Category Archives: word origin

Finding Your Niche

Hello,

I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”

Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?

Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.

With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!

The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.

Can a rubber ducky’s nest or niche be said to be a bathtub?

As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.

Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.

Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).

So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

p.p.s. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.

Why Sultry Should Return to our Weather Forecasts

Hello,

This week’s word is sultry. I wish I could say it’s because the weather here has been sultry, but sadly that hasn’t been the case – plenty of rain showers in my part of the world. However we’re hoping to explore the coast of West Cork soon and I may stumble on some sultriness then.

I’ll admit, I thought sultry only applied to femmes fatale  in 1940 film noir movies, but no, it started in the weather forecasts and I’m convinced we need to revive its use there. A forecast would be much more fun if the map had sultry listed beside it instead of humid.

Dreamy clouds at sunset on a sultry day, Wexford harbour, Ireland

Sultry arrived in English in the late 1500s to describe humid, hot, moist weather. It came from an even earlier word, swelter, which described people who fainted with heat in the 1400s. Swelter had Old English roots in sweltan (to die) which shared roots with similar word in Old Saxon (sweltan) and Old Norse (svelta) which also described dying or being put to death. It is possible that these were linked to the idea of burning up with fevers. In a world without many treatments for infections, the heat of a fever was often fatal and terrifying for victims.

This makes me think that describing weather as sultry wasn’t a positive thing. Those early English speakers weren’t fond of overly hot weather. It wasn’t until the 1700s that sultry adopted a new meaning – the idea of heated lust and it was the 1940s (as I’d assumed) when sultry was first used to describe sensual, attractive women.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. The low-key ebook launch of “Words The Sea Gave Us” is clicking away in the background while we try to correct the printing glitch with the paperback. I’ll let you know as soon as that’s fixed. However two lovely things happened this week in the meantime. 1) several etymology/nautical experts I’d approached for support said yes (one really surprised me, but I’m keeping it secret for the moment) and 2) I spotted that the ebook is listed as Number One in the Ship History category on Amazon.com – I’m incredibly pleased with that.

Check it out – number one in Ship History!

The Nautical Roots of Hot Pursuit

Hello,

For me the phrase “hot pursuit” is associated with crazy car chases, so I was surprised during the writing of “Words The Sea Gave Us” to discover it has nautical roots.

The perfect car for a hot pursuit

Hot Pursuit {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney}

To be in hot pursuit of something is to make every effort to catch it. It’s commonly applied to road chases of criminals by the police, but the phrase started on the seas.

In the 1400s pursuit on the ocean blue came in two temperatures – hot or cold. Cold pursuit (or cold chase) was a ship hunting down another in international waters but without seeing the pursued ship. The hot pursuit was the same chase but this time with a quarry ship in sight.

Although not written into law, it was common custom that in such cases the pursuing ship could follow its prey into a country’s own waters to finish the job. Hot pursuit was only allowed if the chase could be proven to have begun in international waters and open seas. Otherwise it was a hostile act against that country.

{end of extract}

Cold pursuit has fallen by the wayside, but hot pursuit retained a similar meaning in car chases once the phrase moved ashore. The pursuing car can see its prey ahead, perhaps aided by helicopter support.

Unfortunately today I’m in cold pursuit of a new book launch date for “Words The Sea Gave Us”. As planned, the ebook editions for Kindle, Kobo, and Apple Books went live this morning and I’ve already had some lovely feedback from readers who pre-ordered their copies, but the paperback launch which was supposed to happen today hit a very unexpected last minute snag with the printers and the earliest it will be resolved is the 24th of July. Rather than confuse people I’m pausing the paperback launch until I can be 100% sure of it. I’ll announce the new launch day here as soon as I have it. I’ve also devised a way to get signed paperback copies to those who’d like them – watch this space.

Sincere apologies to anybody who was waiting to buy the paperback. Trust me, you’re not half as disappointed as I am.

In good news, however, I’ve been delighted with the response to advance review copies and hope to announce some fun Wordfoolery events here soon, including my first ever podcast appearance!

