Category Archives: Etymology

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.




The Origins of English

Where did the English language come from, and why do we mostly  speak English in the UK and the USA? I can’t answer the last question, but here is a brief summary of how English evolved from an unknown group of speakers living somewhere unspecified over 15,000 years ago. Early man

Around 14-15,000 years ago, their language evolved into three: distinct versions: New Guinea; Sino-Tibetan (which gave rise to Chinese), and Nostratic. Nostratic carried on evolving in different regions and, about 10,000 years ago, became what have been termed Afro-Asiatic (Hebrew and Arabic), Dravidian, and Eurasiatic.

Fast (?) forward around another 5,000 years and we have Eurasiatic dividing into Altaic, Uralic (the source of the Hungarian language), and Indo-European.

From the first millennium BC, Indo-European evolved into the prime source of many of the languages we now recognise: Indo-Iranian, Hellenic (Greek), Italic (e.g. French), Celtic (e.g. Welsh), Balto-Slavic, and Germanic.

Still with me?

From Germanic, in around 450 – 1100 AD, we get German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. And from Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English e.g. Beowulf) we gallop (?) through the changes:

Middle English (1100 – 1450), e.g. Chaucer.

Early Modern English (1450 – 1700) e.g. Shakespeare.

Modern English from 1700.

Early man 2Language is still changing and we speak and write differently today from our ‘modern’ eighteenth century ancestors. However, we do not have much problem understanding what they wrote. It might be different the other way round, though. If some of them were tele-ported into 2018, what would they make of our text speak, computer terms used in everyday language, acronyms, office jargon and emoticons? Also our seeming preference to communicate via gadgets rather than directly?

Are we heading into the post-modern English era? Discuss!


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Marmite – Spread the Word!

Everyone has heard of Marmite – everyone in the UK, that is. I’m not sure if it is so popular elsewhere in the world. For those who aren’t in the know, Marmite is a yeastMARMITE-ON-TOAST-602918 and vegetable extract that is used as a spread in sandwiches or on toast. It can also be added to stews etc. for extra flavouring.

What people, including those in the UK, may not realise is that the word comes from marmite – a large cooking pot, or the soup cooked within such a pot. (Marmite is French for casserole, or pot). Presumably – and I’m guessing here – the soup was full of vegetables and very flavoursome. Hence its adoption as the name for the spread.

I quite like the taste of Marmite, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. It doesn’t spoil my day if I have marmalade on my morning toast instead. But some people love the spread. And some loathe it. Feelings are so polarised that the term Marmite is often used these days about anything people feel strongly about one way or the other. Or anybody; I can think of a few politicians, actors, and comedians who can elicit a ‘marmite response’ whenever they appear on TV.

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The origin of your computer bug.

Not many people know about Grace Hopper who died in 1992. She completed her Ph.D. Grace_Hopperin mathematics at Yale in 1934 and taught mathematics at Vassar for the next ten years. During the Second World War she joined the naval reserve and retired in 1986 as a Rear Admiral.

She was also a renowned computer programming pioneer. Among her achievements are her involvement in designing the common business orientated language (COBOL) for the first commercial computer, and her role in standardising the computer languages used by the navy.

She was a clever and remarkable woman, but what merits her inclusion of a blog about writers, writing and language, is her coining of a new meaning for the word bug. The average author may not know much about computer languages and programming but, unless they are sticking firmly to pen and paper, few will have completed a manuscript without the occasional bug freezing their computer. Although the first computer bug was, in fact, a moth.

Here is how Grace Hopper tells the story: Moth dead from natural causes isolated on white.

Things were going badly. There was something wrong in one of the circuits. Finally someone located the trouble spot and, using ordinary tweezers, removed the problem, a two-inch moth. From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”

Whilst we are talking about female mathematicians, another little known fact is that a magazine for ladies know initially as the Ladies’ Diary and then the Woman’s Almanac was a mathematical publication. It started out, as you might expect with titles like that, with recipes and articles on health and beauty. Within a few years however these had been supplemented by mathematical puzzles and questions about arithmetic, geometry, algebra and astronomy that would be answered by the readership. Increasingly, this readership included well known (male) mathematicians. But mostly it was the women readers who supplied solutions, often under pseudonyms.

