Sunday, November 30, 2014

Puncheon (Stave)

Puncheon has several diverse meanings. One is an 80 gallon cask. Another is an awl or punch used to puncture some material such as gold. A third is a upright used for framing. Finally, the definition used below: a rough hewn board.
 Rose grabbed up her moccasins from the puncheon floor.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

While the first two definitions trace back to the French, the last two just float freely in etymological space leaving us free to hypothesize whatever we wish. I suggest that the same process was used to hew barrel staves and rough floorboards, and in this pre-industrial environment, the same craftsperson performed both tasks. Thus the products shared the same name.

Supporting this conjecture is stave itself which matches both the boards on the sides of a barrel and that mysterious upright used for framing. Stave, as a verb, also implies piercing.

Rose was a mixed black/native American in the period following the Civil War, and though she lived in humble circumstances, not affording sawed floor boards from a lumber mills, she ably guided her family through these difficult times.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Spindrift is the foam that blows off the tops of waves.
He wiped spindrift from his eyes.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

The derivation is from a Scottish word (spoon) meaning to run ahead of the wind and seas.

Unfortunately for our quote, Goggle asserts that the word was not in popular use until after the Civil War, and our protagonist, Cow Tom, was dumped into the broad Mississippi when the ship transporting his family to Indian Territory crashed and sank well before that time.

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Monday, November 24, 2014


A Sutler is civilian supplier to the military from the 16th to 19th century when military logistics required additional support from the indigenous civilian and the military encampments were not necessarily dangerous places. By the 20th century military logistics had improved and the battlefields became much more deadly.
But Rose couldn't be still. She ran to the storeroom and back. No Uncle Harry. She ran to the sutler shop and back. No Uncle Harry.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

Rose was a mixed black/native American in the period following the Civil War who ran a cattle ranch and held her extended family together through stressful times or reconstruction.

For more about Citizens Creek click:

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Gorget, gorge, gargle, and gargoyle all conveniently share a common etymology from the Latin (gurgulio) for throat.
...but wore cloth turbans, and one sported a silver gorget across his chest.
...and draped around his neck on a leather strip, his shell gorget necklace.

Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

A gorget is a warrior's neck ornament. According to the SCA, the gorget was a functional defensive collar to protect the throat during sword fights. By the 18th century, the gorget had evolved to a large ornate pendant of little, but decorative/ceremonial, value.

The gorgets above, from a terrific historical novel of 19th century American Indians, were worn by native Americans and made of available materials, chosen for aesthetics and value.

For more on Citizens Creek:


According to Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) - thank you Google -
Shecoonery is "a whimsical corruption of the word chicanery - used at the South."
I wager you this. Some sort of shecoonery is afoot.
Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

The most interest thing about chicanery is that it traces back to French, and, surprisingly, stops there. Chicanery, trickery, is a French invention, not derived from some earlier Latin form. I doubt this mean that there was no chicanery in ancient Rome, but rather they called it fraud and assorted other wordes, but not chicanery, and certainly not shecoonery.

For more on Citizens Creek click:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Here is a word that validates the adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
I usually fell asleep before they [my children listening to a made-up bedtime story] did, lulled by my own pump-engine rhythm, but this is Homeric in its parataxis, its telling of the story with no subordinate clauses, accumulating one detail after another, its rapidity, its formulaic phrases taking up reliable positions in the pattern of the lines, its cherishing the memories and heroizing of the ordinary, its love of the shared experience between speaker and listener, its cavalier way with the facts.
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Para + Taxis ... I thought, "I've got this one."

So para- has several meanings: In anatomy para- tends to mean adjacent as in parathyroid, paratracheal, paravertebral. In popular science para- may mean above, implying not, as in paranormal, parapsychology, parascientific. Para- might also mean close, but not really: parasynonym, parainfection. Add to this list is para- as abnormal: paraphila, paranoia.

Something from this list should be useful to decode parataxis.

Now taxis, pronounced tax-is, not taxi-s (many taxicabs). Here is where that little knowledge thing really makes trouble. Taxis is really popular on biology: chemotaxis, phototaxis, thermotaxis. Taxis is about movement, towards or away from some stimulus.

Where does this leave us with parataxis ... no where.

So back to basics. Para- is adjacency, and taxis is position, and parataxis is not scientific, but literary. Parataxis is a literary technique of juxtaposing parallel short sentences without the use of conjunctions: I came; I saw; I conquered.

Short sentences. Nothing complicated. Nothing scientific. 

