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Archive for the ‘word origin’ Category

Hello,

This week’s word is guff, purely because I enjoy saying it. Plus it’s handy for rhyming with stuff, puff, and tough enough.

Foolish talk

Guff, in case you don’t know, is nonsense talk or empty foolish words. If you’re accused of “talking guff” your audience doesn’t think much of the topic of your conversation. Such an audience would be proud of “not taking any guff“.

I hadn’t realised guff had a secondary meaning, in Scotland, of an unpleasant smell. That meaning leads to the roots of the word.

Guff entered English in the early 1800s as a reference to a puff or whiff of a bad smell. So guff was being compared to a windy noxious aroma. It gives a new nuance to blowing hot air or talking out of one’s behind.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

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Hello,

Along with a passion for words, I also enjoy foraging. There’s something satisfying about finding local plants and using them in old recipes. Last weekend, for example, I took a walk to gather elder flowers and bottled up some elder flower cordial. I’m far from expert and take great care to pick sustainably and with careful identification, but with help from a handful of good books on the topic I’ve been expanding my hedgerow harvest from simple blackberrying to blackberry and apple jam, crab apple whiskey, and wild garlic pesto. Pinterest is a good starting place for information, if you’d like to try it yourself.

Beware of nettles

When I was walking back with my elder flowers I passed a large clump of nettles and remembered a strange fact about them from “Foraging” by John Lewis-Stempel – “In Scotland, the natives made cloth from nettles as late as the 18th century”.

Nettle’s word history ties in with the idea of cloth. Nettle entered English from Old English netele which in turn came from Old Saxon netila and related words netele (Middle Dutch), netel (Dutch), Nessel (German), and naedlae (Danish). All of these terms come from the root ned which means “to tie or bind”.

Twisted fibres used to bind are but a short hop to cloth via a loom and it wasn’t just done in Scotland. I recently read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales (for my ongoing quest to read the entire 501 Books list) and in one of them (The Wild Swans) a princess must knit nettle shirts to save her brothers from an evil queen. She suffers terribly during her task due to nettle stings.

The history of nettle cloth is well documented elsewhere online, if you’re curious, and dates back to 3000 B.C.. Nettle cloth, or ramie, which is like linen was widely used worldwide even during World War II, even next to the skin.

To nettle someone is a more recent verb use of the word. It means to irritate or provoke someone and is from the 1560s. I imagine touching a stinging nettle would provoke you alright.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be nettle stung I do have one piece of advice based on a foraging talk I attended a few years ago. The charming expert began with a demonstration of how to handle nettle stings. He was scathing on the common misconception that dock leaves help. They don’t and I can vouch for that from my own childhood. At best the application of dock (also called burdock) leaves makes you feel a little better as a distraction/attention thing.

Dock – pointless for nettle stings

He introduced us to another plant, smaller leaved than dock, which generally grows on the edges of paths worn through grassland – plantain (plantago major). Apparently it was called whitefoot by native Americans as it grew where the colonists walked. It has strong anti-histamine properties and is well known for this in some countries and totally unknown in others which is a shame. He demonstrated with sheer bravado, holding a fistful of nettles for a minute, showing us his red, welted hand (to groans from his audience), and then rubbing the welts with dampened, crushed plantain leaves. In half a minute the welts and pain were gone.

 

Plantain – try it on nettle stings

I’ve yet to try this myself but I spread the word and both my children have helped stung friends with good effect.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. Stay away from those nettles, unless you’re making nettle soup.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I’m back from a lovely weekend in a yurt in Wicklow with my family and thanks to a combination of antibiotics and anti-histamines (insects love to bite me, but my body doesn’t enjoy the experience) I’m only leaving my zwodder today.

A Yurt with a View

Zwodder, in case you’re unfamiliar with 19th century Somerset dialect words, means a drowsy state of body or mind and I wish it could make a comeback as a commonly used English word. The weather here has been perfect recently – clear blue skies, warm but not too hot, a light breeze. Tradition (but not science) holds such weather is because 120,000 students are sitting state examinations at the moment, the poor things. All I know is it makes for perfect zwoddering conditions.

My zwoddering spot

Zwodder certainly doesn’t appear to have standard English roots due to its spelling. Middle Dutch has swadderen which means to be weary or staggering due to drinking. Anglo-Saxon had swodrian which meant becoming drowsy or falling asleep. Zwodder’s roots may lie in the Land of Nod amongst a haze of Zzzz.

Until next time I wish you a comfortable hammock and time to zwodder,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I usually keep love words for Valentine’s Day blog posts but romance shouldn’t be confined to a single day, should it?

I couldn’t resist the nugget of anatomical science which tells me that the oblique muscles of the eye used to move your glance sideways in an amorous way are called the amatorial muscles.

Now, before you check that detail I must warn you an online search for amatorial muscles will probably give you results for a different muscle used in amorous ways of a more, shall we say, physical nature. Search at your own peril!

Amatorial comes, of course, from the word amorous. I had an inkling that had Latin roots because I knew l’amour is the French for love and yes, the Latin word for love is amor and it reached English via French. I was hoping for a Roman god or goddess link but nope, it’s just love – both the romantic and the friendly sort. Simple but important.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. If anybody ‘throws you the eye’, remember what muscle they’re using,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week’s word is checkmate.

I help out in my local school library on Mondays. Sadly, due to funding cuts, the school wouldn’t have a library if parents didn’t volunteer to run it. One of my regular tasks is to reset the numerous chess boards scattered around the room. I don’t play chess, but I researched how to set out the board. In doing so, I stumbled upon the origin of checkmate.

