Tag Archives: Etymology

History Undusted: William Caxton (the father of English as we know it today)

I’ve been trying to blog the last few weeks, but to do so, it helps to be logged in to WordPress – and it kept logging me out every time I switched to my site. I finally found the solution this morning, so here I am!

One thing I’ve been ruminating about is the etymology of everyday words; words come from somewhere, and I’ve always wondered what word(s) were used before a word came along. There are famous examples of invented words that never stuck, such as Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky“, but what I’m referring to are common words. What did they use before the word “egg” came along? The word itself comes from Old Norse, eggys, eggja, or egge, but before the common spelling was decided on, every English dialect in Britain had at least a couple different spellings of the word!

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is sometimes credited with having created upwards of 1,700 words, but many of those were likely already in circulation – he simply wrote them down in his plays. Some words accredited to him are: dishearten; dislocate; auspicious; obscene; monumental; majestic; accommodation; amazement; dwindle; exposure; bloody; countless; courtship; impartial; gnarled; gloomy; generous; reliance; pious; inauspicious; bump; frugal; submerge; critic; lapse; laughable; lonely, suspicious, and many, many more.

But long before William Shakespeare drew breath, there was another William that influenced English in profound ways, and yet his name is little known today: William Caxton. Born around 1420, he was a merchant, printer and the first English retailer of books; he introduced the printing press to England, set up in Westminster, 1476. Though he published many books, the first book he is known to have published is The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s – 1400); that work alone is credited with influencing both the English language and literature, as it shows a clear correspondence between the rhythm of written English poetry and the cadence of spoken English. Chaucer is also known for having looted the French language, bringing into English such words as governance, paramour, difficult, dishonest, edifice, and ignorant, to name a few. Chaucer was aware of the wide variety of English dialects, which we would never recognize as English today, and he was anxious about the confusion of languages in Britain and that his work would be able to be comprehended in the future. In his poem, Troilus and Criseyde, he bids it a poignant but troubled farewell: “Go, litel bok . . . And for ther is so gret diversite In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge, So prey I God that non miswryte the [thee]. . . . That thow be understonde, God I biseche!”

However, because William Caxton chose to publish Chaucer’s work, we still have it to this day. Caxton was also the first to translate Aesop’s Fables into English (1484). Although he was not a great translator and sometimes simply used the French word “Englishified”, his translations were popular; because of that, he inadvertently helped promote Chancery* English as the standard English dialect throughout England. (*Chancery refers to the dialect used by the officials of Henry V’s government). Thanks to men like William Caxton and those who followed, refining and shaping the language we know today, we are able to enjoy a standard English spelling and grammar structure that is understood around the world; there are still regional and national dialect differences, but we can be understood wherever in the world English is used.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, one book I can highly recommend is Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (The Biography of a Language); it’s available in physical form, e-book, and audiobook.

William Caxton

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Obscurities: Anthropause

I came across this word today, and knew I had to find out more: Coined by scientific researchers in 2020, it refers to the impact on wildlife that Covid-19 has had; specifically, the pause of mankind on a global scale through lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Whales have changed their conversations – it’s quieter out there, with fewer cruise ships (those massive floating cities can drown out every other sound in underwater monitors for an hour as they pass by); Pumas have been spotted roaming through Santiago, Chile, and flocks of Flamingos have landed in the waterways of Mumbai, India. The wild animals that live in cities, coming out only at nights in normal times, have started coming out to play in broad daylight. Birds, who have had to learn to call louder to attract mates in areas with traffic, can suddenly be heard loud and clear.

Not all changes have been positive, however; we live in a complex world, and in a world where some people will take advantage of the situation: Poaching has risen, as has Amazon deforestation. But on the whole, wildlife has benefited from the absence or reduction of human activity and presence. Roadkill has been reduced, and in those areas near nesting sites, such as beaches, birds have been laying more eggs than in previous years, possibly because they feel safer and are less disturbed by human noise pollution. Studies are beginning to emerge about just how the withdrawal of humans on a mass scale is impacting the environment and wildlife, and I hope that one of the results of such research is a plan for making our lives on a global scale become more compatible with, and supportive of, nature and natural rhythms.

