Category Archives: Etymology

A Word about Holly

There is a small holly tree in my garden that has never had berries. Thanks to an article I read recently I now know why. You can have male or female holly trees and only the female has the berries. My rather weedy specimen is obviously a male and its value as an adornment for Christmas wreaths and flower arrangements is thus sadly reduced.

Holly, like ivy, has a particular relationship with Christmas. In some regions it is also known as prickly Christmas, or the Christmas thorn. But it is also associated with other parts of the Christian calendar albeit the seasons are a bit out of kilter: The white flowers in spring represent the purity of the winter virgin birth we are soon to celebrate, whereas the red berries in winter represent Christ’s blood, and the prickly leaves the crown of thorns, from Easter. The bark represents the bitterness of Christ’s suffering.

The Old English word for holly is holegn, which is the origin of holm, as in holm oak – an evergreen oak tree with prickly leaves like the holly. This is not to be confused with the word holm you find in village names such as Holmbury, or Holmdale, or islands such as Gateholm. This holm indicates settlements that have developed on an island or on a stretch of low flat land near a river (from the Old Norse holmr, island, and the Old English holm, sea). Of course there could well have been holly trees there too – even before the birth of Christ – for which the human and other inhabitants would be grateful. Unappetising though it may sound, the leaves are useful cattle fodder in winter, deer browse on them too, and blue tits love the small grub (holly leaf minor) that the tree often hosts.

Just a few things to think about when you prick your finger as you rush to complete those natural’table decorations you decided on this year.

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Is this post a nothingburger?

Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary went through one of its regular updates – this OEDtime adding 350 new words to the English language. Words, that is, that have established themselves in the spoken language for long enough to be used widely, if infrequently, (or regularly among specific groups) but have not featured in the dictionary before.

Many of these words reflect changes in three spheres: music, films, and politics.

First, a new word in musical circles. Fam, which originally appeared in the English language in the sixteenth century as an abbreviation for family. Fam then fell into disuse other than as a colloquialism, had a brief resurgence in the 1990s as a slang term in American hip-hop, and has more recently been adopted in Britain, especially London, by rap and grime artists such as Stormzy and Lethal Bizzle.

New words from the film world include the comparing of a film’s style or acting to an iconic film -maker: Spielbergian, Bergmanesque etc. If a film is described as Tarantinoesque, for example, the critic would be referring to a director’s use of stylised and graphic violence (or maybe the film’s meandering plot).

Nothingburger was first used by a gossip columnist in Hollywood in the 1953, and came back into greater circulation more recently. It is used in politics, or more specifically political commentary, as a term of dismissal – something (or someone?) that seemed sound at first, but turned out to be insubstantial.

Also on the political front the dictionary includes alt-right (short for alternative right, meaning a hard right-wing political view) and idiocracy – a society of idiots; or maybe the actual government that is in power in that society. I’m not making a political point here about the current state of British or American politics. Just drawing your attention to words that have made it into the latest edition of the dictionary because they are now in (relatively) common usage.

But, who knows, they may all turn out to be nothingburgers.

Want to learn an interesting new word every day?

Follow the OED on Twitter: @OED 

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Names As Food For Thought?

What’s in a name? As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” However, the growing number of vegetarians and vegans has given some pubShoulder of lamb and restaurant proprietors a little concern about what to call their establishments. The owners of the Shoulder of Mutton pub in York, for example, felt that name might be deterring non-meat-eaters, so have changed it to Heworth Inn. (I haven’t asked if trade has subsequently picked up or not).

Using that logic Devil’s Beef Tub in Moffat, Scotland (named in reference to the cattle thieves who used to hide their stolen animals in the adjacent hollow in the hills) may want to consider a name change.

Some meaty sounding place names are not what they seem. In the UK there are several villages or districts called Ham (West Ham, East Ham etc.) This has nothing to do with the meat, but derives from the Old English word hamme, meaning a small plot of land / pasture. (Presumably cities like Birmingham and Nottingham started out as hamlets and just kept growing).

