"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."

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Collation is the assembly of written information into a standard order. One common type of collation is called alphabetisation, though collation is not limited to ordering letters of the alphabet.

In British English, a collation is also a light meal, often offered to guests when there is insufficient time for fuller entertainment. It is often rendered as cold collation in reference to the usual lack of hot or cooked food.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Hugger mugger

Hugger mugger is an archaic term for disorderly; in utter disorder; or to act stealthily or secretively.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


A trencherman was a person with a healthy appetite, a glutton; a person who was devoted to eating and drinking to excess. The term is archaic.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009



A flambeau was a torch or flame – especially of the sort used in a procession. As a decoration it was a flame shape, sometimes springing from an urn. The design of that nature was used as a decorative finial from the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Sesquipedalianism is the practice of using long, sometimes obscure, words in speech or writing.

Stay following this blog and you'll be given plenty of opportunity for sesquipedalianism!

Monday, 26 October 2009


To romp means to frolic; play boisterously; play light-heartedly.

A romp is a runaway or easy victory. In days gone by the term was also used of young girls to indicate a tomboy or a girl who behaved in a boyish manner.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

To handle with kid gloves

To handle with kid gloves means to treat something very gently or to be very tactful. Kid gloves were made from the skin of a young goat or lamb. They were softer and finer than gloves made from harder leathers, and so became a symbol of elegance and gentility in the early 1800s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term can be traced back to at least the 1830s.

Around the 1850s, saying that someone "wore kid gloves" was also a way of saying the person was very dainty, a person who avoided any real exertion or everyday work; genteel and upper class. (The kid glove which I am wearing above was one of my grandmother's and dates from around 1900. It really is beautifully soft. She appears to be wearing gloves - possibly these - within the muff in the photo below from 1901.)


Saturday, 24 October 2009


As a noun vail once meant profit; return; or proceeds.

As a verb it was to yield; to remove or doff, as a sign of deference, a hat.

Friday, 23 October 2009


Downy means like down or as soft as down; covered with fine soft hairs or down. In the Nineteenth Century it was used as a slang word to mean canny, wide-awake or knowing.

To do the downy was an archaic phrase meaning to lie in bed.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Bruit means noise and clamour, and by extension rumours and reports made public.
In particular it is the noise that can be heard when listening to a partially blocked artery through a stethoscope.
"My doctor was not impressed when he heard the bruit - hence my angiogram."

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


A rookery is a colony of breeding animals - obviously named originally for a colony of Rooks.

A rookery (also sometimes described as a stew) was the colloquial British English name historically given to a city slum or ghetto frequented by poor people, criminals and prostitutes.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009



Well-turned means of a pleasing shape. It is presumably from the turning of wood on a lathe. The phrase is almost exclusively used of a girl's ankles - " A well-turned ankle."

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Four Corners of the Earth


Have you ever wondered about the expression ‘the four corners of the earth’? It means the most remote parts of the world, the uttermost ends of the earth. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld doesn’t have corners so where did the expression come from? The answer is nobody knows. Sorry to have built you up and then failed to satisfy your usual longing to know but there is a reason.

I was amazed to find that in 1965 members of the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory identified the four corners of the earth as being in Ireland; south-eats of the Cape of Good Hope; west of the Peruvian coast; and between New Guinea and Japan. Each of these ‘corners’ of several thousand square miles in area is some 37metres (120 ft) above the geodetic mean and the gravitational pull in measurably greater at these locations. (And no, I don’t understand what that means either!!!)


Sunday, 18 October 2009

Before you can say Jack Robinson

I love it when people ask me the origin of phrases or the meaning of words. I learn so much finding out the answers. Monica asked me where the phrase “Before you can say Jack Robinson” came from.

It means immediately or instantly and its origins were first quoted in Francis Grosse’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811. Grosse claimed it had its origins in a very volatile gentleman of that appellation who would call on his neighbours and then leave again before the staff could announce his name to the master of the house.

The phrase goes back at least to the 18th century and appears in Fanny Burney’s 'Evelina' of 1778. Two years later the dramatist Sheridan (who was also an MP) was attacking government bribery in the House of Commons. Members shouted at him to name names and he responded – looking directly at the Secretary of the Treasury, John Robinson, that he could ‘name him as soon as I could say Jack Robinson’.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


A buffet was a 16th-century serving or side table, frequently with two or three tiers. In the late 17th and 18th-centuries there were cupboards beneath the serving surface and an elaborate superstructure above.

The word then came to mean a meal set out on a buffet at which guests helped themselves. Nowadays the piece of furniture has disappeared and the word simply refers to the meal at which guests help themselves.

Friday, 16 October 2009



A tambour is a frame made of two hoops - used for embroidering.
It is also a hollowed out frame drum and the flexible shutter on a roll-top desk or sliding doors for cupboards.

Thursday, 15 October 2009



I love it when someone visiting one of my other blogs asks what a particular word means - it gives me a ready made excuse to put the word on this blog. Kris, visiting my recipe blog, asked what a sultana was, so here we go....

A sultana is a type of white, seedless grape of Turkish, Greek or Iranian origin. Sultanas are used in wine-making and are popularly used in cooking (at least in the UK) in puddings, cakes, breakfast cereals etc — including Sultana Bran (equivalent to the American Raisin Bran).

The name and origin can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Sultans’ who introduced it to the English-speaking world.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Bling-bling sounds rather like the sound an old bike might make immediately prior to running you over. It is actually a modern slang word in hip hop culture used to mean flashy, ostentatious jewelry. It can also simply be used as bling.

Look at the bling-bling on Mr Mayor!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


A solecism is a faux pas: a socially awkward or tactless act; a breach of etiquette. It is also used in a grammatical sense to mean a grammatical mistake or absurdity. The word was originally used by the Greeks for mistakes in their language.

Monday, 12 October 2009


Most of us know what an atom is – the smallest component of an element having the chemical properties of the element. It is also used in a loose sense to denote any very small particle of something. But did you know the word is centuries old and long pre-dates the discovery of the atom. I only realised that when I found it mentioned in John Dryden’s poem Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687...
From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay.

The atom was a unit of time referred to in medieval philosophical writings as the smallest possible division of time.

Sunday, 11 October 2009



Nuncheon was another word for lunch – possibly originating as a combination of noon and luncheon. It is now only found as a dialect word.

I can't help commenting that this picture (Monet's Luncheon in the Garden)always amuses me - the girl's hat band always looks like a man suspended in space!

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Desuetude is a state of inactivity or disuse; obsolescence (for example, the state of a custom that is no longer observed nor practised).

I guess a lot of the words I come up I with have reached a state of desuetude!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Word Imperfect

Word Imp is back in business. If you have never visited her blog I can thoroughly recommend that you do so. Her site is great fun.

High in the instep

High in the instep is a slang term meaning overly proud or arrogant. It was first recorded in 1540 and was still in use as a dialect expression in the 20th century.

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Minatory means baleful, meanacing, threatening or foreshadowing evil or tragic developments.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Potation - and archaic term meaning the act of drinking (especially an alcoholic drink). "After his potations of the night before he looked rather hung over."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

To Ring a Peal

One might imagine that the phrase 'to ring a peal' related to ringing the bells in a church but in fact, in the Nineteenth Century, it meant to scold or tell off according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose. It was usually applied to either a master / servant relationship or a wife / husband one.
His wife rung him a fine peal!

Monday, 5 October 2009


Blue-devilled is an archaic term for depressed, sad, dreary, or miserable. The phrase goes back at least as far as 1798 when George Colman produced a one-act farce "Blue Devils".

Why misery should be associated with the colour blue I have never quite worked out but a fit of the blues (meaning depression) is a phrase still in common usage.

Sunday, 4 October 2009


Cack-handed is a slang phrase used to mean either clumsy or left-handed. (Left-handedness being often asociated weith clumsiness though there is absolutely no relationship between the two.)
Left-handedness is the preference for the left hand over the right for everyday activities such as writing. Most left-handed people exhibit some degree of ambidexterity. Left-handedness is relatively uncommon; 90 to 93 percent of the adult population is right-handed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


Paregoric, or camphorated tincture of opium, also known as tinctura opii camphorata, is a medication known for its antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic properties. It was a household remedy in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was widely used to calm fretful children. The word is no longer in use.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Off the cuff

Off the cuff means not prepared in advance; impromptu; or extemporaneous. It can also mean informal or casual.

"His off the cuff remarks got him into trouble."
One site quotes the origins of this phrase as being 'back in olden times' when people who borrowed money had the debt written down on the lenders cuff in the absence of a formal contract. That seems unlikely to me, even in days when washing one's linen was not carried out quite so punctiliously as it is nowadays. (I later discovered that the phrase 'on the cuff' is slang for 'on credit' but I still have doubts about its orogins.)

I should have thought a far more likely origin for off the cff was the idea of a person using his cuff on which to make some basic notes for a speech. He would then refer to these notes during the speech which, rather than being read out in a prepared manner, simply covered the main points off the cuff. The term seems to have entered the English language around the 1940s.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Level crossing


Level crossing is a term for where a road and a railway cross at the same level. According to my dictionary it is a British English term so I'm not sure what the American equivalent is - train crossing or railroad crossding perhaps? In most cases the crossing is controlled by gtes which close off the road and stop the road traffic while the train goes through. In the 'good old days' these were manhandled but nowadays - so far as I know - they are all conrolled from a signal box (either sutomatically or by a human keeping warm and dry inside).

The director of rail safety at the UK HM Railway Inspectorate commented in 2004 that "the use of level crossings contributes the greatest potential for catastrophic risk on the railways." Eighteen people were killed in the UK on level crossings in 2003-4. Bridges and tunnels are now favoured, but this can be impractical in flat countryside where there is insufficient space to build a roadway embankment or tunnel (because of nearby buildings).

How not to use a level crossing.