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The Word Laid Bare
Part I


Congealed, concertinaed version of “I bet he’s had it,” meaning he has come to grief. An expression from the English Midlands making you wonder why, if they can do this, the locals don’t speak thus all the time, provided there are enough easy glides in the original—nuffizglintoridge. At this rate, they would be as incomprehensible as the Navajo on field telephones were to the Japanese in World War Two.


Once a kind of goose, Branta leucopsis, grew on trees or logs, attached to either by its beak and being born from within a fruit. Or it gestated inside tiny shellfish stuck to timber or rocks by the seashore. By the end of the sixteenth century, the goose had disappeared and the word had removed itself to the shellfish. Not much more is known beyond the original word’s being bernak (it gained the suffix -le while the goose was waning), from medieval Latin bernaca. Now officially the white-eyed.


Misspelled even in the sixteenth century, as now, this is the Persian word for “market” (bazar), from an Old Persian abecharish, yielding an Italianate early English form bazarro. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, spellings were a free-for-all, the best of all being buzzard. No connexion with bizarre.

Belisha beacon

Glimpses of these can be found in British movies of a certain vintage, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), in which the orange tint has not peeled away and the sturdy column on which it stands is truly perpendicular. These were not to be found on airfields, but on sidewalks, telling pedestrians where it would be safe to cross—provided they kept their eyes and ears open. Devised, in a spirit of undisguised empathy, these beacons were the brainchild of British politician Leslie Hore-Belisha, and their sudden appearance in 1956 seemed to many a rash of huge roadside lollipops: orange balls on barber poles. Of course, the Belisha beacon presaged the zebra crossing, across which at any time a pedestrian has theoretical right of passage, provided he/she is willing to risk getting killed. All traffic is supposed to stop at the merest sight of a pedestrian on those black and white stripes, even one tentative foot deposited thereon. The American version, more ambiguous, is not enforced by law, at least not in neighborhood familiar to this novelist. Belisha beacons have gone now, but their jaunty temptations abide in memory along with their inventor’s exotic name: fine, lost partner to the vanishing red phone kiosk with its A and B buttons and chronic stench of dog.


Some movies set in the seedier parts of London may have unearthed this treasure and set it to work. An old city gate named for forgotten Billing, this happens to be the site of a famous fish market where the language was blue and foul, with fishwives and fishmongers “flyting” at each other in tirades of wallowing obscenity. Thus, billingsgate has become the name for that kind of language, a word diagnostic and with not a trace of envy in it.


Of, or belonging to, or mande in Birmingham, England, sometimes said to give offense: This word is a bit of social history. In the seventeenth century, counterfeit groats were coined in Birmingham (a groat was a silver fourpenny piece), and in the nineteenth all kinds of cheap and trashy articles were manufactured there. Thus brummagem came to denote shoddy counterfeit, the upper-case B dropped as noble name declined into accursed generic. Sometimes the word itself truncates into brummy, much as Birmingham itself does into Brum.


Big fluffy hat worn by Guards at Buckingham Palace, actually called bearskins according to Charles Harrington Elster in There’s a Word for It. Not in my experience; the leaflet that came with my toy soldiers said there might once have been an officer named Busby. It is more likely that busby, which meant a big bushy wig or the buzz wig associated with Charles Dickens’s Sergeant Buzfuz in the Pickwick Papers, began to replace bearskin in the nineteenth century as the name of headgear worn by both hussars and Guards and caused some resentment among purists as being unmilitary and undignified.


When the BBC attempt this one, it sounds like a close relative of chutney. An engaging definition is Leo Rosten’s: “Chutzpah is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” Or hubris, brash but ingenious presumption, brazen gall.

dead nettle

Pliny the Elder claimed in the first century AD that dead nettle leaves mixed with axle grease were an effecitve remedy for scrofula (TB of the lymph nodes), popularly known as the King’s Evil—it responded to a monarch’s touch. Beloved of bumblebees, because they know it will not sting, dead nettle looks like a nettle but has attracted, in England, the sobriquet, archangel, because it first blooms about May 8, once a feast day of the archangel Michael. Its soup is sustaining. Its tea halts diarrhea (the plant contains tannin). It promotes menstruation and looks thoroughly commonplace. Its official specification, however, is a gem:
Lamium album L.         
Archangel, Blind Nettle,        
Snowflake, White Dead Nettle        
Mint Family        
The L. in the first line signifies Linnaeus, its Swedish classifier, Labiatae the flower’s double lips.


