Sunday, 3 August 2014

Weird and Wonderful Collective Nouns

At the weekend I attended a monthly quiz at one of my local pubs. During the quiz there was a question: ‘what do you call a group of women?’ The concept of giving a collective noun to people was a new concept to me. I knew they were used for animals but not people. So this blog post is all about weird and wonderful collective nouns for people and professions (I had a smile and a giggle at some of them!). If you walked into a bar, you may see…

A faculty of academics.
A conflagration of arsonists.
A tabernacle of bakers.
A babble of barbers.
A promise of barmen.
A wiggery of barristers.
A shower of bastards.
A squad of beauties.
A rascal/plush of boys.
A band of brothers.
A shuffle of bureaucrats.
A sneer of butlers.
A goring of butchers.
A pound of carpenters.
A brood of chess players.
A pratfall of clowns.
A riot/gaggle of comedians.
A cavvy/saunter of cowboys.
A shrivel of critics.
A tantrum of decorators.
An amalgam/brace of dentists.
A rash of dermatologists.
A fagot of drummers.
A pound of Englishmen.
A prance of equestrians.
A grumble/sulk of fishermen.
A talent of gamblers.
A gross of Germans.
A gaggle of girls.
A tedium of golfers.
A slither of gossip columnists.
A conjunction of grammarians.
A nag/wisdom of grandparents.
A smear of gynaecologists.
A swish of hairdressers.
A herd of harlots.
A melody of harpists.
A debauchery of hedonists.
An ensemble of homosexuals.
An unhappiness of husbands.
A pint of Irishmen.
An explosion of Italians.
A wheeze of joggers.
A bevy of ladies.
A tough of lesbians.
A pink of liberals.
A band of men.
A mutter of mother-in-laws.
A jungle of Nazis.
A squeal of nieces.
A freeze of northerners.
A lie/odium of politicians.
A twaddle of public speakers.
A billow of smokers.
A bed of swingers.
A quiz of teachers.
A grunt of teenagers.
A sprig of vegetarians.
An impatience of wives.
A gaggle of women.
A crunch of wrestlers.
A worship of writers.

But it’s the soldiers and lawyers who have the most collective nouns:

Soldiers – army, brigade, company, division, platoon, muster, troop.
Lawyers – disputation, eloquence, escheat, greed, huddle, quarrel.

So it seems collective nouns for people and professions are closely linked, hilarious and, in some cases perhaps, quite apt. 

Blue for a girl, and pink for...erm...a boy? The history of the word 'Pink'

This blog post is all about the word ‘pink’. Even short, simple words in English have a backstory, as you know if you have read my posts on Nice and Okay. Likewise, ‘pink’ has a fruitful word history: it started as a verb, moved to being a noun, and then an adjective as we know it today.
The word ‘pink’ started in the 1590s as a verb (‘to pink’) which meant to make a small cut in something. This is where the name for pinking shears comes from – scissors that have a zigzagged edge.

 It was the Dutch who associated pinck oogen (small eyes) with the delicate flowers of the Dianthus (also known as the Carnation). Interestingly, just as the pinking shears may create a ragged edge on fabrics, the petals of the Dianthus are also crimped and look perforated. It was the liking of pink with flowers which inspired the word’s next set of meanings: perfection, symbolised by a pink carnation. Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet states ‘Nay, I am the very pink of curtesie’.

The first time ‘pink’ was used as an adjective was in the 1680s and in Elizabethan England, pink garments were the fashion for both sexes. Sumptuary Laws, which determined the color of clothing people wore by their social status, made pink available to both the upper and lower classes and spread the colour’s influence on the public.

Jumping further forward, it was in the 1920s when pink started to be used as a marketing tool for children – not for girls, but boys. This was because pink was seen as a colour that was full of energy, yet not a full powerful red associated with full maturity. In contrast, a pale, soft blue was marketed toward girls because it was associated with the Virgin Mary. It was after the Second World War when blue and pink switched – blue for boys, pink for girls. 

Ever been told ‘Orange’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Purple’ don’t rhyme with anything?

