“Awesome!” is an expression that has become widely used in response to things or experiences that are really good and very positive and, in my opinion, has become greatly cheapened by overuse.
Dating back to the late 16th century, ‘awesome’ used to be an expression of something that generated profound reverence or fear.
This was the original sense of the word ‘awe’, which goes back to around the turn of the 13th century. It was the term used in English translations of the Bible to describe the human response to the presence of God or of angels: deep fear and worship at the same time.
The phrase “stand in awe” dates back to the early 15th century. The phrase “awe-inspiring’ was first recorded in 1814.
Sloths have become enormously popular in recent times. Cute, fluffy sloths adorn pyjamas, tee shirts, and accessories. Plush sloth toys adorn bedrooms and living rooms of kids of all ages. In this era of COVID-19, I even have a face mask with sloths on it.
Native to the rainforests of Central America and South America, they are fascinating animals. Although not conventionally attractive, we still tend to think of them as “cute”. They appear to smile all the time, and they appear to have a more relaxed attitude to life than most other animals with which we are familiar. When life is stressful and busy, being a sloth for a little while might be an attractive option.
These animals were first called sloths in the early 1600s. It came from a translation of the Portuguese word preguiça which meant “slowness” or “slothfulness”. This, in turn, originated in the Latin word pigritia which meant “laziness”.
Sloth is a Middle English word that evolved from an Old English word that meant “laziness” or “indolence”. The sense of meaning that relates to moving slowly or being late dates to the middle of the 14th century. The King James Bible of the early 17th century uses the word sloth as one of the seven deadly sins, being the sin of laziness .
The animal, then, took its name from the behaviour rather than the other way round.
I’ve been thinking today about different words we use to communicate to others that we are grieving. It seems to me that in the 21st century, we talk more about ‘personal loss’ and one’s ‘grief journey’ than we do about bereavement.
Bereavement, although old fashioned, is a beautiful word. To me, it evokes a sense of that sense of deprivation that remains after the immediate, more aggressive emotions of immediate have subsided, and acknowledges that phase of grieving in which deep sadness fills the space left by the person who has passed away.
‘Bereave’ is a very old word. In Middle English, the word was ‘bireven’, and before that, the Old English word was ‘bereafian’, both of which meant to deprive, to steal, or take away by violence. It shares a common Germanic root with similar words in many other old languages. Old Frisian had ‘biravia’; Old Dutch had ‘berooven’; Old Saxon had ‘biroban’; Od High German had ‘biroubon’ and Gothic had ‘biarubon’.
Today, Dutch still has ‘beroeven’ which means ‘bereavement’. German still has rauben meaning ‘to rob’ and ‘berauben’ to mean ‘deprived’.
In English, ‘bereave’ has come to refer primarily to loss of life or loved ones. It can also be used in relation to the loss of something that has immaterial value, like love or hope or joy. It has been used that way since the mid 17th century. The past tense form ‘bereaved’ applies to these senses of loss.
English also has the past tense word ‘bereft’ which is used to describe the kind of grief and sadness that comes from loss or diminution of one’s personal circumstances, such as the loss of wealth or home or possessions.
Eerie, occasionally spelt ‘eery’, is an adjective that means creepy, spooky, weird, or unsettling.
It is a very old word that has an interesting past. It has been part of our language since the time of Old English, but it is one of a small group of words whose meanings have actually reversed over time.
Originally, ‘eerie’ had a meaning similar to ‘fearful’ or ‘timid’. Over time, though, it’s meaning has flipped to meaning something that induced those feelings instead. This sense of the word was first recorded in 1792, and is the meaning we still attribute to it today.
It refers to the way in which the little hairs on our skin stand on end in response to certain sensations or experiences. It makes our skin tingle and can feel as though something with tiny feet is walking over our skin.
This is called goosebumps because The term, which reflects the way in which the skin looks like the skin of plucked poultry, goes back to the mid 1800s. Earlier than that, it was referred to as goose-flesh in 1801, goose-skin in 1761, goose’s skin in 1744 and, as far back as the early 1400s, hen-flesh.
It’s very interesting to see the evolution of the term over time, and then to see it persist for so long now because there really is no better way to describe the appearance of the skin.
Also interesting is the fact that goosebumps also has two other descriptive names: piloerection and horripilation.
Piloerection, meaning the actual standing up of the hair, comes from the same word pilus and the Latin ‘erectio’ which is the source of words such as ‘erect’ and ‘erection’, and beyond that needs no further explanation.Horripilation comes from the Latin word ‘horripiliatio’, from horripilāre which means ‘bristle’. This in itself is a portmanteau of the Latin words horrere meaning ‘shudder’ and pilus meaning ‘hair’.
This makes horripilation a relative of ‘horror’ as they share the same Latin root, although ‘horror’ took another detour and came into English via the French word ‘horreur’.
To refer to something frightening or exciting as ‘hair-raising’ is, therefore, not a metaphor, but is rather a direct description of the physical effects of the experience. We’ve got the nerdy words to prove it.
