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Archive for the ‘word origin’ Category

Hello,

The recent outcry about workplace harassment reminded me of the interesting history of the phrase “making a pass at somebody”. While the two things should be entirely different, of course, it’s undeniable that there’s now concern that making the first move romantically could cause trouble if either party is reading the signals wrong and this has been true with this phrase from the very beginning.

There are two possible sources for this phrase, both of them more military than romantic.

To make a pass in swordplay is to make a lunge or thrust and it’s used with this meaning in “Hamlet” in 1604.

This very likely entered military parlance from the high seas during the Age of Sail where making a pass wasn’t between two combatants but between warships according to “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald. The ships would make a side by side pass of each other to enable the captains to assess their gun-power. This would sometimes involve firing at the same time because the guns were primarily mounted in the sides of the ships. To fire a broadside, the ships had to be roughly parallel.

This nautical origin for the phrase isn’t listed in any of the dictionaries I checked but does seem reasonable. Sailors could easily have brought the term ashore to their notorious romantic lives when the mutual “checking out” was a precursor to a dalliance if acceptable to both parties.

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

Grace

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,000 words in NaNoWriMo. If you’re trying it this year I hope your story is flowing well.

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Hello,

This week’s word is a phrase, I hope you won’t mind. The expression “to handle with kid gloves” has an intriguing origin story and I couldn’t resist.

vintage white leather gloves

Kid gloves have nothing to do with children, well not human children. Kid is a soft white leather from the skins of goat kids popular among the wealthy from the 1700s. Sometimes they were made from lambskin.

Kid gloves are very thin so if you’re wearing them it is as if you are barely wearing any gloves at all. We’ve all had the sensation of wearing thick, bulky gloves and having to remove them to perform a delicate task. Here the idea is that even delicate tasks are possible while wearing kid gloves.

Kid gloves are also easily marked. If you handled an object roughly while wearing such a glove you would acquire stains on the glove, not a good thing. Equally if you’re wearing visibly white gloves then those around you can see you’re not adding any dirt or damage to whatever you’re handling. This is why servants wore white kid gloves to avoid smudging the silverware. Many believe curators do the same but there is evidence to suggest a clean, un-gloved hand may be best, depending on the artifact, and they only wear gloves on TV because they’re tired of complaint letters!

The phrase came to mean over-cautious in the 1840s but when it crossed the Atlantic from England in the late 1840s to North America it regained its early positive association with delicate handling of sensitive situations and people. By 1865 the well-mannered White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” carried a pair.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling with or without gloves,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve the first week of NaNoWriMo 2017 behind me now and 15,000 words of “Nit Roast & Other Stories” in the bag.

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Hello,

This week’s word is wrangler, thanks to this quotation I stumbled upon in “The Glass Shore” an anthology of short fiction by Northern Irish female writers – “The yokel was a wrangler of his year.” The character saying this was defending a middle class man from a snobbish member of the gentry but I must admit, I had only heard of a wrangler as a type of jeans or an animal handler in movie-speak, so what was she talking about?

Cambridge University in England is the source of the term. A wrangler there is a student who gains first class honours (the top mark) in the third year of their undergraduate mathematics degree. The highest ranking student within that category is the Senior Wrangler and is unofficially informed of this by a hat-tip when their name is read out. The rest are informed privately.

As the difficulty of the exams were universally acknowledged, being the senior wrangler became a highly sought-after honour and was used as short-hand for “very intelligent”. Some of the wranglers went on to high career success (for example Joan Clarke who helped crack the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park) while others missed the title but achieved excellence anyhow (e.g. Bertrand Russell). Wrangler is used in this way only at Cambridge University. Seek them at Oxford and you shall fail.

Unseen University Staff by Paul Kidby

Only one other university features a Senior Wrangler and that’s Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Unseen University in his Discworld books where the Senior Wrangler is a member of the faculty (and the football team) who is described as “a philosopher who looks like a horse”. As usual, Pratchett’s huge knowledge of the world, reminds us of this little known academic term and appropriately links it to animals as the more usual usage for wrangler is for an animal handler either on farms, ranches, or movie sets. It’s worth noting that Pratchett left school at 17 and although he was awarded ten honourary degrees, he didn’t receive one from Cambridge. I like to think he was the real Chancellor of the Unseen Uni.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (or word wrangling),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m running a contest on my twitter account (@Wordfoolery) to give away a 3 month bronze membership of Channillo.com. It enables new members of Chanillo to read up to ten series on the site, including mine, if you wish. First one out of the hat wins. Deadline midnight 31st October 2017.

Note: Discworld and Unseen University are trademarks

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Hello,

This week I’m taking a brief look at brevity which is a key tool in any writer’s toolbox. I once had a staff job for the Good Book Guide where I reviewed books in a short paragraph. It was vital training in how difficult it is to use one words when you could use ten. Mark Twain was right when he claimed “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

Anybody who writes flash fiction or haiku will be familiar with the difficulty of brevity. Shakespeare understood. He has Polonius, a notoriously wordy character in Hamlet, declare that “Brevity is the soul of wit”.

Brevity entered English in the late 1400s and means shortness in speech or writing. It arrived there from Latin where brevis means short or brief. Before England brevis travelled from Rome to France as brievete meaning brevity – although it looks more like a vet for brie cheese in my opinion. Unlike many words with hundreds of years of use, brevity moved between languages with little change and has retained its meaning to modern times.

