31 March 2015


So zed is British and zee is American, yes? Well, that might be the case today, but once upon a time things were quite different...

Historically, both zed and zee were used pretty much interchangeably in both British and American English, alongside a whole host of other more outlandish names for the last (or rather, second last) letter of the alphabet, like izzard, uzzard, zad, shard and, our personal favourite, ezod. Of the two we’re talking about here, however, zed it by far the oldest, and takes its name via French and Latin from that of its Greek equivalent, zeta. Zed first appeared in print in the early 1400s, in a Middle English document that fairly straightforwardly described it as “þe laste lettre of þe a b c”—which is considerably nicer than what William Shakespeare had to say about it.

Zee, on the other hand, first appeared in print in a British language textbook—Thomas Lye’s New Spelling-book—in 1677. The name zee itself is thought to have originated as nothing more than a dialect variation of zed, probably influenced by the regular bee, cee, dee, ee pattern of much of the rest of the alphabet. But precisely how or why it became the predominant form in American English is unclear.

Thanks to his new calling card, everyone knew where Zubin Mehta had been

One widely-held theory is that because zed, as the older of the two, was the most widespread variation amongst British English speakers, during the Revolutionary War American English speakers looking to distance themselves from anything even vaguely British simply adopted the zee version as their own to make a stand—no matter how small it might seem—against British control. Alternatively, there mightn’t have been any political reasoning behind it at all, and the name might simply have come to the forefront as American English was forced to adapt and simplify as more and more colonists—coming from ever more distant countries, and speaking an ever more varied array of languages—began arriving in the New World.

Whatever the motivation might have been, by the mid-nineteenth century zee had become the standard form of the letter Z in the United States, and has remained so ever since. 

Though the campaign to resurrect ezod begins here...

29 March 2015

***Exciting news!***

It’s been just over a year since HaggardHawks fluttered into life on Twitter back in December 2013. Since then, we’ve appeared everywhere from The Guardian in the UK to Mental_Floss in the US and The New Daily in Australia. We’ve tweeted nearly 4,000 words and language facts, and we’ve gained more than 8,000 followers. So a quick thanks—to everyone—for your continued interest and support.

But, thought we, isn’t it a shame to leave all these facts in the electronic ether? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a shiny, papery copy of HaggardHawks’ back catalogue of linguistic trivia to add to your bookshelf?

Well, thanks to the lovely people at Elliott & Thompson, we now have just that:

Our new factbook, Word Drops, is published on 16 April 2015. In it, you’ll find 1000 of our best and strangest facts—as well as a whole host of new linguistic titbits and trivia that we’ve never tweeted before—all in one long word-association chain. 

So the fact that the word unkempt literally means “uncombed” links into the fact that barber, Barbados and rebarbative all derive from the Latin word for “beard”. And that links in nicely with the fact that in Old English, a frumberdling was a boy growing his first beard. And a beard-second is a measurement of 5 nanometres—or the distance a beard hair grows in one second. 

And a treatise written on the subject of beards is a pogonology. While the pogonion is the frontmost point of your chin. And speaking of which, the word sobriquet comes from the French for “hit under the chin”. But the toast chin-chin is a reworking of the Chinese greeting tsing-tsing. And did you know that the sentence “when you are eating grapes you don’t spit out the skin, but when you are not eating grapes you do spit out the skin” is a Chinese tongue-twister? 

We could go on, but that would be telling. (You can find out how that particular part of the chain picks up on page 140.) 

All the way through Word Drops we’ve also added hundreds of footnotes and annotations to flesh out some of the most intriguing facts, providing all the extra background that there often isn’t room for on Twitter—everything from how to play some traditional Inuit games to the origin of the Bellini cocktail, from the precise length of one jiffy to what the Romans thought hoopoes ate, and from what to expect on a night out with Dr Johnson to how Samuel Pepys cured his hangover. Want to know what the longest word made of Roman numerals is, or who The Great Masticator was? Or what Norwegian steam is, or what a jäääär is? It’s all inside. 

In the weeks leading up to the release of Word Drops—so called, we should say, because each fact “drops” into place beside the others—there are a few developments planned on @HaggardHawks, including a competition this coming April Fools Day, in which you can win yourself a signed copy before the book even hits the shops… More details of that to come later this week!

In the meantime, you can head across to Amazon now for more info. 

And thanks again for following! There would be no HaggardHawks without you. 