No doubt from French druide or the Latin plural druides (the priests and wise men of the Gauls and Britons). The sources was Gaulish druides (was there a taboo against mentioning just one druid, a sort of compulsory class-action suit afoot in the Dark Ages?), from Old Celtic derwijes. Behind this there is either the Old Celtic adjective derwos (true: source of Welsh derw), hence by implication a druid was a soothsayer, which isn’t a bad notion. Or there is the Old Celtic base dru for “tree,” whence Welshderwen and Irish daur (oak-tree, both), which makes sense when we are talking about a religious cult centred on that very tree.

foot of the fine

Nothing to do with the light fantastic, at common law this is the fifth part of a fine’s conclusion, including the whole matter, reciting the names of the parties, day, year, and place, and before whom acknowledged or levied.

Jactus lapilli

Coarsely put, “the rock-chuck.” If someone else builds on your land, and thus acquires a right of way (usucapio), you can challenge him and interrupt the prescriptive right by throwing down one of the stones he has put up. Have this rock-chuck witnessed by people specially enlisted. Do not do this with too big a rock.


French, “you loosen.” Equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights. Laches occurs when someone neglects to assert a right or claim, or for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time fails to do what in law should have been done. It has to do with not looking after your property as you should. Loosening slackening, paying no heed at all figure in the mistake.

le confort anglais

French for an English easy chair, with just a hint of disapproval built into the phrase since French for “comfort” is confort, which may seem an intimate insinuation. Clearly, French comfort or confort is bleaker stuff, designed to keep your mind in top running order lest a brilliant mind stop by and engage you in conversation. The English chair puts you to sleep, the French one readies you for an exam.


Gaining the advantage over one’s opponent, especially through psychological deviousness, and keeping it; adroitness in the game of life. Phrase invented by British humorist and TV performer Stephen Potter.


From the Yiddish oyf tishe, “on the table,” meaning money available for gambling or investment. Late 1800s.


This elegant, often rectilinear structure, like half of a dismantled box, conceals the curtain rod, its hoops and the tops of the drapes. The French diminutive of palme, signifying the palm-leaf cluster like the fingers of the hand, came to stand for an ornamental device often found on cornices, and gave us pelmet, which while thematically congruous has got quite beyond itself. A common assumption, that pelmet is akin to helmet, isn’t that wide of the mark, metaphorically speaking at least. Helmet is from the Old French helmet, a diminutive of helme.

sal volatile

Traditionally the smelling salts that revive those enduring the vapors (fainting). The salts are ammonium carbonate in alcohol or ammonia water, or both, graced with perfume or eau de cologne. Effective too against headaches. Oxygen seems to have replaced sal volatile nowadays, but unlike ammonia, which evaporates readily, it does not help you to fly.Volatile images the flight of a Sanskrit wing, garut of the mythic bird garuda.

Sloane Ranger

Young upper-class person, most often female, who has a home in both London and the country and wears expensive “county” (tweedy) clothes, pursuing a self-centered, blith existence mainly of night-life. The name mingles the Lone Ranger with the region of London called Sloane Square. Her male equivalent, her “oppo,” is a Hooray Henry or Hurrah Henry, like her in having more money than sense.


This nineteenth-century word was coined from Association Football as distinguished from Rugby Football. Another word for soccer, mostly in use in British public schools, is footer (the suffix -er usually means activity). Actually, of course, North America is the only country to use the word on a regular basis, although I have seen “soccer” matches advertised in the British Virgin Islands. The world in general says football or fulbol, or something such. It may be confusing to some patrons of over-the-counter remedies to discover that Rugby is the name (and manufacturer) of a stool softener; one wonders why the energetic wall-game of a famous English public school came to mind with hard feces and so forth, but no such link has yet formed itself with either football or soccer. (Sometimes, especially in the 1890s, spelled socker.)


Named for Spa, a salubrious town in Belgium, near Liege, famous for its mineral springs, this is what the French (and the Belgians) call a station thermale. Why do we like spa? Perhaps because it is easier to say, American English on the whole preferring short versions of things (though automobile makes you wonder). In your car it isn’t far to a spa. It makes Texans feel at home too, because they think there are spies all over it. Spas do us good, not so much for their mud or water, as for the increased amount of open-air exercise we take there, the dietary restraints, the fresh company, the programmed ease so expensive and pampered. Perhaps we prosper there because the attendants treat us as if we were healthy.


