Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Short and Sweet Word Origins

Here’s a collection of short etymologies for a selection of words.

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur (half man, half bull), he unravelled a ‘clew’ behind him so he could find his way back. Then, a ‘clew’ was a ball of string. Over time, the meaning of the word ‘clue’ has become more figurative but has the same concept at its heart – the idea of getting to a destination using a navigational aid, whether physical or verbal. Our word ‘clue’ with the current spelling dates back to the mid-1500s.

'Robot' is one of few words to
enter English from Czech. 
The word ‘robot’ comes from Czech ‘robota’ meaning ‘forced labour’. It is one of few words taken from Czech in English and comes from Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920).

‘Assassin’ means someone who kills for political or religious reasons. Members of a fanatical Muslim sect  during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder the leaders of the opposing side. They started going by the name ‘hashishiyyin’ meaning ‘hashish users’ in Arabic. Centuries of mispronunciation has resulted in ‘assassin’ becoming naturalised in English.

When something isn’t genuine it may be described as ‘phony’. Pirates used to sell ’fawney’ which was British slang for fake gold rings. This is where our word ‘phony’ originates.

‘Whiskey’ is short for ‘whiskeybae’ which comes from an old English word ‘usquebae’, derived from two Gaelic words: ‘uisce’ (water) and ‘bethu’ (life). The literal translation of ‘whiskey’ is therefore ‘water of life’.

When something is in ‘quarantine’ it must be kept separate from something else. The word comes from French ‘qarante’ meaning forty. Whenever a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected it had to avoid contact with a shore for forty days.

‘Disaster’ comes from Greek ‘dis’ (bad) and ‘aster’ (star). The ancient Greeks used to blame calamities on unfavourable planetary positions.

A ‘loophole’ originally refered to the slits in a castle wall that cannons and archers would use to attack.

‘Muscle’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘little mouse’ because people used to think the bulges under the skin resembled small rodents.

In Latin, ‘luna’ means ‘moon’. Our word ‘lunatic’ originated because people thought human behaviour was altered by the changing moon phases.

If something is described as ‘lukewarm’ it is between hot and cold. It is actually a redundant word because ‘luke’ in Middle English means ‘warm’. Therefore, to describe something as ‘lukewarm’ literally translates as ‘warm warm’.

The word ‘mortgage’ derives from French and means ‘death pledge’.

If you have a ‘nightmare’ you have an unpleasant dream. The word comes from the Old English ‘mare’ and referred to a demon who would suffocate people in their slumber.

Americans call dollars ‘bucks’. This is because American frontier deerskins were used as units of commerce.

If you are an ‘addict’ you depend on something. The word comes from ancient Rome when soldiers were awarded slaves who were called ‘addicts’; the Latin word for ‘slave’. Today, if you are addicted to alcohol or other things, you are a slave to it.

‘Noon’ comes from the Latin phrase ‘nona hara’ meaning ‘ninth hour’ (ninth hour after sunrise). In ancient Rome, noon was around 3PM. The time shifted to midday because of events in Italy. ‘Nones’ were prayers generally uttered at 3PM but Benedictine monks in Italy said them closer to our 12PM midday.

Finally, the word ‘malaria’ literally means ‘bad air’ from Latin ‘mal aria’. It was used to describe the atmosphere of the swamps in Rome.

A selection of words that have quite interesting histories, I hope you’ll agree. 

Who was Gordon Bennett?

James Gordon Bennett Jr
The OED first record of the exclamation dates from 1937 and has always been used to express surprise and incredulity.

A Scottish-born journalist, James Gordon Bennett Jr was the son of a newspaper mogul who became famous for conducting the first modern newspaper interview, covering the murder of a prostitute in 1836. He took over the New York Herald from his father but was apparently more interested in living well (buying lavish mansions and yachts) than making sure the paper remained having impressive circulation figures. His lifestyle scandalised New York society to the extent his reputation inspired expressions of disbelief at each account of his latest antics.


Lexicographers aren’t 100% sure this is the real story behind the phrase seeing as there is a large gap between 1836 and 1937. It could be that the name was taken because it sounded euphemistically close to other expressions such as ‘gorblimey’ or ‘God’ and ‘Gordon Bennett’ therefore formed a phonologic substitute. 

Billy No Mates and Jack the Lad: Who Were They?

Jack Shepperd
According to lexicographers, there is no particular Billy and the term remains generic. The term came from the early 1990s as a T-shirt slogan. It passed effortlessly into the OED to describe someone who appears to have no friends.

