Tag Archives: meaning

Cobalt and the Imp

Hello,

This week’s word is cobalt, not so much because it’s an unusual word, but because it has an unusual history. This post was inspired by a tweet by @BookishLex, one of many word enthusiasts on twitter. If you’re curious about others you can check out my list of etymology people – it’s a work in progress, a handy way to get in my daily dose of word geekery.

The blue squares on these cubes are cobalt

Cobalt entered the English language in the late 1600s to describe a steel grey metal, not the colour blue. The metal was rarer than nickel but similar in structure and was also sometimes called Parcelsus. It was discovered by George Brandt of Sweeden.

So how did the word become associated with blue? The rock from which the metal came was also laced with arsenic and sulphur (sulfur in American English) which, as you can imagine, didn’t have a healthy influence on the miners. The miners, who were seeking silver in the Harz Mountains in Germany, named the rock kobold (which became cobalt when it arrived in English). Kobold had an earlier meaning though, it was a household goblin from the 1200s – a term for a troublesome creature which was compounded from kobe (hut) and holt (goblin) in Middle High German. When the miners were troubled by a mysterious effect (the arsenic, for example) they blamed it on a local goblin.

The extension of cobalt to describe a shade of blue arose in the 1800s as a mineral containing the metal had been used to create that shade of blue for glass since the 1500s. We don’t know if the goblins themselves were blue, or appeared blue if you inhaled enough sulphur dust in the mine.

Until next time be careful of any blue goblins you encounter,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Since my last blog post I finished my 2019 NaNoWriMo challenge with 50,434 words and a fairly complete draft of “The Irish Family Christmas”. Plenty of editing needed, but that will be a job for 2020.

Booze

Hello,

This week’s word is booze. Not because NaNoWriMo 2019 is driving me to drink (it’s not, honest!) but because I was out buying wine for the festive season at the weekend.

Smithwicks bottled water as well as ale

Booze has been a verb since as early as the 1300s when it was spelled bouse. By the 1600s it was bouze and by the 1700s we had booze (to drink heavily). Using booze as a noun appeared in the 1800s, possibly earlier too.

The original bouse came into English from the Middle Dutch verb busen (to drink heavily) which is turn came from Middle High German bus (to swell or inflate) – so beer bellies must have been a thing back in history as well as in more modern times.

Perhaps the most fun connection with booze as a word is the 1800s distillery run in Philadelphia by a man called E.G. Booz. Johnson’s early dictionary of English has an entry for a drink called rambooze made of wine, ale, eggs, and sugar during the winter or wine, milk, sugar, and rose-water in the summer. Perhaps that will make a comeback during the upcoming festive season?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I hope you’re all flying along if you’re taking the novel-in-a-month NaNo challenge. I’m on 33,147 words today and pretty happy because I managed to make myself cry at the right part of the story this morning. If I can’t make myself cry, I’ve no hope with future readers, right?

The Explosive Origin of the word Guy

Hello,

This week’s word comes with thanks to friend of the blog, Damian T Gordon, and it’s a simple word with an explosive history – guy.

There are two nouns in English spelled as guy and both date to the 1600s. The first is a nautical one – a rope, chain, or wire which comes from Old French and the word guide. You’ll find guy-lines on sailing boats.

The second gives us the modern use (in American English since 1847) of guy to mean a person, usually male. Guy was used earlier in British English (1830s) for a poorly dressed man but originally it was associated with an effigy of Guy Fawkes (typically dressed in old cast off clothes) which were paraded through the streets by children on the 5th of November and then burned on top of a bonfire.

That explains where the word comes from but why were children burning guys in the first place? All the clues you need are in the rhyme which begins –

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

I won’t include the entire text as it descends into sectarianism. The 5th of November is when children, and adults, celebrate the foiling of Guy Fawke’s (1570-1606) plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster on that date in 1605.

Religion was a contentious issue in Britain at that time. Fawke’s and his fellow conspirators wanted to kill Protestant King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch. When the plot was exposed they had already stockpiled gunpowder in a cellar beneath the parliament buildings and Guy was caught red handed there.

With Westminster behind scaffolding currently, we’ll make do with a red phone box

The 5th of November is still remembered with bonfires and fireworks in Britain and is more popular there than Halloween. Certain areas are particularly keen on the event. The town of Lewes has multiple competing Bonfire Societies battling for the best bonfire and display, often with topical characters burned alongside Fawkes.

Although born in England, Guy was also known as Guido, when fighting overseas so we narrowly avoided having a musical called “Guidos and Dolls”.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Hello to several new readers of the blog, some of whom found me via the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge. I made it to 8,110 words today – so the month is off to a good start.

Corny

Hello,

This week’s word is corny. Something is corny if it’s banal or sentimental so it’s generally used in a derogatory fashion. The question is – how did mawkish sentimentality become associated with delicious corn on the cob, or corn off the cob for that matter?

According to the QI Elves on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast – we have the word corny thanks to American corn farmers and they’re mostly right.

Corny originated as American English slang in 1932 to describe something as sentimental, old-fashioned, and appealing to country folk.

Assuming all North American country folk are involved in farming corn is a stretch, however 59% of US farmland is growing it even today. That’s 90 million acres of land and it’s 95% of the feed grain produced in the country. So perhaps associating American farmers with corn production isn’t too wide of the mark. I remain to be convinced of their penchant for old-fashioned, corny sentimentality though.