One of many Latin verbs that begin with super- (superstagnare means to spread out into a lake), this one has to do with sitting above something or somebody, presiding over, sitting out, refraining or forbearing; but so many people write it with a c, confusing it with cedere, which means almost the opposite: To go away, to yield, to give ground to, to be inferior to, to give up a right. Why is this so? Because people find it hard to believe anything as prosaic as sitting can happen in verb form? Surely not. For some momentary reason the s eludes them, puts them off, much as the e in memento which they write momento. In theory, then, God help such a word as se (which exists in Latin) but which many would write co.


Another diacritical mark, set over an n to require the palatal nasal sound (ny) as in cañon or, in Portuguese, over a vowel to indicate nasalization (João). It means “title,” from Latin titulus—a little title hovering above.

Uncore prist

Plea or replication by which a party alleges he is still ready to pay or perform all that is justly demanded of him. Twisted French, this, best deciphered as encore prêt, “still ready.”

Voluntarius daemon

Literally, a voluntary madman or demon. Term applied by Lord Edward Coke (1552–1634) to a drunkard who has become mad through intoxication. It was Coke who convicted the Gunpowder Plotters that included Guy Fawkes.


Not immediately connected with vomit, this odd word, once meaning emetic, is an entrance that pierces the banks of seats in a theatre or stadium. Literally it spews the fans or theatergoers in and out. 


Part II


Amazing indeed: According to Herodotus, the Amazons were a race of female warriors who lived in Scythia, whose queen, Penthesilea, died at the hands of Achilles during the siege of Troy. These dynamic women were reputed to cut off their right breasts so as to draw their bows more easily. The story goes that the Greeks, having the word amazon lying around unused, invented the myth to make use of a (without) and mazos (breast). Another story goes as follows: Rio Santa Maria de la Mar Dulce, discoverer of the River Amazon, had to fight his way from the Andes down to the sea through hordes of savage Scythian-type Indians, women fighting alongside the men. So, not having observed their breasts too closely, he renamed the river after half-bosomed Scythians.


Singhalese had henakandaya which means “lightning stem,” denoting a slender green snake eventually anglicized by a British naturalist, John Ray, who in his A List of Indian Serpents (1693) called it a snake which “crushed the limbs of buffaloes and yoke beasts.” Had he been looking? The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica cites “a very large and terrible snake which often devours the unfortunate traveller alive.” This seems nearer. Make mental note to pore over old Britannicas. In the early nineteenth century, though, a French zoologist Francois Marie Daudin arbitrarily shifted the name anaconda to a huge South American boa we know all too well.


Argument here: Is it from the Old French bayon, meaning “crossbow bolt,” or, more picturesquely, from a French word modeled on Bayonne, a town on the southwest coast of France near Biarritz, where the Basques of the seventeenth century used things called bayonets?


If you have never been marooned on the South African veldt (where veldtschmerz sets in), you may not have needed biltong, whose uncompromising meaning is “buttock-tongue.” Strips of sun-dried meat, from whatever animal, are supposed to taste like ox-tongue, not buttock, although only gastronomes will know. It sounds like euphoric propaganda, proffering a spurious delicacy in the middle of nowhere while the lions and vultures gather. If we can regale ourselves with buttock-tongue, can hippo-truffle and hyena caviar be far behind?


In the age of rap and ghetto-blaster, boycott—leaving severely alone or sending to Conventry (see)—might seem a redundant word. The word appeared in 1880, to characterize a stand of the Irish Land League, created in 1879 by the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt to urge agrarian reform, lowering of rents, and so forth. Those who disagreed with it, it ostracized, one of the first targets being Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832–1897), a British estate manager in County Mayo. In the 1880s, boycott tunneled its way into other languages and remains in current parlance, more popular than the similar send to Coventry. How easily words lose their history, most of all those for which a gap has already appeared; the allusion becomes the act with pragmatic speed, and Captain Boycott’s life reduces itself to a verb. Was this the nineteenth century’s Catch 22?
     Democratic history owes something to the captain, land agent to the Earl of Erne, who raised the rents. Stores would sell him nothing, posses plundered his property, mail, and supplies, and in the end he accepted defeat by fleeing to England. He entered the language with an historic shriek of indignation echoing behind him.

charlie mccarthy

Relegated from proper name to generic prop, this is a phrase for someone under another’s domination while retaining the appearance of autonomy. From the dummy of Edgar Bergen, ventriloquist and comic. Stooge, yes-man, dupe. Automatic, brisk and brittle, the dummy seemed almost bionic in his cooperative pertness. A pseudo-robot?


