Category Archives: word origin



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)


Queue in Queuetopia along with Wolfe Tone and Churchill


This week’s word is queue as that appears to be my new hobby – queuing in a socially distant manner for groceries. My record so far is two hours, sigh.

For a relatively simple word, queue has some intriguing historical links to both Irish patriot Wolfe Tone and British statesman Winston Churchill.

Queue entered English in the late 1400s to describe the ribbons around a scrolled letter with seals dangling on the ends. Think of a formal message to a king or noble and you’d be on the right track.

The word was a direct adoption from French queue (tail) which came from Old French cue (tail) which perhaps is a more sensible spelling, but not the one that stuck with us. Cue came to French from Latin coda or cauda, both meaning tail also.

Queue, by the 1500s, was being used for tail in English too, especially for animals in heraldry – the shields and symbols of noble families. Around the same time queue came to describe a line of dancers which by the early 1800s could be a line of people. The idea of a queue being a line of people waiting for something arose in the late 1800s and has been with us ever since.

A queue was also used in hair-styles too. From the 1700s, or possibly earlier, a queue was a braid of hair. In an era when men’s hair was often worn long they might gather it back in a braid for practical reasons, especially in military and naval situations. Sailors, for example, often applied tar to their queues to keep the hair from getting in the way and this was part of the reason why they were nicknamed tars.

Where does Wolfe Tone enter the history of queuing? Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was a barrister and founding member of the United Irishmen and a leader of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule. He used his contacts in France to gain a supporting fleet from Napoleon but the landings and the rebellion ultimately failed. Many of his writings still exist (three volumes of his writings have been edited by T. W. Moody and R.B. McDowell) and they include his explanation of the French use of the word queue in the late 1700s to describe waiting in a line of people. This is one of the earliest uses of queue with this sense in an English publication and may have given the word to the language.

Wolfe Tone never met Winston Churchill, whose biography I am currently reading, and who also left a lasting impression on Ireland’s path to independence. I suspect Wolfe Tone wouldn’t have approved of Churchill deploying the infamous Black and Tan troops to crush resistance in 1920 or his role as a major negotiator of the 1921 treaty to end the Irish War of Independence which divided the island of Ireland.

Churchill’s vocabulary was vast and he wasn’t adverse to coining a new word when he needed it to destroy his enemy. After World War II his party had been ousted from power by the Labour Party. During the 1950 election campaign he targeted the ongoing post-war austerity overseen by Labour and coined the word queuetopia during a speech in Woodford, Essex claiming that under Labour the country had shortages of nearly everything, leading to long lines, a veritable queuetopia thanks to their socialist ideals.

In case you’re curious, Winston lost in 1950 by a slim margin but when Labour held another election in 1951 to improve their grip on power he claimed victory and Labour were out of power for the next 13 years.

As for me, I’m hoping our current queuetopia eases as soon as it is safe to do so.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Library Tales – the Real Dewey & the Librarian’s Secret Diary


This week’s word is dewey (also spelled dui, see below) – a word closely associated with libraries, in honour of my latest fiction serial over on Channillo, the reading subscription service (think Netflix for books). “The Librarian’s Secret Diary” kicked off last Wednesday and will be updated with a new episode every Wednesday. The first episode is available free here.

But what about the Dewey Decimal System? It’s an eponymous term and as such was featured in my first word history book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary”. Dewey was an unusual person, to say the least, like many of the people whose lives I explored in the book. He wouldn’t have fared well in a post #MeToo world. I hope you enjoy the extract.

Dewey Decimal System

{copyright Grace Tierney, 2018}

This system of library classification was first published in 1876 by Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) and is now used in 135 countries worldwide. He devised the system while working at Amherst College library.

Melvil supported the idea of spelling standardisation, or as he would say “simpler spelin”. He changed his name from Melville to Melvil and even tried Dui as a surname for a while. He was instrumental in organising the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

His main flaw was an “inability to control himself around women”. He was rumoured to ask female applicants to his School of Library Economy for their bust size and photograph with their applications because you can’t “polish a pumpkin”. The bust part is untrue, mercifully.

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 Librarian’s Secret Diary” is a humourous diary-style story about Nina, the new librarian on the block. She’s learning the shelves with her buzzword-spouting boss and the senior librarian who hates reading and can’t wait to retire. She records the crazy reader requests and the knitting group in-fighting in her secret diary while trying to get the printer to work, flirting with the inter-library-loan guy, and struggling to discover why their romance books are acquiring red pen marks on page five.

How Blockbusters moved from Bombs to Movies


This week’s word is blockbuster – a film term with military roots.

Blockbuster entered English in 1942 to describe a large bomb which would flatten a city block with its destructive power.

By the 1950s the term was being used in the U.S. to describe a real estate agent who sold a house to a non-white family in a racially non-diverse neighbourhood, thus causing an exodus of home owners.

Thankfully the word got a new usage in the 60s when successful movies were described by it. Any big hit could qualify. However perhaps the best-known early blockbuster was Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) when audiences talked about the movie afterwards and went back to see it and its thrills multiple times. Audiences would line up right around the block to buy a ticket, busting the block.

Now every summer we have a slew of such blockbusters released to entertain audiences. It’s hard to see how such large audiences will manage social distancing in cinemas this summer, but as a cinema fan I have my fingers crossed for some blockbusters sometime this year if it’s safe to release them.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Beware of the Barbarians


This week’s word is barbarian and is with thanks to the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast who are still broadcasting their witty and intelligent musings about odd facts every week, now from their individual homes, which can’t be easy. They mentioned the origin of barbarian in a recent episode and it went straight onto my “to investigate” list.

