Monday, 29 June 2015

Why do we have two lower-case versions of the letter 'a'?

I have been reading Lyn Davies’s book ‘A is for Ox’ in which she talks about the history of the  alphabet and how each of the twenty-six letters have developed since Egyptian hieroglyphics. It’s fascinating to see how each letter has changed beyond recognition. So if you’re interested in letters or fonts, I highly recommend it.

Greek 'tau'
While I was reading I thought about how some lower-case letters have two versions, whereas others do not. For example, the letter ‘z’ can be written as ‘z’ or a like a ‘3’ in cursive, with ‘g’ and ‘k’ also having variants. But I want to focus on the two lower-case (also known as ‘miniscule’) versions of the letter ‘a’.

The two different ways of writing the lower-case letter ‘a’ come from fifteenth-century Italy and the split between Italic and Roman forms. The Italic version is what most of us write with (‘ɑ’), also known as the Latin ‘alpha’ or ‘script a’, probably because it is easier and quicker to write. This developed in the fifth century after medieval Irish and English writers began to change what was the Greek letter ‘tau’. 

The other version (‘a’) is the Roman form and features more frequently with the added arc over the top. This is a harder shape to make by the hand.

The Greeks commonly wrote the letter as a single loop (ɑ). However, over time, the right line began to curve. In some cases, the curve extended right over the top of the letter (‘a’), whereas in some versions it did not, making the handwritten (‘ɑ’) shape. Because the Italian printers used both lower-case (miniscule) forms, both versions are still in use today. 

What was a 'Codd's Wallop'?

We may not think ‘Codswallop’ has anything to do with food or drink seeing as it’s a name given to nonsense or things that don’t appear to make any sense.

However, the word does have links to drink. A ‘wallop’ was once a slang term for a weak beer. In the nineteenth century, a Mr Hiram Codd began to manufacture soft drinks and patented bottles with gas pressure inside them. The staunch drinkers of stronger beer and alcohol jokingly referred to the soft drinks as ‘Codd’s Wallop’, joking that it was a weak beer.


Hence, the word began to be applied to anything that didn’t make sense or seemed a bit farcical. 

There is no 'spick' without 'span'

When we have something ‘spick and span’ it means things are tidy, organised and clean. The phrase may have been popularized by a cleaning product of the same name in America from the 1930s. But it existed long before and actually goes back to 1665 when Samuel Pepys wrote ‘My Lady Batten was walking along the dirty lane with spick and span white shoes’. 

Over time, the meaning drifted away from anything that was brand new, as Pepys had used it, to anything that is clean and tidy, as if it was brand new. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Office Jargon - the worst offenders

In 2008, the BBC asked people all across the world to contribute their examples of the worst office jargon. Today many professions have jargon. ‘Jargon’ itself comes from an Old French word ‘jargoun’ which originally meant ‘the warbling of birds’. In Medieval English, it meant ‘twittering gibberish’ and it now means uninspiring or quite ugly sounding terminology. Such is the extent of jargon, many popular sitcoms have parodied working environments where it is most commonly used.

Which of these makes you want to grit your teeth?

1.       Going forward
2.       Idea shower
3.       Push the envelope
4.       Product evangelist
5.       Platform atheist
6.       Incentivise
7.       Holistic cradle-to-grave approach
8.       You can’t turn a tanker around with a speedboat change
9.       You’re in my radar
10.   Challenge
11.   Low hanging fruit
12.   Pre-prepare
13.   Look under the bonnet
14.   Get all your ducks in a row
15.   Relevant information
16.   Run it up the flagpole
17.   Put a record on and see who dances
18.   Square the circle
19.   Dot the I’s and cross the T’s on this one
20.   Helicopter view
21.   Forward planning
22.   Pre-plan
23.   Sprinkling magic
24.   Let’s action that
25.   Circle back
26.   Root and branch
27.   Reach out
28.   In this space
29.   From the get-go
30.   360-degree thinking
31.   Sales and delivery pipeline
32.   Letting the grass grow on this one
33.   Fingers down the throat of the company
34.   Close of play
35.   Auctioning
36.   At the end of the day
37.   110%
38.   Not enough bandwidth
39.   Can’t have your cake and eat it
40.   Face the music
41.   Step up the plate
42.   Capture your colleagues
43.   Paradigm shift
44.   Stakeholders
45.   Come to the party
46.   Cascading
47.   Feeding it back
48.   Granularity (taking things down to finer points)
49.   Leverage
50.   Strategic staircase
51.   In negative territory
52.   Touch base
53.   Drill down
54.   High altitude view
55.   Wrong-side the demographic
56.   Blue sky thinking
57.   Brainstorm
58.   Back of the net

Maybe you can think of some others?

