28 February 2015


There’s an old story that claims the word handicap derives from wounded soldiers returning home from war with injuries preventing them from returning to their day jobs, and leaving them with no option other than to beg on the streets, their caps literally held in their hands to catch the pennies of passers-by.

Nothing says wealth and sophistication better than a puffball skirt

As ingenious a story as this is, it is of course completely untrue. (Not least because this would have likely given us the word “capihand” rather than handicap.) In fact the true origin of the word lies in an old method of trading goods called “hand-in-cap”, the origins of which date back as far as the fourteenth century at least.

Imagine there are two traders who want to exchange goods, but who are unsure about the relative value of the items they’re looking to swap. In a “hand-in-cap” trade, they would turn to a third party—essentially, a kind of umpire—who would take a look at the items up for exchange and assess their value. If he thought there were any kind of discrepancy between the two, he’d come up with a price (called the “odds”, or the “boot”) that the owner of the cheaper lot would then have to add into the exchange to make it fair.

Next, out comes the cap. The umpire, having given his assessment of the exchange, would then hold out his upturned cap. Both of the traders would take a few loose coins from their pockets, and go to drop them in it. If they agreed to the exchange, they’d drop their money into the cap, but if they didn’t, they’d keep it in their hands.

If both traders agreed, the exchange would go ahead as planned and the umpire would get to keep whatever change had been thrown in the cap as his fee. If neither of the traders agreed, the umpire would get nothing. And if only one agreed, he would get to retrieve his cash from the cap, the umpire would still get nothing, and no trade would go ahead. 

Whatever the outcome, the umpire was always incentivised to come up with as fair exchange as possible, and the trade would only go ahead once everyone was happy. 

So how does an obscure mediaeval trading system lead us to the word handicap as we have it today? Well, it was the idea of assessing the worth of something, just as the umpire did, that led to the idea of “handicap” horse races, in which an adjudicator is brought in to assess the quality of the horses taking part. Stronger horses would be laden down with weights to hamper their speed and make for a fairer race overall. And it’s this sense of something that hampers or encumbers an ordinary activity that we’ve retained in the language today.


When we say that something is serendipitous, we mean that it’s a happy accident. Like finding some money you forgot about in a old coat. Or bumping into a friend somewhere you never normally go. Or, you know, discovering a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in the back of a $4 picture frame.

The word serendipity itself was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, in a letter written to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann on 28 January 1754. Mann had recently sent Walpole a much-prized portrait of Bianca Cappello, a sixteenth century Italian noblewomen who had married into the Medici dynasty, and while waiting for the picture to arrive Walpole had stumbled across the Cappello coat of arms in an old book. “This discovery, indeed,” he wrote, “is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.”

But Walpole hadn’t just made the word up from thin air. Instead, he had taken it from “a silly fairy tale” he had read called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters, he explained, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” 

But neither had the fourteenth century writers of Walpole’s “silly fairy tale” invented the name Serendip. In fact, it’s an old name for Sri Lanka, and probably comes from some ancient Sanskrit word meaning “dwelling-place of lions” (although there are several rival explanations).

But if serendipity is a happy accident, what, then, can you call an unhappy accident? Like finding a spider in your old coat pocket. Or bumping into a boring workmate somewhere you never normally go. Or, you know, getting hit by a meteorite while you’re casually napping on the couch

For that, we turn to the English writer William Boyd, who coined the fantastic antonym zemblanity in his 2001 novel Armadillo. Describing the practice of “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries,” Boyd took the word zemblanity from the name of Novaya Zemlya, a bleak and barren Arctic archipelago in the far north of Russia that was once used as a Soviet nuclear testing site—in other words, about as far removed from a tropical island as it’s possible to be.

Novaya Zemlya. So cold even the sea monsters keep their distance.

27 February 2015


The fact that there’s any kind of etymological connection between politics and long-winded speeches (or, for that matter, between politics and a word meaning “complete nonsense”) might come as little surprise. But the fact is that bunkum owes its existence to a tediously lengthy political speech delivered by US Congressman Felix Walker in 1820.

Born in Virginia in 1753, Walker was elected to Congress in 1817 as representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina. He spent a total of six years in the House, during which time Congress was tasked with debating the so-called Missouri Question—namely, whether the territory of Missouri should be admitted into the Union as a free or a slave state—in late 1819.

The debate rumbled on for several inconclusive months, until finally, just before the decisive vote was due to be taken, Congressman Walker stood to address the house on 25 February 1820. 