My favourite barbarians

Barbarian entered the English language as an adjective in the mid 1300s to describe somebody or something which was from another nation or culture. Initially there was no negative connotation to this word. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that it came to mean something or somebody uncivilised or savage. I found this surprising as I assumed the word came from Roman times to describe anybody who lived outside the empire. Given that barbarians over-ran Rome a few times in its later, declining, years I assumed the Romans would have seen the barbarians in a negative light.

Looking back further I discovered the word barbarian actually comes from the Greeks, not the Romans. The ancient Greeks had a plural noun barbaroi which meant “all that are not Greek” and was especially applied to the Medes and Persians (both lived in the area now known as Iran). The word arose from a root word barbar which was meant to describe the way the foreign speech of the Persians and Medes sounded to Greek listeners. You know the way background actors in movies sometimes mutter “rhubarb” to make a basic speech noise? Well the Greeks would have thought they were saying “barbar“. Hence the barbaroi.

From barbaroi the word barbaros (foreign, strange, ignorant) arrived in Greek. Basically anybody who didn’t speak Greek was barbaros. Later the ancient Romans, who were technically barbaros themselves, adopted the word as barbarus and applied it to any tribes or nations who weren’t Roman or Greek. This moved to Medieval Latin at barbarinus and Old French as barbarin (which gives us Berber) and by the time it reached English it was spelled barbarian.

Along the way the term has been used to single out foreigners in other times and languages too. In Renaissance Italy it was used to describe any non-Italian and it has been used to translate Chinese words of contempt for foreigners also.

Sadly, so long as groups have a concept of “us” there will always be a concept of “them” and they are often called barbarians, no matter how sophisticated their language and culture.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,067 words in my CampNaNo serial “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Four days of writing to go and it will be launching on on Wednesday 6th of May. It’s been great fun to write and hopefully will be an entertaining read for anybody who has ever wondered what really goes on behind the shelves in the library.

Wearing My Huffle-Buffs


This week I’ve been wearing my huffle-buffs often, it’s probably time I explained that term.

My gardening huffle-buffs, beside the peas & beans bed

According to Haggard Hawks (on twitter and on their website), huffle-buffs is “an old Scots dialect word for worn out, comfortable clothes”. As worn out, comfortable clothes are my favourites, this particular term stuck in my daily usage as soon as I came across it. It’s much better than the alternatives – slobs, lounge-wear, athleisure – in my opinion.

At the moment, because we’re still observing a “stay at home” rule in Ireland, my spring garden is getting more attention than usual and my gardening huffle-buffs (a fisherman’s smock from Kinsale, Co. Cork which is 18 years old and a faded pair of eco-cotton trousers from Gudrunsjoden which is 16 years old) have become my daily uniform as I battle back the bramble invasion in the cut flower bed and do my annual vegetable growing tasks. I’m sowing & tending three varieties of tomatoes, garlic, courgette, spinach, lettuce, spring onions, peas, borlotti, runner beans, cucumbers, and peppers this year along with my ongoing crops of herbs, apples, damson plums, hazelnuts, grapes, wild garlic, rhubarb). The tough denim smock is particularly handy when a) sunburn can be an issue and b) you have nettles and brambles ready to attack you at every turn.

Huffle-buffs appear in Scottish dictionary listings from the early 1800s so it’s not as old as you might think, unless it just took a while to make it into the dictionary. Huffle on its own can mean to blow in gusts of wind.

If you go hunting for huffle-buffs’ origin you will get side-tracked into the origin of the house of Helga Hufflepuff in the Harry Potter books and I can’t help thinking that may be a fair connection as although JK Rowling was born near Bristol (and hence is English) she wrote a considerable amount of the first book while living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Perhaps the local vernacular snuck into Hufflepuff’s name? Alternatively Helga must have been a very windy witch to have two words for gust in her surname – huffle and puff.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling in your comfiest huffle-buffs,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve made it to 19,946 words on “The Librarian’s Secret Diary” in CampNaNo so far this month. It will be launching on in May. My two other books “Hamster Stew” and “Nit Roast” are already completed and fully available to read there (first chapter is free to read).

Maybe it’s time to Oozle


This week’s word is oozle, with thanks to the O series of “Qi” on BBC.

Ozzle appeared on a list of unusual O words on the programme I watched recently and although they didn’t discuss it, it struck me as one worth future investigation. Turns out that oozle is a rare word used in Australia and New Zealand so it wasn’t surprising that it was a new one for me as I’ve yet to journey that far.

According to the OED, oozle means to move slowly or lazily and dates to the late 1800s. It is compounded from ooze and the suffix -le. Ooze itself is an older word which entered English in the late 1300s as a verb and noun, all related to slow moving sap, mud, or slime from a selection of Saxon, Norse, and Germanic root words.

The slow turtle was inspired by the sloth to oozle a little more this week

As a result the idea of something, or somebody oozling is that they are moving as slowly as sap slipping from a cut in the bark of a tree, or mud slowly settling. One creature which has mastered the art of being slow is the sloth, native creature to Central and South America and an inspiration to me and my family as we slouch with books and leftover Easter chocolate at the moment. I may not oozle quite as slowly as a sloth, but I’m working on it. Slowly.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)