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Archive for the ‘Words the Germans gave us’ Category

Hello,

This week’s word is bewilder. Modern usage of the word is for mental confusion. The female shopper was bewildered by the vast choice of shoes available in the store, for example, but its origins are more physical than mental.

Samuel Johnson, that dictionary-compiling hero, defined bewilder as “to lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road”. Anybody who has ever had a trail peter out to nothing when hiking in unknown countryside can empathise with this experience. Yes, a map and a compass (plus the skills to use them) will get you safely home, but there’s a moment of worry nonetheless. Will you have to slog through a bog to reach your starting point? Is it getting dark yet? Is everybody in your group able to handle off-trail hiking?

A sign in the pathless places

Wilderness is increasingly rare in this world. The “pathless places” are fewer than they were in Johnson’s day. I suspect most of the new frontiers are under oceans rather than up hills.

Bewilder comes from another verb, one almost as rare as true wilderness now – wilder. Wilder means “to lose one’s way, as in a wild or unknown place” and it was first used in 1613. I love the idea of saying one morning “I’m going wildering today. I may see you this evening, or possibly not, if I become bewildered.”

 

Of course both wilder and bewilder come originally from wild, which has German roots and is linked to the word for woodland so perhaps the original wilderness was a trackless forest, truly a disorienting and hard to navigate space, rather than the wide open plains or uplands we think of today in a world which has lost many of its ancient forests. It is hard to imagine my own country covered in trees, but the truth is that 400 years ago we Irish clustered in towns around the coast, connected by sea and rivers, for the simple reason that walking or riding through the woodlands was a sure way to become bewildered.

Not quite a trackless forest

Wildering can be scary but rewarding. Have fun in the pathless places, physical or mental, this week,

@Wordfoolery (a.k.a. Grace)

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Hello,

This week I’m taking a brief look at a word the Germans gave us – poltergeist (pronunciation here). It’s compounded from two sources – poltern, the German verb to knock and geist which means spirit.

Thanks to horror movies galore you’re probably familiar with poltergeists moving objects, odd odours, and strange noises – quite literally things that go bump in the night, often targeting one particular living person or place. The idea is common across many cultures and are often explained by gusts of wind, earth tremors, and animal pests.

Reports of poltergeist activities date back to the 1500s but the word only entered English in 1838, probably aided by the upsurge in interest in all things occult thanks to the spiritualist movement. In German the term translates as a “rumble ghost”.

The word poltergeist appears regularly in the many writing of Martin Luther who famously started the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church in Europe. He may even have coined the word.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will be confused to hear that according to the Online Etymology Dictionary a poltergeist would be a boggart in Northern English dialect. I’m fairly sure a prank-playing poltergeist like Peeves is pretty different to the shape-changing boggart featured in the stories. They might even find it faintly ridukulus (pun intended).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Keep a close eye out for the poltergeists,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

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