Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Scary Words of Halloween

It’s that time of the year again when pumpkins are carved, scary costumes are worn, and a lot of people are tricked. But what are the origins of some Halloween objects and the etymology of the festival’s name itself?

Halloween – The festival’s name comes from Christian origin and dates from about 1745. It directly translates as ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’. ‘Halloween’ comes from a Scottish term for ‘all hallows eve’. In Scottish language, eve translates as ‘even’, often contracted to ‘-een’ or ‘-e’en’. As English changes over time, the term for the October festival changed - (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en eventually evolved into Halloween.
Spider – comes from a mix of Dutch and Germanic roots that eventually formed in Old English ‘spiĆ¾ra’. The arachnid got its name from Proto-Germanic ‘spenthro’ (Danish ‘spinder’), from ‘spenwanan’ meaning "to spin" linking to how they spin a cobweb. The connection with the root is more transparent in other Germanic cognates (Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, Middle High German, German spinne’).

Witch – Nobody is 100% sure where the term ‘witch’ comes from. It has a long complicated history. The most populist idea is it derives from Old English ‘wicce’ meaning ‘female magician, sorceress’; a woman who had dealings with evil spirits and the devil. The verb ‘wiccian’ means ‘to practise witchcraft’.

Zombie – goes back to the 1800s. It derives from a West African word ‘zumbi’ meaning a soulless, re-animated corpse or a fetish in voodoo cult. It originally referred to the name of a snake God.
Nightmare – has a very literal meaning and is of Germanic origin. It literally refers to a ‘night mare’ that inflicted spirits of suffocation onto the sleeping victim to which they could not scream for help. So it’s a very literal word because that’s what happens when we suffer a nightmare. The word refers to an evils spectre by the bedside. Over time the two words merged into one.

Goblin – malicious but not as nightmarish as ghouls. Goblin comes from the German 'kobold'. In German folklore, a kobold is a mischievous household spirit, sometimes helpful and sings to children. But too often, he hides valuable household items, kicks people, and erupts in rage when he doesn’t get enough food.

GhoulIn Arabic legend, a ghoul is a creature that eats both stolen corpses and children. The word comes from the Arabic ‘ghul’ which comes from ‘ghala’, meaning “he seized.”

Ghost – a ghost is considered to be the soul of the dead: they are empty, vacuous and vague which is why they are visually depicted as white sheets. The word ‘ghost’ comes from Old English ‘gast’ meaning ‘soul, spirit, life, breath.’

Jack-O’-Lantern – refers to what a pumpkin becomes after it has been carved out and lit up with a candle inside it. It originally referred to a night watchman who literally carried a lantern to see in the seventeenth century. The term was first used in Britain before it was taken to America as Irish immigrants brought the Jack-o’-Lantern custom to North America, which is where pumpkins were first used to make the Halloween decorations. Legend has it that this use of jack-o’-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack, who thought he had tricked the devil. But the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Nautical Idioms

This is my last post about words, names and phrases that come from the sea and I am going to look at some idioms that have a nautical theme.

There are a number of idioms that come from nautical origins such as ‘all at sea’, ‘being on one’s beams’, ‘showing one’s true colours’…the list goes on. But to look at three in particular:

‘To be left high and dry’ goes back to 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar when it was used to indicate when a ship was stranded or grounded on the lowering tide and therefore had no means of being moved.

‘Turning the corner’ may also come from nautical beginnings as there are two corners – Cape Hope (South Africa) and Cape Horn (South America). It was (and still is) well-known that the sea around both Capes can be dangerous, rough, and very difficult to navigate. But once sailors had passed the Capes successfully, they would have ‘turned the corner’ because the sea would be calmer and they could look forward to a much smoother journey ahead. That was the theory anyway.

Finally, to ‘learn the ropes’ links back to when sailors would learn how to operate the speed and direction of ships from the complicated system of ropes that would control the huge sails.

So a whole variety of idioms in English which originate from the sea.

The Origin of 'Knot' (measure of speed)

Chip LogContinuing the sea theme, I thought I’d look at how the word ‘knot’ came about, referring to a measure of speed often used by seagoers.

‘Knot’ goes right back to the mid-1500s when sailors would cleverly tie knots in a piece of rope at regular intervals. They would then throw one end of the rope, which was weighted, into the sea behind their moving boat. The other end was kept onboard the vessel, probably wound up in a reel of some sort. The sailors would then count the number of knots that were let out in a given period, probably measured by an hourglass. They would then use this finding as a calculation of speed which they could also use to approximate how long it would take them to get somewhere in the given conditions.

So the story of the word ‘knot’ goes right back to clever sailors and it’s been used ever since, even when technology came and made calculating speed at sea a bit simpler.

Sea-related etymologies - What is a 'Combe'?

From Combe Martin to Woolacombe – what is a ‘Combe’?

In my last blog post (a while ago now), I talked about how coastal features got their names. So I am continuing the sea-related word origins and thought I’d do a quick post on the etymology/origin of the word ‘Combe’ that features in many place names, usually in southern England.

‘Combe’ (variants ‘coomb’, ‘cumb’ and in Welsh ‘cwm’) refers to a deep narrow valley or hollow in a hillside or coastline, and this valley may have a stream or river that runs into the sea. The word is probably of Celtic/Old English origin, originating from ‘cumb’ which predates the twelfth century.

Many places have ‘combe’ in their name –Ilfracombe, Woolacombe, Combe Martin and Parracombe are places along a short stretch of the north Devon coast.