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Where does Marmalade gets its name from?

I’ve been reading further into Albert Jack’s book It’s a Wonderful Word and where the word ‘marmalde’ comes from. There are two theories. The most popular story is that is comes from Marie malade (‘ill Mary’) referring to Mary, Queen of Scots in which she apparently used the spread to settle her stomach during seasickness. But the word probably doesn’t derive from this at all.


‘Marmaade’ was in use by 1480 according to the OED. If we look further, it is perhaps easy to see why the first theory has gained so much weight, as ‘mer’ means sea and ‘malade’ means sick. But the word actually comes from Portuguese ‘marmelada’, a name for a sweet paste or spread. In Portuguese, ‘quince’ is ‘marmelo’ which were imported as a luxury to Britain from the late fifteenth century. Quince was so expensive it was only used by royalty and the elite. As a result, Tudor cooks created a cheaper version using lemons and bitter Seville oranges that they called ‘marmalades’. Interestingly, the Tudors then cut it into slices and ate it as sweets which must have been quite sickly. The first marmalade factory was built in Dundee in 1797 and the cheaper version remained popular ever since, and began to be a popular spread of choice at breakfast time. 

Why does Starbucks link with 'Moby Dick'?

Image result for starbucksWhat links the world’s largest coffee-house chain with the novel Moby Dick?

Teachers Zev Siegel and Jerry Baldwin first teamed up with writer Gordon Bowker to open their first coffee-house in 1971 in Seattle. Bowker was a fan of Moby Dick and he suggested their company should be called ‘Pequod’, the name of the whaling ship central to the novel.

Then someone suggested nobody would want to drink a mug of ‘pee-uod’, and arguably, he was correct. They went back to the drawing board and decided to call their coffee-house ‘Starbuck’, who is Pequod’s first mate in the novel. Over time, the ‘s’ was added to make it easier to say.

So the anonymous person who suggested they go back to the drawing board is responsible for one of the most recognisable high street chains.


[Courtesy of ‘It’s a Wonderful Word’ by Albert Jack]

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Origin of the word 'Bistro'

For the next few days I am looking at the origins of words that have something to do with food and drink after reading Albert Jack’s wonderful book It’s a Wonderful Word.


Today I am looking at the word ‘bistro’ which the OED defines as ‘a small, inexpensive restaurant’ and popularised before fast-food outlets began to take hold of high streets in the 1970s. The word goes back to Napolean’s defeat in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Troops began to occupy the streets of Paris and there were a large amount of Russian servicemen. As one may expect, the Paris cafes soon became packed with troops and frequently heard in these crowded establishments was ‘Bystro! Bystro!’ which means ‘Quickly! Quickly!’ in Russian. Over time, ‘bistro’ began to be associated with any small bars, cafes and restaurants. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Origins of some Food Names

Image result for pretzelJonathan (@jhazan) tweeted a picture of a jar of marmite last weekend which reminded me that a ‘marmite’ is a cooking container that features on the label of the divisive spread. ‘Marmeet’ is French for a casserole container. Marmite was discovered by accident by a German scientist in the late nineteenth century. Laura Barton, in an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2002, said ‘this is the spread that can make grown men weep’ so it must be spread as thinly as possible.

The ‘pretzel’ is a German word (with Latin roots) which means ‘little arm’ because the twisted biscuits were said to look like people praying. They were apparently made by European monks so it’s quite easy to see where this theory comes from.

‘Lollipop’ comes from a northern dialect word – ‘lolly’ meaning ‘tongue’ and ‘pop’ onomatopoeic for the sound of the tongue licking the lolly.

‘Cabbage’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘head’ due to its shape.

‘Avocado’ is named after an Aztec word meaning ‘testicle’ due to its shape. Moreover, ‘orchid’ also means ‘testicle’, as the Greek word for ‘testicle’ is ‘orkhis’.


Finally, ‘coconut’ comes from a Portuguese word meaning ‘grinning face’ because of the way the holes are aligned. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

'You stupid idiots!' - The Origins of 7 Words of Insult

All this week I have been looking at names – I’ve looked at eponyms (words that derive from real people), the origins or some Christian names and yesterday, I looked at where the days of the week get their names from. Today, continuing with the name theme, I am looking at the origins of seven generic words which can all be used in a derogatory way to insult someone. We use these words generally without thinking because, as is so often the case in English, word meanings become less derogatory, definitions change or are forgotten with words becoming more generically used.  

The first of these words is ‘moron’ which has lost its original, more derisive meaning. We use ‘moron’ today to describe someone who appears foolish or stupid. However, it used to be a medical term for an adult who had a much younger mental age than their actual age; a mental age of about 8-12 years. It comes from Greek ‘moros’ meaning ‘foolish’.

