"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The exception that proves the rule

Sometimes when something happens or exists contrary to how it is always supposed to happen or to be we hear the phrase "The exception that proves the rule
". This implies that every rule has an exception that proves it is, in every other case, correct. A strange concept and, in fact, not the one that the saying was designed to demonstrate.

In this saying the original meaning of the word 'prove' was test. So when something strange happened it was the exception that tested the rule. A far more sensible meaning.

Monday, 29 June 2009


Above-board means open and honest. According to Dr Johnson it had its origins in card games where a player who let his hands drift below the table was probably changing his cards and therefore being dishonest. Those whose hands were visible all the time were above-board.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Abominable Snowman

This expression was coined by members of Shipton's expedition up Everest in 1951 and refers to the Yeti, an ape-like creature said to inhabit the Himalayan region of Nepal and Tibet.

I always thought the idea of a Yeti was very attractive and could not understand why it should be termed Abominable.

Abominable means unequivocally detestable; atrocious: exceptionally bad or displeasing; worthy of, or causing, abhorrence, as a thing of evil omen; odious in the utmost degree; very hateful; detestable; loathsome; or execrable. In other words - not nice!

It seems I had misinterpreted the word abominable as used by Shipton and Co. - as I suspect do most people - since it has another meaning. In the context in which he named the snowman, abominable simply meant excessively large.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Flavour of the Month


"Flavour of the Month" was an American advertising phrase that was introduced in the 1940s in an attempt to get people to vary the flavour of ice cream they ate rather than boring old vanilla.

Since then the phrase has been adopted into the language to indicate anything that has a short-lived prominence or is a current craze.

"Let us hope that blogging isn't just the flavour of the month."

Friday, 26 June 2009

Going to see a man about a dog

I always thought the expression "I'm going to see a man about a dog", used by my Dad, was his own invention. But I have just come across it in a book of catchphrases. Dad would use it when asked by me where he was going on a Thursday night - his night out when he went to the pub for a game of darts. An alternative phrase used by Dad was "Going to the woods to pick bluebells".

Going to see a man about a dog is an excuse offered if one wants to be discreet and cover up the real reason for doing something - often some nefarious activity or an activity to which it would be impolite to refer in mixed company - such as going to the loo. The phrase is said to derive from the days when betting on greyhound racing was illegal.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The three 'R's


The three 'R's is a way of referring to a basic education and is a play on the words Reading, (w)Riting, and (a)Rithmetic. The phrase is said to have originated when Sir William Curtis (1752-1829), an illiterate Alderman and Lord Mayor of London, gave as a toas "Riting, Reading and Rithmetic".

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

To be taken aback

The phrase to be taken aback means to be astonished, astounded or taken by surprise. The word aback comes form the days of the sailing ships when it meant the sail pressing against the mast and progress being suddenly halted.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I was asked to define quibble for my readers.

To quibble is to argue over petty things; to make trivial or minor complaints, objections or arguments; to complain or argue in a trivial or petty manner.

"I won't quibble about the cost of the phone if you'll only stop making those International calls. "

What I didn't know when I was asked was that there was an adjective derived from quibble - quibbly. Quibbly means fussy, involving quibbles; petty or trifling. What a great word - "Look darling, it's only a dress; stop being so quibbly about whether your bum looks big or not."

The following is another (to me, totally incomprehensible,) definition. A quibble is the quantum computing term for the aggregation of four qubits, or half a qubyte. This follows the standard computing nomenclature of bit, nibble and byte.

Monday, 22 June 2009


To suss out something is to work out its meaning; to figure out. As in - "I've got it sussed now - this nut goes onto that bolt..." or "It didn't take me long to suss out that all he was after was my money."

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Curate's Egg

Sometimes things are likened to the Curate's egg as an indication that they are good in parts. But this is actually a misuse of the phrase.

The idea first arose in a cartoon entitled True Humility in Punch magazine in 1895 in which a curate is seated at the Bishop's dining table. The Right Reverend host, looking at what the curate is eating, says "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones!" The Curate responds "Oh No, My Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"

The humour is generated by the fact that if part of an egg is bad the whole thing is bad. Consequently to liken something that is 'good in parts' to the curate's egg is a wrong usage. If it is like the curate's egg it is no good at all.

Saturday, 20 June 2009


Chuffed is a British dialect term (mainly in Northern England) and means very pleased; delighted; satisfied. It is often used with the intensifier 'dead' so someone who is dead chuffed is very very pleased. It appears to have been first used in this context around 1855. An alternative adjective 'chuff' was used to mean swollen with pride or elated.

