Category Archives: Uncategorized

Picnic like a Victorian


Although Ireland has avoided the European heatwaves recently, to a large extent, we have managed a few sunny days during August and they spurred me into a walk around my local park. The wide open grass & meadow areas were scattered with picnic blankets, laughing children, and dogs who wanted to say hello.

As a result, this week’s word is picnic and it’s one the French gave us. The word started in French as piquenique (it can also be used as a verb in French) in the late 1600s, probably from the verb piquer (to pick or peck) in Old French. The second part might be from nique (a worthless thing) in German, or may simply have been added because it sounds like the first element.

It was used as picnic in English during the 1700s but only rarely. The Victorian era saw the more widespread use of the term but it wasn’t an exclusively outdoor meal at that point. The English picnic in the 1800s was a fashionable social event in the style of a pot-luck where everybody contributes a dish or two. Over time this became associated with the outdoor versions of such gatherings. The move towards the outdoors in the mid-1800s was thanks to the Romantic movement in art and literature which revered nature.

Of course farm labourers had brought a chunk of bread and cheese, or a savoury pastry, to the fields for centuries before picnics became fashionable – that’s the source of the still popular ploughman’s lunch. Middle class and upper class Victorians and Edwardians brought the catering to the next level, probably thanks to servants. Fortnum & Mason’s developed the scotch egg and provided everything you’d need to picnic on the plains of Africa or the hills of Sussex.

By 1861 Mrs Beeton included sample picnic menus in her famous book of “household management”. The main course for one suggested the following –

“a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calves head.”

Thankfully since her time packing a picnic has become simpler and available to all, once the weather co-operates. The word is even used figuratively to mark something as being easy to achieve (since the late 1800s).

Wishing you happy late summer picnics. Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Pulling the Wool Over Their Eyes


Today’s word is an expression – “pulling the wool over their eyes” which means to deceive someone. I came across it in “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald, a fun little word book if you’re in the mood for such things.

In 17th and 18th century England the gentry cropped their own hair and wore elaborate powdered wigs made of wool instead. The habit spread to North America around the same period. This meant that during a duel your opponent might pull your wool wig down over your eyes, thus giving themselves an advantage.

The first known use of the phrase was in a 1839 American publication which suggests the wigs may have been those worn by lawyers and judges in courtrooms at that date. Thus a clever, or lucky, lawyer might pull the wool over the eyes of the presiding judge.

I prefer the dueling explanation because it’s more dramatic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and don’t let anybody pull the wool over your eyes,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve just finished participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Despite changing projects twice this month, I managed to win and made a strong start on two writing projects – book editing, and a first draft. It’s a great way to keep your writing on track during the holiday/vacation season.





This week’s word is quandary (pronunciation here) because I enjoy saying it. That’s a good enough reason to like a word, right?

A quandary is a state of dilemma or being perplexed, good words in themselves. In fact there’s a fair few ways of saying you’re in a quandary so it must be a common situation. My favourite is “being on the horns of a dilemma”. Great image. I think a dilemma may be related to the ancient minotaur.

calendar imageMy quandary today was how to schedule my writing time for the months of July and August when both my children and my academic DH re-appear in my home and expect, gosh darn it, to be fed, watered, tidied-up-after, and generally entertained, educated, and chauffeured. It’s an annual quandary and if you have a useful solution, or even a wild suggestion, please comment below as it’s not an easy one to resolve in my experience. Somehow my priorities end up at the bottom of the family list at this time of year, every year.

Apparently the origin of quandary is unknown but first use dates to 1579. Some sources suspect it is related to quando – the Latin for when which certainly fits my summer writing quandary but hardly matches all quandaries as they are more usually about what action to take rather then when to take it.

There have been multiple theories down through the ages (outlined at great length here) but none of them seem to be strong candidates in my view, thus leaving us in a quandary about quandary, which seems appropriate.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


Revenant meaning and origin


I vaguely knew that revenant refers to something coming back but with movie of the same name being released around now I’ve decided to delve a little deeper.

Merriam Webster tells me that a revenant is an adjective describing one who returns from a long absence or death. It certainly paints Arnie’s terminator as one, although with the time-travel involved in that plot perhaps his “I’ll be back” absence wasn’t long enough to qualify? Clearly you’re not a revenant if you merely pop down to the shop for some milk. adds that the revenant could be a ghost or spirit of some kind. Thinking it through I imagine this can be used to describe a zombie or vampire too.