Likewise Swineshead, in Lincolnshire, is nothing to do with pigs, but comes from a mix of Svien (Norse) and swin (Old English) meaning tidal creek, and heda, the Old English for dock.

Other names sound wholesomely meat-free – like Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. But this has nothing to do with cheese, as the word cheddar comes from ceador, the Old English word for cavities (Cheddar Gorge is famous for its caves).

leeksI’m not sure whether the town of Leek was named after the vegetable, but it definitely sounds vegan friendly, if nothing else. Unlike Slaughterford in Gloucestershire, which is not, as the name suggests, a location for killing animals (human or otherwise). But it could be rather damp  – the name derives from slough, Old English for wet land.


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Swimming in Circles.

I like swimming. Next to taking the dog for a walk it is my most regular form of exercise – certainly way ahead of house-work and gardening. So I took more than a passing


Ross Edgley swimming past the white cliffs of Dover, SE England

interest in the adventures of Ross Edgley who recently swam round the whole of mainland Great Britain. This prompted features in some papers about him ‘circumnavigating’ the country. These articles subsequently prompted letters pointing out that he could not have circumnavigated the country unless he had been in a boat which required navigating skills. What he had achieved was the circumnatation of the country (Latin circa – around, natatatio – swimming).

The use of the word circumnatation then caused more correspondence along the lines of, as it does not appear in any dictionaries, or in the computer spell-checker, it can’t be a proper word. However you can Google it – and a web search will even turn up a literary use:Swimmer goldfish-bowl

Compton Mackenzie, in his 1914 novel, Sinister Street, describes a dreary boarding house room as being enlivened by ‘a bowl of blond goldfish, in ceaseless dim circumnatation.’

There must have been moments when Mr Edgley, like the goldfish, felt what he was doing was ceaseless – it took him several days longer than he’d bargained for – and the view, at brown sea-water level, must have been pretty dim most of the time. But it was, all in all, a fantastic achievement and he looked pretty pleased with himself when he finally came ashore.


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Betrumped – a word, not a political move!

Edward Allhusen likes words, particularly words that roll round in the mouth and have a quaint, unfamiliar ring to them. He is a retired publisher and has devoted years of his life to ‘rescuing’ words he feels have a special place in the English language, but are in danger of dying out through lack of use.

In his recently published book Betrumped (which means cheated or deceived) he lists what he describes as a personal selection of now unfamiliar words, or words that have changed their meaning over the past few hundred years.

Some of the words listed are words I still use occasionally. Defenestrate, for example, meaning the act of throwing someone out of the window (from the Latin, fenestra – window) seemed to crop up regularly in history lessons about wars and religious cat-caterwaulingconflicts when I was at school. Caterwaul (high-pitched yowling) is probably a word from the fourteenth century that imitates the sound it is describing though, sadly, there is no etymological link to cats. It was also my mother’s description of most rock and pop singers in my youth. Hobbledehoy (a clumsy, uncouth youth), is possibly from sixteenth century French. Dipsomaniac (a drunkard) is from the Greek – dipsa (thirst) and mania. Pettifogger (a person who fusses over details) is possibly based on a German family of financiers – the Fuggers – in the sixteenth century.

There are some words listed that I have not heard before, like condiddle – to steal – though I still use the word diddle, if I feel someone has not given me enough change etc. This would suggest I was something of a juggins (easily fooled). Juggins was once a relatively common surname; again it could be an unfortunate family who were reputed to be a bit dim. It was another word often used in by my mother, this time in self-mockery – ‘Juggins, here, ended up doing the washing up again.

A couple of words that caught my eye have either changed in meaning (like innings, now a term in cricket but it used to mean land that is away from the sea), or do not mean cat - beerwhat you might think they should. Crapulence, for example is nothing to do with the inventor of the modern toilet, Thomas Crapper. It is from the Latin, crapula – drunkenness, usually accompanied by a headache – and hence an old-fashioned term for a hangover.


