30 May 2015


Once upon a time, Bacchus, the louche Greek god of wine and debauchery, was pursuing a fair young maiden named Amethyste, who had caught his beer-goggled eye. Amethyste, however, was sober as a judge and had no intention of giving in to Bacchus’s bleary advances, so she fell to her knees and prayed to the gods themselves to keep her chaste. 

The gods, in their infinite wisdom, responded by keeping Amethyste safe in the only sensible way they knew how—namely by transforming her into a large slab of white quartz. (This is fiction, remember.) 

But Bacchus had had such a skinful back at the grape harvest that even a bare slab of white quartz still looked pretty alluring, so in one final attempt to woo Amethyste—and in a perfect demonstration of the kind of thinking that seems utterly logical when you’re drunk—he poured his wine all over the quartz. 

Unfortunately that had no effect at all other than to stain the quartz a deep, rich purple colour, and he was forced to retire, frustrated and unsatisfied. Amethyste’s chastity, meanwhile, remained in tact. (Well, it would do wouldn’t it, because she was now made entirely of quartz.) But, anyway—THE END.

The story of Bacchus and Amethyste, of which this is a fairly accurate précis, was written in the sixteenth century by the French Renaissance poet Rémy Belleau. Although Bellaeu’s tale is not an original Greek myth, it’s nevertheless inspired by an Ancient Greek belief that amethyst stones could prevent drunkenness; drinking from a cup made from or decorated with amethyst, you would simply never get drunk. 

I could have done with one of these at New Year

This peculiar belief was even reflected in the word amethyst itself:
Etymologically, amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, which is in turn based around the Greek word for “wine”, methys. The initial a– of amethyst is a negative- or opposite-forming suffix (like un- or non- in English today), and so altogether amethyst effectively means “not drunk” or “not intoxicated”.

But where did this superstition come from? Well, admittedly, no one is entirely sure, but it’s probably the amethyst’s rich, wine-like purple colour that first led to its association with booze, and from there it’s just a quick hop, stagger and jump to the idea that such a dazzling precious stone could have corresponding magic powers. 

Versions of this superstition are found dotted throughout Greek literature, with even Plato seeming to get in on the act in one of his Epigrams:
The stone is an amethyst: but I, the tippler Dionysus, say, “Let it either persuade me to be sober, or let it learn to get drunk.”
But even by the days of the great Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, this idea was already ancient history: in his Natural History, Pliny dismissively states that “the falsehoods of the magicians would persuade us that these stones are preventative of inebriety.” After all, it’s an easy enough hypothesis to test out. And here at HaggardHawks HQ, we’d be more than happy to volunteer. 


If you’ve managed to escape the rack-renters and have found a place to call your own, there’s a good chance you’ll have (or, at least, will once have had but have now paid off, you lucky thing) a mortgage. In which case, it’ll likely come of no surprise to find out that a mortgage is literally a deal to the death:
Hmm. Suddenly, those rack-renters don’t look so bad.

The first half of the word mortgage is the Latin word for “death”, mors, which is the same root as in words like mortician, rigor mortis and immortal. The second half, however, is more obscure: gage is an old word for a pledge or a security that is put down “to ensure the performance of some action”, as the OED explains. 

English borrowed the word mortgage from French sometime around the fourteenth century, and it steadily all but replaced (outside of esoteric legal literature, at least) the earlier Latin term mortuum vadium—literally a “dead pledge”. That in turn was paired with a vivum vadium, or a “living pledge”, which referred to someone borrowing money from someone in exchange for their allowing them to use their lands or estate, usually at a nominal annual fee gleaned from the profits of the land, until the debtor was able to repay the money.

All in all then, a mortgage is indeed literally a “death pledge”—but fear not, homeowners, because it’s not you that’s doing the dying any time soon. Instead, it’s thought that the “death” involved in the mortgage’s ominous “death pledge” isn’t that of the debtor, but rather either the debt itself, or the estate against which the debt is secured. That is to say, by entering into a mortgage, you “pledge” to continue paying your debt until it is entirely cleared (and thereby figuratively “killed”), otherwise your ownership of your estate “dies” if you can’t pay up. 

On a side note, the “gage” of mortgage was also once the name of a glove, or similar item, thrown contemptuously to the ground at the start of a conflict or duel to announce someone’s intention to fight—that’s also why you engage someone in battle. Might be worth taking one with you next time you have an appointment at the bank.
“You’re charging *how* much interest?”

26 May 2015


It’s fair to say that some of the words and facts we tweet about are a little unusual. Yes, take a bow monkey-poop, we mean you.

But one of the most unusual we’ve posted in a long time was this nugget of etymological gold (lifted—shameless plug alert—from our new book), which we tweeted earlier this week:

So, hold your nose. We’re going in.

We might have name-checked the Tudors in that tweet, but we’ll get to them in a moment. For now, this malodorous story starts with a tenth-century English monk named Ælfric of Eynsham, who as well as being abbot of Eynsham Abbey in Oxfordshire was also one of the most prolific writers of his day. Ælfric’s output included homilies, sermons, biographies of saints, biblical translations and biblical commentaries, as well as several scholarly works written for students of Latin. Among them was a vast bilingual glossary of Latin and English, which contains the earliest records of a whole host of English words—two of which, feorting and fystinghe defined as “breaking wind”.

Unsurprisingly, the Old English word feorting is the ancestor of the modern English farting, and it’s fair to say that its meaning has lingered on, unchanged, for the last thousand years. Fysting too has survived down into modern English, but unlike feorting it’s no longer found in its original sense—instead, it’s the ancestor of a handful of seemingly innocent English words, including our old friend feisty. So how did we get from a word for “a small windy escape backwards” (as the great Francis Grose defined it in 1785), to a word meaning “lively”, “aggressive”, and “courageous”? Well, the answer lies with those aforementioned Tudors—or rather, with their flatulent dogs.

As Old English wafted into Middle English, fyst was still being used as just another general word for—well, a whiffy crackaret. But by the mid-fifteenth century, fysting had come to be used particularly in reference to foul-smelling dogs, which it can only be presumed had a notable habit of letting one go. In fact, Tudor-period English is filled with so many references to “fysting hounds” and “foisting curs” (literally “farting dogs”) that they’ve earned themselves their own entries in some historical dictionaries.

Hey, don't look at me—I can't smell anything.

Unlike Old English, of course, a lot of literature from the Tudor period still survives, and because of that we’ve even got some idea what kind of dogs these “foisting curs” were. Just take a look at this quote from De Canibus Britannicis, or Of English Dogges, a work by the sixteenth century English physician (and namesake of Caius College, Cambridge), John Caius:
Canis Meliteus … This puppitly and pleasantly curre, (which some frumpingly tearme fysteing hounds), serves ... no good vse except … to succour and strengthen quailing and quammning stomackes, to bewray bawdery and filthy abbominable leudnesse. 
We now know canis Meliteusis as the Maltese, a small white-haired lapdog seemingly once popular with Tudor women (not least because of its apparent ability to “quell filthy abominable lewdness”). But that’s not the Maltese’s only quirk: like a lot of diminutive dog breeds, it also has a gutsy, energetic character, and is quick to snappily defend what it sees as its own territory. 

And it’s this “feisty” nature—helped along by some inopportune Tudor flatulence—that brings us right up to date: by the mid-nineteenth century, feist had become just another nickname for any small dog, and it wasn’t long before the related adjective made its first appearance in print in 1896.

Now, please—someone open a window. 

5000 tweets!

22 May 2015


The other day, we tweeted this:
As etymologies go, it’s probably one of the strangest (as well as one of the most deprecatory)—so what’s the story behind it? Well, lady is the descendent of the Old English word hlǣfdīge, which brought together hlāf, meaning “bread”, and dīge or dæge, an Old English word for a female servant or housekeeper.

As well as being the ancestor of the modern English loafhlāf is also thought to be etymologically related to another Old English word, hlifan, which meant something like “to build a tower” or “to tower upwards”—so there’s likely some ancient connection between rising dough and the construction of castles and keeps. They should really try using less yeast.

Dīge, meanwhile, essentially meant “housemaid” or “servant” in Old English, and is the ancestor of the (albeit fairly old-fashioned) English word for a dairymaid, dey. Its origins are thought to lie in the same ancient root as dough, and so it’s presumed that dīge might originally have referred to the servant or member of a household whose job it was to knead and bake bread—hence it’s later association with hlāf.

Mediaeval ladies: clearly dressed for breakmaking

Hlǣfdīge ultimately meant something along the lines of “bread-kneader” or “dough-maker” in Old English—but that’s not to say that it was always used in that literal sense. In fact, by the time hlǣfdīge first began to appear in written English around 1000 years ago, it had already begun to take on some of the meanings and connotations of its modern equivalent, lady, so that by the Middle English period hlǣfdīge (or leafdi, as it had become by then) was being widely used to refer merely to the female head of a household—and it’s from there that our modern word eventually developed.

As the male equivalent of lady, incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that lord shares an almost identical history: in Old English, lord was hlāford, a compound of our old friend hlāf and the Old English ward or weard, meaning “keeper” or “guardian” (which is also the origin of the names Edward and Stuart, incidentally). A lord was therefore the head of a household, in charge of doling out a supply of bread to his inferior, menial servants. 

And those inferior menial servants? Well, they were the hláf-ǽta in Old English—or the “bread-eaters”.


Today’s Word of the Day over at @HaggardHawks has caused a bit of a stir:

Quite right too: Friday is the stepping stone into the weekend (and if you’re reading this in the UK, you’ve got a bank holiday weekend to look forward to as well). So why so Friday-faced?

Well, one theory suggests this comes from nothing more than Friday being a traditionally unlucky day. Among sailors and travellers, it’s long been seen as bad luck to begin a voyage on a Friday (a belief that inspired this brilliant urban myth), and likewise Friday is also seen a traditionally inauspicious day on which to be married: the name Friday derives from that of the pagan goddess of beauty and fertility, Frigga, who would apparently become spitefully jealous of any brides wed on her special day. 

But is general superstition and ill-starred folklore enough to make someone look gloomy? Probably not. Instead, Friday-faced likely derives from the fact that Friday is a traditional day of fasting, penitence, and abstinence, a religious custom born out of the fact that Jesus is said to have died on a Friday. Although today it’s a tradition most closely associated with Catholicism, abstaining on (what is now) the final day of the working week is actually quite a widespread custom

So if you’re Friday-faced, chances are you’re just hungry. But never mind—that’s what weekends are for.

9 May 2015


Considering our mascot is a hawk*, for some reason we seem to tweet an awful lot about magpies:
And sometimes it even happens inadvertently:
We stumbled across pleany-pie a few weeks ago in a handful of old local English dictionaries. Among them was the hallowed English Dialect Dictionary, which defines a pleany-pie as “a tell-tale, a gossip; literally, a complaining magpie.” The EDD even records an old Yorkshire nursery rhyme that was presumably used to admonish schoolyard snitches back in eighteenth century England:

A pleeanie-pie tit,
Thy tongue shal be slit,
An’ iv’ry dog i’ th’ town
Shal hev a bit.

Dismembered tongues aside, it’s the “complaining magpie” part of the EDD’s definition that concerns us here: pleany– is an old dialect derivative of plain, meaning “to whinge” or “bemoan” (as in complain or plaintive), while –pie comes straight from magpie, a proverbially raucous and chattery bird. Hence a pleany-pie is an annoyingly vocal, complaining person.

Our pleany-pie tweet, however, sparked an interesting back-and-forth in the comments (we’re looking at you @BertSwattermain and @MooseAllain) about the connection between pie and magpie, and magpie and pied, meaning “black and white”, or “blotchy”. And, as always happens in cases like this, one quick bit of research opened a whole new etymological can of worms.

So, first things first. Originally, magpies were known only as pies in English—the earliest record we have of them comes from an Anglo-Saxon document that lists pyge as the Old English translation of pica, the Latin name for the magpie. It’s from this Latin name that the English pie eventually evolved, but if the word pica itself looks familiar, then that’s probably because we still use it today as the medical name for a pregnant woman’s cravings for bizarre, non-nutritious substances people shouldn’t really consume—like ice, clay, charcoal, and bread-and-butter pudding. (Bread does not belong in a dessert, people, no matter how much custard you pour over it.)

But we digress. It was the Greeks who first described these strange prenatal cravings, and it was they who chose to name them after the magpie (kíssa in Ancient Greek), because magpies, they noticed, seem to eat just about anything. They’d probably even eat bread-and-butter pudding given half a chance. 

A Eurasian magpie. Bread-and-butter pudding just out of shot.

Over time, the Greek kíssa gave way to the Latin pica, which in turn simplified to pie in English. And it’s thanks to this, and the magpie’s familiar black-and-white plumage (in Europe and North America at least—take a look at this fantastically fruity magpie from Sri Lanka), that we now have names for other black-and-white birds like the pied wagtail and the pied flycatcher, as well as for piebald horses. And it’s also why the Pied Piper was such a snazzy dresser.

So if that’s the story behind the –pie, what about the ­mag–? Well, there’s no lengthy, civilization-spanning history to talk about here. The mag– of magpie is actually just a pet form of the girl’s name Margaret, or Margery. That might sound odd, but there’s actually a long tradition in English dialect of using forenames as nicknames for birds, as in tom-tit, jenny-wren and robin redbreast (which was originally the Robert Redbreast, incidentally). 

So the goldfinch was once nicknamed the King Harry. The barn owl was once the Jenny owl. The song thrush is still known in some locations as Mavis. House sparrows were once Philips, while hedge sparrows were variously known as Mollies, Isaacs, or even Molly Isaacs. And, best of all, the green woodpecker—when it isn’t busy piloting short-haul flights for weasels—was once the laughing BetsyRecords show that magpies first earned the nickname Mag or Maggie as far back as the mid-1500s (although it was likely in use locally earlier than that), and it soon established itself as the norm—albeit, with a variety of brilliant local variations.

But that still leaves one last question—why give a person’s forename to a bird at all? Well, in the case of magpie some etymologists have pointed to a connection between chattering birds and gossiping, incessantly talking women or “chattermags” (no comment here), but it’s just as likely that it’s the familiarity of magpies, and all the other birds listed above, that earned them an equally common forename as their nickname. Which, incidentally, is the same reason why we have tomcats and billy-goats—and it’s probably why baby kangaroos are called joeys.

*Actually, our mascot appears to be a kestrel—which is a falcon, not a hawk. Uh oh…