I was a little surprised to find Hollywood ready to use this word as their title. After all when the French series “Les Revenants” came to English speaking adaptation it was renamed “The Returned”. I guess they worried too because they came up with this teaser poster to explain matters to potential movie-goers.

revenant poster-xlarge

So where does revenant come from? We’re back to the French. It comes from revenir, the French verb to return, and ultimately from Latin re (again) venire (come). Revenant dates from French usage originally c. 1830.

In a fun side-note for Daphne du Maurier “Rebecca” fans (thanks to Rebecca Hawkes of The Telegraph) the boat of the eponymous earlier wife was named “Je reviens” – spooky, eh?

Until next time happy reading, writing and wordfooling,

I’ll be back, Grace



Let’s Dabble with Knabble


This week’s word might not be a real word. I came across knabble in an online quiz of unusual words. I must have mistaken its meaning or I wouldn’t have jotted it down for the blog. However, I’ve done a little looking around and I’m not finding any reliable word origin information for it and it’s not listed in any major dictionaries. The closest I came was a variant spelling of Knable as a German surname so that could be the source.

I can’t help but wonder if somebody out there is trying to introduce knabble as a word?

The definitions I have found tell me that knabble describes a horse biting or nibbling. The K is silent, in case you were wondering how to say it.

I fully support a bit of playing around with English. I wouldn’t be a wordfool if I didn’t, so hey, let’s all try to use knabble in conversation today and see if it sticks.

In other news, The Irish Blog Awards (where I was proud to be shortlisted last year) are under new management and unfortunately I’ve missed the nomination deadline for this year, but the long list is available now and can be a great source of new blogs to love. Check it out.

Until next time happy dabbling with knabbling,


Tonguepad – a great talker


This week’s word is tonguepad and it comes from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary which was published in 1755 and I’ve always liked it. I mean, we had footpads (Dickensian muggers), so why not tonguepads?

A tonguepad is a great or glib talker and is a dialect noun mainly used in British English.

I spent my Saturday at training for Adult Scouters (a.k.a. leaders) which meant I had to listen rather than talk and it included advice on getting six-year-old tonguepads to stop chatting nonstop so they can learn how to play a game or put up a tent. I hope some of it works as I usually come home exhausted and hoarse from Beaver Scout meetings. But I also come home buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm because spending an hour with that age group is like being plugged into the electricity supply. They teach me new words too – perhaps I’ll write a Junior Wordfoolery post soon.


On Sunday I was lucky enough to meet up with two old friends (one I’ve known since I was four) and it reminded me how much I enjoy their conversation. It’s varied, intelligent, funny, informative, engaging, and honest. After 37 years of talking together, we’re still a bunch of tonguepads and I hope that never stops.

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


If you’re interested in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary – check out my other posts – Does Lusk mean Lazy, Feculent, Are you having a Grum Monday?

Connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, and LinkedIn or sign up for free e-mail updates from this blog in the top right-hand corner of the page.

Puck, pooka, or puc – what are they?


This week’s word is puck, thanks to my children and I cheering on Canada in the Sochi ice hockey final last Sunday. We had to cheer for Canada, on behalf of our Calgarian friends and relations, as Ireland didn’t make the final. When they invent wet-weather hockey, we’ll be fine.


My daughter wanted to know what the word meant (yep, they’re used to my knowing the answer to such questions) and I scurried to the dictionaries but it’s far from clear.

The puck I knew was Robin Goodfellow (great character name!) in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a mischevious sprite. His name ties in with Old English, Old Norse, Gaelic (pucca) and Welsh names for similar demons.

The dictionaries reminded me of puck meaning to hit in Gaelic. I know it as puc (there’s no k in Gaelic). In particular the puc fada – a hurling inspired contest where the competitor tries to hit the sliotar (the ball in hurling, a high-speed, skillful and uniquely Irish game – sadly not in the Olypmics) as far as possible (fada means long). This game tends to turn up at local fair days and sports days in my area.

