Over a Barrel


With only one week left of pre-ordering on my new book “Words The Sea Gave Us” I’m getting excited about launch day (13th July). This week’s word is the phrase “over a barrel” and it’s a nautical phrase with two possible shipboard roots.

Over a Barrel {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2020}

To have somebody over a barrel is to have the upper hand as they are rendered helpless.

There are two excellent reasons to put somebody over a barrel in a seafaring context. Either could be the source of this phrase which only entered printed English in 1938, but may have been around earlier.

The first option is to stretch a naughty sailor over the barrel before bringing out the cat o’ nine tails (see the Tight Ship chapter).

The second, more likely and equally helpless option, is the common method of reviving somebody who’d nearly drowned. The unfortunate soul was placed face down over the barrel which was then rolled back and forth vigorously to drain the seawater from their lungs and hopefully jolt them back into breathing. It’s unknown how often the over the barrel idea succeeded.

Barrel, despite being a very common item for centuries, has unknown origins. It was present by the 1300s in several European languages in various spellings, but the source hasn’t been found although barriclus in Medieval Latin is a good candidate.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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The History of the Word Barber and their Poles


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!



Binkying Bunnies


Happy June everybody. The sun is shining here and the birds chirping so this week’s word is a happy one – binkying. I came across it in “The Simple Things” magazine which is one of those rare things – a magazine without celebrity gossip or makeup tips. Instead they focus on unusual people, foraging, the outdoors, and simple things to add joy to your life.

Perhaps you know binky, but it was new to me. Binkying is a big twisty hop rabbits do when they’re happy. Humans don’t often jump for joy much beyond the age of ten, but apparently rabbits never lost the trick. Binky is also an informal term for a soft toy or blanket that a small child loves and sleeps with.

Piegon and Buttercup tucked up in bed, tired from binkying

The word history for binky is murky at best. First record of usage appears to be 1935 but origin is given as a Binky, a rabbit character in “Life is Hell” a comic book series by Matt Groening in 1977. Yes, Matt went on to create “The Simpsons”.

American readers will probably also know binky as a brand of baby soother/pacifier and a trademark since 1935 in the U.S.A.. Keen readers of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld fantasy novels will also know that Death’s horse in the series was called Binky.

Word Detective adds that binky pre-dates the trademark as a term for a small item in 1912 and one of the commenters there adds the gem that in Edwardian England the names given to as yet unnamed girl babies was Bunty and for boy babies it was Binky.

The trail for the origin of binky wanders through both baby and bunny history without reaching a true conclusion, but I’d be betting the rabbits got there first. All I know for sure is that if I ever get a pet rabbit it will be either Bunty or Binky.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



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)


Queue in Queuetopia along with Wolfe Tone and Churchill


This week’s word is queue as that appears to be my new hobby – queuing in a socially distant manner for groceries. My record so far is two hours, sigh.

For a relatively simple word, queue has some intriguing historical links to both Irish patriot Wolfe Tone and British statesman Winston Churchill.

Queue entered English in the late 1400s to describe the ribbons around a scrolled letter with seals dangling on the ends. Think of a formal message to a king or noble and you’d be on the right track.

The word was a direct adoption from French queue (tail) which came from Old French cue (tail) which perhaps is a more sensible spelling, but not the one that stuck with us. Cue came to French from Latin coda or cauda, both meaning tail also.

Queue, by the 1500s, was being used for tail in English too, especially for animals in heraldry – the shields and symbols of noble families. Around the same time queue came to describe a line of dancers which by the early 1800s could be a line of people. The idea of a queue being a line of people waiting for something arose in the late 1800s and has been with us ever since.

A queue was also used in hair-styles too. From the 1700s, or possibly earlier, a queue was a braid of hair. In an era when men’s hair was often worn long they might gather it back in a braid for practical reasons, especially in military and naval situations. Sailors, for example, often applied tar to their queues to keep the hair from getting in the way and this was part of the reason why they were nicknamed tars.

Where does Wolfe Tone enter the history of queuing? Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was a barrister and founding member of the United Irishmen and a leader of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule. He used his contacts in France to gain a supporting fleet from Napoleon but the landings and the rebellion ultimately failed. Many of his writings still exist (three volumes of his writings have been edited by T. W. Moody and R.B. McDowell) and they include his explanation of the French use of the word queue in the late 1700s to describe waiting in a line of people. This is one of the earliest uses of queue with this sense in an English publication and may have given the word to the language.

