Posts Tagged ‘origin’


I’m back from a lovely weekend in a yurt in Wicklow with my family and thanks to a combination of antibiotics and anti-histamines (insects love to bite me, but my body doesn’t enjoy the experience) I’m only leaving my zwodder today.

A Yurt with a View

Zwodder, in case you’re unfamiliar with 19th century Somerset dialect words, means a drowsy state of body or mind and I wish it could make a comeback as a commonly used English word. The weather here has been perfect recently – clear blue skies, warm but not too hot, a light breeze. Tradition (but not science) holds such weather is because 120,000 students are sitting state examinations at the moment, the poor things. All I know is it makes for perfect zwoddering conditions.

My zwoddering spot

Zwodder certainly doesn’t appear to have standard English roots due to its spelling. Middle Dutch has swadderen which means to be weary or staggering due to drinking. Anglo-Saxon had swodrian which meant becoming drowsy or falling asleep. Zwodder’s roots may lie in the Land of Nod amongst a haze of Zzzz.

Until next time I wish you a comfortable hammock and time to zwodder,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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This week’s words are varmints and vermin. I can’t say the word varmint without imagining a grizzled Wild West prospector, possibly missing a tooth, or two. I was curious, is varmint an uniquely American word for describing both animal pests and rascals of the two-legged variety?

Too friendly a mouse to be vermin

Sadly the pronunciation of varmint (available here) is not provided by that curmudgeonly character and varmint pre-dates the American frontier. It comes from Middle English, was used as early as 1539, and is a variant of vermin with what’s called a “parasitic t”. I don’t relish the notion of letters attaching themselves like leeches to other words, although it would explain the spelling of pneumonia.

Despite its source in Middle English varmint is now listed in both Oxford and Collins dictionaries as being informal North American slang. Its use for animal pests came first. The secondary meaning of a troublesome person arrived in the 1700s.

Rats made of shells in the French Vendee region

Vermin’s use for such trouble-makers has earlier roots. By the 1560s if you referred to the farmer next door as vermin, everybody would have understood. This isn’t surprising as vermin is the older word. The Latin for worm is vermis. This became the collective noun verminum in vulgar Latin and referred to all sorts of pests – insects and possibly reptiles included. Old French seized on it as vermin and referred to difficult creatures such as moths. worms, and mites. By 1300 the Normans had brought it with them to England in Anglo-French. Every language, it seems, requires a term for varmints.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling, hopefully without varmints,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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This week’s word is a phrase, I hope you won’t mind. The expression “to handle with kid gloves” has an intriguing origin story and I couldn’t resist.

vintage white leather gloves

Kid gloves have nothing to do with children, well not human children. Kid is a soft white leather from the skins of goat kids popular among the wealthy from the 1700s. Sometimes they were made from lambskin.

Kid gloves are very thin so if you’re wearing them it is as if you are barely wearing any gloves at all. We’ve all had the sensation of wearing thick, bulky gloves and having to remove them to perform a delicate task. Here the idea is that even delicate tasks are possible while wearing kid gloves.

Kid gloves are also easily marked. If you handled an object roughly while wearing such a glove you would acquire stains on the glove, not a good thing. Equally if you’re wearing visibly white gloves then those around you can see you’re not adding any dirt or damage to whatever you’re handling. This is why servants wore white kid gloves to avoid smudging the silverware. Many believe curators do the same but there is evidence to suggest a clean, un-gloved hand may be best, depending on the artifact, and they only wear gloves on TV because they’re tired of complaint letters!

The phrase came to mean over-cautious in the 1840s but when it crossed the Atlantic from England in the late 1840s to North America it regained its early positive association with delicate handling of sensitive situations and people. By 1865 the well-mannered White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” carried a pair.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling with or without gloves,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve the first week of NaNoWriMo 2017 behind me now and 15,000 words of “Nit Roast & Other Stories” in the bag.

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This week’s word is purloin, simply because I like the way it sounds when you say it. Of course there are many ways to say you’ve stolen something – lifted, nicked (which can land you in the Nick), thieved, burgled, poached, scrumping etc but for me purloin implies a theft that isn’t entirely serious – a wig borrowed for a disguise, thieving a trifling item, not performing a major heist.

I would love to report that purloin came from the sound of a cat burglar (a purr, of course) combined with the preferred meal of a sneak-thief (loin of pork with apple sauce – apples scrumped of course), but sadly that is not the case.

We can blame the French for purloin, without implying any greater propensity amongst that nation towards theft. In Anglo-Norman French the word pur meant forth (I assume this works in purpose too) and loign meant far (as in distance). Combined they gave the verb purloigner which meant to put away. I must remember that one the next time I request my darling son to purloigner his clean socks. Just as the Normans invaded Britain, so too did many of their words and hence we find purloin (to put at a distance) in Middle English and gradually changing to mean stealing.

