Category Archives: word origin

Burning Bones – the Word History of Bonfires

Hello,

There’s something about the darkening evenings and falling leaves (at least in the northern part of the planet we call home) that makes me want to light a fire. There’s a joke “once a scout, always a pyromaniac” and it’s funny because it’s true. The ability to make fire with a flint and steel is one skill I’m proud to hold and keen to use at this time of year. If the weather co-operates on Halloween I’ll be lighting our garden fire-pit for a mini bonfire, as gatherings for large community bonfires are unwise this year.

The source of the word is suitably gruesome for this time of year when tradition holds that the veil between the world of the living and the dead is whisper thin. The bon in bonfire isn’t from the French word for good (no matter what the wonderful Dr Johnson thought), it’s from bone. The original bonfires were fires for burning bones.

Bonfire entered Middle English as banefire in the late 1400s but was defined early on as being for the burning of bones. Christopher Fowler, who pens the wonderful Byrant and May detective series and has a passion for London history, elaborates on bonfires in his novel “The Burning Man”. He reckons it started in Denmark when the bodies of the losing side would be piled up and burned in celebration by the victors. An alternative he provides is the story of Edward Bonner, the Bishop of London in Tudor times. In 1555, on his orders over 300 English men and women were burned at the stake for their faith and the fires became known as Bon’s fires as a result.

Sadly the burning of people for their faith was commonplace in those times and both sides did it. In the town of Lewes in Sussex there are bonfire societies who burn effigies to commemorate the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs by Catholics during Mary Tudor’s reign and of course burning a dummy of Guy Fawkes is popular on November 5th in the UK which again comes back to religious strife.

Here in Ireland we skip the 5th of November and save our bonfires for two specific dates – Halloween and St John’s Eve (the 23rd of June). The second of those was news to me as a Dublin girl but is a tradition in full swing in the west of the country. You can read more about it here. We’ve always liked a good fire in Ireland. Saint Patrick tapped into that by lighting a Pascal (Easter) fire on the hill of Slane, not too far from where I live, and in clear sight of the hill of Tara – seat of the pre-Christian king of Ireland.

The roots of the bonfire almost certainly reach back into Ireland’s pre-Christian past, but nowadays the inclusion of bones amongst your tinder is best avoided.

Until next time Happy Halloween, and happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

 

 

 

The Finishing Touch of the Colophon

Hello,

This week’s word is colophon and unless you work in publishing, this may be a new one to you. It was to me. The colophon, in modern times, is the statement at the start of book stating details like date of publication, publisher’s name, place of publication etcetera.

The colophon from my book “Words The Sea Gave Us”

The colophon used to be printed at the end of the book, but “the first shall be last” and all that. Just as movie credits on old films used to be at the start and now they’re at the end, so too colophon has relocated. It’s a shame though because the word evolution of colophon is related to being at the end.

Colophon entered English in the late 1770s from Late Latin, but originally from the Greek word kolophōn (summit, final touch) and the root word kel (hill, summit). Graeme Donald’s book “Sticklers, Sideburns, and Bikinis” elaborates on the hill part. Colophon is actually a toponym, a word named for a place. Colophon was a mountain city state in Ionia. They had great cavalry in their army who were renowned for always holding out until the very last moment to make a final and decisive contribution to battles. Hence the colophon should be the final, and most important, finishing touch to a book.

Colophon is 15 miles northwest of Ephesus in the Izmir region of what is now modern Turkey. The ruins of the city, high on the hills, can still be seen today.

Last week, at the kind invitation of Sinéad Brassil, I started a regular monthly slot called “Wordfoolery Wednesdays” on LMFM radio. We chatted about feckless, doom-scrolling, macabre & eldritch (with Halloween coming soon), and the local origins of the Beaufort Scale. If you missed it live, you can listen back to the podcast here. I’ve added a new page to the blog for the various audio interviews and this monthly chat. You’ll find it under the Listen to Wordfoolery tab at the top of the page.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

The Obscure Origins of the Game of Poker

Hello,

This morning, for some strange reason, my mind is on the game of poker. Not the poker you use to stir up your fire (which dates to the 1530s in English and yes, it does relate to being a object used to poke the fire).

