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Archive for the ‘words’ Category

Hello,

This week’s word is bunkum, which I came across this week while researching nautical words for “Words The Sea Gave Us”, my next nonfiction book. Bunkum, sometimes shortened to bunk, isn’t a word I ever use, but I may take it up purely because its history is wonderfully foolish.

Bunks (not bunkum) on the Dunbrody Famine Ship

On Feburary 25th, 1820 Felix Walker (1753-1828), who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina in the American House of Representatives (a.k.a. Congress) wanted to contribute to a long-running Missouri statehood debate in Congress. He began a speech which was quickly discerned to be “long, dull, irrelevant”. He was called upon to cut it short. He refused, insisting that he wanted to prove to his voters and their newspapers that he was active in the House. “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe”.

To the frustration of the other representatives he insisted on finishing his long “speech for Buncombe”. Thereafter buncombe (later spelled phonetically as bunkum) came to describe meaningless political nonsense. By 1841 it was a word (a toponym in fact) for any kind of nonsense.

Today’s politicians rarely talk any bunkum, of course.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Welcome to all my recent subscribers. It’s great to have you around. Feel free to suggest a word for Wordfoolery to investigate and to chat in the comments.

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Hello,

The temptation to call this post “A Brief History Of Time” in honour of Stephen Hawking is strong, but I can promise there are no physics here today. Instead, I’m exploring the word history of time. I usually look at the history of unusual words and time is everyday in comparison but has plenty of unusual roots.

Starting with time itself, did you know we get this one from the Vikings? Time entered English as Old English tima (a limited space of time) which has roots in Old Norse timi (proper time) and Swedish timme (an hour).

The concept of time as an infinite abstract idea dates to the 1300s and by 1509 there were images of an old man carrying an hour glass and scythe to personify time.

Time works harder as a word in English than in other European languages. Time in English can mean the extent of time, a specific point in time, and an hour. Whereas in French you’d have temps, fois and heure for those ideas and in German you’ve zeit, mal, and Uhr.

“The Times” as the name of a newspaper dates to 1788. Time in science fiction has always been important. The first time-traveling story was “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells and the first time capsule was created in 1938 for the New York World’ Fair.

Although time reached England with the Norse invaders, the wearing of time pieces wasn’t important in a largely agricultural society until the arrival of the train, the timetable, and the industrial revolution. The idea of “being on time” arose in 1854 as a result of the railroads.

To “do time”, i.e. serve a prison sentence, first appeared in 1865. The phrase “in the nick of time” dates to Tudor times and the nick in question is the precise mark or notch on a tally stick, an early method of recording quantities precisely. The earlier phrase for the same concept was pudding time. Pudding (dessert) was served first so if you arrived in time for that course, you were just in time.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note – this post includes affiliate links to help support this blog.

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Hello,

This week’s word is macabre. I probably should have written about this at Halloween but I forgot amidst the excitement of pumpkin carving and costumed children. Don’t fret, I still have eldritch up my sleeve for Halloween 2019.

Plague doctor’s outfit displayed in Rothe House, Kilkenny, Ireland

Macabre (pronunciation here) is a wonderful word to describe anything gruesome, particularly if associated with death. Macabre with this meaning is in English from the late 1880s but it was used in English long before that and has a rather ancient origin.

To find its roots you need to go back to Old French where you had a danse macabré from the late 1300s. This dance of death was a type of morality play depicting Death and his victims dancing behind him. By the 1500s the performance and term had spread to English as Macabrees daunce.

Where the macabré part of the phrase came from is somewhat disputed. It may have been somebody’s surname but many believe it is a reference to the slaughter and martyrdom of the Maccabees in the apocryphal books of the Bible. The Maccabees led a successful revolt to re-establish Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem which is celebrated during Hanukkah. Later some of them were martyred for refusing to sacrifice their Jewish faith. They are now venerated as martyrs in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox faiths. It is these martyrs who were supposed to be depicted in the danse macabré, to inspire the faithful presumably.

