"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."

Friday, 31 July 2009


Sophistry means creating an argument that seems plausible, but is fallacious or misleading, especially one devised deliberately to be so; the art of using deceptive speech or writing; cunning or trickery.

Sophism can mean two very different things: In the modern definition, a sophism is a confusing or illogical argument used for deceiving someone. But in Ancient Greece, the sophists were a group of teachers of philosophy and rhetoric and the term sophism originated from Greek sophistēs, meaning "wise-ist", one who "does" wisdom, one who makes a business out of wisdom (sophós means "wise man").

Thursday, 30 July 2009


The Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning "those having been hidden away" ) are texts of uncertain authenticity, or writings where the authorship is questioned. As a result, the adjective apocryphal has come to mean being of questionable authenticity.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


The acnestis is the point on your back between your shoulder blades where you cannot reach to scratch. The acnestis, being a fine demonstrator of Sod's Law, is the place on the human body which is most likely to itch.

The word is not in common usage because one is usually too busy swearing to think of it.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Addisonian Termination

If there is one thing GB and I are quick to pick up on it is Addisonian Termination. What on earth is that, you may say. It is the ending of sentences with a preposition which, so we were taught, was a Bad Thing to do.

Winston Churchill mocked such pedantry as ours when he said "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put. "

This grammatical construction was named Addisonian Termination by Bishop Hurd (1720-1808) because it was frequently used by Joseph Addison (1672-1719).

In fact, as long ago as 1926, Fowler's 'Modern English Usage' commented that " It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late. . . . The fact is that. . . . even now immense pains are sometimes expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English. . . . Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards. The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained. . . ."

Even nowadays such pedantic notions are amongst the youthful follies I still have difficulty giving up!!!!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Within an ace

To describe something as being within an ace of something else is to suggest it is extremely close. The idea comes from playing cards where the ace is one point and to win by an ace is to win by one point, the smallest of margins.

Saturday, 25 July 2009


Broadly speaking to fast means to willingly abstain from eating, drinking, or both, for a period of time as for religious or medical reason. I could never understand how, in the historical novels I read, people used to eat on a church 'fasting day'. However, it seems that there are various interpretations of fasting and on official fasting days people were allowed one main meal in the 24 hours. 'Days of abstinence' were those on which the eating of meat was forbidden by the Church.

Although this was the primary meaning of fast that I wanted to explore there are, of course, many other meanings including the following:-
1. acting or moving or capable of acting or moving quickly; "The Ferrari is a fast car." "he ran as fast as he could."
2 (used of timepieces) indicating a time ahead of or later than the correct time; "My watch is fast."
3. at a rapid tempo; "The band played a fast fox trot."
4. (of surfaces) conducive to rapid speeds; "Grass tennis courts are faster than clay."
5. resistant to destruction or fading; "My shirt is colour fast."
6. debauched: unrestrained by convention or morality; "She was politelybdewscribed as a fast woman."
7. flying: hurried and brief; "He paid a flying visit."
8. securely fixed in place; "The post was still stuck fast despite being hit by the car."
9.unwavering in devotion to friend or vow or cause; "Theirs was a fast friendship."
10. firmly or closely; "He held fast to the rope."
11. (of a photographic lens or emulsion) causing a shortening of exposure time; "It's a fast lens so you can use 1/125 of a second."

Friday, 24 July 2009



There can be few English words more unusual than yacht which nowadays means an expensive vessel propelled by sail or power and used for cruising or racing.
The word Yacht is of Dutch origin and therefore probably comes from Holland. Etymology experts have concluded that the word yacht is derived from the obsolete Dutch word jaght, a diminutive form of jaghtship which literally meant 'hunting ship'. The original yacht was a fast and lightweight fast sailing vessel used by the Dutch navy to pursue pirates and buccaneers who hqunted the waters around the Holland. More recently yachts have become identified as luxury vessels which only the famous and wealthy can afford.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Dingles and dells

Here are some lovely words for certain country features and among my favourites are dingle and dell. Both mean a small wooded hollow. Like the word "dale", the word "dell" is derived from the Old English language dæl. The word dingle was used as long ago as 1240 but its origins are unknown, it is possibly a dialect word.

As the combination Dingle Dell the two words can be found as a house or cottage name quite often.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Of firkins and merkins


A firkin - definitely not to be confused with a merkin - was one of those wonderful sounding measures from days gone by. Like most measures it was of varying size according to whereabouts in the country you lived. The generally accepted version was that it was a small wooden keg holding about a quarter of a barrel or 9 imperial gallons.