The word ‘rhyme’ comes from Old French ‘rime’ or ‘ryme’, possibly derived from the Germanic ‘rim’ meaning a series or sequence. Recently, a well-known internet blog posted a list of words that do not have rhymes in modern English. That list was:


[* see below]

However, it may not be as simple as that. In fact, to say all the above words are without a rhyme is  an untruth. Some of them do have rhymes, yet their rhyming partners may be vastly unknown. So here are some of the words with a rhyming partner:

Orange > Blorenge (a hill in Wales)
Silver > ‘chilver’ (a female lamb). Still common in southern dialects and present in the full OED but not evidenced since 1883 (thanks to Mike for researching!).
Purple > ‘curple’ (hindquarters of a horse or donkey), ‘hirple’ (to walk with a limp), ‘nurple’ (the act of roughly twisting a nipple)
Width > ‘sidth’ (a length of something, especially something that drapes or trails).

Obviously, these rhyming words are uncommon. Nevertheless, they do exist. So next time you get a Christmas cracker declaring some words do not have rhymes, you will know otherwise!

What is a 'gorm' and how can you be 'gormless'?

If we think of words that have '-less' as a suffix, it is usually easy to fathom what you are without. For example, if you are 'tactless' you are without tact and if you are 'useless' you are without use, and so on. But what about 'gormless'? 

'Gorm' comes from an old Scottish word 'gaum' meaning attention or notice. Therefore, someone who doesn't pay you or something enough attention or take adequate notice is described as 'gormless'. 

And as an afterthought, the 'feck' in feckless has a similar story. If you are 'feckless', it means you may lack initiative or have a character flaw. Similarly, 'feck' derives from 'fek', again Scottish for 'effect'. 'Fek' to the Scots can mean 'value', 'return' and 'amount'. Simply, if you are accused of being 'feckless', it means you have been accused of being without worth or value. 

In this light, 'feckless' has a definition that makes the word sound more of a stinging attack on someone than possibly intended. 

Why do we have a silent K at the start of some words?

There are many words in English that begin with an unpronounced letter K. For example, ‘knee’, ‘knead’, ‘knife’ and ‘knight’ to name four. But why is there an unpronounced  letter at the start of these words? Are they there to make English difficult? Are they there to confuse non-native speakers and learners of English? Or do they shine a light back into the past?

Well, the answer is very much the latter. Spelling is much slower to catch up with pronunciation. Not so long ago, people would have pronounced the K at the start of these words. It would have been commonplace to hear people talking of k-nights, k-nifes and their k-nees. As the change in pronunciation is relatively recent, spelling has yet to catch up with pronunciation. As a result, it is very likely that in 50-100 years, we will no longer place a ‘K’ at the start of these words, making it redundant. As English is shaped by usage, if we all spelt these words without the K immediately, chances are we’d be cutting vegetables with ‘nifes’, scraping our ‘nees’ and reading about the ‘nights’ of the round table much sooner than that. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Where does 'cul-de-sac' originate?

Many of us live in cul-de-sacs, and those of us who do have a closer link to the intestines than we may have previously thought. 

The precise meaning of 'cul-de-sac'  is 'bottom of the bag' which began as medical term in anatomy for the cecum or caecum which is a pouch at the opening of the large intestine. 'Cul-de-sac' was also used by anatomists to refer to any vessel that was only open at one end. The cecum/caecum is also known as the 'blind gut' because there is only one opening to it. By the 1800s, the term 'cul-de-sac' applied to both literal and figurative dead ends.

Modern words - or are they?

We like to think that language is of the Zeitgeist, that it to say, language is of the time. However, many acronyms and words we use today actually go back hundreds of years.

'LOL' - in today's social media world, 'LOL' is everywhere and is used so frequently it has begun to detach itself from what it is suggesting (how many of us actually laugh out loud when we have used LOL?) 'LOL', according to one online acronym dictionary, stands for 90 different things, with another dictionary giving 70 definitions including its other unofficial meaning, lots of love. More commonly, 'LOL' meaning to laugh loudly has been around since 1989. However, its life began in the 1960s and referred to a 'little old lady'.

