Category Archives: Words the Romans Gave Us

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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Cunctator

Hello,

Today’s word is cunctator which I tripped over online this week and felt was fitting for a week where all the political talk in Britain and Europe is about postponements.

Like many others I can be a world class procrastinator. I can even put off procrastinating for another day, but I hadn’t realised I’m also a cunctator (pronunciation available here, be careful with how you say it!). I’m guessing the reason the word has fallen from regular use is thanks to its rather tricky pronunciation.

So what is a cunctator? They are one who puts off tasks, typically from sheer laziness.

Detail of a carving at Rome

The most famous cunctator of all was the Roman statesman and general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus  (c. 280-203 B.C.) whose overly cautious military tactics against Hannibal and the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War (c. 200 B.C.) earned him the nickname which is the Latin for delayer. He attacked supply lines and made small attacks on favourable ground against the famous commander with much larger numbers. In this he is now seen as an originator of the tactics of guerrilla warfare. His strategy was undermined by his younger officers but gained him respect from Hannibal. You can read more, if you’re curious over at Wikipedia.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Radiance

Hello,

This week’s word is radiance because it’s elegant and inspiring. In my corner of the world there’s more daylight available now. Combined with the blossoms on the trees, there’s plenty of radiance in my garden at the moment.

Radiance entered English in the 1600s with a descriptive sense of a “brilliant light” from the word radiant. Radiant came from the Latin verb radiare (to beam or shine), which also gives us the word radiation.

By the 1700s radiance had acquired a more figurative sense so if you described the object of your love as being radiant you weren’t comparing them to a lighthouse or the dazzling light of the sun anymore.

Language scholars believe William Shakespeare may have been responsible for giving us the word radiance. He was fond of dialect words and had no qualms about fooling with words to suit his needs. As a result he may have added up to 1700 new words to the English language during his career.

Radiance is used by Helena in Act I Scene I of “All’s Well That End’s Well”

‘Twere all one

That I should love a bright particular star

And think to wed it, he is so above me:

In his bright radiance and collateral light

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare…

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m taking on the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge this month – starting the first draft of “Words The Vikings Gave Us”, another book in my nonfiction series covering everything from beserk to saga. If you have an English word of Viking origin (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) you’d like to see included – please reply to this post. I’ll acknowledge any reader suggestions in the published book. Thanks!

Fiasco – a story of wine and plays

Hello,

Today’s word is fiasco. I’m researching Old Norse words in English for my book “Words The Vikings Gave Us” and was enjoying “Words We Use” by Diarmaid Ó Muirithe (based on his language columns for the Irish Times) when I came across his linking of fiasco to bottles of wine. As a lover of both wine and words, I had to investigate.

An empty flasco

Fiasco entered English in 1855 and by 1862 is was being used to describe any disastrous flop, but in the beginning it was linked to flops in the theatrical world. It came to English from the French phrase “faire fiasco” – to make a fiasco – which originated as an Italian phrase “far fiasco” – to suffer a complete breakdown in performance – but which literally translates as “to make a bottle” as flasco is the Latin for bottle. It’s related to flask, as you might expect.

Now in slang here we’ve got the idea of “bottling it” to describe somebody being too afraid to do something, although it’s not confined to actors. I can’t help wondering if there’s any connection.

Naturally with such vivid mental images of bottles and disgruntled audiences it’s hard to avoid the idea that they might cast a bottle on stage in disgust over a poor production of a beloved play (Italians are passionate about their culture) but proof is thin on the ground. There’s a chance that the phrase is a corruption of the Italian expression “fare il fiasco” which describes game playing where the loser buys the next bottle/flask of wine.

Either way, the next time I encounter a fiasco I’m going to see if I’m entitled to a bottle of wine in compensation.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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The Strange Story Behind Hocus Pocus

Hello,

This week’s word is the exclamation “hocus pocus!” as used by magicians. You might also hear abracadabra or shazam, but we all prepare to be amazed if someone twirls a wand and calls on hocus pocus. But who was hocus pocus? Is it Elvish?

Ready for a magic trick?

Hocus pocus has been used by conjurors for centuries. It dates to the 1630s and as there was also hocas pocas as name for a juggler or magician in the 1620s, it might be older. Hocus pocus is also used as a noun to describe tricks, again from the 1640s.

As early as the 1650s astute observers were remarking that the phrase, used to distract and entertain the crowd during tricks, might have its origins in the Latin words spoken during catholic religious services. The phrase “This is my body” used during the consecration was spoken in Latin as “Hoc est corpus meum“. Few of the faithful would have understood enough Latin to follow the details of the priest’s words. It would be the 1960s before those words were spoken in the local language of a church, instead of Latin.

Jugglers and street entertainers were known for “borrowing” other common Latin phrases to use on audiences who generally wouldn’t be familiar with the language. In the 1670s the phrase hiccus doctius was a phrase used by jugglers during their performances and sometimes was used as another word for juggler, just like hocus pocus. Hiccus doctius is likely to have been a twist on hicce es doctus, “here is the learned man” in Latin.

Words change with use and mispronunciation in English, and in all languages. It’s not surprising that this process would happen especially with words from a language spoken often but only understood by the learned in society. The 15th century jugglers and conjurors took a solemn phrase and gave it new life on the streets. The reaction of the priests is not recorded.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)
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Immense – a Fashionable 18th Century Word

Hello,

This week’s word, immense, was recently listed as one of readers’ favourite words in English. After exploring another gigantic word, brobdingnagian, last week I thought we could continue the large theme this week.

An immense crochet monkey

Immense is the adjective used to describe something which is great beyond measure. It entered English in the early 1400s from Old French immense and ultimately from Latin immensus which means boundless or immeasurable. The prefix in– (opposite) and mensus (measured) were joined together to give us immensus.

Immense became a particularly fashionable word in the 1700s. It would have been a trending hashtag online if such a thing had been possible. Instead it was mocked in the press as being used to describe every possible item and experience –

“every thing was immense great and immense little, immense handsome and immense ugly”.

Popular words are often over-used but at least immense survived this mockery and is still a useful, and beloved, word today for describing the vast and impressive vistas and emotions of this world.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)