The phrase ‘Jack the Lad’ has been around approximately 300 years. Legend has it that the original ‘lad’ was called Jack Shepperd, a 22 year old whose thievery became notorious. He was arrested and imprisoned four times but escaped each time despite, on one occasion, being handcuffed to the floor of his cell. Shepperd became a hero to the poorer classes as someone who didn’t take life too seriously and saw everything as a game.


However, Jack was hanged on the gallows in Tyburn and his execution was watched reportedly by 200,000 people. His body now lies in the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields. 

Who was the original Smart Alec?

English has a lot of terms that link a name with a characteristic, such as Clever Dick, Contrary Mary and Billy No Mates.

‘Smart Alec’ can be traced back to 1865 and means someone who is a know-it-all and can be smug and superior. In the mid-1980s, Gerald Cohen put forward a new argument which turned against previous beliefs that the phrase was merely another version of ‘Clever Dick’. Cohen believed that ‘Alec’ was in fact ‘Alex’, a celebrated thief from New York in the 1840s.

Alexander Hoag worked in tandem with his prostitute wife Melinda. Together they fleeced unsuspecting visitors to the city and then shared the loot with two policemen who prevented any charges being brought. According to the New York periodical called The Subterranean, Melissa would lure her victim into her room, tell him to lay out his clothes and while she was having sex on the bed with the curtains drawn all around it, Alex would rifle through the victim’s clothes after emerging from a secret panel. Alex would then make the victim scarper by banging on the door in the guise of Melissa’s husband. The victim would leave the room before checking his possessions.


Alex and Melissa were eventually arrested.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A World of Winter Wonderland Words

There are some very poetic and unusual words for ‘winter’ which translates as 'wet season'.

Take, for example, ‘hibernaculum’, which means an animal’s winter home and derives from Latin ‘hibernare’, meaning ‘to winter’.

There is also the adjective ‘gelid’, meaning to feel cold, icy or chilly. 

‘Brumal’ is another adjective, and is defined as ‘characteristic of winter’. 

An old word for winter is ‘frore’, used by literary greats Milton and Keats, and archaically means ‘frozen’ or ‘frosty’. 

Finally, ‘algid’ can be used to describe low blood pressure, as well as Latin derivative meaning, simply, ‘cold’. 

Words to do with being drunk

As the festive period gets well underway, there will be several ways in which people describe their drunken state. A study conducted by slang expert Jonathan Green found almost 100,000 words to do with being drunk. Most of these words have not been used enough to enter the dictionaries. In dictionaries of slang, drunkenness comes third in the total number of words to describe it, only beaten by crime and drugs.  People can be sloshed, mullered, canned, hammered, loaded, buzzed, slaughtered, blitzed, smashed, wrecked and muntered. But why so many?

The role of slang has always been to disguise and to keep others guessing. Its first role is to be a code that keeps those in the know, in, and those who are not, out. As soon as that code is cracked, a new word is needed. What’s more, drinking has always been synonymous with secrecy. In the eighteenth century, for example, people saw a strong need to tiptoe around gin, creating a mixture of terms such as ‘diddle’, ‘sweetstuff’, ‘tittery’ (because gin makes you titter).

‘Three sheets to the wind’ comes from the early nineteenth century and is a nautical metaphor. The phrase originally read ‘three sheets in the wind’: the sheet in question harks back to the days of sailing when a rope or chain was attached to the lower corners of the sail to alter its direction. If the sheets are loose it will make the boat flail irrationally, mimicking the actions of a drunk. Moreover, sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just 'one sheet in the wind' or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. An example appears in the novel The Fisher's Daughter, by Catherine Ward from 1824:

‘Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.’

The word ‘booze’ itself has been around for at least 500 years. However, phrases that compare drunkenness to animals such as ‘drunk as a newt’ or ‘drunk as a skunk’ have been around even longer. In ancient Rome, for example, drunk people were compared to a thrush because it would have been common to see them feeding in vineyards in autumn.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Investigating 'Macbeth'

It was in 1606 when Shakespeare’s darkest and shortest tragedy was first performed. Ever since its first performances, it has etched fear into theatregoers as well as the actors who conspire to do the play justice – even uttering the name ‘Macbeth’ is supposed to conjure bad luck, linked with the dregs of the universe and witches. The play illustrates Shakespeare’s incredible ability to take a realistic snapshot of man; more specifically, a person’s ability to sabotage themselves and everything around them in pursuit of something. Despite the gruesomeness of the plot, the play acts as a beautiful portrait of the greediness and committal to do wrong.

