Category Archives: Words the Germans gave us

Forlorn

Hello,

This week’s word is forlorn, with thanks to my DS who says it’s his favourite word at the moment. I considered telling him mine is floccinoccinihilipilification (to make little of something) but I knew I’d get an eye-roll in return.

Forlorn arrived in English as forloren during the 1100s from Old English forleosan (to lose or let go). Forleosan was compounded from for (completely) and leosan (to lose). Similar compound words about loss existed in Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Gothic, and Old High German so its Germanic roots are clear.

Forlorn boots at Lugnaquilla, Wicklow

Forloren’s original meaning was disgraced or depraved and it wasn’t until the 1530s that it changed to mean forsaken or abandoned. Then in the 1580s it changed again to describe somebody who is miserable or wretched.

The most common use of forlorn in modern English is the phrase forlorn hope which dates right back to the 1570s and was a loose translation of verloren hoop in Dutch where hoop means a troop or group of soldiers. A verloren hoop was a military suicide mission, but forlorn in English is more likely to describe a faint hope rather than anything quite so dramatic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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.

Zigzag

Hello,

This morning I indulged in a little light time-travel. My youngest is attending a camp at Dublin City University this week and I had a few hours to kill so I wandered up to the library and asked if I could use the facilities as an alumni. The lovely librarian sorted me out and buzzed me in with the warm words “welcome back”.

Back in the stacks

The library isn’t even in the same building anymore, but it was a delight to sit in the new space and remember my younger self. I stacked a quiet cubicle with books and settled in. I started research on my next non-fiction book “Words the Sea Gave Us” which I’ll be drafting during NaNoWriMo this November, but I couldn’t help jotting down gems for Wordfoolery too.

Zigzag (also zig-zag, both are used) is the first on my library list. As noted before, I have a fondness for words containing neglected letters in the English alphabet and zigzag has two.

crochet zigzags

What’s a zigzag? It’s a line with sharply alternately right and left turns. They go way back, you’ll find them on the stone carvings at Newgrange (famous Irish stone age burial mound, older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza).

Zigzag entered English in the early 1700s and was used by Jonathon Swift in 1728. The word comes from French and before that from German zickzack where it was applied to describe fortifications. It’s worth noting that Zacke in German meant a tooth or prong which makes sense if you think about the sticky-out-bits (the technical term!) on castellations and fort walls. To perform one of these turns in your course you would zig, or possibly zag so it can be used as a verb too.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Bewildered in the Wilderness

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)

German Series : Poltergeist

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)