In American English and in Southern England chuffed can mean entirely the opposite - disgruntled; dissatisfied; or annoyed. A chuff was a boorish, surly fellow. The first known written use of it in this context appears to pre-date the above by about 30 years.

To have different meanings for the same word according to where you are is quite normal but for them to be diametrically opposed is quite unusual. How confusing is that?

Interestingly, in an interview with the then British PM Tony Blair, William Safire of the New York Times suggested "Annoyed" and "put off" were the synonyms of chuffed and asked Mr Blair to pinpoint the localities to which the term was native. Tony Blair responded by warning "Be careful how you use it." Safire took this as a signal that, in addition to the opposite senses, there might be other meanings, and found there is 'a noun form equivalent to duff, from American slang'. I can only guess at what that means; duff in English has the simple and innocent meaning of a stiff flour pudding, steamed or boiled and containing plums, currants and the like.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Heebie jeebies

Shabby Girl commented on a beetle photo of mine giving her the heebie jeebies.

The heebie jeebies is a term used to describe a general feeling of anxiety, fear, uneasiness, or nausea; the jitters.

This term seems to hark back to earlier rhyming phrases, like hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo, with a touch of the jitters thrown in. Heebie and jeebie don't mean anything as independent words and heebie jeebies was coined in the USA in the 1920s - a time and place when there was a spate of new nonsense rhyming pairs, called rhyming reduplications, - the bee's knees, etc.

The first citation of it in print is in a 1923 cartoon by William Morgan "Billy" de Beck. "You dumb ox - why don't you get that stupid look offa your pan - you gimme the heeby jeebys!"

Heebie jeebies caught on quickly and very soon began appearing in many newspapers and works of literature in the USA and, from 1927 onward, the UK.

Thursday, 18 June 2009



Contrary to what you might imagine lazybeds are not folk who lie in until noon. Lazybeds are a method of arable cultivation. Parallel banks of ridge and furrow are dug by spade. Lazybeds have banks that are up to 2.5m in width, with narrow drainage channels between them.

Although it is largely extinct, it is still to be found in parts of the Hebrides where lazybeds are known as feannagan in Scottish Gaelic, and in the west of Ireland. In these places, the method used is normally to lift up sods of peat and apply seaweed fertiliser (desalinated) to improve the ground. Potatoes were often grown in this way in these regions, until the potato blight Phytophthora infestans caused the potato famine in the Highlands and Ireland. It was used in southern parts of Britain from the post-Roman period until the post-medieval period, and across much of Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. According to R N Salaman and others in "The History and Social Influence of the Potato" Potatoes were once grown in a similar manner in Peru and Bolivia.

The origin of the name is said to lie in the fact that in times of disturbance and crisis - either between clans or between the locals and the English - the ridges could be left largely untouched at harvest time with the tubers remaining in them, a quick covering of fresh mould or inverted sods being taken from the trenches and the whole lot being left ready for cultivation the following year.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Chiasm (also known as chiasmus) is a figure of speech by which the order of words in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. The purpose is usually to create an additional point or emphasise something.

Perhaps an example is the easiest way of explaining a chiasm - "Weetabix: The Breakfast of Champions; The Champion of Breakfasts."

The adjective is chiastic. So the above was a chiastic sentence.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Argey bargey

How many people receive an e-mail from their brother which has the subject matter "Argey bargey" and the content "Just a thought". Translated it means - is the origin and use of the phrase argey bargey worthy of a blog entry. The answer - as you will have gathered - is yes.

An argy-bargy, argey-bargey or argie-bargie (with or without a hyphen) is an argument, spat, debate or minor quarrel. It is often used of the general rough-and-tumble and falling-out between siblings - as in the parental admonition ‘For heaven’s sake stop all that argie-bargie!’

The phrase seems to have arisen in Scotland where he word ‘argle’ - a corruption of argue - was followed by the nonsensical but rhyming ‘bargle‘. Parliament was described as having argle-barglers in it in ‘The Ayrshire Legatees’ by John Galt, published in 1821. A no more appropriate context could there be than parliament! This early version also appears in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ in 1886.

The later version appears as early as 1897 in ’Margaret Ogilvy’, the work of another Scot, J M Barrie, but in my 1960s version of the Concise Oxford Dictionary it still appears as argle-bargle.

As the Actress Said to the Bishop

"As the Actress Said to the Bishop" is a sexual inuendo, used as a response when someone says something that can be interpreted in a naughty way. An example might be:-
"I didn't know I had it in me."
"As the actress said to the bishop...."

The reverse (As the bishop said to the actress) is also used but less frequently. The phrase seems to have been made popular in the mess halls of the RAF during the Second World War but it probably originated in the comedy acts at the music halls in the late Victorian era when jokes about potentially scandalous liaisons betwen actresses and the nobility and clergy were popular.

