"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Thursday, 31 December 2009


An ideogram is a character or symbol representing an idea or a thing without expressing the pronunciation of a particular word or words for it.

"Chinese characters are ideograms".

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

To hit the hay

To hit the hay means to go to bed or prepare for sleep. The origin, of course, comes from the idea of a weary wanderer ending up in a barn and settling down to sleep on the soft hay. A wonderful romantic image until you realise there would be bits sticking in your ear and down your neck. And, of course, all the creepy crawlies...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Pizzas and Pizzaz

Pizza (pronounced PEET-sa) is an open pie of Italian origin made of thin bread dough, baked in a circle and spread with a spiced mixture of tomato sauce, cheese and other ingredients.

Pizzaz (also spelled pizazz and pizzazz) (pronounced PUH-ZaZ) is an informal word meaning dazzling style; flamboyance; flair; vigorous spirit; energy; dynamism; or excitement.

You can, of course, occasionally get pizzas with pizzaz!

Monday, 28 December 2009


A rictameter is an unrhymed, 9-line poem with a syllable count of 2/4/6/8/10/8/6/4/2 in which the first and last lines are the same.

Andromeda Jazmon on her blog 'A Wrung Sponge' recently wrote one and I decided to borrow the idea (and even borrowed her first / last line). This was the result.

Long night.
Can't sleep at all.
But then I rarely can.
It's one of the prices I pay
for being daft enough to be poorly.
Not that I chose to be ill
but I didn't look after myself
when I was young.
Long night

Sunday, 27 December 2009


A chine of meat or fish is a cut which includes at least part of the backbone.

A chine is also a steep-sided river valley where the river flows through coastal cliffs to the sea. Typically these are soft eroding cliffs.

It can also mean the top of a ridge; the spine of an animal; a sharp angle in the cross section of the hull of a boat.

Chine is also French for China so when I googled for an image of a chine all I got were French maps of the far east!

Saturday, 26 December 2009


Vespertine is a term used in the life sciences to indicate something of, relating to, or occurring in the evening. In botany, a vespertine flower is one which opens or blooms in the evening. In zoology, the term is used for a creature that becomes active in the evening, such as bats and owls. Vespertine animals are frequently described as nocturnal, although this usage is not strictly correct.

The Large Flowered Evening Primrose is a vespertine flower.

Friday, 25 December 2009

When fish ride bicycles

Just as the phrase ‘Pigs will fly’ is used to indicate an unlikely event, the phrase ‘When fish ride bicycles’ is also sometimes used for the same purpose.

I am was amused to find on the Internet a statue depicting this saying.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


Addlepated is a beautiful word. Definitely one of my favourites.

Addlepated means addled; confused; stupid; flustered; fatuous; bungling.

And how about this for a great quotation:-
"Blathering like the addlepated nincompoop that you are"; "A confused puddingheaded, muddleheaded fellow"- Isaac Sterne

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

To put the boot in

This British phrase has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. Literally it means to attack someone by kicking them again and again, usually when they are lying on the ground.

Metaphorically it means kicking somebody when they're down; to make a bad situation worse.

He lost his job and then his wife put the boot in by announcing she was leaving him.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


An idiom is a phrase characteristic of a particular language, that cannot necessarily be fully understood from the separate meanings of the individual words.

A classic example of the idiom is the description of heavy rain in various languages. For example, in Afrikaans it rains old women with knobkerries (clubs).

In Danish it rains shoemakers' apprentices, the Dutch get pipe stems, the Greeks suffer from falling chair legs and the Icelanders receive fire and brimstone. In Catalan it rains boats and barrels while the Chinese have to suffer dog-poo.

In English we often say it's raining cats and dogs. The Germans also find it's raining young dogs. At one time (before stair rods virtually disappeared) the English also suffered from it raining stair rods while rods also fell on the Swedes (along with ladles).

In France and Poland it rains frogs while I seem to recall from my French lessons that nails and taxis were also likely to plummet from the skies!

Instead of taxis the Slovaks find its raining tractors. The Czecks are less ambitious and only receive wheelbarrows.

The Germans say it's raining cobbler boys whilst in Ireland it's throwing cobblers knives. The Welsh get forks along with their knives. The Portuguese get rained on with penknives and, most remarkably, toads' beards. In Spain it's even raining husbands!

Perhaps my favourite is the Norwegian idiom - it's raining female trolls.

And then, with Welsh, we are back to were we started with Afrikaans since it rains old ladies and sticks...

Monday, 21 December 2009


Malarkey is empty rhetoric or insincere or exaggerated talk; nonsense; rubbish; or silliness.

I had anticipated that this would be a word of some long-standing origin and was amazed when I looked it up in my two-volume Shorter Oxford of 1983 that the word was not in it. Malarkey, it seems, is slang. I wonder if the latest Oxford Dictionary has accepted it into 'proper' English yet?

Sunday, 20 December 2009


A sockdologer is a doxology (a hymn or verse in Christian liturgy glorifying God - from the Greek doxa, belief or opinion + logos, word or speaking) is a short hymn of praises to God in various Christian worships . I think I'll stick to calling them short hymns - referring to sockdologers sounds a bit irreverent to me.

Thanks to the WordImp for the idea for today's word!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

People voice

A ‘people voice’ is a modern term for the voice that someone uses when talking to people who aren't their friends or family. This voice is automatically happy, nicer and sweeter than their normal voice. It is also often more high pitched. This is often the voice people use when answering a telephone or when working in retail.

Similar to the ‘people voice’ is the ‘girlfriend voice’ which includes a change in pitch or tone of a man's voice when talking to their significant other. The girlfriend voice is characterized by a higher pitch and a more effeminate tone with speech patterns scattered with pet names and childish words.

Friday, 18 December 2009


A sandal is a simple form of footwear where the shoe is held to the foot by strips of leather or fabric.

Sandals are known from the days of Ancient Rome or even earlier but I was a little confused by this sentence in Dickens’ “Tom Tiddler’s Ground” :-
‘Where the cook was going, didn’t appear, but she generally conveyed to Miss Kimmeens that she was bound, rather against her will, on a pilgrimage to perform some pious office that rendered new ribbons necessary to her best bonnet, and also sandals to her shoes.’

This implied that sandals were something additional; to her shoes. I can only conclude that in this case sandals was an alternative name for pattens or tall clogs that were used to strap on to footwear to keep one’s best shoes out of the mud and water in the streets in Victorian times.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


Quither is a village in Devon, England. I once read that a quither was a rubbish heap but cannot now find a source for that. Can anyone help me out? Is it perhaps a dialect term?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Living the life of Riley

The expression 'living the life of Riley' suggests an ideal life of prosperity and contentment, possibly living on someone else's money, time or work. The expression was popular in the 1880s, a time when James Whitcomb Riley's poems depicted the comforts of a prosperous home life.

However, the expression could have an Irish origin: after the Reilly clan consolidated its hold on County Cavan, they minted their own money, accepted as legal tender even in England. These coins, called “O'Reillys” and “Reilly's,” became synonymous with a monied person, and a gentleman freely spending was “living on his Reillys.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


A tidbit (also spelled titbit) is a choice morsel, a small tasty bit of food, something considered choice to eat, a dainty, a goody, a kickshaw, a treat, a delicacy.

Monday, 14 December 2009

To Tickle one's Fancy

To tickle one's fancy means to excite amusement; to appeal to one's imagination; to excite one's interest pleasurably. This term uses fancy in the sense of “liking” or “taste” and dates from the second half of the 1700s.

