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The Start of the Index

Hello,

Earlier this week I created the index for my eponym book, a thrilling task as I’m sure you can imagine. It got me thinking about the word itself. Clearly it has some Latin roots going on, but where exactly do we get index from?

index-finger

The word in means “towards” in Latin and an index does point us towards information so that makes sense and also links it to the index (or pointer) finger.

It expands to indic- as prefix (still in Latin) to mean “forefinger or sign”. That combines with either dicere or dicare to give us index. Dicere means “to say” and dicare means “to make known”. Taken together that gives us index as meaning “to point the way and to make known”, that’s pretty good fit for the modern use of the word, or finger.

Index reached middle English by the early 1400s and has retained its meaning since although an index will mean different thing to people working in different fields. An index is vital in databases, for example, where it points to the data. They are part of scientific instruments. We have a price index in economics and sadly an index of forbidden books within religious history. The interesting thing is that index in all these cases has the same core meaning – it’s a way to point out the relevant information. Most words I explore here change over a 600 year history, but index is still pointing the way.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

 

hazelnutsHello,

This week’s word is squirrel. They have been on my mind this week as I beheld my tiny hazelnut harvest (pictured left) and muttered darkly about “bushy-tailed urban criminals”.

I grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for my family’s table. I planned my garden to be productive, including as many native plants as I could. This involved me planting a hazelnut tree in my front garden. I researched it in the hope I could get hazelnuts (my favourite nut) but the books all said to plant at least three together if you wanted nuts and I didn’t have the space, so I selected a contorted hazel with curled stems that looks great in winter and an unholy mess in the summer.

We wind lights around it at Christmas and during the unwinding process one January I was stunned to find a scattering of hazels on the (hazelnut coloured) gravel beneath. I shouldn’t have been shocked. As I explored the lanes around our village I noticed other bushes in gardens and the motorway embankment is planted with native trees, including hazels.

Contorted hazel covered in ice

Contorted hazel covered in ice

I came to depend on a small hazelnut harvest each Christmas, growing as the tree grew in size. Not this year. This year it has halved and many of the nuts show signs of attack by tiny claws. I’m blaming the squirrels. There’s a healthy population of red squirrels in old woodlands nearby and I’ve spotted one clinging to the wall of my neighbour’s house. I’m all for squirrels and I’m happy to support our native reds over invasive grey squirrels any day but do they have to eat my hazelnuts?

Squirrels have been with us for some time (about 36 million years according to the fossil record) and they get everywhere, not just at my hazel tree. The word entered the English language  in the early 1300s. It came from the Anglo-French word esquirel. That came from the Old French word escurueil which was used for the beast or its fur (perhaps culled by angry nuttery owners). It came from scurius and sciurus in Vulgar Latin and Latin but it’s when we reach Greek that the fun starts.

The Latin words came from the Greek word skiouros which is formed from skia (shadow) and oura (tail or backside) with the idea being that the squirrel was a beast whose tail cast a shadow. I have a vision of ancient Greek squirrels using their tails to shade themselves from the relentless Greek sunshine, probably while nibbling on stolen hazelnuts.

Until next time remember to share the hazelnuts, the squirrels need them too,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Hello,

This week’s word is flabbergast because I love it. It goes so far beyond astonishment, surprise, and shock. I can picture the victim of the flabbergasting literally reeling backwards.

Unfortunately the origins of flabbergast are unclear. The word entered mainstream English in the late 1700s and may be a composite word composed of flabber and aghast (meaning shocked) – the notion being that you are so aghast that you literally quiver like a jelly. The truth is, nobody knows. There are some mentions of it being a Suffolk or Perthshire dialect word.

The origin of ghast in aghast is interesting. It’s an old word for ghost. So flabbergasted is the correct response to seeing a ghost and adds credence to the idea of the flabber relating to shaking in shock.

I think there’s a short ghost story in this for children – “The Tale of the FlabberGhast” – what do you reckon?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

Grand Bazaar fez, modeled by Eli

Grand Bazaar fez, modeled by Eli

Hello,

This week’s words take us to Persia, Istanbul and Italy. I hope you have your passports and visas in order.

A recent column in “The Irish Times” newspaper mused on a charity jumble sale of the author’s youth which was always billed as a bazaar. It set me on the trail of bazaar and bizarre, the later being one of my favourite words. It’s a great adjective – helpful to describe outlandish outfits, unusual behaviour, and characters who defy conventions.

While I’ve visited many jumble sales in my time, selling old teapots, homemade jam, and raffle tickets, I’ve only encountered one bazaar, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. We visited it on a sorching hot day in 2002 and entering its cool vaulted maze was a relief, for a moment. Then the sheer variety of goods on display assaulted my eyes and the scents of spices, perfume oils, and leathers assailed my nose. We joked that you could buy anything there – from gherkins to giraffes. Your most bizaare request would merely require a moment for the stall holder to rummage in the back. Who needs Aladdin’s lamp if you can browse the bazaar?