In the 1950s the rather risqué radio show Educating Archie included Archie Andrews' upper class chum Monica (played by Beryl Reid) who used the riposte 'As the art mstress said to the gardener'.

Archie Andrews and Peter Brough
(Archie Andrews, for those too young to remember the glorious days of radio was a ventriloquist's dummy. Only the BBC could have made a successful radio programme using a ventriloquist's dummy as the main character!)

Monday, 15 June 2009


Wort is a sweet, viscous, and flavorful liquid produced by the careful steeping of hot water with cracked malted barley or wheat; fermenting or fermented malt. But that is not the meaning I am principally telling you about.

From My Hebridean Blog


...wort is a frequent ending for English plant names and anyone who read my recent blog about the flowers on the croft by GB's may have noticed Butterwort, Lousewort and Milkwort. Also on the croft - though I didn't mention them - are a couple of liverworts. Wort is simply an Anglo-Saxon word that meant weed so in oidern parlance the plants would be known as butterweed, louseweed, milkweed and so on.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


A short entry today - in more ways than one. Not a word you are likely to come across everyday - unless you are a professional Scrabble player - but aa is a sort of volcanic lava.

Aa aqn be recognised by the accompanying human sounds - "Aaagh! That's my car!"

Saturday, 13 June 2009


Nebulous means cloudy; lacking definite form or limits; hazy; vague or ill-defined.

It comes for the Greek word nebula which meant a cloud. Nowadays a nebula means an immense cloud of gas (mainly hydrogen) and dust in interstellar space. In early astronomy the word referred to almost any extended astronomical object (other than planets and comets).

Friday, 12 June 2009

It's All Greek to Me

In English we often use the phrase its 'Double Dutch' or 'It's all Greek to me' to indicate that something is incomprehensible or beyond one's ability to understand. The Romans also described things as being Greek - "Graecum est; non legitur" ("It is Greek, so it cannot be read") - presumably because the different alphabet exacerbated the difficulty of understanding it. Whilst referring to Greek was not especially derogatory the phrase Double Dutch was and this attack on the Dutch is more recent. It probably stems from the 17th century when the two countries were forever at each other's throats as they vied for supremacy at sea and to carve out Empires from foreign lands. .

But what do the Greeks and Dutch say? They say 'It's Chinese to me'. The Croatians and Czecks say it's Spanish. The Italians refer to it as Arabic, Aramaic or Ostrogoth. The Romanians call it Turkish and the Turks call it French. The Mandarin Chinese are one of the few peoples who don't refer to another language - they say it's like the Book from Heaven (referring to an unknown writing system); like the tongues of birds, or the language of Mars. But my favourite is the expression of the Cantonese Chinese who describe English as sounding like chicken intestines!

Thursday, 11 June 2009


Here's a good word for Scrabble players - phratry. A phratry is people descended from a common ancestor; kinfolk; brotherhood; in its original Greek it was an anthropological term for a kinship division consisting of two or more distinct clans which are considered a single unit,

So far as I know it's not in common usage.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Insouciance, (pronounced In-soosi-arnce) a delightful sounding word, refers to a carefree attitude; a cheerful lack of anxiety or concern.

"He greeted the morning with his usual insouciance; requesting his butler to bring him ham and eggs and a pot of strong coffee." (I wish!)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Until recently I had only come across the verb to freight as meaning send or carry goods for or by transport. But then, the other day I read the sentence "In retrospect my action seems freighted with significance."

So I looked it up and discovered that it also had the broader meaning to burden something or somebody; to load something or somebody with something such as feeling, significance, or emotion (literary).

Monday, 8 June 2009

Vilified with contumelious language

I am reading some of Montaigne's Essays at the moment. They were written in the late 1500s and the translation I am using has stuck fairly closely to the English equivalent language of the time. I came across the wonderful phrase - "vilified with most bitter and contumelious language". It sounds like what our politicians do to each other all the time.

To vilify is to malign someone; to make malicious and abusive statements about somebody.

Contumelious meant expressing scorn; having or showing an insulting, scornful, or contemptuous attitude.

Whilst vilify is still in occasional use the word contumelious has, sadly, died out.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Are you sitting comfortably?

Anyone of 'a certain age' in the UK will be very familiar with the
catchphrase "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin."

This was always the introductory line of the radio programnme 'Listen with Mother' which was obligatory pre-school listening for my age group. The programme began in 1950 and carried on until 1982. It seems the origin of the question is uncertain as both Julia Lang (the original presenter) and Frieda Fordham (a psychologist who advised the BBC) have been credited with it.