To be tickled pink means to be very amused or pleased as does to be tickled to death.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Great minds think alike

This is a humorous expression that is used when you found out someone else was thinking about the same thing as you were. If you say, "Great minds think alike," you say, jokingly, that you and someone else must be very intelligent or great because both of you thought of the same thing or agree on something.

The earliest instance of the proverb in its present form seems be from 1898:-
"Curious how great minds think alike. My pupil wrote me the same explanation about his non-appearance."
[1898 C. G. Robertson Voces Academicae]

The eraliest version of it at all seems to be from 1618 when D. Belchier wrote
"Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. Good wits doe jumpe."
[1618 D. Belchier Hans Beer-Pot ] ( The word jump used in the sense of ‘agree completely’ or ‘coincide’ is now archaic.)


A cathedral is a Christian church that contains the seat of a bishop. I expect most people already were aware of that but it is the origin of the name that interested me. It is from the Latin cathedra which was a teacher's seat.
A cathedral is a religious building for worship, specifically of a denomination with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches, which serves as a bishop's seat, and thus as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


Coryza is a cold in the head; the common cold; rhinitis. The word "coryza" comes from the Greek "koryza" which is thought to have been compounded from "kara", head + "zeein", to boil. The "boiling over from the head" refers to the runny nose, an all-too-familiar feature of a head cold.

(I shall spare you the delights of an illustration!)

Friday, 11 December 2009


A catenary is the sag in a line strung between two points; a curve into which a uniform rope or cable falls when suspended from two points, as in a suspension bridge; the structure of cables above the track which carries the electric supply for electric locomotives that use overhead electricity .

(My Christmas cards hang on a string which sags in the middle with their weight - so they end up all piled up together in the catenary!)

Thursday, 10 December 2009


A fichu (pronounced fish-oo) is a lightweight triangular scarf worn by a woman; a large, square kerchief, folded diagonally into a triangle, worn by women from the 18th century to fill in the low neckline of a bodice; a draped scarf or shawl worn around shoulders and tied in a knot at breast, with ends hanging down loosely.

(This picture is from an excellent site explaining the differences of various pieces of millinery can be found here.)

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Whilst nowadays a Cyprian or Cypriot is someone who originates in Cyprus in Victorian times a Cyprian was a prostitute, a woman who engaged in sexual intercourse for money. Cyprus was famous as the home of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty – hence the use of the name for a prostitute.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


A Groat was a Fourpence - a former English silver coin worth four pennies.

According to Wikipedia the first groats were minted during the reign of Edward I (1272 to 1307). From the reigns of Charles II to George III, groats (by now often known as fourpences) were issued on an irregular basis for general circulation, up to 1800. After this the only circulating issues were from 1836 to 1855, with proofs known from 1857 and 1862 and a colonial issue of 1888. These last coins had the weight further reduced to about 27 grains (1.9 grams) and were the same diameter as the silver threepenny pieces of the day although thicker. They also had Britannia on the reverse, while all other silver fourpenny pieces since the reign of William and Mary have had a crowned numeral "4" as the reverse, including the silver fourpenny Maundy money coins of the present day. Some groats continued to circulate in Scotland until the 20th century.

Groats are also the hulled grains of various cereals, such as oats, wheat, barley or buckwheat. Groats from oats are a good source of avenanthramide. (Avenanthramides are antimicrobial substances synthesized by plants.)

Monday, 7 December 2009

A very Unique word - Ugh.

Some adjectives can be qualified; attractive, for example. A work of art may be fairly attractive or very attractive. There are however some adjectives that cannot be qualified like true or unique. Something is either true or it isn't

Unique means radically distinctive and without equal; singular; the single one of its kind; an item of which only one specimen is known to exist; something of which no two are exactly the same.

I therefore get really worked up when I hear television presenters describe something as very unique or fairly unique. It isn't! It is either unique or it isn't.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


In his blog the other day Ian used a word I had never come across before – decadal.

Decadal is defined as of or pertaining to the number ten; a group of ten things; or a decade; occurring over a 10-year period; once every ten years.

So, in the UK, the census is decadal.


To cabbage was an archaic term meaning to steal lengths of cloth while cutting clothes. “Your taylor, instead of shreads, cabbages whole yards of cloth.” (Arbuthnot’s History of John Bull, 1713.)

Saturday, 5 December 2009



The ampersand is a punctuation mark (&) used to represent the conjunction ‘and’.

Alrhough it is a substitute for the word 'and' in any context it is not generally used outside of signs and titles.

It is a ligature formed from an upper or lowercase e conjoined with t which spells et (“and” in Latin).

(In writing and typography the word ligature means a character consisting of two or more letters combined into one.)

Friday, 4 December 2009


A solidus is another name for a punctuation mark (/) used to separate related items of information; the ‘Forward Slash’. But I doubt you’ll hear people talking about www dot scriptorsenex solidus blogspot dot com

In UK maths the solidus is the line between the numerator and the denominator of a fraction.

In addition to ‘forward slash’, an alternative name for the solidus is the virgule. (But note that in French la virgule is a comma. In maths in France la virgule is also the decimal separator! In fact, in English maths and French maths both the comma and the period/ full stop are reversed so the English number 2,576.5 is written in French as 2.576,5. Isn't life confusing. )

So far as I know there is no technical name for the back slash but I’m happy to be corrected if anyone knows of one.

A solidus was also a bezant, a round gold coin of the Byzantine Empire which was widely circulated in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Driving me up the wall

To drive someone up the wall means to annoy or irritate someone very much. If something drives you up the wall it makes you very unhappy and full of anxiety or anger.

It's origin is said to come from the idea that one climbed the walls to escape from whatever was annoying one.

(Thanks to Brian for the brilliant photo!)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


In biology, mitochondria (plural) are the parts of a cell which are responsible for providing the cell with energy; The powerhouse of the cell.

Sink introduced me to this word by describing her 13 year old as ‘mighty mitochondria’ – what a great description for a bundle of energy!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


An ephelis is a form of freckle . A flat red or light-brown spot on the skin that typically appears during the sunny months and fades in the winter. Freckles are clusters of concentrated melanin which are most often visible on people with a fair complexion.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Flynn Effect

I'm not sure if this really counts for this blog but as it was a phrase I didn't understand I thought perhaps others might appreciate learning about it...

The Flynn effect is the rise of the average intelligence quotient (IQ) test scores over generations (IQ gains over time). The effect has also been reported for other cognitions such as semantic and episodic memory. The effect occurs in most parts of the world although at greatly varying rates.
The effect increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present. "Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial," psychologist Ulric Neisser wrote in an article in 1997 in The American Scientist. Evidence from standardization samples (Dickens, Flynn; 2006), still show gains between 1972 and 2002.
The Flynn effect is named after James R. Flynn, who did much to document it and promote awareness of its implications. However, the first to coin the term was not Flynn himself but by Richard J. Herrnstein in "The Bell Curve".

Sunday, 29 November 2009


A ghetto (pronounced GETT-oh) was formerly the restricted quarter of many European cities in which Jews were required to live. The first city to have named such a quarter the ghetto was Venice under the Venetian Republic in the fourteenth century and word is Venetian in origin.

Perhaps the most famous ghetto was the Warsaw Ghetto established by the Germans in 1940. It held over half a million people over the next four years and it is estimated 100,000 died of disease and malnutrition and 300,000 were killed by the Nazis on the spot during uprisings or exported to concentration camps and killed there.