English dialect, this, meaning a bout or fit of shivering, although in general use in the USA it means temper, to get ruffled. You shiver with anger, but to get one’s dander up seems entirely American, the full phrase occuring nowhere else. Charles A. Davis may be the first to have used it, in Letters of J. Downing, Major, Downingville Militia. Second Brigade (1834): “I went strait to the Gineral, and woke him up, and tell’d him all about it—he was wrathy as thunder—and when he gets his dander up, it’s no joke, I tell you.” Educated speakers use the phrase too. Etymology unknown, as is that of the dand- in dandruff (though the latter part probably means scab).


This misleading word from ballet seems to confront us with a cat (French, chat), but it comes from entrechas, part of the verb entrechasser, to chase in and out. The dancer’s feet cross, and “chase” each other while he/she is in the air, which is not long, though it can seem so when an expert leaper is at work.


Have a garibaldi? Not in honor of the nineteenth-century Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), but to relish the mythos attending this shortbread British cookie, enclosing a layer of currants, ample reason for its being called squashed-fly biscuit or, as the Scots have it, fly’s graveyard. A certain monotony creeps in, as Garibaldi found. General Garibaldi also survives in the loose high-necked blouse fashioned after the red shirts of him and his followers, the vogue among Italian women in the mid-nineteenth century.


Loan-word from Russia without the debt’s ever being called, this is from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (like perestroika, see). It means “publicity,” deriving from glas for voice. It’s Lenin’s word, really, referring to freely circulated information (a huge concept in a police state), but since 1985 this is Russian English for freedom of information acts.


Here is a word that once was declared obsolete, as “now only arch and lit,” by none other than the Oxford English Dictionary, that spotty compendium marred by the doldrum of certain contributors—some give you more than your money’s worth, some hardly at all (try rhesus ormandevilla, that gorgeous tropical flower). That was in 1900, since when grisly has surged back as its old self, firmly echoing its medieval sense (grise) of “to be terrified,” grijzelijk in Dutch. Grisly and the Old English grislic are full of shudder and tremble: pungent, percussive, and stark.


Derisive form of address, aimed at a savvy white male, usually by a black, the invoked personage Sherlock Holmes, epitome of book-smarts and privileged hauteur. I don’t know if Holmes, rather than Descartes or Einstein, quite qualifies as the bête noir of the unlettered, the poor, the disenfranchised, but I take his use in this manner to be social rather than intellectual. He is the type of the savant who “comes it,” relevant even if the offender happens to be only slightly uppity. Not even Simenon’s Maigret comes close in this regard.


It goes back to an Indo-European form g(e)neu or goneu signifying “angle,” origin of French genou, Italian ginocchio, and English genuine. Perhaps it relates to the Greek gonia, “angle,” from which we get polygon, having many angles. Going into German, it turned into knewam, yielding German and Dutch knie, Swedish kna, Danish knoe. The verb kneel existed before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain. Knuckle, another angle, borrowed from Low German, firms up a pattern broken only by ankle and wrist.

Load line

The depth to which a ship will sink in salt water when loaded. A design, painted on either side of the vessel, serves as a guide to safe loading depth. British equivalent, the Plimsoll Line (See).


Popular acronym for Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes, established in 1921 to provide canteens for servicemen and extending their activities into shops and recreational facilities wherever soldiers, sailors, and airmen are sent in the world. An equally popular bit of doggerel suggests a less than immaculate view of the Naafi and its doings:

The Naafi is a sort of caafi
Where soldiers are rude
About the food.

Pronounced Naffy or Narfy.


Persian for “leg-garment,” from pae (leg) and jama (clothing), pajama means leg-garment (compare Hindi paejama). These are the loose baggy trousers of the harem, desirable sleeping garments to Europeans, in Europe adding a jacket for warmth or decorum. English spelling pyjama. An eighteenth-century word.


Along with glasnost (see), the loan-word from Russian is as good a way to learn that language as any (unless you read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, loaded with Russian words easily acquired). Perestroika, gift of Mikhail Gorbachev in the middle 1980s, means “rebuilding, reconstruction, reform,” a compound word formed from pere(re) and stroika, “building, construction.” Clearly we don not have a single word for this, although in some ways Roosevelt’s New Deal prefigured its intentions. Gorbachev’s resolute changes in Soviet society merited a word with a speeding troika in it. Is it still said in the English-speaking countries or has it waned? It can still be heard in Paris.


