"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."

Saturday, 28 February 2009

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room - a phrase used to describe a major problem or controversial issue which is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.

Friday, 27 February 2009


Terpsichorean is both a noun and an adjective. As a noun it is a dancer; a performer who dances professionally.

As an adjective it means of or relating to dancing.

Terpsichore, Muse of the dance and lyric poetry. Marble, Roman sculpture from the 2nd century AD, sculptor unknown. The head is equally ancient but does not belong to the body. I wonder what it's history was?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Oh my God, They Killed Kenny!

“Oh my God, They Killed Kenny!” is a catchphrase from the cartoon South Park. A big part of what made South Park a hit in the early days from 1997was the tasteless but innovative routine of killing off the same character in nearly every episode. Asked why, the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, admitted, "We just like to kill him ... It was used in every episode up to season 5 where Kenny died permanently. He then returned to life but is no longer massacred because the creators ran out of ideas and decided to just make him a major character. Nevertheless, he still dies occasionally.

(I should point out that Richard’s black eye was not a result of an attempt to do a Kenny on him. It was result of him discovering that a revolving chair does not make a good ladder.)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


In the 19th century, drugget was a sort of cheap stuff, very thin and narrow, usually made of wool, or half wool and half linen (or even, occasionally, half silk); it may have been corded or plain in texture, and was usually plain in pattern. It was often used as a rug over a finer carpet or as a cheap form of floor covering. It is also defined in the dictionary as being used as a dress material but I have never read of it being so used in a novel or diary of that era.
(see Comments!!)

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


‘The wings on her toque quivered agitatedly as she cried "Anywhere! Anywhere to be quiet, to be safe!"’ - Mollie Panter-Downes

In this instance a toque was a pillbox or small round women’s hat.

Thie was Lillie Langtry’s famous toque.

The term is also used for a chef’s tall white hat with a pouched crown.

It sounds to me like a good word for a crossword puzzle.

Monday, 23 February 2009


I don’t normally put foreign words (unless you count American English!) in this Blog but I came across this in a very British book “Good Evening, Mrs Craven” by Mollie Panter-Downes and as I had to look it up I thought I’d include it.

“...making it sound as though she suspected Dora of having been betrayed by a poilu on a day trip to Boulogne.”

Poilu (pronounced /pwaly/ in French) is a warmly informal term for a French World War I infantryman, meaning, literally, hairy one. The term came into popular usage in France during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and his massive citizen armies, though the term grognard (grumbler) was also common. It is still widely used as a term of endearment for the French infantry of World War I. The word carries the twin sense of the infantryman's typically rustic, agricultural background. Beards and bushy moustaches were often worn.

The image of the dogged, bearded French soldier was widely used in propaganda and war memorials. The stereotype of the Poilu was of bravery and endurance, but not always of unquestioning obedience. At the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive of 1917 under General Robert Nivelle, they were said to have gone into no man's land making baa'ing noises, parodying the idea that they were being sent as lambs to the slaughter. Outstanding for its mixture of horror and heroism, this spectacle proved a sobering one. As the news of it spread, the French high command soon found itself coping with a widespread mutiny. A minor revolution was only averted with the promise of an end to the costly offensive.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

A Jiffy

The term jiffy (sometimes spelled jiffie) is used for various brief units of time. There is no single ‘correct’ definition but in certain contexts it may be 10 to the power 26 flashes; 1/100th of a second; a heartbeat; or the blink of an eye.

The Jiffy Bag (UK) or Jiffy Mailer (USA) was presumably so called because it was so quick and easy to use.

“I’ll be back in a jiffy...”

Saturday, 21 February 2009


Tracy in New York finished one of her postings with a * smirkle * the other day.

That was a word I didn’t recognise. I love words I don’t recognise. I looked it up and whilst it is not to be found in the conventional dictionaries there were three choices in alternative dictionaries –

To smirkle – meaning to steal or pilfer;
A smirkle - the stiff, painful smile worn by the loser of a contest while congratulating the winner;
A smirkle - A facial expression that is halfway between a smile and a smirk.

Ignoring the first meaning I think the other two are wonderfully appropriate meanings for the word.

Friday, 20 February 2009


This was one of the pictures in the Royal Academy Notes from 1888.

I had difficulty finding a definition for 'Heva' until I came across the Newquay website.

"Heva heva was a cry commonly heard on the headland above Newquay and indeed all along the Cornish coast up until about 200 years ago. For the cry, issued by the huer, signalled the arrival of huge shoals of Pilchards in mid-July, the fishing of which was once a very lucrative industry in Cornwall. The Huer's Hut high above the quay, is one of the finest examples in Cornwall and is well worth a look. Close your eyes and imagine the huer's excitement at spotting a huge shoal out in the blue Atlantic, meaning financial survival for the then small fishing community.

Fully laden boats would then return to harbour, fish would be gutted and carefully placed in huge piles (baulks) of layer upon layer of salt. Baulked for a month, the fish would then keep for at least a year. The fish could then be placed by hand usually by women into wooden hogshead barrels, each barrel holding up to 3000 fish and pressed to yield 8 or 9 gallons of surplus but valuable oil used to be used in lighting. In a good year up to 40,000 barrels were exported. "

Thursday, 19 February 2009

He came in at the window

I think most people will be familiar with the euphemism "He was born on the wrong side of the blanket" meaning to be born out of wedlock. The phrase was most commonly used when the mistress of a married man gave birth. A slight variation was to be "Born on the wrong side of the sheets".

Recently I came across two more euphemisms for the same situation - "He came in at the window" and "He came in through the side door".

I wonder if anyone knows any other euphemisms for being born of wedlock?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


An oneironaut is a person who explores dream worlds, usually associated with lucid dreaming. (The term comes from the Greek oneiros which means dream.)

Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


Marc, a blogger from Vancouver, says in his profile - "Why do I write? Because not writing isn't an option. I get antsy if I get close to the end of a day without having written something."

I thought the meaning of antsy was fairly obvious and sure enough, upon checking, it turns out to be a slang term for "restless, apprehensive and fidgety". But I wondered where it came from?

Heather Swofford in The Mavens' Word of the Day wrote the following interesting passage.
"Antsy, which means 'restless; uneasy; impatient; anxious; fidgety', has a somewhat questionable origin. Without doubt, it eventually refers to the constant activity of ants, but the real question is whether or not it's the original expression or not."

"The familar phrase to have ant's (sic) in one's pants 'to be restless or irritable' dates from the 1930s. The word antsy became common in the 1950s, which suggests that antsy is derived from the earlier phrase. But there is one example from the nineteenth century that makes the issue murky. In an 1838 journal is the sentence: "Minard's talking & Peake's scribbling were enough to drive anyone ancey [sic]." Now, on the one hand this would seem to be the earliest example of our word. However, this is over 100 years before its next known use. If antsy--in whatever spelling--were really in use in the 1830s, it's rather unusual that there's no other example for such a long time."

"This could mean that the 1838 example is a coincidence, that it's not the same word as our antsy. Or it could be the same word, but for whatever reason, scholars haven't found any other early examples, in which case the "ants in one's pants" phrase would itself be an elaboration of antsy. "

(Someone needs to read "Eats, shoots and leaves" by Lynne Truss!)

Monday, 16 February 2009


A lipogram (from Greek lipagrammatos, "missing letter") is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing, poems, paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is missing, usually a common vowel.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Spitstickers and Scorpers

Engraving tools have wonderful names. I came across two in Simon Garfield's book 'The Error World' - "..a nice chunk of English boxwood to be engraved with spitstickers and scorpers."

The spitsticker is one of the engravers main tools and is used for curved lines and making small round marks for stippling.

The scorper is for straight lines and cutting out large areas.

Other wonderful terms include Tint Tool, Lozenge Graver, Chisel and Bullsticker.

I thought this great example of a wood engraving was by the incomparable Andy English but it does not appear on his website or blog so perhaps I am mistaken.

