Category Archives: words the French gave us

The Prestidigitator’s Sleight of Hand

Hello,

I was reading “The Chinese Orange Mystery” by Ellery Queen last week, as it’s on my 501 book list, when I came across this week’s word – prestidigitator.

“Inspector Queen began to pull things out of the bag, like a prestidigitator over a silk hat.”

I hadn’t met it before, but understood from context that it referred to a magician of some sort. Nonetheless it sent me to a dictionary, if only to work out how to say it aloud. Yes, as I suspected a prestidigitator is skilled at sleight of hand. They can make a coin appear out of seemingly thin air. Whether there’s such a thing as thick air (perhaps fog?) could be a wordy ramble for another day.

Regular readers will know that it’s pretty rare for a word to originate with a single person. The exception is an eponym which is named for one person, but usually those are added to language thanks to many people using the person’s name as a noun. Prestidigitator is one of these rare words – it was coined by an individual and it is still in use, albeit rarely, today.

Prestidigitator was coined in French in 1830 (or possibly as early as 1819) as prestidigitateur by Jules de Rovère. He joined up the Latin praestigiator (juggler and also related to prestigious which originally in English was all about playing tricks and deception rather than fame), added in a dash of the Italian/conjuror’s presto (quick or ready) and ended with Latin digitus (finger, see also digit and digital). The word made its way into English by 1843.

Words the French Gave Us

Jules was himself a prestidigitator of some renown who was famous in Paris, but you won’t find much about him online unless you’re reading in French and there’s even some debate over whether he was French or Italian. The confusion may have been aided by him also performing under the name Auguste the Magnetiser (a reference to hypnotism rather than magnets) and a brief stay in prison.

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. “Words The Sea Gave Us” has been on release for a whole month now and I must say thank you to all those who have been so supportive of the book. This week the book appeared in The Marine Times (Ireland’s newspaper for coastal communities and all those afloat).

Queue in Queuetopia along with Wolfe Tone and Churchill

Hello,

This week’s word is queue as that appears to be my new hobby – queuing in a socially distant manner for groceries. My record so far is two hours, sigh.

For a relatively simple word, queue has some intriguing historical links to both Irish patriot Wolfe Tone and British statesman Winston Churchill.

Queue entered English in the late 1400s to describe the ribbons around a scrolled letter with seals dangling on the ends. Think of a formal message to a king or noble and you’d be on the right track.

The word was a direct adoption from French queue (tail) which came from Old French cue (tail) which perhaps is a more sensible spelling, but not the one that stuck with us. Cue came to French from Latin coda or cauda, both meaning tail also.

Queue, by the 1500s, was being used for tail in English too, especially for animals in heraldry – the shields and symbols of noble families. Around the same time queue came to describe a line of dancers which by the early 1800s could be a line of people. The idea of a queue being a line of people waiting for something arose in the late 1800s and has been with us ever since.

A queue was also used in hair-styles too. From the 1700s, or possibly earlier, a queue was a braid of hair. In an era when men’s hair was often worn long they might gather it back in a braid for practical reasons, especially in military and naval situations. Sailors, for example, often applied tar to their queues to keep the hair from getting in the way and this was part of the reason why they were nicknamed tars.

Where does Wolfe Tone enter the history of queuing? Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was a barrister and founding member of the United Irishmen and a leader of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule. He used his contacts in France to gain a supporting fleet from Napoleon but the landings and the rebellion ultimately failed. Many of his writings still exist (three volumes of his writings have been edited by T. W. Moody and R.B. McDowell) and they include his explanation of the French use of the word queue in the late 1700s to describe waiting in a line of people. This is one of the earliest uses of queue with this sense in an English publication and may have given the word to the language.

Wolfe Tone never met Winston Churchill, whose biography I am currently reading, and who also left a lasting impression on Ireland’s path to independence. I suspect Wolfe Tone wouldn’t have approved of Churchill deploying the infamous Black and Tan troops to crush resistance in 1920 or his role as a major negotiator of the 1921 treaty to end the Irish War of Independence which divided the island of Ireland.

Churchill’s vocabulary was vast and he wasn’t adverse to coining a new word when he needed it to destroy his enemy. After World War II his party had been ousted from power by the Labour Party. During the 1950 election campaign he targeted the ongoing post-war austerity overseen by Labour and coined the word queuetopia during a speech in Woodford, Essex claiming that under Labour the country had shortages of nearly everything, leading to long lines, a veritable queuetopia thanks to their socialist ideals.

In case you’re curious, Winston lost in 1950 by a slim margin but when Labour held another election in 1951 to improve their grip on power he claimed victory and Labour were out of power for the next 13 years.