In the meantime, with lockdowns continuing in many parts of the world (and because one never knows when and how travel restrictions will return, and no one wants to get stuck paying for a hotel in a foreign country for weeks on end of quarantine, travel is largely self-restricted), mankind is safely behind closed doors, and wildlife will come out to play.

Photo credit: NY Times, Andrew Stuart

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Psychology Undusted: Lines of Desire

Have you ever felt guilty for taking a shortcut across a grassy patch rather than following the official concrete path? Or have you ever noticed a bare strip through grass? These are known as desire paths, or lines of desire (the latter term comes from the French phrase, “lignes de désir”, from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”).

Architects would be well advised to pay attention to these worn paths when planning official paths through public parks or around businesses, because no matter how neat their officially-laid paths look, those lines of desire will continue to be followed and worn into the earth. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of democracy triumphing when a desire path gets paved over after the fact.

So why do they happen? Sometimes it’s a question of taking a shortcut from one building to the next, or from one corner to the next. Sometimes they are made out of consideration for others: During the pandemic, new lines of desires began appearing, but rather than being shortcuts, they simply ran parallel to existing paths – these were likely an attempt at avoiding proximity with others when passing on a side walk. Desire paths can be seen as the paths of least resistance, or as a silent protest against being told where to walk or how to get from points A to B. These paths have been seen as symbols of rebellion, anarchism, individual creativity, intuitive design, opportunities to take fate into one’s own hands even if treading the expected nine-to-five otherwise, or even as a passive aggressive reaction against authority.

Many languages have their own terms for desire paths or lines of desire: In Dutch, they’re known as “elephant paths”, and in French, they’re known as donkey paths, while the Germans, pragmatically, call them “trample paths” (so unimaginative!) But the diversity proves that desire paths are a universal human tendency.

Some businesses or schools, such as the University of Michigan, waited until students and staff showed them where paths would be most appreciated before paving them in; the aerial view (Google Earth) over the campus shows the intricate weave of the lines of desire that would likely not have occurred to the landscape architects:

I’d encourage you to take a walk, keeping an eye out for those lines of desire near you; if you’d prefer not to go out, then take a virtual walk – google the term “desire paths” in the image mode, and see just what pops up! Enjoy!

Personal update:

For those of you following our situation, I will say that the day after my last update everything got turned on its head once again! Chemo has been delayed another 3-4 weeks, as my husband ended up in emergency again, and they finally decided to rebuild his stoma before starting chemo. He’s now back home after over a week in the hospital, and is gaining appetite, and hopefully gaining weight again now! He’ll have a couple weeks to recover before the next phase of his treatment takes off… that’s as of THIS moment. Planning further ahead than a day is a bit pointless right now, so it’s a wait-and-see game…

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History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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Virtual Tour 5: Switzerland

View from Lihn, Switzerland. Taken by Stefan Huesler in March 2005

Today’s tour brings you to my neck of the woods, so to speak: Switzerland. How many mountains we have here depends on who you ask; whatever the exact number, I can say that it’s hundreds. Even the Swiss Plateau, while technically lying between the Jura Mountains and the Alps, is mostly hilly. But perhaps what Swiss would consider a hill, others would view as a mountain. So what’s the actual difference between the two? That’s a grey area, at best: A hill is a landform that rises above the surrounding terrain and does not usually have a defined summit (peak); a mountain has a limited or defined summit area, and rises 300 metres or more above the surrounding landscape. While hills may be a result of glacial flow, erosion of surrounding regions, or faulting, mountains are formed through volcanic activity or faulting. But notice – both hills and mountains can be formed by faulting (the shifting of tectonic plates).

Whatever you call them, Switzerland is full of the beauties. They influence weather, sometimes dramatically, from one side to the other; while Lugano usually has Mediterranean weather, the northern side of the mountains has a cooler climate. Once, as we came over the Gotthard mountain pass from Lugano toward home on a warm, sunny day, we saw a wall of white cloud ahead, clearly defined on the road; when we drove into it, it was absolutely white, and we were unable to see much ahead. Not fog. A cloud. Where we live, our wet weather usually comes from the local mountain range; if the wind shifts from that direction during a grill dinner on our balcony, grab your plates and get inside before it hits.

