"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, 27 March 2012


  I can't improve on this blog posting which I came across lately so I'll simply ask you to visit it if you want to know the meaning and history of Jackanapes.


And sadly, it still goes on...

Monday, 26 March 2012


Although I tend to concentrate on English words there are occasionally words from other languages that sneak into English and become commonly used. We already commonly use origami, ikebana and bonsai and I think amigurumi may well join them.

Amigurumi (編みぐるみ?, lit. crocheted or knitted stuffed toy) is the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. The word is derived from a combination of the Japanese words ami, meaning crocheted or knitted, and nuigurumi, meaning stuffed doll. Amigurumi are typically animals, but can include artistic renderings or inanimate objects endowed with anthropomorphic features, as is typical in Japanese culture.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

To break a butterfly on a wheel

Looking through Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable for the previous entry I came across "To break a butterfly on a wheel". It's not an expression I've ever heard used verbally but I have read it a couple of times.

It means to use superabundant effort in the accomplishment of a small matter.

Friday, 23 March 2012

You just broke my dream

Jo just said some thing which reminded me of a dream I had had last night so I said to her 'You just broke my dream.' That made me think about the expression. This colloquialism means that someone or something has just occurred to remind one of a dream which had occurred previously.

I haven't been able to find out when the expression was first used - it's not in my copies of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Thursday, 22 March 2012


Apotropaic is an adjective meaning 'supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.'

Crossing fingers is therefore an apotropaic hand gesture.

Sunday, 11 March 2012


Mansuetude means mildness or gentleness of manner and comes from the Latin mansuetus meaning tamed (or literally accustomed to the hand). World Wide Words shows an example from the Boston Globe as recently as 2004 but in general it can be considered obsolete and on that website Michael Quinion points out ‘To use it may be to gratify the ego of the writer rather than communicate with the reader.’

Saturday, 10 March 2012



Ructions is a plural noun (informal) and means a scrap, a fracas, a disturbance or fuss.   It is often used as a means of threatening dire consequences if someone misbehaves...   If you don't do as you're told this moment there'll be ructions.

According to the dictionary it can also be seen as a singular noun, ruction, meaning an uproar; a noisy or quarrelsome disturbance. I'm not sure that I can recall ever hearing it used in the singular.

Friday, 9 March 2012


To vilipend means to regard or treat as of little value or account; to vilify; or to deprecate, to belittle.

I saw one website which suggested it meant to depreciate rather than to deprecate. Oops, I thought. Until I looked up depreciate in the dictionary and found it not only meant to diminish in value over a period of time but it also meant to belittle. I had never previously realised that to depreciate could mean to disparage.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Do you bottle up your feelings?


A while ago I was set a challenge by Monica to see if the concept of bottled-up feelings was in any way connected with tear bottles. Originating in pre-biblical times, tear bottles were fairly common in Roman times when mourners filled small glass bottles or cups with tears and placed them in burial tombs as symbols of respect. Tear bottles reappeared during the Victorian era when those mourning the loss of loved ones would collect their tears in bottles with special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate. When the tears had evaporated, the mourning period was at an end.

Other names for tear bottle were lachrymatory, tear catcher, tear vial, unguentaria, or unguentarium. There are also several less common spellings for lachrymatory, including lachrimatory.

In Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Bible – essential reading in Victorian times – he says of the Verse of the Psalms in which tear bottles are mentioned (Psalm 56:8) - “The tears of God's persecuted people are bottled up and sealed among God's treasures.”

Despite delving quite deeply, both on the web and in my reference books I can come up with no reference to the origin of the term 'to bottle up one's feelings' but surely there must be a connection.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012



The shawm is a forerunner of the modern oboe and originated in the Middle East. It is of a similar construction to the oboe with a long, thin body and a bell. Shawms come in a variety of sizes and pitches, from the small soprano to the large bass. Made from wood and played with a double reed, the shawm makes a distinctively bright, nasal sound. The collective noun is a consort of shawms.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Coxcomb and Coxcomical

Coxcomb is a noun - an archaic term for a vain and conceited man; a dandy; a fop.

The term was also used for a  jester's cap.  Such caps were often decorated with a piece of red cockscomb.   In Medieval times such caps usually had three points representing the ears and tail of a donkey that jester's wore in earlier times.

Thirdly, the word is still in use as a variant spelling of cockscomb - the fleshy red crest on the head of the domestic fowl and other gallinaceous birds.

The adjective from coxcomb was coxcombical or coxcomical, meaning foppish or conceited.  In 1755, Dr Johnson described coxcomical as a 'low word unworthy of use'. That's a shame - I think it's a wonderful word and wish it were still in common usage. 

Monday, 5 March 2012


   Poverty means the state of being extremely poor; of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount.

But did you know it is also a collective noun?  The collective noun for pipers.  It was used as a collective noun for pipers as long ago as 1486.

So here we are - a photo of a poverty of pipers.  Other collective nouns for bagpipers are a march and a skirl.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

On one's uppers

To be on one's uppers means to be impoverished, down-and-out or shabby-looking. To be down on one's uppers is a variation with the same meaning.

It is of U.S. origin and dates back at least to 1891 when it was recorded in The Century Dictionary.

The uppers are the upper leathers of shoes or boots; a person “on his uppers” has worn through both sole and welt. Footgear as indicative of financial status is also found in the term well-heeled meaning well-off (though this is probably of unrelated origin), and in down-at-the-heel.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


   Heather recently wrote that she squinched as she tasted something that was not particularly pleasant.  I knew immediately what she meant even though I had never heard the word before and wondered, momentarily if it was an invention of hers.  It isn't Heather's invention; or if it is she's been lying about her age - it was first recorded in 1835.  It probably originated as a combination of the words squint and pinch.

As a verb it means to screw up one's face or eyes.

It also can mean to crouch down or squash oneself into a small space; to squeeze; to pinch; or to draw together. 

It is also a noun in which case it refersnot only to a screwed up face but also to a structure, such as a section of vaulting or corbeling, set diagonally across the interior angle between two walls to provide a transition from a square to a polygonal or more nearly circular base on which to construct a dome.

Photo  Attribution: Gurdjieff at en.wikipedia

Friday, 2 March 2012


   This is not a word one would normally come across but I just couldn't resist blogging it.  It has such a delightful sound - it's pronounced bor-buh-rig-muss.

Oh yes, It'd better give you its meaning as well.  It means a rumbling or gurgling sound caused by the movement of gas in the intestines.

The plural is borborygmi.

May you have no embarrassing borborygmi in the near future!

Thursday, 1 March 2012


I've been on strike - or that's what it seems like. I haven't blogged words or phrases on this blog on a regular basios for many months. Hopefully I'm back.

If others are still on strike that makes me a blackleg - a strike-breaker.

The term is said to have come from strikes in the coal mines. Those who were on strike had washed and brushed up after their last trip down the mine and therefore anyone covered in coal dust was a strike-breaker - a blackleg. The derogatory term scab is also used for such people. It is not a direct synonym of strike-breaker since a blackleg is specifically aomeone who works at a job while his colleagues are on strike. A strike-breaker may also be someone who crosses a picket line to do another job. A scab is either a blackleg or a person specially brought in or hired to do the job which is not their normal one.

Pinkertons protecting blacklegs from their fellow workers.

An alternative origin can be dated back as far as the sixteenth century or earlier. The rook is known for its rapacious appetite and it has black legs. Rook was used as a term of abuse for anyone who swindled, took advantage of others or lived on his wits. Gradually cheats and swindlers became known not only as rooks but blacklegs. Since strike-breakers are thought of as cheating their fellow workers they became known as blacklegs and that is the meaning that has stuck.

How far back the term blackleg goes is unclear but 'Blackleg Miner' is a 19th-century English folk song.