31 March 2016

10 Words For Fools And Nincompoops

No jokes, April 1 is April Fools’ Day. So in honour of that, this week on the HaggardHawks YouTube channel we’re looking at 10 Words For Fools And Nincompoops

As explained in the video, the word nincompoop is something of an etymological mystery. Samuel Johnson suggested that it came from the Latin phrase non compos mentis, used to describe someone of less than sound mind, but a lack of early spellings following this template casts doubt on his theory. 

Alternatively, on its own the word poop (which crops up more often than it really should on this blog…) can be used as a verb meaning “to cheat” or “deceive”, but the nincom– part is a lot more challenging. Some accounts claim that it’s a twist on noddy or noddypoll, both even earlier words for fools or dunderheads, while others claim it comes from Nicodemite—a French-origin word for a follower of Nicodemus, but which became a byword for anyone who hides their faith to avoid persecution or ridicule. 

Whatever the truth might be, the word nincompoop continues to fool etymologist. But this and nine more words to boost your April Fools’ Day vocabulary are listed here—from a word derived from a gullibly catchable freshwater fish to a general word for a fool that began life as a psychiatric category based on a person’s IQ…

← Last Week: 10 Words You Won’t Believe Exist
→ Next Week: 10 Words You Didn’t Know Have Opposites

29 March 2016

The Feynman Point

If you saw our video of words derived from numbers earlier this month, you’ll know that March 14 was Pi Day (or rather, the once-in-a-century Rounded-Up Pi Day), because when it’s written out numerically the date3.14.16” forms the first few digits of pi.

Besides our mathematically-themed video, however, over on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed we marked Pi Day with this fairly remarkable fact:

Now. We’re not mathematicians here at HaggardHawks, and frankly the very idea of discussing the irrationality of an approximation of the mathematical constant representing the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diametzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Only joking, mathematicians, we love you really. But even dusty, bookish old wordsmiths like us can find some interest in mathematics every so often, and the Feynman Point is one of those times. So we thought you might like to know a little bit more about the point behind The Point.

The “Feynman” of the Feynman Point is the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. In a lifetime of achievement and accomplishment, Feynman did everything from helping develop the atomic bomb to assisting in the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster in 1986. He was also jointly awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics for his “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics”, including his groundbreaking work on quantum path integral formulation challenging the existing notion of a unique quantum trajectory by replacing it with a functional integralzzzzzzzzzz…

Only joking, physicists, we love you as well. But long story short, Richard Feynman was a brilliant scientist—and he was also very interested in π.

According to the story, during a lecture at the California Institute of Technology, Feynman joked to his students that he would one day like to memorize pi up to the point, 762 decimal places in, that there are six consecutive nines. Why? Well, he wanted reach that particular repdigit and then state “...999999, and so on”, implying that the famously irrational π suddenly, 762 places in, becomes nothing more than an infinite chain of 9s.

Regrettably there’s little evidence that Feynman ever actually made that joke (and in fact the earliest account of it credits it to fellow scientist Douglas Hofstader), but it’s Feynman’s name that has ended up being attached to these six consecutive 9s, and its his name that has remained in place ever since.

Incidentally, another six consecutive 9s crop up in the 193,034th–193,039th decimal places of pi. Anyone fancy memorizing up to there? You could get your name in the dictionary if you do...

28 March 2016

10 Words You Won’t Believe Exist

If there’s one question that comes up more often than any other over on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed, it’s whether or not the words we tweet are genuine. The short answer is yes. They might be old, they might be local, they might be archaic, they might long have fallen out of use, but they’re all completely genuine dictionary words. Seriously, hunting out bizarre words is a lot more fun than making them up.

That can be a difficult truth to swallow, of course, especially given the existence of words like this one:

But it’s not less true. So in this week’s 500 Words video, we’re proving that when the English language gets strange, it gets really strange with this list we’re calling 10 Words You Won’t Believe Exist.

And they’re all completely genuine...

24 March 2016


Well, well, well. It’s only been a few weeks since HaggardHawks hit its last milestone, and here we are again. Thanks so much everyone—unbelievably, all 17,000 of you!—for following, retweeting, commenting, sharing, questioning, and of course watching, now that our new YouTube series is in full flow…

But reaching another milestone can only mean one thing: it’s time for another of our fiendish 20-question quizzes. 

Same rules as always—no time limit, just a vintaine* of questions, designed to test your language knowledge to its max. So how closely have you been paying attention to @HaggardHawks? Let’s find out shall we…

* worth remembering that one…

17 March 2016

I, Part II

Last year on the HaggardHawks blog, we looked at why the lower-case letter i—and its alphabetical cousin j, for that matter—has a dot above it. Turns out it had something to do with stopping intelligent people being mistaken for their knees. But this week in our noticeably infrequent series of Questions About The Language You Never Even Thought About, we’re posing another I-related conundrum: why do we capitalize the pronoun I?

After all, none of the other English pronouns—including all the other first person pronouns, like me, mine, my and myself—is capitalized, unless you happen to be God or He Who Should Not Be Named. Nor was I’s ancestor, the Old English word ic, written with an uppercase letter. And the translated equivalent of I in most other languages is usually left in lowercase, like the French je, Spanish yo, Italian io, and German ich.

Speaking of German, it of course capitalizes all of its nouns, like Mann and Frau, Apfel and Orange, Kapitalbuchstaben and Kleinbuchstaben. That’s something that English reserves only for its proper nouns (John Smith, Australia, the Cabinet, Sister Act), unless you happen to have some kind of point-making rhetorical effect in mind, as in “He doesn’t just think he’s the bee’s knees, he thinks he’s The Bee’s Knees”.

German does however capitalize the formal form of its second person pronoun, Sie, “you”, along with all its derivate case forms like Ihr, “your”. That’s part of a linguistic phenomenon known as the T-V Distinction, which has nothing to do with how much better than terrestrial television Netflix is, but rather the way in which some languages like to show polite respect by altering the pronouns used to refer to people you don’t know very well or hold in high regard. It’s the same reason why French speakers will politely ask you to respondez s’il vous plaît, unless they know you particularly well (in which case résponds s’il te plaît will do just fine). Same goes for voulez-vous coucher avec moi, çe soir, but you really shouldn’t be saying that to someone you don’t hold in high regard.

So is this what’s happening in English? Do we think so highly of ourselves that we’ve grown accustomed to capitalizing our first person pronoun? Some etymologists have suggested so, and have even theorized that there’s a latently egocentric, psychological reason behind uppercase I. But if that’s the case, why hasn’t that filtered down to the likes of me and myself, or we and ourselves? And why is it only English speakers who are self-centred enough to capitalize ourselves while other languages are not? Don’t answer that.

So perhaps there’s something more pragmatic going on. An alternative theory claims that because the pronoun I occurs so frequently in sentence-first position, it’s only natural that it would eventually become capitalized. It’s a plausible idea, but does I really occur enough times in sentence-initial position to permanently alter its form in every other context? And again, why hasn’t the same thing happened to all the other pronouns?

Instead the most likely explanation of how we ended up with capital I is a surprisingly practical one, instigated by the fact that around the time capital-I first began to appear in English texts—in the Middle English period, roughly 700-800 years ago, so Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides much of its early evidence—there was a phonological change also taking place.

At that time, many dialects of English were busy reducing the Old English word for Iic or ich, which was pronounced a bit like “itch” but without the T—to a single “i” sound, making the Cs and Hs normally used to spell it no longer necessary. In written English, however, a single lowercase letter i can look a little lost on its own, and in a densely handwritten document it’s easy to imagine just how easily a solitary pint-sized stroke, even with or without its dot, might be misread, overlooked, or even dismissed as a smudge or dash.

As a result, early Middle English scribes began making their single letter Is a little bigger, so that they could stand a little prouder and little more robust on the line of text. And over time, that became the standard and gave us the pronoun capital I. And that’s The Truth—or at least, the Best Theory We Have.