The Word Laid Bare, Part I
Paul West


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 Welsh derwen 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.