Macbeth is a butcher; a serial killer. And yet so intensely is the character crafted that it is possible for anyone who studies Macbeth closely enough to feel sympathy for him. This is because Shakespeare has not written a play about a monster. Rather, he has written a play about a man: a man that could exist. It is clear that the intention of Shakespeare in writing Macbeth was to explore the darker side of the human psyche and to what extent our actions affect our conscience. Moreover, it explores anyone’s ability to commit evil and grotesque acts. Psychoanalytically, it explores the power and influence of the mind over the individual: is the mind ‘part of us’ or something separate that resides within us that we cannot control? Indeed, it has only been in recent years and advances in medicine and the understanding of mental illnesses such as depression, OCD and schizophrenia which has suggested humans have little control over the mind: the mind, therefore, is something that cannot be tamed. It is its own character. Yet, Shakespeare tapped into this concept almost 500 years ago. In short, the play suggests that anyone has the capacity to commit violence when our minds are possessed by enough justification to commit them. Such is the extent of the play’s close link to the destruction of the rational psyche that actors who have been lucky enough to act in a production have feared the effect it would have on them.

The plot is a simple one: Macbeth, a thane, is seen as a heroic warrior, rewarded for his bravery and honour by the King of Scotland, Duncan: ‘The King hath heavily received, Macbeth, the news of thy success. We are sent to bring thee from our royal master thanks’. Three ‘weird sisters’ appear, the witches, tells Macbeth that he himself will be king. Their prophecy plants the seed in his head that he is destined for greater things: ‘All hail Macbeth. Thou shalt be king hereafter’. Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, decide to make it happen. He murders the king himself as well as all other possible rivals. As well as the violence, it is the prophesies of the supernatural that fire his ambition.

The language of the witches, seen in act 1, scene 1, is so evocative and strange. The alliteration ‘fair is foul and foul is far’ and pathetic fallacy of ‘thunder, lightning and rain’ proactively opens the play and it is clear from the short opening scene that this is a play is unique where the playwright has taken compositional risks. Macbeth meets them in a strange barren wasteland symbolising that disconnect between reality and experience. Notoriously, the entire play takes place in a shadow-land, with all scenes deliberately being set at night to reflect the darkness of the subject matter (this is probably why Shakespeare goes into such detailed descriptions of the settings and weather as plays were performed in late afternoons. Without such detail of setting it would have been hard for a Elizabethan audience to imagine darkness at three PM). But the purpose of the witches is always open for debate: do they simply predict what is going to happen, or do they cause what happens? Macbeth will murder to satisfy is ambition, but the inspiration itself comes from the three sisters. They tell him that he will be king, meaning the current king must die. That decision is the central pivot of the play’s narrative – it is the ‘haramtia’ as Aritsotle would deduce: the error in judgement that sets the tragic protagonists fortune in reverse. The effect the witches have on Macbeth is mentally claustrophobic – the promise of great things is something he cannot escape from. No matter how much you do not believe in horoscopes, the idea has still be planted. Shakespeare has highlight the susceptibility of humans to the concept of fate and destiny.

What is scary about the play is the one thing that brings about Macbeth’s downfall is simply ambition, which we all have. Theatregoers would see themselves in the actors on stage which was true for all his plays – by going to see a Shakespeare play you were expecting to see yourself on stage. Not all of us would want to be king, but each of us has something we would like, and one of the questions Macbeth asks is to what extent would we each go to obtain it?

For Shakespeare, writing such as play, which is essentially about mass murder, was risky. This was a time in which society believed heavily in the damaging existence of witches. The play is set in an age of witchcraft where everyday lives were infested with the conflicts between the Devil and God. For the early-modern audience, witches were everywhere. Everyone would have known one, whether she was still living or whether she had been executed. Crucially therefore, the witches and Banquo’s ghosts in the play are not aesthetic extras in a vain attempt to make the play memorable or stand out, but have a precise purpose and a link to the time using powerful languages and iconography that a Shakespearean audience would identify themselves with. There were major political implications about writing about witches in Shakespeare’s time. Everyone took them seriously, even King James I wrote a book on demonology in 1597 doing so because he believed in witches’ existence and could bring down the divinely ordained monarchy. To this end, to write a play about killing a king was clearly a risky idea. The great anxiety that dominates sixteenth and seventeenth century political history is the concept that Devil, normally through the agency of the Pope and the Antichrist are somehow going to topple the Protestant government of England.  By writing the play, Shakespeare is dealing with sensitive matters of state where if he gets it wrong, he could be considered seditious and treasonous.

The play questions where dark forces come from. For Macbeth, is he influenced by dark forces, or are the dark forces that make him into a conspiratorial murderer already present within him? It is almost impossible to differentiate between whether or not the witches plant the idea in Macbeth’s head or only see the dark potential that is already within him. In other words, does the supernatural cause the events, or merely predict them? Shakespeare is notoriously ambiguous, leaving it up for the actors and audience themselves to decide.


