24 February 2016

10 Word Origin Stories That Are Completely Untrue

Often when the origin of a word isn’t known—and, just as often, even when it is—an entirely fictitious story emerges that purports to explain where the word in question came from. Typically, these stories provide neater, funnier, cleverer or more straightforward accounts than any real-life word etymology ever could, and so remain enduring popular—despite, however, being completely untrue… 

This week on the HaggardHawks YouTube channel, out #500Words project is turning its attention to debunking 10 of these word origin myths, from backronyms like posh, cabal and golf to a bird supposedly named for his nesting sites (that in fact takes its name from the colour of its behind) and a bird that Napoleon thought was only good for horse food (that in fact takes its name from a flatulent goblin). You have been warned—here are 10 Word Origins Stories That Are Completely Untrue

23 February 2016


So, this peculiar little fact cropped up over on @HaggardHawks the other day:

We’ve tweeted about clouds before:

…which sparked quite a debate over on Twitter back in December, and similarly this time around, a few cloud-related comments were soon obnubilating our Twitter feed:

Granted, there aren’t all that many overlaps between etymology and meteorology, but the fact remains that cloud derives, oddly enough, from an Old English word, clúd, that once meant “rock”, “hill”, or “mass of stone”.

Because of that—as those astute followers worked out—cloud has some fairly unexpected etymological cousins in modern English, including clod (a lump of mud or earth) and clot (a congealed mass), as well as a handful of more obscure words like clout (an old word for a small piece of leather or iron, sheared from something larger), cleat (a wedge or bolt), and clew (a 1000-year-old word for a spherical globule or conglomeration of something smaller, like a snowball or a ball of string).

Shameless Plug #3,514: there’s more on that in the HaggardHawks fact book, Word Drops.

But how does a word for a mass of rock come to be used as a word for a mass of water vapour? Well, it’s presumed that Old English speakers were quick to notice that thick, heavy, dark-grey rainclouds (the type anyone living in England knows an awful lot about) looked, well, a lot like thick, heavy, dark-grey masses of stone. Consequently the Old English word clúd gained a second meteorological meaning, and by the early fourteenth century this meaning had all but replaced the older one entirely; from the Middle English period onwards, clúd (or clod as it was spelled by then) was being used almost exclusively used to refer to clouds. And it’s this meaning that has remained in use ever since.

It might seem like a odd connection, but it’s by no means alone. When the word cumulus first appeared in English in the mid-1600s, for instance, it originally referred to a mound or pile of something, or, according to the OED, to “the conical top of a heaped measure”, like a piled spoonful of flour. Etymologically, cumulus is derived from a Latin word for “heap”, and it’s a relative of words like accumulation and cumulate.

Only one question remains, then: if clúd meant “rock”, what on earth was the Old English word for cloud?

The answer to that is weolcen, which is the origin of the somewhat old-fashioned English word welkin. Sadly, welkin has all but disappeared from the language today outside of literary circles and a handful of local English dialects, but it remained in use right up to the nineteenth century. You’ll find it in the works of William Wordsworth, Charles Kingsley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, and Charlotte Brontë, among others, as well as in the original opening line of the Christmas favourite Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—which was originally a solemn and considerably un-Christmassy hymn beginning, “Hark! how all the welkin rings”.

Like clúd, however, welkin also steadily changed its meaning over time. Although it originally meant “cloud”, its use broadened and grew ever more figurative, so that by the time Wordsworth and Brontë and everyone else were using it in the nineteenth century, it was taken to mean “the heavens”, “the firmament”, “the upper atmosphere”, or “the entirety of the sky”. Likewise, to make the welkin ring, or to rend the welkin, is an old English expression describing an impossibly loud noise or cheer. Like a rock concert. Or should that be a cloud concert? (No. It shouldn’t.)

A very gracious and enthusiastic hat-tip to Dave Galvin III (@dwgalviniii) for the bonus knowledge about Charles Wesley’s original lyrics for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing here, which was not in our original post of this blog. Much appreciated!  

18 February 2016

10 Words For Things You Didn’t Know There Were Words For

If there’s one thing @HaggardHawks deals in more than anything else, it’s words that you never knew existed—and in this week’s #500Words video, we have 10 examples of precisely that.

From the spike in the middle of a sundial to the white tip at the end of a fox’s tail, from the handle of a ladle to the handle of a spade, and from the V-shaped indentation in the middle of your top lip to the L-shape formed by your hand when you extend your thumb, this week’s list of 10 Words For Things You Didn’t Know There Were Words For includes some utterly indispensable/entirely useless (delete as appropriate) additions to your vocabulary. 

15 February 2016

The McGurk Effect

This week on the @HaggardHawks YouTube channel, we’ve something a little different for you. Instead of another of the Top 10 videos that we’ve been posting so far (normal service will be resumed on those on Thursday, incidentally) today we’ve a new video looking at one of the most bizarre linguistic phenomena discovered in recent decades. So, goggles and lab coats at the ready people, we’re getting experimental…

The McGurk Effect was discovered in 1976 by the British psychologist and linguist Harry McGurk. An expert in child language acquisition, McGurk reportedly discovered his “effect” entirely by accident when, during preparation of a separate language experiment, he happened to replay the audio of one phoneme (language sound) over video of another. And the result was—well, something very unusual indeed.

(FYI, if you haven’t watched the video yet, now would be a good time to do so. Otherwise, SPOILER ALERT!)

As explained in the video, as much as we might think of speech perception as being a purely auditory, sound-based process, the McGurk Effect neatly proves that there is in fact just as much (if not more) visual information being analysed—it’s just that it all happens so quickly and automatically, that we’re unaware of it happening. 

But if the information being provided by our eyes and our ears don’t match, then our brain doesn’t quite know what to do. So watching a video of someone saying far while hearing audio of them saying bar leads to some considerable confusion.

When this happens, in some cases the brain ignores the auditory information entirely and instead trusts the information being provided by the eyes without question—if that’s you, then watching the tape in the YouTube video, you’ll be convinced that the fourth word was far

In other cases, however, the brain mixes the two conflicting streams of information together, thereby convincing itself that what it’s seeing and hearing is, in fact, neither of the things that it’s actually seeing or hearing—and if that’s you, then like our guinea pig Anthony in the video, you probably thought the fourth worth on the tape was var rather than far. Likewise, in McGurk’s original experiment, he found that playing the sound ba-ba over a tape of someone saying ga-ga led to him interpreting it as da-da.

So what does all this prove? Well, the McGurk Effect demonstrates just how much visual information is utilised by our brains while we’re processing speech, and how quickly our brains are to ignore auditory information—which we might think of as the cornerstone of speech perception—in favour of visual information. This has all kinds of implications on how we acquire language in the first place, what kind of sensory hierarchy must be going on in our brains, and what our brains have to do when this process is disrupted by, for instance, blindness, deafness, or trauma to the language-processing part of the brain. And the more we understand about that, the better we’ll become at fixing it when it goes wrong.

For more information on the McGurk Effect, you can take a look at McGurk’s original 1976 paper, Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices, here—or take a look at another version of this experiment on YouTube, courtesy of the BBC’s Horizon

11 February 2016

10 Words For Valentine’s Day

This Sunday is Valentine’s Day, so this week romance is in the air on HaggardHawks on YouTube as we look at 10 words to do with love. 

From obscure words for love letters, acts of courtship, courtly kisses, the first flush of feelings in a new relationship, and—well, a sexual attraction to statues, needless to say this week’s video should prove the perfect addition to your Valentine’s vocabulary…

Oh, and a quick advance warning—there’s two videos on the way next week, including something a little bit special... Stay tuned to Twitter, YouTube and the blog for more details on their way!

10 February 2016


Before we begin, let’s get a few things out of the way. The noxious atmosphere around Uranus could kill a man. Uranus has a circumference of 100,000 miles. Scientists are looking at a black hole near Uranus. What are those two circular objects either side of Uranus? Ass-teroids, of course. If you got through that without laughing, then we’re good to go.

So. The other day, one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks facts cropped up on the @HaggardHawks Twitter feed:

But this really is too bizarre a fact to leave unexplained:

…so your wish is my command.

The discovery of Uranus (stop sniggering, you at the back) is credited to the German-born English astronomer William Herschel in 1781. Although it had been observed by scientists and astronomers for centuries, Uranus had always been mistaken for a star, and right up to Herschel’s discovery it was still being classed as 34 Tauri, a minor star in the constellation Taurus. Even Herschel himself initially believed he had spotted a comet rather than a planet, after noting that an object he had been looking at from his observatory in Bath had changed position in the sky over a series of nights.

Herschel announced his discovery in March 1781. As word of his new “comet” spread, astronomers all across Europe began to take note and observe it themselves. Soon, enough data had been compiled to plot its apparent trajectory—which, to everyone’s surprise, appeared to be an almost perfect circular orbit around the Sun. Herschel’s discovery was no comet.

Full colour photo of Uranus. Stop laughing.

By 1783, it had become universally acknowledged that Herschel’s discovery must surely be a planet—moreover, it was the first planet ever discovered by telescope, and the first new planet added to our Solar System in modern history. It was a truly monumental discovery, and one that earned Herschel an annual salary of £200 (equivalent to £27,000/$40,000 today) from King George III (on the condition that he move his observatory from Bath to Windsor, to be closer to the royal household), as well as the never-to-be-repeated title of Court Astronomer to The King.

But with the existence of a new planet confirmed, a pressing question soon emerged: what on Earth should it be called?

The Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, wrote to Herschel asking him “to do the astronomical world the favour” and “give a name to your planet,” which, he continued, “is entirely your own, [and] which we are so much obliged to you for the discovery of.” In honour of his new financial patron, Herschel plumped for the only name he saw fit: Georgium Sidus, or “George’s Star.” He wrote to the Royal Society:

In the fabulous ages of ancient times the appellations of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were given to the Planets, as being the names of their principal heroes and divinities… The first consideration of any particular event, or remarkable incident, seems to be its chronology: if in any future age it should be asked, when this last-found Planet was discovered? It would be a very satisfactory answer to say, “In the reign of King George the Third”.

The seventh planet from the Sun, ultimately, was to be called George. But the response to Herschel’s suggestion was far from encouraging.

Outside of Europe, astronomers were wary of using a such an explicitly “British” name, especially given that it had taken an international collaboration to prove its status as a planet. Consequently, despite Maskelyne specifying that Herschel’s discovery and his choice of name were “entirely his own”, George failed to gain any widespread use or permanency. The name Georgium Sidus effectively became a placeholder, and over the years that followed astronomers across Europe began utilising and pitching their own choices and suggestions.

One popular choice was simply Herschel, a name honouring its discoverer. The Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin ironically opted for Neptune (now the name of the eighth planet, discovered in 1846). But eventually a clear choice emerged—namely the German astronomer Johann Elert Bode’s suggestion, Uranus.

Bode had been one of the European astronomers who had calculated Uranus’ orbit, lending weight to the idea that Herschel’s discovery was a planet not a star. He suggested the name Uranus as it not only maintained the classical and mythological theme set out by the other six planets, but fittingly Uranus was the Greek god of the sky. Moreover, just as Saturn had been the father of Jupiter, Uranus was the father of Saturn, thereby creating a mythological family tree in the heavens.

Bose’s choice quickly gained momentum, and was reinforced by the German chemist Martin Klaproth in 1789, who named his famous discovery—the chemical element uranium—in support of Bose’s suggestion.

Out of deference to Herschel, however, it took another 60 years for the name Uranus to be universally acknowledged by the scientific community, when, in 1850, the official astronomical almanac published by the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London finally abandoned Herschel’s Georgium Sidus and in favour of Uranus.

9 February 2016


A massive thank you, everyone—the @HaggardHawks Twitter feed very quietly (and very unexpectedly) added its 16,000th follower over the weekend! Seems our new YouTube channel is attracting some extra attention… But another milestone can only mean one thing—it’s time for a whole new HaggardHawks quiz.

Same rules as always: no time limit, just 20 fiendish multiple choice language questions, the answers to which have all been tweeted out over on @HaggardHawks in the last few months. So how well have you been paying attention? Let’s find out…

3 February 2016

10 Words Derived From Dickens Characters

This weekend marks the 204th anniversary of the birth of the great English novelist Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Dickens with the earliest record of a total of 226 English words, including such invaluable additions to your vocabulary like saucepanful, abuzz, boredom and cheesiness. That might sound like a lot, but compared to some other literary giants—like Sir Walter Scott (449 words), Ben Jonson (529), John Milton (563), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (613), William Shakespeare (1,504) and, top of the list, Geoffrey Chaucer (1,974)—Dickens is found trailing by quite some margin, sandwiched somewhere between the British Medical Journal (210) and the Daily Telegraph (230)*.

Dickens it seems might not have intentionally invented quite so many words as his fellow luminaries, but in retrospect he didn’t have to—the popularity and familiarity of his wonderfully well-drawn characters have given the English language more than its fair share of words, colourfully describing everyone from sermonizing hypocrites to amateurish, incompetent nurses. So, to mark what would be the great man’s 204th birthday, this week on YouTube, as part of @HaggardHawks’s ongoing #500Words series, here are 10 Words Derived From Dickens Characters.


* Take these figures with a pinch of salt, of course—after all, having the earliest credit in the dictionary does not necessarily mean that an author invented a word; they may just have been the first or most notable figure to use it in print. Nevertheless, statistics like these do provide a general idea of an author’s neologizing inventiveness—just don’t take them at face value...