Praehendere in Latin, meaning to seize, gave us comprehendapprehendprehensile, and prisonpraehensio, “seizure,” contracted to prensio, which went into Old French as prisun. It is a twelfth-century word, the word for imprisonment, rapidly becoming the physical installation. Of the incarcerating words, it is the most honest, unlike the deceitfully obscurantist “correctional facility” and “penitentiary” as well as “reformatory.” Prison’s only intention, it seems, is to hold on to the person seized, not to submit him/her to some improving process.


Latin purus gives us this, close to Sanskrit putas, “purified.” Latin purificare gave us purify, and purare meaning “make pure,” gave French its purer and purée. Our “purge” comes from the same root. This is a thirteenth-century word unrelated to the similar-seeming word for fire (Greek, pur).


Sounds like a fugitive character from The Turn of the Screw, but it”s a Norfolk punting pole with a special attachment that keeps it from sinking into and sticking in mud. Many punters have left their pole behind them, but not many Norfolk bargement recently.


Since the word quibus, dative and ablative plural of Latin qui (who, what), showed up so often in legal papers, wags devised this retaliation, using an old word quib that meant pun. Quibble evokes all the petty juridicisms of law.


Favored by lawyers, this word means edit or “drive back” (re: back +agere: drive). Either way it means get something ready for publication. Perhaps lawyers like redact because it sounds more forceful than edit, as if they are doing something to the text it won’t recover from. The first editor who uses redact will have to have a quintupled salary.


Named for General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), British artillery officer who, during the Peninsular War, invented an exploding shell that hurled lead balls in every direction. When all that metal was flying about, it was safer to have a name for it. The shell exploded in the air, above opposing troops. Later, the term for fragments from any exploding shell.


Snitches tell. They are “informers” going back to the 1800s, and they also (later, in the 1920s) steal and pilfer. Snitch is a synonym for nose, so that meaning seems paramount, even in the films noirs of our day.


In the age of the Virago Press, it seems almost beside the point to recall the medieval mystery plays in which someone enacted the role of an obscure Muslim deity called Tervagant. This personification of evil, violence and general bad behavior met the Christian passion for a scapegoat of Semitic origin. But they slurred their pronunciation, and the word, heaven help her, eventually became that for a spiteful, shrewish woman (sometimes spelled with an -ent). Why termagant or Termagent? Try triple wandering, as the moon journeys to earth, heaven, and hell (tri-vagari, as in vagabond and vagrantvagary and vague. We cannot be certain. If the saracens could caricature a sitting Christ as a king enthroned (see marzipan, then Christians could surely concoct a spurious Mohammedian deity to prove the devil a foreigner. But why, ultimately, stick woman with a bad reputation? Did a woman play the role?


To talk it used to mean being agreeable and pleasant, but talking turkey changed to frankly, tough, no nonsense until we at last got cold turkey, meaning the unadorned truth. In the related expression quitting cold turkey, is there a suspicion of gooseflesh or goosebumps, which occurs when someone is attempting a feat of chilling demands? Drug withdrawal, ghost-inspired terror, bumps in the night, all make the skin bristle and the short hairs erect themselves. The American turkey, so-called, reminded early settlers of the guinea fowl of Turkey, for which they named it, one of the first being Captain John Smith in 1607. 


The national flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which combines the banner of St. Patrick with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew. The word comes from the jack of a ship, a flag flown at the ship’s bow since the seventeenth century, other than the ensign that designates the ship’s status as merchant or military. The jack denotes a ship’s nationality. 


The so called “strange” gas, xenon, named in 1898 by its discoverer, the British chemist Sir William Ramsay, bears the Greek word for strange possibly related to English guest, hospital, host, and certainly part of our own word xenophobia—fear of the strange, i.e. foreigners. Etymologically, xenon belongs with paraffin, the substance that has nothing it common with any other (see). 


The imaginary belt of animals supposed by the ancients, and some moderns, to encircle the celestial sphere. The Greek phrase for it is zoidiakos kuklos, “circle of carved figures,” of which the first word, originally an adjective “carved-figurelike,” became a noun and came into English by way of Latin zodiacus and French zodiaque. In recent years, even serious astronomers who debunk astrology, which makes thorough use of the twelve zodiacal signs, has lent some credence to these signs as useful categories in personality-typing.