There was a real Macbeth, who lived in Perthshire, Scotland one thousand years ago. Dunsinane is the most likely place. All that remains today is a hill that sits high up above sea level, ideal for fortification. The landscape is eerie and bleak and it is easy to imagine the weird sisters drifting over the moors. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is very much the tyrant who kills King Duncan while he is sleeping (sleep is an ever-present extended motif throughout the play as ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’ which in act 2, scene 2 has been personified as something innocent and cleansing). In real life, Macbeth defeated Duncan on the battlefield and according to historians. It was more than likely that Duncan was the aggressor, probably invading Macbeth’s kingdom. Macbeth did what any good king should do and protect what was rightfully his.  Shakespeare is known for adapting existing sources which he based his plays on. It is Shakespeare who has added in the traitorous treason for his play. Despite Shakespeare being notorious for embroidering his plays and changing the facts, in this case those facts had already been altered by historians. Historians were well-known for changing the facts so history was always written by the victors. The historians were expected to help kings by proving they had the rights to the throne and not their rivals. Much of Scottish history is based on fiction. But because that fiction suited the powers that be, they remained credible as anything else.

Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth, is just as notorious as her husband. Both are ‘dearest partners in greatness’ in the beginning. She is his partner in crime who persuades him (or reassures him) to kill Duncan because they are united in their power to do wrong to get reward. This close bond between them is reflected through the pronoun ‘we’. Macbeth asks what should happen if he fails to kill Duncan to which she replies ‘we fail’. She is an imperative character, stating ‘you shalt be what thou art promised’. Like the witches, the debate is on-going as to whether Lady Macbeth causes Macbeth to commit murder or just nurtures the dark behaviour that is already inside him.

Over the years, Lady Macbeth has been played by a variety of different actresses all of whom emphasise something different about her character. Judith Anderson was the evil vampire Lady Macbeth and indeed, the most successful Lady Macbeths have been the ones that have explicitly bullied their onstage husbands into action. Arguably, to case a meeker, more timid actress into the play does it a disservice. Charlotte Cushman for example, in the nineteenth century, was notorious for towering over her husband and knowing what she needed to do to get her husband to do what she wanted. She played the role tough, whilst atypically living openly as a lesbian. In contrast, Sarah Bernhardt’s Lady Macbeth decided to play up the inherent sexuality in the play making their relationship quite lusty. Again, contrasted to Judi Dench’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth where the symbols of femininity – clothes, hair, makeup – are all cut back or hidden altogether by black costumes, making her blend in with the dark backdrop. What is so ironic about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship is it’s one of the few happy marriages in a Shakespeare play (in the beginning).

Whichever version of Lady Macbeth is used, a woman pushing her husband to excess has become iconic. Does she make him a killer? Who wields the power in their relationship? In act 1, scene 7, Macbeth’s opening soliloquy clearly states he intends not to kill Duncan because he should be his protector not ‘bear the knife myself’;  Duncan ‘hath honour’d me of late’ and has virtues that will ‘plead’ like angels. He has basked in the ‘golden opinions’ Duncan has presented. Lady Macbeth, is furious, attacking his masculinity by calling him ‘green and pale’ as well as a ‘coward’. She knows her husband well enough to know he has ambition but lacks what it takes to achieve it, or in her words, he is too full of ‘the milk of human kindness’ – contrasted to her request to the spirits to  change her breast milk into ‘gall’ after her wish to be more masculine in order to shut out feelings of remorse – ‘unsex me here’. She knows he’d rather play by the rules than and succeed rather to play dishonest and succeed quicker. She is perhaps more realistic about what needs to be done if they are to be united in power on the throne. After Lady Macbeth’s grotesque declaration that she would kill a ‘smiling’ new-born baby if her husband had asked her to do it and used a degree of emotional blackmail, she successfully gets Macbeth to carry out the plot to kill the king. He goes from ‘we shalt proceed no further in this business’ to saying ‘I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat’. We see her strongly identify with his ambition and her fear that he may fail to realise it, perhaps reflected by the use of heroic couplets: ‘Away, and mock the time with fairest show: False face must hide what false heart doth now’.

Lady Macbeth raises the question about what ‘masculinity’ is and what a man is. Is a man someone who dares to take what he is promised? Is a man someone who goes beyond that and gets something through more ruthless means? Is a man someone who dares to challenge authority? As Lady Macbeth declares, ‘when you durst do it, then you were a man’.  At this point, Macbeth is on a thin ledge where he could topple either way – he could either kill Duncan or not. But in the back of his mind he understands that if he doesn’t do it, he will be shamed in the eyes of his loving wife forever, hence the emotional blackmail. Arguably, the fact act 1 scene 7 is so short may suggest it was fairly easy for her to persuade him and therefore she was only nudging him to do something he already deep down wanted to do. Perhaps he wasn’t such a hard sell after all.

