Category Archives: Words the Romans Gave Us

Finding Your Niche

Hello,

I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”

Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?

Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.

With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!

The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.

Can a rubber ducky’s nest or niche be said to be a bathtub?

As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.

Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.

Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).

So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.

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. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.

The History of the Word Barber and their Poles

Hello,

Today, if you live in Ireland, you can once again get your hair cut. As I write, the menfolk of my household are making the trip, through rain and wind, to resume their pre-virus hairstyles. It’s been a hard three months for those who like a neat trim.

Beard growing became a staying-at-home hobby for some.

For the day that’s in it I’ve decided to explore the word history of barber – a word the Romans gave us, with a little help from those fashionable French. If you’ve stumbled on this post looking for barbarians and barbarous, you can read more about their roots (pun intended) in my earlier post, or take a look at the barbaric yawp.

Despite the many shaggy hairstyles sported in historic sculptures, tapestries, and portraits, barbers have been part of life for longer than you might guess. Barber entered the English language around 1300 from the Anglo-French word barbour. It came from Old French barbeor (or barbieor, spelling was fluid back then) and ultimately from the Latin word barba (beard) which also gives us the word barb (as on an arrow or other weapons).

Barbers were early practitioners of the portfolio career concept. As somebody with access to cutting implements they often performed minor surgeries as well as hair-cuts and shaves. By the time of King Henry VIII of England they were limited to hair-cutting, blood-letting, and dentistry – hopefully not all at the same time.

The red and white striped barber’s pole used to identify their shop dates back the late 1600s and was a visual reminder of somebody’s arm, wrapped in a white bandage, after a blood-letting procedure. The pole itself was meant to represent the stick the patient would squeeze to make their veins stand out and make the cutting easier.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Don’t forget “Words The Sea Gave Us” is now available for digital pre-orders. If you’d like a review copy – drop me a comment below. I’m planning a blog tour too – if you’d like me to guest post / be interviewed on your blog – let me know.

p.p.s. CampNaNo runs in April and July each year and I’ll be taking part again this July – aiming for another 30,000 words of my serialised novel “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Between camp and my book launch, it’s going to be a very busy July!

 

 

Doxxing

Hello,

I’m extending an extra welcome to the new readers who joined wordfoolery this week, feel free to join in on the comments. This week’s word is doxxing. It’s been on my “to write about” list for a while now so I’m unsure where I came across it, but I know I originally thought it had to be an old Dublin insult, akin to pox bottle.

Security is key

Doxxing is negative, but not in that way. It’s a pretty recent word, with earliest usage being 2009, although the practice probably dates back to the 1990s. It is defined (in Merriam Webster) as “to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge”. The etymology is simple – it’s a contraction of document dropping where the plural docs is pronounced dox.

Document itself comes from Latin originally – the verb docere meaning to teach or show.

Doxxing is unpleasant for the victim in all cases but can be highly dangerous, as when the home addresses of police officers are revealed, for example. High profile victims of doxxing have included BeyoncĂ© and Hilary Clinton. Surprisingly the unearthing and publishing of tax numbers, private phone numbers, and details about offspring is often legal. The use of the information once it is out “in the wild” online is much more dubious.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Peregrinations and Wanderings

Hello,

At home for the foreseeable future, I glance at my hiking folder. Packed with routes torn from magazines, downloaded from tourist sites, and constructed from my map shelf, it’s a temptation I must resist for a while but planning future peregrinations will become a hobby soon, I think.

Saint Kevin’s pilgrim path to Glendalough, Wicklow, Ireland

A peregrination is a long or meandering journey, the sort Frodo and Sam took from the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings” books, and definitely further than the 2km radius I am currently allowed. Thankfully etymology, seeking the historic roots of words, encourages time travel and that’s not forbidden.

Peregrination entered English in the late 1500s from the Latin word pergrinatus (to travel aboard, to wander). Peregrinus was used as the Latin for a foreigner or pilgrim, a fact I’m sure Tolkien, a Oxford University linguistics professor, knew when he named one of the traveling hobbits Peregrin Took (Pippin to his friends).