English doesn’t take many words from Persian in comparison to languages such as Greek or Latin, although tiger, musk, and paradise are wonderful contributions. I was delighted to examine a Persian word import.

In chess, if a king is in check and cannot escape, they are in checkmate. The word entered English from Old French eschec mat (it’s ├ęchec et mat in Modern French). The phrase is also in Spanish as jaque y mate and in Italian as scacco-matto. All three come from the Arabic and Persian shah mat. There’s some debate on the translation of shah mat. Many think it’s “the king is dead” which is literally true as the king is dead within the game, but it’s more likely to be “the king is astonished, stumped, or left helpless” which is more true within the game.

Either way I love the idea of checkmate referring to this tiny king being in trouble in his wooden world.

Lewis Chessman

I had no idea Persia was the source of chess. I believed the Vikings were behind it and it’s true they played a similar strategy game called Tafl or Hnefatafl. If you’re curious there’s more about chess-like games played in Viking countries, Scotland, Ireland etc here. The oldest existing chess set (1120) was found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland which was a Viking outpost at the time. A replica of a fierce Lewis chessman guards my keys from behind his oversized shield.

In fact, chess originated in India in 550 A.D., but was popularised in Persia where the chess army was comprised of foot soldiers, cavalry, a chariot, and an elephant. Once chess was accepted by the Muslim world it spread with the Moorish invasions to Spain and the rest of the western world. The teens in the library are playing an ancient game used for 1,400 years to educate the mind in strategy.

I just wish they’d kept the elephant.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and checkmating,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I was editing this morning and one scene included a jolly roger flag. I already knew this pirate flag wasn’t linked to an actual pirate called Roger (although King Roger II of Sicily tries to claim it), but it seemed like a good time to delve deeper.

Unfortunately the origins of this catchy flag name are confused at best. Experts disagree on when it entered English with dates ranging from the 11th to the 18th century. Stealing on the high-seas is an old tradition so I’d lean towards the earlier dates.

The best explanation I can find for its origin comes from British naval history. In 1694 the British Admiralty commanded English privateers (state-approved pirates) to fly a plain red flag to identify themselves. This makes sense as otherwise they might be mistaken for mere thieves (heaven forbid!) or the Royal Navy itself. Thereafter the term “red jacking” came to mean piracy.

However a plain red flag already had a meaning well-known to sailors – danger. In particular, the red flag signaled an explosive cargo or illness aboard. The red flag meaning “this ship’s captain will not give quarter” became known as La Jolie Rouge (the pretty red in French) but the confusion was there.

Privateers went for a plain black flag instead. If you were attacked by a ship flying such a flag you knew to give up or face death. Over time the privateer captains embellished their flags, to be more fearsome I imagine. Each pirate captain ended up with a unique version of the jolly roger.

It probably helped that in English slang Roger was alternative name for the devil.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and avoid those pesky pirates,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week I’ve dug out my Sherlock hat and taken on a missing persons case. The person in question is Janey Mac and while rumours of her being a Dublin girl like myself persist, it now appears Janey Mac may have been a man.

Janey Mac is an expression of surprise, originating in Ireland and dating back at least 50 years, probably much longer. Some claim it for the west of the country, others for Dublin, but it’s definitely from Ireland and has spread into other countries along with Irish emigrants. Janey Mac hasn’t made it into the dictionary, yet, but is under consideration.

Charmingly, Janey Mac comes with a rhyme

Janey Mac me shirt is black,
What’ll I do for Sunday?
Go to bed and cover your head,
And don’t get up till Monday.

There are three possible origins for Janey.

The first is she was a Dublin girl, one of a pair of sisters. Given that mac is a common prefix to Irish surnames (MacCarthy, MacCabe, MacAuley etc) thanks to mac meaning “son of” in Irish, you would expect to find a Janey MacCarthy (or other Mac surname) at the bottom of this but I couldn’t find a real surname or time period for her anywhere and why would a girl be so surprising anyhow?

The second is the exclamation is an avoidance of taking God’s name in vain. Instead of yelling “Jesus Christ” when you drop a hammer on your toe, you’d call out Janey Mac instead. This is possible. Some alternatives include jeez and “cheese and rice” and many parents in Ireland would say sugar instead of sh**, but Janey Mac really doesn’t sound like Jesus Christ. I’m not convinced by this.

The third option is intriguing and may be complete hokum but it’s a good story. Every Irish schoolchild has heard tales of Fionn MacCumhaill, the ancient Irish warrior (probably mythological). He’s our version of Hercules – super strong, amazing warrior, constantly having adventures and nearly dying. You could see how his surname could be shortened to Mac, right?

His first name, Fionn, was actually a nickname. It means blonde in Irish. Fair hair in the Irish population (pre-viking times) was pretty rare so it makes sense he’d get that as a nickname, just as those with red hair are now rare and might be called Red.

Fionn’s real first name was Deimne which in certain dialects is pronounced Janey.

When Christianity came to the island the first battle was against the ancient myths and stories of demi-gods. Saint Brigid was created to cover for an Irish goddess, it’s not beyond the bounds of belief to see Fionn MacCumhaill being transformed into Janey Mac and it being used as an exclamation or oath, over time becoming confused with those swearing by Jesus Christ.

The true origins of Janey Mac are unknown but I enjoyed the search for her. I love that a mythical Dublin lass may actually have been a mythical demi-god warrior.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Thanks to Paddy PJ Callahan who suggested this topic for the blog.

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