I bet you know the expression “under the aegis of”. For example “The negotiations for a settlement in the dispute took place under the aegis of the Conflict Resolution Board”. We know it means the discussions were under the protection and guidance of that board.

But what exactly is an aegis (pronunciation here) and how did it enter English?

This is one we can blame on the Greeks, those pesky ancients practically wrote the first English dictionary, but at least we have a very clear idea of what an aegis (also spelled egis) is. It’s a shield, specifically the shield of Zeus or Athena. It’s made of goatskin (not gold or bronze, most surprising) and at its centre is the head of a gorgon.

The word aegis entered English in the late 1600s, via Latin. The aeg part was originally aig or aix, meaning “related to a goat” and the –is suffix tells us it was a type of shield. If you were under the aegis of Zeus or Athena you were in a very safe place indeed.

Now I think I’d prefer a metal shield to one made of goat’s hide but I must admit that the addition of a Gorgon’s head does give you the luxury upgrade. The gorgons were three sisters who Greek legends tell us lived in the west, near the setting sun. They all had snakes instead of hair, which must have made a visit to the hairdressers a real nightmare.

They were named Stheno (the strong), Euryale (the wide leaping), and Medusa (ruler or queen). The only one you’ve heard of will be Medusa. She’s the one whose very look would turn you to stone. I can see how having her head affixed to my shield would give a certain edge in battle.

The next time a dry news report tells you about some event being under the aegis of a person or organisation, remember that if you mess with them they may turn their deadly shield against you. Even Captain America would be jealous of that bit of kit.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)

p.s. If you’re curious my adventures in CampNaNo this July have been productive so far despite external circumstances forcing me to change my project, twice. The DS is still chipping away at his story too, very proud of him.





Wordfoolery was gallivanting last week but as always I had my ear tuned in for unusual words. Amongst other nautical locations (my DS now blanches if I mention nautical history or maritime festivals) we took the excellent tour of the Dunbrody Famine Ship which is moored in New Ross, Co. Wexford.

The Dunbrody

Having studied the Great Famine (1844-1849) endlessly during school lessons in Ireland, I thought I knew everything about the ships dubbed “coffin ships” that stacked the emigrants high and shipped them from Ireland to Britain, Canada, America and elsewhere in search of survival. I was keen to see the ship however as she was built about 20 years ago by volunteers to be a total replica of the original 1844 Dunbrody, no mean feat when the skills to create tall-ships are increasingly lost to us.

She’s a fine ship, despite the dark history she illustrates. The mortality rate on the voyages was about 30% but it was still better odds than staying in Ireland where the population dropped by 50% in the five years of that famine (there were many other famines in Ireland in the 1800s).

The engaging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable guide, who happily handled queries on the wider historic context of the famine and ship, decided to involve the younger members of my party in demonstrating life on board. DD got to stir the oatmeal/porridge on the deck’s brazier but DS got the plum job, he was handed a wooden bucket and challenged to handle it. Holding it at arm’s length he guessed it was the ship’s bathroom facilities and mimed tossing it overboard, after being advised to check which way the wind was blowing first.

Bathroom or Scuttlebutt?

I hoped the bucket wasn’t dual purpose, both for fresh and shall we say “used” water? If so it would be a primitive scuttlebutt. Butt is an old word for a barrel or cask, nothing to do with your rear. To scuttle something is to cut a hole in it – for example to hole the hull of a ship in order to sink it. The two together describe a cask or bucket with a lid. The lid had a hole in it so sailors could scoop out water using a drinking cup, but without allowing flies or dirt into the cask.

The scuttlebutt was a place to congregate and exchange news from the 1700s on board ships, hence its meaning as gossip or insider news. It crossed over to landlubber use c. 1950s. The modern equivalent would be water-cooler-gossip and an eponymous version exists in Australia with the furphy (whose story I explore in my book “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” – coming later this year).

If you’re visiting the south-east of Ireland and have an interest in history, I can recommend the tour, just be careful of what way the wind is blowing.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. Wordfoolery)


Today’s word is a suggestion from Wordfoolery fan Clíodna. Quomodocunquizing means “making money in any way you can” which is something many of us are familiar with if we want to pay our way in this world. It’s also a term that’s on my mind this week as I embark on a couple of new writing gigs. I’ll let you know when they’re fit to be seen.

Roman Coin (replica)

Quomodocunquizing is so underused as to be almost extinct. It appeared in a Huffington Post article in 2013 and hasn’t rejoined the English language in any significant way since then, perhaps because of its cumbersome pronunciation. I rummaged for an audio file but failed. My best guess is quo-modo-cun-quizing but it doesn’t exactly ripple from the tongue.

