"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."

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


Epiphany is usually used to refer to the Christian feast twelve days after Christmas which celebrates the visit of the three wise men to the infant Jesus.

It can, however, mean any form of divine manifestation or sudden revelation; an illuminating realization or discovery, often resulting in a personal feeling of elation, awe, or wonder.

Monday, 30 March 2009


Etiolate means whitened, of a pale or sickly appearance or of stunted growth. In botany it is used to denote plants grown in the absence of light and therefore developing without chlorophyll.

His etiolation signaled years in prison. Mind you, alcohol also etiolates the skin!

Sunday, 29 March 2009


Mellifluous (muh-LIF-loo-uhs) literally means flowing like honey but its modern meaning is sweet-sounding, dulcet, pleasing to the ear. The word is usually used of a person's voice, a musical instrument or bird song.

It is rarely used in relation to jack-hammers, bin lorries, or football crowds!

Saturday, 28 March 2009


Lassitude is one of the things I am suffering from at the moment - it means listlessness, weariness and languor.

Friday, 27 March 2009


A mondegreen is a form of error arising from mishearing a spoken or sung phrase. The term was coined in 1954 by the American writer Sylvia Wright in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," which was published in Harper's Magazine. In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray." She wrote:

"When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen. "

The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green."

As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."

(The only potential example I ever came across is not really a mondegreen since I'm sure that the Christmas carol 'While shepherds washed their socks by night' was the invention of naughty schoolboys rather than those who didn't hear it properly! )


I was surprised when I described someone as having plenty of nous (pronounced ‘nowse’) that the spellchecker (or spillchucker as I prefer to call it) rejected the word ‘nous’. I often use the word nous in its meaning of ‘common sense’ but I thought I had better check the spelling to be on the safe side. I discovered it is spelled nous and that it not only has the meanings ‘common sense, mind or intellect’ but it is also a term in Platonic philosophy. In that philosophy it means the Higher Mind or Soul – the idea of man’s Spirit as opposed to animal-Soul.

P.S. Nous (pronounced 'nu') is the French word for we.

Thursday, 26 March 2009


An anodyne (Greek αν, loss, and οδυνη, pain: a cause which relieves pain) is a medicine that relieves or soothes pain by lessening the sensitivity of the brain or nervous system. Also called an analgesic (or colloquially a "painkiller").

This should not be confused with the French adjective anodin(e) which means harmless, innocuous, insignificant, or trivial. I made that comment because I am forever confusing them though why anyone else should do so I don't know.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


LOL is shorthand for Laughing out Loud or Laugh out Loud. LOL is the most commonly used chat expressions to illustrate you are laughing during a text conversation or that you found something funny. LOL is also less commonly short for Lots of Laughter and Laughing on Line and is also often substituted by LAL (Laughing a Lot) and LAWL (Laughing a Whole Lot). Although already an abbreviation LOL is also sometimes abbreviated even more as LL.

This may all be obvious to those who use chatese (or whatever the word is for chat language) but it wasn’t to me until the other day. I thought that LOL stood for Lots of Love. Apparently it is sometimes used for that but not so often as for Laughing out Loud.

It was only when I had read LOL in a few places where Lots of Love seemed totally inappropriate that I got around to looking it up and discovering what most people mean by it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Nebbish and friends

A nebbish is a person regarded as weak-willed, timid or simple-minded. (From the Yiddish nebekh - a timid, unfortunate simpleton).

The best definition I ever heard of a nebbish was someone who upon entering a room makes you think someone has just walked out...

There are some other great words of Yiddish origin to describe folk. Words like nudnik : a pest, "pain in the neck"; a bore.

And schlemiel : an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt.

Then there is shmendrik : a foolish or contemptible person.

And finally yenta : a talkative woman; a gossip; a scold.

If you want to insult someone there is always a Yiddish term that fits.