In act 2, scene 2, Macbeth kills Duncan and goes through with the plan that Lady Macbeth has devised. Duncan is sleeping over at the Macbeths’ castle and Macbeth kills him in his bedchamber, while Duncan’s two sons Donalbain and Malcolm sleep in the second one. He is now a murderer. 'I have done the deed’ he announces. The scene is filled with onomatopoeia and noises that reflect the heightened tensions and senses at this pinnacle part of the plot. The alliterative personification seen through ‘crickets cry’ again reflect the gothic nature of the atmosphere. The couple’s interactions become staccato and lack the original fluidity. The intimate address terms such as ‘dearest love’ have gone. Through language, we can see the couple is beginning to drift apart. Macbeth is now in a sense of mental paralysis. Shock, numbness and denial are the first stages of human response after a trauma. What is exceptional about Shakespeare’s storytelling is he demonstrates an awareness of criminology and the workings of the mind, more specifically, a mind that has been subjected to certain trauma. In act 2, scene 2, the sentences begin to fall apart, reflecting Macbeth’s mental break down. This is exactly what happens in real life as people’s language does fall apart when they are agitated or in distress.

Furthermore, Macbeth demonstrates that he is not used to killing out of the battlefield as he brings the daggers he used to kill Duncan back when he was supposed to leave them at the scene of the crime to frame the drunk servants. Upon Lady Macbeth’s request to have him take them back, he refuses: ‘I will go no more, and leaves her to do it. This is crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, upon returning, Lady Macbeth’s hands like her husbands are now covered in blood (metaphorical guilt) reflecting the fact they are in this together. Secondly, Lady Macbeth is the one who is trying to maintain order and rationale to the situation. Yet her control can only be physical. She can only use her rhetoric to tell what her husband should do and only physically help frame the servants with the daggers. She cannot, however, control Macbeth’s mind. Ironically, as we later find out, she can’t even control her own. Macbeth’s mental paralysis is precisely what happens to people who have committed a horrendous crime for the first time: the finality of it all; the fact that you have changed the universe and can never go back to how things were which is so profoundly understood by Shakespeare.

As well as a Shakespearean audience being terrified of witches, Shakespeare was also writing the play at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, when Roman Catholics had planted gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament , planning to blow up ministers and King James. The parallel between this and Macbeth is clear. At this time, the dangers of sedition, conspiracy, deceit and  the threats of rebellion and treason would have stirred in the psyches of the audience. All of this is the white noise of politics of the time. For Macbeth and his wife, the fear of being discovered as the king’s killer would have fuelled much paranoia, seen in act 3, scenes 2 and 4: found guilty of killing a king and you would face execution and dismemberment. The impact killing someone, not necessarily a king, and the effect this has on the mind is something that both Macbeth and his wife underestimate.

Shakespeare has also tapped into something that modern psychologists recognise. Perpetrators of homicide usually create a fictional fantasy world which may be easier to do with another person. The concept of justifying something to yourself after committing a deed becomes crucial, and that’s where the other person comes in because they can take the role and reassure.

After the murder of Duncan, the couple start to react differently to what they are responsible for. Even though he has become king, he doesn’t feel secure in his role. Ridden with paranoia, he asks murderers to kill his close friend Banquo who suspected that Macbeth had something to with Duncan’s death. What is so crucial about this is the fact that Macbeth was able to arrange Banquo’s death without confiding in his wife at all. At the banquet scene in act 3, scene 4, Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth. This is particularly ironic seeing as Macbeth expects Banquo to appear knowing he is dead. But he does appear, just in a supernatural way he does not expect – the level of dramatic irony is high as only Macbeth, the murderers and the audience are aware of Banquo’s fate. Not even Lady Macbeth knows which is important in assessing her role as the person who wants to maintain control. As Macbeth has kept the deed from her, she has two problems – first, the danger Macbeth will out himself in front of guests, and second, the fact she cannot control his mind.

Banquo’s ghost is a hallucination of Macbeth’s mind, fuelled by his lack of sleep. In preparing to play the role at the RSC, actor Antony Sher spoke to two real-life murders. To the question ‘do you ever dream of your victims?’ both answered ‘only when I’m awake’. The role of sleep is therefore important – it nourishes the mind and rejuvenates. Macbeth no longer has. The banquet scene is the last time we see man and wife on stage together. Whereas language had started to show their divide, now it is represented structurally. Rather than seeking solace from his wife, Macbeth goes to the witches; a sad end the play’s initially happily married couple. Their love just fades out with a degree of sombre realism.

