31 July 2015


Yesterday, HaggardHawks tweeted this fairly peculiar definition: 
In fact, Rebecca is just one of a handful of first names that you can use as a word in its own right. A George, for instance, is a loaf of brown bread. Abigail is an old nickname for a lady’s maid. A Robert is a restaurant waiter (inspired by a series of cartoons from the late 1800s). Peter can be used as a verb to mean “to blow open a safe” (because St Peter held the keys to Heaven). And as for John—well, he can be a nickname for anything from your signature (thanks to John Q Hancock) to the client of a prostitute.

But what’s the story behind Rebecca? Well, if you know your British history—and a hat-tip to @Evansianl, who got it spot on—you’re probably way ahead of us:

The Rebecca Riots were a series of disturbances in the early 1840s prompted by the increasing exploitation and worsening prospects of the local farming communities in Wales. In the years leading up to the riots, farmers had had to contend with several seasons of bad weather and failed crops, poor financial returns on their produce, increased rents from landowners, and the on-going enclosure of common land. On top of that, farmers (who were already paying 10% of their profits to the local church) were then faced with the newly-amended Poor Law Act of 1834, which increased taxes and began channelling more and more public money into the controversial workhouse system

Enough was understandably enough. And in southern Wales, local farmers began taking their frustration out on what they saw as the embodiment of all their woes: the local tollgates.

“Down with this sort of thing.”

By the early nineteenth century, there were already 30,000 miles of toll roads and 8,000 toll gates in Britain, each of which was overseen by a local body of landowners and businessmen called a turnpike trust. On paper, the idea was simple enough—the money the toll roads raised would go towards the upkeep and repair of the roads themselves. But in practice, it often proved hopelessly flawed. 

The turnpike trusts were left largely to their own devices; they could charge however much they wanted, and could introduce however many tollgates on their land as they wished. Before long, many were taking full advantage of the loopholes in the system: by the 1830s, Carmarthen in south Wales was completely encircled by tollgates, leaving no free route into or out of the town. The gates, it seemed, had to go.

On 13 May 1839, an angry crowd rallied together and destroyed the tollgate in the tiny hamlet of Efailwen, 20 miles west of Carmarthan. This initial protest quickly sparked others, and soon tollgates all across south Wales were being attacked and destroyed by groups of locals fed up with the extortionate prices they were being forced to pay. The protests rumbled on for several months, reaching a peak in 1842 when a combination of an unexpectedly successful harvest and a cut in the taxes imposed on imported meat led to the prices of corn and cattle collapsing.

Within a year, however, it was all over. As the protests had grown ever more violent (a young woman working at a tollgate in Hendy, near Llanelli, was shot and killed in 1843), a diplomatic solution was quickly sought, and the Turnpikes Act of 1844 slashed the toll rates, and amalgamated all the turnpike trusts into one regulated body.

That’s all well and good, of course, but one question remains: why “Rebecca”?

Well, to answer that we need to turn to the Bible. Rebecca was the name of Isaac’s wife, and in the Book of Genesis we’re told that before leaving her family home to go and marry him, Rebecca’s mother gave her a blessing:
And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them. 
Clearly, it was the words “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” that gave the Rebecca Riots their name—and inspired the protesters in more ways than one: if you noticed that some of the befrocked protestors shown in the picture above looked, well, less than ladylike, that’s because they quite literally are.

As the protests picked up pace across south Wales, any gate-destroying farmers not wanting to be identified began disguising themselves in women’s clothing. These “Rebeccas” soon became the figureheads of the “Rebecca Riots”, with the leader of each protest even taking on the role of “Rebecca” in a bizarre role play before each gate was destroyed.

As strange as all that might sound, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Rebecca Riots grew out of genuine hardship and sense of frustration, and led to a change in the law that, although not perfect, nevertheless improved conditions for hundreds of the poorest people involved. Today, they are quite rightly seen as one of the most important movements in British social history.

26 July 2015


Well, stone the crows. It’s barely been a month since we celebrated our 10,000th Twitter follower, but after that tweet that went a bit berserkand after the HaggardHawks factbook Word Drops was profiled in The Telegraphwe’ve reached another milestone! As always, thanks everyone for following, sharing, reading, commenting, and just generally making HaggardHawks what it is. It really is very much appreciated.

But since our celebratory 10K quiz proved so popular, we’ve decided to do it all over again. So thanks to the guys at Qzzr, the HaggardHawks Quiz is backand it’s more fiendish than ever... Usual rules apply: 20 word- and language-related questions, the answers to which have all been tweeted on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed sometime in the past. There’s no time limit, but you’ll need your thinking-cap on (and your educated-guess-cap on standby). Click below to get started...and good luck!

24 July 2015


Last week HaggardHawks tweeted this screenshot, taken from a brilliantly-titled dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, published in 1890:

And, well, it probably all needs a bit more explaining.

Admiral is one of those deceptively straightforward words behind which lies the kind of history that keeps etymologists awake at night. They should really cut down on the caffeine after 5pm. It’s all a bit of a bewildering hodgepodge—the OED’s etymology alone comprises a 1300-word essay—but the basic theory is that, at its root, admiral derives from the old Arabic title amir, as in emir and emirates. This ancient title was then borrowed into and reshaped by the vocabularies of various Mediterranean countries and cultures around 1000 years ago, and via the all-conquering Normans eventually began to appear in English texts in the early thirteenth century.

Initially, admiral was used as a fairly general title for a ruler, a leader, or a military commander; things get confusing when we try to find out how it came to be used exclusively of a naval leader.

The first person we know to have held a naval title along the lines of admiral was the not-all-that-impressive-sounding George of Antioch in the early 1100s. George, who had already worked in several similar naval positions in Arabic-speaking North Africa, was put in charge of the fleet of the even-less-impressive-sounding Roger II, a twelfth-century King of Sicily, who gave him the Latin title ammiratus ammiratorum

It’s around this time that (etymologically, at least) things become a little hazy: it could be that George’s title ammiratus is a Mediaeval Latin spin on the Arabic title amir, which George would certainly have known of having served in North Africa. Alternatively, it could be a purely Latin title, with no connection to Arabic at all—on its own, ammiratus ammiratorum literally means “the most admired of the admired”.

Wherever the word’s ancient history might lead us from there, however, the fact is that by the time of George’s appointment Sicily too had been conquered by the Norman French—and it was the Normans who were responsible for transplanting the title from the sunny southern Mediterranean to the rainy European northwest. 

So. If that’s the story of admiral, what about the admiral of the narrow seas?

Well, in eighteenth century slang—long after admiral had established itself as a naval title in England—a curious trend emerged for applying fictitious “titles” to various people and characters. So a Captain Queernabs was “a shabby, ill-dressed fellow”, and a Captain Cork was a man who was “slow in passing the bottle”. A boatswain-captain was the naval equivalent of a swot: an overly competent seaman who never seemed to put a foot wrong. An admiral of the red was a wine-drinker. An admiral of the white was a coward. An admiral of the blue was a drunkard, or a publican (who would typically wear a blue tabard). An admiral of the red, white and blue was a ludicrously or ostentatiously dressed person. And an admiral of the narrow seas was the queasy, mulvathered seafarer mentioned above.

A vice admiral of the narrow seas, meanwhile, was an even worse drinking companion:

17 July 2015


For some reason, toilet talk keeps popping up on here (we’re looking at you, vespasienne), and unfortunately we’re heading back down that way now. That’s because last week we found out that when Italian slang gets weird, it gets brilliantly weird:
Pisacàn is an old Venetian word, which has long since dropped into local use in northern Italian slang. Predictably enough, the pis– means “urine”, while –càn comes from the same Latin root as canine (and Canary Islands). No surprises there then. But what is intriguing is that this is apparently another example of an etymological connection between dandelions and—well, what Samuel Johnson would euphemistically call “animal water”:
Quite right too. English is chock-full of slightly pee-tinged nicknames for dandelions, but more on those in a moment. First things first, though—why exactly is it called a dandelion?

English borrowed the word dandelion from French in the early Middle Ages. The original French name—itself derived from mediaeval Latin—was dent de lion, literally meaning “lion’s tooth”, which is a brilliantly imaginative reference to the dandelion’s jagged, sharply-toothed leaves:

Although a handful of even earlier examples of the word have been unearthed in Middle English herbals and medical textbooks—some dating back to the late 1300s—in those dandelion was still essentially a foreign word, and it wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that it started to become naturalized into English. Ultimately, the first truly English record we have comes from this translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, written in 1513.

Before then—and before we plundered dent de lion from the French—dandelions were known by all kinds of other names in English: in the fifteenth century, they were the priest’s crown (a reference to their bright golden colour) and the monk’s-head (a reference to their bald heads, after all the fluffy seeds have been blown away). Earlier still, the Old English name was ægwyrt, or “egg-wort”, an allusion to the dandelion’s egg yolk-coloured petals. But in the late Middle English period, another entirely different nickname began to emerge: pissabed

Pissabed derives from the old belief that the dandelions do indeed have a diuretic effect, increasing the amount of urine that the body produces. So have a nice fresh supper of dandelion salad and, well, you might end up having that dream where you’re asleep on the beach and the tide’s coming, or that you’re Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting. (If you know what I mean...)

Medicinally, diuretics are used to treat all kinds of different conditions from high blood pressure to liver disease, and in traditional and complementary medicine dandelions have been used to do precisely that for centuries. Whether they work or not (and the jury is certainly still out about that), this ancient association has become so ingrained in folklore that a whole host of pee-related nicknames for the dandelion have since emerged. 

The English Dialect Dictionary, for instance, lists pissabed alongside pissybed, pissymoor, pissimire, and pissimer-flower. Other dialect glossaries add pittly-bed, piddle-your-bedpee-the-bedpish-the-bed and pissy-mother to the list. And elsewhere there’s jack-piss-the-bed, tiddle-bed, wet-the-bed, and even pisshead. This association isn’t unique to English either: the original Middle English pissabed was probably a translation of the earlier French name piss-en-lit, and alongside that there are German nicknames like Pissblume and Bettnässer (literally “bed-wetter”), the Spanish slang meacama (“piss-the-bed”), and the Italian piscialetto.

A pappus. At 0000 hours, apparently.
It’s not just number ones that dandelions are blamed for either: the EDD also lists the fairly unsubtle shit-a-bed as another alternative name, while one nineteenth century Scots dialect dictionary likewise calls it the bumpipe. The dandelion’s supposed medical benefits are  alluded to in nicknames like heart-fever grass and live-long. There’s also dog-posy and dog-stinker, both of which tie in with the Italian “dog-pisses”. An entirely untrue bit of folklore that claims dandelions are poisonous is responsible for nicknames like devil’s-milk plant, canker flower, and witch gowan. And the ancient tradition that the number of breaths it takes to clear the dandelion’s fluffy seed head (known as the pappus, if you want to get technical) is the origin of a clutch of old nicknames like bessy-clock, one-o’clock, and fortune-teller plant

So just one question remains—why on earth are there so many different names? 

Well, it’s worth pointing out that dandelion is by no means alone here. Remember the dishwasher bird? Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me? The lady-with-the-twelve-flounces? And take a look at this fantastic Storified list of local nicknames for woodlice, put together by Mr @MooseAllain. The fact is that many of our most familiar, most noticeable, and most frequently-encountered plants and animals end up with page after page of alternative names, simply because they’re so familiar, so noticeable, and so frequently encountered. And the fact that dandelions are edible, as well as medicinally useful, only serves to make them even more noteworthy. Just don’t eat too many of them before bed...