Foreign, in the case of peregrination, comes from the Latin adverb peregre, meaning from outside Roman territory. Technically I guess than means if you want to peregrinate you need to do so outside the lands conquered by Rome. As Ireland escaped that particular fate, my hiking routes folder is filled with peregrination options ready to tempt me as soon as I can expand my world again. In the meantime perhaps I’ll join a quartet of hobbits on their voyages instead.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. apologies for the missing post last week. I was unwell.

Loathing Expergefactors

Hello,

This week’s word is an old one I stumbled across a few months ago – an expergefactor. It sounds like a gruesome remedy for a stomach ailment, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s worse than that.

An expergefactor is something which wakes you in the morning. This can range from your alarm clock to next door’s cat, the beep of your phone or the rattle of your letterbox. If you’re very lucky it will be a kiss from a loved one. Unfortunately the history of the expergefactor is shrouded in a sleepy mist. It dates to the 1800s but I can’t find an official etymology for it despite it appearing on several lists of Old English Words deserving a comeback. The closest I came to it is that factor is something which serves a purpose – a corn factor deals in corn, for example. The related verb Expergefaction probably comes from the Latin verb expergisci meaning to become awake.

How you feel about your expergefactor will be determined by a combination of elements including: the volume of disturbance, the time of day, the time you fell asleep, and whether you can now gently arise and eat a leisurely breakfast while reading your book, or you have to scramble around for food while convincing reluctant small people to find their shoes before school.

My least favourite expergefactor was a cockerel at Knockree Youth Hostel on a teenage hiking trip. He decided that despite the fact that we had talked until one in the morning it would be appropriate to perch outside our windows and repeatedly yodel at four a.m.. I recently re-visited the hostel with my son on a similar trip and was relieved to find the cockerel was no more. I suspect a disgruntled hiker ate him for dinner.

In writing about this word I’ve realised that I am now a redundant expergefactor. I used to wake my son, an easy task as merely opening the door was enough to have him bounce out of bed. He’s a morning person. Now he relies on Alexa and listens to the news headlines before rising. Waking my daughter was trickier. She, like me, was not a morning person and had to be coaxed and cajoled from her slumber with hugs and gentle chatter. Now she relies on her old-fashioned alarm clock and regularly has eaten her breakfast before I drag myself from the duvet. If this redundancy means I enjoy an extra ten minutes in bed before my expergefactor rouses me, I’m fine with it.

Who or what is your expergefactor?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I was delighted to be the feature interview over at Smart Thinking Books this week, a publication about nonfiction books.

 

Bibacious and Keck – drinking words

Hello,

The festive season can be a somewhat drink-sodden celebration and with New Year’s Eve approaching it’s time for some boozy words. The pair I’ve chosen I found in the “QI Second Book of General Ignorance”. I love QI, the BBC comedy show about unusual facts. The spin-off podcast created by the QI Elves (a.k.a. researchers) “No Such Thing as a Fish” is a wonderfully witty and entertaining listen if you’re looking for something fun to cheer up January 2020.

The first of the words is bibacious, a gem of a word, which QI found in Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary (sadly his famous dictionary appears to be out of print, but if any of you find a copy, please let me know). Bibacious describes somebody who is a binge-drinker or simply fond of drinking so you can decide yourself how insulting it is although Webster’s dictionary reckons it means you are addicted to drinking. It comes from the Latin verb bibere (to drink) and dates to the 1600s.

A bibacious cocktail menu

The second Dr. Johnson word is keck (pronunciation here) which is to heave the stomach as if about to vomit. Collins English Dictionary tells me this one has three meanings – 1) to retch or feel nauseous, 2) to feel/express disgust, or 3) an alternate name for cow parsley. The noun and verb forms are sadly disconnected so I can’t speculate about how much cow parsley you would eat before you retched. Keck dates to the late 1500s and its roots lie in its sound resembling that of a person being unwell.

I hope that if you have a bibacious New Year’s Eve, it doesn’t result in any kecking.

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.

Ineffable

Hello,

This week’s word is ineffable, a word which I use in conversation, usually when talking about somebody being ineffably cool, but didn’t fully understand until I delved into it today.

So let’s start with a definition – ineffable is an adjective to describe “that which is too great or extreme to be expressed in words”. It is also “that which must not be uttered”. The second meaning was the one that flummoxed me. I had no idea that ineffability had an association with taboos. Oh and in case you’re not sure – here’s the pronunciation audio.

