Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘word origin’ Category

Hello,

This week’s words are varmints and vermin. I can’t say the word varmint without imagining a grizzled Wild West prospector, possibly missing a tooth, or two. I was curious, is varmint an uniquely American word for describing both animal pests and rascals of the two-legged variety?

Too friendly a mouse to be vermin

Sadly the pronunciation of varmint (available here) is not provided by that curmudgeonly character and varmint pre-dates the American frontier. It comes from Middle English, was used as early as 1539, and is a variant of vermin with what’s called a “parasitic t”. I don’t relish the notion of letters attaching themselves like leeches to other words, although it would explain the spelling of pneumonia.

Despite its source in Middle English varmint is now listed in both Oxford and Collins dictionaries as being informal North American slang. Its use for animal pests came first. The secondary meaning of a troublesome person arrived in the 1700s.

Rats made of shells in the French Vendee region

Vermin’s use for such trouble-makers has earlier roots. By the 1560s if you referred to the farmer next door as vermin, everybody would have understood. This isn’t surprising as vermin is the older word. The Latin for worm is vermis. This became the collective noun verminum in vulgar Latin and referred to all sorts of pests – insects and possibly reptiles included. Old French seized on it as vermin and referred to difficult creatures such as moths. worms, and mites. By 1300 the Normans had brought it with them to England in Anglo-French. Every language, it seems, requires a term for varmints.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling, hopefully without varmints,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Hello,

This week’s word is influenza. Thankfully my family have avoided this year’s virus to date but the news is warning us to be careful. The schools are spreading the word on good anti-flu hygiene, our church has cancelled certain activities to limit contagion, and I know people with suppressed immune systems who are living a hermit existence to avoid it. Influenza is no joke and the strain this year is hardest on youngsters under the age of 15. I’m watching my offspring closely.

Ready to Flight the Flu

Influenza is an Italian gift to the English language. It was used in Italian to describe diseases from the 1500s but not always for the flu. Scarlet fever, for example, was seen as an influenza. The word had roots in influence. The influence in this case was an occult one. The stars and planets in the sky were blamed for invisibly creating such fevers in humans as early as medieval Latin and the word influentia which meant “flowing in” and is related to fluent speech or being under the influence of drink.

Then in 1743 an influenza outbreak began in Italy and the word made it to English shores.

It’s not hard to see why a society unaware of viruses might look to the stars for an explanation of a disease which appeared from nowhere. It surprised me to discover the virus was only discovered in pigs in 1931 by Richard Shope.

Until next time healthy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. my writing plans for 2018 include – publishing “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” (inspired by this blog), completing serial publication of “Hamster Stew & Other Stories” and launching the sequel “Nit Roast & Other Stories”, revision & submission of “Red Sails” (my middle grade book), ongoing blogging, column-writing, articles and, of course, my annual NaNoWriMo adventure. How about you – any cool plans for this year?

Read Full Post »

Hello & Happy New Year,

This week’s word is thanks to my friend Deirdre who mentioned its murky ambiguity when we were hiking last weekend. Fulsome, it transpires, has two, contradictory meanings.

My much-used 1984 Collins English Dictionary simply refers readers from fulsome (pronunciation here) to the definition for full, but the history of this word is far from simple.

Merriam-Webster explains this word, whose first use was in the 1300s, was originally a Middle English version of itself – fulsom coming directly from compounding the words full and some. However its meaning wasn’t the same then. Back then fulsome meant cloying or over the top. Interestingly the OED claims the word dates to 1250 and meant abundant originally so the confusion may go “way back”.

The effusive meaning persisted but the idea of fulsome as abundant gained ground through the 1600s, leaving wordsmiths in a quandary. By the 1800s the positive sense died away and even left dictionaries but by the 1900s the positive sense overtook the negative, leaving the dictionaries wrong-footed.

A fulsome huggle of teds

In modern use fulsome can again, go either way. If the head of state gives fulsome praise or a fulsome apology to a politician, it’s now almost impossible to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing. Best advice? Steer clear of fulsome until the meaning settles because using it is bound to cause confusion.

Until next time I wish you a fulsome January,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Read Full Post »

Hello,

This week’s word is cohort (pronunciation here), which I came across in “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald.

A cohort is a Roman military term. You might remember a legion, it contained 600 soldiers. Each legion was sub-divided into cohorts of 60 infantry men each. They were a self-contained company, which makes sense as the original Latin referred to enclosure.

Roman Helmets

Cohort arrived in English in the 1400s with the meaning of being self-contained and it came to mean a walled court, garden, yard, or enclosure. It also retained the meaning of a group of companions which has persisted to modern English.

