Category Archives: word origin

Cantankerous

Hello,

This week’s word is cantankerous, and no, not because I’m in a grumpy mood today.

Somebody who is cantankerous is bad-tempered and argumentative. The word has been in English since the 1700s when it was believed to come from Wiltshire dialect but it is likely to have older roots. There was a possibly related word contakour in Middle English around 1300 which meant troublemaker. Contakour was a borrowing from Anglo-French contec (discord) and Old French contechier.

“Grumpy Tiki” – a wood carving by my DH whose cantankerous face adorns our garden

Alternatively, some dictionaries reckon it’s related to the word rancour (rancor in American English). Rancour (bitterness and grief) entered English around 1200 from Old French rancor. Rancor came from Latin rancorem (a rancid stinking smell or grudge) from the Latin verb rancere (to stink).

Using that set of origins you could assume that a cantankerous person bears a grudge and may be less than fragrant too.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Numinous

Hello,

Today’s word is numinous. I happened upon it in an article (“A Pilgrim in the City” by Clare Gogerty, author of “Beyond the Footpath”) in the June issue of Simple Things magazine this weekend. She described places of worship as being numinous, “a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the city”. She’s right, of course. Such places can be a quiet oasis that’s much needed regardless of your beliefs, but what exactly does numinous mean?

Chapel ceiling in Christchurch cathedral, Dublin

Numinous (pronunciation here) has three related meanings. The first is supernatural or mysterious – a ghost sighting might be numinous. The second is of a place which is filled with a sense of the divine presence. The third is something appealing to the higher emotions or aesthetic sense. So although places of worship may be numinous it can equally be applied to a beautiful space in nature or an elegant piece of secular architecture. I would argue that a sense of wonder is what links all three. The chapel pictured above is numinous in all senses, I think.

The origin of numinous lies in Latin. Numinous entered English around 1640 to mean “divine or spiritual” from the Latin word numen (divine will). Numen is more accurately translated as divine approval as indicated by the nod of a head because numen comes from nuere the verb to nod. So if something is numinous it has “the nod” direct from God apparently.

Do you have a numinous space somewhere in your world? I hope you enjoy it this week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Myriad

Hello,

This week’s word is myriad (pronunciation here) because it’s a favourite of mine. A myriad is a very large number of something. You might have a myriad of midges trying to bite you on a country walk, or a myriad of choices when selecting the right dress for the ball (hey, I can dream!).

In my case I’ve been looking at the vendor list for a yarn festival later this month, Woollinn, and reviewing a myriad of indie dyers and their yarns. I want them all, but am trying to be logical and only buy what I need and will actually use. This is a major challenge for any crafter.

A myriad of yarns

Words for large numbers in languages are often fun to explore and myriad is no exception. Most cultures manage words for one, two, or even up to ten but in early languages the tendency thereafter was to settle on a word for “many” and use that for everything from 25 to ten million.

Myriad entered English during the 1500s as the word for 10,000 or an indefinitely large number. It came to English from the Middle French word myriade, which in turn was a borrowing from Latin myrias (ten thousand). Myrias came from Greek myrioi which either meant 10,000 or countless, infinite and boundless. So it appears that even the wise and wonderful ancient Greeks struggled to imagine counting above 9,999.

I have counted my yarn stash and I don’t have 10,000 balls of wool awaiting my attention so I think I may purchase a skein or two at the festival after all.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Ostracise

Hello,

This week’s word is ostracise (or ostracize for North American readers) because it relates to voting and I’ve been enjoying the drama of the European Parliament and local council elections here all weekend.

To ostracise somebody (in English since the late 1500s) is to exclude them from a community, an effective punishment for not obeying social rules. Ostracise is a word the Greeks gave us and the story behind it is intriguing.

Not fitting in with the others

The original Greek word was ostrakon which means broken pottery. In Athens, and other Greek city-states, a citizen who was perceived to be dangerous to the state could be banished for four or ten years but only after a vote. The voters would write a person’s name on an old shard of pottery. When the votes were sufficient, the person was ostracised by being exiled.

A similar system operated in the ancient city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily to determine a five year exile ,except they wrote the name on olive leaves. As a result it was called petalism or petalismos.