All know is that if you say 'Are you sitting comfortably?' to any of my contemporaries they will automatically add the 'Then I'll begin..."

Saturday, 6 June 2009


GB has just used the word 'Wont' and that led us to wonder why wont was written with an 'o' not ant an 'a'. 'As is my wont' effectively means not 'that which I want to do' but 'that which I am in the habit of doing'. The verb and noun Wont bears no modern relationship to want or won't . It is defined as habit; established custom; established way of doing things.

The Oxford English Dictionary says wontless "unaccustomed, unusual", and the adverb wontly, are now obsolete. As Alpadictionary.com saya - "We won't argue with them".

According to the Aplhadictionary the history of this word "is especially good, for it is purely English—not a drop of French or Latin blood in it. In Middle English it was the past participle of wonen "to dwell, to be used to", a cousin of German wohnen and Dutch wonen "to live in, dwell". The Proto-Indo-European root was won-/wen- "to desire". We find the same root at the bottom of Old English wenian "to accustom", which dribbled down to Modern English as wean "to accustom a baby to eating rather than nursing"."

Friday, 5 June 2009


Daughter-who-takes-photos asked me the other day if there was a name for larger than usual pillows. I said yes but couldn't think of it. It was not the name for what she wanted but I could recall there being long pillows across the double beds when I was young. By chance I then read 'The Girl at the Lion D'Or' and the word came up three times - it was bolster. A bolster is a pillow that stretches right across the bed underneath the regular pillows. I doubt they are still used nowadays.

As a verb, to bolster means to support and strengthen (suh as courage); to boost (such as morale); or to pad (such as the seat of a chair).

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Light blue touch-paper

I'm not sure if folk of a younger generation can finish the sentence that begins 'Light blue touch-paper' but at one time it was written on every firework and was probably one of the first standard safety warnings for the general public. (Standard being itself a play on words for those of my generation since Standard Fireworks were one of the main manufacturers).

The full sentence was 'Light blue touch-paper - stand well back' later replaced by 'Light blue touch-paper and retire.' The expression 'Light blue touch-paper!' therefore became a way of suggesting someone had done something dangerous or foolhardy and needed to beware of the consequences, especially, for example, when having said something that was likely to cause someone else to respond explosively.


To propitiate (pro-PISH-e-ate)is to win somebody's favour: to appease or conciliate somebody or something. Propitiation is the noun and means the act of placating; overcoming distrust and animosity; the act of atoning for sin or wrongdoing (especially appeasing a deity).

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

All that glitters

The phrase 'All that glitters is not gold' is a very old one and means appearances can be deceptive.

I was taught that this was actually a misquote from Shakespeare who wrote 'All that glisters is not gold' in The Merchant of Venice (1596).

I recently heard that it was not a misquote since it appears even before Shakespeare's time as 'All that glitters is not gold' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387). However, upon checking I found that this was simply a modern translation and the original was worded:
But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told...

So we should be saying "All that glisters...", after all.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


Catharsis (in psychoanalytical terms) means the purging of emotional tensions; the release felt after an overwhelming vicarious experience, resulting in the purging or purification of the emotions.. In medicine it has the older and more 'bodily function' meaning of purging the body by the use of a cathartic to stimulate evacuation of the bowels.

My main reason for including the word on this blog is because I can never remember how to spell it. I put catarthis into Google and it asked me 'Do you mean catharthis'. I thought, 'Oh, so that's how it's spelled' and clicked 'Yes'. Google giggled and said 'Sorry cannot find anything on catharthis'. Don't you just hate it when computers laugh at you?


This mist is known in the Outer Hebrides as a harr or harr mist. Harr is defined (when you can eventually trace a definition) as cold sea-mist - generally refering to the winter sea-mists in the North Sea. In fact they can be summer mists and come in all around the North British coastline.

The Urban Dictionary said it was Northumbrian/Tyneside dialect but actually it is used in many parts of N England and Scotland. Despite the lack of on-line definitions it is still in common usage. Variants inclkude Harl, Harn, Hoar, Hoare. It is of Saxon and Norse origin.

Monday, 1 June 2009


I have been made aware that some of my readers are not native English speakers and therefore it would be helpful if I differentiated between words which are in common usage, words used only in poetry / literature and those which are out of date.
I shall endeavour to remember to do this in future. Words with no qualification may be taken as being in current usage, The abbreviation (lit.) will be used to for words found only in poetry and old literature.

Words which have fallen out of fashion are generally referred to as archaic which means a word or phrase that is no longer in general use but is still encountered in older literature and still sometimes used for special effect.