Monday, October 27, 2014


Spume derives directly from the Latin for foam.
"Plato thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghastly paradigm of things." Yeats said, and you could say the same of Parry's Homer: Homer thought his poem but a spume that played upon the ghostly truths that came from long ago.
Not even a breaking wave us allowed to break, but the wind strips the spume from the wave top and blows it...
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

It shares its etymology with  spumoni and pumice.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


A pintle is part of a primitive pintle-and-gudgeon hinge system. The gudgeon is a single collar and the pintle is a single pin that fits into the collar. The pintle, pointing up, might be attached to the static side of the hinge and the gudgeon would be slipped down over the pintle (pictured). Alternately, the gudgeon might be attached to the static side, and the pintel would be slipped down into the gudgeon.
 Is the rudder secured on its pintles?
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

While this seems to be a specialized, mostly nautical, term, the etymology highlights the varied nature of etymological paths into the English lexicon. The antecedent is none other than penis, as might be expected from its nautical heritage. When not being used to mount (pun intended) rudders or guns, pintle might still be used to refer to an actual penis.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Plangent means a loud sound, often a melancholy, sad sound of lamentation.
His [Pope's] preface to the Iliad, published in 1715, is one of the most plangent descriptions written in English of the power of the Homeric poems. ... "No man of true Poetical Spirit," the young Pope had written, "is Master of himself while he reads him [Homer]; so forcible is the poet's Fire and Rapture." 
Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

While plangent is obscure (around 300K Google hits, many of them definitional), its root has had an important impact on the English lexicon. The root is the Latin/Greek plaga meaning to strike or beat, in the context of beating one's breast or wounding one's enemies or even hitting a drum, evidentally. This root can be traced forward to both plague and plaintive, but we can see from the above example, plangent is not always a curse or a sadness, but can simply be a load, forceful sound as befitting its etymology.

Monday, October 20, 2014


English suffers, or benefits, from the lack of central authority like other languages, such as French or Spanish. The free-for-all provides for much confusion and duplication.
Here was a boy [Keats], born the son of a London ostler, hungry for depth, for a kind of surging reality, for largeness and otherness which only epic poetry could provide.
 Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

 What is this strange ostler? A phonetic spelling of hostler that has been hanging around in English for over 500 years. Funny thing about English, some words come and go, while other just hang around, like zombies, refusing to die.

Hostler gives us hotel, youth hostel and hospital ... all very useful additions to the lexicon, but why has ostler remained after all these centuries. How did this happen? The answer can be guessed from Google.

Ostler has over 750K hits, while the seemingly more common, transparent and comprehensible hostler is under 500K. The answer seems to be that Ostler is also a common surname, while Hostler is not.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


But as only the most recent of many generations accustomed to living under the knout... Whether the knout was the tsar's or Stalin's or Hitler's apparently made little difference.
A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae

A knout is whip made of multiple knotted cords, similar to the cat-o-nine-tails. I wonder what it says about us that we have so many synonyms for whip, which seem to be divided into two categories: everyday items that can be use to beat someone, such as cane, bat, belt, rod, ruler, and strap , and words which are primarily instruments of punishment: birch, crop, goad, scourge, switch,  and of course whip (bull whip, horse whip, etc.).

The etymology of knout is from the Russian and is generally associated with the tsar. On the other hand, knot is thought to derive Germanic roots. However both derive from the Old Norse. Even though they share this common etymology, the arrived into the massive English lexicon by very different routes.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Deracinated, Extirpated

This primitive, deracinated life was an accurate reflection of their homelessness.
A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae

Deracinated is "pull out by the roots," as is extirpated. Interestingly by have the same meaning from different Latinate roots. De and Ex are both Latin variations for removal, while Racine and Stirps are Latin for roots for roots (love that "roots for roots").

One wonders why we needed to construct two Latinate words for uproot. Perhaps this is because the words are almost always used metaphorically as synonyms for exterminate, annihilate, and the also metamorphic extinguish.

Note that deracinate seem to be specialized for the expulsion of people from their traditional homelands.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Words mention here tend to be Latinate, but occasionally we need to be reminded that people on the British Isles had a language of their own. The native words tend to be more common or bawdy. Scud and its twin Scut, together with the twins Scuddle and Scuttle, represent a confluence of English and Latinate origins.
Overhead, stars shone intermittently through scudding clouds.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

In our example sentence, we see the English origin. Starting with scut, a rabbit's tail, we get all the meanings that have to do with speed. Metaphorically, that rabbit's tail might also be the etymological origin of meanings that include short skirts, various parts of the female anatomy, loose women and pornography, demonstrating that once a word moves in the direction of sex, no one can stop its inevitable decline.

On the other hand, we have the Latin word for dish: scutella. This etymology gives us coal scuttle, and the nautical meaning of a hatch cover, which by association led to the hatch itself, and ultimately adding a hole in the hull use to scuttle (sink) a ship.

