While watching the steeplechase race at the Olympics today, my brother-in-law commented that steeplechase was a funny name for a foot race: “Steeples can’t run… so why would anyone even bother to chase one?”
The word-nerdy part of my brain started to itch… and there’s only one thing to do when that happens. I looked it up.
I knew the foot race was named after a hunt or horse race of some kind that I had read about in Dickens or Austen or Trollope, but what was the origin of the word?
In late 1700s, steeplechase was the name given to a cross-country horse race in which the church steeple, visible across the landscape, was the finishing point. This race was originally known as a steeplehunt.
Steeplechase is a compound word, made from steeple, a tall, usually pointed part of the roof of a church, and chase, as in a pursuit, or a fast ride or run.
While the foot race for people is not a cross-country run, it does involve both long distance and obstacles: it’s a 3000 meter run with hurdles and a water pit.
Yesterday I experienced some churlish behaviour in two different contexts of my daily life.
As a high-school teacher, that is to be expected. Thankfully, it occurs in only a very small minority of the young people I work with on a daily basis, most of whom are excellent individuals.
In other areas of life, though, it can still take me by surprise because I tend to keep those with churlish tendencies safely outside my personal boundaries, from whence I can usually dismiss unpleasant behaviour with relative ease. In fact, I have come to expect little else from some quarters.
Churlish may be a somewhat old-fashioned word, but it is a very satisfying one because it is at the same time descriptive and highly expressive, able to deliver an eloquently judgemental tone that slightly soothes one’s wounded sensitivities as it is spoken.
Churlish dates back to the late Old English word cierlisc which related to churls: the lowest rank of free men in Anglo-Saxon England, and later the agricultural serfs of medieval England. They were the rustic peasants, looked down upon by those who were better off and better educated because they had neither manners nor money.
The Old English word ceorl has cognates, or close relatives, in the Middle Low German word kerle and the later German word kerl which meant man or husband, the old Dutch word kerel which referred to a low-ranked freeman, and the Old Norse word karl which meant old man, or just man in general. This suggests a common origin, and confirms that it is a very old word indeed.
By the late 14th century, churlish had come to mean deliberately rude or bad-tempered , a meaning which has persisted to the present day. There are other words one can use instead: these days, many of them are still considered inappropriate for polite conversation or formal writing, but one might justly call a churlish person rude, unmannered, arrogant, or temperamental. Churlish behaviour might be described as a tantrum, a fit of pique, or a hissy-fit.
The behaviour I witnessed yesterday fits all those descriptions. It made a highly traumatic day even harder to deal with, and left me feeling miserable and considerably more hurt than I had been earlier. I can only suppose that was their intention, and if they were ever to read this — which is unlikely, given how they both appear to feel about me — that may give them some satisfaction. I will probably never know, and that’s quite okay.
In the end, I don’t care for their attitude or their behaviour. If they want to be churlish, they can do it without me.
I’ll be interested when they want to communicate like a grownup.
Note: This is not a passive-aggressive post. As previously observed, those responsible are unlikely to read it.
Foreboding is a sense of apprehension or dread about what is to come, or a feeling or belief that something bad is going to happen.
Foreboding is a very old word that came into English from the Old English word forebodung, which meant prophecy. By the late 1300s, foreboding had come to mean an omen, portent or sign that something bad that was going to happen.
The development of foreboding in an audience or reader increases the tension and anticipation in a reader or audience member, keeping them involved in the development of a story and the fate of the characters. It is often achieved through the effective use of other techniques, such as imagery, dramatic irony and plot devices.
Books, movies, TV shows, plays and even video games are full of examples of effective use of foreboding. It is widely used because it works, and audiences generally love it. That spark of fear, or the feeling of dread in the pit of one’s stomach, is exciting and engaging.
Think of that iconic music in Jaws that indicates the shark is approaching. Or in any murder mystery, where the music changes from light to menacing, or the lighting changes from bright to dark: it is no accident that hose things often happen at the same time.
Think of the stormy weather outside and the dim lighting inside the houses in Wuthering Heights that represent the violence and vehemence of emotions in Catherine, Hindley and Heathcliff.
Think of the imagery of dark magic, ghosts, storms, and of blood that cannot be washed from the hands of the guilty in Macbeth.
Think of the chains of Jacob Marley, and the cold darkness of Scrooge’s house in the opening scenes of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
These are all iconic scenes in which foreboding is used to darken the mood and build tension and suspense in the audience.
I remember reading, as a kid, a children’s storybook called ‘Amelia Bedelia’, in which Amelia got a job as a housekeeper without having any knowledge of how to keep house. It was memorable because of the humour involved in her being told to dust the living room, but having no idea how. She proceeded to cover every surface in the living room with the dusting powder she found in the bathroom. Obviously, the result was the exact opposite of what her employer had intended.
