30 April 2015


Earlier this month, UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband made headlines (as well as a new Labour Party slogan) by exclaiming that “Hell, yes!” he was tough enough to be the next Prime Minister. Then, earlier this week, David Cameron likewise made headlines when he admitted to feeling “bloody lively” about the upcoming election. Well, somebody has to.

But no matter how rousing, how convincing, or how appropriate you might think the two leaders’ sweary outbursts were (and if they think this is swearing, they should really try standing at a bar in Newcastle on a Friday night), their use of tongue-worms nevertheless brings to mind two brilliant terms from the murky world of rhetoric.

The first, cacemphaton, is the rhetorical use of bad language. It literally means “bad show” or “bad appearance” in Greek, the phaton suffix being a distant relative of words like phantom and epiphany. It was coined by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian in the first century AD, in his enormous guide to speech-making, Institutio Oratoria, or “The Institutes of Oratory”. Twelve volumes of rhetorical treatises, you say? Count me in! 

(Asking a rhetorical question and then answering it yourself? That’s anthypophora.) 

Marcus Fabius Quintilian: He’ll never catch a cab up there.

Quintilian, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a big fan of bad language—in fact he labelled it “objectionable”, “corrupt”, and “unbecoming”. So when it came to actually writing about the expletives he had in mind, he neatly dodged the issue by writing instead that, “it would be tedious to specify them, and in doing so I should dwell upon the very fault which I say should be avoided.” He’s got a fucking point.

But the bad language Quintilian was referring to wasn’t the same “bad language” we use today. Instead, he used cacemphaton to refer to a clumsy or ill-advised choice words, and in particular a chance combination of words that could be misinterpreted or misheard as something vulgar. By means of an example, he singled out the Latin word intercapedo, meaning “interruption” or “interval”, which he advised against using because its final two syllables sound remarkably like the Latin word for “I fart”.

So originally cacemphaton referred to the unintentional use of bad or vulgar language—like when the F word suddenly appears in the middle of your polite request to “pass a fork and knife”, or when you tell someone to “catch it!”, and instead it sounds like a warning not to step in a used litter tray. But over time Quintilian’s definition broadened, so that today cacemphaton generally refers to any rhetorical use of coarse or vulgar language, particularly for emphasis or effect. The unintentional “bad language” that Quintilian identified, meanwhile, is now termed cacosyntheton—literally “badly put together” language.

If you are going to swear, though, there should always be a good reason for it—which brings us to the second word on our list: lalochezia. It describes the use of foul language to relieve stress, pain or frustration. So those words that rush through your mind (and out of your mouth) when you miss your train, stub your toe, or accidentally brush against a hot iron? That’s lalochezia. 

Appropriately enough for a word concerning foul language, lalochezia itself has a pretty foul etymology. So while the initial lalo– is a derivative of the Greek word for “speech”lalia (as in glossolalia, the proper name for speaking in tongues), the –chezia part is a derivative of the Greek verb chezo—which means “to defecate”, and is a not-so-distant ancestor of the English word shit. So, etymologically speaking at least, lalochezia is literally “shitting out of your mouth”. 

Quintilian would have been horrified.


If you’re reading this in the UK (and you don’t live under a rock) then chances are you’ll know that there’s a general election on its way. If you’re not reading this in the UK, then frankly I hope you’re getting better weather than we are at the minute, but apologies in advance—this is going to be about politics...

So. With the election now all but imminent, the lovely people at BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme asked @HaggardHawks to pop along and explain the origins of some choice political words—some, but not all, taken from our new factbook, Word Drops. These etymological snippets have been going out on Radio 4 every day this week, and while you can catch up with any that you missed on the BBC iPlayer (for the next few weeks, at least), we thought it might be worth explaining a few of the more intriguing word histories here on the blog.

We began on Monday with one of the main buzzwords of the 2015 electoral campaign—no, not Milibrand, but austerity

With arguments raging over the plans opposing parties are each putting forward in their election budgets (a derivative of bougette, a French leather coinpurse, incidentally), it’s fitting to know that austerity traces all the way back to austeros, a Greek word meaning “harshness” or “bitterness”. Originally, it was used only in relation to poor-tasting or poor-quality food or wine, but over time this meaning broadened to come to include the figurative use of austere to mean “severe”, “frugal”, or “spartan”.

Speaking of political plans, manifesto unsurprisingly comes from the same root as manifest, in the sense of something becoming or being made clear or visible; the notion is, quite literally, that a politician or party makes all of their ideas clear in their manifesto. The initial mani– here derives from the Latin word for “hand”, manus (as in manipulate and manicure), and it’s thought that manifest might once have been used to describe thieves that were caught red-handed, with clear, incontrovertible proof of their guilt—hence the later sense of “clarity” or “visibility”. A connection between criminality and politics, you say? Surely not.

That brings us to quockerwodger. If ever a political word needed bringing back into common currency, then this is it. Though not a truly political term in its own right—it’s actually an old dialect word for a single-string wooden marionette, derived from quock, meaning “tremble” or “shake”—in nineteenth century slang, quockwodger was commandeered by the satirical press as a name for a “pseudo-politician”, namely one whose strings are being pulled by someone unseen

And if you’re fed up with quockerwodgers, then it’s worth bearing in mind the original meaning of ostracism: back in Ancient Athens, voters could elect to have someone they disliked ejected from the city for anything up to ten years. Votes would be cast by writing down names on a shard of pottery called an ostrakon, and whoever’s name came up the most would be fairly unceremoniously run out of the city.

An ostrakon. That says “Pericles”, not “Farage”

And, finally, you may have caught this over on Twitter the other day:

Although, as we tweeted, no one is quite sure of the precise connection between sycophancy and figs, one possible theory holds that while Ancient Athenian politicians would sycophantically ingratiate themselves with one another, behind the scenes they would encourage their followers and supporters to heckle and jeer their opponents—which included showing them “the fig”. Effectively an Ancient Greek version of sticking two fingers up at someone, “giving the fig” involves pushing the thumb through the closed fingers of a clenched fist, so that the hand looks (with a little imagination) a bit like a fig. But is this the genuine origin of sycophant? It’s impossible to tell—but it’s a good story all the same.

24 April 2015


Earlier on today, we tweeted this:
It’s always nice to discover words for things you didn’t realise have names (we’re looking at you vartiwell, piqûre and manicule), and tittle undoubtedly falls into that category. But this great little fact raises a great little question: why do we even bother to put a dot over the letters i and j at all? 

Actually, the second part of that question is much easier to answer than the first: J is just a modification of the considerably older letter I, and probably first emerged as a means of signalling the last figure in a row of Roman numerals—so 18 might once have been written “xviij”, 28 as “xxviij”, and so on. And because lower-case i had a dot, so did lower-case j(Shameless plug: there’s more on that in our new book.) 

Roman numerals: XI and they know it

Eventually J was used enough in written language to warrant its own place in the alphabet and ultimately to earn its own distinct sound—more often than not, in English at least, the voiced palato-alveolar affricate, /dʒ/, the j sound in words like jump, judge and janitor. But the fact that I and J were historically intertwined was enough for dictionaries as recently as the eighteenth century to continue lumping their I-words and J-words together. And it’s also the reason why Indiana Jones misspells “Jehovah” in The Last Crusade. What a film that was. Is it too late to make Marcus Brody the official mascot of HaggardHawks? It is? But we digress. 

So. If j has a dot because i has a dot, how did i get its dot?

Well, when distinct lower-case letters first began to appear more than 1000 years ago, they were typically just smaller, slightly simplified versions of their upper-case equivalents. This meant that lower-case i originally didn’t have a dot above it, because upper case I didn’t have one either. Instead, it was just a single, small vertical stroke: ı

This wouldn’t ordinarily have been a problem, except at the time a great deal of written language was still being written in Latin—and because of that, an unexpected snag began to emerge. 

Take a Latin word like foci, the plural of focus. Spell that with a dotless ı and it’s still perfectly legible, focı. But take a word like genii, the plural of genius—or for that matter radii, the plural of radius (or, according to Toyota at least, Prii, the plural of Prius). Change their two consecutive i’s to dotless ı and you’re left with genıı. Still legible? Well, maybe so in a nice, tidy, computer-generated typeface, but try to imagine it in handwritten cursive script, something along the lines of:


Suddenly these two ı’s become almost indistinguishable from a lower-case u:


(which has the unfortunate added consequence of being the Latin word for “knee”, not the Latin word for “intelligent people”.) Ultimately, Latin scholars faced a problem: the ii combination, which turns up fairly frequently in Latin vocabulary, could easily be misinterpreted in these newly-emerging lower-case letters. So to ensure that their texts were legible, something had to be done—and that’s where the tittle came in.

Not long after the Norman Conquest, writers and scholars began adding tiny dots or strokes above lower-case i (and hence lower-case j) to show, without doubt, that it was a separate character, independent from those around it. Eventually this simple and ingenious solution became standard practice, and, like all the best solutions, has remained in place ever since. 

14 April 2015


You know how it is. The slightest ache or pain, and that’s it—you’re a goner. Raise your concerns, and the answer’s always the same: “Oh, stop worrying about nothing. You’re such a hypochondriac!” 

It’s a sign of intelligence, apparently, just like bad handwriting, introversion, doodling, not being a morning person, and all the other much-maligned quirks and traits that smart people like to tell you all smart people have in common. But what exactly is hypochondria?  

Hypochondria: The only disease you haven’t got

You’ll probably recognise the hypo– prefix from dozens of other words like hypodermic and hypothermia. Derived from Greek, it literally means “under”, or “below”. So a hypodermic needle passes under the skin. Hypothermia is dangerously decreased temperature. The hypotenuse is the line that literally “stretches below” the other two in a right-angled triangle. And a hypothesis is the idea forming the basis of an argument, literally beneath everything else.

The –chondria part, though, is more complex, or at least more unusual. It derives from the Greek word for bodily cartilage, khondros, which is a distant etymological cousin of words like grind and grounds. But how did a word meaning something like “below the cartilage” come to mean “anxious about one’s health”? 

To answer that we have to go back to the early days of medicine, when physicians blamed just about every condition you can think of on the Four Humours—no, not the Marx Brothers, but four bodily secretions (namely blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), the correct balance of which was necessary for a healthy life. Each of the four was said to be produced in a different organ or region of the body, and an excess of any one of them was enough to cause you problems.

Of the four, black bile was said to be produced in the spleen, the blood-filtering organ found just below the protective cartilage of the ribcage—the hypochondrium. If the spleen or any of the other visceral organs in this area acted up, then an excess of black bile would be produced that could, it was believed, cause feelings of depression and anxiety. 

We still use the Greek name for “black bile”, melancholia, to describe these kinds of feelings today, and, ultimately, we still call a feeling of anxiety about one’s health hypochondria

10 April 2015


We tweeted about toilets a lot today. Purely by coincidence, of course. But you know how it is—once you’ve done one, it’s hard not to do another. Though one of the things we’ve tweeted probably needs a little bit more explaining:
Urine tax. It’s all a bit too bizarre to leave open ended like that.

So, first things first: Titus Flavius Vespasian became Roman Emperor in AD69 after a brief period of turbulence—known as The Year of the Four Emperors—that was sparked by the Emperor Nero’s suicide the previous summer. Unfortunately, Nero’s successor, Galba, was assassinated after just seven months on the throne. (There we go talking about toilets again.) Then Galba’s successor, Otho, committed suicide after just ninety days in power, and in turn his successor, Vitellius, was overthrown and executed just eight months after that. Happily, Vespasian’s rule restored some much-needed stability to the Empire after a year of unrest, and he remained in power for the next decade—until he died trying to stand up during a fatal bout of diarrhoea in AD79. But we digress. That’s more than enough potty talk for now.

One of the high points of Vespasian’s rule was the construction of The Colosseum, which he commissioned in AD70, and which was completed one year after his death by his son and successor, Titus. One of the low points of his rule, however, was his introduction of the vectigal urinae, or “urine tax”. And we thought paying 30p to use the toilets at King’s Cross Station was bad. 

In Vespasian’s defence, the urine tax was actually the brainchild of Nero, who first introduced it sometime around AD60. But long after it had been repealed, it was Vespasian’s decision to reintroduce it. So why was he so keen to tax pee?

Well, chemically speaking, because the urea it contains can be used to produce ammonia, urine is actually quite a useful commodity—and the Romans knew it. They used urine to bleach fabric (including their gleaming white togas), to soak animal hides (making it easier to remove the hairs before tanning), and they even mixed it with powdered pumice to make toothpaste to whiten their teeth. 

So with all this potentially lucrative activity going on unchecked, Vespasian sought to levy his vectigal urinae onto anyone whose business involved collecting urine from the sewers and communal cesspools dotted around Rome—not exactly the most pleasant of job descriptions, but the fact that it was even worth taxing in the first place shows just how profitable a living it could be.

Roman togas: didn’t smell as clean as they looked

If you’re still a bit put off by the prospect of siphoning off other people’s urine and boiling your clothes in it, don’t worry—you’re in good company. When Titus, Vespasian’s son, first heard about the urine tax he was so disgusted by it that he complained in person to his father. In response, Vespasian simply held a gold coin up in front of his face, and asked him if he was just as revolted by it. Confused, Titus answered “non olet”, or “it does not smell”, to which Vespasian knowingly replied, “and yet, it comes from urine!” Recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius, this particular anecdote gave rise to an old Latin saying, pecunia non olet—or “cash doesn’t stink”—which is sometimes still used in English today to imply that money remains unaffected by how it’s earned.

