30 September 2015


Wow, I can’t keep up with you all! It’s barely been three weeks since HaggardHawks passed the 12K threshold, but now Ethan the Hawk has flown his way past the 13,000 mark! Thanks, as always, to everyone for following, commenting, and sharing. It really is very much appreciated.

But passing another milestone can only mean one thing. Thinking caps on—and with a hat-tip to the brilliant guys over at Qzzr—it’s time for another HaggardHawks quiz! Same rules as always: 20 language-related questions, the answers to which have all been tweeted over on @HaggardHawks sometime in the last few months. Let us know how you get on over on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below, and of course feel free to share the quiz using the links below. 

Good luck!

25 September 2015

St Lucia

Here’s an intriguing little fact that popped up on @HaggardHawks the other day:
This is actually (shameless plug #1) one of the choicer entries cherry-picked from the Haggard Hawks fact book, Word Drops. And although (shameless plug #2) you can find out more about it (shameless plug #3) in the award-nominated book, maybe all this deserves a bit more explanation here.

On a global scale, the etymologies of country names are a bit of mixed bag. Some are so straightforward that they require no explanation at all (we’re looking at you, United Kingdom). Some are named after their inhabitants (France = “the land of the Franks”), or their colonists or conquerors (Philippines = “islands of Philip II of Spain”). Some are more descriptive (Bahamas = “the shallows”, Bahrain = “two seas”), or more poetic (Luxembourg = “little castle”, Zimbabwe = “land of stones”). And some are just plain weird (Cameroon = “land of shrimp”).

St Lucia takes its name from Lucy of Syracuse, a third-century Italian saint (the patron saint of blindness and throat infections, no less) who was martyred during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians in AD 304. Although the reasoning behind the name is unclear, we nevertheless know that it was chosen by the island’s first European explorers and settlers, the French, who arrived there in the early 1600s—although rumour has it that the island was being used as a base by French pirates long before then. 

But according to the US Department of State, as of 2015 there are 195 countries (defined as “a people politically organized into a sovereign state with a definite territory recognized as independent”) in the world. Is it really true that only 0.51% of them are named after women? 

Unfortunately, yes—although there are a couple of very close calls.

One of the most famous almost-but-not-quites is the Republic of Ireland. Both Ireland and its Irish equivalent Éire derive from Eiru, the name of a goddess of the land and sovereignty in Celtic mythology. On a similar theme, one theory claims that Tunisia takes its name from Tanith, a Phoenician goddess of the moon who, with her husband Baal-Hammon, was the principal deity of the ancient city of Carthage.

But as far as eponymous women on our list of 195 countries go, that really is it: if we exclude all the ancient mythological and supernatural beings, St Lucia really is the only country named after a woman. Although, as a handful of astute followers noted, there is one final possibility:

St Helena is a tiny 50 square-mile volcanic island in the South Atlantic, home to around 4,500 people. It takes its name from St Helena of Constantinople (the patron saint of difficult marriages, should you need one), who was the wife of Constantinus Chlorus, ruler of the Western Roman Empire from AD 293-306. 

Can we add St Helena to our list? Well, the problem here is that St Helena is officially classed as just one-third of a British Overseas Territory known as St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cuhna—the collective name for a clutch of British-controlled islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. And so long as we’re limiting our list to independent countries, St Helena just doesn’t fit the bill. 

So it seems St Lucia it seems really is the only country in the world named after a woman. But, hey—it could be worse: 

18 September 2015


This week over on @HaggardHawks, this intriguing little fact popped up: 
As a couple of diligent followers pointed out, yes, we’re only talking about English here. And yes, Q is also entirely absent from all 118 names. And, in case you’re wondering, there are Zs in zinc and zirconium, and Xs in xenon, oxygen and ununhexium (at least until it was renamed livermorium in 2012).

But with the New Scientist Twitter feed now seemingly muscling in on HaggardHawks’ patch (I can sense the geekiest showdown in internet history brewing already), now seems like the perfect time to spread our wings and try a little bit of science ourselves—albeit from a dictionary-orientated viewpoint.

So. All this talk of chemical elements raises an interesting question: why is it aluminium in Britain, and aluminum in America?

There’s an old story that claims a sizeable shipment of aluminium was once imported into the United States from Europe, but when it was recorded in the logbook of whatever port it arrived at, it was misspelled aluminum by the local harbourmaster (or harbormaster, as the case may be). It’s a neat story, but a fairly unrealistic one—would a mistake like this really be enough to alter the spelling of a word in an entire regional variety of English? It’s unlikely. Is this tall-tale probably a complete fabrication? That’s very likely. So what’s the truth?

Well, like a lot of the perceived differences between British and American English (we’re looking at you, zed vs. zee), things here haven’t always been as clear cut as they are today. Brace yourselves, then—here comes the science bit.

Minerals containing aluminium have been known and used since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that scientists began to realise that alums—naturally-occurring aluminium minerals, once used to do everything from dressing wounds to dyeing fabrics—all contained some kind of as-yet-undiscovered base metal. This metal was tentatively given the name alumine by the French chemist Guyton de Morveau in 1761, but it wasn’t until 1807 that the great Sir Humphrey Davy used his newly-refined process of electrolysis to try to isolate it from its mineral source.

Although he failed, in writing up his experiments Davy nevertheless discussed this tantalizingly unobtainable metal in English for the first time. As his paper, published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions the following year, explained:
Had I been so fortunate as to have obtained more certain evidences on this subject, and to have procured the metallic substances I was in search of, I should have proposed for them the names silicium, alumium, zirconium and glucium.
Confusingly, Davy’s list of the metals that eluded him—silicium (now silicon), alumium, zirconium and glucium (now beryllium)—means that the earliest written record we have of in English is neither spelled aluminium nor aluminum. At least that was until 1812, when Davy published a book cataloguing all of his discoveries to date, in which he stated:
This substance [alum] appears to contain a peculiar metal, but as yet Aluminum has not been obtained in a perfectly free state, though alloys of it with other metalline substances have been procured sufficiently distinct to indicate the probable nature of alumina.
This appears to give the American spelling aluminum the edge—but, confusing things even further, there’s this:
The result of this experiment is not wholly decisive as to the existence of what might be called aluminium and glucinium.
This final quote comes from an 1811 review of a lecture given by Davy at the Royal Society in London, two years earlier. Whether Davy himself had used the name aluminium in his lecture or whether it was merely the reviewer’s name of choice is impossible to tell, but one thing is clear: Davy, it seems, couldn’t make his mind up—and he was by no means alone.

While Davy’s original spelling alumium quickly dropped out of use, in the years that followed his experiments the names aluminium and aluminum were used interchangeably in both British and American literature, as well as by Davy himself. And all this confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that, because isolating aluminium was proving so problematic, the metal itself remained astonishingly scarce. In fact, for much of the nineteenth century aluminium was one of the rarest and most expensive metals in the world: in the 1850s, Emperor Napoleon III of France reportedly had a set of cutlery cast from aluminium that he reserved for only his most important guests, while everyone else had to make do merely with gold. The need to mention aluminium in print consequently remained small, and so a standardized form of the word failed to emerge.

Napoleon III: Expensive tastes, exceptional moustache

When Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, however, the only spelling that made his final cut was aluminum; because aluminium was still so rare at the time, it’s possible that Webster’s preference for aluminum was an attempt to ally it more closely to  platinum, another equally rare and equally precious metal. Back in Europe meanwhile, the trend drifted the other way: the Latin-inspired –ium endings common to many of the other recently-discovered elements (including a number of those isolated by Davy’s more successful experiments) led to the spelling aluminium steadily gaining ground among classically-educated scholars in Britain. 

But the breaking point eventually came from the unlikeliest of places: behind a shed in the garden of a family home in northern Ohio.

In the early 1880s, an American chemist and inventor named Charles Martin Hall began experimenting with samples of alumina—solid aluminium oxide—to find a cheaper method of producing pure aluminium. Having constructed his own coal-powered furnace in his family’s garden in Oberlin, Ohio, Hall came up with a process in which alumina is dissolved in a bath of molten cryolite (a pale, quartz-like mineral), which is then electrolysed to produce a pool of pure molten aluminium at the bottom of the tank.

For the first time in history, Hall’s method—which was simultaneously discovered by the French chemist Paul Héroult, and is hence called the Hall-Héroult Process—allowed aluminium to be mass produced; within a matter of years of his process being patented in the United States, pure aluminium was reportedly 200 times cheaper than it had ever been before.

Although Hall used the spelling aluminium when filing the patent for his process, in his advertising and promotional material he opted for Webster’s spelling of aluminum. And as his business grew, and as his technique for producing pure aluminium became more widespread, this meant that aluminum steady established itself as the metal’s preferred spelling in North America, while the classical –ium ending remained in place back in Britain—a distinction that has remained in place ever since.

7 September 2015


Well it’s been a busy old month here at Haggard Hawks HQ, but by crikey, we certainly weren’t expecting to reach 12,000 followers as quickly as that! It’s only a matter of weeks since we passed the 11,000 mark, but another milestone can only mean one thing—yes, thanks to the guys at Qzzr, it’s time for the third devilishly difficult Haggard Hawks Quiz. 

Same rules as always: 20 language-related questions, the answers to which have all been tweeted over on @HaggardHawks at some point. Let us know how you get on over on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.

And thanks enormously—as always—for following, sharing, commenting, and just generally being brilliant. It really is appreciated. Good luck! 

5 September 2015

Glasgow magistrate

Earlier this week, this popped up on HaggardHawks:
And, as so often happens with this kind of thing, there’s a brilliant—if a fairly sketchy—story behind it. Unlike a lot of slang expressions, the Glasgow magistrate has found its way into the OED, who have traced it back to 1833. But the OED also cites a 1950 issue of The Scots Magazine, which offers this tentative explanation of how the phrase came about:
Herring were cured there by Walter Gibson, a merchant of Glasgow and Provost of that city in 1688, and it is perhaps because of Provost Gibson that salt herring acquired their nickname of “Glasgow Magistrates.”
Walter Gibson indeed helped to found Glasgow’s lucrative herring industry in the late 1600s, and he did become provost (chief magistrate) of Glasgow in 1688. But is he really the origin of the term? And is the establishment of a herring-curing factory really the best story I could tell you? No. No it’s not.

The problem is that if Gibson were the original Glasgow magistrate, we’d have to accept a century-and-a-half gap between his appointment as provost in 1688 and the earliest record of the phrase in print in 1833. That’s not impossible of course (slang expressions are used relatively rarely in print, after all) but it nevertheless casts doubt over the Walter Gibson theory—and it becomes a lot more doubtful given the other explanation on offer. 

In the revised edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1894, Ebenezer Cobham Brewer included the Glasgow magistrate (alongside the Yarmouth capon and the Billingsgate pheasant) as a nickname for a salted herring. He also offered this brief yet brilliant account as an etymological explanation:
When George IV visited Glasgow, some wag placed a salt herring on the iron guard of the carriage of a well-known magistrate, who formed one of the deputation to receive him.
Where or how Brewer came across this story isn’t clear, but he goes on to explain:
I remember a similar joke played on a magistrate because he said, during a time of great scarcity, he wondered why the poor did not eat salt herrings, which he himself found very appetising.
So is this tale of a local Glaswegian scallywag secreting a herring onto a processional carriage true? 

Well, by name-checking George IV, Brewer is certainly proposing a date that seems to fit with the evidence: George took to the throne in 1820 and reigned for the next ten years, so written evidence dating from around 1833 is perfectly reasonable. There is, however, a problem: King George only visited Scotland once in his ten-year reign—and he never set foot in Glasgow.

In 1822, George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch—as well as the first reigning monarch in nearly 200 years—to visit Scotland when he stayed in Edinburgh for three weeks in mid August. During that time, the king attended all sorts of predictably glamorous pageants and processions (all stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, no less) and gamely managed to make a complete fool of himself by opting to wear bright pink stockings under a criminally undersized kilt. At no point, however, did he travel across to Glasgow. 

So does this blow Brewer’s fishy theory out of the water? Perhaps not. It’s thought that some 300,000 Scottish people—one in seven of the entire population at the time—turned out to see the various events put on for the royal visit in Edinburgh in 1822, and a large proportion of those had made the 40-mile trip from Glasgow, reportedly leaving the city all but deserted. 

So could it be that Brewer’s Glaswegian prankster was in fact among the crowds in Edinburgh, rather than his home city? It’s not only plausible, but it’s a much better story...