 

Other unusual voting items are the white and black balls in ballots, and the fava beans the Medicis used to vote in Florence, Italy during the 1400s. While in ancient Sparta the candidate with the loudest shouting supporters won the vote.

 

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@wordfoolery)

Snollygoster

Hello,

This week’s word, snollygoster, has been chosen simply because it’s fun to say. Go on, you can play the pronunciation file here. See what I mean?

Snollygoster may be common knowledge to my American readers as it’s listed as a U.S. dialect word in the dictionary, but it was a new one to me. I think we should adopt it on this side of the pond too.

A snollygoster is a shrewd or unprincipled person. The word was used by President Truman to describe congressional politicians in the 1950s, but its first usage dates to a hundred years earlier. Perhaps snollygosters have infested democracy for a long time.

Sadly the origins of this word are unclear. Some etymologists list it as fanciful and don’t even attempt to delve deeper. Others hint at links to German but without details. I think, based on my limited German schooling, that root could be right. The clearest I came across says it comes from schnelle Geister (quick spirits, in the ghostly sense). I’m not sure how German immigrants to America could have changed fast moving ghosts into difficult politicians, although perhaps they were referring to the speed of change in their principles and ideals?

Either way, I think we’re still haunted by snollygosters (and their Irish political cousins the cute hoor) and the word should make a swift comeback in political commentary everywhere.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

p.s. my first word history book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” will be featured on the Scripted Scribbles podcast next week. I’ll post about it here when it’s live, and provide the links so you can listen in. In the meantime if you’re curious about the podcast (available on Apple, Spotify, and Buzzsprout) which features a wide variety of authors and books – check out their facebook page here.

Lollygagging

Hello,

This week’s word comes with thanks to Lyric FM’s Marty in the Mornings show which I often listen to when walking. This week Marty is away and his substitute has been including an etymology spot each day, much to my delight. Today’s word was abendrot – the colour of the sky at sunset – literally evening red from German. Yesterday’s entry in the slot caught my attention in particular – lollygagging.

lollygagging skeleton

The mountain goat lollygagged too long on the mountain path

Lollygagging is defined as delaying or dawdling, perhaps to avoid work. It was originally spelled lallygag and entered American English in 1862. It’s still listed as American English in the Oxford English Dictionary online yet my  British English speaking mother used it all her life. The suggested roots for the word are lolly (tongue) and gag (to deceive or trick).

The association of lolly with the tongue is also the source of the word lollipop or lolly for a hard candy/sweet on a stick which dates back to the late 1700s. Perhaps one should lick a lolly while lollygagging?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and lollygagging,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Belay and Putting a Pin in It

Hello,

I’m editing my book “Words The Sea Gave Us” this month before its release later this year and my mind is filled with the nautical words and phrases which the sea has given to the English language, so I thought I’d share one with you today. Have you ever heard a Star Trek captain saying “belay that order” or a manager in a meeting suggest you put a “pin in it”? Then you’ve had a taste of what a belaying pin did on a sailing ship.

Belaying pins on a traditional sailing ship

{Extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2019}

If you watch enough seafaring movies, or indeed Star Trek episodes, you’ll eventually hear a captain say something like “Belay that order” to one of their crew. The order will be paused, but why?

The answer lies in the Age of Sail and with one small piece of wooden equipment. The captain is referring to the belaying pin, a wooden peg, something akin to a rolling pin, around which a line could be made fast (and stopped). A series of such pins were typically positioned along the ship’s rail. Basically the captain is saying – “tie up that order for the moment”.

Belay (1540s) comes from the Old English word belecgan which meant to lay a thing about, thus describing how you would lay the rope around the belaying pin.

Belaying is also used in mountain climbing terminology from the same source.

It is tempting to associate the over-used office phrase “put a pin in it” with the belaying pin as both refer to postponing a task however the pin in that phrase is widely accepted to have been the pin of a hand grenade in World War Two where putting the pin back in deferred the explosion.

One belaying pin, ready for any use

A belaying pin was a common improvised weapon aboard a ship as they were close to hand and about the right size and weight to be used as a club.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)