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Over a Barrel

Hello,

With only one week left of pre-ordering on my new book “Words The Sea Gave Us” I’m getting excited about launch day (13th July). This week’s word is the phrase “over a barrel” and it’s a nautical phrase with two possible shipboard roots.

Over a Barrel {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2020}

To have somebody over a barrel is to have the upper hand as they are rendered helpless.

There are two excellent reasons to put somebody over a barrel in a seafaring context. Either could be the source of this phrase which only entered printed English in 1938, but may have been around earlier.

The first option is to stretch a naughty sailor over the barrel before bringing out the cat o’ nine tails (see the Tight Ship chapter).

The second, more likely and equally helpless option, is the common method of reviving somebody who’d nearly drowned. The unfortunate soul was placed face down over the barrel which was then rolled back and forth vigorously to drain the seawater from their lungs and hopefully jolt them back into breathing. It’s unknown how often the over the barrel idea succeeded.

Barrel, despite being a very common item for centuries, has unknown origins. It was present by the 1300s in several European languages in various spellings, but the source hasn’t been found although barriclus in Medieval Latin is a good candidate.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

The History of the Word Barber and their Poles

Hello,

Today, if you live in Ireland, you can once again get your hair cut. As I write, the menfolk of my household are making the trip, through rain and wind, to resume their pre-virus hairstyles. It’s been a hard three months for those who like a neat trim.

Beard growing became a staying-at-home hobby for some.

For the day that’s in it I’ve decided to explore the word history of barber – a word the Romans gave us, with a little help from those fashionable French. If you’ve stumbled on this post looking for barbarians and barbarous, you can read more about their roots (pun intended) in my earlier post, or take a look at the barbaric yawp.

Despite the many shaggy hairstyles sported in historic sculptures, tapestries, and portraits, barbers have been part of life for longer than you might guess. Barber entered the English language around 1300 from the Anglo-French word barbour. It came from Old French barbeor (or barbieor, spelling was fluid back then) and ultimately from the Latin word barba (beard) which also gives us the word barb (as on an arrow or other weapons).

Barbers were early practitioners of the portfolio career concept. As somebody with access to cutting implements they often performed minor surgeries as well as hair-cuts and shaves. By the time of King Henry VIII of England they were limited to hair-cutting, blood-letting, and dentistry – hopefully not all at the same time.

The red and white striped barber’s pole used to identify their shop dates back the late 1600s and was a visual reminder of somebody’s arm, wrapped in a white bandage, after a blood-letting procedure. The pole itself was meant to represent the stick the patient would squeeze to make their veins stand out and make the cutting easier.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Don’t forget “Words The Sea Gave Us” is now available for digital pre-orders. If you’d like a review copy – drop me a comment below. I’m planning a blog tour too – if you’d like me to guest post / be interviewed on your blog – let me know.

p.p.s. CampNaNo runs in April and July each year and I’ll be taking part again this July – aiming for another 30,000 words of my serialised novel “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Between camp and my book launch, it’s going to be a very busy July!

 

 

Cover Reveal of “Words The Sea Gave Us”

Hello,

Today pre-orders open on my new word history book – “Words The Sea Gave Us” (Amazon Kindle edition link) – and I’m very happy to reveal the cover here on the blog that inspired the book series. Drum roll please…

What do you think? It’s been designed by Peter Sheehan again and I absolutely love it. My hope is that each of the Words books will be in a different colour so a shelf of them will look stunning. All I have to do is write a few more them, gulp.

What’s it about?

“Words The Sea Gave Us” is a light-hearted look at the words the English dictionary borrowed from the sea. From baggywinkle and gollywobbler to tempest and flotsam, the sea in all her moods has given a boatload of words to the English language throughout history. This book explores their origins along with a cargo of old sailor’s yarns. Cast your line for the salty history of skyscraper, mollgogger, strike, cyber, and phrases like getting hitched, red herring, hot pursuit, and taking them down a peg.

More than 370 words and phrases are featured from “above board” to yardarm – drawn from parts of a ship, sail names, crew titles, surfer slang, marine monsters, nautical navigation, flying the flag, and of course, how to talk like a scurvy pirate. Throw in some sea fables, fashions, and weather and you’re ready to set sail. Previous nautical experience not required.

