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Hello,

This week’s word is exquisite. I was hiking on Sunday and admiring the new season’s ferns. I love the way they unfurl from the tightest little buds. A stem relaxes into existence and then each leaflet unrolls out from the stem itself. During high summer they’re easy to ignore, providing a green carpet under trees and along stone walls but on a bright spring day their exquisite growth dance is beauty in miniature.

The adjective exquisite entered the English language in the early 1400s from a Latin source and it meant “carefully selected” as it was a direct borrowing of the Latin word exquisitus which meant “careful choice” from the verb exquirere. Exquirere is compounded from ex for out (think exit, for example) and quarere meaning “to seek” (think query, for example).

It’s unclear how but exquisite’s meaning in English mutated with use. By the late 1500s it had changed to mean “something of delightful excellence”. By the 1700s it had refined to mean “something of delightful excellence produced by art rather than nature”. By the early 1800s it had a noun form which was used as another term for a dandy or foppish character.

Hence I shouldn’t describe the delicate tendrils of the new ferns as exquisite. They require no artist to tend them, but I still think they out-shine any sculpture.

Until next time, enjoy the small details in life. Happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Hello,

Today’s phrase is gung ho which means eager or overzealous enthusiasm. To my ears it sounds Asian in origin but actually this phrase was given to the English language by the American military.

Gung ho entered English during World War II. General Evans Carlson of the U.S. marines was impressed with the name and work ethic of the Chinese industrial co-operatives which had been co-founded by a New Zealander friend of his – kung hou – which translates as “work together in harmony”.

He explained the idea to his soldiers – one group of workers all dedicated to one objective. He held gung ho meetings to explain orders and overcome issues with little regard for traditional rank and hierarchy. The phrase caught on first in his own command and later spread throughout the marines and entered general parlance.

Gung ho gained a high profile when it was used as the title of a 1943 box-office hit film starring Randolph Scott about Carlson’s battalion’s innovative commando-style attack on Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean in 1942.

Until next week happy reading, writing, and gung ho wordfooling,

Grace (aka @Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I include words here for various reasons. This week’s word, quagmire, is a favourite of mine because it’s fun to say. It even sounds squelchy.

Quagmire has two meanings, one practical, the other more conceptual. In reality it is soft boggy ground that gives way underfoot. We have a plethora of quagmires in the hilly areas of Ireland thanks to our slightly damp climate and extensive peat bogs. The example above is rather mild, little more than a grumpy puddle, but somehow despite hiking through plenty of quagmires I don’t have any photos of them. This is probably because I usually have my mind focused on avoiding falling in rather than on photography. I do have a plan to photograph proper boggy ground next time though. I need visual aids to explain to parents why their Scouts come home covered in mud and why dispatching them without rain trousers is a poor idea. Some fault may fall on the teens themselves – rain trousers aren’t cool and some prefer to get soaked in the name of fashion, sigh.

Quagmire can also refer to a complex or hazardous predicament that is difficult to escape. We’ve all tangled with those and while the resultant mud may be metaphorical, which washes out excellently, it is an uncomfortable experience.

Quagmire dates back to the 1600s in the boggy sense and had the second meaning by the 1700s. It was formed from the joining of two words – quag and mire. Quag meant bog or marsh, possibly because the ground quaked underfoot. Mire goes back even further, the 1200s in fact, and again had the joint meaning of to become entangled and also of bog or swamp. Myrr, which entered English as mire, was a Norse word for moss than probably came from Old German originally. So quagmire really means a boggy bog.

Until next time, watch where you tread and I wish you happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Hello,

This week’s word is whiffler, a suggestion from Cliodna Johnston, and it’s a good one. Whiffler has two meanings, one historic and one that’s in current use. I’ll start with the modern term.

A modern whiffler is someone who changes their opinions and attitudes easily, especially during an argument or discussion. You can’t pin down a whiffler. They will ease themselves away from you with a quick twist of their beliefs. I suspect we’ve all met someone like this in our lives. Now at least we know what to call them, apart from other more abrasive terms not suitable for polite society.

Whiffler dates back to 1500s Middle English. Its origins lie in the Old English word wifel which meant battle-axe and probably came from German originally. If you’re feeling brave/suicidal you can point this out to your wife the next time you dare to call her “the old battle-axe”. Wifel transmuted into wifle in Middle English and thence to wiffler by 1530 when it meant an armed attendant.

The wiffler carried arms, perhaps a battle-axe, and sometimes a torch to clear the way for a procession. Then wealthy members of society adopted the idea of having their own whiffler to push a way for them through busy streets, a shoving bodyguard if you will.

I can’t help remembering a scene in “The Princess Bride” when Inigo Montoya is desperate to get through a crowd and calls on his giant friend Fezzick to clear the way. “Everybody move!” he booms and sure enough, everybody moves. Fezzick’s whiffling skills were impeccable. He didn’t even need a battle-axe.