Corny entered the English language a little earlier than the 1930s, however. Chaucer used the word to describe ale in the late 1300s, possibly meaning the drink was malty. From the 1570s corny could also describe corn or anything full of corn – which seems logical. It took another 370 years to arrive as a way to denigrate songs and movies as cloyingly sweet or old-fashioned.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and corn-eating,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Slumgullion

Hello,

This week’s word is slumgullion. This one has been on my “to write about” list for a while because it looked like fun. I didn’t even know what it meant.

Thanks to Merriam Webster (and the audio pronunciation is available there too) for the definition. Slumgullion is a meat stew. Other dictionaries add that this one is an informal (a.k.a. slang) American English word, which probably explains why I hadn’t heard of it. Also they note slumgullion isn’t filled with the most expensive cuts of meat.

Finding a definitive recipe for a stew which was created when the cook needed to use whatever he or she could lay their hands on is a tricky prospect. Most of the modern recipes suggest using minced beef, various chopped vegetables, plus stock and perhaps tinned tomatoes. The Shared Tastes blog explored the older recipes and even includes one using moose meat (not common in my local shop here in Ireland). Various references to slumgullion in literature associate it with the whaling ships and pirates so it might be the stew cousin to my favourite historic seafaring dish, salmagundi. Either way, if you fancy cooking a pot of slumgullion, you can pretty much invent your own version.

Slumgullion was probably a word created by compounding slum and gullion around the 1840s. Slum in this case had nothing to do with urban ghettos. It was an Old English word for slime. Gullion was a dialect word for mud or a cesspool. It may have reached English from Scots, or Irish where the word goilĂ­n means a pit or pool.

Slumgullion may have started on whaling ships. One of the earliest print usages was spelled as slobgullion in “Moby Dick” to describe the watery gloop which drains from whale blubber, and perhaps reminded sailors of particularly poor stew in the galley. The word appears to have moved with the sailors to the mines during the Californian Gold Rush to describe the muddy sludge at a mining sluice. The use to describe a stew dates to the 1870s.

According to “The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” (Eric Partridge) there’s even a related word – a slubberdegullion who is a dirty slobbering fellow. Perhaps such a character created the first stew?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Ineffable

Hello,

This week’s word is ineffable, a word which I use in conversation, usually when talking about somebody being ineffably cool, but didn’t fully understand until I delved into it today.

So let’s start with a definition – ineffable is an adjective to describe “that which is too great or extreme to be expressed in words”. It is also “that which must not be uttered”. The second meaning was the one that flummoxed me. I had no idea that ineffability had an association with taboos. Oh and in case you’re not sure – here’s the pronunciation audio.

Ineffably elegant telephone kiosk in Stockholm which would display ineffable trousers – the scandal!

Ineffable is one the Romans gave us and has been in English since the late 1300s when it arrived with the meaning of something being too great for words. It traveled via Old French (ineffable) and ultimately from Latin ineffabilis (unutterable) which was compounded from in (not, opposite as used in inimitable, for example) and effabilis (speakable). Effabilis itself was formed from effari (to utter) whose roots are in fari (to speak).

The taboo sense of ineffable arrived in the late 1500s, but it was the 1800s which had the most fun with the word and its meaning. In the 1820s, if you referred to ineffables you were talking about trousers. Yes, really.

Certain parts of British society at that time period (before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but not exactly the most progressive time all the same) would have been prudish so calling trousers unspeakable is far from remarkable. Perhaps the most popular version of such over the top modesty was the idea of table and piano legs being covered so scandalous legs wouldn’t been seen or mentioned, but sadly that’s not really true. If you’d like more info on that story I’ll direct you to Atlas Obscura’s excellent article.

Until next time beware of ineffable trousers,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Jinx

Hello,

This week’s word is jinx with thanks to the excellent Haggard Hawks twitter account. They mentioned a while back that the jinx was originally a bird and it intrigued me so I dug a little deeper.

The first thing I found is that this word has entered the English language twice – once in the USA and once in England but at very different time periods.

In the 1690s, jynx was used to describe a spell or charm. It was sometimes also spelled as jyng (the Tudors were erratic spellers). The word arose from iynx in Latin and in Greek which was a bird used in witchcraft and divination.

A shell bat in the Vendee, France – symbol of witchcraft

The jynx, or wryneck as it’s known these days, is a small woodpecker bird with dull brown and grey plumage native to Europe whose ability to turn its head through 180 degrees gives rise to its modern name. I wasn’t able to discover exactly how it was used in divination (although given the ancients’s love for reading entrails I fear the bird might not have survived the rites), but it features in Greek mythology too. In one story Lynx was a nymph, the daughter of Pan and Echo. She cast a love spell on Zeus and Hera turned her into a bird called the iynx in revenge. In another story she dared to pit her musical talent against the muses and was turned into a bird for her presumption. The bird could be used to create love through witchcraft.

In British English that connection with misfortune (although not always in love) persists. If I say I don’t want to jinx something it means that I don’t to cause it to fail.

Jinx only appeared in American English around 1911 and it arose originally as baseball slang.

The New York Mets, City Park

If a player or team is subject to a jinx then they will have a losing streak until they can shake it off. It’s unclear if the Greek myths, the bird, or some other source brought jinxes to baseball, but there they have stayed.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)