Nowadays ghetto refers to any segregated mode of living or working that results from bias or stereotyping; especially a poor densely populated city district occupied by a minority ethnic group linked together by economic hardship and social restrictions.

The history of the word ghetto is one of the most damning of all humanity.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Pronounced SEG-way, to segue is to proceed without interruption in music or talk; the act of changing smoothly from one state or situation to another.

Friday, 27 November 2009


Procatalepsis is a figure of speech in which the speaker raises an objection to his own argument and then immediately answers it. By doing so, he hopes to strengthen his argument by dealing with possible counter-arguments before his audience can raise them.

Thursday, 26 November 2009



A misericord (sometimes named mercy seat like the Biblical object) is a small wooden shelf underneath folding seats in churches installed to provide some level of comfort for those standing during long periods of prayer.

Prayers in the early medieval church for the daily divine offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) were said standing with uplifted hands. Those who were old or infirm could use crutches or, as time went on, misericordia (literally "act of mercy"). Seating was constructed so that the seats could be turned up, the undersides being provided with a small shelf thus allowing a person a small level of comfort by leaning against it. Like most other medieval woodwork in churches, they were usually carved with skill and often show detailed scenes which belie their hidden position underneath the seats, specially in the choir stalls of the quire around the altar.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


I learned on Kate (aka Country Girl)'s blog the other day what bokeh means. I can't do better than quote her:-

"Bokeh is pronounced bow-kay or bow-keh and it refers to that lovely out-of-focus light and all the different shapes and colors you see in the background of photos taken with a digital camera. It is created by light and and the glass in your lens and distance and wind and focus. It's a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image."

Tuesday, 24 November 2009



A caret is a mark (^) used by an author or editor to indicate where something is to be inserted into a text.

When a similar mark appears above a letter it is termed a circumflex.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Cachexy (pronounced Catch-ecksy) is an archaic term which I came across in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. He described it as being “a general word to express a great variety of symptoms, most commonly it denotes such a distemperature of the humours, as hinders nutrition, and weakens the vital and animal functions, proceeding from weakness of the fibres, and an abuse of the non-naturals, and often from severe acute distempers.”
I think that means ‘ill’ !
“I wonder what would be the reaction if I told my fellow bloglings I was suffering from cachexy?”


Sunday, 22 November 2009


The proscenium is the part of a modern theatre stage between the curtain and the orchestra. A Proscenium theatre is a theatre space whose primary feature is a large frame or arch (called the proscenium arch even though it is frequently mistakenly called the prosecnium.) So the word proscenium is often misused by performers, even designers, who refer to the 'proscenium' when they actually mean the proscenium arch.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A Word Imp is not Digitigrade

I have mentioned before - and will probably mention again - Word Imp a.k.a. Sharon in New Zealand who chooses an obscure dictionary word each day. She invites her readers to invent a wacky meaning and puts 3 invented meanings on the voting poll and lists the true meaning. There are no prizes, just lots of fun! Not only do I enjoy inventing meanings but I also enjoy seeing if I know the true one. I'm running at about 50% most of the time. One one occasion I embarassed myself when I don't know it and my invention turned out to be near the truth! Nowadays I avoid this by looking it up before oposting my invention.

Yesterday's word was digitigrade. I didn't know it. But being interested in natural history I should have done. A digitigrade mammal is one that walks on the toes with the posterior part of the foot raised - such as dogs and cats and horses.

Friday, 20 November 2009



If you mention rotary in the UK people might think of the Rotary Club or a rotary engine or, if you are of a certain age, the old dial on a telephone. But in New England, apparently, a rotary is a traffic circle or what we in the UK call a roundabout.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


As a Proper Noun Abigail is a female name occurring in Biblical narratives from the Books of Samuel, and reflected in the Books of Chronicles.

As a Common Noun it was commonly used as a name for a lady's waiting maid in Vioctorian times.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Marquetry and Parquetry

Marquetry is a form of decorative veneering in which exotic and contrasting woods were cut and fitted together like a jigsaw to form intricate patterns which were then applied as panels of veneer. There were basically two types: arabesque or seaweed marquetry using box or holly with walnut, and floral marquetry using fruitwoods, burr-walnut, ivory, ebony, etc.

Lots of people know the term marquetry but mistakenly use it for geomteric inlays. These are actually parquetry which was most prevalent in late 17th century and early 18th century walnut veneered furniture.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Indian summer

Unlike here, where our November is simply grey and wet at the moment, Deedee in Massachusetts has been experiencing an Indian summer. That got her to wondering where the phrase came from and I have taken the liberty of quoting her here:-

"I did a little research and found that its true origins may be lost in time. But there are some things we do know. In most parts of the northern hemisphere, there is a name for the warm weather that follows the hard frost. In Bulgaria, for example, it is known as the “Gypsy summer” or sometimes, “Gypsy Christmas” presumably because it makes outdoor living more bearable for those wandering folk. In Germany it’s known as the “Web summer”, because a certain type of spider weaves webs on the grass and Hungarians know it as the “Crone’s summer”, which refers to the medieval association with Halloween and witchcraft.

The oldest written reference to the term Indian summer was apparently in a letter written by a Frenchman, St. John de Crevecouer, in 1778. He describes, “…an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness”, referring to the common occurrence of haze in the warm meadows. But where do Indians fit it to the picture? Although no one seems to know for certain, it is suspected that many native peoples here in the United States had a habit of setting fire to the grasslands during this time of year. The smoke mingled with the haze, allowing them to be better able to sneak up on their prey when hunting. Other sources contend that northern tribes saw the warmth of the dry winds as a gift from the gods of the southwest desert; a reprisal of summer, just before the winter.”

Thank you Deedee – that was fascinating.

I also learned from my old diary researches that in former times in England it was called 'Saint Martin's Summer', referring to St Martin’s Day, November 11th, when it was supposed to end. In British English "St. Martin's Summer" was the most widely used term until the American phrase Indian Summer became better known in the 20th century.


Monday, 16 November 2009


Ratafia is a sweet liqueur made from wine and brandy flavoured with plum or peach or apricot kernels and bitter almonds. In the Nineteenth Century it was considered an appropriate drink for young girls while the grown-ups drank brandy or wine.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


A lea is a pasture; a field covered with grass or herbage and suitable for grazing by livestock.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,

(Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray)

Lea is also a unit of length of thread or yarn. And LEA is an abbreviation for lower extremity amputation or amputee.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

When pigs fly

When pigs fly or Pigs will fly are phrases to indicate something is unlikely ever to happen.

"Pigs will fly before Craig will award a ten on Strictly!"

Friday, 13 November 2009


A scholium is a marginal note written by a scholiast (a commentator on ancient or classical literature) ; a note added to a text as an explanation, criticism or commentary; a note added to a proof as amplification.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tilde (and friends)

When writing something on my Rambles blog I used the word tilde and it occurred to me that not everyone might know what a tilde was. So I thought I would define it here.

A tilde (pronounced Till-dee) is a diacritical mark (~) placed over the letter n in Spanish to indicate a palatal nasal sound or over a vowel in Portuguese to indicate nasalization. It is also used over the latter A in some languages. It is also sometimes known as a ‘swung dash’.

Once I had written that definition I thought – I wonder if everyone knows what a diacritic is. So I thought I’d add that definition:- A diacritic (also diacritical mark, diacritical point, diacritical sign) is an ancillary glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph.

So what is a glyph, I hear someone ask? A glyph is a fancy word for a shape. It is a component that makes up a typeface. For example, the dot on the letter "i" is a glyph, as is the vertical line, as are the serifs. (Serifs are little hooks on the ends of the font. The serifs usually help make the font more readable. .... )

Another definition said the tilde (~) is a grapheme with several uses.

