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Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

Hello,

This week’s word is bunkum, which I came across this week while researching nautical words for “Words The Sea Gave Us”, my next nonfiction book. Bunkum, sometimes shortened to bunk, isn’t a word I ever use, but I may take it up purely because its history is wonderfully foolish.

Bunks (not bunkum) on the Dunbrody Famine Ship

On Feburary 25th, 1820 Felix Walker (1753-1828), who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina in the American House of Representatives (a.k.a. Congress) wanted to contribute to a long-running Missouri statehood debate in Congress. He began a speech which was quickly discerned to be “long, dull, irrelevant”. He was called upon to cut it short. He refused, insisting that he wanted to prove to his voters and their newspapers that he was active in the House. “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe”.

To the frustration of the other representatives he insisted on finishing his long “speech for Buncombe”. Thereafter buncombe (later spelled phonetically as bunkum) came to describe meaningless political nonsense. By 1841 it was a word (a toponym in fact) for any kind of nonsense.

Today’s politicians rarely talk any bunkum, of course.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Welcome to all my recent subscribers. It’s great to have you around. Feel free to suggest a word for Wordfoolery to investigate and to chat in the comments.

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Hello,

The temptation to call this post “A Brief History Of Time” in honour of Stephen Hawking is strong, but I can promise there are no physics here today. Instead, I’m exploring the word history of time. I usually look at the history of unusual words and time is everyday in comparison but has plenty of unusual roots.

Starting with time itself, did you know we get this one from the Vikings? Time entered English as Old English tima (a limited space of time) which has roots in Old Norse timi (proper time) and Swedish timme (an hour).

The concept of time as an infinite abstract idea dates to the 1300s and by 1509 there were images of an old man carrying an hour glass and scythe to personify time.

Time works harder as a word in English than in other European languages. Time in English can mean the extent of time, a specific point in time, and an hour. Whereas in French you’d have temps, fois and heure for those ideas and in German you’ve zeit, mal, and Uhr.

“The Times” as the name of a newspaper dates to 1788. Time in science fiction has always been important. The first time-traveling story was “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells and the first time capsule was created in 1938 for the New York World’ Fair.

Although time reached England with the Norse invaders, the wearing of time pieces wasn’t important in a largely agricultural society until the arrival of the train, the timetable, and the industrial revolution. The idea of “being on time” arose in 1854 as a result of the railroads.

To “do time”, i.e. serve a prison sentence, first appeared in 1865. The phrase “in the nick of time” dates to Tudor times and the nick in question is the precise mark or notch on a tally stick, an early method of recording quantities precisely. The earlier phrase for the same concept was pudding time. Pudding (dessert) was served first so if you arrived in time for that course, you were just in time.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Note – this post includes affiliate links to help support this blog.

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Hello,

This week’s word is macabre. I probably should have written about this at Halloween but I forgot amidst the excitement of pumpkin carving and costumed children. Don’t fret, I still have eldritch up my sleeve for Halloween 2019.

Plague doctor’s outfit displayed in Rothe House, Kilkenny, Ireland

Macabre (pronunciation here) is a wonderful word to describe anything gruesome, particularly if associated with death. Macabre with this meaning is in English from the late 1880s but it was used in English long before that and has a rather ancient origin.

To find its roots you need to go back to Old French where you had a danse macabré from the late 1300s. This dance of death was a type of morality play depicting Death and his victims dancing behind him. By the 1500s the performance and term had spread to English as Macabrees daunce.

Where the macabré part of the phrase came from is somewhat disputed. It may have been somebody’s surname but many believe it is a reference to the slaughter and martyrdom of the Maccabees in the apocryphal books of the Bible. The Maccabees led a successful revolt to re-establish Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem which is celebrated during Hanukkah. Later some of them were martyred for refusing to sacrifice their Jewish faith. They are now venerated as martyrs in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox faiths. It is these martyrs who were supposed to be depicted in the danse macabré, to inspire the faithful presumably.

If you’re curious about the rather macabre outfit pictured you may be interested to know that it’s a recreation of a plague doctor’s outfit from Tudor times and is on display in the excellent Rothe House in Kilkenny, a rare and beautiful 1600s Irish merchant’s house complete with period correct gardens.

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

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out Wordfoolery’s book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictonary”? It tells the life stories of more than 200 villains, inventors, and fashion icons who gave their names as eponyms to the English language. Everybody from Guillotine to Molotov is included. Available on Amazon US and Amazon UK as paperback or kindle and also on Kobo and Apple books. (affiliate links)

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Hello,

This week’s word is brobdingnagian. A character is described in “Hall of Mirrors” by Christopher Fowler (witty detective fiction country house mystery) as being

“positively brobdingnagian when balanced upon a minuscule wire-framed chair”

and I had a feeling it was a reference to the classic satire Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift but I had to pull out the dictionary to be sure, as I thought the only adjective he’d spawned with his writing was lilliputian for people small in either stature or outlook.