Any parent who’s tried to move a child’s pram through a crowd will sympathise. Any city dweller caught behind a group of gawping tourists when rushing to an appointment will recognise the emotions. Yes, we all need a whiffler sometimes. I think they could make a come-back. What do you think?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I can still hear the gentle but firm tones of my English teacher explaining that an oxymoron is “an apparent contradiction in terms”. It’s a compressed paradox, used for dramatic effect.

Examples make it clearer – open secret, alone together, plastic glasses, virtual reality, the living dead, and exact estimate. That last one is a favourite of mechanics and plumbers in my experience. Many of these phrases are in common use and are accepted until you really think about their meaning. They serve a useful purpose in writing, underlining the incongruities of life.

What I hadn’t realised until recently is that oxymoron itself is an oxymoron. It entered English in the 1600s directly from Greek. The Greek term translates as “pointed foolishness” (something I try to deploy here on Wordfoolery) but if you look at the constituent parts of the word it becomes clearer. Oxys means sharp or pointed but moros means stupid (it also gives us moron). A sharp moron is not somebody you met everyday.

I also didn’t know that the plural of oxymoron is oxymora – that’s one for the next trivia quiz, or to impress English teachers.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

Asgard II at Howth

Hello,

This week’s word is thanks to Terry Breverton’s excellent non-fiction tome “Nautical Curiosities” which I recently finished reading with a fistful of inspirations for my coastal novel series and for this blog. There may be a flood of nautical words on the horizon, you have been warned.

I’ll begin with gollywobbler because it’s such a ridiculous word. The gollywobbler is a “large square staysail hoisted between the masts of schooner in a reaching wind to increase speed”. As a motion-sickness-afflicted landlubber myself I scurried to the dictionary to understand that description. I’ll enlighten you as best I can.

A staysail is a fore and aft sail set on lines that run diagonally downward from a mast. These lines (what sailors call ropes) are called stays, hence the name. Unlike the square-rigged sails on a schooner, staylines are in line with the keel of the boat, i.e. at right angles to the rest of the sails. Thus, presumably, they catch wind from other directions and increase the ship’s speed. A reaching wind comes side-on to the boat and the staysails are perfectly positioned to use a reaching wind. Gollywobblers are still used on sailing boats today and there’s even a series of wines named after them.

The origin of gollywobbler is, sadly, unknown, but I imagine that running aloft to hoist one would have been a wobbly and rather terrifying task on the taller of the tall-ships. The gollywobbler is believed to have given rise to the expression “I have the collywobbles” which means to be afraid.

In other news this week, I’ve finished the major editing on my book about the fascinating people behind eponyms “How to Get Your Name into the Dictionary”. Now begins the the fine edits and work with the proof-reader and cover-designer. I’ll keep you posted on progress. If any of you review books, let me know in the comments or @Wordfoolery on twitter and I’ll send an ARC your way.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Lambing is in full swing

Hello,

Did you know today is the vernal equinox? I didn’t. I was more focused on the clocks going forward this weekend (for European Daylight Saving) which will mean I can do evening outdoor Scout meetings again and hike longer in the day. Yes, that’s the way my mind works.

But I had noticed that it was pretty springy around here today. The clue was the frantic baa-ing from the fields I passed on my morning walk as ewes sought to protect their new lambs from my gaze, the upswing in temperatures, and the consequent blooming of wild primroses, dandelions, and wood anemones on the banks.

So what’s the vernal equinox anyhow? It’s one of two times per year when the sun is positioned directly above the equator and hence we have equal day and night. The vernal (or spring) equinox marks the point in the year when the northern hemisphere begins to tilt towards the sun and we get longer, warmer days. It’s the astronomical start of spring (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere in which case it’s the start of autumn) and certainly in these parts it is when the countryside wakes up and the farmers stay up later. A brightly-lit tractor passed me this evening on its way to sow fields in the dark.

Wild Primroses (an edible flower)

Vernal equinox has Roman roots. Ver is Latin for spring and vernal means “of spring”. The Romans gave this word to several other languages in fact – Norse, Greek, Lithuanian, Armenian, Sanskrit, Slavonic, and Persian. Equinox is an almost direct import from Latin too. Aequi means equal and nox means night and the term entered English in late middle English.

The Romans can’t claim to have discovered it, however, as even megalithic people marked the equinox with stone circles and cultures worldwide have marked the date with various celebrations and rites, many associated with fertility. Knowing when to sow crops has always been an important consideration after a long dark winter.

The Romans took a typically imperial approach. They named the month, March, in honour of Mars their god of war for one simple reason. The weather in March, thanks to the equinox, dried up enough to allow war season to commence. They regarded it as the first month of their year.

I wish March marked such a dramatic change in weather in these latitudes. Sadly this morning’s sunshine has now vanished into a sudden temperature drop and a snow forecast. Spring takes a while to unfurl in these parts.

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

Grace