But back to toilets—it was Vespasian’s advocacy of the urine tax that ultimately led to his name being attached to public toilets across the Roman Empire, and it’s through that that French public urinals eventually came to be known as vespasiennes

It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “pay toilet”.


So a few days ago, we tweeted this:
It sounds odd, but it’s completely true. Noon is a corruption of the Latin word for “ninth”, novem, as in November. And just as November was originally the ninth month of the Roman year, noon was originally the ninth hour of the Roman day. And because the Romans are reckoned to have started their day at 6am, this made noon 3pm—or the ninth hour of daylight.

This mid-afternoon meaning was retained when the word noon first began to appear in English in the early Old English period. The OED has traced the word’s earliest written record to a medical textbook dating from the ninth century, which, under a remedy used as protection “against witches and elvish tricks”, describes a concoction of milk blended with powdered blackberry, lupins and pennyroyal that should be drunk “on þreo tida, on undern, on middæg, on non”—that is, “three times a day, at undern [9am], midday [12pm], and noon [3pm]”.

In fact noon didn’t come to refer to 12pm until the early 1200s. So what prompted the change from one time of day to the other?

Well, admittedly no one is quite sure, but the most likely explanation is an ecclesiastical one: around the same time, traditional church prayers shifted from mid-afternoon to midday, and it’s possible that the word noon simply shifted with them. Alternatively, there could have been a cultural shift responsible, that saw working hours change after the Norman Conquest and the main meal of the working day brought forward from mid-afternoon to closer to midday.

Whatever the reason, the change seems to have firmly established itself in the language by the late 1400s, by which time the original literal meaning of noon had all but vanished to be replaced entirely by the meaning we know and use today. 

4 April 2015


All this talk of competitions in the last few days got us thinking about lotteries.

The word lottery is a derivative of the Italian lotto adopted into English in the mid-sixteenth century. Lotto literally means a “lot” or portion of something in Italian—and so the entrants in a lottery are literally playing for their “lot” of the prize. 

It’s fair to say that this hardly ranks amongst the most surprising of etymologies, but a little more digging around in the origin of lottery nevertheless unearthed a bizarre tale from English history—and the surprising origin of an everyday expression.

According to the OED, the earliest record of the word lottery in English comes from 1567—when Queen Elizabeth I organised the English-speaking world’s first ever state lottery to raise funds for the “strength of the Realm and towards such other good publick works”. At the time, England was looking to expand its overseas trade, but in order to do that, ships, ports and harbours all needed to be built and upgraded. The cost of the project was understandably immense, but instead of raising taxes Elizabeth decided to organise a national lottery.

Hundreds of advertisements like the one above were printed and distributed across England, explaining that a total of 400,000 tickets were now on sale at the staggering price of ten shillings each—equivalent to more than £80 ($120) today. First prize, however, was a cool £5,000—or almost £1,200,000 ($1.8m) in 2015. 

As the leaflets explained, the prize was to be paid partly in cash, partly in gold and silver plate, and partly in other “sorts of merchaundizes”, including tapestries, wall hangings, and “good linnen cloth”. It was essentially an Elizabethan Prize Is Right, except that as an extra incentive everyone who bought a ticket was also given one week’s immunity from arrest for any crime barring murder, piracy or treason. Bob Barker never gave anybody that. 

Crucially, however, the leaflets also explained that Queen Elizabeth’s lottery was “without any blanckes”—and it’s this that leads us down another etymological path. 

At the time, it was standard practice when holding raffles and tombolas to have two “lot-pots”, one containing all the entrants’ tickets and the other containing a mixture of tickets bearing the prizes and a great deal more blank tickets, with nothing written on them at all. When the time came, one ticket would be drawn from each pot, but if your name was drawn along with a blank ticket you wouldn’t win anything—you would, quite literally, have drawn a blank. Elizabeth’s lottery temptingly did away with these frustrating “blanks”, so that whoever’s ticket was drawn first was guaranteed a prize. 

Over time, the phrase to draw a blank slipped into everyday use in English and gained the more general meaning of “to be unsuccessful” or “to search for something in vain”, and has remained in use in English ever since.

But all of this leaves one question unanswered: who won Elizabeth’s lottery? Sadly, the identity of the £5,000 winner is today unknown, but it’s fair to say that at the time it would have been a truly life changing prize. It makes giving away a few books seem pretty boring really... 

Elizabeth I: Never knowingly underdressed