Tag Archives: Etymology

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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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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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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