In addition to these traditional etymologies, one more word origin needs to be considered: mouth fun. Scut, scud, scuttle, scuddle are just so much fun to say (by English speakers), that if the sounds didn't mean something, a meaning would be assigned to them, possibly many meanings as demonstrated above. This might be the etymology for the scut work, kitchen clean-up, and drudgery meanings. These just sound right.

In summary when you start with a fun sound, a rabbit's tail, and a dish, and almost a thousand years of unfettered imagination, almost anything is possible as words scud through our fascinating language.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Caparison, Palfrey, Litter

Here is one phrase describing the mode of travel employed by lords and ladies with three interesting words. carriages or on richly caparisoned palfreys or riding in litters.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

First caparisoned. This shares it etymological origin with cape, not Capricorn. A caparison is a cape to cover a horse, often ornate. Interestingly, this term originally applied to the dress of war horses, but in the case above, the horse is palfrey.

So palfrey. A palfrey is definitely not a war horse. Palfrey has strayed from its etymological origins which included the para- root. Para means beside, but is so non-specific that it appears in many words and contexts, including parallel parable, paranoid, paranormal, paragraph, paraphase, etc.

In this case, analogous to paranormal and paraphrase, the palfrey is a para-war horse or simply not a war horse. During the time of chivalry the palfrey was a smaller, woman's horse.

So in our quote the ornate cape for a war horse has been downsized and upgraded to a fancy dressing for the horse the lady ride upon.

If she doesn't ride on her palfrey, she is conveyed in a litter. Litter derives directly from bed. Without much linguistic gymnastics, the litter is a covered bed that is carried. Other variation of litter are more metaphorical and removed for the etymological root.

The bed for animals might be straw. So this straw became litter. The straw needed to be spread about, so the verb for that action became littering. Over time littering littering became spread stuff about, from trash by the road to kittens in the barn. One more metaphorical jump let the kittens become a litter. So we have the farmer littering litter in the barn to provide a comfortable place for the cat to litter her litter.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Sometimes what is unsaid is more important than what is said. Recall that Catherine Middleton was given the title Duchess of Cambridge, not Princess Catherine ... since she is not of royal blood. Fitz is the flip side of this Duchess title.

Fitz started out as another patronymic (son-of). So Fitzgerald is son or Gerald, much like O'Banion, MacDonald, Swensen, Johnson, and many others.

The story become twisted with Fitzroy (Fitz Roi) or son of the king. In royal families, bastard children were simply called Fitzroy or simply Fitz, no fancier title like Duchess or Princess or any other the other titles available to royalty. By not awarding the additional titles that signified property, power or precedence, the clear conclusion was: (royal) bastard.

Over time Fitz became synonymous with bastard.
"Fitz is what Burrich calls me."
She flinched slightly. "He would. Calls a bitch a bitch and a bastard a bastard, does Burrich."
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


While all have heard the expression Motley Fool, how many have considered the word motley on it own. The expression motley fool offers little guidance into motley itself. Another word which is more instructive and shares origins with motley is mottled or spotted, a term used by doctors for rashes and veterinarians for animals.

These words are thought to derive from Dutch mot or Norwegian mutt and the biblically famous mote, all referring to small particles. From this, motley became multicolored, many disparate colors. This is the original meaning.

So motley fool, refers to the traditional fool/jester's multicolored costume. By analogy, motley may now be used for any disparate collection. In fashion, motley refers to multicolored dress, like patchwork.
... and three young women in motley and bells.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Monday, August 11, 2014


Mews is wonderful example of the circuitous route from a word's origin to its current usage.

Mew begins with the French verb muer, meaning to molt. This derives from the Latin mutare, meaning to change. Thus, mew shares origins with mutate.

So the story goes like this: a mew was a cage to confine hawks when they molted, but eventually became all hawk housing.
A falconry bird is usually housed in a mews.

From specialized hawk/falcon housing, mews was extended to all hunting animals  (horses, hounds, hawks), or more generally stables. The most famous mews is the Royal Mews at Charing Cross. The important characteristic of this mews turned out not to be the stables per se, but the courtyard that the stables surrounded.

With the demise of horses for transportation, stable were converted to housing for people with the desirable characteristic that the housing opened onto a pedestrian alley or courtyard, instead of a street. These a mews is an upscale development around a pedestrian space, as in the Washington Mews in New York City.

So from molting hawks, mews has become a small neighborhood around a pedestrian-only alley or courtyard, from housing for royal animals to the royals themselves.
Burrich had quarters over the stables, not far from the mews.
Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb