"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."

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


Tintinnabulation is a tinkling sound, as of a bell or of breaking glass; ringing; the sound of a bell ringing.

I remember coming across this word when i was about 13 or so and writing in one of my English books "The tiny tinny tintinnabulation of a tinted thicket tinamou".

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Kufic is the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts and consists of a modified form of the old Nabataean script. The word is also used to describe border designs that are thought to be derived from an Arabic script.

Monday, 26 April 2010


A cuddy is a cabin, for the use of the captain, in the after part of a sailing ship under the poop deck; a small cupboard or closet; or a cabin for use by a nightwatchman.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Vade mecum

A vade mecum is a handbook; a concise reference book providing specific information about a subject or location. The expression is also used in a wider context to mean a useful object, constantly carried on one’s person.

Saturday, 24 April 2010


Froward means habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition; unmanageable.

Friday, 23 April 2010


Hagiography is the study of saints. It is also a biography that idealizes or idolizes the person (especially a person who is a saint).

Thursday, 22 April 2010


A picayune was a Spanish coin, worth half a real. As a result it came to mean something petty, trivial; of little consequence; small and of little importance; picayunish; something not worth arguing about.

According to Jim Wegryn "In 1837, George Wilkins Kendall began a newspaper in the capital of Louisiana which he called the New Orleans Picayune. By 1914, the Daily Picayune as it was then called merged with a competing paper (formed from two others), the New Orleans Times-Democrat. It was known for a time as the Times-Democrat, the Daily Picayune. Eventually the new publication became simply the Times-Picayune."

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Caryatid and Atlantis

A Caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head. The term is often incorrectly applied to the male equivalent, which, however, is correctly called an Atlantis.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010


Bumble-puppy - also known as tetherball - was a game for two players who use their hands to hit in opposite directions a ball that is on a length of rope attached to the top of a pole. The object of the game is to wind the rope completely around the pole. If Deryn Lake's novel 'Death at St James's Palace' is to be believed, it seems to have been in existence in the 1760s at the Queens Head in Marybone (Marylebone) Park, London.
We had an identical game - using a tennis ball on a metal pole - which we used to play at the caravan but we called it swingball.

Monday, 19 April 2010


Delations are legal charges or indictments.

'I am trying to sort the delations for all these new prisoners.’ C J Sansom (Dissolution)


Sunday, 18 April 2010



Makebate is an archaic term for someone who excites debate and quarrelling.

Preaching in English is one thing, but allowing the Bible to blockish servants and peasants will fill England with makebates.” C J Sansom (Dissolution)


Saturday, 17 April 2010


A runcible spoon is a utensil that appears in nonsense poetry, which also uses the adjective "runcible" to describe objects other than spoons. It is considered by some to be a nonsense word.

Edward Lear's best-known poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, published in 1871, includes the passage:
They dined on mince and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.

Lear does not appear to have had any firm idea of what the word "runcible" means. His whimsical nonsense verse celebrates words primarily for their sound, and a specific definition is not needed to appreciate his work. However, since the 1920s (several decades after Lear's death), modern dictionaries have generally defined a runcible spoon to be a fork with three broad curved prongs and a sharpened edge, used with pickles or hors d'oeuvres, such as a pickle fork.

Notwithstaninding its apparent nonesense associations it is used in C J Sansom's nopvel 'Dissolution':-

“This evening he stayed to dine at the obedentiaries’ table, where a great haunch of beef was served with runcible peas.

Friday, 16 April 2010


Obedentiary is a monastic rank or office below that of superior. For example, in the Sansom novel I have just read there are six obedentiaries below the prior.

Thursday, 15 April 2010


A zareba is an improvised stockade constructed especially of thornbushes and used for defence in parts of Africa; a village protected by such a structure, especially in Sudan.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


A xebec is a small three-masted Mediterranean vessel.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Another lovely word for the crossword compiler - a xyster is a surgeon's bone scraping instrument. Ouch.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Falcula is zoological term for a curved and sharp-pointed claw.

It originates from the Latin falcula meaning a small sickle, a billhook.

