Spooky.

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.

Sources:
Etymonline
Merriam-Webster
Macquarie Dictionary

Spooky.
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Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!

Tmesis— pronounced teh-MEE-sis—  is an unusual word that many people will never have heard of, even though it’s the name for something we do frequently and quite naturally.

Tmesis is the name given to that linguistic behaviour by which we divide a word and insert another word into the middle. In the 21st century, the inserted word is often a swear word, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Image by hpgruesen on Pixabay

We do it to add emphasis and increase the strength of what we’re saying. 

The Ancient Greek word temnein meant ‘to cut’, and from that came the word tmesis, which meant ‘cutting’. It refers to the cutting or division of the first word in order to insert the second. 

The practice is centuries old. There are examples of it in Old Irish and Scandinavian poetry, although the earliest written examples of it being used in English only date back to the 1500s. 

Shakespeare used tmesis in a number of his plays:

  • “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” — Romeo and Juliet
  • “How heinous ever it be” — Richard II
  • “That man – how dearly ever parted.” — Troilus and Cressida

Tmesis also exists in the poetry of John Donne:


“In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem,
What seas soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.” — Hymn to Christ

From these examples, it is clear that the device has always been used to strengthen the idea or emotion being communicated, which is exactly how it’s still used today. 

In Australia, where we seem to love a good swear word and the power it gives our expressions, tmesis is so common that it seems to me to be part of our linguistic identity. Inserting a term such as ‘flaming” or ‘flipping’, or one’s preferred swear word, into words and phrases is a standard part of our speech. From “abso-flaming-lutely’ to “no freaking way!”, Australians have made tmesis their own without ever knowing that it was a literary device or that it has a name. 

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!
#language #English #grammar #speaking #englishvocabulary #wordynerdbird #blogpost 

Nuclear Does Not Rhyme With Circular

This post might come across as some kind of linguistic snobbery, and while that’s not my motivation, it is a risk I am willing to take. 

The common mispronunciation of nuclear is something that drives me absolutely nuts. 

So many people pronounce it as nucular ( nyoo-kyoo-lar) but that is not how it is spelt or pronounced. I’ve even heard scientists on the radio and TV who say it that way, despite the fact that scientists of all people should know better. Did they get through however many of years study at university calling the central body of a cell the nuculus? I think not.

Nuclear is a three syllable word, pronounced nyoo-klee-ar.

If someone can say the words ‘new’ and ‘clear’ correctly, they should be able to manage ‘nuclear’ by just mashing those two words together. Think of it as linguistic nuclear fusion. 

It really isn’t rocket science. 

On Tenterhooks.

Image Credit: Daniel_Nebreda

This morning I used the term “on tenterhooks” and then wondered where it came from.

It’s a term that means painful anticipation or being kept in suspense, commonly used by English speakers to describe any situation of tension or anxiety while waiting.

I imagined something being suspended or hung up, waiting for something to happen— which is exactly how I felt when I said it. I imagined the hooks to be larger and more cruel than they actually were, perhaps as some form of medieval torture or punishment, like hanging someone on a wall or in mid air using hooks to hold the body. That is an indication of several truths about me: my own feelings at the time, my love of medieval history, and my horror author’s tendency toward macabre imagination.

As it turns out, I was overthinking that part.

A little research at etymonline.org and worldwidewords.org informed me that it’s a very old word from the early 14th century that relates to the preparation of cloth, particularly woven woollen fabric, by hanging it up on a frame known as a tenter to stretch, straighten the weave, and dry. Tenter hooks were bent nails that held the fabric in place on the frame.

By the early 1500s, people spoke of being on the tenters to express being in suspense or waiting anxiously. The phrase “on tenterhooks” appeared in print for the first time in Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random in 1748.

It is related to the word tent in that the word was used to describe the way in which hides, skins or coarse cloth were hung over a framework of poles to create a temporary dwelling, which then came to be called a tent.

Both tent and tenterhooks come to English from the Latin, tendere, meaning to stretch, via the old French word tente. They are related to the words tense, tension, intense and the phrase highly strung.

Although the ideas have come to be closely associated, tenterhooks and suspense are not related words.