Monday, 23 March 2009


Lagniappe is a word of French origin meaning something extra or in addition to or including other things. It is usually used to mean an extra or unexpected gift or benefit, in particular a small gift given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.

Perhaps it's not surprising that I hadn't heard this word before - not many of the merchants I know give their customers small gifts!

Sunday, 22 March 2009


Two of the recent words on this blog have been diapahanous and ethereal. These are words that can be synonymous with gossamer. Gossamer means a fine film, as of cobwebs; a gauze fabric with an extremely fine texture; characterized by unusual lightness and delicacy.

Saturday, 21 March 2009


Is there a warmer sounding word than inglenook. It sums up the whole idea of sitting cosily by a large log fire on a winter's day.

An inglenook is a corner or nook beside the fireplace; a chimney corner. the word can also be used for a seat or bench placed within that place.

Friday, 20 March 2009


A watercolour entitled Halcyon Days by Anna O'Hara

Halcyon days are happy, sunny, care-free, idyllically calm and peaceful; suggestive of happy tranquillity; golden; marked by peace and prosperity.

This is strange in a way because the term comes from the mythological bird of Greek origins that was a transformation of the grieving Alcyone who, upon learning her husband was dead, became a kingfisher. In fact the meaning of the English word was influenced by the fabled bird because it was supposed to have had the power to calm the wind and the waves while it nested on the sea during the winter solstice.

This is the White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) (from RichardSeaman.com)

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Ethereal is another of those words that sounds as good as its meaning.

It means gaseous; invisible but detectable; aeriform: characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; as impalpable or intangible as air; characterized by unusual lightness and delicacy.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


This photo shows Dad between his brother Frank and his mother, prior to being breeched.

Breeching was the occasion when a small boy was first dressed in breeches or trousers. From the mid-16th century until the late 19th or early 20th century, young boys in the Western world were unbreeched and wore gowns or dresses until an age that varied between two or three and seven or eight. Sometimes a breeching party would be given to celebrate the end of his childhood.

This is my Uncle Eric (on left with Mum on the right) in 1913 at the age of one, prior to being breeched.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


What have the Prince Consort of Queen Victoria of England (1819-1861), a high quality car, a railway engine, a slipper, horseradish sauce and a watch chain all got in common?

The answer - as you will have guessed from the header - is the name Albert.

The Albert was a high quality British automobile designed by A. O. Lord and manufactured in Vauxhall between 1920 and 1924. The car was powered by a proprietary 1495 cc ohv engine made by Gwynne and boasted a radiator similar to that of the Rolls-Royce. The body was mainly made of aluminium and most were 4 seat tourers.

An Albert was also a men’s slipper style with a tongue like extension of the upper over the instep.

Albert is a French name for English hot horseradish sauce.

Albert is also a red Furness Railway J1 2-4-2 tank engine with a yellow FR on him who worked on the Lakeside branch, as seen in the book Thomas and Victoria by Reverend W.V. Awdry.

The watch chain on the left is a double albert and on the right a single albert.

Quite a useful word, old Albert!

Monday, 16 March 2009


There are all sorts of meaning for the word spill but one of the lesser known ones is a piece of paper or thin wood used to light a cigar or cigarette from a fire or candle. Spills for lighting cigars were usually made of cedar wood as this was supposed to help retain the flavour of the tobacco. Using candles, sulphur matches or lighter fluid all tainted the cigar.

We used to make spills of waste paper by folding a piece of paper about 6 to 8 inches long and an inch and half wide lengthwise in half and then over in half again and then once again. They were stored on the hearth in this wooden container which, I think, was made by Dad.

My grandmother also had spills in her fireplace and I think they were kept in this old brass cartridge case.

Sunday, 15 March 2009


A dandiprat was an English coin worth three half-pence. The name was also used for an insignificant or contemptible person.

Dr Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary defined it as - "A little fellow, an urchin. A word used sometimes in fondness, sometimes in contempt."