In typography, a grapheme is the fundamental unit in written language. Graphemes include alphabetic letters, Chinese characters, numerical digits, punctuation marks, and all the individual symbols of any of the world's writing systems.

The tilde was originally written over some letters as a mark of abbreviation. It is used in dictionaries to indicate the omission of the entry word.   Apparently it is also used in online chat situations to denote sarcasm.

In summary, the tilde is the sorta squiggly dash character on a keyboard.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

As Happy as Larry

As happy as Larry simply means very happy.

It is originally an Australian expression but has certainly been commonly used in the UK throughout my lifetime.

Its origins are alleged to lie with a noted boxer called Larry Foley (1847-1917). Foley was a successful pugilist who never lost a fight. He retired at 32 and collected a purse of £1,000 for his final fight. So, we can expect that he was known to be happy with his lot in the 1870s - just when the phrase is first cited.

The earliest printed reference currently known is from the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, dating from around 1875:

"We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats".

Alternatively, the word may actually relate to a larrikin, an Australian term for a particular type of ruffian who flourished in the 1880s and who were disposed to larking about. Larrikins had their own style of dress recognisable by its excessive neatness and severe colours.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


An Oxonian is a member (or former member) of the University of Oxford, England. The term is derived from Oxonia, the Latin form of Oxenford or Oxford. The term could theoretically also refer to an inhabitant of the city of Oxford, but is less used in this context.

However, this was not the context in which the word cropped up in today’s crossword. The clue was ‘Person from a place of lost causes’. We were left with o-o-l-a- when we gave up. The answer was Oxonian and I subsequently discovered that Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) called Oxford University "Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties! " referring in particular, one assumes, to Oxford's support for the ill-fated Charles I .

Monday, 9 November 2009


Egregious means exceptional; conspicuous; outstanding; most usually in a negative fashion; outrageously bad; reprehensible.

It is a most unusual word because its original meaning was exactly the opposite - “remarkably good, distinguished”. It comes from the Latin meaning towering above the flock.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


Pleonasm is using more words than necessary; redundancy in wording; the use of more words (or even word-parts) than necessary to express an idea clearly. A closely related concept is rhetorical tautology, in which essentially the same thing is said more than once in different words.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


Salamagundi means an assortment; a collection containing a variety of sorts of things. In particular it is a salad dish originating in the early 17th century England comprising cooked meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and and flowers and dressed with oil, vinegar and spices usually arranged in rows around the plate.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bisciones and Snakes in the Grass

A snake in the grass is someone you trusted who then let you down or turned on you.

I love quizzes like Eggheads - one learns a lot (and forgets ten times as much). One of the recent questions was "Which car manufacturer has a badge depicting a snake eating a man?" It gave three options - Maserati, Alfa Romeo and a manufacturer of which I had never heard. I thought I could picture the first two so I chose the latter. But, hey presto, it is Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo badge looks quite classy and heraldic but upon examination it does have a giant snake eating a man? Apparently the owners of Alfa Romeo - the Lombard Automobile Factory - wanted a logo that was associated with their home city of Milan, so they used symbols that Milan had used since the Crusades. The red cross is a typical Christian symbol of medieval heraldry and was used extensively throughout the Crusades. In those days seeing a load of chaps with red crosses painted on them didn’t mean “medic”, it meant: rampaging, sword-weilding nutters of dubious origin - run for your life.

The man in the serpent's mouth is even more controversial. It’s a symbol called a biscione (Italian for a large grass snake) - Yes, I've eventually got around the the word of the day. In a biscione the man in the image is the traditional Crusader's enemy, the Saracen or Moor (in other words a Muslim). So the whole serpent motif is all about the Christians Crusaders’ defeat of the 'infidels'.

Alfa obviously doesn’t like people to call attention to this but I find it fascinating and have to wonder how many rich Arabian Sheiks are innocently parading this symbol around the Middle East. I guess you could say anyone doing so was a snake in the grass.

Thursday, 5 November 2009



Hodgepodge means odds and ends; a motley assortment of things; a patchwork: a theory or argument made up of miscellaneous or incongruous ideas; a collection of miscellaneous things; a jumble.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Namaste (plural namastes) is a word of Sanskrit origin literally meaning 'I humbly bow to you'.

Namaste is the traditional greeting when saying the word namaste with folded hands and a slight bow in yoga; the pose associated with this word, usually with the flat hands held palms together, fingers up, in front of the heart and a slight bow.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


The word speculation means a guess; a message expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence; a hypothesis that has been formed by speculating or conjecturing (usually with little hard evidence);and an investment that is very risky but could yield great profits.

Speculation was a also a mild but rather noisy domestic gambling game which appeared towards the end of the 18th century and disappeared about a hundred years later. Jane Austen mentioned it several times, notably in 'Mansfield Park'.

Monday, 2 November 2009


Jocund means light-hearted; gay (in its old-fashioned sense); jovial, exuberant; merry; in high spirits; exhibiting happiness. All in all, jocund sounds like a good place to be!

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Swart is an obsolete or poetic word meaning dark-skinned; naturally having skin of a dark colour; of a dark hue; moderately black; swarthy; tawny; gloomy; malignant.

Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was put of doors.
Her apples were swart blackberries...

John Keats - "Meg Merrilies"

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Collation is the assembly of written information into a standard order. One common type of collation is called alphabetisation, though collation is not limited to ordering letters of the alphabet.

In British English, a collation is also a light meal, often offered to guests when there is insufficient time for fuller entertainment. It is often rendered as cold collation in reference to the usual lack of hot or cooked food.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Hugger mugger

Hugger mugger is an archaic term for disorderly; in utter disorder; or to act stealthily or secretively.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


A trencherman was a person with a healthy appetite, a glutton; a person who was devoted to eating and drinking to excess. The term is archaic.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009



A flambeau was a torch or flame – especially of the sort used in a procession. As a decoration it was a flame shape, sometimes springing from an urn. The design of that nature was used as a decorative finial from the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Sesquipedalianism is the practice of using long, sometimes obscure, words in speech or writing.

Stay following this blog and you'll be given plenty of opportunity for sesquipedalianism!

Monday, 26 October 2009


To romp means to frolic; play boisterously; play light-heartedly.

A romp is a runaway or easy victory. In days gone by the term was also used of young girls to indicate a tomboy or a girl who behaved in a boyish manner.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

To handle with kid gloves

To handle with kid gloves means to treat something very gently or to be very tactful. Kid gloves were made from the skin of a young goat or lamb. They were softer and finer than gloves made from harder leathers, and so became a symbol of elegance and gentility in the early 1800s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term can be traced back to at least the 1830s.

Around the 1850s, saying that someone "wore kid gloves" was also a way of saying the person was very dainty, a person who avoided any real exertion or everyday work; genteel and upper class. (The kid glove which I am wearing above was one of my grandmother's and dates from around 1900. It really is beautifully soft. She appears to be wearing gloves - possibly these - within the muff in the photo below from 1901.)


Saturday, 24 October 2009


As a noun vail once meant profit; return; or proceeds.

As a verb it was to yield; to remove or doff, as a sign of deference, a hat.

Friday, 23 October 2009


Downy means like down or as soft as down; covered with fine soft hairs or down. In the Nineteenth Century it was used as a slang word to mean canny, wide-awake or knowing.

