 20 years ago by volunteers to be a total replica of the original 1844 Dunbrody, no mean feat when the skills to create tall-ships are increasingly lost to us.

She’s a fine ship, despite the dark history she illustrates. The mortality rate on the voyages was about 30% but it was still better odds than staying in Ireland where the population dropped by 50% in the five years of that famine (there were many other famines in Ireland in the 1800s).

The engaging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable guide, who happily handled queries on the wider historic context of the famine and ship, decided to involve the younger members of my party in demonstrating life on board. DD got to stir the oatmeal/porridge on the deck’s brazier but DS got the plum job, he was handed a wooden bucket and challenged to handle it. Holding it at arm’s length he guessed it was the ship’s bathroom facilities and mimed tossing it overboard, after being advised to check which way the wind was blowing first.

Bathroom or Scuttlebutt?

I hoped the bucket wasn’t dual purpose, both for fresh and shall we say “used” water? If so it would be a primitive scuttlebutt. Butt is an old word for a barrel or cask, nothing to do with your rear. To scuttle something is to cut a hole in it – for example to hole the hull of a ship in order to sink it. The two together describe a cask or bucket with a lid. The lid had a hole in it so sailors could scoop out water using a drinking cup, but without allowing flies or dirt into the cask.

The scuttlebutt was a place to congregate and exchange news from the 1700s on board ships, hence its meaning as gossip or insider news. It crossed over to landlubber use c. 1950s. The modern equivalent would be water-cooler-gossip and an eponymous version exists in Australia with the furphy (whose story I explore in my book “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” – coming later this year).

If you’re visiting the south-east of Ireland and have an interest in history, I can recommend the tour, just be careful of what way the wind is blowing.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. Wordfoolery)

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Grand Bazaar fez, modeled by Eli

Grand Bazaar fez, modeled by Eli


This week’s words take us to Persia, Istanbul and Italy. I hope you have your passports and visas in order.

A recent column in “The Irish Times” newspaper mused on a charity jumble sale of the author’s youth which was always billed as a bazaar. It set me on the trail of bazaar and bizarre, the later being one of my favourite words. It’s a great adjective – helpful to describe outlandish outfits, unusual behaviour, and characters who defy conventions.

While I’ve visited many jumble sales in my time, selling old teapots, homemade jam, and raffle tickets, I’ve only encountered one bazaar, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We visited it on a sorching hot day in 2002 and entering its cool vaulted maze was a relief, for a moment. Then the sheer variety of goods on display assaulted my eyes and the scents of spices, perfume oils, and leathers assailed my nose. We joked that you could buy anything there – from gherkins to giraffes. Your most bizaare request would merely require a moment for the stall holder to rummage in the back. Who needs Aladdin’s lamp if you can browse the bazaar?

I don’t come from a nation of hagglers. If you tell me the price, that’s what I’ll pay. But bazaars demand a different approach. DH took the first shot, taking about a third off the original quote and going from there. He secured a leather weekend bag that has served him well since. The vendors of Istanbul, and trust me everybody is a seller in Istanbul (or has a cousin with a carpet shop), all have a story to tell. In that respect they reminded me strongly of the Irish. Don’t expect to buy in a rush. Leave them with a fair profit. Don’t bargain without any intention of purchase. I can’t tell you if we got the bargaining right but I still love the perfume oils I selected from the tiniest, most fragrant stall I found. My fez, although never worn, is the jewel of my hat collection.

Bazaar isn’t a Turkish word, but it’s in the right neck of the woods. It comes from the Persian (modern day Iran) word bāzār which means marketplace.

Bizarre, meaning odd or fantastic, certainly describes the goods in the bazaar but it has a completely different root. It entered English in the 1600s from French where it had the same meaning. Earlier in French it had the additional meaning of brave or like a soldier, which makes sense to me as it take bravery to make bizarre choices. Spanish and Portugese also gained the word at around the same time, again with the secondary meaning of brave or handsome. I have a mental image of an unusual, but brave and handsome, soldier fighting his way across France, Spain and Portugal in the 17th century.

Unfortunately my imaginings are flawed as the original root is most likely to be bizza and bizzarro in Italian which mean irascible or fits of anger.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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This week’s word is inspired not by urban pitfalls but by my own mountain clumsiness. I spent last Saturday climbing Lugnaquilla in the Wicklow Mountains and managed to dip first my right foot and later my left foot in the lovely, cold, brown water of the rushing streams we needed to cross during the hike. There appears to be a magnetic attraction between my boots and running water, most annoying. My, more experienced, companion remained dry-shod and laughing.



I may lack her agility in the mountains but at least I built up a good immunity to the Georgian beau traps of Dublin when I frequented the city.

A beau trap is early 19th century slang for a paving stone which is loose enough for rainwater to gather underneath. Dublin city dwellers will know that we get a spot of rain now and then. Stealthy puddles gather under the large Georgian stone footpaths (sidewalks for my US friends) and unless you avoid those slabs or hit them in the exact right spot it “tips up and pumps half a litre of rainwater up your trouser” (as Terry Pratchett points out in “A Slip of the Keyboard”).  This rainwater is always a murky grey shade and invariably ice-cold.

Douglas Adams (the reason why all my novels have 42 chapters) once created an alternative word for this – the affpuddle – which I rather like too.

Why is it called a beau trap? The elegant young men of the 1800s (also known as beaus) wore those tight white stockings to show off their well turned ankles and calves and such a sinister pool of city rainwater was a trap for those beaus.

Whether you’re walking in cities or hills beware of wobbly stones and beau traps this week.Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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liberty from belowHello,

I’m just back from a wonderful week in New York city. While tramping the tourist trail I had my ears open for interesting words. I gathered a few eponyms (for a larger project I’m plotting) but it was a small word that caught my eye – ace.

Growing up in Ireland, with a  tennis obsessed sister, there was only one tennis championship as far as we were concerned. One event that sent every child outside with badly strung wooden rackets and half-flat balls to pretend to be McEnroe or Bjorn Borg. For two glorious weeks each summer our television showed nothing but Wimbledon. We ate strawberries at every opportunity and we groaned when the airplanes overhead (we lived on a flight route to Dublin Airport) drowned out the commentary and the gentle “pock” of balls.

How I longed to be a ball girl. I lacked the hand-eye co-ordination to be a tennis ace on Centre Court, but surely I could be a ball girl? It even came with its own language and strange scoring method – love-all, change balls, set, double fault, ace.

Over the years my love affair with tennis faded. I didn’t have the time to devote two weeks to watching it. But last week in Manhattan the screens in diners showed either baseball or Wimbledon and my own children were astonished to find our “local” competition engrossing viewers halfway across the world.

Let's Go Mets!

Let’s Go Mets!

So when, reading the great displays on the hangar deck of the USS Intrepid (former air-craft carrier and now excellent hands-on sea, air and space museum), I thought their reference to ace was related to tennis. Nope. They had a different kind of ace in mind and one that required more than just serving well enough to avoid a return shot. The flying ace entered the language in World War I via French, the single dot on a die, and card games but for five hundred years it referred to bad luck, another word whose meaning has completely reversed since its birth.

To qualify as a flying ace, you had to earn five victories in the aerial battles. It puts the efforts of Andy Murray and Serena Williams in the shade. If they lose a game they can try again next week, if those marvelous men (and now women) in their flying machines lost a dog fight, the consequences were far greater. Ace may be a small word but it describes big deeds.

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


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