I don’t come from a nation of hagglers. If you tell me the price, that’s what I’ll pay. But bazaars demand a different approach. DH took the first shot, taking about a third off the original quote and going from there. He secured a leather weekend bag that has served him well since. The vendors of Istanbul, and trust me everybody is a seller in Istanbul (or has a cousin with a carpet shop), all have a story to tell. In that respect they reminded me strongly of the Irish. Don’t expect to buy in a rush. Leave them with a fair profit. Don’t bargain without any intention of purchase. I can’t tell you if we got the bargaining right but I still love the perfume oils I selected from the tiniest, most fragrant stall I found. My fez, although never worn, is the jewel of my hat collection.

Bazaar isn’t a Turkish word, but it’s in the right neck of the woods. It comes from the Persian (modern day Iran) word bāzār which means marketplace.

Bizarre, meaning odd or fantastic, certainly describes the goods in the bazaar but it has a completely different root. It entered English in the 1600s from French where it had the same meaning. Earlier in French it had the additional meaning of brave or like a soldier, which makes sense to me as it take bravery to make bizarre choices. Spanish and Portugese also gained the word at around the same time, again with the secondary meaning of brave or handsome. I have a mental image of an unusual, but brave and handsome, soldier fighting his way across France, Spain and Portugal in the 17th century.

Unfortunately my imaginings are flawed as the original root is most likely to be bizza and bizzarro in Italian which mean irascible or fits of anger.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Hello and Happy New Year,

I generally post about unusual English words but I hope you’ll excuse me if I delve into German today, it seems appropriate for this particular week.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big QI fan, the quiz show of “quite interesting” facts formerly hosted by Stephen Fry but now under the excellent captaincy of Sandi Toksvig. You can find out more about the show here. I heartily recommend the spin-off podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish” by the show’s researchers.

I found this week’s phrase in one of the QI books, “1,411 Facts to Knock you Sideways” and it is Eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Something of a mouthful even with six years of learning German behind me, I have looked around for an audio pronunciation file and can’t find one. Try it slowly with me – “air-leg-enda  voll-milk-sow”. Well done!

It translates literally as an egg-laying wool milk sow, a creature that gives us ham, milk, wool, and eggs. It’s the perfect farmyard beast but isn’t the result of some dodgy genetic experiment. It’s actually the term for someone who can do everything. The equivalent English term is “Jack of all trades” but it doesn’t have the whispered after note “master of none”. The German beast actually can do it all and is typically applied to the female of the human species, a wonder-woman of sorts.

This amazing creature was mentioned as early as 1959 in poetry but it’s a fairly modern word and sometimes references technical devices that promise to do it all.

This week is the one when it’s hard to avoid articles and social media items about new diets, exercise regimes, career moves, and relationship advice designed to change our lives.

Remember that the Eierlegende Wollmilchsau is an imaginary beast. By all means try out something new this year. Learning keeps us engaged with life. Getting outdoors and eating well will do you no harm. But if you start laying eggs it might be time to ignore the “New Year, New You” articles and put your feet up with a good book.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

No snow this year for Christmas - this snowlady is from 2013

No snow this year for Christmas – this snowlady is from 2013

Hello,

This week’s word is a suggestion from my sister who spotted it, appropriately enough, on a train. Snoofing is a verb meaning to feign a dormant state in order to avoid interaction with other passengers on public transport, especially if that means relinquishing your seat to someone in need.

Snoofing is a recently invented word whose origin appears to be from spoofing (pretending) and snooze. It doesn’t appear in any of the mainstream dictionaries but as a former train commuter (who only rarely had a seat during her pregnancies) I can assure readers that snoofing is a real and deserves a verb, if only so we can shame those who engage in it.

Spoof (a hoax, trick or deception) has a longer history. It comes from spoof in 1884, a card game involving trickery, bluffing, and nonsense invented by British comedian and music hall entertainer Arthur Roberts (1852-1933). The idea of a spoof as being a skit or parody of a play or movie entered English around 1914. Arthur started his career busking in London’ Covent Garden and once caused a supper room to lose its license due to performing one of his more saucy songs there.

There is also a coin game called spoof and a world championship. Details and rules of play are here.

I haven’t been able to find the rules of spoof as invented by Arthur Roberts because it would be a fun game to play during twixtmas – the days between St. Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Instead I shall have to deploy my snoofing techniques to avoid washing the dishes.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

 

reindeer-cosyHello,

This week, amongst a seemingly endless list of chores and festive outings, I’ll be preparing for Christmas dinner. I don’t have hundreds of guests, but we’ll include one vegetarian and one picky-eater so the menu is a little convoluted. Luckily I don’t suffer from deipnophobia.

What is it? Deipnophobia (pronunciation here) is a morbid fear of dinner parties and comes from the ancient Greek word deipnon which means dinner. I can’t believe that any Greek ever disliked dinner parties. My experience of dining in Greece had an easy atmosphere, shared dishes, good humour, great flavours, and local ingredients but perhaps it was different back in ancient Greece. Perhaps it was the prospect that someone might slip a draft of hemlock in your wine?

I hope your own Christmas dinner doesn’t induce deipnophobia and that none of your guests arrive with a bottle of hemlock as a gift. Perhaps you could look to the next entry in the dictionary – deipnosophist – someone who talks wisely over dinner. If your guests incorporate such a gem, allow them to talk as you sip your festive drink and relax in the warm glow of good company and fine food.

Wishing you and yours all the goodwill and joy of the season,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)