The hort element of the word, which has Latin roots as hortus or garden, went on to be part of horticulture. Perhaps the idea was that a garden is a way of enclosing part of nature. I love the notion of Roman infantry sharing linguistic roots with the flowers of a walled garden.

Enclosed medieval garden (Bloom 2016)

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I got that damaged thumb of mine checked out – I’ve torn ligaments apparently so my blog posts will be shorter than usual for the next 6 weeks.

Read Full Post »

Hello,

This week I’m taking a brief look at a word the Germans gave us – poltergeist (pronunciation here). It’s compounded from two sources – poltern, the German verb to knock and geist which means spirit.

Thanks to horror movies galore you’re probably familiar with poltergeists moving objects, odd odours, and strange noises – quite literally things that go bump in the night, often targeting one particular living person or place. The idea is common across many cultures and are often explained by gusts of wind, earth tremors, and animal pests.

Reports of poltergeist activities date back to the 1500s but the word only entered English in 1838, probably aided by the upsurge in interest in all things occult thanks to the spiritualist movement. In German the term translates as a “rumble ghost”.

The word poltergeist appears regularly in the many writing of Martin Luther who famously started the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church in Europe. He may even have coined the word.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will be confused to hear that according to the Online Etymology Dictionary a poltergeist would be a boggart in Northern English dialect. I’m fairly sure a prank-playing poltergeist like Peeves is pretty different to the shape-changing boggart featured in the stories. They might even find it faintly ridukulus (pun intended).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Keep a close eye out for the poltergeists,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

Read Full Post »

Hello,

The word thumb has been on my mind this week as I sprained mine at the weekend – not via excessive texting but by putting too much weight on it during a rock scramble on a mountain hike in Kerry. As a result I’m typing very carefully today with a swollen thumb.

Teermoyle Mountain, Kerry

Thumb fascinates me as a word because it’s so different to the word finger. Does the lack of a joint really make it so different? One thing I can vouch for this week is a) a swollen thumb is no joke and b) thumbs are really important in human evolution for a reason – they’re vital.

The word thumb has ancient roots in the Indo-European base language where tum meant swell (very appropriate for this week). By the time it reached the prehistoric West Germanic it had become thûmon. From there we get daumen (German),  duim (Dutch), and thumbe in Middle English. This was pronounced as two syllables, thum-be, but over time the second half became silent and we ended up with thumb in English.

Thumb in other European languages has Latin roots instead. Italian pollice and French pouce come from Latin pollex which means strong rather than swollen.

I assume the idea is the thumb looks like a swollen finger. Interestingly the words tumour and tumult have the same root. Phrases involving the thumb are pretty ancient too. We have rule of thumb where it’s a rough approximation of an inch from the 1500s and to be under the thumb was known since the 1580s.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. mercifully I passed the finish line on NaNoWriMo 2017 before I hurt my thumb, but I’m still mentoring my region.

 

Read Full Post »

Hello,

This week’s word is courtesy of Linda Keller in my local knitting & crochet group. I’ve been crocheting for thirty years and she surprised me with a yarn term last week I’d never encountered before – nepp (pronunciation here). As I was crafting a scarf with the yarn in question, I decided to investigate.

Neppy yarn – Northern Lights by James C Brett

A nepp yarn is one which has tiny flecks of a contrasting colour twisted into the fibre during the spinning process. This technique is particularly popular in tweed style textiles. Technically a nepp yarn creates a nub or knot by tightly twisting an effect fibre around the base fibre, typically in a different colour. I hadn’t heard of a nub either, except in the idea of “getting to the nub of an issue” which I presume refers to exploring a knotty topic until you uncover the final core tangle.

Some US dictionaries contain neppy as an adjective to describe fabric containing neps (note the single p) but if you check out nep you’ll stumble into New Economic Policy which doesn’t help us. Nepps can be regarded as flaws in a fabric such as denim but most yarn-crafters would see the little flecks as decorative rather than defective.

Be careful to avoid neppy confusion with nap. Nap refers to the plush pile on fabrics like velvet and moleskin.

As for word origin, nepp’s history is a knotty problem. I did find it in German, however, where it refers to a rip-off or highway robbery so perhaps the idea of nepps indicating poor quality comes from Germany. My own neppy yarn looks great, so I don’t think I was a victim of highway robbery when I bought it last week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. NaNoWriMo Update – I made it to 40,132 words today and hope to pass the 50,000 word finish line by the end of the week. I’m participating in the All Ireland Word War (a friendly team writing event) so I’ll push on with “Nit Roast & Other Stories” until the end of November. As usual, I’ll need to invest more time in finishing my story after NaNo is complete.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »