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Archive for the ‘word origin’ Category

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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Asgard II at Howth

Hello,

This week’s word is thanks to Terry Breverton’s excellent non-fiction tome “Nautical Curiosities” which I recently finished reading with a fistful of inspirations for my coastal novel series and for this blog. There may be a flood of nautical words on the horizon, you have been warned.

I’ll begin with gollywobbler because it’s such a ridiculous word. The gollywobbler is a “large square staysail hoisted between the masts of schooner in a reaching wind to increase speed”. As a motion-sickness-afflicted landlubber myself I scurried to the dictionary to understand that description. I’ll enlighten you as best I can.

A staysail is a fore and aft sail set on lines that run diagonally downward from a mast. These lines (what sailors call ropes) are called stays, hence the name. Unlike the square-rigged sails on a schooner, staylines are in line with the keel of the boat, i.e. at right angles to the rest of the sails. Thus, presumably, they catch wind from other directions and increase the ship’s speed. A reaching wind comes side-on to the boat and the staysails are perfectly positioned to use a reaching wind. Gollywobblers are still used on sailing boats today and there’s even a series of wines named after them.

The origin of gollywobbler is, sadly, unknown, but I imagine that running aloft to hoist one would have been a wobbly and rather terrifying task on the taller of the tall-ships. The gollywobbler is believed to have given rise to the expression “I have the collywobbles” which means to be afraid.

In other news this week, I’ve finished the major editing on my book about the fascinating people behind eponyms “How to Get Your Name into the Dictionary”. Now begins the the fine edits and work with the proof-reader and cover-designer. I’ll keep you posted on progress. If any of you review books, let me know in the comments or @Wordfoolery on twitter and I’ll send an ARC your way.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Lambing is in full swing

Hello,

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,

Grace

 

 

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Hello,

Today, in honour of International Women’s Day, I’m posting an extract from my forthcoming eponym book “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” about Marie Curie, an inspiring female scientist with a fascinating story.

The curie is a unit of radioactivity and it is named for Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934).

Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win it in two different sciences (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911). Only 5% of all Nobel Prizes awarded to date have been to women, with two of them in physics since 1901. She won her prize for physics jointly with her husband and Henri Becquerel. The committee originally intended to award it only to the two male scientists but one member told Pierre and he insisted his wife be recognised too.

She coined the term radioactivity, developed techniques to isolate radioactive isotopes, and discovered two elements – polonium and radium. She created and ran x-ray units in field hospitals in World War I. Her husband Pierre, also a scientist, dropped his own research on crystals to join her research which they conducted in a leaky shed on university grounds. They did not patent their discoveries which proved to be very valuable to industry.

Pierre died in 1906 in a traffic accident. Marie continued their work, becoming the first female professor at the University of Paris. She died many years later due to exposure to radium during her research and to x-rays during her field hospital work.

Curie studied at the clandestine flying university in Warsaw before working to fund her studies in Paris. The flying university was an educational establishment that didn’t agree with ruling policy at the time and had to meet in secret. They admitted female students and allowed the use of laboratory equipment which had been banned in schools following uprisings.

Curie’s papers, and even her cookbook, from the 1890s are so highly contaminated by radioactivity that they are stored in lead boxes and require specialist clothing to be viewed.

Curie is just one of many women to have contributed words to the dictionary. Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

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Hello,

After a relatively mild winter, the storms of spring recently landed here in Ireland. I’m lucky to be on the East coast (away from the wildest of the Atlantic winds and generally the worst of the weather) but Storm Doris still managed to pop out four of our garden fence panels and blasted trees, trampolines, roof-tiles, and electricity wires down around the village.

Anchors away

Anchors away

So when I read stories this week of windjammers in Breverton’s “Nautical Curiosities” I had to find out how they got their name. Terry Breverton tells me that “windjammer was a derogatory term among steamship crew for any square-rigged sailing ship”. Merriam-Webster adds that the term arose in the 1880s.

Windjammer is a collective name for various types of square-rigged sailing ships built in the late 1800s to carry large amounts of bulk cargo such as timber, grain, or ore, between continents using the prevailing winds. They’re not the same as the earlier sailing ships, the clippers, which carried less and traveled faster. Windjammers had between three and five masts and often circumnavigated the globe on their voyages.

The steamship crews didn’t need to mock the windjammers. Once steam was perfected the days of sail were, sadly, numbered. The steam ships could round Cape Horn (the tip of South America) in 1,000 miles but under sail it would take 1,500 miles. Heading east, with the winds, that would take a week. Heading west, against the winds, that could take two or even three weeks. In 1914 the Edward Sewall took 67 days, twice being blasted back to a position she’d already passed and finally covering 5,000 miles in the trip.

There are two stories about the origin of the word windjammer. The first, and most likely to be true, is that it came from English – the sails “jammed” the wind, i.e. blocked it, because there were so many of them.

The second while less likely to be correct, has a certain romance to it. The idea is that the word comes from Dutch and German verb jammern which means to wail and refers to the sound of strong winds blowing through all that rigging.

Happy wordfooling this week and if the winds pick up, jump on a windjammer,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve just joined Instagram. I’m posting photos of historic spots in Ireland (and on my travels). If your instagram passion is history – let me know and I’ll follow.

p.p.s. To readers in the UK and Ireland – Happy World Book Day on Thursday!

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Hello,

Today’s word is from Wordfoolery friend, Sheena, a crossword fiend who stumbled upon bosky when looking up umbrageous. That sentence sent me scurrying for my dictionary. Well played, S!

bosky jewels

yesterday’s bosky jewels

Umbrageous means “creating or providing shade”. You might have an umbrageous tree or tall friend. It can also describe somebody who is wont to take umbrage or offense. Your tall friend could be umbrageous in two senses.

Umbrageous entered English in the 1500s via French, originally from umbra, meaning “shade” in Latin, which does give a whole new authenticity to the recent expression of “throwing shade”. As someone who burns easily in the sunlight I wouldn’t take umbrage if someone threw shade at me.

This week’s word is actually bosky (pronunciation available here) because it sounds so quirky and I’d never happened upon it before. An area is described as bosky if it is covered by trees or bushes. Apparently in Middle English there were three ways to spell bush – bush, busk, and bosk. Busk is sometimes used in dialects, making me wonder if buskers originally serenaded passersby from a shrub. Bosk died out but not before giving us the root (pun intended) for the bosky adjective.

In spring, which is trying to surge in these parts, woodland flowers like snowdrops, crocus, and bluebells take advantage of the absent leaves in deciduous bosky areas to bloom without their umbrageous shade. Watch carefully when walking this week and you may be rewarded with glimpses of bosky jewels as I was yesterday.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Did you hear the news that Neil Gaiman is writing a sequel to “Neverwhere”? I’m smiling today.

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