28 March 2015


Over on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed, today’s Word of the Day is hurkle-durkle:
It’s the perfect word for a lazy Saturday morning, and we thought you might like to know a little bit more about it.

Like a lot of the words we tweet about, it’s an old dialect term—in this case from eighteenth century southern Scotland. We first stumbled across it in John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, published in 1808, which defined it as:

To HURKLE-DURKLE, v. n. To lie in bed, or
to lounge after it is time to get up or go to work. 

Jamieson points to durck or durch—an old Germanic word for the hold of a ship—as the word’s probably origin, and perhaps saw some kind of etymological connection between someone lurking in bed and someone lurking in the dim, grimy bottom of a ship. He should really try changing his bedding more often. But oddly, in reduplicative words like these, it’s often the case that the first part of the word is the original root, to which the second part is added later as a rhyming, humorous or playful addition.

So okey-dokey comes from okay. Hoity-toity comes from the old verb hoit, meaning “to act affectedly” or, according to the OED, “to romp inelegantly”. And ultimately hurkle-durkle might in fact come from the old Scots verb hurkle, or hurkill, meaning “to draw the limbs together close to the body”. From there it’s easy to see where the image of someone cosily curled up in bed, reluctant to get up, might come from.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with regional and dialect words, it’s impossible to say with any certainty which of these two theories—if, indeed, either—is correct without more evidence and research. But alas it’s Saturday. And it’s just far too tempting to stay in bed. 

25 March 2015


A few days ago, we tweeted this:
Which led to this:
It’s a good question—why do we say eleven and twelve, but then thirteen and fourteen? Why not oneteen and twoteen? Or threelve and fourlve?

Unsurprisingly the teen suffix is a derivative of ten. Thirteen is literally “three and ten”, fourteen is “four and ten”, and so on. It’s a fairly ancient formation: thirteen was þreotene right back in Old English, a straightforward compound of þreo, “three”, and tene, a form of “ten”. The same goes for fourteen (derived from Old English feowertyne), and fifteen (Old English fiftene), all the way up to twenty—which was twentig, or literally “two groups of ten”.

But eleven was enleofan in Old English, which took its initial en– from the Old English word for “one”, ane. Twelve, likewise, was twelf, with its initial twe– taken from the Old English “two”, twa. The remaining leofan and –elf parts have noting to do with the “teen” suffix, but instead represent hangovers from some ancient, pre-Old English word, probably meaning “to leave over”, or “to omit”. So eleven was literally the number “left over” after you’d counted up to ten, and twelve was literally “two left over after ten”. 

But why were eleven and twelve given different names from all the other teens? Why weren’t they just ane-tene and twa-tene?

The problem is that we’re now hardwired to think of our numbers decimally—in 10s, 100s and 1000s. There’s a good reason for doing so, of course, because 10 is such an easy number to work with. You can count to 10 using your fingers (which is called dactylonomy, by the way), and calculations involving 10 are effortlessly simple. 79 multiplied by 10, you say? 790. Easy. But this decimal way of thinking is actually a relatively recent invention, spurred on by the development of the metric system in the Middle Ages. Historically, many of our numbering and measuring systems were based around 12, not 10—and hence there are twelve inches in a foot, and two sets of twelve hours in a day. 

It’s a much more complicated number to deal with arithmetically of course (79 multiplied by 12? Give me a minute...) but there’s a very practical reason for counting in terms of 12 rather than 10—because 12 is a much more mathematically productive number. 

A set of 10, for instance, can only be split equally into two sets of five, or five sets of two. A set of 12, however, can be split into 2, 3, 4 or 6. Likewise a set of 20 can only be divided into 2, 4, 5 or 10, but a set of 24 can be divided into 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 or 12. And even 100 has barely half the number of factors (2, 4, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50) than 144 (2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 16, 18, 24, 36, 48, 72). 

12 homemade cookies. Soon to be 0 homemade cookies.

The fact that 12 could be so conveniently divided in so many different ways made it particularly useful, in everyday terms, in dealing with fractions, proportions, allocations, and measurements. It even led to some separate words for a set of twelve (dozen) and a set of twelve twelves (gross) entering our language—and to many ancient number systems, including the one we use today, using a base of 12, not 10. Ultimately twelve, and thereby eleven, earned names distinct from all those numbers above them, and it’s only our modern, decimal-based perspective that makes this seem strange.

Oh—948! Got there eventually... 