Saturday, 14 February 2009


Petrichor is the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell.

"Petrichor, the name for the smell of rain on dry ground, is from oils given off by vegetation, absorbed onto neighboring surfaces, and released into the air after a first rain." Matthew Bettelheim, Mt Shasta, California, Jan 2002.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Neologisms and Retronyms

A neologism is a word, term, or phrase that has been recently created (or "coined"), often to apply to new concepts, to synthesize pre-existing concepts, or to make older terminology sound more contemporary. It may also be an old word used in a new sense.

A retronym is a form of neologism coined for an old object or concept whose original name has come to be used for something else or is no longer adequate. The term clock, for example, was quite adequate to describe a type of timepiece until digital clocks came along. It was then necessary to introduce the word analogue to describe clocks that were not digital.

Thursday, 12 February 2009


Sometimes you come across a word that you know the meaning of, only to find your meaning doesn't fit the context. So when I read in 'Good Evening, Mrs Craven' that all the girls wore their hair in snoods, I thought, strange!

A snood, I knew, was the flap of skin that wobbles about over the beak of certain bird species, most noticeably the turkey.

I couldn't see girls wrapping their hair in those, even in wartime, so I checked and discovered a snood, in those days, was an ornamental net in the shape of a bag that confined a woman's hair.

Nowadays, it seems, the snood has had a makeover and in the most common modern form it resembles a close-fitting hood worn over the back of the head. The band covers the forehead or crown of the head, goes behind the ears and under the nape of the neck.

Just to complete our examination of the word snood it is also a puzzle video game created in 1996 by David M. Dobson.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


The other day I read a book in which a female porter on a march was given the nickname ‘Biscuits’ because she unashamedly lifted her skirts to go to the toilet at the side of the track.

I was at a loss as to why this should lead to her being called biscuits but upon checking found it was American slang for faeces (presumably a form of rhyming slang – biscuits / shits).

Biscuits are quite popular in rhyming slang, giving us
Knees (Biscuits and Cheese);
Rookie (Biscuit and Cookie);
Bookie (Biscuit and Cookie) ; and
Tits (Biscuits)

It seems that a biscuit is also slang for the drug ecstasy.

A friend (from the Scottish islands) also uses the word in the expressions ‘scary biscuits’ to describe a bad situation and ‘mad as a box of biscuits’ to describe a person.

What a useful word!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

A Loo Table

The other day I came across a reference to a loo table. At first I imagined it was a table to be found in a loo (English slang for a toilet) but the context didn’t seem quite right.

In fact, a loo table was a large round or oval table for playing loo on.

It was hinged so that it could be stored flat against a wall when not in use.

Loo was a trick-taking card game for five or more players. It was equally popular as a disreputable gambling game, when it could get quite vicious, or as a mild domestic pastime, such as appeared in the novels of Jane Austen. There were two forms - one played with three cards and the other with five. Both reached England from France probably with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Loo is short for Lanterloo which in turn is from the French lenturlu, a meaningless refrain used in lullabies.
(For more about the game of Loo se David Parlett’s site)

Monday, 9 February 2009


Twonk - n. an informal term for a stupid or foolish person.It has its origin in the 1980s: perhaps a blend of twit or twerp and plonker.

Sunday, 8 February 2009


When I came across the word glop on Papercages blog I thought at first that she had invented it. But no, I discovered from Princeton University that it is:-
- treacle: writing or music that is excessively sweet and sentimental;
- any gummy shapeless matter; usually unpleasant.

Burn the candle at both ends

It is alleged that at one time it was possible to burn the candle at both ends because candles and rushlights were sometimes held horizontally in pincers or brackets that allowed both ends to be lit simultaneously. To do so was said to be a sign of extravagance. Interestingly I cannot find any pictures of such a wall bracket or pincers but the same story appears in a number of places.

Nowadays, the term is used of someone who exhausts their energy by getting up early and staying up late. I could find plenty of pictures of folk who do that!

