Posts Tagged ‘word origin’


This week’s word is influenza. Thankfully my family have avoided this year’s virus to date but the news is warning us to be careful. The schools are spreading the word on good anti-flu hygiene, our church has cancelled certain activities to limit contagion, and I know people with suppressed immune systems who are living a hermit existence to avoid it. Influenza is no joke and the strain this year is hardest on youngsters under the age of 15. I’m watching my offspring closely.

Ready to Flight the Flu

Influenza is an Italian gift to the English language. It was used in Italian to describe diseases from the 1500s but not always for the flu. Scarlet fever, for example, was seen as an influenza. The word had roots in influence. The influence in this case was an occult one. The stars and planets in the sky were blamed for invisibly creating such fevers in humans as early as medieval Latin and the word influentia which meant “flowing in” and is related to fluent speech or being under the influence of drink.

Then in 1743 an influenza outbreak began in Italy and the word made it to English shores.

It’s not hard to see why a society unaware of viruses might look to the stars for an explanation of a disease which appeared from nowhere. It surprised me to discover the virus was only discovered in pigs in 1931 by Richard Shope.

Until next time healthy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. my writing plans for 2018 include – publishing “How to Get Your Name in the Dictionary” (inspired by this blog), completing serial publication of “Hamster Stew & Other Stories” and launching the sequel “Nit Roast & Other Stories”, revision & submission of “Red Sails” (my middle grade book), ongoing blogging, column-writing, articles and, of course, my annual NaNoWriMo adventure. How about you – any cool plans for this year?


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Hello & Happy New Year,

This week’s word is thanks to my friend Deirdre who mentioned its murky ambiguity when we were hiking last weekend. Fulsome, it transpires, has two, contradictory meanings.

My much-used 1984 Collins English Dictionary simply refers readers from fulsome (pronunciation here) to the definition for full, but the history of this word is far from simple.

Merriam-Webster explains this word, whose first use was in the 1300s, was originally a Middle English version of itself – fulsom coming directly from compounding the words full and some. However its meaning wasn’t the same then. Back then fulsome meant cloying or over the top. Interestingly the OED claims the word dates to 1250 and meant abundant originally so the confusion may go “way back”.

The effusive meaning persisted but the idea of fulsome as abundant gained ground through the 1600s, leaving wordsmiths in a quandary. By the 1800s the positive sense died away and even left dictionaries but by the 1900s the positive sense overtook the negative, leaving the dictionaries wrong-footed.

A fulsome huggle of teds

In modern use fulsome can again, go either way. If the head of state gives fulsome praise or a fulsome apology to a politician, it’s now almost impossible to tell if that’s a good or a bad thing. Best advice? Steer clear of fulsome until the meaning settles because using it is bound to cause confusion.

Until next time I wish you a fulsome January,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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This week’s word is cohort (pronunciation here), which I came across in “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald.

A cohort is a Roman military term. You might remember a legion, it contained 600 soldiers. Each legion was sub-divided into cohorts of 60 infantry men each. They were a self-contained company, which makes sense as the original Latin referred to enclosure.

Roman Helmets

Cohort arrived in English in the 1400s with the meaning of being self-contained and it came to mean a walled court, garden, yard, or enclosure. It also retained the meaning of a group of companions which has persisted to modern English.

The hort element of the word, which has Latin roots as hortus or garden, went on to be part of horticulture. Perhaps the idea was that a garden is a way of enclosing part of nature. I love the notion of Roman infantry sharing linguistic roots with the flowers of a walled garden.

Enclosed medieval garden (Bloom 2016)

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I got that damaged thumb of mine checked out – I’ve torn ligaments apparently so my blog posts will be shorter than usual for the next 6 weeks.

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This week I’m taking a brief look at a word the Germans gave us – poltergeist (pronunciation here). It’s compounded from two sources – poltern, the German verb to knock and geist which means spirit.

Thanks to horror movies galore you’re probably familiar with poltergeists moving objects, odd odours, and strange noises – quite literally things that go bump in the night, often targeting one particular living person or place. The idea is common across many cultures and are often explained by gusts of wind, earth tremors, and animal pests.

Reports of poltergeist activities date back to the 1500s but the word only entered English in 1838, probably aided by the upsurge in interest in all things occult thanks to the spiritualist movement. In German the term translates as a “rumble ghost”.

The word poltergeist appears regularly in the many writing of Martin Luther who famously started the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church in Europe. He may even have coined the word.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will be confused to hear that according to the Online Etymology Dictionary a poltergeist would be a boggart in Northern English dialect. I’m fairly sure a prank-playing poltergeist like Peeves is pretty different to the shape-changing boggart featured in the stories. They might even find it faintly ridukulus (pun intended).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling.

Keep a close eye out for the poltergeists,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)



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The word thumb has been on my mind this week as I sprained mine at the weekend – not via excessive texting but by putting too much weight on it during a rock scramble on a mountain hike in Kerry. As a result I’m typing very carefully today with a swollen thumb.

