Tag Archives: definition

The Marvellous Word History of Mummies

Hello,

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy the Qi Elves’ podcast “No Such Thing as a Fish“. They are clever people chatting about cool facts and having a huge amount of fun teasing each other at the same time. Mostly I laugh along, but now and then I rush off to jot down a word for this blog, a fact for a nonfiction book, or inspiration for a story.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why mummy is the word (as opposed to mums the word) this week here on Wordfoolery. They mentioned that we get the word mummy from bitumen and that bitumen is extracted from natural islands in the Dead Sea. Don’t ask me where they found that gem but I reckon it’s obscure enough for me to explore here.

Mummy in Louvre, Paris. Note the intricate wrapping of the head.

Mummy arrived in English in the 1300s spelled as mummie but at that time it described a substance prepared from a mummy and used in medicine, to staunch internal bleeding apparently. Delightful notion.

The word came to English via Latin (mumia) but originated in Arabic mumiyah (embalmed body) from Persian mumiya (asphalt) and mum (wax). Egyptologists believe that Arabs who saw the blackened appearance of the mummies thought the remains were covered in bitumen and named them accordingly.

Mummy in the Vatican Museum, Rome. Note the dark exterior.

The connection of the word mummy with Egyptian mummies didn’t reach English until the 1600s. Of course mummies existed long before that time. The Chinchorros of South America created the first, around 5,000 B.C. and the Egyptians adopted the idea around 2,500 B.C. Creating each one took about forty days.

Not all mummies were human. There’s an Egyptian mummified cat in the National Museum of Ireland and others include jackals, baboons, horses, and lions.

 

In Victorian times, hosts would buy a mummy and throw a party at which the unwrapping of the body served as the entertainment for the evening. The mind boggles.

Bitumen was used in the mummification process, so the Persians weren’t too far off in their naming of mummies. Bitumen, if you didn’t know (I had to look this one up) is a natural oily form of petroleum also known as tar (the more common term for it here in Ireland). Bitumen occurs naturally in several places around the world including the La Brea Tar Pits in California and the Dead Sea. It was used by humans as early as 40,000 years ago for waterproofing and glue.

As well as being ground up for medicines and unwrapped at parties, mummies were also used as the main component in the paint called mummy brown. Thankfully the manufacturer stopped this in the 1960s, because they had run out of available mummies.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Barmy, Beer, and Barmbrack

Hello,

Today’s the first of July and as I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, the summertime challenge from the people who bring us National Novel Writing Month every November. It’s a smaller event with friendly camp cabins (online support forums) instead of real-world writer meetings so I’m chatting with writers from America, Sweden, and elsewhere this month as I work away on the second half of my nonfiction book “Words The Vikings Gave Us”.

Camp Nano is a relaxing event for me as I don’t have the responsibility of running meetings and forums as I do during the November challenge. Plus, instead of targeting 50,000 words in a month I can set my own target (25,000 words this July).

One of the words I wrote about today at camp was barmy – a word the Vikings gave us. So I thought I’d share it here too.

{extract from “Words The Vikings Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2019}

Barmy

To describe somebody as barmy in British English is to say they are foolish or crazy. Barmy is an adjective form of the noun barm – the froth on yeasty malt liquor, typically during the creation of beer or ale. The bubbly barm was also used to leaven bread and certain cakes. Both jobs would have been common on Viking-era farms and for many centuries thereafter, so it’s no surprise that barm comes from an Old Norse word barmr (froth).

Beer capping machine in the Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland

Barm entered Old English as beorma to mean either yeast or the head of a beer, again with that frothy meaning. It is likely the Vikings brought the word to English.

The Viking influence on English was particularly strong in Northern English because it was a centre for their settlements and population. Viking footprints on barm are easily spotted in barm cake. This cake, from North-Western England, leavened with barm, is a soft, rounded, flattish bread roll.

Another barm-related recipe is that for barmbrack (sometimes mis-named barnbrack) – the traditional Halloween cake across Ireland. The barmbrack (bairín breac in Irish which translates as speckled loaf) is a round fruit cake leavened with yeast or barm which is usually served sliced and buttered. Traditionally items were baked inside the dough and finding one in your slice was deemed to be a primitive form of fortune telling. The dried pea predicted you wouldn’t marry that year, the stick foretold an unhappy marriage, the rag suggested poverty, the coin claimed future wealth, and finding the ring assured you of a wedding before the next Halloween.

Wales has a similar fruit bread called bara brith, but without the surprise ingredients and fortune telling.

Perfect beer for a wordfool

 

   It wasn’t until the 1800s that barmy gained the additional meaning of foolish or mad from its connection to frothy, bubbly behaviour.