Part III


Spanish anchova first shows its English face in Falstaff’s bill at the Boar’s Head: “Anchovies and sack after supper … 2s 6d” (I Henry IV, 1596). Not much is known, though this has not deterred theorists, one of whom holds that it comes from an Italian dialect word ancioa, from vulgar Latin apjua, filched from Greek aphue (“small fry”). Another view invokes Basque anchu, which perhaps means “dried fish.”


Initially there were no bells in the belfry since it was the word for a shelter in which besieging troops might hide from enemies and weather. Berfrey, as it was first spelled in English, began as a shed and became a moveable tower from which fire could be aimed; it also served as an observation post. So the tower becomes a turret, such as a watchman might inhabit, who thereupon requires nothing so much as a bell to give the alarm with. Contraction produced belfry, of church and bat fame. Once upon a time “bergfrith,” a compound meaning “protect peace,” tautological and therefore emphatic (like ack-ack for anti-aircraft?). Both French and English mouths found berfrey hard to say, so the first became an l or dropped out. Modern French has beffroi, an oddly un-French-looking word, certainly for its bef (is there another bef in French?). The first reference to bell-tower was in an early English-Latin dictionary of 1440 called Promptorium parvulorum (Promptbook for Little Ones): “Bellfray,” it says, means “campanarium.


Not your everyday word, but for the Greeks, yes, since it described a mode of writing that reminded them of plowing. The method was to write one line left to right, the next right to left, the one following left to right again. This was how plowmen ploughed the fields: alternate furrows in opposite directions. From bous (cow, ox) + strephein (to turn). A later take-off that saved paper was to fill a page, fill it again at right angles and then even at one or two diagonals. 

charley horse

If Charley is a standard name for a clapped-out old nag, lame but out to pasture for family use, this phrase for a painfully stiff thigh muscle that goes on feeling harder to the touch may have come from there. The image survives, perhaps for its blatant incorporation of a horse into a Charley and that into a human leg. The net effect is one of stunned abbreviation, a mutation of species and a rather comfy, cozy evocation of downhome family values.


New Latin, after Pietro Crescenzi (Petrus de Crescentiis), who died around 1310, giving his name to a genus of tropical American trees (family Bignoniaceae) distinguished in the main by unfortunate or undesirable features: crooked limbs, short trunk, droopy branches, purplish blotched flowers (one almost writes botched), and—the bonus—large globose fruits.


Almost a total mystery, odd in a word so much used. Clearly from Old French drogue, which may have come from Arabic durawa (chaff) or, more likely, from Dutch droog for “dry,” either through the phrase droge waere (dry goods) or droge vate (dry barrels). Or dry goods packed in dry barrels? About this word we gained in the fourteenth century, we just do not know. It covered its origin supremely well.


Two words hand in hand that do not join. “Cook in fat” is a different word from “young fish.” The former, from Old French frire and Latin frigere, has lost the roasting component the romans gave it and was earlier, in Indo-European bhreu involved with boiling (compare Latin fervere, boil). The Latin past participle, frictus, generated Vulgar Latin’s frictura, which gave us our fritter in the fourteenth century! Frizz may share the same ancestry. The other fry may derive from Anglo-Norman frie, from Old French freier, to spawn or rub, descending from Latin frigere. Sometimes the two words come together in a fish-fry, but one day soon, as human wisdom advances in one area while it atrophies in others, frying will be a lost delight, and such verbs as poach (one of them, anyway) will come into their own again.


If you have a lazy horse, stick a root of ginger in its anus to buck it up. Such is one approach to ginger. Another, compiled by my old professor of Anglo-Saxon, Alan S. C. Ross, the deviser of the U/Non-U distinction in British English, occupies seventy-four pages (published in 1952). The word’s origin is astonishingly complex, ultimately Sanskrit srngaveram a compound word formed from srngam (horn) and vera (body), used of ginger for the shape of its palatable root. There followed Sanskrit singabera (languages always on the move) and Greek ziggiberis, Latin zinziberi. The simplification of a word as it nears Latin is an almost soothing experience. After gingiber or gingiver, and Old English gingifer, English reborrowed the word, this time from French as gingivre. This was the thirteenth-century, when gingivre mingled with the surviving Old English form to make Middle English gingivere, whence modern ginger. Did there have to be so many stages? Palates and epiglottises said yes, as they mostly do, here exposed at their pickiest, their most dawdling, yet always with a word for what delighted them.


