Category Archives: Etymology

What a Buttload!

Now, now… if you thought I was going to be rude, you don’t know me very well.  While I am certain that the term “butt” has led to countless jibes and jokes down through the centuries, it is (among other things) in fact an English measuring unit for wine.  A Buttload of wine is a unit for liquids which contains 126 gallons (~476 litres) which is one-half tun (252 gallons / 953 litres), and equivalent to the pipe (the latter also referred to the large container used for storing liquids or foodstuffs; now we rather use the terms cask or vat).  That they needed a term for a unit of wine that massive may seem odd at first; but when you consider that the water they had to drink was the same water that flowed downhill from the landlord’s latrine, the cows in the pasture, and the washerwoman upstream, wine, beer and ale (depending on which harvest climate you lived in) was by far the safest thing to drink.  If wine was available in your area, it was stored in barrels and thus was drunk relatively young; also, to counter the effects of drinking it at every meal, wine was often diluted 4 or 5-to-1 with water; that took all of the buzz out of it (and added who knows how many bugs that they were drinking wine to avoid in the first place…).  Now you know.  What a buttload off my mind… I think it’s time for a glass of (undiluted) wine.

Treading Grapes.jpg

 

Originally Posted on History Undusted, August 2015
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History Undusted: Gibraltar

Back in 2015, my husband and I spent a few days in Gibraltar; it was the starting point for the first leg of his “south to north” European bike trips and a research trip for me; the book that resulted from such inspiration was “Asunder“.

Gibraltar is a tiny outpost of Britain at the gateway to the Mediterranean, spitting distance from Spain (as a matter of fact, I walked across the border and it took all of 2 minutes).  Its history is disproportionately immense, spanning thousands of years, as it has always been a strategic nautical or military location.  You can’t walk down a single street or lane without being reminded in some way of its military history:  There are cannons everywhere, street names and square names reflect either military leaders or garrison locations, and even the town’s parks are walled in by fortress walls.  The first known name of Gibraltar was “Calpe”, likely the Phoenician verb “kalph”, to hollow out, perhaps in reference to what is now known as St. Michael’s Cave.  There was a Roman occupation, and in 400 AD, eastern barbarians invaded; Vandals, then the Goths, and then Berber Muslims followed.  In 711 AD Tarik ibn Zeyad landed, leaving behind his name:  The Arabic phrase “Jebel Tarik” (Tarik’s Mountain) has been corrupted into the modern name of Gibraltar.  For over six centuries, with the exception of 1309 to 1333, the Rock was under Moorish occupation, though no town existed until 1160 (there were only fortifications).

In 1462 Gibraltar was retaken from the Moors by the Spanish; from there it was quibbled over between Spanish dukes, kings and queens until the Treaty of Utrecht in which Gibraltar was yielded to the Crown of Great Britain “forever”.  The Great Siege, 1779 to 1783, was Spain’s last great attempt to reclaim the Rock, and it led to the vast destruction of the town and fortifications. Spain has never forgotten the sting of losing Gibraltar, and Brexit is likely a daily topic of discussion; Gibraltar is not part of the UK but is a British Overseas Territory, and voted strongly to remain in the EU; what they will be after Brexit finally comes about is uncertain. Chances are, it will become Spanish once again, or come under co-sovereignty with Spain and Britain.

In the 19th century the phrase “As safe as the Rock of Gibraltar” entered the English language, as Gibraltar became renowned for its impregnability.  A civilian community began to grow up within the safety of the fortified walls, earning their living from commercial trade.  Today, there is still a British and American military presence, and the local language is a mixture of Spanish and English.

The Rock is dominated by the presence of the only wild monkey population in Europe, of the Barbary macaques breed; they were most likely brought as pets during the Moorish occupation.  Tourists are lower in the pecking order than the monkeys – because, in their social hierarchy, the lower in rank give their food to the higher in rank… just remember that the next time you want to feed monkeys. They usually stay up on the Rock, though we were warned not to leave our hotel window open, just in case. If they get half a chance, they’ll steal your picnic. When we first went up to the Rock, we were dismayed by the amount of rubbish everywhere, assuming it was discarded by careless humans; but it was, in fact, thieving monkies who don’t throw rubbish into the bins! And monkies were everywhere; walking toward St. Michael’s cave, we passed baby monkies playing, completely oblivious to humans; they know they’re celebrities up there, and they use it to their advantage every chance they get!

If you ever get the chance to go to Gibraltar, it’s well worth the experience. A week will give you ample time to enjoy everything it has to offer. If you like history and military history, you’ll love every nook and cranny of Gibraltar!

 

Gibraltar - Barbary macaque 2

A Barbary macaque; Spain in the distance.