20 March 2015


So earlier today—across the UK and much of north-western Europe, at least—this happened:

The Moon, photobombing the Sun  (The Guardian)

A solar eclipse. The first one approaching a total eclipse of the Sun in the UK for more than fifteen years. Although here at HaggardHawks HQ, while the Moon was spectacularly blocking out the Sun, the rainclouds were spectacularly blocking out the Moon. This is the UK, after all. 

But anyway. What can we tell you about eclipses?

Well, the word eclipse first appeared in English in the fourteenth century. Like pretty much every English word dating from the fourteenth century, its earliest record comes from Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it in 1374 in a translation of a work by the Roman scholar Boethius. Before then, the word was borrowed into English from French, but its earliest origins lie in its Latin and Greek equivalents, eclipsis and ekleipsis.

The initial ec– of eclipse is the Greek word ek, meaning “out” or “outside of”. It’s the same ec– as in words like eccentric (literally “outside of the centre”), ecstasy (literally “out of place”), and anecdote (literally “not given out”—or, to put it another way, “unpublished”). But it can also be found in words like appendectomy and tonsillectomy, in both of which it appears alongside the Greek word for “cut”, temnein; the surgical suffix ectomy literally means “cut out”.

The –lipse of eclipse is leipsis, a Greek word essentially meaning “a failing”, “a leaving”, or “a shortfall”. Put these two roots together, and you’ll get the Greek verb ekleipein, which was once variously used to mean “to fail to appear”, or “to not be in your usual place”. And from there, it’s easy to see how the word came to be attached to lunar and solar eclipses. 

Although it helps that the weather is better in Greece.

17 March 2015


Look up the origin of the word limerick and there’s a good chance you’ll be pointed in the direction of the the English poet Edward Lear. Best known for writing The Owl and The Pussycat, in 1846 Lear published an aptly titled Book of Nonsense:

There was an Old Man who said, “Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!”
When they said—“Is it small?”
He replied—“Not at all!
It is four times as big as the bush!”

Lear’s book contained more than 100 five-line poems just like this one, each of which relayed the consistently bizarre activities of a consistently bizarre parade of people, including “an Old Man of New York” (“who murdered himself with a fork”), “a Young Lady of Ryde” (“whose shoe-strings were seldom untied”), and “an Old Person of Ischia” (“whose conduct grew friskier and friskier”). The collection proved hugely popular, and soon Lear’s quirky five-line poems—with their jaunty rhythm and memorable AABBA rhyme scheme—soon became known as “Learic” verses.

King Lear
Over time the fairly clumsy word Learic drifted ever closer to one of its more easily pronounceable soundalikes—namely Limerick, a city and county in south-western Ireland—and eventually, this was this name that stuck. It’s a neat, if slightly flawed little story. The flaw being that it’s complete rubbish. 

For one thing, Lear didn’t invent the AABBA style of verse. That honour goes to the Italian Dominican friar and scholar Thomas Aquinas, who wrote this in the mid-thirteenth century:

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.

Regrettably, Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio is not the Latin for “There once was a girl from Nantucket”, as Aquinas’s poem was actually a prayer:

Let it be for the elimination for my sins,
For the expulsion of the desire and lust,
For the increase of charity and patience,
Humility and obedience,
As well as all virtue.

Aquinas didn’t call his poem a limerick of course—but then again, neither did Lear. Another problem with the “Learic” explanation is that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word limerick didn’t appear in print until 1896, eight years after Lear’s death, when the author and artist Aubrey Beardsley wrote a letter to a friend to say that he had been trying “to amuse myself by writing limericks on my troubles”.

The limerick Beardsley came up with, inspired by a painting of St Rose of Lima, is far, FAR too indecent to reprint here. After all, there might be children reading this. But if you’re in the mood to be scandalized, you can read the original (alongside Beardsley’s accompanying illustration) here. Seriously—you have been warned...

But self-defiling Peruvian saints aside (you really want to know what that limerick says now, don’t you?) Beardsley tellingly used the word limerick in his letter without any accompanying explanation or context, suggesting the word was already well known by the time he came to use it. Could Learic have transformed into limerick in such a short period of time? It’s unlikely.

Sir James Murray: OED CEO
So where did the name come from? Well, according to Sir James Murray—founding editor of the OED, no less—the word actually derives from an old drinking song, once popular among troops in the British army, that apparently required all those taking part to make up their own verse, one person after another. Each verse was an improvised five-line poem, following an AABBA rhyme scheme, and was typically witty, nonsensical, satirical, or indecent in nature. And in between all of these spur-of-the-moment verses, the entire group would join together for the chorus, “Will you come up to Limerick?”. 