Ineffably elegant telephone kiosk in Stockholm which would display ineffable trousers – the scandal!

Ineffable is one the Romans gave us and has been in English since the late 1300s when it arrived with the meaning of something being too great for words. It traveled via Old French (ineffable) and ultimately from Latin ineffabilis (unutterable) which was compounded from in (not, opposite as used in inimitable, for example) and effabilis (speakable). Effabilis itself was formed from effari (to utter) whose roots are in fari (to speak).

The taboo sense of ineffable arrived in the late 1500s, but it was the 1800s which had the most fun with the word and its meaning. In the 1820s, if you referred to ineffables you were talking about trousers. Yes, really.

Certain parts of British society at that time period (before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but not exactly the most progressive time all the same) would have been prudish so calling trousers unspeakable is far from remarkable. Perhaps the most popular version of such over the top modesty was the idea of table and piano legs being covered so scandalous legs wouldn’t been seen or mentioned, but sadly that’s not really true. If you’d like more info on that story I’ll direct you to Atlas Obscura’s excellent article.

Until next time beware of ineffable trousers,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Pandiculation

Hello,

Appropriately enough I’m writing my blog post this morning having risen early to get some words down before the rest of the house awakens. This week’s word, with thanks to the wonderful television medical series “House” (featuring Hugh Laurie as a brilliant and sarcastic but sociopathic diagnostician in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes). They used pandiculation in an episode and sent me scurrying for my dictionary.

Pandiculation (audio pronunciation available here) is a “stretching and stiffening of the trunk and extremities when drowsy or after waking from sleep”. Basically if you yawn and stretch when you wake up, you’re pandiculating.

Yawn like a roman (sculpture at Ostia Antica, the old Roman harbour)

Pandiculation entered English in the 1600s from simple Latin roots. Pandiculari is the Latin for “to stretch oneself” thanks to pandere (to stretch or to spread). This is one the Romans gave us, as illustrated above.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Cantankerous

Hello,

This week’s word is cantankerous, and no, not because I’m in a grumpy mood today.

Somebody who is cantankerous is bad-tempered and argumentative. The word has been in English since the 1700s when it was believed to come from Wiltshire dialect but it is likely to have older roots. There was a possibly related word contakour in Middle English around 1300 which meant troublemaker. Contakour was a borrowing from Anglo-French contec (discord) and Old French contechier.

“Grumpy Tiki” – a wood carving by my DH whose cantankerous face adorns our garden

Alternatively, some dictionaries reckon it’s related to the word rancour (rancor in American English). Rancour (bitterness and grief) entered English around 1200 from Old French rancor. Rancor came from Latin rancorem (a rancid stinking smell or grudge) from the Latin verb rancere (to stink).

Using that set of origins you could assume that a cantankerous person bears a grudge and may be less than fragrant too.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Numinous

Hello,

Today’s word is numinous. I happened upon it in an article (“A Pilgrim in the City” by Clare Gogerty, author of “Beyond the Footpath”) in the June issue of Simple Things magazine this weekend. She described places of worship as being numinous, “a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the city”. She’s right, of course. Such places can be a quiet oasis that’s much needed regardless of your beliefs, but what exactly does numinous mean?

Chapel ceiling in Christchurch cathedral, Dublin

Numinous (pronunciation here) has three related meanings. The first is supernatural or mysterious – a ghost sighting might be numinous. The second is of a place which is filled with a sense of the divine presence. The third is something appealing to the higher emotions or aesthetic sense. So although places of worship may be numinous it can equally be applied to a beautiful space in nature or an elegant piece of secular architecture. I would argue that a sense of wonder is what links all three. The chapel pictured above is numinous in all senses, I think.

The origin of numinous lies in Latin. Numinous entered English around 1640 to mean “divine or spiritual” from the Latin word numen (divine will). Numen is more accurately translated as divine approval as indicated by the nod of a head because numen comes from nuere the verb to nod. So if something is numinous it has “the nod” direct from God apparently.

Do you have a numinous space somewhere in your world? I hope you enjoy it this week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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