If you’re curious about the rather macabre outfit pictured you may be interested to know that it’s a recreation of a plague doctor’s outfit from Tudor times and is on display in the excellent Rothe House in Kilkenny, a rare and beautiful 1600s Irish merchant’s house complete with period correct gardens.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out Wordfoolery’s book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictonary”? It tells the life stories of more than 200 villains, inventors, and fashion icons who gave their names as eponyms to the English language. Everybody from Guillotine to Molotov is included. Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK as paperback or kindle and also on Kobo and Apple books. (affiliate links)

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Hello,

Today’s word is xenial which I came across in “The Slippery Slope” (Series of Unfortunate Events Book 10) by Lemony Snicket. The author delights in unusual words and I’m reading the entire series at the moment so I can “talk books” (and words) with my daughter who loves them. They’re quick reads for an adult so it’s helping my Goodreads 2019 book reading challenge too.

Xenial is one of the words where the X is said like a Z, by the way. You can get a pronunciation audio file here or just go with zee-knee-ull.

Snicket’s character implies that xenial is another way to say somebody is friendly or helpful and he’s on the right track. Xenial describes friendly relations and hospitality especially by the host for their guest and in particular when those two people are from different city-states or countries. It has its origins in ancient Greece, xenos was the Greek word for guest. For example, Walder Frey was far from xenial when he hosted the Red Wedding in “Game of Thrones”.

xenial gift wrapping

Xenial entered English in the 1800s as an adjective for hospitality but clearly the ancient Greeks were a friendly bunch way before that date. Although we should also probably recall the ancient advice to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, even if they appear xenial at first glance.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week’s word is myriad because it’s one of my favourites and I wanted to delve into its history.

A myriad of beads

Myriad (pronunciation here) is one the Greeks gave us. It is used in modern English as a noun for a countless number of things or people, or as an adjective to describe something as being great, or countless, in number.

For the Greeks, however, myriad had a specific number associated with it – ten thousand. In ancient Greek the word murioi meant ten thousand and some scholars believe it was the largest number used in the language so hence also worked as a term for something limitless, as in many languages which initially have words for one, more/two, and many as these are the terms most needed in daily life (unless you’re a mathematician or scientist, of course).

Myrias (the Greek genitive form of murioi) edged into Late Latin with the same spelling and the meaning of ten thousand. From there myrias hopped int Middle French as myriade. In the 1550s myriade entered English as myriad and we’ve had it ever since.

Somewhere between Latin and English the precise 10,000 sense was lost and now is hardly used. So if somebody tells you this week that they’ve a myriad of certain items, they probably haven’t counted them. Much to the annoyance of the Ancient Greeks.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week’s word, immense, was recently listed as one of readers’ favourite words in English. After exploring another gigantic word, brobdingnagian, last week I thought we could continue the large theme this week.

An immense crochet monkey

Immense is the adjective used to describe something which is great beyond measure. It entered English in the early 1400s from Old French immense and ultimately from Latin immensus which means boundless or immeasurable. The prefix in– (opposite) and mensus (measured) were joined together to give us immensus.

Immense became a particularly fashionable word in the 1700s. It would have been a trending hashtag online if such a thing had been possible. Instead it was mocked in the press as being used to describe every possible item and experience –

“every thing was immense great and immense little, immense handsome and immense ugly”.

Popular words are often over-used but at least immense survived this mockery and is still a useful, and beloved, word today for describing the vast and impressive vistas and emotions of this world.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week’s word is brobdingnagian. A character is described in “Hall of Mirrors” by Christopher Fowler (witty detective fiction country house mystery) as being

“positively brobdingnagian when balanced upon a minuscule wire-framed chair”

and I had a feeling it was a reference to the classic satire Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift but I had to pull out the dictionary to be sure, as I thought the only adjective he’d spawned with his writing was lilliputian for people small in either stature or outlook.

Sure enough brobdingnagian (pronounciation here) describes anything of tremendous, or gigantic, size. Swift described Gulliver’s encounter with the land of Brobdingnag in his classic book. It’s inhabited by humans of massive size and is almost the opposite of Lilliput where the people are tiny relative to his brave shipwreck survivor, Gulliver.

The witch Cailleach Beara at Slieve Gullion Forest Park

What I hadn’t realised was that Swift gave English several other words thanks to his hugely popular book, many of which entered the language shortly after its publication in 1726. He wrote the book while working as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

You may not use big-endian and little-endian for controversies over nothing significant (or ways of organising digital data), or some of his other lesser known words, but I bet you’ve heard of a yahoo being an uncivilised person.

If you’d like to encounter the giant witch I’ve included above – check out the Giant’s Lair Trail at Slieve Gullion Forest Park. There are many legends about the witch attached to the landscape of the area and the trail is perfect for families, or you can tackle Slieve Gullion mountain if you prefer something more energetic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

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