'Texting' - a verb which is associated with communication technology. But 'to text' dates back to 1504 meaning to cite from a book. 

'Cool' - goes back to the 1940s and Charlie Parker and jazz musicians. 'Cool' became popular again in the 1990s after going out of fashion in the middle part of the twentieth century.

'Unfriend' - many of us may like to think it was Facebook that coined this verb. Actually, it dates back to 1659 when it was a noun instead of a verb. An unfriend was an enemy.

'Hiphop' - was first used in 1981 meaning a popular music type. However, it was first used in the 1600s when the second Duke of Buckingham used it in a play called 'The Rehearsal' where he simply meant it to mean 'to hop'.

What does the 'T' stand for in the phrase 'to a tee'?

The phrase 'to a tee' is used relatively frequently in modern English, meaning something is perfect or exact in relation to something else. For example, you may be able to mimic someone's accent to a tee. But what exactly is the 'tee' referring to?

Strangely, the phrase has roots that stretch right back into the 1600s - it was first recorded in 1693. Yet its history goes either further back to the Romans and the Greeks. The ancient Greeks and Romans started to use the the letter 'I' figuratively to mean 'the least part of anything'. This was because the letter 'I' was called 'Iota' - the smallest letter of the alphabet. This is where we get today's expressions which contain the word 'iota' - for example, 'you have not got an iota of proof he committed the crime', meaning you haven't got the smallest proof required. 

However, there was another phrase the Greeks and Romans used: 'not to give a jot or a tittle'. As I tweeted recently, a 'tittle' is the name for the dot above a lower case 'i' or 'j'. As so often is the case with English, over time the phrase 'to a tittle' has been shortened to what we know today as 'to a tee'. The idea is that something is so alike to something else it requires little thought and mimics something perfectly. 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why is America called 'America'?

Americans celebrated Independence Day this month. Yet, how many of us wondered where the name 'America' comes from? Why is America called 'America' if Christopher Columbus first discovered the continent? It’s all down to two men called Amerigo Vespucci and Martin Waldseemüller.

'America' derives from the navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci travelled to the New World in 1499 and 1502. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci wrote about it and his accounts published in 1502 and 1504 were widely read in Europe. Columhbus was hindered because he believed he had found another way to Asia and failed to realise that North America was a totally new continent. Vespucci did realise this.

The discovery of the New World meant maps had to be drawn and redrawn as the size and vastness of America was realised. In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing the Universalis Cosmographia (Universal Cosmography which is still displayed in the library of the Congress Building in Washington DC). Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s published travelogues to depict what he thought the new world looked like.

All countries were seen as feminine so Waldseemüller used a feminised Latin form of Amerigo: America.  As cartographers tended to copy each other, Columbus was left off the map even though he made Europe aware of the land across the Atlantic.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

'Pull your finger out' - idioms containing 'Pull'

In the last two blog posts I've talked about common phrases that have an interesting history behind them. Continuing this theme, I will briefly go through four of the most common idioms containing 'pull'.

'Pull your weight' - comes from rowing with the idea if one member of the team fails to pull back their blade with the energy required it's harder for the other team members on your boat to keep momentum.

'Pull out all the stops' - refers to knobs on an organ console that the player pushes in and out. If all the stops are pulled out then the instrument plays with the maximum amount of noise.

'Pull your finger out' - refers to when sailors loaded cannons. When a cannon was loaded, a small amount of gunpowder was needed to set off the cannon. A crew member would hold the gunpowder in place by inserting his finger into the ignition hole. He would (hopefully) remove it in a fast way just before the cannon would fire. Hence why the phrase means to hurry up today.

'Pull your leg' - one of the most common idioms has a mysterious history with no definitive answers. It could either refer to when people would pull on the legs of a hanged person to make sure they were dead, or to simply trip someone up. There is more evidence to suggest the second meaning is the more plausible.

Round the Bend

Recently I was asked where the idiom to be 'round the bend' comes from, with the obvious question - what 'bend' does it refer to?