A merkin - according to Francis Grose's 1811 'Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue - or Lexicon balatronicum; a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pickpocket eloquence' was "counterfeit hair for women's privvy parts". I leave that to your imagination and shall avoid attempting an illustration.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Interminable means ceaseless; endless; seemingly without end. It is usually used to indicate something that is tiresomely long.

"The repetition in Ravel's Bolero is interminable."

Monday, 20 July 2009


There are all sorts of made-up words in the English language that end in phobia (fear of) or philia (love of). Some are in common usage and are generally accepted by the dictionaries. Others appear to be pure inventions.

The Superior Person's Book of Words suggests this extremely unlikely one which, Peter Bowler claims, means 'fear of money'. He goes on to describe it as the 'rarest complaint known to man'.

(I assume the h is silent and that it's pronounced KREM-at-O-phobia)

Sunday, 19 July 2009


Impeccable means something or someone that cannot be faulted; is perfect or flawless.

"Those who read this blog have impeccable taste!" he said, modestly.

Saturday, 18 July 2009


Crambo sounds to me like some sort of stew but it isn't. It was a parlour game

Crambo was an old rhyming game which was played as early as the 14th century under the name of the ABC of Aristotle. In the days of the Stuarts it was very popular, and is frequently mentioned in the writings of the time. It was a guessing game in which players guessed words that rhymed with a clue word, seeking a word that was kept secret or concealed.

The even better sounding Dumb Crambo was a similar game in which the whole game was played in mime - rather like charades.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Xanthippe and muliebrity

Today we have two words for the price of one... a sort of BOGOF.

A Xanthippe was an archaic term for a shrewish, bad-tempered, scolding woman. It is derived from Xanthippe who was the wife of Socrates and mother of their three sons and who had a reputation as a harridan.

Muliebrity, a rarely found word that deserves greater usage, means femininity; the trait of behaving in ways considered typical for women; specifically relating to the characteristic of feminine softness that is entailed by the traditional view of feminine form; the opposite of virility.

Obviously a Xanthippe was not noted for her muliebrity.

Thursday, 16 July 2009


BOGOF is a sales technique to be found in the supermarkets from the 1990s onwards. This acronym stands for Buy One Get One Free. It also appears as BOGOFF - buy on get one for free. It is regarded as one of the most effective forms of special offers for goods.

(Avoid confusing it with 'Bog Off!' - an offensive variant of bugger off.)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


The Archduchess used the word rambunctious the other day. Brother-who-blogs suggested it would make a good word for this blog and he was right.

Rambunctious means boisterous, noisy and lacking in restraint or discipline; energetic and difficult to control.

"We have a bit of trouble keeping the more rambunctious of our tenants in check..." (The Archduchess - the tenants in this case not being students partying all night but plants in the greenhouse!)

The wonderful noun from this word is rambunctiousness - The characteristic of being rambunctious.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Highfaluting or highfalutin is a wonderful word, still in common usage, to mean pretentious; grandiose; self-important; pompous; or arrogant.

Monday, 13 July 2009

To see through rose-coloured spectacles

To see things through rose-coloured spectacles or rose-coloured glasses means to view events and people positively seeing only their good points; to have an attitude of cheerfulness and optimism; to see everything in a favorable and pleasant light; to have unmitigated optimism.

Mum often talked about people seeing things through rose-coloured spectacles. She had heard he expression as a young child at school in the 1910s and had loved the idea so much she was still amused by it in her nineties. In fact, the term began to be used in the 1850s and is first found in print in 1861 *, when it appears in ‘Tom Brown at Oxford’ by Thomas Hughes. “Oxford was a sort of Utopia to the Captain . . . He continued to behold towers, and quadrangles, and chapels, through rose-colored spectacles.

(* See amendment in comments)

A similar 20th-century idiom is to ‘see the glass as being half full not half empty.’

Sunday, 12 July 2009


Widdershins (sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) means to take a course opposite that of the sun, going counterclock-wise or simply thw wrong way round. It is mainly found in literature or old magic rituals.

"I cut my finger on a thorn,
Drew a circle with the blood,
Traced it round a-widdershins,
Then silent in the middle stood."

From a wonderful poem entitled The Circle by the author Mary Stewart.

Saturday, 11 July 2009


An archaic word meaning named. A typical example of the sort of word to be found in Peter Bowler's "The Superior Person's Book of Words". Clepe was Old English for a name or, as a verb, meant to name. It is pronounced EEK-lept.