I still remember the experience of understanding for the first time that there are words that have opposite or contradictory meanings despite being exactly the same words. What a revelation! Words had just become automatically more interesting and exciting.
Dust is one of a small and interesting collection of words called contronyms. A contronym is more than just a homophone or homograph: it must have two meanings that are contrary to one another.
To dust can mean to remove the dust from a surface: Amelia Bedelia learned that to dust the furniture meant to polish or sweep the furniture in order to keep it clean. It can also mean to sprinkle the surface of something with a powdery substance:: a baker might dust a cake with sugar, a weightlifter dusts their hands with chalk to create extra grip, and snow can dust the landscape.
To cleave is to chop or cut through something. One can cleave a piece of wood in two with an axe, or cleave a piece of meat on two with a special knife called a cleaver.It is even possible to cleave through something figuratively: a swimmer might be said to cleave through the water, or a plane through the air. However, cleave can also mean exactly the opposite: to hold together.One can also cleave to one’s partner or spouse by holding them close, or by remaining faithful to them. In the same way, one can cleave to one’s faith or ideology by living faithfully according to its tenets and teachings.
Fast can mean with great speed: one can run fast, or a lab test might have a fast result if it happens quickly. It can also mean to not move at all: a tile might be held fast to the wall by strong glue, or a vine might cling fast to a tree.
Buckle can mean to bend or fold. A wall can buckle under the force of water or wind. Legs can buckle underneath a person who is carrying something too heavy for them, or as the result of a shock or impact. Buckle can also mean to fasten or hold something in place, just as a buckle on a belt or shoe does.
You could even say that someone who cleaves to something holds fast to it, while a buckle can hold a shoe fast to the foot wearing it!
Note that not all words that are contronyms have only those two meanings.
To bear can mean to carry, as in a burden or a grudge. To bear can also mean to give birth – meaning that the child is no longer being carried. These meanings make bear a contronym, regardless of its multiple other meanings and nuances.
Contronyms: Words that have two opposite meanings. #grammar #words #English
A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively— one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.
A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.
The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.
This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.
That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.
Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.
Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast, Love,charity, obedience and true duty” with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of her insult.
By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.
It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”
Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”
The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.
In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’ V.ii, he admonishes her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.
Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus: “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”
To butt against, meaning to adjoin or sit right next to, dates back to the 1660s,p and comes from an abbreviation of abut.
To butt into a conversation by intruding without invitation came into American English at the turn of the 20th century.
Most of the time when we use the word passion, we are referring to either powerful emotion or a strong desire to do something.
However, when people talk about ‘the Passion’ of Jesus at Easter, the word has a different meaning altogether.
It doesn’t mean that He had a strong desire to die the way he did— even though he was absolutely committed to doing so— nor does it refer to His emotional state, even though he definitely would have experienced a plethora of powerful emotions.
Passion came into English from French around 1200 AD, meaning physical suffering. This came from the Latin word passionem meaning suffering or enduring.
Interestingly, passionem came from the past-participle Lati stem word pati- which meant “to endure, undergo or experience.” This means that passion is a cousin of patient and patience.
By the mid-13th century, passion had also come to mean an ailment, disease or affliction; rather than just the condition of suffering one. At about the same time, any emotion, feeling or powerful temptation to sin that might be considered as an affliction” might also be called a passion.
Therefore, when medieval theologians and teachers used the phrase ‘the passion of Christ’ they had no concept of how those words might cause confusion or be entirely misconstrued in the future.
It was another century or so before passion was used to refer to the intensity of an emotion or desire. Later again was the use of the word to refer specifically to sexual love or desire, which had developed by the late 16th century. By the 1630s, it had evolved again to include the sense of a strong liking, enthusiasm, or preference”, and by the 1730s, the object of that pursuit or desire was also referred to as one’s passion.
Because language continually evolves, old words often come to have several very different meanings. The beauty of etymology is that it explains the relationships and solves the puzzles that we might otherwise find very confusing.
And fhat, friends, why everyone needs wordy-nerdy people like me in their lives, ready to answer the tough questions and enrich your word power and vocabulary. You’re welcome.
Happy Easter. x
Why is Jesus’ suffering called ‘passion’? #Easter #GoodFriday #words Vocabulary
A sleuth is a detective: most often, the word is used to describe an amateur or privately employed detective rather than a police officer. As a word, it was very popular in early detective fiction such as that written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, and is perhaps less popular now than in previous generations. Even so, it it is a word with a fascinating history.