Spooky is a word that is fun to say, and feels good in the mouth when you say it. It is perceived as a more positive term than its synonyms, so it can be used to make scary things seem less threatening or terrifying. Perhaps that is why it’s used so much around the time of Halloween.
Spooky is an adjective that means frightening, scary or creepy, or which is used to describe someone who is easily frightened.
The earliest written record of spooky to mean ‘frightening’ dates back to 1854, and to describe someone who was easily frightened goes back to 1926.
Spooky is derived from the Dutch word spook which is much older. It came into English from Dutch, where it had been used for centuries to mean ‘ghost’. it shares a Germanic root with similar words in other languages: the Swedish call a scarecrow a ‘spok’, while the Norwegians cale a ghost or spectre a ‘spjok’.
The use of spook as a verb, meaning to move or act like a ghost dates to 1867, and meaning to haunt goes back to 1881, while the sense of startling or unnerving someone is first recorded in 1935.
In the 20th century, spook took on some new meanings. During World War I, spook was used as a term for a wireless operator or signaller in the army. In the 1940s, people began to use spook as a term for a spy or undercover agent.
So, when you see or hear the word ‘spooky’, remember that it’s more than just a fun word: it also has a long and interesting history.
Octothorpe is a less-well known name for that beloved symbol we call the hash symbol. It has been used for a plethora of functions for centuries, but it has really taken on new life in the 21st century with the proliferation of hashtags on social media.
Octo comes from the Latin for eight, just as it does in words like octopus or octagon, and in October— which used to be the eighth month, but that’s another story. When you look at the hash symbol, it has eight points. That part is logical enough.
The origin of the rest of the word is much more recent and much less clear..
The popular story is that it was named after Jim Thorpe, an athlete whose Olympic medals were taken from him because he had been a professional basketballer. Workers at Bell Laboratories, who happened to be fans of his, named the symbol in his honor at some point on the 1960s or 1970s.
That’s a pretty cool story, supported by some dictionaries, but it’s not the only one. The name was almost certainly coined at Bell Laboratories, but the real story behind it is unclear.
One theory is that it comes from a team member burping while talking about the hash symbol with his co-workers. A third theory is that it comes from an Old English word for “village.” Yet another is that the Bell Laboratories workers deliberately chose something that non-English speakers would find hard to pronounce. Of all the possible options, I really hope that wasn’t it.
Ultracrepidarian is an old word that can be used as either a noun or an adjective to describe someone who is critical and judgemental, or who gives advice or opinions, about matters in which they have little or no knowledge, experience or expertise.
Although somewhat different to a malapert, it is entirely possible for a person to be both.
The earliest record of the word ultracrepidarian comes from the early 1800s, when it was derived from the Latin phrase ultrā crepidam which means “above the sole”. This was a reference to a story relayed by Pliny the Elder about a Greek painter named Apelles, who when criticised by a cobbler, said something to the effect of “nē suprā crepidam sūtor jūdicāre” or“let the cobbler not judge above the sandal”.
People generally don’t welcome advice or critique that they have not sought. If advice must be given, it’s probably wise to stick to one’s actual area of knowledge and expertise. Even more importantly, it’s essential to be kind and gentle about it, and to try to be humble. That’s how to avoid being ultracrepidarian.
A malapert is a person who acts like they know everything and is confident that they are always right.
These days, we might call them a know-it-all. We could also call them a wise guy, a smart aleck, or an expert on everything. There are a number of less polite terms available to those willing to use them, too.
The difference between a pedant and a malapert is that a pedant knows they are right about something in particular, while a malapert thinks they are right about everything.
Malapert is a word that dates back to the 14th century, coming into English from the Old French words mal meaning bad or badly, and apert meaning skilful or clever. By the mid1400s, it was being used to describe a type of person rather than just a behaviour or attitude. Given that Shakespeare uses the word three times in his plays, each time without any explanation, one can assume that the word was commonly used and understood throughout the medieval and early modern periods.
In Henry 6, Queen Margaret and her son, the young Lancaster Prince Edward, engage in a contest of insults with their captors: Clarence and Gloucester. As sons of Richard, Duke of York these two are the Lancastrian King Henry’s enemies, as the two houses are rivals for the English throne. Clarence calls the young prince malapert, highlighting his youthful confidence by calling him an “untutor’d lad”.
Almost as proof of Clarence’s assessment, the prince responds by insulting them again. Despite the clevernesand bravery of his words, this proved to be a bad move, as “perjur’d George” and “misshapen Dick” respond by stabbing him to death. End of argument.
In Richard III, the same Queen Margaret tells the Marquess of Dorset that he is malapert and warns him that his newly found nobility won’t protect him from being destroyed by the Yorks, particularly Richard (Gloucester) whom she describes as a “bottled spider” and a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”. Richard turns the insult back on Margaret, and Dorset promptly turns it right back on him.
In the comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch and Sebastian are engaged in an argument when Sir Toby insists that he “must have an ounce or two of this malapert blood” from his rival.
This is a word I have long been aware of, yet I have definitely not made as good use of it as I could have done. This, however, is likely to change in the near future.