The magazine flourished – it was published for nearly one hundred and fifty years (1704 – 1841) and suggests that the stereotype of women who can’t do maths, was less dominant in the eighteenth century, than in our own time. The original editor believed in cultivating the female mind as well as offering tips for improving her attractiveness to potential husbands. “Wit join’d to Beauty … leads more Captive than the Conqu’ring Sword.

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Scrabbling for a new word?

The English language is constantly changing. If it didn’t, we’d still talk (and spell) like people in the time of Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Beowulf. Which wouldn’t really be a beowulfproblem – the problem we have now is because, as the language has evolved, we have lost the ability to understand how it was written and spoken in centuries gone by. We don’t get the puns in Shakespeare (were they funny even then?) We realise words must have been pronounced differently in Chaucer’s time to make any rhythmic sense. And the different spelling / pronunciation / syntax in Beowulf makes that poem almost completely incomprehensible for modern readers and listeners. Though the word Hwaet is still about the most effective way to open a poem, ever. It certainly makes you sit up and listen – much more than its feeble translation – so.

New words enter the lexicon every year and, if they catch on, they find their way into dictionaries. Purists sometimes tut-tut, others just accept it; after all there is no rule forcing you to say ‘misspoke’ if you don’t want to – you can still use the good old-fashioned ‘lie.’

American English and British English have diverged over the years – not for nothing are we described as two nations divided by a common language (a ‘fanny bag’ sounds a bit saucy to an English woman – we prefer to strap on a ‘bum bag.’)

scrabbleThe gap has just got wider, causing consternation in Scrabble playing households. English players rely on the Collins Official Scrabble Wordlist, Americans rely on Merriam-Webster’s Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. The latter has just published its sixth edition with around 300 new words with which to out-play your opponent. On this side of the pond we have to wait till May 2019 for Collins to update their last edition.

American players can now put emoji and frowny on the board, alongside zomboid (like a zombie), twerk (dance whilst wiggling your bum, sorry – fanny), beatdown (massive defeat), sheeple (people who are docile / sheep like), bizjet (business jet). Handy two letter words that are now accepted, include ew (expression of disgust) and OK (I hadn’t realised this was not acceptable in the UK – but I’ve just checked in my Collins dictionary, where it is written as O.K.  – so therefore not okay).

Not that the Brits should despair. Although Scrabble was invented by a New Yorker, American players who want to compete internationally have to learn to use a larger board and use words only contained in the Collins dictionary. Which may come as a surprise to some – or as the latest Official Scrabble Players Dictionary would have it: Yowza!

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Some Meanings Behind Reading.

Readers reckon they know what the verb to read means. Quite simply, it’s what you are doing now! But the verb can be used to imply a range of other meanings too. Here are a few:

reading paper“All I know is what I read in the papers,” doesn’t literally mean that he/she only gets information from newspapers. What the phrase is intended to convey is that the speaker is ordinary, unpretentious, not an expert. The phrase was popularised by the American comedian, Will Rogers, in the 1920s.

Sticking with newspapers, there’s the vendor’s cry “Read all about it.” It wasn’t long before the phrase extended beyond newspaper sellers – hence the BBC programme reviewing new paperback books with the same title.

“Read any good books lately?” An innocuous seeming question from the early twentiethreading book century that then became a catch-phrase to be used when a speaker wanted to divert attention from something. (A young man might perhaps divert his friend’s mother with this question, to stop her spotting his friend kissing a young lady – presumably one he hadn’t been properly introduced to).

“Read between the lines.” Literally, this probably referred to a cryptographic method of conveying meaning in a text via every other line. Nowadays, it refers to an author who conveys more meaning than is in the actual words, perhaps conveying something sensational (or rude) by implication. How many secret Romeos have answered the door whilst buttoning their shirt / trousers – leaving us to ‘read between the lines’ what had gone on just before? (Well maybe not so many these days, where almost anything goes, but it was common practice in books / films a generation or so ago).

“Read my lips.” A phrase popularised by George Bush senior, but used well before that to denote the sincerity of the words being uttered through the lips. It is also an age-old technique used by deaf people or people working in noisy environments.

“Read the riot act.” The original riot act was passed by the British Parliament and read out to the rebellious masses in 1714, ordering them to disperse. Now it is an activity regularly implemented by parents to show disapproval of a child’s errant behaviour.

And finally – “Read, mark, and inwardly digest.” Unlikely though it may seem, this is an actual phrase from the Book of Common Prayer (the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent) and means exactly what it says).


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