As a keen reader of mystery fiction for many years now I am familiar with many sleuths. I started with Tricia Belsen, the Hardy Boys and the like. Scooby Doo and the gang were my favourite TV sleuths, but my parents loved Jessica Fletcher. As an adult, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Phryne Fisher rank among my favourites. As much as I love Agatha Christie’s work, I always found Hercule Poirot to be insufferably smug and somewhat condescending, but that is a different discussion.
Sleuth had come into English at some point before 1200 AD, meaning ‘a definite track or trail left by someone or something’. This came from the Old Norse word sloð which means trail. This word was used to describe dogs skilled at tracking and following a scent or trail, known as sleuth-hounds. Thus, the first sleuths were not people, but dogs!
Eventually, the word came to be used for a person who tracked prey, or fugitives, or anything else in need of finding. It was used as a noun for a keen investigator by the mid 1800s, and for someone looking for clues to solve a crime in 1872. “detective” is 1872, shortening of sleuth-hound “keen investigator” (1849), a figurative use of a word that dates back to late 14c. meaning a kind of bloodhound.
Sleuth was not used as a verb until the early 20th century, when it was used to mean the act of investigating. The first written record of sleuth as a verb was in 1905. To sleuth out meant to investigate or discover, and the act of doing so was sleuthing.
One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.
The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .
Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave. That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.
Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.
It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: Examples: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”
Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
It can involve a change in the form of the word. Example: “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”
This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.
Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:
Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.
First and foremost, a raspberry is a small red, black or yellow fruit which grows on a bramble or vine-like style of bush, and which generally tastes delicious.
In English, the word raspberry goes back to the early 1600s, but its actual origins are a matter of contention: it could have come from Old French, Medieval Latin, or one of the Germanic languages.
The second sense of the word raspberry dates to the late 19th century, and relates to the rude sound made with one’s tongue and lips. This meaning is derived from ‘raspberry tart’, which is rhyming slang for ‘fart’, which is precisely what a raspberry sounds like.
Blowing a raspberry is also called a Bronx cheer, a term which came from the sound being used to express derision or displeasure during sporting matches in the area of New York City called the Bronx.
In linguistic terms, blowing a raspberry is an unvoiced labial fricative. This may seem like somewhat useless information for anyone other than linguists and language enthusiasts, but rude children can be quite effectively stunned into submission with reprimands such as “Don’t you dare address me with your unvoiced labial fricatives!” I know this, because I have achieved it more than once with other people’s teenagers.
This term has also been immortalised in the Golden Raspeberry Awards or Razzies, a parody of the Oscars in which the awards are given for terrible performances in film.
Finally, raspberry is also used as an adjective to describe any shade of purplish red colour, as referenced by Prince in Raspberry Beret. You don’t need to thank me for the earworm – you’re welcome!
Zarf is a word you might never have heard or used, but it relates to something with which most of us are quite familiar.
These days, the word zarf refers to that cardboard or silicone band on a portable coffee cup that insulates it and stops your fingers getting too hot while holding your drink. Some call it a cup sleeve or a cup holder: zarf is a far more evocative and interesting word.
The word zarf comes from Arabic via Turkish, and simply means ‘envelope’. Thus, its adoption for a cardboard sleeve to go around a disposable coffee cup is logical, and it soon came to be applied to anything that went around or held a cup to make it more comfortable to hold.
Many people assume that the zarf was a late 20th century invention that came about with the advent of the disposable, followed by the the reusable, takeaway coffee cup. Those people are wrong.
The zarf began as a holder for a hot coffee cup in Turkey and across the Middle East as early as the 1600s.
When the Ottoman Empire banned alcohol in the 16th century, coffee became the premier drink of the people. Within one hundred years, coffee houses became such important centres of gathering, culture and political discussion that the Empire banned coffee, too.
As any coffee lover could predict, that didn’t work. The people responded so profoundly that the Empire decided not to stand between the people and their caffeine ever again, but added a significant tax on coffee instead, in keeping with the age-old governmental proverb: if you can’t beat them, tax them.
As the traditional coffee cups had no handles, the zarf evolved as a functional holder, but soon became elaborately decorative. These are still used today.
Traditionally, the more ornate and beautiful the zarf, the higher the esteem in which the drinker is held. An ornate zarf can indicate status or affection and respect, which means that a lover, a close friend or a family member might serve coffee in a zarf as beautiful as that served to a sultan or emir.
The zarf and the coffee served in it are just two of the many wonderful things we have inherited from Eastern history and culture. Coffee houses are still cultural and social hubs in the Middle East, a legacy reflected in the popularity of coffee shops and cafes worldwide.
Anyone inclined toward prejudice against Eastern and Muslim cultures should remember that when sipping their morning cup of joe: it would be impossible to live as we do without their contributions and influence.