‘Idiot’ comes via Greek ‘idiotes’ meaning ‘private person, layman or ignorant person’. Specifically, the word was applied to anyone who didn’t actively partake in public life – a loner if you will. Over time, the loner definition fell away but the sense of being ignorant remained. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ‘idiot’ was adopted by the psychological and medical professions for someone who had a severe intellectual disability. Whereas ‘morons’ had a mental age of between 8-12 years, idiots had a mental age of less than three years (with ‘imbeciles’ having a mental age between 3-7 years). People who scored lower than 30 in an IQ test were called ‘idiots’. As with ‘moron’, ‘idiot’ has become much more generic.

Today, a ‘cretin’ refers to a stupid person. The OED says the word is still a term of abuse. As with ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ it used to mean someone who had a physical or mental disability, usually the result of congenital thyroid deficiency. The word comes from Swiss-French ‘crestin’ meaning ‘Christian’ meaning ‘human creature’, used in this sense compassionately to mean ‘poor fellow’ – a  reminder that people with disabilities are still people. Moreover, thyroid problems were common in the Alps due to the lack of essential iodine in the soil which may explain why the word originated from Swiss-French.

‘Dunce’ derives from the Middle Ages. The theologian and scholar John Duns Scotus was an influential figure who wrote university textbooks. His followers were called ‘Scotists’. However, from the sixteenth century, the views of Scotists became unpopular and they were ridiculed and were called ‘Dunsmen’ or ‘dunses’ meaning someone who was slow at learning  because the Scotists were reluctant to adapt to a new way of thinking. Over time, the spelling changed to our ‘dunce’, keeping the definition that it described someone who was slow at learning. Today, we can use the term in a less derogatory way, perhaps in a more comic or mocking way, such as people wearing dunce caps.

‘Stupid’ used to have multiple meanings: it used to mean ‘stunned’ or ‘amazed’. Our current meaning which we use to refer to someone who is slow-witted or foolish, or something that is pointless or low of worth, came about around the same time and became the main meaning. ‘Stupid’ is also the root of ‘stupendous’ and ‘stupor’.

Finally, ‘fool’ comes from Latin ‘follis’, meaning ‘empty headed person’ or ‘windbag’. Fools took on a more comic and affectionate role early on – Shakespeare uses eccentric fool characters in his plays for comic effect, such as Jacques in As You Like It. Perhaps we remain sympathetic toward Rodney, Del and Uncle Albert for never making a million too, in Only Fools and Horses.


A selection of insults that have a darker, more derogatory history, most of which having lost their original definition.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Where do the days of the week get their names from?

As is so often the case in English, even the most frequently used words or words that seem to be the most generic have interesting stories behind them. The days of the week are no exception, so I am going to look at where they come from. Incidentally, ‘week’ comes from Old English ‘wice’ meaning ‘to move, turn or change’ in reference to the ending of one period and moving onto the next.

Monday used to be called ‘Monandaeg’ (‘day of the moon’) by Anglo-Saxons, and the Romans called it ‘dies lunae’.

Tuesday has been known as the ‘day of Mars’ for millennia after the Roman God of war in a variety of languages. For example, ‘mardi’ in French and ‘martes’ in Spanish. But it was the Anglo-Saxons who called it ‘Tiw’s day’ in honour of the god Tiw – the Norse god of war and law.

Wednesday also has a strong Norse connection. It was known as ‘Wodensdaeg’ by the Anglo-Saxons as the middle day of the week celebrated the chief of the Norse gods, Odin (Wodan in Old High German). In other languages, Wednesday was associated with Mercury, hence ‘mercredi’ in French and the Spanish ‘miercoles’.

Thursday was originally called ‘Thunresdag’ or ‘Thunor’s day’ in honour of the Norse god of thunder, lighning and storms Thor. Interestingly, the name developed to what we know it as today via ‘Thunderday’ to ‘Thuresday’ to ‘Thursday’. In other countries, which weren’t inspired by Norse, the day was named after Thor’s Roman counterpart Jove, hence ‘jeudi’ in French and ‘jueves’ in Spanish.

Friday was known to Romans as the ‘day of Venus’, goddess of love, and it still is to European countries – ‘vendredi’ in France and ‘viernes’ in Spain. Venus’s Norse equivalent was Frige, hence our name Friday and ‘Freitag’ in Germany.

Saturday was known as the ‘day of Saturn’ in honour of what the Romans thought was the planet that controlled the first hour of what was then the last day of the week. To Anglo-Saxons, Saturday was known as ‘Saeturnsdaeg’.


