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. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The origins of some words to do with relationships

This blog post is all about some words and phrases that can be associated with relationships.

‘Honeymoon’ may sound romantic, but one theory suggests it actually has far less romantic roots. Many old languages had one word for ‘month’ and ‘moon’ as it takes approximately one month for the moon to orbit the Earth. It is the temporal sense from where ‘honeymoon’ derives: the ‘moon’ in ‘honeymoon’ served to remind newlyweds that their period of blissful harmony had an expiration date. It was Dr Johnson who defined ‘honeymoon’ as ‘the first month after marriage when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure’, hinting that, rather cynically perhaps, things may go downhill afterwards. On the other hand, a more optimistic theory suggests the word comes from a recent period in European history when a couple would drink diluted honey to symbolise the sweetness of the early weeks of marriage.

‘Husband’ is Norse in origin and goes back to the Vikings. Their word for ‘husband’ was ‘husbondi’ (‘hus’ – house / ‘bondi’ = the man who dwells in it), placing the man firmly as the head of household.

Perhaps if you’re lucky, your husband may be handsome. ‘Handsome’ once meant 'easy to handle'. Because it had a positive meaning, over time the word broadened to mean someone who is attractive and desirable, usually applied to men. Interestingly, ‘buxom’ derives from a German word meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘flexible’. Because gentle-mannered women were considered attractive, the word went on to describe a good-looking woman, and it has since moved on to describe more specific ‘female qualities’.

Some may have a buxom wife. ‘Wife’ comes from Old High German ‘wib’ which translates as ‘veiled one’.

‘Bride’ comes from the Old English ‘bid-ale’ which meant a celebration in honour of an individual. There were many ‘ales’ during the Middle Ages – ‘leet-ale’ was a drunk up and a ‘church-ale’ was a religious celebration. Over time, ‘bid’ became ‘bride’ and the ‘ale’ was dropped altogether. Moreover, the phrase ‘always the bridesmaid but never the bride’ comes from a 1924 advert for mouthwash.

At a wedding ceremony you may feel ‘jubilation’. The word derives from ‘jubilee’ and its  associated celebrations. ‘Jubilee’ itself comes from a Hebrew word meaning a ‘horn' or 'trumpet’ which sounded at the start of a jubilee year.

Emotions and feelings at a wedding service may be genuine and from the heart. The Latin for ‘heart’ is ‘cor’ which is the root of ‘cordial’ because doctors administered it to stimulate the hearts of patients. To ‘wear the heart on one’s sleeve’ translates as to be open, honest and to let one’s true feelings be known. Margaret Thatcher said, in 1987, that ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best’. But Thatcher didn’t coin the idiom: rather, it derives from Medieval times when jousters on horseback would tie a ribbon or other symbol to their sleeves to show the love and support he had gained from a female.  

‘Spinster’ was originally a woman who used to spin – unmarried women tended to do this to make a living at home. ‘Spinster’ has dropped in usage in recent decades whereas ‘bachelor’ has stayed, probably because ‘spinster’ began to denote more negative connotations of stereotypical unmarried, childless women.

‘Bachelor’ comes from Old French ‘bacheler’ which evolved from a Latin word meaning ‘farm worker’. It was first used in the late Middle Ages when a Knight Bachelor was a young man who had aspirations to become a knight but was too young to display a heraldic emblem. In those days, bachelors were keen to lose their bachelor status, although today’s bachelors don’t seem to be in any rush at all, depending on your own point of view.


And if it doesn’t work out, there is always divorce. The word ‘divorce’ derives from the Latin ‘divortium’ which means ‘a fork in the road’: a literal parting of the ways which began to be applied to people who go in their different directions. This is also the root of the word ‘diversion’.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Less or fewer?

‘Fewer’ means ‘not as many’ and should be used to refer to things that you can’t really count but has a plural, such as students, houses or cars. For example, ‘fewer students are studying media studies’ or ‘less houses are being built’.


‘Less’ should be used when talking about something that can’t really be counted or doesn’t have a plural, such as money, music or time. For example, ‘that job is closer to where I live but they pay less money’ or ‘their marriage lasted less than two months’. 

Pundits and sticklers

As Wimbledon draws to a close I’m sure many of us have heard the expert advice given by many pundits. A ‘pundit’ is someone who is particularly knowledgeable about a certain subject. The word derives from India where a ‘pandit’ is a Hindu scholar or ‘learned man’. The word travelled to England in the nineteenth-century during the Raj.


Moreover, Wimbledon also has its fair share of sticklers – people who insist on traditions and standards being adhered to. ‘Stickler’ goes back to at least the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth gave an account of Cornish wrestling in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’. In the game, the umpire goes by the old name of ‘stickler’ (from Anglo-Saxon ‘stihtan’ meaning ‘to set in order’). Over time, the word broadened to mean anyone who upholds the rules not just in Cornish wrestling. 

Why are some pants called 'bloomers'?

Some of us may call a big pair of lady’s pants ‘bloomers’. Today, they may be met with some sniggering at the back. They have always been the subject of some amusement but at one point they were considered very fashionable.

Bloomers were invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller in the mid-nineteenth century in New York. They were designed to preserve the modesty of women while they engaged in activities such as horse riding and cycling. They did take a while to catch on and were ridiculed by the press of day.

It was women’s rights campaigner Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94) who started wearing them in the 1850s hence why they became known as bloomers.

‘Bloomers’ also apply to comedy gaffes. For example, a collection of outtakes may be called ‘auntie’s bloomers’ (Terry Wogan’s famous show); the name probably derives from the comic aspect and giggling the underwear would have created, deemed unflattering and unfashionable by some and not to be seen.  