Doctor Johnson dismissed this word in 1755 in his Dictionary, noting it was “not now used except in ludicrous writing, or with some mixture of irony and contempt.” Deriving from the Germanic gliujam, which has a forceful, evocative sound, it originally had to do with “entertainment or having fun” (source of our modern joy, delight) and, more specifically, with musical get-togethers (hence the “unaccompanied part-song” of glee clubs). Going straight until the fifteenth century, it just about expired, but then came back, giving us gleefulgleeman, and even gleesome. Perhaps because it was wider than mirth.


Latin grossus gave us this, via Old French gros, but it is unrelated to anything in German. Its link with physical hugeness has waned while its figurative destiny has increased, spreading it from “coarse” and “vulgar” to “total” and “entire,” as well as installing it as the verbal form of “144,” what the French call une grosse douzaine (= 12 x 12). Grocer comes form it, plausibly as a grocer used to buy his goods wholesale (engross), which means possess in toto, hence a book that is engrossing and for a while possesses you completely.


It is easier to build a shrine than to get a deity to come and haunt it. The Latin verb exorare means “to entreat earnestly,” even “to implore,” which is all very well if the gods are amenable to please, if they are there at all. If they prove inexorable, this means they cannot be earnestly entreated. The trouble comes about when the pleader cannot tell absence from refusal. Entreating human beings is a different matter, whether judges or colleagues; they are there to be watched. Yet perhaps treating with the gods who are or are not there may be better than dealing with the automatic, truly inexorable Furies, whose job is to take us by the short hairs and not let go. There is a calculated oration in orare, which implies the possible success of certain rhetoric, if you are good enough.

knuckle down

Mid-1800s. To get down to it and work seriously, from the act of setting your down to the taw or marble when preparing to shoot in a game of marbles. To go knuckle down before shooting is an index to your seriousness as a player or, metaphorically, a worker. 


How do you get to be called a macaque? You go from general, monkey, to general again, as follows. Macaque is French, from Portuguese macaco, a Congolese monkey, possibly from Fiot makaku meaning “some monkeys” (ma, numerical sign, + kaku, monkey). Odd to become specific while moving from monkey to monkeys, to be defined by being pluralized.


Jean Nicot, the sixteenth-century French ambassador to Lisbon, in 1560 secured some samples of the new substance, tobacco, and sent them on to Catherine de Medici, the French queen. Fame ensued, with the tobacco plant named herba nicotiana in his honor (Nicot’s herb). Hence our nicotine, for the addictive alkaloid won therefrom. Never forget your queen, at chess, or otherwise.

Peach Melba

Around 1900, soprano Dame Nellie Melba’s career was at its peak, and the French chef, Auguste Escoffier, had just been decorated with the Legion of Honor by his government. In a flush of fellow-feeling, the best fawning on the best, he decided to laud her voice by creating peach melba, just peaches and ice-cream, occupying little creative time, and to serve it to her in a swan of ice at the Ritz Carlton in London after one of her performances in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden. The peach, native to China, arrived first in Persia on its westward way, and acquired the name of Persian apple.


I did not knkow this unusual word until I read Martha Barnette’s account of it. Non-culinary, it denotes a traveler, a wayfarer, peddler, an itinerant onion-seller, say. Medieval Latin has pede pulverosus (dusty-footed), which gave the now vanished English word dustyfoot, which we can ill do without. There was a Court of Piepowders set up at medieval fiars and markets to handle disputes among those dusty-footed. They moved around, but the courts awaited their need. In 1614, poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote about a fair “in whose Courts of Pye-poudres I haue the honour during the three dayes sometimes to sit as Judge.” Piepowder is related to such words as pollen, pulverise, and polenta, and its first three letters call upon the French pied, Latin pes, for foot. Something uncivilized and unpretentious comes to us through this obsolete, tolerant word.


Sportscasters interested in inflation rather than in inflated language use this word to denote psyching oneself up, prompting oneself to an extra effort that might win the day. Baseball announcers describing pitchers are especially given to this metaphor. The word’s etymology is unknown, but clearly this is an onomatopoeic term, originating in Northwestern Europe, unrelated to pomp


From the Greek word for fist, pugme, Latin pugnus (same root as pugnacious). Originally a measure of the distance from knuckle to elbow, yielding the word pugmaios for “dwarfish” (as if all the occasions on which the distance had been too short had amalgamated and generated a concept). Latin pygmaeus gave English its pygmy, anciently and medievally used to identify mythical and apocryphal races short in stature. Not until the nineteenth century did this fourteenth-century word denote the pygmies of equatorial Africa, now thus labeled.


It used to mean a period of isolation lasting forty days (Latin quadraginta Italian quaranta, but since the seventeenth century the number drifted off and the term became an absolute.