Ironically, Macbeth seemed to need his wife in the earlier acts. Now, in act 5, it is her who needs him. She is reduced to a solitary woman; lonely, and mad. Yet they are both equally solitary – Macbeth is a solitary tyrant, she is a solitary shell of her former self. In a sense, they have both developed and transitioned to a new emotional setting, something often found in gothic literature. In act 5, she is seen sleepwalking, muttering to herself about not being able to wash the blood from her hands (‘out damned spot!’), even though there is no blood on them. The scene again debates the power of the mind. It undermines her previous advice to Macbeth in act 2, scene 2 – by washing your hands clean you eradicate the guilt felt. However, this may erase physical guilt, but not emotional guilt. To this end, you cannot wash the mind of its imperfections. Again, she underestimates the effect such deeds can have on the human psyche. Further irony is created when a doctor notes down her ramblings. As a result, she outs herself, something that she has tried so hard to stop Macbeth doing at the banquet scene. She was once calculating, powerful and manipulating. She has unravelled. A further contrast is created when considering sleep – in her dream-like state, Lady Macbeth is tormented. But it’s in Macbeth’s awakened state where he is anguished.

At the same time, Macbeth’s blood has become thickened (as Lady Macbeth had hoped it would) by his deeds and seems to just plough on. Macbeth has got so far along the murderous path that all he can do it continue. She loses her grip on him and it’s almost as if she has let loose a monster. He has become more of a maniac than she could ever envisage and he has gone past the point at which they could enjoy their power. He is someone who is just not going to be content. Their separation and isolation is further exacerbated when Macbeth is told his wife has committed suicide. All he replies with is ‘she should have died thereafter’, meaning ‘oh well, she would have died sooner or later’. As he admits himself in act 5, scene 5, ‘I have almost forgot the taste of fears’. Lady Macbeth is now isolated in death; her husband isolated in life before his downfall. We may feel sympathy for her  - she was rejected by her husband and died alone. She did not envisage the manic her husband would become. She had a heart – she stated the reason she couldn’t kill Duncan was because ‘he [Duncan]…resembled my father’ which is something someone with a conscience says. Maybe she only said the things she did in act 1, scene 7 to persuade him? Did she really mean what she said or did she think she had to say it to get Macbeth to kill Duncan? The loss of a woman he clearly loved means nothing to him. Macbeth can no longer feel. This is Shakespeare’s deepest insight into what it is to commit murder without remorse: that is, you lose the capacity to feel. In the end, this is where we may feel the most sympathy for Macbeth – he loses everything that is most precious to him.

Shakespeare’s great gift as a writer is the amount of leeway he gives his audience. Shakespeare never presents a character and says the audience should feel a certain way about them. He merely crafts a character and allows the audience to make up their own mind, hence why is entirely possible, if now probable, that audiences sympathise with a mass murderer. Shakespeare’s Macbeth debates many issues we still have today – the power of the human mind and the effect trauma has on it; what we are prepared to do for love; to what extent we will pursue something that has been promised to us, and whether ruthlessness and ambition is a bad thing. But it also questions emotions: the relationship between love, life and death: ‘Your cause of sorrow must not be measur’d by his worth, for then it hath no end’ (try not to grieve with the same intensity in which you loved, for then it will be unbearable).

Macbeth is a truly remarkable play.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Where does the term 'Black Friday' come from?

Black Friday may seem like a modern materialistic phenomenon – indeed, this is only the second year in the UK where it has received a lot of publicity. But the term goes back much further than one may think and applies to a lot of different events in history.

Today, ‘Black Friday’ is the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers offer reduced prices which is supposed to get customers into a frenzy on the high street (although this year the majority of the British public went online instead). However, going back even further, ‘Black Friday’ actually originates from the seventeenth-century: 1610 to be precise. It had little do with slashed prices or the transaction of goods but applied to any Friday in which an exam fell in schools. It was only in the twentieth century when it began to have associations with Thanksgiving: typically, black Friday was the day when employees were absent from work the day after the American holiday. It was in 1961 when ‘Black Friday’ was associated with shopping and preparation for Christmas.

There have been many Black Fridays in history – notably, on Friday 6 December 1745 when The Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart) landed in London. On Friday 11 May 1866, the London banking house Overand, Gurney & Co collapsed prompting the Times to say that ‘The day will probably be long remembered in the city of London as the “Black Friday”.’ This was probably the first time the phrase had links with finance. Three years later, on Friday 24 September 1869, there was an introduction of a large amount of gold into the markets causing financial panic, linking the day to the phrase.