As for me, I’m hoping our current queuetopia eases as soon as it is safe to do so.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Rigmarole

Hello,

This week’s word is rigmarole. It’s one I use in speech fairly often (usually entreating my teens to get to the point of their story) but I hadn’t seen it in print for a while so when I spotted it in “A Crown of Swords”, the seventh book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan, which I’m enjoying at the moment, it reminded me to hunt up its origins.

A rigmarole (pronunciation here) is defined as a confused or meaningless story or a complex and sometimes a ritualised procedure. Hence it can either be a verbal thing like the rambling story which never reaches a logical conclusion, or it can be an overly elaborate approach to a task. As a writer, both those things are to be avoided.

Rigamarole doesn’t have the clearest of origin stories but I’ll do my best. It arrived in mainstream English in the 1700s to describe a long, rambling verbal story, possibly from a local expression in Kent. In the 1500s, in Middle English, there was a thing called a ragman’s roll and that was probably the source of the Kent expression.

What was a ragman’s roll? I assumed it was a rolled up pack by a traveling salesman, but apparently not. The roll in this case was more akin to a school roll (list of enrolled pupils). The roll was a long list or catalogue, in this case describing, in verse, characters in a medieval game of chance called Rageman. The fact that the game was complex probably added to the meaning of rigmarole over time.

Rageman probably came into English from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon (Ragemon the good) who was both a character on this list and the title of one of the verses.

A long list – my rigmarole of craft projects to be completed

I was unable to get clear instructions on how to play Ragman’s Roll but it was widely popular in Anglo-Norman households. Some descriptions claim there were up to 50 mini verses (often bawdy) from which each player would draw one at random to tell their fortune, particularly as it related to matters of love. Thanks to Philip G Hunt’s blog for those details.

By 1939 the idea of a rigmarole being a long list had transformed into foolish or complex activities as well as such stories and lists.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Picnic like a Victorian

Hello,

Although Ireland has avoided the European heatwaves recently, to a large extent, we have managed a few sunny days during August and they spurred me into a walk around my local park. The wide open grass & meadow areas were scattered with picnic blankets, laughing children, and dogs who wanted to say hello.

As a result, this week’s word is picnic and it’s one the French gave us. The word started in French as piquenique (it can also be used as a verb in French) in the late 1600s, probably from the verb piquer (to pick or peck) in Old French. The second part might be from nique (a worthless thing) in German, or may simply have been added because it sounds like the first element.

It was used as picnic in English during the 1700s but only rarely. The Victorian era saw the more widespread use of the term but it wasn’t an exclusively outdoor meal at that point. The English picnic in the 1800s was a fashionable social event in the style of a pot-luck where everybody contributes a dish or two. Over time this became associated with the outdoor versions of such gatherings. The move towards the outdoors in the mid-1800s was thanks to the Romantic movement in art and literature which revered nature.

Of course farm labourers had brought a chunk of bread and cheese, or a savoury pastry, to the fields for centuries before picnics became fashionable – that’s the source of the still popular ploughman’s lunch. Middle class and upper class Victorians and Edwardians brought the catering to the next level, probably thanks to servants. Fortnum & Mason’s developed the scotch egg and provided everything you’d need to picnic on the plains of Africa or the hills of Sussex.

By 1861 Mrs Beeton included sample picnic menus in her famous book of “household management”. The main course for one suggested the following –

“a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calves head.”

Thankfully since her time packing a picnic has become simpler and available to all, once the weather co-operates. The word is even used figuratively to mark something as being easy to achieve (since the late 1800s).

Wishing you happy late summer picnics. Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Denouement – a knotty literary device

Hello,

This week’s word is denouement, with thanks to “The Penultimate Peril” by Lemony Snicket, the second last book in the Series of Unfortunate Events adventure books (for age 9-12) which I enjoyed earlier this year.

Some colourful knots

As you might guess this is a word the French gave us, although the French version is spelled slightly differently – dénouement. The denouement in a story takes place after the climax. It resolves all the loose ends of plots and any remaining secrets are revealed. Generally in a tragedy the characters end up worse off than they started and in a comedy the characters end up happier.

An example from history, rather than fiction, would be in World War II. The climax is the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan whereas the denouement is Japan’s official surrender. In “Romeo & Juliet” the climax would be their mutual deaths, whereas the prince’s speech afterwards, resolving the story, is the denouement.

Denouement transferred from French to English around the mid 1700s and despite its association with drawing together loose ends and tying up the various plot lines, it’s actually closer to untying something, at least linguistically speaking. Dénouement in French came from dénouer (to untie) and from desnouer in Old French. Desnouer was compounded from des (un-) and nouer (to knot or tie) which ultimately comes from the Latin word nodus, for knot. Nodus also give us the idea of a node in a network, such as neural networks.