Friday, 10 July 2009


Peep is a word (both a verb and a noun) with a variety of meanings to which a new one has been recently added. Its meanings include to look furtively; make high-pitched sounds (especially of young birds); speak in a hesitant and high-pitched tone of voice; to appear as though from hiding; to peek; and to take a secret look.

"He peeped at the woman through the window." "The newly hatched birds uttered their little peeps in the nest." "The new moon peeped through the tree tops."

When people utter swear words before the watershed time on British television their swearing is often deleted and a peep sound put in its place. As a result the word peep has become an alternative word for a bad person - the sort one would describe with a swear word if one were less delicate.

Hence, "The skip needed to be filled as soon as possible because we didn't want other irresponsible peeps out there putting items in our skip." (Dewi)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Alibi Clock

An alibi is the argument that a person was somewhere else or has to be somewhere else at a stated time. It is usually used in the context of a defence in a law court where the accused claims innocence on the grounds that other people can provide an alibi - i.e. support his case that he was somewhere else at the time the crime was committed.

An alibi clock was the name given to a striking clock that, because of an error in the setting of its mechanism, would show one hour on its clock face but chime a different hour.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Alias means also known as (sometimes abbreviated to a.k.a.); also named; or a name that has been assumed temporarily.
"My name is John, alias Clive, alias Scriptor Senex."

One who passes under many names was at one time said to have as many aliases as Robin Of Bagshott. Robin of Bagshott was a character in the Beggar's Opera by John Gay and was also known as Bluff Bob, Gordon, Carbuncle, and Bob Booty.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Rustocate is one of Jen's favourite words. It does have a lovely sound and, provided you aren't at univesity, has a most pleasant meaning too. It means to ive in the country and lead a rustic life; send to the country; give (stone) a rustic look; or have a countryfied appearance. "I love that rusticated bench and is surroundings."

Unfortunately it also means to send down or suspend temporarily from college or university. "He was rusticated for his bad behaviour." 

Monday, 6 July 2009

Ring the changes

If you are tempted to use the phrase 'Ring the changes' it is, quite simply, safer not to do so.

It's original meaning and the meaning many people now ascribe to it are different so your reader or listener is not necessarily going to know what you mean.

Nowadays many people take it to be an alternative way of saying 'making changes'. But it has its origins in bell-ringing where each order of striking the bells is called a change. To 'ring the changes' involves ringing all the possible variations of striking order and then starting again. Ringing the changes was therefore a repetitive act with different variations rather than the complete change meant by its modern interpretation.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Over the top

Over the top (often shortened to OTT) is a phrase used to mean beyond the bounds of good taste or simply, excessive. It is derived from the First World War where it meant climbing out of the trenches and attacking the enemy (often with fatal consequences). Quite how it came to have its present meaning I am unsure.

"Some of the hats you see at Ascot are a bit OTT".

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Not worth a tinker's dam


I had always assumed this phrase was 'Not worth a tinker's damn' - i.e., not worth so much as the swear word from a tinker. Apparently the dam doesn't have an 'n' at the end.

Tinkers - not to be confused with true Romanies - were a gypsy like people who travelled from place to place and were known for mending metal goods like pots and pans. (I use the past tense because tinkers as we knew them in our youth no longer seem to exist in this society where everything is thrown away and replaced rather than mended.)

The dam was a plug made of bread which was used to fill the hole in the kettle or whatever was being mended. The solder would then be held in place by the dam while it set. The dam itself was, of course, worthless.

Interestingly I'm not the only person who has failed to appreciate the origin of the phrase because I have also heard it expressed as 'Not worth a tinker's cuss'.

Friday, 3 July 2009


Enervate is one of those words which sounds to me like the opposite of what it is. Whenever I see the word I have to remind myself of its meaning because it always sounds to me as though it should mean to enliven. It doesn’t. To enervate means to make sleepy; weaken mentally or morally; debilitate; or cause a lack of strength or vitality.

Thursday, 2 July 2009


Ulotrichous means having tight curly, crispy or woolly hair. It is the sort of word that may occasionally find its way into crosswords but is little used elsewhere!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


Fettle is an obsolete word that meant condition, shape or order. Nowadays it is heard only in the expressions 'fine fettle' or 'good fettle'. These are usually used of an elderly person or piece of aging machinery; the implication being that it is in good shape or working order for its age.