Apparently quomodocunquizing appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, but I can’t find it there or in other major dictionaries, so either this is a fun invention by a word geek, or it has finally lapsed from use. This would be a shame for two reasons. One is that its main quoted usage, a ranty essay in 1652 by Thomas Urquhart, is so over the top – “those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets”. Thomas, I doff my writing hat to your vitriol.

The second is that we all understand the concept and we don’t really have a good word for it. Yes we have “hustling”, although that has con-man implications and yes we’ve “portfolio careers” where a person works on various income streams to curate a profitable and enjoyable career, but there’s nothing like a Latin word to really nail an idea like quomodocunquizing.

Quomodocunque, in case your Latin is as rusty as mine, means “in whatever way”, so quomodocunquizing is a direct steal from Latin into English.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. I hope your quomodocunquizing is profitable.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Today’s word, bastard, may offend some readers but it has a fascinating word history.

Let’s get the meaning sorted first. It has two main definitions –

  1. a person born to unmarried parents
  2. a despicable person

Fortunately the social stigma once attached to the first case is lessening in most cultures. Despicable people, sadly, will always be with us.

The word originated in medieval Latin as bastum. A bastum was a pack saddle. Bastums were used as improvised beds during journeys. The ending -ard was added to create bastardus and name the person conceived in such an impromptu sleeping arrangement. Finally, with a short detour through old French, we arrived at bastard in Middle English and it’s been with us ever since.

Curiously the German word bänkling, which also means bastard, literally translates as “child begotten on a bench”. Location matters, it seems.

The meaning of bastard in Middle English, around the 1200s, wasn’t the meaning we understand today. A bastard was the acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife. The term was irrelevant to the ordinary folk and wasn’t seen as a stigma until the late 1500s. William the Conqueror (Battle of Hastings in 1066, and all that) was often referred to in state documents as William the Bastard.

A related term is gimbo which is the bastard child of a bastard, despite sounding like an exotic stew.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



Tongues have been on my mind this week, as my own has been suffering from some ill-health. In browsing for a new word to explore I strayed across umami. A word that yummy to pronounce (listen here) has to be enjoyed on Wordfoolery.

Tickling tastebuds with tortellini bake

What is umami? It is one of the five basic tastes our tongues can detect – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Umami’s flavour is described as meaty or brothy although it is not exclusive to meat dishes. You’ll find it in mushrooms and seaweeds too. It was scientifically discovered in 1908 but had been used in cookery for hundreds of years prior. It’s even present in breast milk.

Umami is a loanword from Japanese. It translates as “a pleasant savoury taste” and is formed from the words umai  (delicious) and mi (taste).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. welcome to my new readers – always a pleasure to meet new wordfools!


Today’s words are yon, yonder, and yonderly and yonder is with thanks to my daughter. She has decided to refer to certain uniquely male parts of her brother’s anatomy not by the the correct scientific terms but as “down yonder“. I suspect her main motivation is to irritate him. It’s working. Ah the joys of sibling love.

Dreaming of the Wild Blue Yonder

The archaic word yonder, which means “over there” or “some distance from here” entered Middle English around 1200 A.D.  and has Dutch and German roots. There’s a Dutch word ginder which shares its meaning and the Saxons used jendra, Old High German used jener and the Goths tribe used jaind.

My favourite use of yonder is in “Romeo and Juliet” when Romeo says “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” when he’s watching Juliet. It is somewhat more romantic than “down yonder” coupled with a girlish giggle.

Yon is used too, and it means “that” and perhaps more precisely “that thing over there”. For example, “there’s a crow roosting in yon tree”. It shares the same roots as yonder. My favourite use for it is “hither, thither, and yon” – such a wonderful way to describe someone dashing about the place and a good description of my activities this week.

The final word of the trio is yonderly, which relates to distance as you might expect but this time it’s emotional distance rather than physical distance. A person who is described as yonderly is reserved, aloof with a dash of gloominess. I was unable to find any word origin information for yonderly but I think we can safely assume it’s a close relation of yonder and yon.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling as you dash hither, thither, and yon,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


This week’s word is curfew thanks to my son’s history book.

Curfew entered English during the Middle Ages and it originated in French. The phrase “couvre feu” means “cover fire” and it evolved into the Middle English word curfue, and later to curfew.

At the time the majority of buildings in villages and towns were built of wood, the exceptions being churches and the lord’s manor house or castle. The gaps between buildings were narrow so if a fire caught hold you could easily have half the town burned to a cinder before the bucket line got into gear.

One way to lessen this danger was to limit the times when people could have an active fire in their hearth. The church bell rang around sunset to indicate curfeu, time to cover over (bank) your fire for the night. The town bailiff would enforce the rule by taking a stroll around town, which I suspect may have led to the phrase “no smoke without fire”.

The idea of curfew being a time at which you must return to your dwelling didn’t arise until the 1800s and is now mostly associated with teenagers and the declaration of martial law.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (a.k.a. @Wordfoolery)