Using puck in relation to hockey, for example calling a player a puckster, dates back to 1891 at least and is likely to relate to the idea of hitting or poking the puck into the goal, which makes sense and I have to suspect originates from the Irish verb puc.

I like the idea of the puck being mercurial enough to resemble the puck sprites who may skip in any random direction without advance warning. That’s certainly the way it behaved during the ice hockey final.

Until next time beware of the pooka, puck and puc. Happy reading, writing and wordfooling,


Connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, and LinkedIn or sign up for free e-mail updates from this blog in the top right-hand corner of the page.

The Eponyms Series – Guillotine


I always assumed that the inventor of the guillotine pronunciation here) must have been a Frenchman called Guillotine during the Revolution (1789-1799) and it would have been used on nobility only. Assumptions are dangerous things, however.

A blade beheading device invented by Dr. Antoine Louis, originally called a louisette, was used for the first time in 1792 to behead a highwayman called Pelletier. Its eventual name did come from another Frenchman – a humanitarian doctor called Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) who argued passionately for its introdution during a debate in the French Assembly in 1789. He said that it would be more humane than the current methods of capital punishment – hanging for commoners and beheading with a sword for nobility.

But the guillotine wasn’t unique to France. Similar devices were used in Scotland, England, Germany, and other European countries, usually for noble executions.

It also wasn’t confined to the ten blood-soaked years of the Revolution when between 17,000 and 40,000 died beneath its slanted blade. The last execution by guillotine in France was in 1977.

After Guillotin’s death his children tried to rename the device, without success, and were ultimately forced to change their own surname – a wisely-rejected eponymnous connection.

As a Frenchman carrying a long ladder once said to me in Paris – “Gardez lat tete. Il y aurez une revolution!” (mind your head, we’re going to have a revolution).

Interested in eponyms? I’ve written a book about nearly 300 of them and the lives of the fascinating people who gave their name to English. “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” is out now in Amazon paperback (USA and UK), and ebook for Kindle, iBooks, and on Kobo.

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


Illeism and Drawing Comfort from it


I fear I have succumbed to an illness this week. It’s called illeism (pronounced ille-ism). It comes from a Latin root and means to refer to yourself in the third person. We’ve all meet someone who does it. Some appear to think it makes them witty or more important.

I don’t suffer from this habit too often, but now and then it breaks out, when I have to compose a new writer’s biography (or bio) for myself. Before I did much writing, I’d naively assumed that writers had someone to do this job for them. They would sit down for a chat with this more lowly writer, tell them about their work and unusual hobbies, and then the lowly hack would compose something witty and complimentary about the author in the third person voice.

Now I understand, that the writer does this job for themselves when submitting a piece for publication. I have a large document on my computer containing hundreds of bios. I like to tweak them to reflect the target publication. If I write about parenting, I’ll mention my two children. If I’m writing about technology, I’ll include details of my computer qualifications and experience. Plus some publications like 50 word bios, others consider 150 to be the norm.

Anyhow, this week I had to craft a new one for a forthcoming collection of short fiction from Balbriggan Library Writers’ Group, and Jane, our organiser, asked me for 200-300 words. I’d become so used to 100 words or less, I struggled to create a longer bio and sought inspiration in my former bios. Which is when it hit me. Since 2001, when I began writing part-time, my bio has improved immeasurably. I’ve landed some great publication credits, spoken at literary festivals, won contests, self-published some of my non-fiction, written regular columns, been featured in numerous print anthologies, and just in the last few months won my editing stripes and mentored a region in NaNoWriMo. I remembered how hard it had been to write my first bio, struggling to make myself sound like an interesting writer and laughing at the illeism of writing about myself in the third person. Whereas nowadays that seems normal, and bios are just a tiny part of what I write in an average week.

Another highlight this week was receiving my copy of the latest anthology to feature my work, “A Cup for Comfort for a Better World”. I love getting a new book like this, reading the other entries, and finally popping it on my “Published Books” bookshelf in my study. This time, however, I was particularly proud of it as the personal essay I wrote for it concerns my late father-in-law, Tom and his inspirational volunteer work throughout his life. I’m very proud to be his daughter-in-law and I think he would have loved to have seen this book (although he would have been very modest about his own story in it).

Until next time, happy reading and writing, and watch out for slipping into illeism, unless you have a bio to write,