Tag Archives: word origin

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)

The Nautical Roots of Heave-Ho

Hello,

Are you ready for some nautical nonsense? Wonderful, welcome aboard!

This week Wordfoolery’s desk is awash with “book jobs”, apologies for it spilling over here with another nautical expression, heave ho. The end is in sight as I now have the official book launch date to announce – next Monday, the 31st of August. It will all be happening here on the blog and over on my twitter feed (@Wordfoolery) and you are all formally invited to join in as this blog is the reason this book exists. It will be a relief and joy to finally unleash “Words The Sea Gave Us” on the word lovers of the world.

You can <voice drops to a whisper> buy an ebook or paperback copy already as I did a sneaky “soft launch” to test the cover printing, but if you wait you’ll have the option of a signed paper copy direct from me to you (or to a friend with a gift inscription, of course). If you’d like to get on the list for that you can comment on this post or drop me a message.

In fact some of you lovely people had already bought and read the book. Thank you so much, it helps so much in the making the book visible and attractive to other readers!

Alright, enough about book launches, what about heave-ho?

Heave-Ho! {extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney}

Heave-Ho! is a common call in sea shanties but to understand what it means you have to explore the two parts individually.

Heave entered Old English as hebban from German, Dutch, and Old Norse roots all with the same meaning of lift or take up, but with a variety of different spellings. It was only in 1944 that heave took on the second meaning of a dismissal.

Ho is always an interjection of some sort. English has numerous version from gung-ho (see the Flying the Flag chapter) to heigh-ho and tally-ho. Using a series of ho-ho-ho to indicate laughter dates back to the 1100s, probably thanks to Saint Nicholas.

Ho used with a place name (for example, Westward-Ho) was used by boatmen to indicate departure for that place from the 1500s and ho would have been used solo from the 1300s to attract attention and demand silence, for example to stop chatter amongst the crew.

These two nautical versions of ho give us the clue for heave-ho – the call to work demanded the hands listen for the rhythmic call of when to lift or pull (for example a large sail, a new mast, a net full of fish, or the anchor). Each time the caller said Heave, they’d pull, then the Ho was the pause. The call was repeated, perhaps with the addition of a sea shanty for morale and team rhythm, until the task was completed.

In more recent land-based usage to get the heave-ho is to be dismissed from your work or relationship.

{end of extract}

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.

Always Mind Your Tittles

Hello,

That’s not a typo in the title of this post, by the way. I really did mean to spell title with an extra t. This week’s word is tittle and yes, it does have a link to the phrase tittle-tattle, but more on that in a moment.

A tittle is a small stroke or point in writing (or printing) and has been an English word since the 1300s, although not much used outside certain circles. You use a tittle when you dot your lowercase i or j, for example.

A tittle can also be used in many languages to indicate specific pronunciations. French-speakers will recall the acute accent, cedilla, circumflex, grave, and trema while German-speakers know the umlaut (the scharfes S is officially a letter in the alphabet), and Spanish experts will be familiar with the wavy tilde amongst others. Tittles used in this way allow written languages to indicate how they should be spoken.

A tittle can also be a stroke, or dot, to indicate omitted letters in a word. For example, in English we use a tittle to show missing letters such as the missing letter O in the word don’t.

Tittle, because it is a small thing is also sometimes used as a word to describe a tiny amount or a part of something, along the same lines as the word jot. For example, “There wasn’t a tittle of common sense in the politician’s speech”.

Tittle entered English as a translation of apex from Latin. Apex came from the Greek word keraia (little horn), which itself came from Hebrew word qots (thorn) which described little lines projecting from letters to distinguish them from each other. Each of those languages used such flourishes and needed a word to describe them.

Related words are titulus (title) from Latin for a stroke to show missing letters (like my example “don’t”). There’s also the Provençal word titule (the dot over an i), and tilde which is the Spanish form of the same word.

You may also know the phrase “to a T”. It is likely this has it’s origins with the word tittle as an earlier phrase “to a tittle” had been used.