Wolfe Tone never met Winston Churchill, whose biography I am currently reading, and who also left a lasting impression on Ireland’s path to independence. I suspect Wolfe Tone wouldn’t have approved of Churchill deploying the infamous Black and Tan troops to crush resistance in 1920 or his role as a major negotiator of the 1921 treaty to end the Irish War of Independence which divided the island of Ireland.

Churchill’s vocabulary was vast and he wasn’t adverse to coining a new word when he needed it to destroy his enemy. After World War II his party had been ousted from power by the Labour Party. During the 1950 election campaign he targeted the ongoing post-war austerity overseen by Labour and coined the word queuetopia during a speech in Woodford, Essex claiming that under Labour the country had shortages of nearly everything, leading to long lines, a veritable queuetopia thanks to their socialist ideals.

In case you’re curious, Winston lost in 1950 by a slim margin but when Labour held another election in 1951 to improve their grip on power he claimed victory and Labour were out of power for the next 13 years.

As for me, I’m hoping our current queuetopia eases as soon as it is safe to do so.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Wearing My Huffle-Buffs


This week I’ve been wearing my huffle-buffs often, it’s probably time I explained that term.

My gardening huffle-buffs, beside the peas & beans bed

According to Haggard Hawks (on twitter and on their website), huffle-buffs is “an old Scots dialect word for worn out, comfortable clothes”. As worn out, comfortable clothes are my favourites, this particular term stuck in my daily usage as soon as I came across it. It’s much better than the alternatives – slobs, lounge-wear, athleisure – in my opinion.

At the moment, because we’re still observing a “stay at home” rule in Ireland, my spring garden is getting more attention than usual and my gardening huffle-buffs (a fisherman’s smock from Kinsale, Co. Cork which is 18 years old and a faded pair of eco-cotton trousers from Gudrunsjoden which is 16 years old) have become my daily uniform as I battle back the bramble invasion in the cut flower bed and do my annual vegetable growing tasks. I’m sowing & tending three varieties of tomatoes, garlic, courgette, spinach, lettuce, spring onions, peas, borlotti, runner beans, cucumbers, and peppers this year along with my ongoing crops of herbs, apples, damson plums, hazelnuts, grapes, wild garlic, rhubarb). The tough denim smock is particularly handy when a) sunburn can be an issue and b) you have nettles and brambles ready to attack you at every turn.

Huffle-buffs appear in Scottish dictionary listings from the early 1800s so it’s not as old as you might think, unless it just took a while to make it into the dictionary. Huffle on its own can mean to blow in gusts of wind.

If you go hunting for huffle-buffs’ origin you will get side-tracked into the origin of the house of Helga Hufflepuff in the Harry Potter books and I can’t help thinking that may be a fair connection as although JK Rowling was born near Bristol (and hence is English) she wrote a considerable amount of the first book while living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Perhaps the local vernacular snuck into Hufflepuff’s name? Alternatively Helga must have been a very windy witch to have two words for gust in her surname – huffle and puff.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling in your comfiest huffle-buffs,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve made it to 19,946 words on “The Librarian’s Secret Diary” in CampNaNo so far this month. It will be launching on in May. My two other books “Hamster Stew” and “Nit Roast” are already completed and fully available to read there (first chapter is free to read).

Maybe it’s time to Oozle


This week’s word is oozle, with thanks to the O series of “Qi” on BBC.

Ozzle appeared on a list of unusual O words on the programme I watched recently and although they didn’t discuss it, it struck me as one worth future investigation. Turns out that oozle is a rare word used in Australia and New Zealand so it wasn’t surprising that it was a new one for me as I’ve yet to journey that far.

According to the OED, oozle means to move slowly or lazily and dates to the late 1800s. It is compounded from ooze and the suffix -le. Ooze itself is an older word which entered English in the late 1300s as a verb and noun, all related to slow moving sap, mud, or slime from a selection of Saxon, Norse, and Germanic root words.