Today we use the phrase to mean someone who is seen an irrational, perhaps eccentric, crazy, mad or even intoxicated. It is often used in a friendly way rather than being seen as an insult.

There are no definitive answers as to where the idiom originates from, but the most favoured theory could take us back to Victorian times. On hospital campuses, the mental institution would be hidden behind the main building. So to 'go round the bend' literally meant to use the driveway as a way to get to the mental hospital at the rear of the campus.

It seems 'around the bend' has lost its scathing associations with mental illness, as noted last year with the origins of 'Tom foolery' and 'bedlam', both of which come from the St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital in Bishop's Gate, London, the first hopsital in Europe to 'deal' with mental illness in the sixteenth century.

To be 'round the bed' could also explain the etymology behind the phrase to be 'round the twist'.

Show a Leg

A few months ago I wrote about words and phrases that have originated from the sea - to 'turn a/the corner', to 'learn the ropes', and to be 'left high and dry'. Another idiom that comes from nautical origins which people may not expect is to 'show a leg', meaning to get a move on and hurry up.

Rather than its figurative meaning today, the act of showing a leg was in fact literal for seamen who were part of the Royal Navy and their wives . Sailors were not permitted any onshore leave in case they deserted. Therefore, the wives of the sailors would come aboard the vessels and be allowed to sleep with their husbands. When the mornings came, the men had to get up to work while the women were allowed to stay in bed, or hammocks, as they would have been.

A member of the crew would check the hammocks to make sure none of the men were staying in bed and not working. The women would show their legs over the side of the hammock to prove their sex and right to stay in bed. If a hairy or masculine leg was shown, the sailor would be turfed swiftly out of bed to work, hence the phrase to 'show a leg'.

Putting English into practice, or should that be “practise”? Confusable Homonyms!

Homonyms (also known as homophones - words that have different meanings yet are spelt or sound the same) are sometimes huge problems for English users. Below are some examples.

‘Affect/Effect’‘Affect’ is a verb meaning ‘make a difference to’. ‘Effect’ can be both a noun and a verb meaning ‘a result’ or ‘to bring about a result’. For example, the effect of the rain meant my shirt got soaked and over time, this began to affect my health.

‘Practice/Practise’‘Practice’ is a noun: ‘to put policy into practice’, whereas ‘pratise’ is a verb: ‘I need to practise my French’.

‘Imminent/Eminent/Immanent’ – Three confusables: ‘Imminent’ means ‘something about to happen’, such as ‘the imminent hail storm’. ‘Eminent’ relates to a person of high status, such as ‘an eminent king’, or something protruding, such as an ‘eminent cliff face’. ‘Immanent’ is something inherent or inborn, such as ‘the right to a family life is immanent in the Human Rights Act’.

‘Wreath/Wreathe’ – a wreath, as we all know, is noun for a circular band of flowers or leaves, whereas ‘wreathe’ is a verb meaning to adorn something with a wreath. In other words, you may ‘wreathe your front door with a wreath at Christmas’.

‘Stationery/Stationary’‘stationery’ is a mass noun for writing equipment and office supplies, whereas ‘stationary’ is an adjective for something not moving. Remember [e]nvelopes are included in station[e]ry shops, when the station[e]ry lorry is no longer stationary.

‘Altogether/All Together’ – As one word, ‘altogether’ means ‘completely, entirely or in total’. For example, ‘the house had six bedrooms altogether’. As two words, ‘all together’ means all in one place. You may like the fact your friends are all together in one place.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

How can ‘Bully’, ‘Cabbage’ and 'Pumpkin' link to Valentine’s Day?

As I have written before, hundreds of words in English have shifting meanings.

As we all know today, ‘bully’ means someone who is nasty, intimidating and overbears people for their own gain which may not be the best definition to think about when talking about Valentine’s Day. However,when this term first entered English in the mid-1500s, it did so as a gender-neutral term for ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’.