Teermoyle Mountain, Kerry

Thumb fascinates me as a word because it’s so different to the word finger. Does the lack of a joint really make it so different? One thing I can vouch for this week is a) a swollen thumb is no joke and b) thumbs are really important in human evolution for a reason – they’re vital.

The word thumb has ancient roots in the Indo-European base language where tum meant swell (very appropriate for this week). By the time it reached the prehistoric West Germanic it had become thûmon. From there we get daumen (German),  duim (Dutch), and thumbe in Middle English. This was pronounced as two syllables, thum-be, but over time the second half became silent and we ended up with thumb in English.

Thumb in other European languages has Latin roots instead. Italian pollice and French pouce come from Latin pollex which means strong rather than swollen.

I assume the idea is the thumb looks like a swollen finger. Interestingly the words tumour and tumult have the same root. Phrases involving the thumb are pretty ancient too. We have rule of thumb where it’s a rough approximation of an inch from the 1500s and to be under the thumb was known since the 1580s.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. mercifully I passed the finish line on NaNoWriMo 2017 before I hurt my thumb, but I’m still mentoring my region.


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This week’s word is courtesy of Linda Keller in my local knitting & crochet group. I’ve been crocheting for thirty years and she surprised me with a yarn term last week I’d never encountered before – nepp (pronunciation here). As I was crafting a scarf with the yarn in question, I decided to investigate.

Neppy yarn – Northern Lights by James C Brett

A nepp yarn is one which has tiny flecks of a contrasting colour twisted into the fibre during the spinning process. This technique is particularly popular in tweed style textiles. Technically a nepp yarn creates a nub or knot by tightly twisting an effect fibre around the base fibre, typically in a different colour. I hadn’t heard of a nub either, except in the idea of “getting to the nub of an issue” which I presume refers to exploring a knotty topic until you uncover the final core tangle.

Some US dictionaries contain neppy as an adjective to describe fabric containing neps (note the single p) but if you check out nep you’ll stumble into New Economic Policy which doesn’t help us. Nepps can be regarded as flaws in a fabric such as denim but most yarn-crafters would see the little flecks as decorative rather than defective.

Be careful to avoid neppy confusion with nap. Nap refers to the plush pile on fabrics like velvet and moleskin.

As for word origin, nepp’s history is a knotty problem. I did find it in German, however, where it refers to a rip-off or highway robbery so perhaps the idea of nepps indicating poor quality comes from Germany. My own neppy yarn looks great, so I don’t think I was a victim of highway robbery when I bought it last week.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. NaNoWriMo Update – I made it to 40,132 words today and hope to pass the 50,000 word finish line by the end of the week. I’m participating in the All Ireland Word War (a friendly team writing event) so I’ll push on with “Nit Roast & Other Stories” until the end of November. As usual, I’ll need to invest more time in finishing my story after NaNo is complete.

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This week’s word is wrangler, thanks to this quotation I stumbled upon in “The Glass Shore” an anthology of short fiction by Northern Irish female writers – “The yokel was a wrangler of his year.” The character saying this was defending a middle class man from a snobbish member of the gentry but I must admit, I had only heard of a wrangler as a type of jeans or an animal handler in movie-speak, so what was she talking about?

Cambridge University in England is the source of the term. A wrangler there is a student who gains first class honours (the top mark) in the third year of their undergraduate mathematics degree. The highest ranking student within that category is the Senior Wrangler and is unofficially informed of this by a hat-tip when their name is read out. The rest are informed privately.

As the difficulty of the exams were universally acknowledged, being the senior wrangler became a highly sought-after honour and was used as short-hand for “very intelligent”. Some of the wranglers went on to high career success (for example Joan Clarke who helped crack the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park) while others missed the title but achieved excellence anyhow (e.g. Bertrand Russell). Wrangler is used in this way only at Cambridge University. Seek them at Oxford and you shall fail.

Unseen University Staff by Paul Kidby

Only one other university features a Senior Wrangler and that’s Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Unseen University in his Discworld books where the Senior Wrangler is a member of the faculty (and the football team) who is described as “a philosopher who looks like a horse”. As usual, Pratchett’s huge knowledge of the world, reminds us of this little known academic term and appropriately links it to animals as the more usual usage for wrangler is for an animal handler either on farms, ranches, or movie sets. It’s worth noting that Pratchett left school at 17 and although he was awarded ten honourary degrees, he didn’t receive one from Cambridge. I like to think he was the real Chancellor of the Unseen Uni.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (or word wrangling),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m running a contest on my twitter account (@Wordfoolery) to give away a 3 month bronze membership of Channillo.com. It enables new members of Chanillo to read up to ten series on the site, including mine, if you wish. First one out of the hat wins. Deadline midnight 31st October 2017.

Note: Discworld and Unseen University are trademarks

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