Sloth.

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.

Sources:
Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary

Sloth.
#words #language #sloth

You Could Hear a Pin Drop: More Interesting Ways of Saying ‘Quiet’

I really enjoy the sensory richness of the imagery in this post from the – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

You could hear a pin drop: more interesting ways of saying ‘quiet’ – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

— Read on dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2020/11/11/you-could-hear-a-pin-drop-more-interesting-ways-of-saying-quiet/amp/

Eerie.

Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay.

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. 

Eerie.
#words #language #Halloween

Horripilation: Hair-Raising Stuff!

We all know what it is to have goosebumps.

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.

Sources:
Macquarie Dictionary
Merriam-Webster.com
Online Etymology Dictionary

Horripilation: it’s hair-raising stuff!
#words #horror #SpookySeason

Malapert

Peacock malapert know-it-all overconfident showy
Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

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. 

Malapert
#words #language #etymology #blogpost

Grawlix.

Grawlix is an unusual word that most people haven’t heard of, although they’ve probably seen grawlixes many times before. 

A grawlix is a combination of symbols— most commonly the ones above the numbers on the keyboard— used in place of a offensive language in comics, cartoons and illustrations. It works as a visual, rather than verbal, euphemism.

The term was coined in the 60s by Mort Walker , the creator of the comic strip Beetle Bailey, although the practice had already been in use long before it was given a name.The grawlix is a clever and very effective way to express emotions like anger or frustration without actually offending anyone or causing problems with editors and censors. 

An alternative term that has been suggested is the obscenicon, which is very clever but doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of traction. Time will tell, as it always does when it comes to words and language. 

Somehow, grawlix just sounds more evocative and kind of sweary in itself.

Sources:
Lexico
Merriam-Webster
Grammarphobia

 Grawlix.
#language #words #swearing #interesting #language #blogpost

Asterisk.

The asterisk is the handy little star symbol* that we use to indicate that there is more information attached to something, to denote the existence of a footnote, to add emphasis to a word or point of notice, or to blank out letters in offensive words that we don’t want to type or write in full. 

The word asterisk means ‘little star’ and has been used as a noun since the late 14th century— well before the invention of the printing press— while the verb form “to asterisk something” was first recorded in 1733. 

Asterisk comes to use from Latin via Greek, but actually goes back to Proto-Indo-European roots, which is about as far back as any language or individual words can be traced. The PIE root *ster- is the source of the words for star in numerous languages including Hittite, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and, thus, English. 

Therefore, the word asterisk is related to asteroid, aster daisies, disaster, constellation and starfish, among others. It is also a cousin of names such as Esther, Estelle and Stella.**  

More recently, the asterisk also inspired the name of Asterix, the hero of the classic comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. Those books are characteristically full of puns and word play, and the names of Asterix and Obelix are derived from mispronunciations of asterisk and obelisk respectively. 

* located above the 8 on a keyboard
** They are not close cousins, but more like the kind who are jealous of each other because they all want to be the most popular starlet in the family, and only make small talk with one another at family reunions. 

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

Asterisk
#etymology #words #history #asterisk #language #typography

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. 

What A Dictionary Does – and Does Not – Do

A dictionary is not a rule book for the language.

Image by libelulle789 on Pixabay.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but there seems to be some misunderstanding about the function or purpose of a dictionary, particularly on social media. 

A good dictonary serves a number of functions:

  • Dictionaries record language as it is used. Words are added to a dictionary when they become frequently used by the people who speak the language. One can’t just make up a word and apply to have it included. It needs to become part of the commonly spoken language of the people first. 
  • Dictionaries give meanings of words. 
  • Dictionaries provide accepted spellings of words, and often include alternative spellings. This varies according to the country of publication, particularly when it comes to the differences between English and American spellings of words. 
  • Dictionaries often give advice as to how a word should be pronounced. This too will vary according to common usage in the country in which the dictionary is published. Some dictionaries use the regular alphabet to achieve a phonetic respelling, while others use the International Phonetic Alphabet
  • Online dictionaries do all that, and also offer voice recordings to demonstrate pronunciation. They also provide direct links to thesaurus entries and related words. 
  • Dictionaries can also settle arguments. They are helpful in adjudicating spelling games such as Scrabble, and settling arguments about how a word is spelt or what it means. 
Image by PDPics on Pixabay

There are, however, things that dictionaries neither seek nor claim to do. 

