Posts Tagged ‘Discworld’


This week’s word is wrangler, thanks to this quotation I stumbled upon in “The Glass Shore” an anthology of short fiction by Northern Irish female writers – “The yokel was a wrangler of his year.” The character saying this was defending a middle class man from a snobbish member of the gentry but I must admit, I had only heard of a wrangler as a type of jeans or an animal handler in movie-speak, so what was she talking about?

Cambridge University in England is the source of the term. A wrangler there is a student who gains first class honours (the top mark) in the third year of their undergraduate mathematics degree. The highest ranking student within that category is the Senior Wrangler and is unofficially informed of this by a hat-tip when their name is read out. The rest are informed privately.

As the difficulty of the exams were universally acknowledged, being the senior wrangler became a highly sought-after honour and was used as short-hand for “very intelligent”. Some of the wranglers went on to high career success (for example Joan Clarke who helped crack the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park) while others missed the title but achieved excellence anyhow (e.g. Bertrand Russell). Wrangler is used in this way only at Cambridge University. Seek them at Oxford and you shall fail.

Unseen University Staff by Paul Kidby

Only one other university features a Senior Wrangler and that’s Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Unseen University in his Discworld books where the Senior Wrangler is a member of the faculty (and the football team) who is described as “a philosopher who looks like a horse”. As usual, Pratchett’s huge knowledge of the world, reminds us of this little known academic term and appropriately links it to animals as the more usual usage for wrangler is for an animal handler either on farms, ranches, or movie sets. It’s worth noting that Pratchett left school at 17 and although he was awarded ten honourary degrees, he didn’t receive one from Cambridge. I like to think he was the real Chancellor of the Unseen Uni.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (or word wrangling),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m running a contest on my twitter account (@Wordfoolery) to give away a 3 month bronze membership of Channillo.com. It enables new members of Chanillo to read up to ten series on the site, including mine, if you wish. First one out of the hat wins. Deadline midnight 31st October 2017.

Note: Discworld and Unseen University are trademarks

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This week, after Terry Pratchett strolled away with his old friend Death, I have to choose a word from his work. I was tempted by embuggerance – his term for his form of Alzheimers, but I decided to go with happier memories and hence I’m exploring the word wyrd, as contained in the title of one of my favourites of his Discworld novels, “Wyrd Sisters”.

My Death and Rincewind bookends

My Death and Rincewind bookends

Long time readers will know why I love “Wyrd Sisters” – it contains a wise fool. Wordfoolery is what it is, at least in part thanks to that particular fool.

But what about the wyrd sisters themselves, Pratchett’s version of Macbeth’s three witches?

I always assumed wyrd was an archaic spelling of weird, but I was wrong. Apparently wyrd is a concept from Anglo Saxon times and is akin to Fate or personal Destiny. Anybody with an interest in Greek or Roman mythology will be familiar with the idea of Fate that cannot be changed. In more recent times you might have enjoyed Percy Jackson’s taxi-ride with the three Greek Fates, who share one eyeball, in Rick Riordain’s excellent books bringing those myths to contemporary New York.

The word wyrd has its roots in German, Norse, and Saxon verbs meaning to become or come to pass and was used widely as relating to predicting the future and such witchy ideas. Wyrd is feminine in its root languages and there’s some speculation that she was a pagan goddess of fate. Fate, of course, is a Discworld goddess so presumably Pratchett agreed with that theory.

The more modern meaning of being strange or hard to account for only came from 1815 onwards and became mainstream in the 20th century.

My children happily quote back to me a saying of mine “You’re weird, but all the best people are.” I suspect Pratchett, and his Wyrd Sisters, would agree.

May you rest in peace, and thanks for all the words,


p.s. those of you with an interest in Terry Pratchett might enjoy this video of his address to Trinity College, Dublin in 2010. It’s an hour long but very enjoyable.

p.p.s. Have a look in the Wordfoolery archives for another word from Terry Pratchett.



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This week’s word is kibitz, a verb that I came across in Terry Pratchett’s “The Colour of Magic” (I’m introducing my kids to the Discworld fantasy books – they love the Luggage – a magical box on legs with serious attitude).

He writes “several minor deities had drifted up and were kibitzing over the shoulders of the players” and that left me wondering was there card-cheating or just good natured banter going on?

The word, pronounced “ke-bits”, has two meanings – to talk informally to someone or to watch others and make unwanted comments about what they are doing. I suspect those minor deities were engaged in the later pursuit. They lack good manners. I reckon the power goes to their heads.

The word’s first usage was 1927 and its origins, as you might have guessed from the spelling, lie in Yiddish, the word kibetsn to be precise.

I don’t fancy being the victim of drive-by kitbitzing attacks, but I can see the appeal of being the one doing the deed. It’s in human nature to judge and making snarky comments is fun. Perhaps I’ll take up silent kibitzing. Nobody will understand why I’m giggling away to myself in the corner.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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