Tag Archives: meaning

Feckless and Feckful

Hello,

Some words are best known in one negative variation – disgruntled, gormless, and feckless spring to mind. I mean, how often do we talk about being gruntled, gormed, or feckful? This week I’m taking a look at feckless and feckful.

Feck itself is a popular slang word in the English spoken in Ireland (hiberno-english). It’s used as a very mild version of a similarly spelled curse. Its history and use is explained brilliantly by Stan Carey in this Journal.ie article. He even explains that the Esperanto term for shit is fek, but this is likely to be coincidental. You can read more about hiberno-english and feck, or indeed fecker, on Blather.

However feck, feckless, and feckful actually entered English from Scotland. Feck is a Scottish term that means effect, essentially it was a shortening of the word effect. Robbie Burns and Robert Louise Stevenson both used it to mean a large quantity (“He had a feck o’ books wi’ him”). It reached English in the late 1500s as a term for effect, value, or vigour.

The witch Cailleach Beara felt feckful right up to the moment of her beheading

If somebody has feck then they are feckful – efficient, energetic, and powerful. Equally if they are feckless then they are lacking all those attributes and pretty useless as a result. The English language has plenty of ways to denigrate somebody as useless, but apparently we needed one more as feckless gained ground and feckful fell by the wayside over time to the point where we only really use feckless now.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

Let’s not Hebetate

Hello,

This week’s word, hebetate, is a suggestion from blog reader, Allan Greenwill. If you too would like to suggest a word for the Wordfoolery treatment, you can do so here.

Hebetate, I confess, was a new word for me. It means to make or become dull , blunted, or obtuse. You’ll get the pronunciation here.

Don’t run with

Naturally, any seamstress or chef wants their tools as sharp as possible which is why my mother always yelped if we reached for her special “sewing scissors” to cut paper rather than fabric (apparently cutting tin foil will sharpen them again). Now I’m the keeper of the Special Sewing Scissors and am equally protective of their edge and would be very unhappy if they were to hebetate.

The dictionary definitions of hebetate, however, imply it’s not just your cutting tool which can blunt, but your mind, your debating powers. Nobody wants to become obtuse or blunted in their use of reason, logic, and language.

Hebetate has a pretty simple word origin. It entered English in the late 1500s directly from the Latin verb hebetare (to dull or blunt) and word hebes (dull, blunt). Hebetate is related to hebetude, another English word from the same roots which arrived a few decades later. It again means dull or blunt but is also used figuratively to describe somebody as sluggish or stupid.

In other news this week, the publicity round for the latest Wordfoolery book, “Words The Sea Gave Us”, is continuing. The lovely folk at the Marine Times (September issue is in shops now) gave us a plug. “Seascapes”, Ireland’s weekly radio show about all things maritime (broadcast on RTÉ One radio nationwide at 10.30p.m. every Friday) invited me to talk about the book. I started listening to the show, when I was supposed to be studying for school, thirty years ago and it was a huge thrill to see the studio where they record it and to meet the presenter, Fergal Keane. I rambled on about the beaufort scale, slush funds, blazers, and hammocks on the moon. The episode went out already, but you can listen to the podcast here.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

The Origin of Run Amok

Hello,

This week’s phrase is “to run amok”, although you may be more familiar with “run amuck”. In fact there are a few spelling variations on this one. Amok appears to be correct one for English language use.

You will find a few different stories about the origin of the phrase too, including a spurious nautical one about running a ship aground into the muck.

Etymology Online tells me it was a verbal phrase recorded in the early 1500s in “The Book of Duarte Barbosa – An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants” as Amuco “who go out into the streets, and kill as many person as they meet”. They add that the Malay word amuk meant to attack furiously and in Portugese amouco or amuco describes a frenzied Malay.

Either way, it’s clear that somebody running amok is somebody to avoid and something like a Viking berserker.

Viking Chessman from the Isle of Lewis. He is biting his shield, a beserker tradition

Phrases.org and “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald flesh out the story, but be warned it doesn’t become gentler.

In the 1600s, Malays occupied Malabar (on the west coast of India) and in their tradition the king was required to kill himself after 12 years of power, by cutting his own throat in public. With time, and I’m guessing at the request of the monarchy, this was modified to allow a team of warriors (amokers) run at the king and usually be cut down by the bodyguards. If one killed the king then he claimed the crown. Stories of this dramatic power struggle were brought back to Europe by shocked travelers.

The amokers, or amuco, were dedicated warriors who believed failed missions were punished with dishonour and fallen soldiers became favourites of the gods. Captain James Cook, who traveled in the region in the late 1700s, mentioned opium use in connection with this tradition so it’s possible the warriors combined skill, faith, and narcotics before running amok.