Other days have also been labelled ‘black’, such as Monday, more specifically Easter Monday which was labelled ‘black’ as early as 1389, possibly referring to a bad storm on Easter Monday 1360  which lead to the deaths of many soldiers in Edward III’s army during the Hundred Years’ War. Another theory suggests Monday was so-called ‘black’ because of the 1209 massacre of English settlers on Easter Monday. In 1735, Monday was called ‘black’ as it referred to the day after school holidays. A more recent Black Monday refers to Monday 19 October 1987 and the stock market crash. Whichever theory is most accurate, ‘black’ in this sense suggested that the day was unlucky or unpleasant, which to some it still is i.e. the day after the weekend. Interestingly, another colour also refers to Monday – blue, referring to a day people choose not to work, possibly recovering from the weekend's excessives. 

Furthermore, ‘Black Wednesday’ referred to the 16 September 1992 when there was a great surge of sales of the pound. ‘Black Thursday’ marks he Wall Street Crash on the 16 September 1929 and the first day of panic selling on the NYSE, followed by ‘Black Tuesday’ the following week. ‘Black Saturday’ took place on 10 September 1547 and denotes the day of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh which saw Scotland defeated.


But why assign a usually negative colour to a day? A popular theory suggests the surge in sales was reflected by the colour of balance sheets – a day when retailers would transition from being ‘in the red’ to ‘being in the black’ (turning a profit). Historically, red and black ink symbolised credit and debit. However, this theory is probably too good to be true and probably does originate from ‘black’ being used to apply to days of disaster. Perhaps the negative connotations of ‘black’ for our modern sense of ‘black Friday’ refer to the chaos in which it creates in shops and surrounding areas as well as the holes left in our finances in the new year.   

Monday, 26 October 2015

Obscure Language Facts

Buzzfeed compiled a list of obscure language facts in English so here is a selection. Thank you to Matt (@mjmralph) for sending me this!

In Old English, hiccups were nicknamed ‘elf-chokes’.

One third of an inch is called a ‘barleycorn’ which is still used to measure shoe sizes.

A ‘mileway’ is one third of an hour because it takes 20 minutes to walk one mile.

When we drink from a glass perhaps the least appetising part is when there is a small amount left at the bottom which is usually lukewarm or flat. The amount left in the bottom of a glass is called a ‘heeltap’.

If you are in ‘whispershot’ of someone you are close enough to hear what they are whispering.

‘Happy’ is used three times more often than ‘sad’ in English.

The word ‘aghast’ means to be frightened by a ghost. It comes from an Old English word ‘gæstan’ meaning to terrify from ‘gæst’ meaning ‘spirit or ghost’.

‘Time’ is the most common noun, followed by ‘person’ in second, ‘day’ in third, ‘way’ in fourth, and ‘year’ in fifth.

Nowadays a ‘casino’ is associated with gambling and tend to be rather large buildings. The word actually originates from Italian and means ‘little house’ emanating from Latin ‘casa’ meaning ‘cottage’. Casinos used to be a public room for dancing and music. ‘Chalet’ also takes its name from the same root.

The next word I love – ‘grawlix’ refers to a string of symbols that replace letters if a writer isn’t brave enough to write a swear word out in full, such as ‘f*@& Off!’

Some of you may live by water. If you live by a river you are an ‘amnicolist’ and if you dwell by the sea you are an ‘orarian’.

One of the masters of the English language, William Shakespeare, wrote almost forty plays and over 100 sonnets. But he only wrote one word beginning with the letter ‘X’: byword Xanthippe in The Taming of the Shrew describing a bad-tempered woman.

‘Four’ is the only word with the same number of letters.

An ‘overmorrow’ is the day after tomorrow.

The OED’s entry for ‘set’ is two-times longer than Animal Farm.

People with English as their main language will spend 11% of the time writing the letter ‘E’.

Roughly 6% of everything you read or write will be ‘the’.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Decoding words using 'Ac-'

Image result for mountainIf we take the prefix ‘ac-‘ and look at a variety of words that begin with those two letters, we see how they are linked. ‘Ac-‘ in Latin means the pinnacle, tip or highest point of something.

‘Acme’ was popularised by the Looney Tunes cartoons and was a US brand name deliberately spelt in a way that it would appear at the top of an alphabetical list of companies; the idea being it would be the first choice of customers who couldn’t be bothered to read further down the list of brand names.

‘Acne’ also uses the same prefix and refers to spots or small pinnacles on the skin.

The original ‘acrobats’ were tightrope walkers and the idea was they would walk and balance on the highest point of something.

The mid seventeenth-century term ‘acropolis’ originally referred to Athens and was the fortified part that was usually built on a hill.