Did you know that the term homesickness comes from the Swiss German word Heimweh (= home + ache)? It was exported in the 17th century by Swiss merchants and mercenaries working abroad, and refers not to family or house, but to the mountains and their longing for the sights of the Alps.

Below are a few links:

With the first, you can choose various panoramic starting points, exploring visually and/or with information about each point of interest.

Switzerland Virtual Tours

The second link takes you to live webcams in Switzerland, where you can see what’s going on. Keep in mind that if you’re looking at these webcams at the time of my uploading this blog (February 2021), we are currently in lockdown due to the second wave of COVID-19, so activity is far less than when shops are open (if you’re looking at town centres or skiing zones), though in town centres you’ll see kids riding bikes home from school in the afternoons, around 16:00 Swiss time (e.g. the town centre Appenzell webcam). Come back in a few weeks, and activity will have picked up once again. Hopefully!

Swiss Webcams

The third link takes you to a YouTube live webcam feed that switches locations occasionally, giving you an overview of several sites. The music they play over this live feed is a bit monotonous, so I’d suggest turning on your favourite musical alternative and muting the actual video.

24/7LIVEWebcams,Switzerland- YouTube

However you choose to enjoy this tour, welcome to Switzerland! Let me know what you viewed, and what you experienced, in the comments below!

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History Undusted: The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, please click here.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a two fer!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 20 September 2015

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Euphemisms: Stupidity

Euphemisms… we use them daily, whether we realize it or not. They abound in English, multiplying like rabbits in every dark corner of life. In fact, they hardly ever multiply in the sunny spots, because we don’t require them there. The very definition of the word confirms that notion: “The use of a word or phrase to replace another with one that is considered less offensive, blunt or vulgar than the word or phrase which it replaces.”

euphemism - Dog, Doing BusinessEvery generation creates new ones, because a parent’s euphemism becomes the general term which is then too close to the original meaning, and so the children get creative with words, and so on. There are a few euphemisms that have remained unchanged over centuries, such as passed away, which came into English from the French “passer” (to pass) in the 10th century; others shift gradually, such as the word “nice”: When it first entered English from the French in the 13th century, it meant foolish, ignorant, frivolous or senseless. It graduated to mean precise or careful [in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”, Anne Elliot is speaking with her cousin about good society; Mr Elliot reponds, “Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.”  Austen also reflects the next semantic change in meaning (which began to develop in the late 1760s): Within “Persuasion”, there are several instances of “nice” also meaning agreeable or delightful (as in the nice pavement of Bath).]. As with nice, the side-stepping manoeuvres of polite society’s language shift over time, giving us a wide variety of colourful options to choose from.

Recently, my husband and I were talking about the topic, and the specifics of the word stupid came up; so without further ado, here’s a round-up of ways of getting around describing someone as stupid, dumb, or, well, an ass:

  • Thick as a post
  • Doesn’t have both oars in the water
  • Two sandwiches shy of a picnic
  • A beer short of a six-pack
  • A brick short of a load
  • A pickle short of a barrel
  • Has delusions of adequacy
  • Has a leak in their think-tank
  • Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box
  • Not the sharpest pencil in the box
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed
  • His belt doesn’t go through all the loops
  • His cheese has slipped off his cracker
  • The light’s on but nobody’s home
  • If you stand close enough to them, you’d hear the ocean
  • Mind like a rubber bear trap
  • Would be out of their depth in a mud puddle
  • Their elevator is stuck between two floors
  • They’re not tied to the pier
  • One prop short of a plane
  • Off his rocker
  • Not the brightest light in the harbour
  • Not the brightest bulb in the pack
  • Has a few loose screws
  • So dense, light bends around them
  • Their elevator/lift doesn’t reach the top floor
  • Dumber than a bag of rocks
  • Dumber than a hammer
  • Fell out of the family tree
  • Doesn’t have all the dots on his dice
  • As slow as molasses in winter
  • As smart as bait
  • Has an intellect only rivalled by garden tools
  • A few clowns short of a circus
  • Silly as a goose
  • Addlepated
  • Dunderheaded
  • A few peas short of a casserole
  • Isn’t playing with a full deck of cards
  • Has lost his marbles / isn’t playing with all his marbles
  • Has bats in his belfry
  • A dim bulb
  • He’s got cobwebs in his attic
  • Couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag
  • Fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down
  • If brains were dynamite, he couldn’t blow his nose

I’m sure there are dozens more! If you know of any that haven’t made this list, please put them in a comment below!

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History Undusted: Human Alarm Clocks

If you were living in the 19th century, before the age of reliable and affordable mechanical alarm clocks, how could you be ensured of getting up on time to get to work? Hire a knocker-up, of course. That’s if you lived in Britain or Ireland. Knockers-up were employed from the time of the Industrial Revolution; the last one retired in Bolton (a former mill town in Greater Manchester) in 1973. Also known as “human alarm clocks” they would use sticks, clubs, pebbles or pea shooters to knock on clients’ door and windows; some would move on after a few taps, while others wouldn’t move on until they were sure the client was up. I wonder who woke them up?

According to the Lancashire Mining Museum, there was a conundrum from the times that went like this:

We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up

And our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker up, up

So our knocker-up didn’t knock us up ‘Cos he’s not up.

The original problem employed knockers-up faced was how not to wake up their paying clients and several of their neighbours on either side for free; they hit upon (no pun intended) the idea of long poles or pea shooters to tap on the upper windows; clients obviously couldn’t sleep in a back room, or they’d never hear the knock. The fees charged depended on how far the knocker had to travel to reach the house and how early said knock needed to be.

In 1878, a Canadian reporter was told by Mrs Waters, of northern England, that she charged eighteenpence a week for those who needed waking before 4 a.m., and for those after 4 a.m., it was a shilling (twelvepence) a week. Those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence.

The miners of County Durham, Ireland, refined the requirements a bit: Built into the outer wall of their houses was a slate board, on which they would write their shift times in the mine; the company-hired knockers-up would then know when and when not to wake them up. These boards were known as wake-up slates or (far better, in my opinion), knocky-up boards.

Here are a few rare photographs of knockers-up knocking up:

HUMANA~3

Human Alarm Clock 2Human Alarm Clock

Knocker-up - old-leigh-marshs-row-twist-lane

And just so we’re clear, the American English phrase “to be knocked up” (pregnant) has nothing to do etymologically with the British occupation or the sundry adjectives that derived from it. The knockers-up were usually elderly men or women, or even policemen who supplemented their incomes by taking on the task of waking their clients. In fact, one policeman (as told during the inquest) saw no reason to abandon his post as a knocker-up when a man found him on his route and told him that he’d found a dead woman; she turned out to be Mary Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper.

Original post, September 2015

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History Undusted: The Colour of Carrots

Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.

Carrots - Carrot-Museum-co-uk

Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.

They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).

These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.

One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.

Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).

For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).

The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.

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Obscurities: Petrichor

Obscure 19Today’s obscure word is one which describes something most of us know and love, but which most of us have probably never even thought about naming: Petrichor. It’s used to describe that delicious scent hanging in the air after rain has fallen on dry ground. The word entered the English language in the 1960s, and is a combination of the Greek terms “petra,” which means stone, and “ichor,” which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

I grew up quite aware of nature: We would sit outside on porch swings to soak in the atmosphere of a spring or summer rain, sometimes curled up in blankets and usually silent as we listened to the rain pattering off tree leaves, or grass, or hitting the steaming asphalt of the street in front of our house. I could recognize the smell of approaching rain; I could recognize the signs of a coming tornado (that’s Kansas for you!) and could feel the crackle of electricity in the air prior to a lightning storm. Just before lightning strikes, there’s ominous silence, as if all energy has suddenly been diverted to that interaction; after it releases, the sounds of nature pick up again where they left off.

One sound I miss that was associated in my mind with those spring and summer rains is the chirping of cicadas in the evenings. We don’t really have such insects here in Switzerland, though I still have the sounds of crickets chirping at night, and the rain dancing across the forest and housetops, and the smell of Petrichor hanging in the air.

Rain 2

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