Category Archives: Words the Romans Gave Us

The Curious Link between Leaves and Libraries

Hello,

Today I’m thinking about the expression to take a leaf out of somebody’s book. I’ve always assumed it refers to a leaf as being a page, rather than a green little leaf, but now I’m not entirely sure and it all comes back to libraries which seems appropriate as we’re only three sleeps away from the first Ireland Reads Day (25th of Feb 2021).

Library at Russborough House, Ireland

A library as a space for a collection of books entered English in the late 1300s, long before the invention of a printing press, back when books were hand-copied. The word came from Old French librarie (a collection of books or a bookseller’s shop) and before that from various forms in Latin most of which boil down to librarium (a chest for books). I wish I had a book chest, although I do already have enough stuffed bookcases to call my home a library.

The source of librarium is where we wander from the bookshop into the forest. Librarium comes from liber (book, paper, parchment). The word originally described the inner bark of trees or leaves. Several other languages  (Albaian, Latvian, Russian) have similar words with the same root – all linking books with leaves and tree bark which to my mind suggests early writings were often made on such materials.

Libraries would be greener spaces if our stories were written down on leaves and bark, but I’m glad we developed paper, and digital books, to ensure the longevity of books. Sadly, many libraries are currently closed and yet every librarian I know is still working behind the scenes providing digital services like ebook and audiobook borrowing, sourcing new stock, recording video story-times for children, promoting Ireland Reads Day, and where possible cleaning down books for Click and Collect services. Days like these remind us that stories get us through and that comfort reading is vital (and calorie-free!).

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery and Reading Ambassador for Ireland Reads and Louth Libraries)

As Autumnal is to Autumn, so Vernal is to Spring

Hello and Happy St. Brigid’s Day,

Saint Brigid is one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Patrick and Colmcille, and the first of February is her feast day. This is for one simple reason, Brigid was adopted (or kidnapped depending on your perspective) by Christianity from earlier pagan beliefs in Ireland where the same date was the feast of Imbolc and Brigid was a goddess of healers, inspiration, and warfare. I’m impressed that unlike the Romans and Greeks (Mars and Ares) we had a female goddess of war.

Imbolc, falling roughly halfway between winter and summer solstices, marks the point in the year when plants began to regrow and spring begins in these parts. It’s one of the four key celebrations of the Irish pagan year, along with Bealtaine in May, Lughnasadh, and Samhain (adopted as Halloween), and is still celebrated by Wiccans today.

Wild Primroses

I watched the hedgerows and ditches closely today when out for my walk and Brigid had it right, regardless of which tradition you follow. The gorse is in bloom, wild primroses dotted the banks, and the green leaves of wild garlic, nettles, and more were sprouting forth. It may not feel like it yet, but spring has arrived in Ireland.

I’m sure you know the word autumnal for all things related to autumn (or the fall). But are you aware of brumal for winter, a selection of words for summer (including serotinal), and vernal for spring?

I’ve definitely encountered the vernal equinox before and now I understand why. It’s on the 20th of March this year, in case you’re wondering, and it marks the moment when the sun crosses the equator heading north, bringing astronomical spring to the Northern hemisphere, a full 48 days after Imbolc and Brigid. You can choose either of these dates (or the 1st of March) to declare spring is upon us, but the earlier the better in my opinion.

There are a couple of unusual vernal-like words in the older dictionaries that you might care to revive. We have vernate – “to wax young again” – which sounds like it might be fun and vernaculous “a young or green wit”. Hopefully I can achieve both of those during this vernal season.

We have the Romans to thank for vernal. It entered English in the 1500s from Late Latin vernalis (of the spring) and originally from Latin ver (spring) which also gave related words to Old Norse, Greek, Armenian, Sanskit, Persian etc. You’ll spot ver in verdant and vert(e) (green in French).

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Crepuscular – the perfect word for twilight

Hello,

This week’s word is crepuscular, one I came across on a list of people’s favourite words and then discovered I wasn’t sure of its meaning. In case you’re in the same boat, the definition of crepuscular is “relating to twilight”. In zoology a crepuscular animal is a creature which is naturally most active at sunset and sunrise. Bats, rabbits, and barn owls all fall into this category, for example.

A crepuscular sunset on a sultry day, Wexford harbour, Ireland

I suspect the people listing crepuscular as their favourite word are using it as another way of saying twilight (one of my favourite words and time of day). Since the 1660s, crespuscular has been used to describe anything which is dim or indistinct, like the light at that time of day.

Crepuscular comes to English from the Latin word crepusculum (twilight) which is related to creper (obscure) and possibly from krepos (twilight, although this is not certain). The zoological use in English dates to the early 1800s.

An older variant of the word with the same meaning was crepusculine (in English in the 1500s).

A warm welcome to my recent subscribers – feel free to suggest your own favourite word in the comments. Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Let’s not Hebetate

Hello,

This week’s word, hebetate, is a suggestion from blog reader, Allan Greenwill. If you too would like to suggest a word for the Wordfoolery treatment, you can do so here.

Hebetate, I confess, was a new word for me. It means to make or become dull , blunted, or obtuse. You’ll get the pronunciation here.

Don’t run with

Naturally, any seamstress or chef wants their tools as sharp as possible which is why my mother always yelped if we reached for her special “sewing scissors” to cut paper rather than fabric (apparently cutting tin foil will sharpen them again). Now I’m the keeper of the Special Sewing Scissors and am equally protective of their edge and would be very unhappy if they were to hebetate.

The dictionary definitions of hebetate, however, imply it’s not just your cutting tool which can blunt, but your mind, your debating powers. Nobody wants to become obtuse or blunted in their use of reason, logic, and language.

Hebetate has a pretty simple word origin. It entered English in the late 1500s directly from the Latin verb hebetare (to dull or blunt) and word hebes (dull, blunt). Hebetate is related to hebetude, another English word from the same roots which arrived a few decades later. It again means dull or blunt but is also used figuratively to describe somebody as sluggish or stupid.

In other news this week, the publicity round for the latest Wordfoolery book, “Words The Sea Gave Us”, is continuing. The lovely folk at the Marine Times (September issue is in shops now) gave us a plug. “Seascapes”, Ireland’s weekly radio show about all things maritime (broadcast on RTÉ One radio nationwide at 10.30p.m. every Friday) invited me to talk about the book. I started listening to the show, when I was supposed to be studying for school, thirty years ago and it was a huge thrill to see the studio where they record it and to meet the presenter, Fergal Keane. I rambled on about the beaufort scale, slush funds, blazers, and hammocks on the moon. The episode went out already, but you can listen to the podcast here.

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.

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 Beyoncé 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.