So, denouement comes from the idea of untying knots although writers often think of it more as a place where various stands of plot are tied together in a neat bow to complete a narrative.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Persiflage & 2018 Word Quiz

Hello,

The Wordfoolery Blog is ten years old this year so I decided to treat it to a new theme and banner, I hope you like it. Our weekly dose of word history won’t change though, never fear. This week there’s also a fun word quiz for you to try based on the unusual words explored here during 2018. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to share it – it’s free to try, short, and doesn’t save any personal details.

This week’s word is persiflage (pronunciation here). Perhaps you’re familiar with it, but I happened upon it last year and it sent me to the dictionary to discover it’s a noun for

“light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter” (OED)

Considering how much I enjoy a touch of persiflage, I’m stunned I never stumbled on this one before.

Persiflage entered English in the late 1700s as a direct acquisition from French where the verb persifler means “to banter”. It had formed in French by compounding the Latin word per (through) and the French word siffler (to whistle or hiss) which again came from Latin sibilare, to hiss, (think sibilant). A quick online search shows me the most common usage of persiflage now is to describe someone’s approach to a conversation as having “an air of persiflage“. I dare you to aim for that air today.

Until next time happy reading, persiflaging, and word quizzing,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Macabre

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)

Tinsel

Hello,

I hope you’re enjoying Christmas Eve. Preparations are well underway here at Wordfoolery HQ and the festive spirit has inspired me to explore the word tinsel today.

Tinsel edged noticeboard, with thanks to my daughter

I was surprised to find that tinsel can be a noun, adjective, and verb. The noun relates to threads, sheets, or strips of metal (or plastic) used to create a sparkling appearance in decorations and fabrics. The version I’m most familiar is the festoon of tinsel, a sparkling feather boa, slung around Christmas trees. Personally I prefer decorative ribbons on our tree, so the annual tinsel explosion happens in my daughter’s room instead.

Tinsel as an adjective describes anything which is like tinsel, or is gaudy. Tinsel as a verb is the act of interweaving or adorning with tinsel. I assume this means if you drape your tree in tinsel you are tinseling when you do it.

Tinsel is a surprisingly old word. Its first usage was as early as 1538. It entered Middle English as tyneseyle which was a cloth interwoven with metallic thread and the word probably came from Anglo-French tencelé which itself came from the verb estenceler – to sparkle.

The king of England at the time was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He’d buried three wives by that point and had a fondness for rich fabrics like cloth of gold so we may have him to thank for the fashion for tinsel as courtiers would copy his style.

By the 1650s the idea of tinsel had become associated with things which were showy but ultimately of little worth. Again this fall in tinsel’s reputation may be related to politics as by 1650 England had been rocked by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Charles II sat on the throne but had been forced to curtail some of the more over the top aspects of his court fashions for fear of following his father to the chopping block.

The use of Tinsel Town to describe Hollywood dates to 1972. Although it also describes my daughter’s bedroom at this time of year.

Happy Christmas, and until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Chicanery

Hello,

This week’s word is chicanery (pronunciation here). Chicanery means to achieve your goal via subterfuge. It’s not a word you hear that often now, even though it is certainly something that still happens, with sad regularity.

The word history of chicanery is enshrouded in enough mystery to suggest subterfuge. It entered English in the early 1600s in a legal context. It referred to quibbling and sophistry and came from the similar French word chicanerie and the Middle French verb chicaner (to quibble or to pettifog). How it reached French is a little more debatable. It may be from the Middle Low German schikken (to arrange) or may even be from a golf-like game once played in the Languedoc region of the south of France. Perhaps early French lawyers liked to quibble over points of law as they got in a round before court?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Nonchalance

Hello,

This week’s word is nonchalance, which turned up on a list of “favourite words” on the internet recently and reminded me that I rather like the concept of a nonchalant saunter.

First up, what does nonchalance mean? It’s a state of casualness or cool indifference. If you’re strolling along without a care in the world, you’re being nonchalant.

Words the French Gave Us

Nonchalant is a gift to English from the French, but first we have to go back a bit further. The Latin verb calere means “to be hot”. The medieval French took that idea of heat into their language as chaloir (and present participle chalant) but twisted the meaning to be less about heat and more about being concerned. Both those uses in French have effectively died out now, so don’t trot them out on your holidays.

Allegedly chaland in French has the same root and means “customer or client” but Google Translate has that as meaning barge and my old French-English dictionary agrees, so perhaps the customer meaning is an old one. Hard to see how barges relate to heat or concern.

Anyhow, the version of calere which persisted in French was nonchaloir which meant “being indifferent to or having no concern for”. That gave them nonchalant and nonchalant transferred, with the same meaning, to English in 1734 and hasn’t left since.

Anybody who has visited France will know that they do a rather good line in the old nonchalant gallic shrug, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the word’s root.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and nonchalant shrugging,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)