Category Archives: Etymology

Obscurities: Adronitis

Obscure 21Have you ever had that feeling that, when you meet someone for the first time, you already know them? Most of us might think of that person as a soulmate – someone we understand and who understands us without using many words or having to explain ourselves.

Well, adronitis might be the antithesis: It means “the frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone”.  There are people I’ve known for years and tried to understand better, who are still a mystery to me. I can’t feel how they are doing or know what they are thinking, even with a lot of words. One might say with such people that they’re “on another wavelength” – and unless that person is a relative, they usually end up falling out of our lives fairly quickly.

May we all meet more people who are soulmates than those who give us adronitis!

 

 

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History Undusted: The Shilling

1 Shilling front

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and I kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

1 Shillings reverseThe word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

 

Duke of Milan's Testone

Duke of Milan’s Testone

 

 

Henry VII Testoon

Henry VII Testoon

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 15

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Obscurities: Dustsceawung

Obscure 13

A word might become obscure because it falls out of use, or another word comes along that can do the job better; sometimes it’s because a word might be hard to pronounce at first glance, and sometimes it’s because the concept it represents falls into obscurity, dragging the word down with it.  I would say that the latter two reasons apply to today’s word: Dustsceawung. A noun, it means the viewing or contemplation of dust. The “contemplation” aspect also leads to a second definition: The reflection of former civilizations and peoples, and on the knowledge that all things return to dust.

In our fast-paced world, not many people take the time to contemplate dust. But I would argue that, now more than ever, such times of contemplation are healthy – even necessary – to give us a balanced perspective on life. So next time you dust your house or your car dashboard, be grateful you have a roof over your head or transport…take some time to enjoy a bit of dustsceawung, contemplating the good things in your life.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate.”
Rene Descartes

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

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What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

Names 1Names 2Names 3Names 4Frank

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Obscurities: Jayus

Obscure 4

(n.)  A joke so poorly told and unfunny that you can’t help but laugh.  Lame; a lame joke.

Today’s obscurity is a slang word from Indonesia, and a tough one to prove, as one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, so to speak – everyone has a different sense of humour, and what is funny to one person may be lame to another, and visa versa.  But there have been enough bad jokes and opinions over the years that someone came up with a term for them.  In English, I’ve always known such jokes as “groaners”.

Here are a few examples:

I bought a ceiling fan the other day.
Complete waste of money. He just stands there applauding and saying “Ooh, I love how smooth it is.”

 

What’s Forrest Gump’s email password?

1forrest1

 

What do you call somebody with no body and just a nose?

Nobody knows!

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Obscurities: Flumadiddle

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Wiktionary,  Flumadiddle(s) is something completely nonsensical or ridiculous; utter nonsense; cheap, worthless frills.   According to Dictionary.com, it is an Americanism that arose in the 1840s as a combination of flummery, meaning “complete nonsense,” and diddle, meaning “to fool with.”  It’s also the name for a savoury dish from the region around Cape Cod; click here to see the recipe.

I think it’s a word well worth rescuing from obscurity!  In fact, it’s probably more relevant than ever in our modern “culture” (I use that term cautiously, as what some people consider culture, others consider flumadiddle).  IMHO, flumadiddle could be applied to most television series, political speeches, internet “information”, and even many news articles.  So add it to your vocabulary, and have fun!

Obscure 1

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History Undusted: The 1867 Sailor’s Word-Book

Sea Captians Logfixed(web)

As part of my research for my upcoming novel, Asunder, I came across the 1867 “The Sailor’s Word-Book:  An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, including some more especially military and scientific, but useful to seamen; as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. by the late ADMIRAL W. H. SMYTH, K.S.F., D.C.L., &c.”  It’s a massive document, but below is a small gleaning; if you want more, check out my original posts on History Undusted here.  It’s a fascinating insight into life and demands at sea in the 18th & 19th centuries, and gives a glimpse of just how many of our common idioms originated at sea; how dull our language might have been otherwise!  I’ve also included a few odd ones that I think deserve revival!