To do the downy was an archaic phrase meaning to lie in bed.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Bruit means noise and clamour, and by extension rumours and reports made public.
In particular it is the noise that can be heard when listening to a partially blocked artery through a stethoscope.
"My doctor was not impressed when he heard the bruit - hence my angiogram."

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


A rookery is a colony of breeding animals - obviously named originally for a colony of Rooks.

A rookery (also sometimes described as a stew) was the colloquial British English name historically given to a city slum or ghetto frequented by poor people, criminals and prostitutes.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009



Well-turned means of a pleasing shape. It is presumably from the turning of wood on a lathe. The phrase is almost exclusively used of a girl's ankles - " A well-turned ankle."

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Four Corners of the Earth


Have you ever wondered about the expression ‘the four corners of the earth’? It means the most remote parts of the world, the uttermost ends of the earth. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld doesn’t have corners so where did the expression come from? The answer is nobody knows. Sorry to have built you up and then failed to satisfy your usual longing to know but there is a reason.

I was amazed to find that in 1965 members of the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory identified the four corners of the earth as being in Ireland; south-eats of the Cape of Good Hope; west of the Peruvian coast; and between New Guinea and Japan. Each of these ‘corners’ of several thousand square miles in area is some 37metres (120 ft) above the geodetic mean and the gravitational pull in measurably greater at these locations. (And no, I don’t understand what that means either!!!)


Sunday, 18 October 2009

Before you can say Jack Robinson

I love it when people ask me the origin of phrases or the meaning of words. I learn so much finding out the answers. Monica asked me where the phrase “Before you can say Jack Robinson” came from.

It means immediately or instantly and its origins were first quoted in Francis Grosse’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811. Grosse claimed it had its origins in a very volatile gentleman of that appellation who would call on his neighbours and then leave again before the staff could announce his name to the master of the house.

The phrase goes back at least to the 18th century and appears in Fanny Burney’s 'Evelina' of 1778. Two years later the dramatist Sheridan (who was also an MP) was attacking government bribery in the House of Commons. Members shouted at him to name names and he responded – looking directly at the Secretary of the Treasury, John Robinson, that he could ‘name him as soon as I could say Jack Robinson’.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


A buffet was a 16th-century serving or side table, frequently with two or three tiers. In the late 17th and 18th-centuries there were cupboards beneath the serving surface and an elaborate superstructure above.

The word then came to mean a meal set out on a buffet at which guests helped themselves. Nowadays the piece of furniture has disappeared and the word simply refers to the meal at which guests help themselves.

Friday, 16 October 2009



A tambour is a frame made of two hoops - used for embroidering.
It is also a hollowed out frame drum and the flexible shutter on a roll-top desk or sliding doors for cupboards.

Thursday, 15 October 2009



I love it when someone visiting one of my other blogs asks what a particular word means - it gives me a ready made excuse to put the word on this blog. Kris, visiting my recipe blog, asked what a sultana was, so here we go....

A sultana is a type of white, seedless grape of Turkish, Greek or Iranian origin. Sultanas are used in wine-making and are popularly used in cooking (at least in the UK) in puddings, cakes, breakfast cereals etc — including Sultana Bran (equivalent to the American Raisin Bran).

The name and origin can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Sultans’ who introduced it to the English-speaking world.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Bling-bling sounds rather like the sound an old bike might make immediately prior to running you over. It is actually a modern slang word in hip hop culture used to mean flashy, ostentatious jewelry. It can also simply be used as bling.

Look at the bling-bling on Mr Mayor!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


A solecism is a faux pas: a socially awkward or tactless act; a breach of etiquette. It is also used in a grammatical sense to mean a grammatical mistake or absurdity. The word was originally used by the Greeks for mistakes in their language.

Monday, 12 October 2009


Most of us know what an atom is – the smallest component of an element having the chemical properties of the element. It is also used in a loose sense to denote any very small particle of something. But did you know the word is centuries old and long pre-dates the discovery of the atom. I only realised that when I found it mentioned in John Dryden’s poem Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687...
From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay.

The atom was a unit of time referred to in medieval philosophical writings as the smallest possible division of time.

Sunday, 11 October 2009



Nuncheon was another word for lunch – possibly originating as a combination of noon and luncheon. It is now only found as a dialect word.

I can't help commenting that this picture (Monet's Luncheon in the Garden)always amuses me - the girl's hat band always looks like a man suspended in space!

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Desuetude is a state of inactivity or disuse; obsolescence (for example, the state of a custom that is no longer observed nor practised).

I guess a lot of the words I come up I with have reached a state of desuetude!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Word Imperfect

Word Imp is back in business. If you have never visited her blog I can thoroughly recommend that you do so. Her site is great fun.

High in the instep

High in the instep is a slang term meaning overly proud or arrogant. It was first recorded in 1540 and was still in use as a dialect expression in the 20th century.

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Minatory means baleful, meanacing, threatening or foreshadowing evil or tragic developments.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Potation - and archaic term meaning the act of drinking (especially an alcoholic drink). "After his potations of the night before he looked rather hung over."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

To Ring a Peal

One might imagine that the phrase 'to ring a peal' related to ringing the bells in a church but in fact, in the Nineteenth Century, it meant to scold or tell off according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose. It was usually applied to either a master / servant relationship or a wife / husband one.
His wife rung him a fine peal!

Monday, 5 October 2009


Blue-devilled is an archaic term for depressed, sad, dreary, or miserable. The phrase goes back at least as far as 1798 when George Colman produced a one-act farce "Blue Devils".

Why misery should be associated with the colour blue I have never quite worked out but a fit of the blues (meaning depression) is a phrase still in common usage.

Sunday, 4 October 2009


Cack-handed is a slang phrase used to mean either clumsy or left-handed. (Left-handedness being often asociated weith clumsiness though there is absolutely no relationship between the two.)
Left-handedness is the preference for the left hand over the right for everyday activities such as writing. Most left-handed people exhibit some degree of ambidexterity. Left-handedness is relatively uncommon; 90 to 93 percent of the adult population is right-handed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


Paregoric, or camphorated tincture of opium, also known as tinctura opii camphorata, is a medication known for its antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic properties. It was a household remedy in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was widely used to calm fretful children. The word is no longer in use.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Off the cuff

Off the cuff means not prepared in advance; impromptu; or extemporaneous. It can also mean informal or casual.

"His off the cuff remarks got him into trouble."
One site quotes the origins of this phrase as being 'back in olden times' when people who borrowed money had the debt written down on the lenders cuff in the absence of a formal contract. That seems unlikely to me, even in days when washing one's linen was not carried out quite so punctiliously as it is nowadays. (I later discovered that the phrase 'on the cuff' is slang for 'on credit' but I still have doubts about its orogins.)

I should have thought a far more likely origin for off the cff was the idea of a person using his cuff on which to make some basic notes for a speech. He would then refer to these notes during the speech which, rather than being read out in a prepared manner, simply covered the main points off the cuff. The term seems to have entered the English language around the 1940s.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Level crossing


Level crossing is a term for where a road and a railway cross at the same level. According to my dictionary it is a British English term so I'm not sure what the American equivalent is - train crossing or railroad crossding perhaps? In most cases the crossing is controlled by gtes which close off the road and stop the road traffic while the train goes through. In the 'good old days' these were manhandled but nowadays - so far as I know - they are all conrolled from a signal box (either sutomatically or by a human keeping warm and dry inside).

