Sunday, 12 January 2020

Just a jiffy

This morning, on ABC Radio Melbourne, the presenter was having fun with 'useless facts'. I love useless information, because it's never actually useless.

They talked about the word jiffy. It turns out that this term has a couple of specific meanings, apart from its handiness in referring to an indeterminate short period of time. I looked around on the Net and found this link to its meaning in physics, chemistry and computer science.

I've arrived at the stage of life where there's not much room in my brain for new information, so I'll leave it to you to follow the link and discover this not-useless fact.

It's believed the word has been in use since at least the late eighteenth century.  The English Language and Usage site quotes it in a text from 1780. The lengthy discussion on the site also mentions the variant jiffin from 1767.

The Phrase Finder says the coiner of the word jiffy did not refer to a specific item that epitomised quickness, but to me this seems strange. There's never a totally random nature to the coining of a new word. I notice that in the examples given of idioms of similes that do refer to an existing item that was known to be speedy, one is 'as fast as greased lightning.'

This gels with what was said on The English Language and Usage site - that jiffy was originally a thieves' cant term for lightning.

It beats me why thieves would have needed a secret word for lightning. But that's language for you - interesting and mysterious.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

New Year, new post

First post of 2020 - hopefully not the only one!

Many months ago, a bothersome sales rep managed to corral me into listening to his spiel about a body lotion, and the small sachet he gave me as a sample has been sitting on my chest of drawers, waiting for me to use it. (I'm not going to waste it, because I'm a fanatic about making use of all the world's resources, even a three-centimetre square packet of body lotion.)

Today I noticed the wording on it:

My decades-old schoolgirl French suggested that the word Lavande has something to do with washing, so I looked up the origin of lavender at The Online Etymology Dictionary.

Sure enough, I had remembered correctly (reassuring, at my age, to know my memory still works).

Here's what it said:

lavender (n.)"fragrant plant of the mint family," c. 1300, from Anglo-French lavendre, Old French lavendre, "the lavender plant," from Medieval Latin lavendula "lavender" (10c.), perhaps from Latin lividus "bluish, livid". [This was followed by a  referral to a link for the word livid,  in relation to whether livid means purple-colored or pale-colored.]  If so it probably was associated with French lavande, Italian lavanda "a washing" (from Latin lavare "to wash;" from PIE root *leue- "to wash") because it was used to scent washed fabrics and as a bath perfume.

So far, interesting, but nothing I hadn't expected. However, the next bit fascinated me: 

The adjective meaning "of a pale purple color, of the color of lavender flowers" is from 1840; as a noun in the color sense from 1882. An identical Middle English word meant "laundress, washerwoman;" also, apparently, "prostitute, whore; camp follower" and is attested as a surname from early 13c.

So, the usual disparity in use of language for female activities compared to male ones. 
And I had to spare a thought for those women who followed medieval armies. Not only did they have to provide sexual favours to their 'protectors', but had to wash the soldiers' dirty clothes too!
The Grammarphobia blog has a discussion of this word also, and it's a great read. In part, it says:
But no, the obsolete “lavender” that means a washerwoman is probably not related to the other “lavender,” the plant that produces the fragrant pale-purple flowers.
The botanical word “lavender” (later also used for the scent and the color) came into English before 1300 from Anglo-Norman and Old French (lavandre), the OED saysThe original source was a medieval Latin word for the plant, first spelled livendula (or perhaps lividula), and later lavendula. As the OED explains, some etymologists think the ultimate source may be the classical Latin adjective lividus (bluish, livid).
If so, the two “lavenders” aren’t etymologically connected, though they later became associated because of the use of lavender perfumes, oils, and dried flowers in caring for linens.
I came across an article called 'Sex and the Soldier in Lancastrian Normandy, 1415 to 1450,' with lots of information about attitudes towards women who travelled with armies, and although I didn't resolve my confusion about the etymology of the two words, I enjoyed reading it. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Surprising origin of the word grotesque

Sitting in the waiting room at my doctor's surgery, I read an article in an old edition of National Geographic and was surprised to learn the origin of the word grotesque.

The article was a revisiting of the life and achievements of the emperor Nero, a bad guy by anyone's measure, but apparently a man with an artistic vision that resulted in an amazing palace, one largely open for the common people to stroll around the grounds.

He built a huge palace that took up a large portion of the Roman city (land available because of the infamous fire that he may or may not have instigated.)

Subsequent emperors appear to have hated Nero so much that they literally buried Nero's palace. One report said some areas were filled with sand, which is why the interior was preserved so well, at least until the fifteenth century.

For fifteenth century artists, it was a popular pilgrimage to be lowered into the cave-like interior of the buried palace to look at the frescoes on the ceilings. Apparently the fill of rubble meant that these early visitors were standing up near the ceiling, and could touch the painted surfaces.

They were so taken with the paintings that they reproduced many of the motifs of these grotesque (i e from a cave or grotto) artworks in their own work. I guess if we did our homework we could figure out where to see them, probably some in the Vatican, I suppose.

The Online Etymology Dictionary writes that this suggested origin of the word grotesque is generally accepted.

Here are a few links that I've just enjoyed looking at.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

opposite of widdershins

A friend and I  were sharing a nice pot of tea in a new teashop in Ivanhoe today and she made sure to turn the teapot a few times before pouring the first cup. We both agreed it's traditional to turn the pot widdershins.