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Where did the term Music Hall come from?

I can remember watching ‘The Good Old Days’ on my grandparents’ back and white TV, later upgraded to colour. This was a programme of popular songs from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, screened in front of a live audience, who arrived dressed up in Edwardian clothes and were encouraged to join in.

Joining in the singing was part of the old music hall tradition, a tradition that started in music hall 2the public houses of the 1850s. Around this time landlords – always on the look-out for ways to sell more drinks – started to notice that on the evenings when certain singers came into the pub more drinkers would choose that evening to come in as well, so that they got a drink and a bit of entertainment at the same time. In time, landlords would set aside the saloon bar for the entertainers and audience, or open up a separate ‘singing room.’ As the entertainment became more and more popular, enterprising landlords built a ‘hall for music’ on the side of their pubs, with the name soon changing to ‘music hall.’ Some of the singers, such as Marie Lloyd, became house-hold names.

The main feature of a music hall was that it was an adjunct to a public house, and that drinking was actively encouraged throughout. In music halls the landlord stopping the singing and shouting ‘Order! order!‘ was not an instruction to behave, but an instruction to go and buy another drink or there’d be no more singing that night. (Other theatres didn’t allow alcohol in the auditorium, which probably explains some of the popularity of the music halls).

The Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, built as an adjunct to the White Swan Inn in 1865, was a typical example of a successful music hall. Like other venues though, its survival was threatened by the arrival of television and the popularity of home entertainment. This particular hall was saved by the decision of the BBC to film ‘The Good Old Days‘ there. The programme was so popular that it ran from 1953 to 1983. Lovingly restored it is still a popular venue for variety acts.Music hall


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Remembering the First World War.

WW1 poppy_fields_1170x461

It’s a hundred years ago today that the First World War ended, and there are memorials taking place around the world to mark this. Many families were affected by the death or serious injuries (mental and physical) of the young men who fought for King and Country. The traditional role of women was also changed by the war as they left their homes to support the war effort, and brought up families single-handed. True, they were expected to meekly return to the kitchen once the men came home, but the genie was out of the bottle, and the vote and greater independence – both socially and in work –  followed.

Language was changed too, and phrases coined by the men at the front came into common usage when they returned home. Though with some, their meaning has changed subtly.

Over the top, for example, which referred to the act of scrambling out of the trench and running towards the enemy lines (quite possibly getting killed or injured in the process), now means anything excessive or a bit too much.

Catwalk was the name for the temporary, narrow wooden pathway over the mud (so named because of a cat’s ability to walk along the tops of thin walls), now refers to the strip of stage a model walks along to display the latest fashions.

Some phrases needed a rapid cleaning up to be used in mixed society. In the pink means being well and happy, but for soldiers at the front it had sexual connotations (use your imagination), whether realised or just hopeful.

Likewise bumf, which came to mean paperwork – quite possibly an excess of it – was a contraction of bum-fodder (again, use your imagination – no doubt they were short of loo rolls at the Front).

The soldiers in the First World War had khaki uniforms, unlike the splendidly attired WW1 soldiersoldiers of previous centuries. It made them less conspicuous and less likely to be picked out by snipers. The word khaki was not a WW1 invention. It comes from the nineteenth century Persian or Urdu word meaning dust.

Many men endured the dreadful conditions bravely, but were no doubt helped by a laconic sense of humour. I will finish today with a marching song from the First World War known as I Don’t Want to Die. I want to go home / I want to go home / I don’t want to go in the trenches no more / Where whizz-bangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar / Take me over the sea / Where the Alleyman can’t get me / Oh my / I don’t want to die / I want to go home. This was sung, of course, whilst marching stoically towards the Front, and in the full knowledge that they, or comrades, might never be going home.