As I’ve found before when looking at words around card playing, there’s little definitive clarity to be found when it comes to poker. This seems appropriate to me as a total poker amateur. On the rare nights when our family sits down for a game we all have to refer to the sheet of rules on which hands beat others. I suspect this means we would be easy prey for any hustler in a hundred mile radius. Luckily we play only for the plastic chips, and the bragging rights of being the winner.

Sadly this is not the hand I usually get when playing

Bragging is appropriate as it turns out. An earlier version of the game was called Brag. I think I recall them playing it in Jane Austen novels?

Even if you’ve never played a hand of poker in earnest I’m sure you’ve seen it played in movies – by cowboys in a saloon, gangsters in a back room, or grifters in a casino. The game first appeared around the late 1820s, perhaps starting amongst riverboat gamblers on the great Mississippi river. As a result the word entered English with thanks to the Americans.

It wasn’t entirely American however. There was an earlier card game called Pochspiel in German. Spiel means play or game, and the Poch part of the word comes from pochen (the verb to brag or bluff). There may even have been a French game called poque which was very similar. It appears that several countries had card games involving bluffing around the same time period and any of them could have been the original source but the American gamblers slipped the word into mainstream English usage and usually take credit on this one. Whist, another very popular card game (this time taught to me by a nun in the 1980s!) also involves bluffing and it dates back to the 1660s, so poker isn’t the first by any means.

The related term is, of course, poker face. Early examples of its use to describe somebody controlling their facial expressions to improve their chances in the game date back to the 1870s. This is something I’ve yet to achieve so it’s probably best that I stick to playing with plastic chips rather than cash.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m delighted to announce that starting this Wednesday (14th Oct) I’ll be joining Sinéad Brassil on LMFM radio once a month to chat about the history of unusual words and phrases on Wordfoolery Wednesdays. If you live in the Louth Meath area you can tune in live on 95.8fm, listen live via the internet, or listen to the podcast afterwards (I’ll share the link on the blog and on my social media when it’s available).

The Prestidigitator’s Sleight of Hand

Hello,

I was reading “The Chinese Orange Mystery” by Ellery Queen last week, as it’s on my 501 book list, when I came across this week’s word – prestidigitator.

“Inspector Queen began to pull things out of the bag, like a prestidigitator over a silk hat.”

I hadn’t met it before, but understood from context that it referred to a magician of some sort. Nonetheless it sent me to a dictionary, if only to work out how to say it aloud. Yes, as I suspected a prestidigitator is skilled at sleight of hand. They can make a coin appear out of seemingly thin air. Whether there’s such a thing as thick air (perhaps fog?) could be a wordy ramble for another day.

Regular readers will know that it’s pretty rare for a word to originate with a single person. The exception is an eponym which is named for one person, but usually those are added to language thanks to many people using the person’s name as a noun. Prestidigitator is one of these rare words – it was coined by an individual and it is still in use, albeit rarely, today.

Prestidigitator was coined in French in 1830 (or possibly as early as 1819) as prestidigitateur by Jules de Rovère. He joined up the Latin praestigiator (juggler and also related to prestigious which originally in English was all about playing tricks and deception rather than fame), added in a dash of the Italian/conjuror’s presto (quick or ready) and ended with Latin digitus (finger, see also digit and digital). The word made its way into English by 1843.

Words the French Gave Us

Jules was himself a prestidigitator of some renown who was famous in Paris, but you won’t find much about him online unless you’re reading in French and there’s even some debate over whether he was French or Italian. The confusion may have been aided by him also performing under the name Auguste the Magnetiser (a reference to hypnotism rather than magnets) and a brief stay in prison.

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” has been on release for a whole month now and I must say thank you to all those who have been so supportive of the book. This week the book appeared in The Marine Times (Ireland’s newspaper for coastal communities and all those afloat).

Feckless and Feckful

Hello,

Some words are best known in one negative variation – disgruntled, gormless, and feckless spring to mind. I mean, how often do we talk about being gruntled, gormed, or feckful? This week I’m taking a look at feckless and feckful.

Feck itself is a popular slang word in the English spoken in Ireland (hiberno-english). It’s used as a very mild version of a similarly spelled curse. Its history and use is explained brilliantly by Stan Carey in this Journal.ie article. He even explains that the Esperanto term for shit is fek, but this is likely to be coincidental. You can read more about hiberno-english and feck, or indeed fecker, on Blather.

However feck, feckless, and feckful actually entered English from Scotland. Feck is a Scottish term that means effect, essentially it was a shortening of the word effect. Robbie Burns and Robert Louise Stevenson both used it to mean a large quantity (“He had a feck o’ books wi’ him”). It reached English in the late 1500s as a term for effect, value, or vigour.

The witch Cailleach Beara felt feckful right up to the moment of her beheading

If somebody has feck then they are feckful – efficient, energetic, and powerful. Equally if they are feckless then they are lacking all those attributes and pretty useless as a result. The English language has plenty of ways to denigrate somebody as useless, but apparently we needed one more as feckless gained ground and feckful fell by the wayside over time to the point where we only really use feckless now.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Let’s not Hebetate

Hello,

This week’s word, hebetate, is a suggestion from blog reader, Allan Greenwill. If you too would like to suggest a word for the Wordfoolery treatment, you can do so here.

Hebetate, I confess, was a new word for me. It means to make or become dull , blunted, or obtuse. You’ll get the pronunciation here.

Don’t run with

Naturally, any seamstress or chef wants their tools as sharp as possible which is why my mother always yelped if we reached for her special “sewing scissors” to cut paper rather than fabric (apparently cutting tin foil will sharpen them again). Now I’m the keeper of the Special Sewing Scissors and am equally protective of their edge and would be very unhappy if they were to hebetate.

The dictionary definitions of hebetate, however, imply it’s not just your cutting tool which can blunt, but your mind, your debating powers. Nobody wants to become obtuse or blunted in their use of reason, logic, and language.

Hebetate has a pretty simple word origin. It entered English in the late 1500s directly from the Latin verb hebetare (to dull or blunt) and word hebes (dull, blunt). Hebetate is related to hebetude, another English word from the same roots which arrived a few decades later. It again means dull or blunt but is also used figuratively to describe somebody as sluggish or stupid.

In other news this week, the publicity round for the latest Wordfoolery book, “Words The Sea Gave Us”, is continuing. The lovely folk at the Marine Times (September issue is in shops now) gave us a plug. “Seascapes”, Ireland’s weekly radio show about all things maritime (broadcast on RTÉ One radio nationwide at 10.30p.m. every Friday) invited me to talk about the book. I started listening to the show, when I was supposed to be studying for school, thirty years ago and it was a huge thrill to see the studio where they record it and to meet the presenter, Fergal Keane. I rambled on about the beaufort scale, slush funds, blazers, and hammocks on the moon. The episode went out already, but you can listen to the podcast here.

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 Origin of Run Amok

Hello,

This week’s phrase is “to run amok”, although you may be more familiar with “run amuck”. In fact there are a few spelling variations on this one. Amok appears to be correct one for English language use.

You will find a few different stories about the origin of the phrase too, including a spurious nautical one about running a ship aground into the muck.

Etymology Online tells me it was a verbal phrase recorded in the early 1500s in “The Book of Duarte Barbosa – An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants” as Amuco “who go out into the streets, and kill as many person as they meet”. They add that the Malay word amuk meant to attack furiously and in Portugese amouco or amuco describes a frenzied Malay.

Either way, it’s clear that somebody running amok is somebody to avoid and something like a Viking berserker.

Viking Chessman from the Isle of Lewis. He is biting his shield, a beserker tradition

Phrases.org and “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald flesh out the story, but be warned it doesn’t become gentler.