I think that ties in with my approach to purloin. If I purloin those socks from my son, there’s nothing to say that I won’t return them from that distance at some future time, right? I wouldn’t recommend relying on that reasoning in court though – purloin is clearly defined as theft in legal dictionaries.

I’m aware that some of you are writers as well as readers. I’m planning a post/article on the topic of The Secret Language of Writers (ARC, maid&butler, POV etc) – if you’d like to suggest a term for inclusion, jot a comment below. Thank you.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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I missed posting a blog last Monday because I was off on Scout camp with a great bunch of teens. Amongst learning other skills, like tossing a tomahawk (seriously – it’s a competitive sport), I got the chance to make a keychain from paracord. On the walk back to our camp site I couldn’t help wondering about the origin of para.

paracord keychain

Para crops up in so many terms that clearly it’s a prefix – paralympic, paramedic, parachute, parapluie (umbrella in French), paracord, paramilitary, paralegal, paragraph, parallel, etc. Thinking about it I became convinced it was something to do with air, but thanks to a little digging in the dictionaries, I’ve discovered I was totally wrong.

Dictionary.com informs me that para usually comes with loan words from Greek and generally means “to one side of” or beside – for example a paralegal works beside a legal team, a paramedic works with medical teams. This works well for parallel, too.

The Online Etymology Dictionary adds to this by adding “beyond” and “against”. I imagine the “beyond” meaning is the one used for paralympic. Might even link into paragon?

This still left me confused on parachute and parapluie but it turns out that these uses of para have a unique French twist – it is “protection against” – chute meaning fall and pluie meaning rain.

That brings me back to my paracord, the tough mini-rope I used in my keychain at Camp North East. It’s named for the cords used on WWII parachutes. Soldiers learned to cut the cords from their chutes after landing as they were handy for tying gear to packs, setting up shelters (something we teach our Scouts too), and the inner strands could even be used for sewing damaged gear. So rather than being the against-cord, I reckon it’s the beyond-cord.

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


p.s. if you’re interested in paracord projects – check out this link.

Also, crocheters – you can use paracord instead of yarn for more rigid objects.

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This week’s word is a phrase, suggested to me by friend-of-the-blog, Noelle.

“Heavens to Murgatroyd!” is an exclamation of surprise, particularly in American English, and it was a new one to me although I had heard heavens to Betsy (same usage) a few times. Unfortunately it appears that Murgatroyd and Betsy aren’t real people but I am very tempted to put a character called Betsy Murgatroyd in my next story. Perhaps her inclusion can be a dare for NaNoWriMo 2016 in my region?

The excellent Phrase Finder, a long-time favourite of mine, has investigated the phrase thoroughly and tells us that Heavens to Murgatroyd dates from the mid 20th century thanks to a pink character called Snagglepuss on the Yogi Bear cartoon in the 1960s. You can see him do the line in this YouTube snippet.

The phrase predates the cartoon slightly thanks to a movie called “Meet the People” and the screenwriters for that were Gilbert and Sullivan fans likely to have chosen Murgatroyd thanks to the plethora of ghostly Sir Murgatroyds in one of their comic operas.

At this point nobody can be sure of where Murgatroyd came from, but what is certain is that he was a surprising fellow.

As for Betsy, although she pre-dates Murgatroyd to about 1880, nobody is sure about her either. Sometimes words and phrases must remain mysteries.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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This week’s word is hitch. Not a particularly unusual word, but one with a multitude of meanings on my mind this week.

Hitch (pronunciation here) is a verb with the following meanings –

1. to move by jerks (she hitched up her skirts and ran)

2. to fasten by a knot/hook (the cowboy hitched his horse to the fence or connected a trailer to his tractor)

3. to get married

4. to hitchhike

It can also be a noun about difficulties – the wedding went off without a hitch – or can describe a period of military service.

I came across it this week at my Scouter training – as I finally mastered the tying of a clove hitch knot (used for starting those log and rope creations like rafts/camp tables etc). Apparently there’s a half-hitch too, but that lies ahead. I can’t help wondering if there’s such a thing as a quarter hitch too.

What struck me was that while we talk about a couple tying the knot, and in older traditions we have hand-fasting (where the couple’s hands are literally tied together), did the marriage meaning of hitch come before the knot meaning, or vice-versa?

All I know for sure is that hitch dates back to a middle English verb hytchen whose use dates back to the 14th century so it has been with us a long time. Although hitch sounds like modern slang, it certainly isn’t.

It leaves me only to speculate that a wild wedding could go like this –

Maisy had an itch to get hitched so she hitched up her skirts and hitched to the range where she hitched herself to a cowboy called Mitch. Mitch hitched his horse to the rail with a clove hitch and they hitched, without hitch, until Mitch caught an army hitch.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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