 

 

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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)

Xenial Greeks Bearing Gifts

Hello,

Today’s word is xenial which I came across in “The Slippery Slope” (Series of Unfortunate Events Book 10) by Lemony Snicket. The author delights in unusual words and I’m reading the entire series at the moment so I can “talk books” (and words) with my daughter who loves them. They’re quick reads for an adult so it’s helping my Goodreads 2019 book reading challenge too.

Xenial is one of the words where the X is said like a Z, by the way. You can get a pronunciation audio file here or just go with zee-knee-ull.

Snicket’s character implies that xenial is another way to say somebody is friendly or helpful and he’s on the right track. Xenial describes friendly relations and hospitality especially by the host for their guest and in particular when those two people are from different city-states or countries. It has its origins in ancient Greece, xenos was the Greek word for guest. For example, Walder Frey was far from xenial when he hosted the Red Wedding in “Game of Thrones”.

xenial gift wrapping

Xenial entered English in the 1800s as an adjective for hospitality but clearly the ancient Greeks were a friendly bunch way before that date. Although we should also probably recall the ancient advice to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, even if they appear xenial at first glance.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

A Myriad of Greeks

Hello,

This week’s word is myriad because it’s one of my favourites and I wanted to delve into its history.

A myriad of beads

Myriad (pronunciation here) is one the Greeks gave us. It is used in modern English as a noun for a countless number of things or people, or as an adjective to describe something as being great, or countless, in number.

For the Greeks, however, myriad had a specific number associated with it – ten thousand. In ancient Greek the word murioi meant ten thousand and some scholars believe it was the largest number used in the language so hence also worked as a term for something limitless, as in many languages which initially have words for one, more/two, and many as these are the terms most needed in daily life (unless you’re a mathematician or scientist, of course).

Myrias (the Greek genitive form of murioi) edged into Late Latin with the same spelling and the meaning of ten thousand. From there myrias hopped int Middle French as myriade. In the 1550s myriade entered English as myriad and we’ve had it ever since.

Somewhere between Latin and English the precise 10,000 sense was lost and now is hardly used. So if somebody tells you this week that they’ve a myriad of certain items, they probably haven’t counted them. Much to the annoyance of the Ancient Greeks.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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)

Nettles and Fabric – A Twisted Word History

Hello,

Along with a passion for words, I also enjoy foraging. There’s something satisfying about finding local plants and using them in old recipes. Last weekend, for example, I took a walk to gather elder flowers and bottled up some elder flower cordial. I’m far from expert and take great care to pick sustainably and with careful identification, but with help from a handful of good books on the topic I’ve been expanding my hedgerow harvest from simple blackberrying to blackberry and apple jam, crab apple whiskey, and wild garlic pesto. Pinterest is a good starting place for information, if you’d like to try it yourself.

Beware of nettles

When I was walking back with my elder flowers I passed a large clump of nettles and remembered a strange fact about them from “Foraging” by John Lewis-Stempel – “In Scotland, the natives made cloth from nettles as late as the 18th century”.

Nettle’s word history ties in with the idea of cloth. Nettle entered English from Old English netele which in turn came from Old Saxon netila and related words netele (Middle Dutch), netel (Dutch), Nessel (German), and naedlae (Danish). All of these terms come from the root ned which means “to tie or bind”.

Twisted fibres used to bind are but a short hop to cloth via a loom and it wasn’t just done in Scotland. I recently read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales (for my ongoing quest to read the entire 501 Books list) and in one of them (The Wild Swans) a princess must knit nettle shirts to save her brothers from an evil queen. She suffers terribly during her task due to nettle stings.

The history of nettle cloth is well documented elsewhere online, if you’re curious, and dates back to 3000 B.C.. Nettle cloth, or ramie, which is like linen was widely used worldwide even during World War II, even next to the skin.

To nettle someone is a more recent verb use of the word. It means to irritate or provoke someone and is from the 1560s. I imagine touching a stinging nettle would provoke you alright.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be nettle stung I do have one piece of advice based on a foraging talk I attended a few years ago. The charming expert began with a demonstration of how to handle nettle stings. He was scathing on the common misconception that dock leaves help. They don’t and I can vouch for that from my own childhood. At best the application of dock (also called burdock) leaves makes you feel a little better as a distraction/attention thing.

Dock – pointless for nettle stings

He introduced us to another plant, smaller leaved than dock, which generally grows on the edges of paths worn through grassland – plantain (plantago major). Apparently it was called whitefoot by native Americans as it grew where the colonists walked. It has strong anti-histamine properties and is well known for this in some countries and totally unknown in others which is a shame. He demonstrated with sheer bravado, holding a fistful of nettles for a minute, showing us his red, welted hand (to groans from his audience), and then rubbing the welts with dampened, crushed plantain leaves. In half a minute the welts and pain were gone.

 

Plantain – try it on nettle stings

I’ve yet to try this myself but I spread the word and both my children have helped stung friends with good effect.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling. Stay away from those nettles, unless you’re making nettle soup.

Grace (@Wordfoolery)