Sunday used to be the first day of the week for centuries.  Many countries renamed the day after God, such as ‘dimanche’ in French, ‘domingo’ in Spanish and ‘domenica’ in Italian after ‘dies Dominica' (God) in Latin. Meanwhile other countries kept the connection with the sun: ‘dydd Sul’ in Welsh, ‘zondag’ in Dutch, while Scandinavia has ‘sontag’ or ‘sondag’. Meanwhile, Anglo-Saxons had ‘Sunnandaeg’, which developed into our modern name Sunday. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Origins of all of your names

Over the weekend I was looking at words that orignated from people's names, also known as eponyms. In honour of my lovely followers, I thought I would research where some of my followers' names come from. Apologies if I haven’t included you specifically in the list.

Aaron (@aarongspot27) means ‘mountain of strength’ in Hebrew.

Andrew (@AndyMRoberts, @Maxdog1967) originates from Greek and means ‘virile’ or ‘manly’.

Catherine (@_Polyhymnia) is Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘chaste’.

Christina, Christine and Kristina (@DrKristinaKing) comes from Latin and means ‘Christian woman’.

Colin (@col89) is a diminutive of Nicholas. Nicholas originates in Greek language and means ‘people's triumph’.

Dean (@deantoms) means ‘dweller in a valley’. Dean is derived from the Old English word ‘denu’ which means 'valley' and is a locational name denoting that the bearer resided in a valley.

Dominic (@maenllwyd, @Dominic_UK) means ‘Lord’s child’ in Latin.

Duncan (@DuncanDocker) means ‘brown warrior’ in Gaelic.

Fran (@dragonhistory) comes from Latin meaning ‘woman from France’.

George (@Georgios_Sot) is Greek in origin and translates as ‘farming man’.

Hassan (@HassanS_7) comes from Arabic and means ‘handsome’ and ‘to be good’.

Ian (@ianpatterson99, @CambridgeGuy1) derives from Hebrew and means ‘God is merciful’. It is a Scottish variant of John.

Jackie (@Jac7724) means ‘one who supplants’ and derives from Hebrew. It is a feminine form of Jacques, ultimately derived from Jacob. Jackie is a diminutive of Jack, or Jacqueline/Jacqueline.

James (@jimbojim93, @Jamesdavy7, @Jamesdhobson, @JXR1983) means ‘following after’ from Hebrew.

Jason (@jayinbold) means ‘a person who heals’.

Jeremy (@jeremypuk) means ‘lifted up or exalted by God’. It is an English medieval variant of the Biblical name Jeremiah. 

Joe or Joseph (@Matey30) means ‘God raises’ from Hebrew.

Jonathan (@jhazan) comes from Hebrew names 'Yahonathan and Jehonathan', derived from the Hebrew words 'Yahweh', which means 'God', and 'nathan', which means 'to give'.

Jon or John (@RudlophUcker, @ninjamoose101, @gaes_elskugi, @Loinerlad25) means ‘God gives’ and comes from Hebrew.

Jules, Julia and Julie (@MuttonMolester) means ‘soft haired’ in Latin.

Lee (@Timber_Wolf, @Rupaulology) means ‘from a clearing’ in Old English. It is derived from an old English surname.

Lewis (@ljhenshall) is Germanic and means ‘well-known fighter’.

Mark (@Markyeg, @MarkGaze, @Lonmark1980, @Bitofaboy, @_mark13) derives from Latin and means ‘warlike’ as it is a form of Marcus, ultimately derived from Mars, the name of the Roman god of war.

Martin or Martyn (@NFGmart) is derived from Martinus, which in Latin means ‘rendered to Mars’. Mars was the Roman god of war, known to the Greeks as god Ares. 

Matthew (@mjmralph, @mbainsey, @mouthymatthew, @Pringers78, @TheBeardedHomo along with myself) comes from Hebrew and means ‘God’s present’.

Mike or Michael (@Mike__MK, @DrawekimMike, @Mikeyrobinson3) comes from Hebrew and means ‘Which man is like God?’

Nick or Nicholas (@NickBasson1971) derives from Greek and means ‘people’s triumph’.

Peter (@bramallblade, @PeterL_77) comes from Greek and means ‘rock’.

Phil (@wildwonk) means ‘friend of horses’ and derives from Greek.

Robert and Robin (@rob_b122, @Robin1UK, @RobJMitch74) is Germanic in origin and translates as ‘brilliant fame’.

Ruth (@tis_I_Rufus) means ‘mate’ or ‘companion’ from Hebrew.

Ryan (@ryanlmc86) means ‘little ruler’ in Irish.

Sean (@seanmkent) originates from Hebrew and means ‘God is merciful’.

Shirley (@shirleybell5) means ‘sunny meadow’ and comes from Old English.

Simon (@SGHutchence, @_JustSimon_) comes from Hebrew and means ‘God has heard’.