Another not-so-romantic term is ‘cabbage’, used today to refer to a ‘sweetheart’ or someone held dear. The term probably has French origins: 'Chou' (cabbage) in Petit chou is the French equivalent of 'sweetheart'. 'Chou' conveys the idea of being small and round and is used to describe French puff pastry, often enjoyed as 'chou a la creme'. 'Chou' is said to resemble a baby's or child's head too. Over the years, many French children have been told that boys were born in cabbages and girls in roses. You can double it too - 'chouchou' is a standard translation for 'darling'. This is why we may also refer to a loved-one as 'pumpkin' - Portugese for squash (similar to pumpkin) is 'Chuchu', strangely alike to the French 'chouchou'.

How ‘honeymoon’ is not very romantic at all

As with ‘soulmate’ which I spoke about in my last post, you may also hear the word ‘honeymoon’ in and around Valentine’s Day, or indeed, all year. But unlike ‘soulmate’, ‘honeymoon’ may not be as romantic as you might think.

Many old languages had one word for ‘month’ and ‘moon’ as it takes approximately one month for the moon to orbit the Earth. It is the temporal sense from where ‘honeymoon’ derives: the ‘moon’ in ‘honeymoon’ served to remind newlyweds that their period of blissful harmony had an expiration date.

Thus, the etymology of the word has a far less romantic backstory.

Searching for a Soulmate

As you will be well aware, Valentine’s Day was last week, and whether you are single or in a relationship, you can admire many words that can be associated with February 14th.

Onme such word you may hear or use is ‘soulmate’. The idea of a soul (abstract noun) having a ‘mate’ may seem strange, so where did it come from?

Well, it may be older than you think. Despite the term being popular throughout the twentieth century, the term originates from Plato’s Symposium, written between 385 – 380 BC. In Symposium, two dialogists discuss love; Aristophanes tells Socrates that human beings used to have four arms, four legs, and two faces and were happy and complete. But Zeus was jealous and split them in two with his thunderbolt and the lovers spent their lives searching for their other half.

Thus, the ides of finding ‘the other half’ has been with us ever since. Indeed, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge in 1822 wrote ‘To be happy in married life…you must have a soul-mate’. So a very old word with quite romantic beginnings.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

What links a book’s appendix to the biological appendix?

Perhaps one of the most obscure links in English is why something that comes at the end of a book is named after something in the human body. And which was named first?

How useful is an appendix? The answer will rely on which appendix you are referring to. The oldest definition dates back to the 1540s and related to the material added at the end of a book. ‘Appendix’ comes from the Latin ‘appendere’ meaning ‘to hang from something, to append’. Interestingly, a necklace pendant shares the same etymology.

Over time, appendix was used in anatomy to refer to the outgrowths of internal organs, especially applicable to the small organ which we call the appendix today. This organ has no known use, but it may have played a role in aiding digestion for our ancestors. Now we pay no attention to it, unless it becomes inflamed and we need an appendectomy.
Chances are you’d miss material at the end of a book more so than you’d miss a useless organ in your body. But what links both senses of appendix together is the notion they hang off the end of something.

Dialect words for the Weather

Happy new year to all of you!

The weather is always a talking point for the British it seems, and we haven’t had a shortage of things to talk about recently. But whereas words such as ‘rain’, ‘sun’, ‘hot’ and ‘windy’ are universal and perhaps quite boring, there are also some interesting regional words which are used to describe the weather. So I thought I would write a blog post about some of these.
You may hear a Scot or an American talk about the weather being ‘airish’ which means cool, fresh,  and breezy.

You may also hear a Scot use ‘dreich’ meaning the weather is bleak or dreary.
A pretty sounding word is ‘letty’. In Somerset it is used when the weather makes outdoor work difficult, probably due to the rain.

‘Maumy’ describes humid weather and is used mainly around the Scottish-English border.
I love ‘mizzle’ to describe drizzle (‘it’s mizzly today’).

Scottish and Irish-English has introduced ‘mochy’ which describes weather that’s damp, misty and muggy.
Some of my tweeters who live in or around Lincoln may have heard of ‘mothery’ which describes damp and drizzly weather.

And finally ‘smirr’ which is also a Scottish dialect word which means drizzle or fine rain.
Maybe you have dialect words for the weather of your own?