Someone who has ‘acrophobia’ is afraid of heights.

An ‘acronym’ uses the tip or pinnacle of words (the first letters) and puts them together, such as ‘laser’ meaning ‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation which derives from the 1960s.

Similarly, an ‘acrostic’ poem is a poem formed when each line starts with a letter of a particular word.


However, it does not work with all words that begin with ‘ac’. ‘Accolade’ for example, comes from the Latin via French ‘accolada’ (‘ac’ meaning ‘to’ and ‘collum’ meaning ‘neck’) because the first accolades were hugs given around the neck rather than the tap of a sword on a shoulder as the tradition is today in a knighthood ceremony. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

‘The bane in my life’? What is a ‘bane’?

The word ‘bane’ is not used very often, if at all anymore, unless we use the idiom ‘bane of my life’ meaning something is annoying or not enjoyable to do. For example, weeds may be the bane of a gardener’s life. ‘Bane’ is a very old word meaning ‘murderer’, and is recorded in the ‘Old English Chronicles’ as early as 800AD. In those days, a bane was a real threat posed to one’s life and safety.


Over time, ‘bane’ drifted in meaning: it went from describing a murderer, to describing poison, i.e. something that causes death such as a poisonous plant. Some poisonous plants still have ‘-bane’ in them: Henbane, Wolfsbane and Ratsbane (another name for rat poison/arsenic). Since then, we have arrived at our version of ‘bane’ which describes something that’s irritating and a complaint; a word that has definitely lost its earlier and more fatal meaning. 

The language of the Theatre

It's that time of the year again when many of us will be tuning into the Proms, ultimately climaxing in the great show of red, white and blue and patriotic songs on the last night. In dedication to the proms and the thousands of great on-stage performances that take place each year up and down the country, here's a brief history of some common words to do with theatres and shows.

If a performance goes well, actors and everyone involved with the production would like to think the audience will explode with applause. 'Explode' derives from the mid-sixteenth century and comes from the Latin ‘explodere’ meaning to drive out by heavy clapping. In other words, 'to reject scornfully' by booing something or someone off the stage. 'Ex' means ‘out’, 'plaudere' means ‘to clap’.

All plays have a start. 'Exposition' means the beginning of the plot when the scene is set and the characters are met and first understood. It derives from the Latin ‘exponere’ which is a verb meaning ‘to expose, publish or to set out’.

Many plots have a climax. 'Climax' comes at the end of a play or a performance. It comes from the Greek ‘klimax meaning ‘a ladder’ because, metaphorically, the top rung of suspense has been reached at the climax of something.

After an exposition and climax, we have an ending. 'Denouement'  is a word that refers to the end of a performance. It originates from the French ‘dénouer’ meaning ‘to untie or unknot’ because that's what happens with the plot at the end of a play...it all becomes clear. In other words, the string is metaphorical for the plot.

Some people may sit in the gallery. 'Gallery' refers to the cheapest seats up high, close to the ceiling that had pictures painted on it of the Classical Gods. Sitting high up, close to these extravagant paintings was likened to sitting in an art gallery.

Many actors and actresses have greenrooms. But why green? Green was seen as a calming or healing colour and, to some extent, it still is. A room in a theatre would be painted green and people who were performing would sit in the room to recover from the bright light they faced when on stage. Lime was burned to create this intense light, and this is where we get the word ‘limelight’ from. So ‘greenroom’ and ‘limelight’ are closely linked.

Some plays require the use of masks to hide identities and contribute to the layering of a plot. The Roman word for ‘mask’ is ‘persona’. As we know, the word ‘persona’ now means a specific character or person, not necessarily in a play at all (anyone can be a persona). This is also the root of ‘personality’ and ‘personal’ i.e. belonging to a specific person.

Performers may be asked to ‘show a leg’. This idiom, which now means to get a move on or do your best, is nautical slang for when females were allowed on ships overnight with their sailor boyfriends or husbands. In the morning, women had to show a hairless leg over the side of the bunk to stay in bed, whereas a hairy leg meant the men had to get up and start their duties. ‘Show a leg’ may be used more nowadays when directors want their performers to get to the stage for the start of a show.


Finally, superstitions are still rife in theatres. For example, it is still considered bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre as it is believed the play curses the show. This may stem from reports that the actors who first played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth died after the first early performances. However these are just superstitions. Actors tend to use ‘The Scottish Play’ to avoid bad luck. If an actor mutters the M-word before a show by accident, they are required to go outside, turn three times, spit, swear and knock to be allowed back in. ‘Break a leg’ is similar. The idiom is an ironic alternative to uttering ‘good luck’, as wishing good luck is also seen as cursed.