In preparing this post, I had a quick look around the internet and came across a hilarious conversation on reddit about pot-turning. Here's one of the comments (obviously tongue-in-cheek):

It's well-known that the tea plant absorbs minerals into the leaf as it gets more mature, thus the higher amount of fluoride in mature leaf as opposed to young buds. High quality tea is often made from the leaf of very old plants, which have absorbed many of the minerals from the soil.
Some of those are ancient ferrous minerals. This means that the dried tea leaf is slightly magnetic. When the water is initially added, the leaf is jumbled every which way. However with the turning of the pot, it allows the ferrous minerals in the leaf to align with the magnetic pole, much like a simple compass made of a magnetized needle on top of a floating cork.
Once the tea leaf is aligned magnetically, the tea itself becomes much more harmonious with nature. You don't want to be drinking tea where it's magnetically pointing every which way as it goes into your stomach! If the earth's magnetic poles were to suddenly flip (which it is due to do any century now) it could result in the tea in your stomach also flipping, causing mild indigestion.
And that is why you rotate the pots.
I'll admit that, although we had our traditional-old-fashioned-tea-drinker hats on, I did pull out my mobile phone so we could check the opposite of widdershins.
My friend thought it was something like diesel.

She was correct in general about the word, but there were different spellings —deosil, deasil, deiseil, to name a few.

Here's a discussion about these two words. If you're like me, it will leave your mind whirling, but when the tealeaves-of-information settle to the bottom of the pot, you'll perhaps know why my mother told me to always turn the pot widdershins before pouring.

I'll admit I'm none the wiser.

But it was a lovely cuppa in a nice shop, with ribbon sandwiches, good company and a delicious glass of trifle to finish.

Monday, 4 February 2019

nurses nourish us

Recently on FaceBook I came across an advertisement promoting respect for the profession of nursing. Hilarious, but with a serious message.

I was reminded of that advertisement when I came across the word nurstle on a site where you can get help in solving crossword puzzles. The meaning was given as: 'Nurstle, to nurse. See noursle.' Noursle was defined as 'To nurse; to rear; to bring up.' 

That second spelling seemed to relate to nourishment, so I looked for the word nurse on the Online Etymology Dictionary

And yes, there it was, the origin of a role we accept as vitally important in our modern world, but don't stop to think about.

Nurses nourish us.

It seems the word comes to us from as early as the twelfth-century, in the sense of a wet-nurse.
12c., nurrice, "wet-nurse, foster-mother to a young child" (modern form from late 14c.), from Old French norrice "foster-mother, wet-nurse, nanny" (source of proper name Norris), from Late Latin*nutricia, "nurse, governess, tutoress," noun use of fem. nutricius"that suckles, nourishes," from nutrix (genitive nutricis) "wet-nurse, "from nutrire "to suckle" (see nourish). Meaning "person who takes care of sick" in English first recorded 1580s.

When the link to nourish is followed, similar root words appear.

And, then to my joy, I read that nursle is a frequentative of nurse.

Frequentative? I'd not previously come across this wonderful type of English verb. But that's a story another day.

I think I'm in love with frequentative verbs.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Trying to think like a cryptic puzzler

Having recently immersed myself in David Astle's book Rewording the Brain, I keep noticing the intricacies of words as I see or hear them.

Just for my own enjoyment I'm going to keep a list here of ideas that pop into my head. I'm intending to come back to this post and add to it.

prancer - Topless dancer uses PR to become a famous hoofer.
emulate - copy a bird dead (Hmm... this one doesn't really work, but I'm having fun.)

Okay... this is all a bit harder than it seemed at first.

emulate - successfully rival a bird left devoured. Nope, not going well. I wonder if I could somehow incorporate the word port, as in the left side of a ship.

Bird left and dined. No, now I'm missing the vital clue as to the entire meaning the answer.
Wait a minute... Rival bird left and dined. I like that.

Let's try another one.

sourdough - spiteful Doug initially has bread. That might work. I'll have to reread the chapters on types of clues and on the use of uppercase letters in a clue.

kith - friends help with a set of tools

A search of Macquarie Dictionary surprised me on this one. I thought 'kith and kin' meant family, but it turns out kith means acquaintances or friends and only the word kin means relatives.

Now, just as I'm about the stop writing here, I've noticed the word beet blutacked to my wall. What about that one? Bee has a drink.
But how do I work in the overall meaning of beet?
Et means and in Latin.
Or I could make it a container clue (page 115 of Astle's book) with bet containing the letter e.

No, I must make myself stop right now and get back to reading the book.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Cryptic crosswords as food for the brain

A friend bought me a copy of David Astle's new book, Rewording the Brain and I'm loving it.

It's written in three sections. Part One discusses the value of puzzling for maintaining brain function. Part Two is an examination of the main types of clues we could expect in a cryptic puzzle. Part Three is a selection of puzzles with ascending levels of difficulty plus assistance in solving them.

I'm particularly grateful for the section at the end of the book with solutions and an explanation for each as to how the answers were achieved.

For years I've been enjoying cryptics in our local newspapers, but don't usually attempt David Astle's puzzles because I thought they would be too difficult for me. Perhaps after working my way through the fifty examples in this book I'll be brave enough to attempt his weekly one.

in his book David Astle mentions The Big Issue, our local street magazine. The Big Issue has a cryptic crossword each fortnight, and the puzzle is always accompanied by a 'straight' version, so you can look across at the ordinary clue if the cryptic one has you puzzled.