27 May 2016


Earlier today, this peculiar etymological twist cropped up on the HH Twitter feed:

And so here’s a bit more about it.

Although nowadays auburn refers to red hair, the word itself is rooted in the Latin word albus, meaning “white”. That’s also where the word albinism comes from, as well as album (which originally referred to a white stone tablet on which Roman edicts would be displayed), albedo (the amount of light reflected by a surface), a cleric’s alb, and the albumen or white of an egg.

Then of course there’s this:

But we won’t go into all that now. So what about auburn?

Well, the Latin word albus led to a derivative alburnus, that was used to mean “nearly white” or “off-white”. That in turn drifted into Old French as alborne, which was brought across the Channel to England as aborne or auborne in the mid-fifteenth century.

On it’s earliest appearance in English, aborne was used to refer to a yellowish-white or brown-white colour, probably equivalent to what we’d call beige or buff today. But it didn’t take long for aborne to be confused with brown, which in the Middle English period was still called broune, or browne. This similarity eventually led the meaning of auburn to change from “yellowish-white” to “reddish-brown”, and it’s this meaning that’s remained in place ever since.

10 Portmanteau Words

If you follow the HaggardHawks Twitter feed, you might have spotted the word insinuendo the other day, meaning “an insinuated remark”. According to the late Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert Burchfield, insinuendo is a “tasteless word.” Well, there’s no accounting for taste, of course, but as well as being “tasteless”, insinuendo is also a portmanteau—a blended word that brings together two existing words to form a new one. 

And it’s 10 of those we’re looking at in this week’s YouTube video.

As mentioned in the video, the term portmanteau was first used to describe “blended” words like these by Lewis Carroll, who took the name of a type of suitcase with two separate compartments, and applied it to terms in which “there are two meanings packed up into one word”.

Although Carroll was writing in 1871, it’s tempting to think of portmanteau words as a much more modern phenomenon. It’s certainly true that “blending” words together to form (albeit often fairly clumsy) new ones is still a very fruitful word-forming process today—you can take your pick from any number of recent examples, like fandom, bromancemocktail, cosplay, metrosexual, guyliner, Brangelina, Twitterati, edutainment, frappuccino, snowmaggedon, favicon, chillax, rockumentary and mockumentary.

But despite their modern appearances, a lot of portmanteau are much older than they first appear—even insinuendo dates back to 1885.

Take a word like newscast, for example. