Category Archives: words

The Word History of Looting


With people everywhere developing a strange obsession with purchase of toilet paper, I’ve decided to take a linguistic look at the word looting, which luckily has nothing to do with loo rolls, despite the similar spelling.

Graeme Donald tells me in his book of military word history “Stickler, Sideburns and Bikinis” that the word loot comes from the Hindustani word lut (plunder). He tells the story of a lootie. The lootie was an irregular local soldier who was attached the British army in India during the 1800s who was paid in an unusual way. They received food and lodging and an extra bonus – the right to loot bodies after the battles.

The Hindi word lut came from Sanskrit lotram (booty or stolen property) and ultimately from a PIE root word reup (to snatch) which is related to our modern verb to rip, as one might rip a sheet of toilet paper from the roll.

Amazingly, lootie does turn up as a colloquial Anglo-India word entering English from 1821, and I even found an account of looties carrying away nine elephants, a tough trick at the best of times and hardly something you might find in a dead soldier’s pocket. Looting and picking over bodies after battles has been a feature of war for thousands of years, but I was surprised to find it authorised by the British army in the 1800s.

Hopefully the current loo-roll obsession won’t lead to anything along these lines.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Carpetbagger History


This week’s word is carpetbagger which I came across in the excellent military history word book “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald that I’ve mentioned here before. Carpetbagger isn’t a commonly used word here in Ireland but I had a vague memory of Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” being called that word.

Vague memories are often incorrect, however, and Rhett wasn’t a carpetbagger at all. He was a blockade runner whose ship slipped past the Union blockade to bring supplies to the south (and earn a good profit in the process).

Carpetbagger entered American English in the 1860s as a negative word for opportunistic whites from the northern part of the country who moved south after the fall of the Confederacy to grab political power (from which some local residents were barred at the time) or to seize property and lands taken by the Union army. Such people arrived carrying their worldly goods in sturdy bags made from carpet scraps.

I wasn’t able to source a copyright free image for this one, but if you picture Mary Poppin’s bag (the one she can find anything in, even a standard lamp) then you’re on the right track.

Over time the word was used for several types of unpopular people out to take advantage of situations for their own advancement including ( but not limited to) – political candidates running in areas where they are not resident, somebody opening an account in a building society solely in the hope the business will go public and they’ll get a windfall payment in the process (UK and Ireland), an amateur Gaelic games player from Ireland who plays without salary but with rich side benefits in the US during the Irish off-season (Ireland), teachers and missionaries who moved from north to southern states (US), and even a steak stuffed with oysters (New Zealand).

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. I’m working away on my next word history book, “Words The Sea Gave Us” at the moment and hoping to launch online in May. I got a sneak peak of the cover this week, very exciting! I’ll let you  know when pre-orders and advance review copies are available. Watch this space.

Paradise is a Walled Garden


This week’s word is paradise, with thanks to Qi who mentioned on a recent edition that it was a word the Persians gave us (along with chess and mummies, if you’re curious). Paradise is used now as a word for an ideal place, and in religious terms it can be the Garden of Eden in the Bible or a heavenly abode for the worthy after death.

I suspect that if you asked a hundred people to describe paradise, you would get a hundred different answers, but thanks to the Persians we have a word history answer available, regardless of your beliefs, or lack thereof. Paradise is a walled garden.

Walled medieval garden, Bloom 2016

Paradise is an Old English word which entered the language from Old French paradis thanks to the Norman invasion (1066 and all that). The French had it from Late Latin paradisus (park, orchard, garden to Eden) who grabbed it from the Greek paradeisos. The Greeks had borrowed it from an Iranian source avestan pairidaeza (enclosure or park). Pairidaeza is formed from pairi (around) and diz (to make a wall) so the core of the word paradise is the fact that it is a walled place, an enclosure of land.

The Greeks used it to describe an enclosed royal hunting ground in Persia and the name attached itself to the idea of the Garden of Eden in English around 1200, and as a description of Muslim heaven from about 1400.

A little corner of paradise

As a garden-lover I like the idea of paradise being a walled garden, filled with blooms, and buzzing with bees, beautiful scents, and bird song. I’m hoping I won’t have to do any weeding though. Perhaps I could sit back and read a good book instead.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Wonderful English Words from Ireland – Bocketty


This week’s word is a favourite of my own, but spotting it in Niall Williams’ excellent novel “This is Happiness” (a coming of age story set in a small Irish village when electricity was installed for the first time) reminded me that I hadn’t included it here on Wordfoolery yet. The word I’m talking about is bocketty (also spelled bockety and bockedy).

I’ve been unable to source a pronunciation audio file for this one but it’s pretty easy to say bock-et-tee (equal stress on all three parts). You won’t find it in mainstream English dictionaries but it shows up in slang dictionaries s meaning “imperfect or physically impaired” and that was the use Williams made of it when he described bocketty men walking to an early Mass who had lost a toe, or two, in farming accidents and wearing their ill-fitting Sunday-best shoes.