Interestingly, a synonym for bloomers is ‘pantaloon’ which can also be a word for men’s close-fitting breeches. ‘Pantaloon’ is used by the comic fool Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It  in which he talks about the seven stages of man (life) in his famous dramatic monologue.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

What's the difference between e.g. and i.e?

i.e. comes from Latin ‘id est’ which means ‘that is to say’. It should be used to give further clarification of your point or to say the same point in simpler or alternative words, as in ‘the weather is beautiful today, i.e. not raining’.

e.g. is also from Latin and means ‘exempli gratia’, meaning ‘for example’. As suggested, it is used to add examples to your point and not clarify it, as in ‘you can buy all kinds of products in a supermarket, e.g. fruit, meat and eggs’.


Both should you be written in the lower case with a full stop between and after each letter, with no spaces and not italicised. 

Changing words - the case of 'unemployed' and 'migrant'

I have been contributing to this blog for two years and I have seen countless examples of words that have changed meaning as the centuries have gone by. However, we can see word meanings changing before our eyes.

Some words come in and out of popularity. For example, ‘groovy’ originated in the 1920s from jazz culture. But by the time we got to the 1980s, 90s and noughties, ‘groovy’ had fallen out of use because it was seen as uncool. In fact, the word nearly dropped out of use altogether. It has since made a slight comeback but I suspect if you use the word among a group of teenagers you would not be met with great applause.

‘Cool’ is another word that was a popular adjective to use in the 1990s. As with ‘groovy’, ‘cool’ was popularised by jazz culture – the word originates from the early 1880s when black Americans used it to describe something that was fashionable or stylish. More recently, ‘cool’ dropped in usage but lexicographers and corpuses (catalogues that track word usage) have suggested it has had a revival with it being used slightly more now than ten years ago.

Some words have switched in meaning. ‘Sick’ and ‘wicked’ are two examples of this: both were negative in meaning and switched to being positive.

Other words and their meanings generally reflect a period in history. Watching how people use language, particularly in the media, I make a judgement that generic words risk having a newer, more negative meaning attached to them because of the tone in which the words are used.

Take the word ‘unemployed’. The main definition of ‘unemployed’ in the OED is ‘someone without a paid job but is available to work’. As we know, the word has had a huge increase in usage because of the recession and subsequent rises in people out of work. I conclude, politics aside, that the word risks having a new definition being applied to it as it edges closer to being linked with synonyms ‘idle’ and ‘useless’. There are several programmes on television which exacerbate a more negative connotation with the word because the boundary between being ‘available to work’ and being lazy or idle becomes increasingly blurred. To be called ‘unemployed’ seems to a label of shame and failure – I have been hesistant to use the word before I got offered my new job because ‘unemployed’ increasingly seems like it's used as a slur.

Other words that are becoming more negative in meaning are ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’. Immigration is never out of the news these days and both words risk having negative definitions being added to them. As so often is the case, a migrant is not just seen as someone who travels, which is the foremost definition of the word, but they are stigmatised and often reported negatively. This is why we must be cautious by using the same words in a consistently unforgiving tone. Only today, for instance, the autocue read 'a migrant dies trying to cross from Britain to France'. Why couldn’t ‘migrant’ be changed to ‘person’, or ‘man’? As countless Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines show, there is a certain harshness and dehumanization by using 'migrant'. It makes people think people who become migrants are all the same.


In summary, word meanings are always shifting in usage and meaning. Will these more negative definitions make it into a dictionary? Time will tell. But in my opinion, if we continue using the words I have stated in a negative way, the answer is most definitely ‘yes’. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

'Hap' - words linking to Luck or Chance

As discussed in a previous blog post, ‘happy’ was introduced by the Vikings and meant luck and chance. A number of common words in English continue to use this root, sharing the same idea of luck and chance.

‘Happy’ – once meant luck, good fortune and chance before it started its life as an adjective meaning joyous, content and in good spirits.
‘Haphazard’ – today, haphazard means peril, danger and risk and was coined in 1573.  Hazard was originally a dice game which involved a great degree of chance. In this sense, ‘haphazard’ translates literally as ‘a danger of chance’.
‘Happened’ – something that occurs by chance.
‘Perhaps’ – something that happens through or by chance.

‘Hapless’ – once meant out of luck or unfortunate before the meaning shifted to mean someone who is clumsy.

Why are potatoes called 'spuds'?

Image result for potatoesWith temperatures reaching record highs, many of us may have retreated to the shade to keep cool. ‘Shade’ was originally thought of as the barest form of shelter, deriving from Middle English ‘schudde’. Many of our gardens link to this older meaning if we have a shed in our gardens. This is because the word ‘shed’ is a dialect variant of ‘schudde’. If we think about it literally, our sheds offer us some guarantee that there will be a shady spot in our gardens.

Another green-fingered word is our humble ‘potato’ which originates from the Andes. ‘Spud’ is a common way to refer to the vegetable and first appeared in English around 1440. One theory suggests that the potato began to be called a spud because of a nineteenth-century activist group called ‘The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet’; their aim to keep potatoes out of Britain. However, linguists believe that this is an unlikely theory as to how we started calling potatoes ‘spuds’ because forming words from acronyms began much later.


The second, probably accurate theory is that ‘spud’ used to refer to a short dagger, from the Dutch word ‘spyd’ or Latin ‘spad’, meaning sword – the root word of ‘spade’. The original ‘spud’ therefore referred to the instrument used to dig up potatoes. Over time, as the word became more common, ‘spud’ was used to refer to the vegetable the spade dug up rather than the instrument itself, hence why today our tenacious potatoes are called ‘spuds’.