The slow turtle was inspired by the sloth to oozle a little more this week

As a result the idea of something, or somebody oozling is that they are moving as slowly as sap slipping from a cut in the bark of a tree, or mud slowly settling. One creature which has mastered the art of being slow is the sloth, native creature to Central and South America and an inspiration to me and my family as we slouch with books and leftover Easter chocolate at the moment. I may not oozle quite as slowly as a sloth, but I’m working on it. Slowly.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



This week’s word is corny. Something is corny if it’s banal or sentimental so it’s generally used in a derogatory fashion. The question is – how did mawkish sentimentality become associated with delicious corn on the cob, or corn off the cob for that matter?

According to the QI Elves on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast – we have the word corny thanks to American corn farmers and they’re mostly right.

Corny originated as American English slang in 1932 to describe something as sentimental, old-fashioned, and appealing to country folk.

Assuming all North American country folk are involved in farming corn is a stretch, however 59% of US farmland is growing it even today. That’s 90 million acres of land and it’s 95% of the feed grain produced in the country. So perhaps associating American farmers with corn production isn’t too wide of the mark. I remain to be convinced of their penchant for old-fashioned, corny sentimentality though.

Corny entered the English language a little earlier than the 1930s, however. Chaucer used the word to describe ale in the late 1300s, possibly meaning the drink was malty. From the 1570s corny could also describe corn or anything full of corn – which seems logical. It took another 370 years to arrive as a way to denigrate songs and movies as cloyingly sweet or old-fashioned.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and corn-eating,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



This week’s word is rigmarole. It’s one I use in speech fairly often (usually entreating my teens to get to the point of their story) but I hadn’t seen it in print for a while so when I spotted it in “A Crown of Swords”, the seventh book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan, which I’m enjoying at the moment, it reminded me to hunt up its origins.

A rigmarole (pronunciation here) is defined as a confused or meaningless story or a complex and sometimes a ritualised procedure. Hence it can either be a verbal thing like the rambling story which never reaches a logical conclusion, or it can be an overly elaborate approach to a task. As a writer, both those things are to be avoided.

Rigamarole doesn’t have the clearest of origin stories but I’ll do my best. It arrived in mainstream English in the 1700s to describe a long, rambling verbal story, possibly from a local expression in Kent. In the 1500s, in Middle English, there was a thing called a ragman’s roll and that was probably the source of the Kent expression.

What was a ragman’s roll? I assumed it was a rolled up pack by a traveling salesman, but apparently not. The roll in this case was more akin to a school roll (list of enrolled pupils). The roll was a long list or catalogue, in this case describing, in verse, characters in a medieval game of chance called Rageman. The fact that the game was complex probably added to the meaning of rigmarole over time.

Rageman probably came into English from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon (Ragemon the good) who was both a character on this list and the title of one of the verses.

A long list – my rigmarole of craft projects to be completed

I was unable to get clear instructions on how to play Ragman’s Roll but it was widely popular in Anglo-Norman households. Some descriptions claim there were up to 50 mini verses (often bawdy) from which each player would draw one at random to tell their fortune, particularly as it related to matters of love. Thanks to Philip G Hunt’s blog for those details.

By 1939 the idea of a rigmarole being a long list had transformed into foolish or complex activities as well as such stories and lists.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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This week’s word is myriad (pronunciation here) because it’s a favourite of mine. A myriad is a very large number of something. You might have a myriad of midges trying to bite you on a country walk, or a myriad of choices when selecting the right dress for the ball (hey, I can dream!).

In my case I’ve been looking at the vendor list for a yarn festival later this month, Woollinn, and reviewing a myriad of indie dyers and their yarns. I want them all, but am trying to be logical and only buy what I need and will actually use. This is a major challenge for any crafter.

A myriad of yarns

Words for large numbers in languages are often fun to explore and myriad is no exception. Most cultures manage words for one, two, or even up to ten but in early languages the tendency thereafter was to settle on a word for “many” and use that for everything from 25 to ten million.

Myriad entered English during the 1500s as the word for 10,000 or an indefinitely large number. It came to English from the Middle French word myriade, which in turn was a borrowing from Latin myrias (ten thousand). Myrias came from Greek myrioi which either meant 10,000 or countless, infinite and boundless. So it appears that even the wise and wonderful ancient Greeks struggled to imagine counting above 9,999.

I have counted my yarn stash and I don’t have 10,000 balls of wool awaiting my attention so I think I may purchase a skein or two at the festival after all.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)