Saturday, 7 February 2009


I've already blogged about D'Oh (twice) and the first time I did so I mentioned it was not to be confused with Duh. Duh (pronounced duhhrrr) is an American English slang exclamation that is used to express disdain for someone missing the obviousness of something. It can also be used when someone states the obvious.

I cannot think of a better example of the appropriateness of "Duh!".

Friday, 6 February 2009


Today's word comes with special thanks to David, author of Jesus and Mo, for reasons which will become apparent....

Fideism is the doctrine that faith is the basis of all knowledge; the view that religious belief relies primarily on faith or special revelation, rather than rational inference or observation.

(Reproduced by special permission of jesusandmo.net.)

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Leave some for the Duke of Rutland

When I was young it was expected that one would finish the food that was put on one’s plate. Whilst some minor concessions might be made for one’s likes and dislikes, as a rule children were expected to eat what was put before them. Fortunately our parents were not as strict as Mum’s parents had been.

By contrast, the upper classes of many earlier generations expected their children to leave some food on their plate – it was considered both good manners and Biblically correct since the good book says ‘Leave off first for manners’ sake; and be not unsatiable, lest thou offend.’

And where did the Duke of Rutland come in? The family name of the Dukes of Rutland was Manners so parents would use his name as a way of warning children to mind their manners.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


All too often we are tempted to ignore words that we don't know when we read them. If the context is obvious we simply read around them. Such was nearly the case when I read "From the shared courtyard below, several cream-harled buildings, with tagged-on staircases and balconies, grew higgledy-piggledy skywards, their scale and style an odd mixture of Arts and Crafts and Scottish baronial," in a novel about Edinburgh, recently.

However, recalling my desire to edcuate myself, I checked out 'harled' (no result) then 'harling' and discovered the latter defined as "Harling or roughcasting is a process of covering stonework, using a plastering process involding a slurry of small pebbles or fine chips of stone."

Obvious really, as I had suspected, but I thought I'd share the thought and action process with you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009


Tegestology is the collecting of beermats.

For two terms in 1971 I lived in a basement flat in Leeds. The walls were simply painted plaster and painted wooden panels so I livened the place up a bit, as students do, by adding cigarette packets and other odds and ends.

At the time I collected beermats (which made me a tegestologist) so these, of course, also went on the wall.

A beermat is a coaster used to rest glasses of beer (or other beverages) upon. Public houses in the United Kingdom usually will have them spread out across the tables. They are used not just to protect the surface of the table, but, as they are usually made out of paper, they can also be used to absorb spillages or serve as an ad-hoc notepad. Their main use, however, is as part of an alcohol advertising campaign.

Collecting beermats is an especially popular hobby in Germany, where beermats are known as Bierdeckel. There is an international collector's association called IBV in Germany which has been active since 1958. The British Beermat Collectors Society was founded shortly afterwards in 1960 and currently has around 300 members spread around the world. BeermatMania.com was founded in 2004 and boasts a gallery of over 34,000 images of British brewery beer mats based on the British Beermat Collectors Society numbering system.

Monday, 2 February 2009


Fiddlesticks is such a lovely word. It means 'Nonsense!' and is used as an interjection which expresses disbelief, disdain or annoyance.

A fiddlestick was the bow used in playing the violin (fiddle). Shakespeare used a proverb based on it in Henry IV: “the devil rides on a fiddle-stick”, meaning that a commotion has broken out. Around Shakespeare's time it also began to be used to mean something trivial or insignificant. As a contemptuous response to a remark it sems to have been first recorded in George Farquhar's play" Sir Henry Wildair" of 1701: “Golden pleasures! golden fiddlesticks!”.

Sunday, 1 February 2009


If ever a word was self-explanatory it is curlicue - a lovely word.

A curlicue, or alternatively curlycue, in the visual arts, is a fancy twist, or curl, composed usually from a series of concentric circles. It is a recurring motif in architecture (as decoration to the lintel/architrave above a door), in calligraphy and in general scrollwork.

"...the dust had probably seeped in to lie in the dulling mahogany curlicues of the Chippendale chairs.." Mollie Panter-Downes