I used to accuse my children of running amok when they played rowdy games or scattered toys throughout the house, but having discovered more about the amuco, I have to retract that allegation.

The lovely Andrew Doherty of Tides and Tales blog has been kind enough to read and review “Words The Sea Gave Us” on his blog this week. As a landlubber myself I was relieved to find somebody from a nautical family giving it the stamp of approval. His blog is fascinating to anybody with an interest in Irish maritime history and illustrated with wonderful photos, both old and new. Andrew has already published one book about maritime history and his second, “Waterford Harbour, Tides and Tales” is launching this month with the History Press.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Kerfuffle

Hello,

With the excitement of the book launch for “Words The Sea Gave Us” mostly behind me now it’s time for a non-nautical word this week – kerfuffle.

A kerfuffle is defined as “noise, excitement, and argument” (thanks to the Cambridge Dictionary, the pronunciation is available there too). Some other dictionaries note the word is informal British English. Apart from the argument, that sums up last week for me.

I guessed kerfuffle would be an old word but Etymology Online, usually reliable on dates, says it only entered English in the 1970s, was used with a variant spelling (kafuffle) from the 1940s, and in Canadian English from the 1930s.

The spelling variation leads us back further in the word’s history as the previous version is carfuffle, when it was being used by Scottish writers. The car to ka or ker change is pretty natural as there is no letter K in the alphabet for Scots Gaelic (or Irish Gaeilge for that matter), so you have English speakers adjusting the spelling when they adopted the word.

The fuffle part, however, didn’t change and it gets us further back in time. Fuffle dates back to the 1500s and was a Scottish verb meaning to disorder or dishevel (can one be hevelled, I wonder?).

The Scottish roots explain, in my opinion at least, the connection to Canadian English as the point where carfuffle crossed into English and became kerfuffle. Many Scottish emigrants settled in the eastern coastal regions of Canada during the 1800s. Apparently if you visit areas like Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island you’ll find plenty of Gaelic accents and language influences. I hope to explore that in person myself some day.

I enjoyed the kerfuffle of the book launch last week and I’m very happy to welcome new blog readers who found Wordfoolery as a result <waves>. A few readers have already been kind enough to review the book favourably, thank you, it really helps the visibility of the book online, even if it’s only a few words.

Those of you who read ebooks on Apple devices (phone, tablet, macbook) may find it worthwhile to hop over to my twitter account as I’m currently running a giveaway of a free Apple Books / iBooks edition. It’s free to enter and open internationally in any country where such books are sold (US, UK, Canada, Ireland etc).

Last week also found me participating in my first ever radio interview when Sinéad Brassil of LMFM radio kindly asked me to chat about my books and the history of words. She podcasted the interview so if you’re curious you can listen to it here. It’s about 15 minutes long and includes the history of boycotts, booby traps, and more. My teens are now referring to me as a word history celebrity and hoping their friends don’t find out. Sigh.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

Finding Your Niche

Hello,

I was chatting the other day with a writing friend and mentioned the book (“Words the Sea Gave Us”). “What is it about?” “The nautical words and phrases we use in everyday English” “Wow, that’s niche!”

Never one to let a good word slip by, and pretty happy with my word fooling niche, I’d found my word for this week. However, before we get onto the meaning and history of niche, I’d better settle the pronunciation with thanks to Merriam Webster. Personally I say neesh (rhymes with sheesh) but others use nich (sounds like hitch). They believe neesh is the more common British English pronunciation (certainly it is the only one I have ever heard used in Ireland or Britain) and probably came from French influences. Thankfully both are equally correct but nich was the original pronunciation with neesh only arriving in the early 1900s and taking nearly a century to gain acceptance. So now you know. What version to do you use?

Niche has a variety of meanings (usually indicating a word has been around a while). 1) a recess in a wall, perhaps for a statue, 2) an activity/place which is perfectly suited to somebody (finding your niche), 3) same as above but in an ecological sense, and 4) a specialised market.

With those definitions I will happily claim my book on options 2 and 4!

The most commonly provided etymology for the word niche unfolds as follows – niche (early 1600s) comes from the same word in French for a recess and ultimately from the French verb nicher (to make a nest) which came to French from Latin nidus (nest). I rather like the idea of a niche being a nest – close, snug, and perfectly formed for one purpose – keeping a hatchling safe and secure, in their comfort zone, so to speak.

Can a rubber ducky’s nest or niche be said to be a bathtub?

As is often the case with older words, the origins of niche are little more debated than that neat nest conclusion, however. The excellent Etymology Online provides more detail. They agree that English acquired the word to describe a recess in a wall in the early 1600s from French but they think it was used in French to describe a recess for a dog, or a dog kennel. After that the academic etymologists lay their hands upon the trail and it becomes murky.