Brevity is something I shall be avoiding next month as I dive into my annual NaNoWriMo adventure. The challenge is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days so excess words are encouraged. I’ll be mentoring the writers in my region (Ireland North East) as usual, running writing events, and writing my own novel too. I’ll let you know how it’s going. Are any of you taking the NaNo challenge this year?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

There’s only one possible word I could explore today – hurricane. It’s noon here on the east coast of Ireland and we’re due to experience ex-hurricane Ophelia this afternoon and evening. Although we love to complain about the weather in this country we’re lucky enough to have a temperate climate and while the rainfall helps our green fields we generally avoid hurricanes, earthquakes, twisters, and wildfires.

Hurricane Ophelia Over Ireland

That means that today’s Red Weather Alert is the the worst weather event in this country in 50 years. We’re expecting gusts of up to 150km per hour and 22,000 homes in the south of the country are already without power. I’ve spent my morning storm-proofing our garden and gathering items like torches, batteries, camping cookers, and filling our water containers. My children’s schools are closed and they’re fretting about losing our wifi! Others are more laid-back. Two of my neighbours haven’t even removed the nets from their garden trampolines. Those will act as sails this afternoon, worrying.

Hurricane entered the English language in the 1500s from the Spanish word huracán. The Spanish were busy in the Caribbean at that time thanks to the golden age of sail. Huracán came from the Taino language where Hurakán was their god of evil. The Taino people were indigenous to the Caribbean and Florida. They borrowed the word from the Mayans who used it to name their god of wind, storm, and fire. Hurricane isn’t the only weather word we took from Spanish sources. They also gave us tornado which comes from tronado (thunderstorm) and tornar (to turn).

The god Hurakán sounds like a lovely chap. This one-legged creator god is sometimes depicted with a second serpent-like limb. According to legend he lived in the mists above the waters and by repeating the word “earth” he caused the land to arise. Unfortunately the humans angered the gods and he was equally happy to send a deluge to wash them away. The cycle of creation and eradication happened three times. He even sent a plague of dogs and turkeys at one point.

I am hoping we won’t have swarms of turkeys later today, but anything is possible. If you’re in Ireland, I hope you and yours are safe through this.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (by torchlight!),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

Did you know that despite democracy coming from ancient Greece, the word ballot comes from Italy?

Ballot (pronunciation here) has a multitude of uses in modern English as both noun and verb but all are related to voting.

Early American ballot box with ballottas used by a social club called The Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia (source Wikipedia)

Ballot began life in Venice, probably with the Italian word pallotte which means “little ball” because they used small balls as counters in secret votes. The word gradually changed to ballotta and transferred to Middle French as ballotte and finally to English by the 1540s as ballot.

Before it even reached English the balls had been replaced in most cases by small slips of paper but balls were still used in certain contexts. One such context is where a club’s rules say that even one nay-vote is sufficient to defeat a proposal. A nay is indicated by a black ball and an aye is indicated by a white ball. Using a ballot box such as the one above (combined with a covering cloth) enabled all to vote and the result to be see instantly. This practice led to the idea of black-balling, typically to exclude a possible new member who didn’t fit the existing ethos of the club.

Curiosity led me to the website for the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia. They’re still going strong and if you’re over 40 and a long standing resident of the area you can apply to join. They still vote on memberships but they don’t mention the balloting method.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ll be attending the V by Very Irish Blog Awards in Dublin this week as Wordfoolery made the finals. If you’re there too be sure to say hello. I’ll be the one in the Sherlock hat.

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Hello,

This week’s word is hippomonstrosesquippedaliophilia and it is a suggestion from blog-reader, Sheena, thank you!

Beware of the Hippos 🙂

Sadly hippomonstrosesquippedaliophilia isn’t in any of the mainstream dictionaries to which I have access. It appears to be a recently coined word from sesquipedalian (pronunciation here). So what does sesquipedalian mean then? It’s the word to describe long, multi-syllabic words and is, itself, sesquipedalian. The word can also describe someone who delights in using long words where perhaps a shorter one would do. The adjective is sesquipedalian and one of these words is a sesquipedalia, the singular noun.

Where does that get us with the hippos (beserk or otherwise)?

If you are afraid of long words you suffer from a related word, hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, and you might enjoy the Long Word Song on You Tube (plug in headphones first if you’re at work).

Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia features in some modern dictionaries like Urban Dictionary and Wordnik but without an explanation of its word roots. It’s even a hashtag on Twitter which is brave as it contains 32 of the maximum 140 characters in a tweet. However a bit of word dissection is a fun activity on a Monday so here goes. Hippomonstros means very large. Sesquipedalio comes from the afore-mentioned sesquipedalian adjective to describe very long words and phobia as everybody knows means fear (from the Greek word Phobos who was the son of Ares, the god of war). Hence we get fear of very, very, very large words. It’s fun fake-Latin and hey, how many 32 letter words do you know?

The original word suggestion, hippomonstrosesquippedaliophilia, is a simple twist that adds philia (love) rather than phobia (fear) as a suffix and gives us the love of very, very, very long words. It may not be an official word, but it has 32 letters too and I like it. How about you?

Before I sign off, I’d like to welcome the 400th subscriber to Wordfoolery. I hope you suggest a word for me to explore (via the comments or the Nominate a Word page). I’m proud to announce that Wordfoolery has made it to the finals of the V by Very Irish Blog Awards 2017 in both the Arts & Culture and Books & Literature categories. I’m delighted and am looking forward to attending the awards ceremony.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I dare you to use the #Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia tag on Twitter!

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