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Hello,

I’m just back from my family trip to Paris and I finally managed to snap a carousel so I can explore its word history. Choose your unicorn, pay for your ticket and off we go.

Carousel with a rather famous neighbour

The use of the word carousel to indicate a slowly rotating merry-go-round for children featuring horses, carriages, and tiny trains is relatively recent innovation, 1895 to be precise. Even more recent is the luggage carousel in the airport.

The word itself goes back further and still involves horses. The first stop on this ride is the Romans. The Latin word carrus means a two-wheeled wagon and as you can imagine has links to the modern word car. From carrus you get the Italian word carro which means chariot (two-wheeled again). After that it’s a hop to carusiello in Italian for a tilting match which slid into French as carrousel (yes, two Rs).

By the 1640s English had acquired the carousel from French as a playful tournament of knights in chariots or on horseback. The interesting thing being the retention of two wheeled chariots right from Roman times up to the 1600s in England. Chariots aren’t used much in warfare these days and I’ve struggled to imagine how knights could use them but according to a letter in 1673 such a carousel would provide –

“instruction to all such ingenious young gentlemen as desire to learne the art of perfect horsemanshipp.” [sic]

I was intrigued as to what a knight’s carousel would have looked like. The Smithsonian Magazine claims it came from a 12th century training game played by Arabian and Turkish warriors throwing a clay ball between them which was filled with perfume. A fumbled catch meant the knight reeked until he could wash. This doesn’t seem to include chariots however.

There is the idea of a melée in knights’ tournaments where many knights fought at the same time and the last one standing won the day, I imagine a carousel could work the same way except you fought in a circle that decreased in size until it was a duel. If the training was chariot or horse-based it might have been more like our images from the iconic movie “Ben Hur”, but that would be a tricky, and high-risk game which could injure the extremely valuable war-horses of the day. They cost so much that it would be like allowing a learner driver get behind the wheel of your Bugatti super car for a rally drive.

My own theory is that the carousel might have been like the quintain. This simple device, used to train knights and squires in castle courtyards and town squares, consisted of an upright post with swiveling arms spread wide. One arm ended in a shield which the rider targeted, the other ended in a filled sack. Hit the shield just right and the quintain would spin away from you allowing you to ride on. Hit it wrong and the sack would swing round and swipe you from your steed. It is likely that such devices were setup at town fairs. Couldn’t a smaller version for wannabe squires have gradually led to a rotating horse-riding device for children at such fairs?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week, after a wonderful weekend in Galway that included a little Lynch research on the side, it’s time to revisit the origin of the word lynch (explored in a 2014 post). This is an extract from my forthcoming non-fiction paperback and ebook “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” which rambles through the fascinating life stories of those who gave their names to the English language via eponyms.

(extract from “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” by Grace Tierney, c. 2018)

Lynch family crest, medieval stone carving, St. Nicolas’ church, Galway

The Irish origin of this word is somewhat questionable, but I suspect it has Irish roots somewhere, if only because Lynch is a common Irish surname.

Most of us know that to lynch someone is to punish them, typically by hanging, without the benefit of due legal process. The real mystery lies in working out who was the original Lynch.

The Irish claim to the word is based in Galway city. The story goes that in 1493 James Lynch Fitzstephen, the mayor of Galway, strung up his own son from the upstairs window of his house for murdering a young Spanish man over a romantic rivalry. There’s even a plaque at the window which you can see in Galway.

It’s a dramatic story and a great one for tourists but almost certainly false because the term didn’t gain usage for another 300 years. In fact the window with the plaque doesn’t even date from the correct period and is no longer in the original Lynch house.

Lynch Castle, Galway (now a bank)

 

A variation of the story is that the Lynch son embezzled money from his father’s merchant business overseas and covered it by throwing a Spaniard overboard on his return trip. A sailor denounced him on his death bed and his father, a local judge (and first mayor of Galway), condemned him to death. When the public gathered to prevent the hanging the father took matters into his own hands and hung his son from the house’s window.

The tomb of James Lynch, first mayor of Galway in St. Nicolas medieval church

It’s only fair to point out that second version does include a trial, although one wonders how fair it was.

The much more likely source for lynching (although nobody is 100% certain) is an American Quaker Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a planter in Virginia who held an irregular court to imprison loyalist supporters of Britain during the American War of Independence. Charles later got Lynch’s Law passed to excuse him from wrong-doing because it was war-time, a clever move.

The controversy around Lynch’s Law brought the word into common usage to indicate anything done without due legal process.

Although lynching later came to be associated with racial issues, Charles was known to be colour blind in his judgments.

Inhabitants of Lynchburg, Virginia will already know of their own connection to this tale, the town was founded by Charles’ older brother.

Added Bonus

When exploring the Lynch tombs in Galway I encountered a wordy stone-carved Latin tombstone, pictured here.

Tomb of Stephen Lynch, St. Nicolas’ church, Galway

The inscription translates as –

“Stephen Lynch of illustrious lineage, the darling of his soldiers and the terror of his enemies, in years still a young man, but old in valour, of whom the world was not worthy, was exalted to Heaven the 14th of March A.D. 1644”.

What a wonderful description, wish I could have one that good when I kick the bucket.

Wordfoolery is running away to Paris next week, so I’ll be skipping one post but will be back fooling with words on Monday 13th. Until then happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I’m back from a lovely weekend in a yurt in Wicklow with my family and thanks to a combination of antibiotics and anti-histamines (insects love to bite me, but my body doesn’t enjoy the experience) I’m only leaving my zwodder today.

A Yurt with a View

Zwodder, in case you’re unfamiliar with 19th century Somerset dialect words, means a drowsy state of body or mind and I wish it could make a comeback as a commonly used English word. The weather here has been perfect recently – clear blue skies, warm but not too hot, a light breeze. Tradition (but not science) holds such weather is because 120,000 students are sitting state examinations at the moment, the poor things. All I know is it makes for perfect zwoddering conditions.

My zwoddering spot

Zwodder certainly doesn’t appear to have standard English roots due to its spelling. Middle Dutch has swadderen which means to be weary or staggering due to drinking. Anglo-Saxon had swodrian which meant becoming drowsy or falling asleep. Zwodder’s roots may lie in the Land of Nod amongst a haze of Zzzz.

Until next time I wish you a comfortable hammock and time to zwodder,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

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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Hello,

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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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)

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Hello,

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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