Klein and Barnhart think it arrived in French from the Italian word nicchia (niche or nook), from nicchio (seashell) and probably from Latin mitulus (mussel). Another expert, Watkins, provides the Old French nichier (to build a nest) from Latin nidus but Etymology Online reckons that one has difficulties too.

Using niche to describe a perfect nook in life didn’t arise until 1725 and the ecological niche appeared in the 1920s (much earlier than I would have expected).

So, is a niche a nest or a seashell? I’m not sure which I prefer but I like the symmetry of these nature inspired origins being used again later in ecology studies. if you’ve ever observed how snugly an egg sits in a once-off beak-crafted nest or how elegantly a sea creature lives in its shell I think you’ll agree that both are wonderful examples of niches at work. I think I’ll accept both.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

p.p.s. Quick Book Update – my wonderful cover designer has, we hope, resolved the printer’s late-breaking issue with the paperback edition of “Words The Sea Gave Us” – huzzah, raise a tankard of grog! However I want to have a perfect paperback in my own hands before I run the official book launch. You will be the first ones to get that date (probably mid to late August), but at least the barometer is now set fair.

Why Sultry Should Return to our Weather Forecasts

Hello,

This week’s word is sultry. I wish I could say it’s because the weather here has been sultry, but sadly that hasn’t been the case – plenty of rain showers in my part of the world. However we’re hoping to explore the coast of West Cork soon and I may stumble on some sultriness then.

I’ll admit, I thought sultry only applied to femmes fatale  in 1940 film noir movies, but no, it started in the weather forecasts and I’m convinced we need to revive its use there. A forecast would be much more fun if the map had sultry listed beside it instead of humid.

Dreamy clouds at sunset on a sultry day, Wexford harbour, Ireland

Sultry arrived in English in the late 1500s to describe humid, hot, moist weather. It came from an even earlier word, swelter, which described people who fainted with heat in the 1400s. Swelter had Old English roots in sweltan (to die) which shared roots with similar word in Old Saxon (sweltan) and Old Norse (svelta) which also described dying or being put to death. It is possible that these were linked to the idea of burning up with fevers. In a world without many treatments for infections, the heat of a fever was often fatal and terrifying for victims.

This makes me think that describing weather as sultry wasn’t a positive thing. Those early English speakers weren’t fond of overly hot weather. It wasn’t until the 1700s that sultry adopted a new meaning – the idea of heated lust and it was the 1940s (as I’d assumed) when sultry was first used to describe sensual, attractive women.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. The low-key ebook launch of “Words The Sea Gave Us” is clicking away in the background while we try to correct the printing glitch with the paperback. I’ll let you know as soon as that’s fixed. However two lovely things happened this week in the meantime. 1) several etymology/nautical experts I’d approached for support said yes (one really surprised me, but I’m keeping it secret for the moment) and 2) I spotted that the ebook is listed as Number One in the Ship History category on Amazon.com – I’m incredibly pleased with that.

Check it out – number one in Ship History!

Over a Barrel

Hello,

With only one week left of pre-ordering on my new book “Words The Sea Gave Us” I’m getting excited about launch day (13th July). This week’s word is the phrase “over a barrel” and it’s a nautical phrase with two possible shipboard roots.

Over a Barrel {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2020}

To have somebody over a barrel is to have the upper hand as they are rendered helpless.

There are two excellent reasons to put somebody over a barrel in a seafaring context. Either could be the source of this phrase which only entered printed English in 1938, but may have been around earlier.

The first option is to stretch a naughty sailor over the barrel before bringing out the cat o’ nine tails (see the Tight Ship chapter).

The second, more likely and equally helpless option, is the common method of reviving somebody who’d nearly drowned. The unfortunate soul was placed face down over the barrel which was then rolled back and forth vigorously to drain the seawater from their lungs and hopefully jolt them back into breathing. It’s unknown how often the over the barrel idea succeeded.

Barrel, despite being a very common item for centuries, has unknown origins. It was present by the 1300s in several European languages in various spellings, but the source hasn’t been found although barriclus in Medieval Latin is a good candidate.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. this post contains affiliate links which make a small payment to the blog if you choose to purchase through them. #CommissionsEarned. Alternatively, you can use my digital tip jar.

The History of the Word Barber and their Poles

Hello,

Today, if you live in Ireland, you can once again get your hair cut. As I write, the menfolk of my household are making the trip, through rain and wind, to resume their pre-virus hairstyles. It’s been a hard three months for those who like a neat trim.

Beard growing became a staying-at-home hobby for some.

