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.

Thursday, 12 April 2018


I've been reading The Diary of a Bookseller.

Yes, I do realise this is an awful photo of the book cover, but it's the best I was willing to do, given my poor photography skills.

It's a fun read, but also informative. I'll be careful next time I bother a bookseller by entering his or her shop to browse. (It's a bit like primary schools. They're great places to teach, but it's quite bothersome that children arrive most days and expect to get some of your attention.)

The author being a bookseller, I'd expect him to have a good vocabulary, so I wasn't surprised to come across words I hadn't heard before. One was incunabula, on page 126 of the edition I read. Shaun Bythell, the bookseller, says that when he's driving to assess a collection of books offered for sale, he's pleasantly excited at the prospect of finding, amongst other things, incunabula.

Often I can guess a meaning by having seen similar words, but this one had me tossed. What could he be expecting to find?

Britannica made it clear to me. It means books printed by machine before the end of the fifteenth century.

Wow! To an Australian this seems incredible. Imagine holding a book that was six hundred years old.

I do remember, as a child, having the privilege of browsing the basement of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute Library and touching a book published before Europeans 'discovered' this continent. I forget what the actual book was, but the emotional response is still with me. Wonder. Awe.

I think the books I saw that day are now in the State Library of Victoria, but I'm not sure.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

beseech and beseek

Yesterday's cryptic crossword clue was: Begged Hugo Best to reform.

Okay, I could get that, especially with the help of Andy's Anagram Solver. 

The answer was besought.

I don't believe I've ever before come across this verb in the past tense. It occurred to me it sounded as if it should be the past tense of beseek, as in the similar verb seek - sought - have sought.

There's no verb beseek, as far as my sketchy research could discover.

Beseech does come from the same old word as seek, though. The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
c. 1200, bisecen "to entreat, beg urgently," from Old English besecan; see be- + seek. "in contrast to the simple vb., in which the northern seek has displaced the southern seech, in the compound beseech has become the standard form" [OED]. Cognate with Old Frisian biseka, Dutch bezoeken, Old High German bisuochan. German cognate besuchen is merely "to visit". Related: Besought (OED writes that beseeched is "now regarded as incorrect"); beseeching
I'd still say beseeched. I must check out an Australian Dictionary. I'll try Macquarie...
Yes, Macquarie in 2017 still gives it as an alternative. 
verb (t) (besought or beseeched, beseeching)
1. to implore urgently.
2. to beg eagerly for: solicit.
Interestingly, the Australian dictionary gives it as a transitive verb, but both Miriam-Webster and Dictionary.com say it can also be used intransitively, and Dictionary.com gives this example: Earnestly I did I beseech, but to no avail. 

No, I can't imagine myself using it as an intransitive verb, and a moderately determined internet search didn't find any such usages. (Is 15 minutes of lounging around at my computer to check out a couple of sites a 'determined' search?)

Oh well, off to bed to dream about words.