28 April 2016


You might have seen this frankly brilliant fact pop up on the @HaggardHawks Twitter feed this week:

Poor old penguins. It can’t be much fun humpling around in sub-zero temperatures avoiding being eaten by seals all day. But then along comes Oliver Goldsmith—whose seven-volume History of the Earth and Animated Nature is the source of that quote—to tell us that eighteenth century sailors called them arse-feet. It’s just not fair really, is it?

Not that it was only the penguins, though. The nickname arse-feet dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was originally another name for the little grebe, and over the centuries it’s been used in reference to a whole host of other species, all of which had one thing in common—the position of their feet noticeably close to their derrieres. Frankly, it gives a whole new meaning to having a boot up the arse. (Shameless plug: there’s more on all this in the HH factbook, Word Drops.)

But if that’s the history of arse-feet, what about penguin?

Well, the word penguin also dates back to the sixteenth century, with the earliest record we know about coming from the logbook of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. According to Drake’s admiral, Francis Fletcher, as he sailed through the Magellan Strait in 1577: 

[20 August 1577] In these Islands we found great reliefe and plenty of good victualls, for infinite were the number of fowle, which the Welsh men named Pengwin … [The birds] breed and lodge at land, and in the day tyme goe downe to the sea to feed, being soe fatt that they can but goe, and their skins cannot be taken from their bodyes without tearing off the flesh, because of their exceeding fatnes.
Yep, not only did the penguins have to contend with waddling around in sub-zero temperatures and being called arse-feet, but Drake and his crew decided to announce their presence in the Southern Ocean by eating every penguin they could lay their hands on.

But then there’s this:
New found land is in a temperate Climate… There are Sea Guls, Murres, Duckes, wild Geese, and many other kinds of birdes store, too long to write, especially at one Island named Penguin, where wee may driue them on a planke into our ship as many as shall lade her. These birdes are also called Penguins, and cannot flie.
If you know anything about natural history, that quote might strike you as a little odd—penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, so what the dickens were they doing in Newfoundland?

Well, that second quote isn’t from Drake’s logbook, but from a letter, written on 13 November 1778, by a Bristol merchant sailor named Anthony Parkhurst to the famed English geographer Richard Hakluyt. And the penguins Parkhurst is talking about aren’t the same penguins we know today—in fact, the penguins he’s talking about haven’t been seen by anybody for 150 years.

Parkhurst’s Newfoundland penguins were in actual fact great auks—tall, flightless, black-and-white seabirds (whose arses were just as close to their feet) that were once native to much of the North Atlantic. Although the great auk is now extinct (and the story of its slow demise makes for a sobering read, alas) in Drake and Fletcher’s day they were still widely abundant—so abundant, in fact, that as Parkhurst points out they could be driven in huge numbers from “Penguin Island”, along a plank, and onto a ship to provide food for the crew.

Well, this is aukward...

Fletcher’s quote might predate Parkhurst’s by over a year, but it’s thought that the birds Parkhurst wrote about were the original “penguins”—after all, for there to be a place called “Penguin Island” in 1578, we can presume the word penguin was in use in reference to the great auk long before then. Drake’s crew, meanwhile, would have presumably been familiar with the sea birds they knew from back home, and so when they saw remarkably similar flightless black-and-white birds in the equally freezing cold waters of the Southern Ocean in 1577, they either mistook them for the great auks they knew from home, or simply referred to them by the same name, penguin, because they were so similar.

That’s all well and good, of course, but what does the word penguin actually mean? Well, Fletcher’s reference to the birds’ “exceeding fatness” points to one possible theory: that penguin might derive from a Latin word, pinguis, meaning “plump”, “dense”, “fatty”—or pinguid. But a more likely explanation lies with Fletcher’s “Welsh men”. Penguin is thought to derive from pen gwyn, the Welsh for “white head”, and sure enough the great auk had a noticeably bright white patch of plumage between its bill and its eyes. 

So all that means that the original “penguins” weren’t actually penguins, and weren’t from the Antarctic. But their feet were close to their arses...

27 April 2016

10 Figures of Speech

Rhetorical terms and words for different figures of speech crop up every now and then on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed, and are without exception brilliant, brilliant words:

But with our YouTube channel now in full swing—incredibly, this is already video number 16!—we thought it might be good to dedicate an entire episode to bringing together a choice set of ten:

Many of the words language experts use to describe tropes like these—including all those included in the video—are based on Greek word roots, which are often brought together in quite inventive and memorable ways. Take one of those from the video, antanaclasis: it refers to a word being used with two different meanings, like “I can’t wait to wait tables all day” (which no one in the service industry has ever said) or “I can’t wait to bar him from the bar” (which absolutely everyone in the service industry has said). Because of this repetitious, back-and-forth arrangement, the word antanaclasis derives from the Greek word for a reflection.

Likewise another term from the video, chiasmus, takes its name from the X-shaped Greek letter chi because it refers to the criss-crossed arrangement of repeated words found in “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. 

And elsewhere in the rhetorician’s dictionary we find words like zeugma, which refers to the use of a single word in two different contexts in the same sentence, like “I will take my camera and some photographs”. It derives from the Greek word for an ox’s yoke, in the sense of one word “yoking” its two meanings together in one sentence. A prodiorthosis is a warning that you’re about to deliver bad news, and essentially means “a pre-apology”. Hendiadys is the emphatic use of two separate words rather than a single word and a qualifying adjective or adverb—like “the rain and the weather spoiled our holiday” rather than “the rainy weather”—and as such literally means “one through two”. And prosopopoeia is a form of personification in which an inanimate object is portrayed as talking:

Brilliantly, it literally means “making a face”.

25 April 2016


You probably noticed a bit of a hoo-hah at the weekend surrounding the 400th deathiversary of someone called William Shakespeare. We marked the day with a video about 10 unsolved Shakespearean terms over on YouTube and a missing words quiz here on the HH blog, while over on Twitter we were ridiculously busy bombarding you with half-hourly tweets about the great man himself all day Saturday. And apologies to all non-Shakespeare fans out there, but we’re going to do the same again now.

There were quite a few calls over on Twitter for us to collate all our Shakespeare facts in one place. And as ever, your wish is our command. So from a Shakespearean shipwreck to a man extinguishing his trousers with beer, here is our #Shakespeare400 list in full:

23 April 2016

10 Words Shakespeare Used That No One Can Work Out

In honour of the #Shakespeare400 anniversary on 23 April 2016, this week’s HaggardHawks YouTube video is looking at a part of Shakespeare’s writing that isn’t dealt with all too often.

Everybody knows Shakespeare invented a considerable number of the 31,534 words he used in his work—as many as 1 in every 20, if some statistics are to be believed—and alongside those, he transformed many pre-existing words into different parts of speech, a process known as anthimeria. So if you’ve ever grazed, squabbled with, elbowed, caked or ghosted someone, then you’ve got Shakespeare to thank for it: none of those had been used as verbs before he got hold of them...

All this linguistic playfulness, however (coupled with the obvious fact that his writing is four centuries old) can make Shakespeare’s work tough to navigate these days, and a little patience and background knowledge is often are needed to unlock some of his toughest lines. But even the best Shakespeare scholars have to admit that—well,  sometimes we just don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

Armgaunt. Eftest. Pajock. In his buttons. The list of words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work that no one can quite decipher runs on and on. But just because we don’t know for sure what he meant doesn’t mean that we can’t have an educated guess. And it’s that that we’re looking at in this week’s video…

21 April 2016

Quiz: Shakespeare’s Words

We could hardly let a little thing like the Shakespeare quadricentennial pass us by, now could we? So besides an entire day of Shakespearean facts over on its way on the @HaggardHawks Twitter feed, in honour of the great man himself here’s a mighty tricky quiz... 

12 Shakespearean quotes, each one with a missing word. In each case, the word that’s missing is one Shakespeare invented. How many of the 12 quotes can you complete by picking the correct word? Or, to put it another way, can you pick the 12 everyday words we owe to Shakespeare and his work?

Let us know how you get on over on Twitter or in the comments below—and good luck!

15 April 2016

Lazy Lawrence

A long-forgotten (but no less useful) expression popped up on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed the other day:

And this isn’t the only proverbially lazy Lawrence to find his way into the dictionary. Long before lazy people had “Lawrence on their backs” there was an earlier expressionLawrence bids wages, that the OED explains was used to imply that “the attractions of idleness are tempting”—or, in other words, doing nothing looks like a lot of fun. Even Lazy Lawrence itself has been used as a nickname for an idling lazybones for centuries, as well as being the name of a mischievous fairy or sprite supposed to induce lethargy or idleness.

So apologies to anyone named Lawrence, but you’re immortalized in the language as a metaphor for laziness. Still, it’s better than being known for a one-year prison sentence or destroying gates, I suppose. But why Lawrence? And why laziness?

Well, one theory is that the connection is purely coincidence, and that Lawrence just has a nice alliterative ring to it—so this could just as easily be “Lazy Linda”, or “Leon bids wages”, or “to have Loretta Lynn on your back”. It’s certainly plausible (well, apart from the Loretta Lynn bit) but needless to say there are a couple of more imaginative explanations on offer. And one of them even involves a barbecued saint, what more could you want?

One theory is that phrases like these refer to St Lawrence’s Day, 10 August. That date puts it bang in the middle of the “dog days” at the height of the summer, when you can expect to endure the hottest, sultriest, most stifling weather of the year—the kind of weather that makes you want to lounge around and do nothing except lounging around doing nothing. The dog days are traditionally said to last anywhere from mid July to early September, and take their name from the tradition—probably started in Ancient Greece, if not Ancient Egypt—that the appearance during the summer months of Sirius, the Dog Star, just above the horizon before sunrise somehow amplified or added to the heat of the Sun. In fact, the so-called “heliacal rising” of Sirius always occurs sometime around August 10–11.

You cannot be Sirius

So is our proverbially lazy Lawrence inspired by the highest hottest heat of high summer? Possibly. But we can’t ignore the fact that there’d be no St Lawrence’s Day without St Lawrence himself. 

Lawrence of Rome was the highest-ranking of seven deacons that served under Pope Sixtus II in the 3rd century AD, whose job it was to oversee the church’s treasury and distribute alms to the poor. Everything was going splendidly for Lawrence until August AD258, when a letter arrived at the Senate from the Roman Emperor Valerian—who was imprisoned in Antioch, having left Rome to fight a war with the Persians—calling for all Christian senators to be stripped of their titles and assets, and for all priests, bishops and deacons to be arrested. If they renounced their faith and agreed to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods, they would be freed. If they refused, they would be put to death. Valerian, it seems, wasn’t going to let a little thing like being held in prison 2,000 miles away stop him from running his Empire.

In accordance with Valerian’s orders, the Senate rounded up Pope Sixtus and his seven deacons. All eight refused to comply with the edict, and so, on 6 August 258, they were beheaded—all, that is, except Lawrence. As the archdeacon in charge of the treasury, Lawrence was given a three-day stay of execution to collect together all the church’s wealth and hand it over to the Roman state; instead, he reportedly spent the next three days giving as much of the money away as he could. On August 9, he returned to the Senate with a group of Rome’s poorest, sickest, neediest citizens, and boldly claimed that these were the true treasures of the church. The Prefect of Rome, frankly, was far from pleased.

Whereas Pope Sixtus and his other deacons had been beheaded, Lawrence’s singular act of defiance earned him an especially cruel death: the sentence was passed that he should be roasted to death, suspended on a gridiron above roaring fire.

Baby catching was all the rage in Ancient Rome

There’s some disagreement over whether or not Lawrence was actually burned to death in this way, because some sources claim that the Latin record of his death (assus est, “he was roasted”) should actually have read passus est, “he suffered”. But whether true or not, the question still remains—what does an early Christian martyr’s gruesome execution have to do with laziness?

Well, Lawrence’s death was so notably brutal that it soon became the subject of a macabre bit of folklore that claimed midway through his roasting Lawrence had quipped, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” It might sound more Groucho Marx than it does Archdeacon of Rome (and you can make your own mind up as to whether he actually said it or not), but this legend nevertheless apparently inspired a joke that Lawrence was “too lazy” to turn himself over. 

So is this the true origin of our lazy Lawrences? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s a good story all the same. And one well worth telling round the barbecue this summer.

14 April 2016

10 Words From Johnson’s Dictionary

The great Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was first published 261 years ago today, on 15 April 1755. Its two volumes defined a total of 42,773 words, illustrated by 114,000 literary quotations (the majority from Shakespeare), and unlike dictionaries today, it was infused throughout with Johnson’s own personality and humour. 

Words that he personally disliked or thought unimportant were omitted (so out went recent French loanwords like champagne and bourgeois), as was the letter X, which he bluntly explained in a note on page 2,308 “begins no word in the English language.” The definitions too were full of Johnson’s wit and wisdom:

And who, of course, could forget this:

Or, indeed, this:

Johnson was paid the princely sum of 1,500 guineas (equivalent to more than £200,000 today) to compile the work, which he did so single-handedly over nine years, with assistants only ever brought in to reproduce pages and copy out quotations. It was, frankly, a monumental achievement and remained the standard English dictionary for the next 150 years.

So in honour of the anniversary of Johnson’s wonderful contribution to our language, this week on the HH YouTube channel we’ve picked 10 long-forgotten words from his dictionary that deserve to be revived:

As explained in the video, that doesn’t mean that Johnson is personally responsible for coining these words (although it’s thought that a number of his entries were his own invention), nor that his dictionary provides us with their earliest written record. Instead, these are just words that were included in his Dictionary but which have long since disappeared from the language—and more than deserve to be recovered.