The director of rail safety at the UK HM Railway Inspectorate commented in 2004 that "the use of level crossings contributes the greatest potential for catastrophic risk on the railways." Eighteen people were killed in the UK on level crossings in 2003-4. Bridges and tunnels are now favoured, but this can be impractical in flat countryside where there is insufficient space to build a roadway embankment or tunnel (because of nearby buildings).

How not to use a level crossing.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Tickety boo

I always thought ticketyboo was one word but according to the web it is two separate ones. I think I'll stick to one because it looks neater! Ticketyboo means fine, alright, correct, OK.

"I've just seen the doctor and he says everything is ticketyboo."

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Indian Giver

This phrase - which is sometimes considered offensive to Native Americans - means to give something in the expectation of a getting something in return or to give something that is more of benefit to oneself than to the recipient.

"He gave his wife a phone for her birthday but she never uses one. He knew she'd end up letting him use it all the time. Indian giver!"

The term "Indian gift" was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, and "Indian giver" was first cited in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860) as "Indian giver - When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned." Although this has been considered offensive by Native Americans it is really more a reflection on the dishonesty of the European settlers. When the natives offerred goods in trade the settlers sometimes took them without giving something back and then blamed the natives for wanting something. Some Native American cultures also had a gift-giving system rather tlike the Vikings whereby the giver of gift made it as magnanimous as possible because the culture required an even better gift be made in return. This wasn't a demonstration of greed but of a competitive system which was designed to show which of them was the richer.

Either way it may be safer not to use it but it is as well to know what it means!

Monday, 28 September 2009



Without going into the difference between Hackney Cabs and Private Hire vehicles - one of those wonderful distinctions in English law - I thought I would blog about where the word cab came from.

Cab is a contraction of the word Cabriolet - a one horse carriage - which in turn comes from the Italian Capriola which means a caper or the leaping of young goats. This was a reference to the lightness of the carriage compared to its heavy lumbering predecessors.

The Hansom cab was first designed and patented in 1834 by English architect Joseph Hansom. Originally known as the Hansom Safety Cab, its purpose was to combine speed with safety, with a low center of gravity for safe cornering. The horse-drawn cab enjoyed popularity in the United Kingdom until the 1920's, when cheap automobile transport and the construction of reliable mass-transport systems led to a decline in usage. The last license for a horse-drawn cab in London was issued in 1947.

Its replacement - the modern black 'horseless carriage' - is a well-known symbol of the city.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

To bell the cat

"Belling the cat" or "to bell the cat" is an English colloquialism that means to suggest or attempt to perform a difficult or impossible task.

The phrase comes from the Aesop's Fable The Mice in Council , in which a group of mice declare that the only way to avoid the dangerous cat is to tie a bell around its neck in order to give warning whenever it is near. One mouse then asks who will perform the dangerous task. The moral of the story, as commonly given, is that it is easy to suggest difficult (or impossible) solutions if the individual giving the solution is not the one who has to implement it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Not my pigeon

To say something is 'not my pigeon' means something is not of material interest to oneself; not one's business; not an activity one would typically engage in under normal circumstances. (Indeed, it can, to some extent, be equated to something being 'not my cup of tea').

I wondered about the origin of this phrase and tried to look it up. The best potential origin I could come upo with was that one's pigeon referred in this context to a 'pigeon hole', the type one finds in the mail rooms of large organisations or by the door of a block of flats, i.e. if it is not in your pigeon hole, it is not addressed to you and, therefore, not your concern or responsibility. The phrase probably has nothiong to do with that but I liked the idea of it!

Friday, 25 September 2009


A diaeresis is another name for an umlaut: a diacritical mark (two dots) placed over a vowel in German to indicate a change in sound.

'An example of diaeresis is "ä" '

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Someone asked me the other day what was the origin of the word shirty. This is an informal British expression and means ill-tempered; cranky; irritated, or annoyed.

It dates back at least to 1846 and "To get a person's shirt out" has meant to cause someone to lose his or her temper since that period as well. "Keep your shirt on," meaning to calm down, dates to the same period. In all cases the reference is to loosening or completely removing one's shirt in preparation for a fight.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


To coruscate means to glitter; to sparkle; to be lively or brilliant or exhibit virtuosity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


The verb to lounge means to sit or recline comfortably. It can also be used in the sense of hanging around or loitering.

The noun is usually used to mean an area with seating - such as a public area in a hotel or airport - or the main living room in a house.

I was unaware, until I read Anita Shreve's 'The Weight of Water' that a lounge was also a sofa; an upholstered seat for more than one person.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Polemic means of or involving dispute or controversy. Polemics is the practice of disputing or controverting religious, philosophical, political, or scientific matters. As such, a polemic text on a topic is often written specifically to dispute or refute a position or theory that is widely viewed to be beyond reproach.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Baker's Dozen

A dozen is another name for twelve. But a baker's dozen is thirteen. The reason for this goes back in history to the days when bakers were heavily fined if they gave short measure. To ensure they weren't caught out the baker would give a surplus numnber of loaves - called the inbread - to make sure they ran no risk of a fine or worse penalty. The thirteenth loaf was called the vantage loaf.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


Simulacrum, from the Latin simulacrum (plural simulcra), means "likeness, similarity" is first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century . It was used to describe a representation of another thing, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original; an insubstantial or vague semblance.

Friday, 18 September 2009


Rebarbative means irritating or repellent.

"He became rebarbative and prickly and spiteful".

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Laconic means crisp; brief and to the point; effectively cut short; a response so curt as to be almost rude; using as few words as possible to communicate much information; pithy and concise.

Not GB or I then!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

To bag

The phrase to bag something means to secure something for oneself. It can often mean this in the sense of to purloin, to pocket or take unlawfully.

The phrase originates from sporting or poaching parlance when to put in one's bag was to secure what one had shot or caught.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Housemaid's Knee and Baker's Knee

I used to have housemaid's knee on occasion. Housemaid's knee is fluid on the knee, the swelling being caused by constant kneeling or some other strain or trauma on the knee joint.
Until recent;ly I had never heard about baker's knee. According to one source, baker's knee is another name for being knock-kneed and was caused by baker's having to stand awkwardly for a long time while kneading dough. I wasn't totally convinced by that and upon investigation I found that it should really be called Baker's knee because it was a form of cyst or other damage to the knee first described by a doctor called Baker.

Monday, 14 September 2009


A baggage is, amongst other things, a worthless, flirtatious or immoral woman. The name comes from the days when the army took a large number of woman on campaign with it. Same of them would be army wives but others would be simply camp followers who went along with the baggage that followed behind the army – hence the name.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


To baffle means to perplex, be a mystery or bewildering to, thwart, hinder or prevent (the efforts, plans, or desires) of.

Meanwhile, a baffle is a flat plate that controls or directs the flow of fluid or energy.

But my favourite definition of a baffle is a medieval punishment or degradation by which a cowardly knight is hung up by his heels - either in real life or as an effigy.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


A futilitarian is a person having the opinion that all human activity is futile.

Futilitarianism is a philosophical movement referring to the belief that all human activity (or endeavour) is futile.

She (the cat) reduced them all to tears of laughter, walking sedately round the room, then sudenly catching a glimpse of her own tail and tearing after it, with increasing frustration. "She's what the philosophers call a futilitarian. she recognises that what she's doing is pointless, but she does it all the same. It's a kind of ideological statement." - Adrian Mathews "The Apothecary's House"

Friday, 11 September 2009

Bad blood

Despite my doctor's view, bad blood is not something that suggests there's too much nicotine in it! Bad blood means animosity, a feeling of ill will arousing active hostility.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


I came across the word frappuccino the other day and had't a clue what it was, except that it was presumably a coffee related product. It seems it is an iced cappuccino.