In my home bocketty is used to describe anything which is a tad wonky – a far-from straight line drawn without the use of a ruler, a cake whose rise was uneven but would be fine once we applied enough icing (frosting for American readers), or a anything improvised and good enough for use, but not perfect. The Burrow, home to Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter books, is perhaps the best visual example of a bocketty house.

She made the bocketty stitching into a “design feature”.

Apparently the word comes from late 1800s Irish (Oxford Dictionary) but I was unable to source the original Irish word as the spelling must have changed – there is no letter K in the Irish alphabet for a start. Despite having a lack of formal recognition, bocketty is a common word in speech here today and turns up in the writing of many Irish authors (Éamon Kelly, Anne Enright, Niall Williams, etc.). I am curious to know if bocketty is ever used in British-English or American-English – so if you use it yourself outside of Ireland, please drop me a comment. Thanks!

Until next time, happy reading, writing and bocketty 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.

Rambunctious, Rumbustious, and Ramgumptious


I decided to take a look at the origins of rambunctious this morning, but along the way I was distracted by rumbustious and ramgumptious. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Rambunctious (pronunciation here) describes unruly or boisterous behaviour and was used in print from about 1830 in North America. It may have been an adaptation of the British English word rumbustious which had the same meaning and appeared there in the late 1700s as a compounding of robust and boisterous. The OED suggests it may have links to bumptious too.

Whatever the truth, it sounds bumpy and unruly and has stuck in both American and British English ever since. It is the perfect word to describe the lambs in the fields on my daily walk which delight in skipping, butting, and climbing on top of their patient mothers, and yet always stand still when I try to capture their antics in a photo or video.

Rambunctious lambs, not rams (pardon the pun)

Rumbustious isn’t a word we use commonly today. It dates to the late 1700s and includes the prefix rum which was used in a slang sense of good or fine – something I will recall the next time I sip a glass of rum.

Several other words of the same type were coined around the same time, none of which are in use now and yet might be worth revival. A rambumptious person was conceited and self-assertive, a rambuskious one was rough, but the one I love is ramgumptious which combines rambunctious with gumption (which I wrote about back in 2009) to tell us the person is shrewd but also bold and rash – what an amazing combination of personal characteristics.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. In other writing news this week – my next word book inspired by this blog, has just been sent off for proof copies. “Words The Sea Gave Us” will be launching later this year. Watch this space!


The Origin of Lambasting


This week’s word is lambaste (also spelled lambast) which I heard used on a radio programme about our recent general election. I always wondered if lambasting somebody had anything to do with basting a leg of lamb with its juices during the roasting process, so I set out on a word hunt (“we’re going to catch a big one, we’re not scared”).

If you’ve been up to no good, you can expect a lambasting

My first question was how should you pronounce lambaste anyhow? The person on the radio said it as lamb-baste (like basting that roast lamb) and that was the one I’d heard before. So I was surprised to discover that this time the more common Irish pronunciation is the US version. We usually lean towards UK pronunciations, but not this time. The UK pronunciation has the baste part sounding more like Bast, the Egyptian god of cats. If you’re curious you can listen to both versions here.

Lambaste is an older word than I expected. It entered English in the early 1600s and started with a physical sense of reprimand, rather than the verbal/figurative version I would associate it with today. The verb baste meant to thrash or beat something. The addition of the old verb lam, which also meant to beat, was a way of doubling up the strength of lambasting, essentially it was a doubly hard beating. In fact a lam was also a noun, for a heavy blow, used from the late 1500s. Both lam and baste have possible Old Norse roots. Baste may have been a word for whipping and lam was a verb for making somebody lame. The same lam gives us the idea of an escapee being “on the lam“, literally “beating it” along the road.

Basting in the culinary sense has different roots, French in fact, and is an even older word. Basting meat while cooking arose in the late 1300s and probably comes from the Old French verb basser (to moisten or soak) which is also connected to the word basin in English. Hence lambasting has nothing to do with lamb roasts.

If you lambasted somebody in the 1600s you were thrashing them physically, but around the late 1800s the idea softened somewhat and you could give them a tongue-lashing instead which is the most frequent use of lambasting now.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Ferhuddle and Pennsylvania Dutch


This week’s word, ferhuddle, is a suggestion by one of the blog’s readers, Elizabeth Rimert. If you’d like to suggest a word yourself for the blog, drop me a comment below.

You probably won’t find ferhuddle in a standard English dictionary, but it is widely used in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., as an adjective for confused or mixed up. Sadly I wasn’t able to find an online pronunciation audio file for ferhuddle, but you could probably work it out from the PA Dutch online dictionary.

Not being American myself, I had only a vague awareness of PA Dutch so I went exploring. I was surprised to discover PA Dutch is much closer to German than Dutch. I studied standard German for six years as a teen, and found the PA Dutch samples online to be fairly understandable.

The name for the language is Deitsch, which probably explains the Dutch vs. Deutsch confusion. PA Dutch is a version of German spoken by about 250,000 people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and in Ontario, Canada. It arrived with immigrants from Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, and Switzerland in the late 1600 and early 1700s.

Sadly PA Dutch speakers have been in decline, especially since World War II, but it is still widely used in Amish and Mennonite communities. With wonderful words like ferhuddle to give us, I hope it survives.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)