Another phrase also sprang to mind when I stumbled across tittle, “tittle-tattle” meaning gossip or idle chatter. Tattle arrived in English after tittle (the late 1400s) and meant to stammer or prattle possibly from Middle Flemish tatelen (to stutter) or East Frisian tateren (to chatter or babble). It wasn’t until the 1580s that tattle became associated with the telling of secrets. Certainly in my school-days you didn’t want to be tagged as tattle-tale, one who told incriminating details to your teacher about other students.

Tattler is now perhaps best known without its double-T, Tatler magazine had a run in the early 1700s and is still popular today, perhaps because everybody loves to know secrets?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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!

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!

 

 

Cover Reveal of “Words The Sea Gave Us”

Hello,

Today pre-orders open on my new word history book – “Words The Sea Gave Us” (Amazon Kindle edition link) – and I’m very happy to reveal the cover here on the blog that inspired the book series. Drum roll please…

What do you think? It’s been designed by Peter Sheehan again and I absolutely love it. My hope is that each of the Words books will be in a different colour so a shelf of them will look stunning. All I have to do is write a few more them, gulp.

What’s it about?

“Words The Sea Gave Us” is a light-hearted look at the words the English dictionary borrowed from the sea. From baggywinkle and gollywobbler to tempest and flotsam, the sea in all her moods has given a boatload of words to the English language throughout history. This book explores their origins along with a cargo of old sailor’s yarns. Cast your line for the salty history of skyscraper, mollgogger, strike, cyber, and phrases like getting hitched, red herring, hot pursuit, and taking them down a peg.

More than 370 words and phrases are featured from “above board” to yardarm – drawn from parts of a ship, sail names, crew titles, surfer slang, marine monsters, nautical navigation, flying the flag, and of course, how to talk like a scurvy pirate. Throw in some sea fables, fashions, and weather and you’re ready to set sail. Previous nautical experience not required.

The book is ideal for word geeks, sailors, and beachcombers.

What’s a pre-order?

The idea is that you order a copy of the ebook edition (for a paperback and library editions you’ll have to wait until Launch Day, the 13th of July) and it’s delivered to your ebook reader on launch day. The book is currently available to pre-order on kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo. Apparently pre-ordering books helps their sales ranking. I just like having books pop up on my ebook app.

Do You Review Books? Are Open to Guest posts on your Blog?

If so, please get in touch (@Wordfoolery on Twitter is easiest, or comment below). I discovered when promoting my first word book (“How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” – all about eponyms and the amazing people who gave them to the English language) that it is really tricky to get non-fiction books reviewed so if you do it, or you know somebody, let me know. I can provide review copies. Even just a sentence or two on Amazon can really help – don’t feel you have to write a massive book report!

When Will the Book Launch?

13th of July 2020. I can’t wait. Watch this space for details. The launch will be entirely online so you can all join in.

Would you like Free Sample?

Firstly, there’s a new page on the blog here – Downloads. I’ve created a free nautical download, called Various Vessels, all about ship names for those who don’t know their ketch from their dhow. Here’s also a little snippet from the book, a preview before launch day.

Junk (extract from “Words The Sea Gave Us” by Grace Tierney copyright 2020)

A junk is a flat bottomed sailing boat from the Far East. She has no keel, a high stern, and her rudder can be raised or lowered. The two or three masts carry battened square sails which used to be made from bamboo, rattan, or woven grass. Easy to steer and good at sea, the junk was the vessel of choice for Far Eastern pirates for centuries.

The word junk for this type of ship entered English in the late 1500s from the Portuguese word junco, but originally from the Malay word jong or djong (large boat).

The word junk which is now used to describe rubbish also comes from the sea, but not from the eastern sailing ship. Junk entered English spelled as junke in the 1300s to describe the oddments of rope which were used to caulk gaps in the boat’s planking. That type of junk came from Old French junc (rush or reed) for something of little value and originally from Latin iuncus (reed).

By the 1660s junk described refuse from boats and by 1884 it referred to rubbish of any kind, but usually with an implication of being re-used later. The original junk shop was actually called a marine shop in 1800, a place for selling items discarded from a ship. This later gave us junk art (1961), junk food (1971), and a surprisingly early dictionary entry for junk mail (1954).

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. “Words the Sea Gave Us” is my most recent book, but you’ll find details of all my books (nonfiction and serialised novels) and where to read them on the Books Page.

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)