Tag Archives: definition

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)

A Midsummer Zwodder

Hello,

I’m back from a lovely weekend in a yurt in Wicklow with my family and thanks to a combination of antibiotics and anti-histamines (insects love to bite me, but my body doesn’t enjoy the experience) I’m only leaving my zwodder today.

A Yurt with a View

Zwodder, in case you’re unfamiliar with 19th century Somerset dialect words, means a drowsy state of body or mind and I wish it could make a comeback as a commonly used English word. The weather here has been perfect recently – clear blue skies, warm but not too hot, a light breeze. Tradition (but not science) holds such weather is because 120,000 students are sitting state examinations at the moment, the poor things. All I know is it makes for perfect zwoddering conditions.

My zwoddering spot

Zwodder certainly doesn’t appear to have standard English roots due to its spelling. Middle Dutch has swadderen which means to be weary or staggering due to drinking. Anglo-Saxon had swodrian which meant becoming drowsy or falling asleep. Zwodder’s roots may lie in the Land of Nod amongst a haze of Zzzz.

Until next time I wish you a comfortable hammock and time to zwodder,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

We Are the Champions

Hello,

This week’s word is champion. If you’ve ever read or watched the “Game of Thrones” series by GRR Martin you’ll be familiar with nobles in trouble invoking the right to Trial By Combat and that’s where the champion enters the story.

In medieval times a king could only fight their peer, another king. Unless they met on the battlefield this was an unlikely event as the monarchs had to be protected at all costs. Instead the king would nominate a champion to meet any challenge on his behalf.

My Champion is Ready for Combat

 

Champion entered English during the 1200s but there are earlier mentions and given the prevalence of French as the language of nobility at the time it is unsurprising to find champion’s roots in French soil, with a light dusting of compost from Latin.

In Old French a champion was a combatant in single combat on the champ (field) and came from the Latin word campus which means field of combat and makes me wonder what transpires on university campuses.

Related words to champion are the French words for countryside (campagne) and mushrooms (champignon) which make sense in relation to fields, but the one I like is scamp – one who flees the field.

The British monarchy retains the concept of a Royal Champion since 1066A.D. This noble, whose family was given lands as a reward for the work, had to ride up and down before coronations asking if anybody objected. This tradition persists but without the horse these days. The current Royal Champion is also a chartered accountant.

The idea of a champion being a superior sporting star dates from the 1700s.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. My CampNaNoWriMo 2018 project is coming along well. I’m editing my middle grade adventure book “Red Sails” and enjoying the company of other dedicated writers in the “Editors Unite!” camp cabin.