In the 1600s, Malays occupied Malabar (on the west coast of India) and in their tradition the king was required to kill himself after 12 years of power, by cutting his own throat in public. With time, and I’m guessing at the request of the monarchy, this was modified to allow a team of warriors (amokers) run at the king and usually be cut down by the bodyguards. If one killed the king then he claimed the crown. Stories of this dramatic power struggle were brought back to Europe by shocked travelers.

The amokers, or amuco, were dedicated warriors who believed failed missions were punished with dishonour and fallen soldiers became favourites of the gods. Captain James Cook, who traveled in the region in the late 1700s, mentioned opium use in connection with this tradition so it’s possible the warriors combined skill, faith, and narcotics before running amok.

I used to accuse my children of running amok when they played rowdy games or scattered toys throughout the house, but having discovered more about the amuco, I have to retract that allegation.

The lovely Andrew Doherty of Tides and Tales blog has been kind enough to read and review “Words The Sea Gave Us” on his blog this week. As a landlubber myself I was relieved to find somebody from a nautical family giving it the stamp of approval. His blog is fascinating to anybody with an interest in Irish maritime history and illustrated with wonderful photos, both old and new. Andrew has already published one book about maritime history and his second, “Waterford Harbour, Tides and Tales” is launching this month with the History Press.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Kerfuffle

Hello,

With the excitement of the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” mostly behind me now it’s time for a non-nautical word this week – kerfuffle.

A kerfuffle is defined as “noise, excitement, and argument” (thanks to the Cambridge Dictionary, the pronunciation is available there too). Some other dictionaries note the word is informal British English. Apart from the argument, that sums up last week for me.

I guessed kerfuffle would be an old word but Etymology Online, usually reliable on dates, says it only entered English in the 1970s, was used with a variant spelling (kafuffle) from the 1940s, and in Canadian English from the 1930s.

The spelling variation leads us back further in the word’s history as the previous version is carfuffle, when it was being used by Scottish writers. The car to ka or ker change is pretty natural as there is no letter K in the alphabet for Scots Gaelic (or Irish Gaeilge for that matter), so you have English speakers adjusting the spelling when they adopted the word.

The fuffle part, however, didn’t change and it gets us further back in time. Fuffle dates back to the 1500s and was a Scottish verb meaning to disorder or dishevel (can one be hevelled, I wonder?).

The Scottish roots explain, in my opinion at least, the connection to Canadian English as the point where carfuffle crossed into English and became kerfuffle. Many Scottish emigrants settled in the eastern coastal regions of Canada during the 1800s. Apparently if you visit areas like Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island you’ll find plenty of Gaelic accents and language influences. I hope to explore that in person myself some day.

I enjoyed the kerfuffle of the book launch last week and I’m very happy to welcome new blog readers who found Wordfoolery as a result <waves>. A few readers have already been kind enough to review the book favourably, thank you, it really helps the visibility of the book online, even if it’s only a few words.

Those of you who read ebooks on Apple devices (phone, tablet, macbook) may find it worthwhile to hop over to my twitter account as I’m currently running a giveaway of a free Apple Books / iBooks edition. It’s free to enter and open internationally in any country where such books are sold (US, UK, Canada, Ireland etc).

Last week also found me participating in my first ever radio interview when Sinéad Brassil of LMFM radio kindly asked me to chat about my books and the history of words. She podcasted the interview so if you’re curious you can listen to it here. It’s about 15 minutes long and includes the history of boycotts, booby traps, and more. My teens are now referring to me as a word history celebrity and hoping their friends don’t find out. Sigh.

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.

Words The Sea Gave Us

Hello,

Today is the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” so instead of exploring one word I’ll be talking about my book which features 370 words and phrases the English language borrowed from the sea. From baggywinkle and gollywobbler to tempest and flotsam, the sea in all her moods has given us a boatload of words 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.

Out now!

I investigated the 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. Then I stowed  some sea fables, fashions, and weather in the hold too. You don’t have to be a maritime expert for this one. It’s ideal for word geeks, sailors, and beachcombers.

You’ll find out about the last Royal Navy cutlass attack (1940s), where cyber really comes from, the icky origin of a slush fund, and how London ships gave us the first ever strike. Other discoveries include the simple line which saved thousands of seafarers, why Long John Silver didn’t have a peg leg, the origin of a booby trap, and the meaning of scuttlebutt, mollgogger, and gollywobbler. If you don’t know the difference between being one or three sheets in wind I can enlighten you with a side trip to the Great Rum Debate in the UK parliament.

What more would you expect from a book that reached Number One in Ship History upon its ebook release?

“Tierney navigates us through a whole archipelago of word histories, in categories including pirates, surfer slang, and sea monsters. She writes with aplomb, extensive knowledge, and the occasional dash of droll humor.”

You’ll find all the buy links for it on my books page. Or just hop over to Amazon. Some readers have already been kind enough to let me know that they’ve enjoyed the book.

“The man who has everything certainly covers it but your book was a complete surprise and also a joy to him to receive.”

I’ve also setup a PayPal system for you to order signed books direct from me, if you’d prefer the personal touch, and don’t mind my terrible handwriting. If you’re interested, comment on this post with your email address or contact me.

Today I’ll be chatting on facebook and twitter about “Words The Sea Gave Us”, running a nautical word poll, and sharing snippets from the book, so if you’re about, please drop by. If you’d like to hear me read from “Words The Sea Gave Us” then check out the Bunny Trails podcast, episode 86.

Thank you to the blog readers and other friends who donated word and phrase suggestions for this book and whose names are in the book beside their words. Thank you to Peter Sheehan, Brendan Tierney, Nell Jenda, Rick Ellrod, Kimberly Sullivan, ZZNewell, Christine Byrne Carroll, Paul Powell, Rita Fitzsimons, Paddy “PJ” Callahan, IrishSmuggling, and Clíodna Johnston.

Don’t forget the Various Vessels download is available here on the blog to help you know your arks from your ketches.

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 Nautical Roots of Heave-Ho

Hello,

Are you ready for some nautical nonsense? Wonderful, welcome aboard!

This week Wordfoolery’s desk is awash with “book jobs”, apologies for it spilling over here with another nautical expression, heave ho. The end is in sight as I now have the official book launch date to announce – next Monday, the 31st of August. It will all be happening here on the blog and over on my twitter feed (@Wordfoolery) and you are all formally invited to join in as this blog is the reason this book exists. It will be a relief and joy to finally unleash “Words The Sea Gave Us” on the word lovers of the world.

You can <voice drops to a whisper> buy an ebook or paperback copy already as I did a sneaky “soft launch” to test the cover printing, but if you wait you’ll have the option of a signed paper copy direct from me to you (or to a friend with a gift inscription, of course). If you’d like to get on the list for that you can comment on this post or drop me a message.

In fact some of you lovely people had already bought and read the book. Thank you so much, it helps so much in the making the book visible and attractive to other readers!

Alright, enough about book launches, what about heave-ho?

Heave-Ho! {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney}

Heave-Ho! is a common call in sea shanties but to understand what it means you have to explore the two parts individually.

Heave entered Old English as hebban from German, Dutch, and Old Norse roots all with the same meaning of lift or take up, but with a variety of different spellings. It was only in 1944 that heave took on the second meaning of a dismissal.

Ho is always an interjection of some sort. English has numerous version from gung-ho (see the Flying the Flag chapter) to heigh-ho and tally-ho. Using a series of ho-ho-ho to indicate laughter dates back to the 1100s, probably thanks to Saint Nicholas.

Ho used with a place name (for example, Westward-Ho) was used by boatmen to indicate departure for that place from the 1500s and ho would have been used solo from the 1300s to attract attention and demand silence, for example to stop chatter amongst the crew.

These two nautical versions of ho give us the clue for heave-ho – the call to work demanded the hands listen for the rhythmic call of when to lift or pull (for example a large sail, a new mast, a net full of fish, or the anchor). Each time the caller said Heave, they’d pull, then the Ho was the pause. The call was repeated, perhaps with the addition of a sea shanty for morale and team rhythm, until the task was completed.

In more recent land-based usage to get the heave-ho is to be dismissed from your work or relationship.

{end of extract}

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.