Sure enough brobdingnagian (pronounciation here) describes anything of tremendous, or gigantic, size. Swift described Gulliver’s encounter with the land of Brobdingnag in his classic book. It’s inhabited by humans of massive size and is almost the opposite of Lilliput where the people are tiny relative to his brave shipwreck survivor, Gulliver.

The witch Cailleach Beara at Slieve Gullion Forest Park

What I hadn’t realised was that Swift gave English several other words thanks to his hugely popular book, many of which entered the language shortly after its publication in 1726. He wrote the book while working as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

You may not use big-endian and little-endian for controversies over nothing significant (or ways of organising digital data), or some of his other lesser known words, but I bet you’ve heard of a yahoo being an uncivilised person.

If you’d like to encounter the giant witch I’ve included above – check out the Giant’s Lair Trail at Slieve Gullion Forest Park. There are many legends about the witch attached to the landscape of the area and the trail is perfect for families, or you can tackle Slieve Gullion mountain if you prefer something more energetic.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

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Hello & Happy New Year,

Today’s word is friggle and it has nothing to do with resolutions or a “New Year – New You”. You’re safe here.

Friggle is an English dialect word for fussing over trifles. I assume this means unimportant things rather than layered desserts. Friggle is not a dialect word I’d ever heard and I’ve been unable to identify which area of Britain is home to friggling. Do any of you know?

Its origins are lost but may include connections to fiddling, wiggling, or fumbling and there are definite links to the idea of finagling something. As somebody who likes the details to be right, I think there may be a link to niggle, that feeling at the back of your mind that some tiny thing has been overlooked.

Some of the words on this blog defy my efforts to illustrate them with images but I found inspiration this week with my daughter who likes all the small elements of her lego creations to be perfect. She spent an hour cleaning the cafe with a toothbrush yesterday. She’s definitely a friggler.

The waitress friggled all her cafe items

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

I hope you’re enjoying Christmas Eve. Preparations are well underway here at Wordfoolery HQ and the festive spirit has inspired me to explore the word tinsel today.

Tinsel edged noticeboard, with thanks to my daughter

I was surprised to find that tinsel can be a noun, adjective, and verb. The noun relates to threads, sheets, or strips of metal (or plastic) used to create a sparkling appearance in decorations and fabrics. The version I’m most familiar is the festoon of tinsel, a sparkling feather boa, slung around Christmas trees. Personally I prefer decorative ribbons on our tree, so the annual tinsel explosion happens in my daughter’s room instead.

Tinsel as an adjective describes anything which is like tinsel, or is gaudy. Tinsel as a verb is the act of interweaving or adorning with tinsel. I assume this means if you drape your tree in tinsel you are tinseling when you do it.

Tinsel is a surprisingly old word. Its first usage was as early as 1538. It entered Middle English as tyneseyle which was a cloth interwoven with metallic thread and the word probably came from Anglo-French tencelé which itself came from the verb estenceler – to sparkle.

The king of England at the time was the Tudor monarch Henry VIII. He’d buried three wives by that point and had a fondness for rich fabrics like cloth of gold so we may have him to thank for the fashion for tinsel as courtiers would copy his style.

By the 1650s the idea of tinsel had become associated with things which were showy but ultimately of little worth. Again this fall in tinsel’s reputation may be related to politics as by 1650 England had been rocked by Cromwell and the Roundheads. Charles II sat on the throne but had been forced to curtail some of the more over the top aspects of his court fashions for fear of following his father to the chopping block.

The use of Tinsel Town to describe Hollywood dates to 1972. Although it also describes my daughter’s bedroom at this time of year.

Happy Christmas, and until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Hello,

This week’s word is scobberlotcher, which I came across in “Wild Chamber” by Christopher Fowler. If you haven’t stumbled across his mature, and eccentric, detectives Bryant & May (yes, like the matches company) and you enjoy London history along with wit and peculiar crimes, then check them out. You’re in for a treat.

Bryant, in particular, has a fondness for obscure terms so my copy of the novel is now dotted with notes for this blog. You have been warned.

Library at Russborough House – perfect for scobberlotchering

A scobberlotcher (pronunciation here) is a harmless idle person, so it’s a useful insult for anybody who is unlikely to bother looking it up after you fling it at them. Scobberlotcher dates to the 1600s and its origins are obscure. The lotcher part may come from loiter, to hang around aimlessly. Loiter itself comes from the Dutch verb leuteren, to idle.

I’m far from scobberlotchering this week with last minute Christmas preparations afoot and a plethora of lunches to attend. It’s a shame so many social events are squeezed into December, when spreading them throughout the year might share the joy and ease the purse, but I’ll manage. I hope you find some time to scobberlotcher this week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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