"Frappuccino is a registered trademark of Starbucks and is the name of a blended ice beverage and of a bottled coffee beverage."

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Here is another old word I came across recently - nuncupative. It means oral not written but publicly or solemnly declared. It was used to describe a type of will that was made orally, and backed up by written witness testimony as to its validity. Nowadays we are less trusting of the spoken word and so nuncupative wills no longer exist!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Spick and span

Spick and span means entirely new - fresh or unused. What is unclear is the origin of the phrase. It can be traced back as far as Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579:

"They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe."

By the 1660s spicke and spanne-newe had turned into spicke and span and appears in Samuel Pepys' Diary, 1665:

"My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes."

My usual source of word origins is the Oxford English Dictionary but it has a dubious origin for this phrase and says the old Dutch word spikspeldernieuw refers to newly made ships. It suggests that this is the origin of spick but offers no reason for that belief and none of the early citations of the phrase refer to shipping.

In fact the noun spick had many different meanings including a side of bacon, a floret of lavender, a nail or spike, and a thatching spar. Similarly, span had several meanings, including: the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger, a measure of butter, a fetter or chain, and a chip of wood. As a result all sorts of combinations are possible but at the end of the day the derivation of the term isn't clear and the best efforts to explain it so far are little more than informed guesses.

Monday, 7 September 2009


Garbology is the study of a society by analyzing its garbage.

The primary academic meaning of garbology is the study of refuse and trash. It is an academic discipline and has an outpost at the University of Arizona long directed by William Rathje. The project started in 1973, originating from an idea of two students for a class project.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


Haggard means careworn; showing the wearing effects of overwork or care or suffering; bony; very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold.

"Her face was drawn and haggard."

A haggard was also a stackyard on a farm; a place for stacking grain and hay.

And Henry Rider Haggard was a British writer noted for romantic adventure novels (1856-1925).

But it was another definition of haggard that Partner-who-loves-tea and I came across in the crossword the other day. Apparently it was a name given to a wild hunting bird (a hawk or falcon) captured as an adult.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

As sure as eggs is eggs

The colloquial expression as sure as eggs is eggs, meaning absolutely certain, possibly comes from the mathematical expression x = x.

The expression is grammatically incorrect (as sure as eggs are eggs would be the correct version) and the use of the singular verb suggests that this origin could well be the one.

Friday, 4 September 2009


To bamboozle someone is to mystify them, hoax them or deceive them by trickery. It's a lovely sounding word and is still in common usage though I cannot recall having seen it in any of the 'Top Words' or 'Favourtite Words' lists.

GB asked me if I could find out its origin. It seems that it was simply invented at the end of the 17th century. Jonathan Swift, Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer , poet, cleric and author of Gullliver's Travels, wrote in The Tatler no. 230 in 1703 - "Certain Words invented by some pretty Fellows such as Banter, Bamboozle... some of which are now struggling for the vogue."

Thursday, 3 September 2009


A virgintall sounds as though it might be a virtuous maiden around 6 foot or more but, as you have probably guessed, it isn't!

It was (and maybe still is?) a set of twenty masses said or sung for the soul of a dead person. In days gone by a local priest or monks in a local monastery would often be given a sum of money to carry out the virgintall.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


A pinner was a woman's cap with two long flaps or lappets pinned on, worn in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A pinner can also be the 'agent noun' from the word pin, simply meaning one who pins.

But the context in which I came across it recently did not fit either of these definitions. So when I checked it out further I discovered that in days gone by a pinner was a sort of constable who impounded stray animals until their owner could be found. The animals would be held in a pinfold - a small enclosure, usually walled, some of which remain in scattered English villages.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


The common use of the word mortuary is as an alternative to morgue to describe a building or room (as in a hospital) used for the storage of human corpses awaiting identification, or removal for autopsy, burial, cremation or some other post-death ritual. They are usually refrigerated to avoid decomposition. The word also describes any licensed, regulated business that provides for the care, planning and preparation of human remains for their final resting place.

There is a however a far wider meaning of the word - of or relating to or characteristic of death or relating to the burial of the dead.

But if you come across the word in an old document it may well have referred to a gift made to the parish priest on the death of a parishioner - usually the second best animal. (The first animal had often gone to the Lord of the Manor as a heriot and the mortuary often wasn't made because there was no second animal!)


Monday, 31 August 2009


Misprision is the neglect or wrongful execution of official duties or the concealment of another's crime.

Negative misprision is the concealment of treason or felony. By the common law of England it was the duty of every liege subject to inform the king's justices and other officers of the law of all treasons and felonies of which the informant had knowledge, and to bring the offender to justice by arrest.

Positive misprision is the doing of something which ought not to be done; or the commission of a serious offence falling short of treason or felony, in other words of a misdemeanour of a public character (e.g. maladministration of high officials, contempt of the sovereign or magistrates, &c.). To endeavour to dissuade a witness from giving evidence or to advise a prisoner to stand mute, used to be described as misprisions.

Under an Act of Parliament of 1534, misprision was the crime of refusing to swear an oath acknowledging the King as head of the church.

Sunday, 30 August 2009


Exiguous means meagre, extremely scanty, or very small. It is pronounced Ex-IDG-u-us

"She saw the remains of the two women's exiguous meal."

Saturday, 29 August 2009


The term atavism (derived from the Latin atavus, a great-grandfather's grandfather; more generally, an ancestor) denotes the tendency to revert to ancestral type. An atavism is an evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing which had disappeared generations ago.

Atavistic is the adjective from the noun atavism and is more commonly used. It refers to something being a throw-back to earlier times; to remote ancestry or to a primitive nature.

"The noise she made as she threw herself on the bed was atavistic."

Friday, 28 August 2009


A kercher or kerchief was the name given in days gone by to a large square scarf worn over the head, with or without a hat underneath it. It probably came from the French couvre-chef. Although the word has now generally gone from the English language a relic survives in the name handkerchief - a small square piece of cloth used for wiping the eyes or nose or as a costume accessory.

Ion Andreescu - Peasant Woman with Green Kerchief

Thursday, 27 August 2009


Nowadays when we talk of a hutch we tend to think of a wooden box with a wire mesh front used as a cage for rabbits.

However, at one time, a hutch was any sort of large wooden box with a lid, for storing clothes or anything at all.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


The word heriot has now fallen out of use but at one time it meant a payment made to the overlord when a holding was inherited upon the death of the previous owner. Often this was the best animal but it might also be such things as a feather bed, a silver cup, etc. This was then usually bought back by the inheritor from the overlord for cash.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Flax and flaxen are words used to describe hair and relate to a pale yellowish gold or pale straw colour.

There is some balderdash written on the Internet. I may be guilty of some of it but in this case I'm thinking of the Wikipedia entry for Flax which says :-
Flax (also known as Light Goldenrod) is a pale yellowish-gray color named after flax seeds. It is similar to the color mustard.

Flax or flaxen is not named after the seeds of the plant Linum usitatissimum but after the plants themselves which are harvested and left to dry in the sun until a pale straw colour. And anyone who uses colours for anything will tell you straight off that pale straw and mustard are worlds apart, the latter being much darker.

Flax is one of the world's oldest cultivated plants. The soft but very strong fibres from the flax are used to create the material linen. The plant is also grown to create linseed oil but the form used for that purpose was evolved separately early on as the best fibre producing plants are not the best for producing high seed yields.

