"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."

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Tickety boo

I always thought ticketyboo was one word but according to the web it is two separate ones. I think I'll stick to one because it looks neater! Ticketyboo means fine, alright, correct, OK.

"I've just seen the doctor and he says everything is ticketyboo."

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Indian Giver

This phrase - which is sometimes considered offensive to Native Americans - means to give something in the expectation of a getting something in return or to give something that is more of benefit to oneself than to the recipient.

"He gave his wife a phone for her birthday but she never uses one. He knew she'd end up letting him use it all the time. Indian giver!"

The term "Indian gift" was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, and "Indian giver" was first cited in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860) as "Indian giver - When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned." Although this has been considered offensive by Native Americans it is really more a reflection on the dishonesty of the European settlers. When the natives offerred goods in trade the settlers sometimes took them without giving something back and then blamed the natives for wanting something. Some Native American cultures also had a gift-giving system rather tlike the Vikings whereby the giver of gift made it as magnanimous as possible because the culture required an even better gift be made in return. This wasn't a demonstration of greed but of a competitive system which was designed to show which of them was the richer.

Either way it may be safer not to use it but it is as well to know what it means!

Monday, 28 September 2009



Without going into the difference between Hackney Cabs and Private Hire vehicles - one of those wonderful distinctions in English law - I thought I would blog about where the word cab came from.

Cab is a contraction of the word Cabriolet - a one horse carriage - which in turn comes from the Italian Capriola which means a caper or the leaping of young goats. This was a reference to the lightness of the carriage compared to its heavy lumbering predecessors.

The Hansom cab was first designed and patented in 1834 by English architect Joseph Hansom. Originally known as the Hansom Safety Cab, its purpose was to combine speed with safety, with a low center of gravity for safe cornering. The horse-drawn cab enjoyed popularity in the United Kingdom until the 1920's, when cheap automobile transport and the construction of reliable mass-transport systems led to a decline in usage. The last license for a horse-drawn cab in London was issued in 1947.

Its replacement - the modern black 'horseless carriage' - is a well-known symbol of the city.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

To bell the cat

"Belling the cat" or "to bell the cat" is an English colloquialism that means to suggest or attempt to perform a difficult or impossible task.

The phrase comes from the Aesop's Fable The Mice in Council , in which a group of mice declare that the only way to avoid the dangerous cat is to tie a bell around its neck in order to give warning whenever it is near. One mouse then asks who will perform the dangerous task. The moral of the story, as commonly given, is that it is easy to suggest difficult (or impossible) solutions if the individual giving the solution is not the one who has to implement it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Not my pigeon

To say something is 'not my pigeon' means something is not of material interest to oneself; not one's business; not an activity one would typically engage in under normal circumstances. (Indeed, it can, to some extent, be equated to something being 'not my cup of tea').

I wondered about the origin of this phrase and tried to look it up. The best potential origin I could come upo with was that one's pigeon referred in this context to a 'pigeon hole', the type one finds in the mail rooms of large organisations or by the door of a block of flats, i.e. if it is not in your pigeon hole, it is not addressed to you and, therefore, not your concern or responsibility. The phrase probably has nothiong to do with that but I liked the idea of it!

Friday, 25 September 2009


A diaeresis is another name for an umlaut: a diacritical mark (two dots) placed over a vowel in German to indicate a change in sound.

'An example of diaeresis is "ä" '

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Someone asked me the other day what was the origin of the word shirty. This is an informal British expression and means ill-tempered; cranky; irritated, or annoyed.

It dates back at least to 1846 and "To get a person's shirt out" has meant to cause someone to lose his or her temper since that period as well. "Keep your shirt on," meaning to calm down, dates to the same period. In all cases the reference is to loosening or completely removing one's shirt in preparation for a fight.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


To coruscate means to glitter; to sparkle; to be lively or brilliant or exhibit virtuosity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


The verb to lounge means to sit or recline comfortably. It can also be used in the sense of hanging around or loitering.