ACCOMPANY, to. To sail together; to sail in convoy.

AVAST. The order to stop, hold, cease, or stay, in any operation: its derivation from the Italian basta is more plausible than have fast.

BADGER, to. To tease or confound by frivolous orders.

BALLARAG, to. To abuse or bully. Thus Warton of the French king— “You surely thought to ballarag us with your fine squadron off Cape Lagos.”

BAMBOOZLE, to. To decoy the enemy by hoisting false colours.

BEAT TO QUARTERS. The order for the drummer to summon everyone to his respective station.

BLOAT, to. To dry by smoke; a method latterly applied almost exclusively to cure herrings or bloaters.—Bloated is also applied to any half-dried fish.

BONE, to. To seize, take, or apprehend. A ship is said to carry a bone in her mouth and cut a feather, when she makes the water foam before her.

BOTCH, to. To make bungling work.

BULLYRAG, to. To reproach contemptuously, and in a hectoring manner; to bluster, to abuse, and to insult noisily. Shakspeare makes mine host of the Garter dub Falstaff a bully-rook.

BUNGLE, to. To perform a duty in a slovenly manner.

CLINCH A BUSINESS, to. To finish it; to settle it beyond further dispute, as the recruit taking the shilling (those who were impressed into the Royal Navy, if they took the pre-payment of one shilling, were forthwith considered volunteers).

COBBLE, to. To mend or repair hastily. Also, the coggle or cog.—Cobble or coggle stones, pebbly shingle, ballast-stones rounded by attrition, boulders, &c.

CORN, to. A remainder of the Anglo-Saxon ge-cyrned, salted. To preserve meat for a time by salting it slightly.

CUT AND RUN, to. To cut the cable for an escape. Also, to move off quickly; to quit occupation; to be gone.

EGG, to. To instigate, incite, provoke, to urge on: from the Anglo-Saxon eggion.

FLEATE, to. To skim fresh water off the sea, as practised at the mouths of the Rhone, the Nile, &c. The word is derived from the Dutch vlieten, to skim milk; it also means to float.

GEE, to. To suit or fit; as, “that will just gee.”

GUDDLE, to. To catch fish with the hands by groping along a stream’s bank.

HARASS, to. To torment and fatigue men with needless work.

HOLD-FAST. A rope; also the order to the people aloft, when shaking out reefs, &c., to suspend the operation. In ship-building, it means a bolt going down through the rough tree rail, and the fore or after part of each stanchion.

JIRK, to. To cut or score the flesh of the wild hog on the inner surface, as practised by the Maroons. It is then smoked and otherwise prepared in a manner that gives the meat a fine flavour.

KEEP YOUR LUFF. An order to the helmsman to keep the ship close to the wind, i.e. sailing with a course as near as possible to the direction from which the wind is coming.  LUFF, or Loofe. The order to the helmsman, so as to bring the ship’s head up more to windward. Sometimes called springing a luff. Also, the air or wind. Also, an old familiar term for lieutenant. Also, the fullest or roundest part of a ship’s bows. Also, the weather-leech of a sail.

MAKE IT SO. The order of a commander to confirm the time, sunrise, noon, or sunset, reported to him by the officer of the watch.

PIPE DOWN! The order to dismiss the men from the deck when a duty has been performed on board ship.

STAND FROM UNDER! A notice given to those below to keep out of the way of anything being lowered down, or let fall from above.

TOE A LINE! The order to stand in a row.

KICK THE BUCKET, to. To expire; an inconsiderate phrase for dying.

KICK UP A DUST, to. To create a row or disturbance.

LET FLY, to. To let go a rope at once, suddenly.

MAN-HANDLE, to. To move by force of men, without levers or tackles.

MARINATE, to. To salt fish, and afterwards preserve it in oil or vinegar.

NAIL, to. Is colloquially used for binding a person to a bargain. In weighing articles of food, a nail is 8 lbs.

OVERSHOOT, to. To give a ship too much way.

PITCH IN, to. To set to work earnestly; to beat a person violently. (A colloquialism.)