  • A dictionary is not a rule book for the language. Just because a word isn’t in the dictionary does not actually mean that it’s not a word. If people say it, and other people understand it when they do, it’s a word. 
  • An Australian dictionary is not useful for recording American English, and vice versa.
  • A dictionary generally doesn’t give the etymology of a word, although it might suggest that it’s an old, obsolete or archaic word.
    There are etymological dictionaries that do this, but they are far less popular than the regular kind of dictionary with which most people are familiar. Some etymological dictionaries are specific to a particular area of study, while the Online Etymological Dictionary is a vast resource of the history of a plethora of English words and phrases.
  • A dictionary generally won’t include words that have fallen out of use. In the large dictionary on my desk at home, words like ‘forswunk’ and ’trustful’ are no longer included, while they would have been many years ago. It doesn’t mean they are no longer words: it simply means the likelihood of someone wanting to look them up is considered far less than someone wanting to look up ‘exhausted’ or ‘melancholy’ instead. 

What’s the best dictionary to use? 

Most people will find the greatest value in a dictionary which is compiled, written and published in the country in which they live and work. Most people will want one that is up to date. 

One of the two editions of the Macquarie Dictionary I own.

For Australian English, I love the Macquarie Dictionary.
For UK English, there is nothing that surpasses the Oxford English Dictionary, but the Cambridge English Dictionary is very good, too.

I have no preferred dictionary for American English, because I don’t use one. (If you can make a recommendation, please leave a comment!)

Old dictionaries hold particular appeal for scholars, teachers and lovers of language. They can be invaluable resources for authors and readers, too. 

A Dark And Stormy Night

Image Credit: Mylene2401 on Pixabay

I generally love a good thunderstorm. Tonight, I appreciate it even more than usual.

Growing up, I loved seeing Snoopy start his stories with “It was a dark and stormy night”. I used to giggle at that clichè long before I understood the deeper allusion to the fact that authors sometimes use the weather to reflect or foreshadow what characters in their stories feel or experience.

This is a literary device known as pathetic fallacy. It is used to set mood and tone in a piece of writing or art, emphasising emotions and heightening reactions. Rain can be used to reflect sorrow or misery, dark clouds can suggest anger or resentment, and a storm can suggest conflict, inner turmoil or violence.

If you’ve ever read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte, you will have experienced pathetic fallacy being used so expertly that you may not have even noticed. Blended seamlessly with gothic imagery, turbulent relationships and the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, Bronte’s use of snow, rain, storms, cold and dark makes for incredibly powerful writing. Who can forget Cathy at the window during that storm, begging Heathcliff to let her in? It’s legendary because it is powerful, emotive writing that embeds its imagery in the consciousness of the reader.

My other favourite example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s King Lear shouting at the snowstorm, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!” Lear has literally been left out in the cold by his daughters Goneril and Regan, who have exploited his love and trust before throwing him out, homeless and broke. It’s such a potent scene — the depths of human coldness are amplified by the vision of a broken-hearted old man outside in a blizzard. It is chilling in more ways than one, and possibly one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes.

At other times, pathetic fallacy seems predictable and cliched. Sometimes it is almost painfully obvious and clunky. It often appears to be overused by authors who don’t have the finesse required to make it work — possibly because when authors do have that skill and it is done well, it it works as it is intended to without irritating the reader.

Tonight, nature is doing the author’s work for me. Outside, it is indeed a dark and stormy night. It has been raining steadily for hours now, thunder rolls and reverberates every now and then, and a draught of wind occasionally howls at the door. I am sitting in my father’s hospital room, having been called in late at night because he has been distressed and agitated. I have shed tears while talking with family members or sending messages. My emotions are all over the place. I’m both incredibly tired and wide awake.

A rainy night with the occasional rumble of thunder is most fitting.