"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."

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".

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Here in the UK a thong is a small (or to be accurate, very small) item of ladies' underwear. In Australia thongs are what are known in other countries as jandals, flip-flops, etc. (see GB's post on the subject). I recently discovered that there is yet another name for a similar form of footwear - Zori.

Zori are flat and thonged Japanese sandals made of rice straw or other plant fibres, cloth, lacquered wood, leather, rubber, or—increasingly—synthetic materials. Zōri are quite similar to flip-flops, which first appeared in the United States sometime around World War II as rubber imitations of the wooden thong sandals long worn in Japan.

It sounds to me like a good word for Scrabble.

Zori are defined in "The Superior Person's Book of Words" by Peter Bowler as follows:-
"...that peculiarly aestival form of footwear commonly employed for the purpose of jamming the wearer's foot underneath brake pedals, tripping him up in public places and upon acutely serrated seaside rock-formations, and rendering the sound of his coming and going akin to that of a flock of migrating ducks."


Saturday, 8 August 2009

The sun is over the yardarm

A yardarm is long piece of timber tapering slightly toward the ends, hung by the centre to the top of a mast (upon which the square sails are traditionally hung).
The suggestion that one can have a drink as soon as the sun is over the yardarm is thought to have its origins in the custom aboard ship whereby once the sun had sunk enough over the horizon and no longer struck the yardarm officers could retire below for their first tot of spirits for the day. The expression is now used to mean around 5 p.m. or the end of the working day.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Of the first water

To describe someone or something as being 'of the first water' is to indicate you hold them in the highest regard.

The phrase derives from the diamond industry. In the seventeenth century the degree of brilliance or lustre was described as its water and diamonds might be of the first water, second water and so on. Those of the first water were the finest and had the appearance of a clear, limpid stream. Although this method of grading diamonds died out in the first half of the nineteenth century the expression remains with us to this day.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Flotsam & Jetsam


Traditionally, flotsam and jetsam are words that describe specific kinds of debris in the ocean. Historically the words had specific nautical meanings, with legal consequences, but in modern usage they have come to mean any kind of marine debris.

There is a technical difference between the two: jetsam has been voluntarily cast into the sea (jettisoned) by the crew of a ship, usually in order to lighten it in an emergency; while flotsam describes goods that are floating on the water without having been thrown in deliberately, often after a shipwreck.

Generally speaking, jetsam is the property of the finder, while flotsam remains the property of its original owner.

Traditionally spelled flotsom and jetsom, the "o" was replaced with "a" in the early twentieth century, and the former spellings have since gone out of common usage.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Flibbertigibbet is an Old English word referring to a flighty or whimsical person, usually a young female. It especially refers to a girl who is impulsive or flghty. It is also used, especially in Yorkshire, for a gossipy or overly talkative person. Its origin is in a meaningless representation of chattering.

Monday, 3 August 2009

To lend colour to

To lend colour to means to make a story or an account more credible or believable. I haven't been able to trace the origins of this idiom.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


A spud is a slang term for a potato. The word comes from the digging implement once used to uproot them.

Originally a spud was a short knife or dagger and an Anglo-Latin lexicon from c.1440 describes it as an inexpensive little knife. By the 17th century the name spudd was used for a digging tool and it appears in Pepys' diary when on 10 October 1667 "We...begun with a spudd to lift up the ground." By the mid Nineteenth century the word had changed in meaning, transferring from the tool used to dig up potatoes to the potatoes themselves.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Saved by the bell

Saved by the bell means saved by a last minute intervention.

It is said to originate in boxing and is first noted in the latter half of the 19th century. A boxer in danger of defeat can be 'saved' by the bell marking the end of a round.

There is a common misconception that the phrase is from the 17th century and describes people being saved after being buried alive thanks to being buried in a coffin from which ran a cord with a bell attached. Such coffins did exist and the person who had died - or his relatives - would arrange for someone to be paid to sit overnight in the graveyard to listen out for the bell. This became known as the graveyard shift.