RANSACK, to. To pillage; but to ransack the hold is merely to overhaul its contents.

SKEDADDLE, to. To stray wilfully from a watering or a working party. An archaism retained by the Americans.

SPIN A TWIST OR A YARN, to. To tell a long story; much prized in a dreary watch, if not tedious.

SUCK THE MONKEY, to. To rob the grog-can.

TOP THE GLIM, to. To snuff the candle.

TROUNCE, to. To beat or punish. Used as far back as the 1550s.

TURN A TURTLE, to. To take the animal by seizing a flipper, and throwing him on his back, which renders him quite helpless. Also applied to a vessel capsizing; or throwing a person suddenly out of his hammock.

TWIG, to. To pull upon a bowline. Also, in familiar phrase, to understand or observe.

WADE, to. An Anglo-Saxon word, meaning to pass through water without swimming. In the north, the sun was said to wade when covered by a dense atmosphere.

WALK SPANISH, to. To quit duty without leave; to desert.

WEATHER ONE’S DIFFICULTIES, to. A colloquial phrase meaning to contend with and surmount troubles.

WHISTLE FOR THE WIND, to. A superstitious practice among old seamen, who are equally scrupulous to avoid whistling during a heavy gale.—To wet one’s whistle. To take a drink. Thus Chaucer tells us that the miller of Trumpington’s lady had “Hir joly whistle wel ywette.”

WORK DOUBLE-TIDES, to. Implying that the work of three days is done in two, or at least two tides’ work in twenty-four hours.

 

Image Source: Unknown.  Please let me know if it’s yours – I’ll gladly credit the artist!

 

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History Undusted: Avaldsnes, Norway: A Hidden Gem

In the summer of 2013, I went to Norway on a holiday/research trip for “The Cardinal,” a 2-part fantasy-science fiction novel set in ancient Scotland, ancient Norway, and modern Scotland.  Norway, however, seems to carry its dislike of small-talk into the area of promotion and marketing, and as a result, its museums and attractions are not as well advertised, marketed or signposted as they could be; we only found out about this little gem of a site because we happened to run into a Swiss friend in Haugesund, and he knew of the place!  I promised the curators to get the word out, so here’ goes, and with pleasure:

On the island of Karmøy, along the western coast of Norway, sits Avaldsnes.  With over 50,000 islands in Norway, it wouldn’t seem to our modern minds (as dominated by cars and roads as we are) to be a significant location, but Avaldsnes is rewriting Norse history.  It has long been a place from which to control shipping passages through the narrow neck of the Karmunsundet, also called the Seaway to the North, or in Norwegian Nordvegen, and it is the maritime route that eventually gave its name to the country.

The kings of sagas and lays have become real at Avaldsnes, the rich archaeological finds there making it one of the most important locations in Europe for the study of Viking and Norse history.  Avaldsnes was a royal seat, so it’s not surprising that some of the most important burials in Norway have been found here:  One of its ship burials was dated to the 8th century (making it much older than any other such burials known of thus far).  It was clearly a king’s burial, and the findings there have proven its political importance several hundred years before King Harald Fairhair unified Norway.

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Today there are three main points of interest at Avaldsnes, all within walking distance from each other:  St. Olav’s church, built on the site of the oldest church in Norway, was commissioned by King Håkon Håkonson around 1250 AD as part of the royal manor complex.  On the north side of the church stands the Virgin Mary’s Sewing Needle, one of Norway’s tallest standing stones, measuring in at 7.2 metres today (though it was originally much taller; it can be seen in the picture above):  Local legend says that when the obelisk touches the wall of the church, Doomsday will come; over the years, priests have climbed the stone in the dead of night to chip away any threatening pieces from the top, thus saving the world from annihilation.  This church was an important site for pilgrims on their way to Nidaros (the medieval name for Trondheim, the capital of the land’s first Christian kings and the centre of Norwegian spiritual life up until the Protestant Reformation); on the north side of the church is a sealed door which was originally the entrance for those pilgrims, as it is said that they had to enter any church with their backs to the north.