The noun is usually used to mean an area with seating - such as a public area in a hotel or airport - or the main living room in a house.

I was unaware, until I read Anita Shreve's 'The Weight of Water' that a lounge was also a sofa; an upholstered seat for more than one person.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Polemic means of or involving dispute or controversy. Polemics is the practice of disputing or controverting religious, philosophical, political, or scientific matters. As such, a polemic text on a topic is often written specifically to dispute or refute a position or theory that is widely viewed to be beyond reproach.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Baker's Dozen

A dozen is another name for twelve. But a baker's dozen is thirteen. The reason for this goes back in history to the days when bakers were heavily fined if they gave short measure. To ensure they weren't caught out the baker would give a surplus numnber of loaves - called the inbread - to make sure they ran no risk of a fine or worse penalty. The thirteenth loaf was called the vantage loaf.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


Simulacrum, from the Latin simulacrum (plural simulcra), means "likeness, similarity" is first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century . It was used to describe a representation of another thing, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original; an insubstantial or vague semblance.

Friday, 18 September 2009


Rebarbative means irritating or repellent.

"He became rebarbative and prickly and spiteful".

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Laconic means crisp; brief and to the point; effectively cut short; a response so curt as to be almost rude; using as few words as possible to communicate much information; pithy and concise.

Not GB or I then!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

To bag

The phrase to bag something means to secure something for oneself. It can often mean this in the sense of to purloin, to pocket or take unlawfully.

The phrase originates from sporting or poaching parlance when to put in one's bag was to secure what one had shot or caught.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Housemaid's Knee and Baker's Knee

I used to have housemaid's knee on occasion. Housemaid's knee is fluid on the knee, the swelling being caused by constant kneeling or some other strain or trauma on the knee joint.
Until recent;ly I had never heard about baker's knee. According to one source, baker's knee is another name for being knock-kneed and was caused by baker's having to stand awkwardly for a long time while kneading dough. I wasn't totally convinced by that and upon investigation I found that it should really be called Baker's knee because it was a form of cyst or other damage to the knee first described by a doctor called Baker.

Monday, 14 September 2009


A baggage is, amongst other things, a worthless, flirtatious or immoral woman. The name comes from the days when the army took a large number of woman on campaign with it. Same of them would be army wives but others would be simply camp followers who went along with the baggage that followed behind the army – hence the name.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


To baffle means to perplex, be a mystery or bewildering to, thwart, hinder or prevent (the efforts, plans, or desires) of.

Meanwhile, a baffle is a flat plate that controls or directs the flow of fluid or energy.

But my favourite definition of a baffle is a medieval punishment or degradation by which a cowardly knight is hung up by his heels - either in real life or as an effigy.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


A futilitarian is a person having the opinion that all human activity is futile.

Futilitarianism is a philosophical movement referring to the belief that all human activity (or endeavour) is futile.

She (the cat) reduced them all to tears of laughter, walking sedately round the room, then sudenly catching a glimpse of her own tail and tearing after it, with increasing frustration. "She's what the philosophers call a futilitarian. she recognises that what she's doing is pointless, but she does it all the same. It's a kind of ideological statement." - Adrian Mathews "The Apothecary's House"

Friday, 11 September 2009

Bad blood

Despite my doctor's view, bad blood is not something that suggests there's too much nicotine in it! Bad blood means animosity, a feeling of ill will arousing active hostility.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


I came across the word frappuccino the other day and had't a clue what it was, except that it was presumably a coffee related product. It seems it is an iced cappuccino.

"Frappuccino is a registered trademark of Starbucks and is the name of a blended ice beverage and of a bottled coffee beverage."

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Here is another old word I came across recently - nuncupative. It means oral not written but publicly or solemnly declared. It was used to describe a type of will that was made orally, and backed up by written witness testimony as to its validity. Nowadays we are less trusting of the spoken word and so nuncupative wills no longer exist!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Spick and span

Spick and span means entirely new - fresh or unused. What is unclear is the origin of the phrase. It can be traced back as far as Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579:

"They were all in goodly gilt armours, and brave purple cassocks apon them, spicke, and spanne newe."

