Tag Archives: definition

Rigmarole

Hello,

This week’s word is rigmarole. It’s one I use in speech fairly often (usually entreating my teens to get to the point of their story) but I hadn’t seen it in print for a while so when I spotted it in “A Crown of Swords”, the seventh book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan, which I’m enjoying at the moment, it reminded me to hunt up its origins.

A rigmarole (pronunciation here) is defined as a confused or meaningless story or a complex and sometimes a ritualised procedure. Hence it can either be a verbal thing like the rambling story which never reaches a logical conclusion, or it can be an overly elaborate approach to a task. As a writer, both those things are to be avoided.

Rigamarole doesn’t have the clearest of origin stories but I’ll do my best. It arrived in mainstream English in the 1700s to describe a long, rambling verbal story, possibly from a local expression in Kent. In the 1500s, in Middle English, there was a thing called a ragman’s roll and that was probably the source of the Kent expression.

What was a ragman’s roll? I assumed it was a rolled up pack by a traveling salesman, but apparently not. The roll in this case was more akin to a school roll (list of enrolled pupils). The roll was a long list or catalogue, in this case describing, in verse, characters in a medieval game of chance called Rageman. The fact that the game was complex probably added to the meaning of rigmarole over time.

Rageman probably came into English from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon (Ragemon the good) who was both a character on this list and the title of one of the verses.

A long list – my rigmarole of craft projects to be completed

I was unable to get clear instructions on how to play Ragman’s Roll but it was widely popular in Anglo-Norman households. Some descriptions claim there were up to 50 mini verses (often bawdy) from which each player would draw one at random to tell their fortune, particularly as it related to matters of love. Thanks to Philip G Hunt’s blog for those details.

By 1939 the idea of a rigmarole being a long list had transformed into foolish or complex activities as well as such stories and lists.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Banjax

Hello,

This week’s word is banjax (pronunciation here). It’s an informal word which teeters on the edge of slang but does get a definition in several major dictionaries. Although it might not be acceptable in an English essay for an exam, it is a mainstream word, albeit one which is most widely used in Ireland (Hiberno English) than in other English-speaking countries.

So what does banjax mean? Well, it describes something, or someone, who is worn out, tired, broken beyond repair. If the mechanic has given up on your car then it would be banjaxed, or if you had worked nights for a month and could barely put one foot in front of another you would be banjaxed.

My Dad as a Schoolboy

The best description I ever heard of banjax came from my father. He told me when he was growing up in Killester (Dublin) there was still an undeveloped field opposite his house on the Howth Road. It was home to one sad, lonely donkey who had retired after a long life as a working animal. The way he described the creature it reminded me of Eeyore in the A.A.Milne stories. The local kids loved the donkey and would pull up juicy grass to feed it through the gate. They named it Banjax.

Sadly, like the end of the donkey’s story, banjax’s origins are lost to us. The word appeared in Ireland around the 1930s. The only guess I found was that it could be connected to the word banjo. You will sometimes hear a person say they are banjoed when they are tired, so there may be a connection, but it remains to be proven. If you’ve theories of you own, please let me know in the comments.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

This post is made in memory of my Dad who died last week. He filled his home with books, his time with crosswords, and his daughters with a love of words and history.

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)