Category Archives: Words the Americans Gave Us

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)

 

What a load of Bunkum

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.

Lynch (extended edition)

Hello,

This week, after a wonderful weekend in Galway that included a little Lynch research on the side, it’s time to revisit the origin of the word lynch (explored in a 2014 post). This is an extract from my forthcoming non-fiction paperback and ebook “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” which rambles through the fascinating life stories of those who gave their names to the English language via eponyms.

(extract from “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” by Grace Tierney, c. 2018)

Lynch family crest, medieval stone carving, St. Nicolas’ church, Galway

The Irish origin of this word is somewhat questionable, but I suspect it has Irish roots somewhere, if only because Lynch is a common Irish surname.

Most of us know that to lynch someone is to punish them, typically by hanging, without the benefit of due legal process. The real mystery lies in working out who was the original Lynch.

The Irish claim to the word is based in Galway city. The story goes that in 1493 James Lynch Fitzstephen, the mayor of Galway, strung up his own son from the upstairs window of his house for murdering a young Spanish man over a romantic rivalry. There’s even a plaque at the window which you can see in Galway.

It’s a dramatic story and a great one for tourists but almost certainly false because the term didn’t gain usage for another 300 years. In fact the window with the plaque doesn’t even date from the correct period and is no longer in the original Lynch house.

Lynch Castle, Galway (now a bank)

 

A variation of the story is that the Lynch son embezzled money from his father’s merchant business overseas and covered it by throwing a Spaniard overboard on his return trip. A sailor denounced him on his death bed and his father, a local judge (and first mayor of Galway), condemned him to death. When the public gathered to prevent the hanging the father took matters into his own hands and hung his son from the house’s window.

The tomb of James Lynch, first mayor of Galway in St. Nicolas medieval church

It’s only fair to point out that second version does include a trial, although one wonders how fair it was.

The much more likely source for lynching (although nobody is 100% certain) is an American Quaker Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a planter in Virginia who held an irregular court to imprison loyalist supporters of Britain during the American War of Independence. Charles later got Lynch’s Law passed to excuse him from wrong-doing because it was war-time, a clever move.

The controversy around Lynch’s Law brought the word into common usage to indicate anything done without due legal process.

Although lynching later came to be associated with racial issues, Charles was known to be colour blind in his judgments.

Inhabitants of Lynchburg, Virginia will already know of their own connection to this tale, the town was founded by Charles’ older brother.

Added Bonus

When exploring the Lynch tombs in Galway I encountered a wordy stone-carved Latin tombstone, pictured here.

Tomb of Stephen Lynch, St. Nicolas’ church, Galway

The inscription translates as –

“Stephen Lynch of illustrious lineage, the darling of his soldiers and the terror of his enemies, in years still a young man, but old in valour, of whom the world was not worthy, was exalted to Heaven the 14th of March A.D. 1644”.

What a wonderful description, wish I could have one that good when I kick the bucket.

[Dec 2018 Update – the book is out now in Amazon paperback (USA and UK), and ebook for Kindle, iBooks, and on Kobo.]

Wordfoolery is running away to Paris next week, so I’ll be skipping one post but will be back fooling with words on Monday 13th. Until then happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)