Monday, 24 August 2009

A Dark Horse

To refer to something or someone as a dark horse is to suggest they have come to prominence from relative obscurity. The phrase was originally used in relation to a real horse. It was not uncommon for horse owners to hide the potential of their best horses by keeping them hidden until the day of the race. A 'dark horse' was therefore one that wasn't known to the punters and was difficult to place odds on. The figurative use later spread to other fields and has come to apply to anyone who comes under scrutiny but is previously little known.

Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke, 1831, provides the earliest known example : "A dark horse, which had never been thought of ... rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph."

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Home James and don't spare the horses.

This saying dates from 1870 or earlier but it was a song by that title in 1934 that gave the phrase a popular boost. One of the best known versions was sung by Elsie Carlisle with Ambrose's Orchestra c. 1934.

One story says the phrase was uttered by Queen Victoria, who had a driver named James Darling. She didn't want to call him "Darling," as custom would dictate, so she called him by his first name instead. I have no idea if this story is true, but I like it.

When I was young I was never sure whether the phrase was "Home James and don't spare the horses" or "Home James and don't spur the horses" - which, of course, would have had the opposite meaning.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Not my cup of tea

If something is not your cup of tea, you don't like it very much.

The positive version -- "He's my cup of tea" - has apparently been used since the late 1800s and the negative -- "It's not one's cup of tea" -- since the 1920s.'

Friday, 21 August 2009


I came across the word 'heuristic' the other day and looked it up. Unfortunately I'm not sure I understand the answer! Nevertheless I include the defionbitions in the hope they may enlighten someone....

A rule of thumb, simplification, or educated guess that reduces or limits the search for solutions in domains that are difficult and poorly understood. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not guarantee optimal, or even feasible, solutions.
Heuristic is a word which relates to a commonsense rule (or set of rules) intended to increase the probability of solving some problem.
Heuristic is an adjective for experience-based techniques that help in problem solving, learning and discovery. A heuristic method is particularly used to rapidly come to a solution that is hoped to be close to the best possible answer, or 'optimal solution'.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Silver tongued

Silver tongued is defined as eloquent; expressing oneself readily, clearly, effectively; and articulate. A silver-tongued person speaks to someone in a pleasant way and praises them in order to persuade them to do what he wants.

"He was a silver-tongued orator who convinced many people to support him."

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Ellipsis and aposiopesis

Ellipsis (plural ellipses) is a mark or series of marks that indicate an intentional omission of a word or a phrase from the original text. An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence (aposiopesis).

The most common form of an ellipsis is a row of three periods or full stops (...). Forms encountered less often are: three asterisks (***), one em dash (—), multiple en dashes (––), and the Unicode Ellipsis symbol (…).

The triple-dot punctuation mark is also called a suspension point, points of ellipsis, periods of ellipsis, or colloquially, dot-dot-dot.

I use aposiopesis a lot; I have the habit of ending sentences with an elipsis as a way of suggesting I could have written a lot more had I so wished...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Grow'd like Topsy

Occasionally one hears the expression that something 'grow'd like Topsy'. I thought readers might be interested to know its origins.

In "Uncle Tom's cabin, or Life among the lowly", published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe describes the character Topsy - a wild and uncivilized slave girl who Miss Ophelia tries to reform. In Chapter 20 the novel recounts a conversation between Ophelia and Topsy:

"Tell me where were you born, and who your father and mother were."
"Never was born," re-iterated the creature more empahatically. "Never had no father, nor mother nor nothin'"
"...Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?" The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
"Do you know who made you?"
"Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me."

At the time of its publication 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' outsold every book previously published in the U.S. except the Bible and readers were charmed by Topsy's declaration that she just "grow'd." Soon "it growe'd like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or divine intervention.

According to the Word Detective, today, "grow like Topsy" is most often heard in criticism of bureaucratic institutions or government budgets, for whose bloated sprawl and inefficiency no one is eager to take credit.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Trying to explain the difference between while and whilst made me realise that there are lots of words that mean pretty much the same thing but which we use in different contexts. Trying to explain when to use one and when the other is sometimes beyond me.
One such word is edification. The definition of edification is "instructed and encouraged in moral, intellectual, and spiritual improvement; uplifting enlightenment; education; illumination; instruction; or the act of being informed.

I would use edify rather than educate in the following context - "I write a Christmas message each year for the edification of my friends". Why? I don't know. My Christmas messages are rarely morally enlightening or spiritually uplifting! In fact, by using the word edification there is an element of tongue-in-cheek about it.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

To bone up

The phrase to bone up means to revise; study a subject in depth; to study intensely, usually at the last minute as for an exam.
As with many phrases the origins are uncertain. One suggestion is that it relates to a Victorian publisher and bookseller Henry Bohn (1796-1884) who produced many study primers in Latin and Greek. If he had been the cause of th pjrase one might have expected it to appear as Bohn up on occasion but it never does. An alternative, and more tenable theory, is that it derives from the practice of using bones to polish leather. So, boning up was polishing or refining one's knowledge.

It's a shame that the Henry Bohn theory doesn't stack up because Liverpool still boasts a Henry Bohn bookshop. I don't know if the proprietor was ever a Henry Bohn or whether the name simply derived from the bookselling world's more famous predecessor.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Asperous means rough to the touch; rugged; with very distinct elevated dots; more uneven than scabrous.

"The damp gray stone of the Club looked desolate, like the asperous face of a lost, old man." - Matt Rees - "The Bethlhem Murders"

Friday, 14 August 2009


I was surprised the other day when the spellchecker rejected the word 'doddle'. I put it into Google (define: doddle) and sure enough got the meaning I expected - A job, task or other activity that is simple or easy to complete. But there was only one dictionary displayed and it seems that it is not in common usage. Perhaps life generally is becoming less of a doddle nowadays!!

Thursday, 13 August 2009


Ilk - an unusual litle word - means type: kind of person; kind or class of people that resemble, have the same name as, behave in a manner similar to, or are of the same social status as a certain person.

"I dislike people of that ilk".

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Bee's Knees

Lots of animal phrases are used to suggest that something is especially good. Phrases like 'The Bee's Knees' and 'The Cat's Whiskers' and more recently - and consequently more crudely - 'The Dog's Bollocks'. But, unknown to me until recently, there have been plenty of others - mostly originating (and in some cases dying) in the 1920s. These included 'The Sardine's Whiskers'; 'The Elephant's Instep'; 'The Snake's Hips' and, best of all, 'The Kipper's Knickers'.

(Sadly, it should be noted that in the 1920s the term knickers was not the name for the brief ladies underwear that it is used for today. Knickers in those days were short trousers that ended just above or below the knees and were gathered in at the bottom. For example, men wore knickers for playing golf.)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


On the back of a book I picked up recently there was a review from the Sunday Times which said that "This is a brutal and superbly delivered account of how an unexceptional New Zaland family is dismembered by relgiosity and stupidity."

I thought the reviewer had made up the word 'religiosity'. I asked a few people and none of them had ever heard of it. But when I checked the dictionary it does exist.

Religiosity means exaggerated or affected piety and religious zeal; the quality of being religious or pious, especially when zealous or exaggerated. It is 'a comprehensive sociological term used to refer to the numerous aspects of religious activity, dedication, and belief (religious doctrine)'.

Monday, 10 August 2009



News is a strange word being apparently plural and yet used in the singular. It means current information or items of information that are up-to-date and not previously imparted. News is short for new stories. The word itself is singular so we say "The news is good" but not so very long ago we would have used the noun in the plural and said "The news (or newes) are good".