Saturday, 14 March 2009


Diaphanous is variously described as meaning "so thin as to transmit light; sheer; transparent or semi- transparent; or filmy and floating".

I think diaphanous is a beautiful sounding word for a beautiful concept. (The photo is from an unknown source on the web).

Friday, 13 March 2009


A colporter or colporteur is a peddler of religious books. Colportage is the distribution of religious publications, books, tracts, etc., - the carriers being called colporteurs.

(Not to be confused with a certain Cole Porter!!)

Thursday, 12 March 2009


Literally meaning ‘like a cat’s eye’. chatoyant means having a certain optical reflectance effect, which can be likened to the sheen of a spool of silk.

The term, defined also as ‘varying in colour when seen in different lights or from different angles’, is most frequently used to describe the effect of certain semi-precious stones such as Tiger Eye Quartz or the finish of certain woods like Flame-figured Maple.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


If someone asks ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ you should respond with blandiloquence. Blandiloquent describes mild, flattering speech.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


We all know what a bin is. A bin is some form of container, usually with a lid, used for storage or a container for rubbish or waste.

But what if you found the word ‘bin’ in an inventory accompanying a will in the Stratford of Shakespeare’s time? It wouldn’t be referring to an ordinary container but to a hive of bees – bin was the local dialect term for bees.

Discovering this reminded me of the first time I looked through the wills of some my ancestors. One of them left a shyp to his daughter. Wow, I thought. He must have been rich to have been a ship-owner. It turned out he had merely left her a sheep!

Old inventories are fascinating things, not only do they contain some wonderful words, but they show what was considered valuable in the household. The ‘best bed’ was frequently the first and most important item on the inventory!

Among the other things you might have found in old inventories were a

Clossbowke – a bucket with a lid
Counterfeit – plated silver
Dassells – a saddle
Falling bands – collars or neckerchiefs
Falling-table – a gate-legged table
Ferret – silk ribbon
Flasket – a clothes basket
Body Harness – armour
Hutch – a small light chest for clothes
Male – a travelling bag
Pad pannel – a piece of cloth serving as a saddle
Pantables – slippers
Partlett – a woman’s neckerchief or ruffed collar
Piggin – a little earthenware jar
Posnett – a little basin
Porringer – a small dish
Sawser – a small dish, a sauce dish
Stalls – hives of bees
Voide – a large basket

Monday, 9 March 2009

Gone for a Burton

In informal British English, something or someone who has gone for a Burton is missing, permanently broken, ruined or destroyed.

The original sense was to meet one’s death, a slang term in the RAF in World War Two for pilots who were killed in action. Its first recorded appearance in print was in the New Statesman on 30 August 1941.

It's exact origin is obscure and many different versions have been put forward. The most favoured is that it was a way of avoiding referring to someone having been killed by suggesting they had only slipped out for a Beer. Burton's being one of the biggest Breweries at that time and Burton-on-Trent being the home of a number of other breweries. In addition, someone who downed their plane in the water was 'in the drink'. (There is also a hint of rhyming slang in there - Burton-on-Trent - went.)

Allegedly there was a series of advertisements for beer in the inter-war years which featured a group of people with one obviously missing, such as a football team of ten players. The tagline suggested the missing person had just popped out for a beer. The slogan was then taken up by RAF pilots for one of their number missing in action as a typical example of wartime sick humour. Whether these adverts ever existed is questionable.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Thinking outside of the box

Thinking outside of the box is a modern, business-speak term for lateral thinking. It means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.

'Thinking outside of the box' was voted the most disliked example of buffling (business waffling) in a survey commissioned by Ramada Encore Hotels.