 

Gibraltar - Reminders of Military Past, Russian Cannon

The Promenade, showing the City War Memorial honouring Gibraltarians who gave their lives in World War One. In the foreground is one of four Russian cannons (24-pounders) that arrived in GBZ in 1858 from England, having been captured in the Crimean War.

Gibraltar Rock

The Rock of Gibraltar, with Spain in the distance just beyond the airport’s single runway.

Originally posted on History Undusted 18 May 2015

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Finding Time

Lately, I’ve been thinking about time; how much we have in a day, how fast it passes, and that days never seem to be long enough. In dwelling on time, is it a waste of time? Is productivity only what our hands produce, or does it include, in our perception, what our minds ruminate on? Obviously, the trail led me to idioms about time.

What idioms or phrases do you use to describe your day? I use one phrase about four times a week, as I write it in my journal to describe my day in a nutshell before I go into details: “Hit the Ground Running” (I just write HTGR). I’m grateful for the days I don’t use it… those days are like a secret stash of chocolate to be enjoyed (if you knew my husband, you’d know that’s a matter of self-preservation – but don’t tell him. Hoi, Schätzli). The phrase, etymologically speaking, came into use in the late 19th century, but really, well, hit the ground running during World War 2: It became a popular way of describing deployment from ships or parachuting into combat. Later it moved to a figurative sense; some days, I use it both literally and figuratively.

'Here's my plan,you hit the ground running.'

Here is a collection of idioms about using one’s time. Let me know if you use any of them regularly. If you know of any others, please share it in the comments below!

A day late and a dollar short

Against the clock

A good time

A hard time

A laugh a minute

A matter of time

A mile a minute

A month of Sundays

Around the clock

As honest as the day is long

A whale of a time

Beat the clock

Behind the times

Better late than never

Bide one’s time

By degrees

Call it a day/night

Call time (on something)

Carry the day

Catch someone at a bad time

Clock in, clock out

Crack of dawn

Crunch time

Day in the sun

Day to day

Dog Days

Donkey’s years

Don’t know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon

Do time

Dwell on the past

Eleventh hour

Feast today, famine tomorrow

Five o’clock shadow

For the time being

From now on

From time to time

Have one’s moments

Have time on one’s side

Here today, gone tomorrow

High time

Hit the big time

One day, he hoped to hit the big time.

Hour of need

In an instant / In the blink of an eye

In the interim

In the long run

In the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time

In this day and age

Just in the nick

Kill time

Like clockwork

Like there’s no tomorrow

Long time no see

Make my day

Make time

Not in a million years

No time like the present

No time to lose

Now and then

Now or never

Once in a blue moon

Once upon a time

Only time will tell

Pressed for time

Serve time

Shelf life

Sooner or later

Stand the test of time

Stuck in a time warp

Take one day at a time

The moment of truth

The ship has sailed

The time is ripe

The time of one’s life

Time for a change

Time flies

Time heals all wounds

Time is money

Time is of the essence

Time off for good behaviour

Too much time on one’s hands

Turn back the hands of time

Until hell freezes over

Waste of time

Wasting time

When the moon turns to blood

Year in, year out

Time_Well_Wasted

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Pareidolia

You’ve probably all heard of the “freeze, flight or fright” instinct (also known as the acute stress response, or hyperarousal) we all react with when facing a danger; it’s what our bodies automatically do to protect us. Pareidolia is related to that; it’s the name for something every human on the planet has probably experienced at some point in their lives: The tendency to interpret a shape or combination of objects as a recognizable entity or face. if we can recognize something as a friend or foe, our bodies can respond appropriately.

If we are walking in a dark forest at night and hear a twig snap, our heart races and adrenaline pumps through our veins; if we then recognize a shadowy silhouette as a bunny rather than a wolf, our body relaxes and we’ll laugh to ourselves for being silly (until we realize that bunnies should be asleep at night, and so this one must either be a were-rabbit or a zombie, but I digress). However, if the shadowy shape turns out to be a wolf, we’ll run. This is an example of the acute stress response; but Pareidolia is when we make wolves out of shoes and trousers hanging over a chair in a dark bedroom. The monsters in the closet that turn out to be a woollen jumper. The house that always seems to be smiling because of the arrangement of windows and doors.

Pareidolia is the rife playground in the imagination of many creative occupations such as cartoonists and CGI designers, and like anything else, if you focus on something, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. Once you’ve seen a smiling face in the headlights and bumper of a particular car model, it’s hard to unsee it.

So, just to put a smile on your face and on the face of an electric plug, here are a few pictures of pareidolia, gathered from Google (if you recognize one as yours, just let me know and I’ll give you the credit due!!). Some are a bit more challenging to see, like the yoda on the pig’s forehead or the downward-looking profile in the elephant’s ear, but once you’ve seen them, you’ll know! If you’ve got any examples of pareidolia, please share them in the comments below! 🙂

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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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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