Holy Moly, It’s a Minced Oath!

Oh gosh! I do this all the freaking time!

Having discussed the meaning of “not mincing one’s words” n my previous post, it seemed logical to explore the practice of using minced oaths. 

You might never have heard of a minced oath, but most of us use them all the time. 

A minced oath is a term we use instead of a swear word. Just as minced words are diplomatic so as to not cause offence, minced oaths are likewise designed to express surprise or to emphasise reactions or feelings without causing offence through swearing or blasphemy. 

Therefore, it’s a kind of euphemism: a word we use instead of a less polite or more uncomfortable term. We use them all the time, and there are probably thousands of them in common use in English. For example, we call the toilet “the bathroom”, we call dying “passing away” and the dead our “dearly departed”, and we refer to swearing as “colourful language”.

A minced oath can also work as an intensifier: it can give emphasis and power to a statement, just as effectively as a swearword or any other adjective or adverb. To say “that dratted virus” or “that freaking thing!” enables the speaker to inject more force and emotion into their statement without actually offending anyone.

21st century English is full of minced oaths.
Darn. Dang. Dagnabbit. Gosh. Golly. Jiminy. Jeepers Creepers. OMG. Geeze Louise. Heck. Holy Moly. Shut the front door. 
If we tried to list them all, we’d be here all day.

Some are closer to actual swearing than others — in fact, some come painfully close — but most are used without causing any real offence to most people. 

When I was a kid, my parents never allowed me to say anything that approximated ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ because they believed it was just as bad as using those names as blasphemy. My friends and I used to joke that “heck is where you go if you don’t believe in gosh or jeez’, but we still wouldn’t use those terms around our parents. In contrast, kids now are shocked to discover that those are the origins of their common expressions. 

It’s all part of the way in which language evolves and adapts to suit different purposes and situations. 

Holy Moly, It’s A Minced Oath!
#Language #EnglishLanguage #vocabulary #grammar #words

Misunderstood Shakespeare: ‘Sea Change’

These days we understand the phrase “sea change” to reflect something new and positive in one’s life. It is frequently used to describe a significant transformation in a person or in one’s lifestyle.

In Australia, it has also come to mean a physical move from the city or the country to live closer to the ocean, or even taking a holiday at the beach. 

The phrase hasn’t always had such positive associations. 

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play ’The Tempest’, Prospero’s familiar spirit Ariel sings a song that makes Ferdinand believe that his father, Alonso, has drowned in a shipwreck, and that his father is buried at sea “full fathom five”, or five fathoms deep. Through the action of the water on his remains, his body is undergoing substantive changes: his eyes are turning into pearls and his bones into coral. There is nothing left of him that has not been transformed by the sea. 

Even worse, this story of the shipwreck and drowning is not true. It is, in fact, a ruse by Prospero to orchestrate a marriage match between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Prospero is quite comfortable with using trickery and misleading magic to achieve what he wants to, and this is not the only time during this play that he willingly deceives others to get what he wants. 

So, even though it does still reflect a significant transformation, it has much darker connotations than the term does now. Deceit, manipulation, grief and emotional blackmail all factor into the origins of this phrase that we use so differently today. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “What The Dickens”

Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens. 

Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible. 

Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.

It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably  done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities. 

There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too. 

In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.

Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “The World’s Mine Oyster”

When people say this, they usually assume it means that the world is at their feet and they are in a position where everything is going to work in their favour. Others say it to imply that they are “the pearl” and they are being cultivated for greatness. 

However, when these lines were spoken in Shakespeare’s ’The Merry Wives of Windsor’, the intention is actually quite different. 

In a conversation between two less-than-reputable characters, this conversation takes place: 

In other words, if Falstaff won’t give him money, Pistol will go and take it forcibly from other people. It’s about taking what one is not entitled to, and it has quite violent connotations. 

An oyster does not willingly open – it has to be forced.
An oyster does not willingly give up its pearl, which can take years to develop, and the oyster is often damaged or killed in the process of extracting the pearl. 

This is an image of violence, and not one of happy or fortunate circumstances at all.