Latin recalcitrare means kick back in the horse sense, from re (back, again) + calcitrare (kick), from calx (heel). Recalcitrant people are kicking back at what distresses them or holds them back. The verb came to us through French, but as no one seems able to pronounce it properly, it remains a tool of lawyers and headteacher, both of whom understand it although few others do. It’s an odd example of a needed word nobody can manage. A word of similar fate, suborn (as with perjury) is a relative of ornament and means “equip secretly.” Latin ornare means not only decorate, the sense we still use, but also “equip, get ready,” surviving in suborn. So: To suborn perjury, about which we hear too much, is to equip someone to be able to commit it. Suborn is the underhand version of adorn.


Eating in England isn’t the pleasure it should be, though crisp Yorkshire pudding and English trifle rank gastronomically high. What you can savor, however, are some of the names, given certain dishes in a frenzy of distractive allusion: get their minds off it while they chomp, even if to a greater source of disgust. A rollmops, spicy marinated fillets of herring coiled around a gherkin or onion and fastened with a stick, is supposed to cure hangovers. The name is German: rollen (“roll”) plus Mops (“pug dog”). Rollmops is a singular, so the plural should perhaps be rollmopses. Watching the locals polish off this waddling pug of an hors d’oeuvre may delay your appetite, but rollmops qua name is as nothing compared to spotted dick (“dick” an old word for, among other things, plain pudding, riding whip, and a hard cheese), sometimes called spotted dog. Then there is toad-in-the-hole, a battered sausage or crusty banger, and dog-in-a-blanket, a jam pudding or a rolled currant dumpling. The apple-like fruit called medlar they dub dog’s arse or open arse, not being a nation too squeamish or “nesh” to exclude any part of the body from so fleshly a habit as eating. In Romeo and Juliet, the noble, often understating Mercutio lets it rip when he observes of his fellow man-about-town:

     Now he will sit under a medlar tree,
     And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
     As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone
     O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
     An open-arse, though a pop’rin pear.

In case anyone wonders, the medlar resembles a vulva and the Belgian pop’rin pear the penis. 


Gaelic, from the costive, belligerent-sounding word, sluaghghairm from “war-cry,” formed from sluagh (army) and ghairm (yell). This is a suitable shout to accompany what the military call a war-face. The later use of slogan in advertising, while equally vociferous, began in the eighteenth century.


Those of us who use this word in English, and there cannot be many, may not recall its origin in a character named after a food: Tartuffe in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe. This religious hypocrite’s name comes from Italian tartufo, for truffle or terrae tuber: “truffle of the earth.” What Moliere had against the truffle, or why he attributed it to so human a vice as hypocrisy, we do not know; but we still use the word tartuffery. Perhaps Tartuffe the seducer and swindler, wearing the suit that came with birth, typifies someone of the earth earthy, fit for being nosed out by a pig.

Till all’s blue

Not blue as in the air was blue with bad language, but blue in a vaguely cerulean way, not bloodless but subject to the Rayleigh scattering that creates a blue sky when it can. This is the British equivalent of till hell freezes over, or to the bitter end, or many other hyperbolical impossibilities.


Literally, “unknown.” In Saxon law, a person entertained in the house of another was, on the first night of his stay, so called. As the laws of Edward the Confessor prescribed it, a man who stayed for one night was considered a stranger; on the second night, a guest; on the third night, a member of the family. These prescriptions bore on the host’s or the entertainer’s responsibility for offenses committed by the guest. (Compare with Twa night gest.)


Some called him an anatomist, but Caspar Wistar (1761–1818), of the College of Pennsylvania, was also a professor of surgery and midwifery; also an obtuse, visionary experimentalist who brought a certain climbing woody vine from its favored habitat in the South and managed to make it loft its showy cluster of purple and white into all manner of surface winds. Named wisteria in his honor in the year of his death. 


In the old Commedia dell’ Arte comedies, a clowning servant was a Zani, really an amateur clown whose behavior seems merely outlandish. Zani was originally a Venetian dialect word varying Gianni, short for Giovanni (John). In English, the word means a silly or fatuous person, although not without a tinge of envious admiration at any touch of originality in the performance.

Originally published in three separate parts on the Conjunctions website on April 4, 1999; August 4, 1999; and October 26, 1999.

Paul West (1930–2015) was the author of more than fifty books. Among his numerous awards are the Literature Award from the Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Order of Arts & Letters from the French government.