For the day that’s in it I’ve decided to explore the word history of barber – a word the Romans gave us, with a little help from those fashionable French. If you’ve stumbled on this post looking for barbarians and barbarous, you can read more about their roots (pun intended) in my earlier post, or take a look at the barbaric yawp.

Despite the many shaggy hairstyles sported in historic sculptures, tapestries, and portraits, barbers have been part of life for longer than you might guess. Barber entered the English language around 1300 from the Anglo-French word barbour. It came from Old French barbeor (or barbieor, spelling was fluid back then) and ultimately from the Latin word barba (beard) which also gives us the word barb (as on an arrow or other weapons).

Barbers were early practitioners of the portfolio career concept. As somebody with access to cutting implements they often performed minor surgeries as well as hair-cuts and shaves. By the time of King Henry VIII of England they were limited to hair-cutting, blood-letting, and dentistry – hopefully not all at the same time.

The red and white striped barber’s pole used to identify their shop dates back the late 1600s and was a visual reminder of somebody’s arm, wrapped in a white bandage, after a blood-letting procedure. The pole itself was meant to represent the stick the patient would squeeze to make their veins stand out and make the cutting easier.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Don’t forget “Words The Sea Gave Us” is now available for digital pre-orders. If you’d like a review copy – drop me a comment below. I’m planning a blog tour too – if you’d like me to guest post / be interviewed on your blog – let me know.

p.p.s. CampNaNo runs in April and July each year and I’ll be taking part again this July – aiming for another 30,000 words of my serialised novel “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Between camp and my book launch, it’s going to be a very busy July!

 

 

Snoofing

Hello,

This week’s word is snoofing, a word I found on a train in 2017.

I was about to say I couldn’t recall the last time I was on a train, but I can. It was six months ago. I used to commute daily by train and as offspring of non-driving, city-living parents I grew up exploring my city via public transport, but now it’s a rare pleasure for me to travel via train, nearly always for meeting friends or enjoying city pursuits like theatre, museums, etc. With such events currently limited I have no idea when I will next take the train and today I’m missing that experience. Where better to enjoy the passing view, eavesdrop for dialogue inspiration, or to read my book?

Snoofing is a waste of such luxuries in my opinion. Snoofing is an invented word (spotted on a fun poster on an Irish Rail train in 2017) combining spoofing (faking, coined in the late 1800s) and snoozing to give us a term for pretending to be asleep in order to avoid conversation or being obliged to give up your seat to somebody more worthy on public transport. The classic pose is that of a cowboy with his stetson pulled down over his eyes, but appearing to be visually glued to your telephone screen is a more common one in my experience. I commuted through both of my pregnancies and sadly snoofing was widespread. I sat on the floor when I had to, but getting up again when you’re carrying a baby-bump is tricky.

If you spot somebody snoofing the best approach is direct. A polite interruption and explanation of your need for a seat usually shames them into yielding their position, if you can be brave enough to take this path.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Brannock Device – One Two, Buckle My Shoe

Hello,

I love when one of my predictions comes true. Today is the first day here in Ireland of shops re-opening. Yes, we had groceries and pharmacies, but this is the day you can pop in for a spool of thread, a new book, or a bunch of flowers – the little things that are fun to buy, but not, as we had presumed, essential.

I’ve been saying for some time that the first shop which would logically be required would be footwear for children. They can manage on hand-me-down clothes from older siblings but growing children need new shoes more regularly than most parents like. Sure enough, queues are already forming at shoe-shops in the city centre. I suspect a few keen walkers and runners need new shoes too after all the daily exercise loops, too.

Once upon a time, long before this blog, I worked part-time in a busy shoe shop (Saxone’s on Henry Street, long closed now). We dreaded two times of the year in particular. The wide-eyed frenzy of Christmas Eve last-minute purchasers and the equally scary Back To School weeks when we would wrangle recalcitrant small feet into the foot measure and then find an appropriate pair of shoes to match. The child always wanted something shiny and expensive while the parents wanted a sensible shoe with growing room. Compromise was tricky, especially in a small space crowded with families on full volume.

Today I’m pitying the staff in the re-opening shoe shops who are now trying to use the foot measure with masks, gloves, and perspex screens. Small children can be anxious about this process and the new work-wear won’t be helping matters. Nor will the long queues.

It was only recently that I discovered the name of the foot measure, in a facebook post riddled with typos, the brannock device. It was patented in 1925 by a young American inventor, Charles F. Brannock. It’s a graduated metal foot plate with sliding toe stop, heel cup, and usually a strap to hold wriggling feet in place. Charles spent the rest of his 89 years making and selling these industry standard devices which are still made in New York today and exported worldwide.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)