The next site is the Nordvegen Historic Centre; at first glance, it’s merely a circular stone monument, but it is actually a stairway leading down into the underground museum, built so as to not interfere with the landscape.  The exhibitions guide you (with a bit of modern technology) through 3,500 years of history through Avaldsnes, focusing on daily life, international contacts and cultural influences from those contacts.  Foreign trade and communication were major factors at Avaldsnes, and archaeological evidence shows it to be a barometer to the prosperity and decline of European commerce as a whole.  The museum has a hands-on section, as well as a gift shop that’s well-stocked with books covering various aspects of Viking history.

The third site is a hidden gem, located about 20 minutes’ walk from St. Olav’s:  The Viking farm.  The gravel path takes you along the shore, over two bridges and through a forest to a small island.  It’s well worth the hike, as you come through the forest to find a Viking village tucked behind a typical Telemark-style fence (pictured above).  A 25-metre longhouse is the centrepiece, a reconstruction of a 950 AD house, and built of pine and oak, with windows of mica sheets.  The aroma of tar wafts from the house as you approach, as it is painted with pitch to weatherproof it; the smell reminds me of a dark peat-whiskey, and also of Stave churches, which are also painted with the tar.  [The photo of the longhouse has one element missing to the trained eye:  The low stone wall which should surround the house, as insulation, is missing at the moment while boards are being repaired.]  Other buildings on the farm include pit houses (both woven twig walls as well as wattle and daub) used for activities such as weaving, cooking or food preparation, and other crafts necessary to daily life; a round house, a reconstruction of archaeological finds in Stavanger (which may be a missing link between temples and stave churches in their construction); various buildings of a smaller size; and at the shore is a 32-metre leidang boat house, representing a part of the naval defence system developed in the Viking Age:  A settlement with a leidang was expected to man the ship with warriors and weapons when the king called upon them for aid.  When the boat house was vacant of its ship it was used as a feasting hall, and the modern replica follows that example as it is often hired out for celebrations or festivals.

Both the museum and the Viking farm have friendly and knowledgeable staff; the farm staff are all in hand-made period clothing and shoes; as a matter of fact, one of the women was working on her dress while we were there, and she said it was linen; the total hours to make such a dress from start to finish would be around 600 hours (including shearing, spinning, weaving, then cutting and sewing).  Had it been made of or included leather, it would have taken much, much longer.  That is why clothing was very valuable, and most people only had the clothes on their back; you were considered fortunate, and even wealthy, if you had a change of clothing – even into the mid-eighteenth century in countries such as England.

If you are interested in Viking history, Avaldsnes is well worth the journey.  Take your time; we stayed overnight in the area to spread the visit out over two days, and we could have spent much more time there.  If you’re a natural introvert like me, you’ll need time to process the multitude of impressions, but that’s what we like – quality time, and quality input.  And then get the word out about these points of interest!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 14 September 2013

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Obscurities: Nyctophilia

English is an amazing language, full of words even most English speakers have never heard of.  I love finding obscure words – there are websites full of them.  I’m going to do my part in saving them from extinction by using them as often as possible… because sometimes, it’s just fun to confuse people!

Nyctophilia is such a rare word form that not even Wiktionary has an entry on it yet (though they do have “nyctophile”).  It’s close to my heart, as I am a pure (can I make up my own word, please?) nyctophilite.  I’d do everything in the dark if I could.  I do fitness at night when the rest of the world has gone to bed, and I usually go to bed after the sun has risen; our exchange student used to call me a half-vampire.  I fold clothes, clean house, and walk around our house in complete darkness, and I’m even teaching myself to crochet without looking so that I can do that in the dark, too.  There’s just something about darkness that I find restful, and peaceful.  My favourite hours are in the night, and I avoid strong light as I have sensitive eyes.  I’d be perfectly happy to live in the arctic circle for the winter months, except for the cold.

Are you a fellow nyctophilite?  Or do you have nyctophobia?

Obscure 8

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