By the 1660s spicke and spanne-newe had turned into spicke and span and appears in Samuel Pepys' Diary, 1665:

"My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes."

My usual source of word origins is the Oxford English Dictionary but it has a dubious origin for this phrase and says the old Dutch word spikspeldernieuw refers to newly made ships. It suggests that this is the origin of spick but offers no reason for that belief and none of the early citations of the phrase refer to shipping.

In fact the noun spick had many different meanings including a side of bacon, a floret of lavender, a nail or spike, and a thatching spar. Similarly, span had several meanings, including: the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger, a measure of butter, a fetter or chain, and a chip of wood. As a result all sorts of combinations are possible but at the end of the day the derivation of the term isn't clear and the best efforts to explain it so far are little more than informed guesses.

Monday, 7 September 2009


Garbology is the study of a society by analyzing its garbage.

The primary academic meaning of garbology is the study of refuse and trash. It is an academic discipline and has an outpost at the University of Arizona long directed by William Rathje. The project started in 1973, originating from an idea of two students for a class project.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


Haggard means careworn; showing the wearing effects of overwork or care or suffering; bony; very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold.

"Her face was drawn and haggard."

A haggard was also a stackyard on a farm; a place for stacking grain and hay.

And Henry Rider Haggard was a British writer noted for romantic adventure novels (1856-1925).

But it was another definition of haggard that Partner-who-loves-tea and I came across in the crossword the other day. Apparently it was a name given to a wild hunting bird (a hawk or falcon) captured as an adult.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

As sure as eggs is eggs

The colloquial expression as sure as eggs is eggs, meaning absolutely certain, possibly comes from the mathematical expression x = x.

The expression is grammatically incorrect (as sure as eggs are eggs would be the correct version) and the use of the singular verb suggests that this origin could well be the one.

Friday, 4 September 2009


To bamboozle someone is to mystify them, hoax them or deceive them by trickery. It's a lovely sounding word and is still in common usage though I cannot recall having seen it in any of the 'Top Words' or 'Favourtite Words' lists.

GB asked me if I could find out its origin. It seems that it was simply invented at the end of the 17th century. Jonathan Swift, Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer , poet, cleric and author of Gullliver's Travels, wrote in The Tatler no. 230 in 1703 - "Certain Words invented by some pretty Fellows such as Banter, Bamboozle... some of which are now struggling for the vogue."

Thursday, 3 September 2009


A virgintall sounds as though it might be a virtuous maiden around 6 foot or more but, as you have probably guessed, it isn't!

It was (and maybe still is?) a set of twenty masses said or sung for the soul of a dead person. In days gone by a local priest or monks in a local monastery would often be given a sum of money to carry out the virgintall.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


A pinner was a woman's cap with two long flaps or lappets pinned on, worn in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A pinner can also be the 'agent noun' from the word pin, simply meaning one who pins.

But the context in which I came across it recently did not fit either of these definitions. So when I checked it out further I discovered that in days gone by a pinner was a sort of constable who impounded stray animals until their owner could be found. The animals would be held in a pinfold - a small enclosure, usually walled, some of which remain in scattered English villages.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


The common use of the word mortuary is as an alternative to morgue to describe a building or room (as in a hospital) used for the storage of human corpses awaiting identification, or removal for autopsy, burial, cremation or some other post-death ritual. They are usually refrigerated to avoid decomposition. The word also describes any licensed, regulated business that provides for the care, planning and preparation of human remains for their final resting place.

There is a however a far wider meaning of the word - of or relating to or characteristic of death or relating to the burial of the dead.

But if you come across the word in an old document it may well have referred to a gift made to the parish priest on the death of a parishioner - usually the second best animal. (The first animal had often gone to the Lord of the Manor as a heriot and the mortuary often wasn't made because there was no second animal!)