These were the nation's most hated buffling terms, according to the survey:

1. Thinking outside of the box

2. Touch base

3. At the end of the day

4. Going forward

5. All of it

6. Blue sky thinking

7. Out of the box

8. Credit crunch

9. Heads up

10. Singing from the same hymn sheet

11. Pro-active

12. Downsizing

13. Ducks in a row

14. Brainstorming

15. Thought shower

16. 360º thinking

17. Flag it up

18. Pushing the envelope

19. At this moment in time

20. In the loop

Saturday, 7 March 2009


I came across the word 'housel' not very long ago. It is definitely one of the more obscure words to appear in my word blog as it turned out to be an archaic term for the Eucharist or the act of administering or receiving the communion.

Friday, 6 March 2009


Someone referred to a person on the television as a wag the other day. To me, a wag was a person given to droll, roguish, or mischievous humour and it hardly seemed to fit the somewhat characterless person on the TV. I had to ask Jo what they meant. It seems WAG is an acronym used by the tabloid press to describe the Wives And Girlfriends of high profile celebrities.

It seems that the meaning I knew is not understood by modern youth and so Home & Capital Advisers has produced a dictionary of “Gran Slang”, designed to help younger people understand and communicate with their grandparents. The equity release specialists recognised there was a vast array of guides on “youth street slang” to assist older people in bridging the generational gap, but nothing on the market to aid teenagers in comprehending the language of pensioners.

The “Gran Slang” dictionary is accompanied by a glossary of “youth slang”, allowing for simple cross-referencing. No longer will the word “mint” (used by teenagers to denote approval) be confused with a request for a hard-boiled, peppermint-flavoured sweet.

Nigel Hare-Scott, managing director of Home & Capital Advisers, says: “Many of the words used by teenagers today are incomprehensible to older generations, but it must be equally baffling for younger people trying to get to grips with the lexicon of their grandparents. Understanding is a two-way street – and that’s where the “gran slang” dictionary comes in.”

Thursday, 5 March 2009


Numinous means filled with awe or wonder; evincing the presence of a deity; feeling that you are in the presence of God or something greater than yourself.

“He felt none of that numinous awe born of emptiness and the ... of plainsong on the silent air that ancient churches could evoke.” - P. D James 'The Lighthouse'

“The silence was numinous, broken only by the sound of the sea.”- P. D James 'The Lighthouse'

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


Hieratic means priestly; associated with the priesthood or priests.

It can also refer to a cursive form of ancient Egyptian writing (used especially by the priests ).

A third meaning is 'adhering to fixed types or methods; highly restrained and formal'.

It comes from the Greek word meaning "sacred" .

“It gave him a look, hieratic, distinguished, and alien but he wore it unselfconsciously....” P D James

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Fhina recently commented that she was discombobulated. A wonderful word and I had to put it on this blog.

Discombobulate - a verb meaning to throw into confusion. The noun from it is discombobulation.

To quote from Fhina's posting - "Discombobulate is an American invention, first appearing around 1834, but its origins are a bit cloudy. It may be, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, simply a humorous alteration of "discompose" or "discomfit." The Dictionary of American Regional English, however, suggests that the "bob" in "discombobulate" may have come from "bobbery," a somewhat antiquated word meaning "uproar" or "confusion.""

Monday, 2 March 2009

Best Boy

A Best Boy is not necessarily the male child who has behaved most correctly – it is the name given to the first assistant to the gaffer (head electrician) of a film crew.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Worse things happen at sea

This phrase meaning if things are bad ashore, then they could be a lot worse at sea is quoted on one website as having come into the English language in Neville (sic) Shute's 'No Highway' in the 1940s. In practice Nevil Shute's 'No Highway' (1948) was written 100 years after the first record I can trace which is in Joan Fleming's 'Screams from a Penny Dreadful'. (Penny Dreadfuls were the cheap horror and murder stories of the Victorian era; a topic about which I wrote a dissertation at college). In that book, Fleming quotes a diary entry of 24 August 1842 which includes the phrase. There may well be older references I haven't found.

The illustration above was in the 1889 Royal Academy exhibition (Ten years before Nevil Shute was born!).