He went on to deliver a lengthy, rambling, and largely irrelevant 5,000-word speech—which, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can now torture yourself with here; to put that into perspective, Walker’s speech is around 1,000 words longer than the entire role of Hamlet. 

Felix Walker, inventor of the cure for insomnia

Walker’s speech went on and on and on. And on. And on. His exasperated colleagues repeatedly shouted him down and yelled at him to desist, but, undeterred, he continued talking and proudly explained that he was not, “speaking to the House, but to Buncombe.” 

Out of everything that he said that day, it was this pithy explanation that proved to be the most significant. Soon, saying or doing something “for Buncombe” slipped into American slang to mean “doing something purely to please other people”, and the mid-1800s, it was being so widely used that its original spelling Buncombe was lost, and it was the newly-simplified bunkum that ultimately became a byword for political claptrap, empty promises, and eventually utter nonsense. 

The clipped form bunk followed in the early 1900s, and we’ve been debunking things since 1923. 

Felix Walker, meanwhile, is now commemorated on a plaque in his home county of Buncombe for, quite rightly, giving a “new meaning to the word.”

26 February 2015


One thing that HaggardHawks deals with quite a lot—all the time, in fact—is trivia. Random bits of throwaway information. Miscellaneous facts. 

Dissect the word trivia under an etymological microscope and you’ll find two fairly obvious Latin roots: tri-, taken from the Latin for “three” (as in “triangle”), and -via, the Latin word for “road” or “way” (as in “you can only get into town via the diversion at the end of the high street that takes you two miles out your way”). So how did a word that apparently means something like “three roads” come to imply “random information”? 

The answer lies in the early Middle Ages with a little-known scholar named Martianus Minneus Felix Capella, born in Roman north Africa more than 1500 years ago. As well as having a name that sounds like a magic spell, Capella was one of the first proponents of a classical system of learning called the Seven Liberal Arts—seven fundamental subjects he considered the cornerstones of a good education.

The pilot of Celebrity Squares was a complete failure

Capella’s work continued to be studied and discussed long after his death, until eventually the idea of the Seven Liberal Arts had become a well-established part of Western education. Although precisely what these seven subjects were changed a bit over time, by the Early Modern period the complete set was widely understood to be arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric and logic.

The first four of these—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music—were considered the more worthwhile ‘mathematical sciences’, dealing with concepts of quantity and magnitude, and so were set apart from the others as a separate higher tier of learning known as the quadrivium, a play on the Latin word for a crossroads. The remaining three—grammar, rhetoric and logic—comprised a lower tier of learning, dealing purely with matters of prose and language. And in contrast, it became known as the trivium, the Latin word for a place where three (rather than four) roads meet.

Because this trivium was considered the less important of the two, by the late nineteenth century its name—or rather, its plural trivia—had come to be used of less important knowledge in general, and eventually any random, throwaway facts or pieces of information. 

Precisely like this one.

24 February 2015


It’s been a long time coming, but here it finally is—the Haggard Hawks Blog.

With @HaggardHawks going from strength to strength (and some exciting news coming on that front in the next few weeks) the plan is to use this shiny new blog to share more detail and more background on what we post on Twitter, as well as being able to field any of your questions and queries more thoroughly than we can in 140 characters. Feel free to comment, critique or query anything either here or back on Twitter, and we’ll endeavour to answer as many questions as we can on the blog in the weeks to come.

So by means of a handselin, let’s start with the one question we’re asked more often than any other—why “haggard” and why “hawks”?

Well, unsurprisingly it’s an etymology thing. Back when hawks were used to hunt game rather than discuss word origins over the internet, a haggard hawk was one that had been caught in the wild as an adult and then trained to hunt for sport, as opposed to a tame bird that had been bred in captivity. 

Just another day’s work at Haggard Hawks
The word haggard itself was borrowed into English from French in the mid-1500s, and is probably ultimately descended from an old Germanic word, hag, for a copse or woodland. So the original “haggard hawk” was the faulcon hagarde of Old French, literally the “falcon of the woods”. Sadly faulcon hagarde sounds more like the hero of a romance novel than an etymological Twitter account, so we went with Haggard Hawks.

But back to the birds. Because these captured wild birds would always remain that little bit more unruly and unpredictable than their captive-bred cousins, the word haggard eventually broadened to come to describe anything (or anyone) with similar experience of the big bad world, and ultimately anything that was slightly weather-beaten, world-weary, and—well, haggard.

And that’s that. Now if only we could train hawks to make coffee rather than hunt game, then we’d really be on to something.