The book is ideal for word geeks, sailors, and beachcombers.

What’s a pre-order?

The idea is that you order a copy of the ebook edition (for a paperback and library editions you’ll have to wait until Launch Day, the 13th of July) and it’s delivered to your ebook reader on launch day. The book is currently available to pre-order on kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo. Apparently pre-ordering books helps their sales ranking. I just like having books pop up on my ebook app.

Do You Review Books? Are Open to Guest posts on your Blog?

If so, please get in touch (@Wordfoolery on Twitter is easiest, or comment below). I discovered when promoting my first word book (“How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” – all about eponyms and the amazing people who gave them to the English language) that it is really tricky to get non-fiction books reviewed so if you do it, or you know somebody, let me know. I can provide review copies. Even just a sentence or two on Amazon can really help – don’t feel you have to write a massive book report!

When Will the Book Launch?

13th of July 2020. I can’t wait. Watch this space for details. The launch will be entirely online so you can all join in.

Would you like Free Sample?

Firstly, there’s a new page on the blog here – Downloads. I’ve created a free nautical download, called Various Vessels, all about ship names for those who don’t know their ketch from their dhow. Here’s also a little snippet from the book, a preview before launch day.

Junk (extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney copyright 2020)

A junk is a flat bottomed sailing boat from the Far East. She has no keel, a high stern, and her rudder can be raised or lowered. The two or three masts carry battened square sails which used to be made from bamboo, rattan, or woven grass. Easy to steer and good at sea, the junk was the vessel of choice for Far Eastern pirates for centuries.

The word junk for this type of ship entered English in the late 1500s from the Portuguese word junco, but originally from the Malay word jong or djong (large boat).

The word junk which is now used to describe rubbish also comes from the sea, but not from the eastern sailing ship. Junk entered English spelled as junke in the 1300s to describe the oddments of rope which were used to caulk gaps in the boat’s planking. That type of junk came from Old French junc (rush or reed) for something of little value and originally from Latin iuncus (reed).

By the 1660s junk described refuse from boats and by 1884 it referred to rubbish of any kind, but usually with an implication of being re-used later. The original junk shop was actually called a marine shop in 1800, a place for selling items discarded from a ship. This later gave us junk art (1961), junk food (1971), and a surprisingly early dictionary entry for junk mail (1954).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

p.p.s. “Words the Sea Gave Us” is my most recent book, but you’ll find details of all my books (nonfiction and serialised novels) and where to read them on the Books Page.

Snoofing

Hello,

This week’s word is snoofing, a word I found on a train in 2017.

I was about to say I couldn’t recall the last time I was on a train, but I can. It was six months ago. I used to commute daily by train and as offspring of non-driving, city-living parents I grew up exploring my city via public transport, but now it’s a rare pleasure for me to travel via train, nearly always for meeting friends or enjoying city pursuits like theatre, museums, etc. With such events currently limited I have no idea when I will next take the train and today I’m missing that experience. Where better to enjoy the passing view, eavesdrop for dialogue inspiration, or to read my book?

Snoofing is a waste of such luxuries in my opinion. Snoofing is an invented word (spotted on a fun poster on an Irish Rail train in 2017) combining spoofing (faking, coined in the late 1800s) and snoozing to give us a term for pretending to be asleep in order to avoid conversation or being obliged to give up your seat to somebody more worthy on public transport. The classic pose is that of a cowboy with his stetson pulled down over his eyes, but appearing to be visually glued to your telephone screen is a more common one in my experience. I commuted through both of my pregnancies and sadly snoofing was widespread. I sat on the floor when I had to, but getting up again when you’re carrying a baby-bump is tricky.

If you spot somebody snoofing the best approach is direct. A polite interruption and explanation of your need for a seat usually shames them into yielding their position, if you can be brave enough to take this path.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Brannock Device – One Two, Buckle My Shoe

Hello,

I love when one of my predictions comes true. Today is the first day here in Ireland of shops re-opening. Yes, we had groceries and pharmacies, but this is the day you can pop in for a spool of thread, a new book, or a bunch of flowers – the little things that are fun to buy, but not, as we had presumed, essential.

I’ve been saying for some time that the first shop which would logically be required would be footwear for children. They can manage on hand-me-down clothes from older siblings but growing children need new shoes more regularly than most parents like. Sure enough, queues are already forming at shoe-shops in the city centre. I suspect a few keen walkers and runners need new shoes too after all the daily exercise loops, too.

Once upon a time, long before this blog, I worked part-time in a busy shoe shop (Saxone’s on Henry Street, long closed now). We dreaded two times of the year in particular. The wide-eyed frenzy of Christmas Eve last-minute purchasers and the equally scary Back To School weeks when we would wrangle recalcitrant small feet into the foot measure and then find an appropriate pair of shoes to match. The child always wanted something shiny and expensive while the parents wanted a sensible shoe with growing room. Compromise was tricky, especially in a small space crowded with families on full volume.

Today I’m pitying the staff in the re-opening shoe shops who are now trying to use the foot measure with masks, gloves, and perspex screens. Small children can be anxious about this process and the new work-wear won’t be helping matters. Nor will the long queues.

It was only recently that I discovered the name of the foot measure, in a facebook post riddled with typos, the brannock device. It was patented in 1925 by a young American inventor, Charles F. Brannock. It’s a graduated metal foot plate with sliding toe stop, heel cup, and usually a strap to hold wriggling feet in place. Charles spent the rest of his 89 years making and selling these industry standard devices which are still made in New York today and exported worldwide.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Binkying Bunnies

Hello,

Happy June everybody. The sun is shining here and the birds chirping so this week’s word is a happy one – binkying. I came across it in “The Simple Things” magazine which is one of those rare things – a magazine without celebrity gossip or makeup tips. Instead they focus on unusual people, foraging, the outdoors, and simple things to add joy to your life.

Perhaps you know binky, but it was new to me. Binkying is a big twisty hop rabbits do when they’re happy. Humans don’t often jump for joy much beyond the age of ten, but apparently rabbits never lost the trick. Binky is also an informal term for a soft toy or blanket that a small child loves and sleeps with.

Piegon and Buttercup tucked up in bed, tired from binkying

The word history for binky is murky at best. First record of usage appears to be 1935 but origin is given as a Binky, a rabbit character in “Life is Hell” a comic book series by Matt Groening in 1977. Yes, Matt went on to create “The Simpsons”.

American readers will probably also know binky as a brand of baby soother/pacifier and a trademark since 1935 in the U.S.A.. Keen readers of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld fantasy novels will also know that Death’s horse in the series was called Binky.

Word Detective adds that binky pre-dates the trademark as a term for a small item in 1912 and one of the commenters there adds the gem that in Edwardian England the names given to as yet unnamed girl babies was Bunty and for boy babies it was Binky.

The trail for the origin of binky wanders through both baby and bunny history without reaching a true conclusion, but I’d be betting the rabbits got there first. All I know for sure is that if I ever get a pet rabbit it will be either Bunty or Binky.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Doxxing

Hello,

I’m extending an extra welcome to the new readers who joined wordfoolery this week, feel free to join in on the comments. This week’s word is doxxing. It’s been on my “to write about” list for a while now so I’m unsure where I came across it, but I know I originally thought it had to be an old Dublin insult, akin to pox bottle.

Security is key

Doxxing is negative, but not in that way. It’s a pretty recent word, with earliest usage being 2009, although the practice probably dates back to the 1990s. It is defined (in Merriam Webster) as “to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge”. The etymology is simple – it’s a contraction of document dropping where the plural docs is pronounced dox.

Document itself comes from Latin originally – the verb docere meaning to teach or show.

Doxxing is unpleasant for the victim in all cases but can be highly dangerous, as when the home addresses of police officers are revealed, for example. High profile victims of doxxing have included Beyoncé and Hilary Clinton. Surprisingly the unearthing and publishing of tax numbers, private phone numbers, and details about offspring is often legal. The use of the information once it is out “in the wild” online is much more dubious.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)