Sunday, 11 April 2010


A favourite of crossword compilers is the word ‘cran’. The clue is usually ‘a measure used for herring’. The cran of herring is now fixed by law at 37½gallons – approximately 750 fish.

This is a quarter cran herring basket with its maker - Terry Bensley - photo from this Dunbar Gardens site.

The word is first recorded in Scotland in 1797 and like its Gaelic counterpart ‘crann’ seems originally to have meant a lot or share – that is, the portion of the catch belonging to each person involved.

According to the Oxford Dictionary the cran is also a Scottish name applied to the crane or heron; a name also applied to the swift in S Scotland; and an iron instrument laid across the fire to support a pot.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

To keep a stiff upper lip

To keep a stiff upper lip means to be self-reliant; to bear difficulties and dangers with fortitude. In particular the British are noted for having a stiff upper lip; indeed, at one time, it was part of the definition of being British which is ironic since the word was first recorded in America in 1815.

Friday, 9 April 2010

fly off the handle

To fly off the handle means to lose your temper suddenly, especially without justification; to burst into violent speech. It was first reecorded in 1825. It's origin presumably lies in a hammer head flying off the handle.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

In cahoots

A cahoot was an American word for a company or partnership - first recorded in 1829 and of unknown origin. The phrase 'in cahoots' is still in common usage and means in partnership.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Hispid means covered in short, stiff hairs; bristly; harsh to touch.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


For some reason I made a note of the word ‘Durian’ for my blog but I couldn’t recall where from. It is unusual for me to simply blog a word meaning something like a fruit – does Durian have another meaning that I cannot trace?

The durian is a tree of southeastern Asia with an edible oval fruit of the smae name. It has a hard spiny rind whose seeds are roasted and eaten like nuts'.   The durian is described as `smelling like Hell and tasting like Heaven'; the durian is often called 'The 'King of fruits' by fruit aficionados.

Nowadays in Singapore, when people talk of the durian they are as likely to mean the Esplanade Theatre/Concerthall complex.

Monday, 5 April 2010

In an interesting condition

To be in an interesting condition was a euphemism for pregnant. Since the 18th century women were said to be in an interesting state or interesting situation and subsequently there would, hopefully, be an interesting event - childbirth.

In 'Roderick Random' (1748) Tobias Smollett wrote - "So that I cannot leave her in such an interesting situation, which I hope will produce something to crown my felicity." Charles Dickens in ' Nicholas Nickleby' (1838) wrote of "Mrs. Lenville (who, as has been before hinted, was in an interesting state)."

The Westmorland Gazette in June 1899 reported the birht of Maria Romanov as an "'Interesting event' at Peterhof. Another daughter!"

The actual words 'interesting condition' are first found in America in an 1846 edition of the Hagers-town Torch Light of Hagerstown in Washington County, Maryland :
... "the elopement of a blacksmith named Samuel Fellows and a Mrs. Betsey Reynolds. Mrs. Reynolds is about 31 years of age, and is good looking. She took her family of five children with her. She was also in an interesting condition. Fellows took his two children - making quite an interesting company."

Interestingly a number of sexual euphemisms are remarkably similar in English and Russian which is not the case with other expressions and "An interesting condition” has been a favorite expression of the Russian lower-middle class.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


The geodesic is the shortest line between two points on a mathematically defined surface (such as a straight line on a plane or an arc of a great circle on a sphere); the "straightest path" in a curved space or curved spacetime.

Saturday, 3 April 2010


Lucifugous means light-avoiding; having a dislike of light, particularly from the sun; nocturnal.

Friday, 2 April 2010


Caprine means of or relating to goats; goatlike.

Thursday, 1 April 2010


Erethism is an abnormally high degree of irritability or sensitivity to stimulation of an organ or body part; abnormal excitement of a bodily organ or tissue

Erethism or erethism mercurialis is a symptom complex of mercury poisoning, presenting with excessive shyness, timidity and social phobia. This was common among hat makers of old England who used mercury to stabilize the wool in a process called felting. Hence the creation of the Mad Hatter by Lewis Carrol in the Alice stories.