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Archive for the ‘word origin’ Category

Hello,

This week’s word is curfew thanks to my son’s history book.

Curfew entered English during the Middle Ages and it originated in French. The phrase “couvre feu” means “cover fire” and it evolved into the Middle English word curfue, and later to curfew.

At the time the majority of buildings in villages and towns were built of wood, the exceptions being churches and the lord’s manor house or castle. The gaps between buildings were narrow so if a fire caught hold you could easily have half the town burned to a cinder before the bucket line got into gear.

One way to lessen this danger was to limit the times when people could have an active fire in their hearth. The church bell rang around sunset to indicate curfeu, time to cover over (bank) your fire for the night. The town bailiff would enforce the rule by taking a stroll around town, which I suspect may have led to the phrase “no smoke without fire”.

The idea of curfew being a time at which you must return to your dwelling didn’t arise until the 1800s and is now mostly associated with teenagers and the declaration of martial law.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

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,

Grace

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Hello,

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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Hello,

Today’s phrase is gung ho which means eager or overzealous enthusiasm. To my ears it sounds Asian in origin but actually this phrase was given to the English language by the American military.

Gung ho entered English during World War II. General Evans Carlson of the U.S. marines was impressed with the name and work ethic of the Chinese industrial co-operatives which had been co-founded by a New Zealander friend of his – kung hou – which translates as “work together in harmony”.

He explained the idea to his soldiers – one group of workers all dedicated to one objective. He held gung ho meetings to explain orders and overcome issues with little regard for traditional rank and hierarchy. The phrase caught on first in his own command and later spread throughout the marines and entered general parlance.

Gung ho gained a high profile when it was used as the title of a 1943 box-office hit film starring Randolph Scott about Carlson’s battalion’s innovative commando-style attack on Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean in 1942.

Until next week happy reading, writing, and gung ho wordfooling,

Grace (aka @Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

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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Hello,

This week’s word is whiffler, a suggestion from Cliodna Johnston, and it’s a good one. Whiffler has two meanings, one historic and one that’s in current use. I’ll start with the modern term.

A modern whiffler is someone who changes their opinions and attitudes easily, especially during an argument or discussion. You can’t pin down a whiffler. They will ease themselves away from you with a quick twist of their beliefs. I suspect we’ve all met someone like this in our lives. Now at least we know what to call them, apart from other more abrasive terms not suitable for polite society.

Whiffler dates back to 1500s Middle English. Its origins lie in the Old English word wifel which meant battle-axe and probably came from German originally. If you’re feeling brave/suicidal you can point this out to your wife the next time you dare to call her “the old battle-axe”. Wifel transmuted into wifle in Middle English and thence to wiffler by 1530 when it meant an armed attendant.

The wiffler carried arms, perhaps a battle-axe, and sometimes a torch to clear the way for a procession. Then wealthy members of society adopted the idea of having their own whiffler to push a way for them through busy streets, a shoving bodyguard if you will.

I can’t help remembering a scene in “The Princess Bride” when Inigo Montoya is desperate to get through a crowd and calls on his giant friend Fezzick to clear the way. “Everybody move!” he booms and sure enough, everybody moves. Fezzick’s whiffling skills were impeccable. He didn’t even need a battle-axe.

Any parent who’s tried to move a child’s pram through a crowd will sympathise. Any city dweller caught behind a group of gawping tourists when rushing to an appointment will recognise the emotions. Yes, we all need a whiffler sometimes. I think they could make a come-back. What do you think?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I can still hear the gentle but firm tones of my English teacher explaining that an oxymoron is “an apparent contradiction in terms”. It’s a compressed paradox, used for dramatic effect.

Examples make it clearer – open secret, alone together, plastic glasses, virtual reality, the living dead, and exact estimate. That last one is a favourite of mechanics and plumbers in my experience. Many of these phrases are in common use and are accepted until you really think about their meaning. They serve a useful purpose in writing, underlining the incongruities of life.

What I hadn’t realised until recently is that oxymoron itself is an oxymoron. It entered English in the 1600s directly from Greek. The Greek term translates as “pointed foolishness” (something I try to deploy here on Wordfoolery) but if you look at the constituent parts of the word it becomes clearer. Oxys means sharp or pointed but moros means stupid (it also gives us moron). A sharp moron is not somebody you met everyday.

I also didn’t know that the plural of oxymoron is oxymora – that’s one for the next trivia quiz, or to impress English teachers.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

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