Category Archives: Etymology

The Queen’s (or her heir’s) English?

The Prince of Wales was in the news last week. As he is often written about, that fact is not, in itself, newsworthy – at least not for a blog about writing and writers. What drew literary minded people’s interest was his letter to President Macron after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in which he used a number of Americanised spellings, namely –ize instead of –ise. The prince’s fuddy-duddy reputation as a traditionalist was under threat – had he fallen under the influence of his new American daughter-in-law? Was he trying too hard to be ‘down with the kidz? Was ‘Western civilization’ (as he wrote) under threat from his expressions of sympathy for the French in this ‘most agonizing of times’? As one British woman living in France tweeted, ‘Lovely sentiments, but not impressed by the Americanisation of spelling here. Are we British or what?’

Well she, monarchists at home and abroad, and pedants everywhere can relax. The prince was being both British and traditionalist. He has been a longstanding user of –ize rather than –ise, and has the full support of established lexicographers. An article on the website of the Oxford Dictionary points out that while it is now believed that –ize is only correct in American English, it has been in use in Standard English since the fifteenth century, when there was no such thing as American English. The prince’s writing style, in fact, is traditional with knobs on.

Some publishing houses in the UK still use –ize as their preferred house style (the Oxford University Press, for example, who prefer it because of its origins in ancient Greek.) So, we Brits can choose which way to spell words like realise or organize. But it is best to be consistent and, of course, adhere to the recommended house style if you are lucky enough to get a publisher.

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Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

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Names – again!

I’m still reading What the Dickens! – the collection of words and sayings and where they come from I mentioned in my last blog. Here is a bit about the names of some items of clothing or footwear we take for granted.

The cardigan is seen by others countries as a quintessentially British garment – warm, serviceable, and towards the frumpy end of fashion. It was indeed an English invention, but its origins are quite heroic. The seventh Earl of Cardigan (the one who lead the infamous charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War), was in fact a more benevolent leader than history generally records. He was concerned about the suffering of the soldiers in the extreme cold of a Russian winter and commissioned these knitted garments for them to wear under their uniforms.

The Mackintosh – another unglamorous but essential garment in Britain – is now the term for any coat that keeps out the rain. But the original mackintosh, or mac, was made from a specific material (two layers of cloth bound by India rubber) invented by a chemist, Charles Mackintosh.

Wellingtons are boots named after the first Duke of Wellington, the famous general from the Napoleonic wars, and polititian. Originally the boots were made of leather for military use, but subsequently were made of rubber (or even, these days, plastic). There is no evidence that the duke actually invented this form of boot, but he was such a national hero that many items of clothing were named after him including a hat, a coat, and trousers. It is the boot however that is most universally associated with him.

Before trainers became ubiquitous, people took to the running track or the gym in plimsolls. Not many people know that these are named after a Victorian politician, Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned for greater safety on cargo ships. Following the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act in 1876, the Plimsoll line was drawn on the side of ships and had to be seen above the waterline to demonstrate that the ship was not overloaded. Later, when a rubber soled shoe was designed to improve safety on wet decks, it was named in honour of him. Subsequently the shoe proved a hit with sportsmen and women.

It is interesting to speculate on the names of these items and how, if these men had switched jobs, we could have been buttoning ourselves into a plimsoll to protect us from the cold, and running round the park in a pair of cardigans.

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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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