The game was probably based on an even earlier Irish jig called Will You Come Down To Limerick?, or Kitty Come Down To Limerick, which is still performed—albeit without the indecent lyrics—today. 

13 March 2015


You probably already know what an oxymoron is—a terribly good figure of speech in which two contradictory words or ideas are juxtaposed for rhetorical effect. Like Shakespeare’s “witty fool”, Chaucer’s “hateful good”, Tennyson’s “falsely true”, Hemingway’s “scalding coolness”, Milton’s “darkness visible”, or Cameron’s “True Lies”. But you were probably already unconsciously aware of that. Like an open secret. Or old news.

A light heavyweight. And some dry ice.

But you might not know that the word oxymoron itself, appropriately enough, is an oxymoron. The oxy– part (the same as in words like oxygen, paroxysm and peroxide) comes from the Greek word for “sharp” or “acrid”, oxys. The –moron part (the same as in, well, moron) comes from the Greek word for “dull”, moros. So an oxymoron is literally a “sharp-dull” turn of phrase.

There’s something fantastically oxymoronic about oxymoron being oxymoronic. But it’s certainly not alone. That Greek word moros, for instance, is also the root of sophomore, the first part of which is the Greek word for “clever” or “wise”, sophos. So a sophomore is literally a “wise-dull” person. 

Similarly, if you play the pianoforte then you’re playing the Italian words for “soft”, piano, and “loud”, forte—the name was deliberately coined because the piano was the first keyboard instrument that allowed the player to change the volume of what he or she was playing. And the preposterous meaning of preposterous comes from the fact that it combines two entirely contradictory Latin words: prae, meaning “before”, and posterus, meaning “after” or “subsequent”. So something described as preposterous is literally as absurd as something that has its “before after”.

And then there are words like bittersweet, and speechwriting. The word bridegroom literally means “bride-man”. Firewater is an old name for strong liquor. And how can you really have a ballpoint when balls don’t have points? Or be a spendthrift when thrifty people don’t spend? And how exactly can you be wholesome? Feel free to add your own oxymoronic examples to this list. 

In random order, of course. 

12 March 2015


Earlier on today, we tweeted this: 
And we thought you might like to know a bit more about it.

It’s easy to presume that pen and pencil are related words, but in fact they’re completely unconnected. Pen comes from the Latin word penna, meaning “feather”, making it an etymological cousin of words like pennant, empennage and even penne pasta. The earliest pens were quills—long birds’ feathers dipped in liquid ink—and it’s from there that the modern pen eventually evolved.

Pencil, on the other hand, comes from penicillus, which was originally the Latin word for artist’s paintbrush. Brushes were used as writing implements long before modern pencils of lead, chalk and eventually graphite were developed in the Middle Ages, and it’s from there that the modern pencil emerged in the late 1500s. 

In turn, the Latin word penicillus is a diminutive of penis—no, honestly—which, besides the obvious, could also be used to mean “tail” in Latin. But how did a word meaning “little tail” also come to mean “paintbrush”? Well, picture a lion’s tail, with a soft tuft of hair at the end of it, and you can probably see the resemblance. Just make sure you’re picturing its tail.

The world’s most dangerous paintbrush


Archery. Tapestry weaving. Playing the lute. Invading England. There were all kinds of things you could do to pass the time in medieval France. 

Another popular pastime was genealogy, the study of heritage and descent. Seemingly, the nobility of the day liked nothing more than drawing elaborate tree diagrams to boast both in print and in picture of their family’s proud French heritage.

Some of these diagrams comprised little more than lists of names connected by a series of hand-drawn strokes and lines. Others, like the one above, were more involved and more detailed. And some were even drawn as actual trees. But no matter how they were put together, there was something about the lines on these genealogical diagrams—long, flat and broad, with shorter vertical strokes linking one generation to the next—that reminded the writers and artists who produced them of birds’ feet. And, in particular, of cranes’ feet.

Today, in modern French, “crane’s feet” is pieds de grues. But back in the eleventh century, it would have been something more like pée de grue. And if that particular snippet of obscure medieval French sounds even slightly familiar, then it’s because pée de grue eventually morphed into our word pedigree—namely, the traceable ancestry or descent of something.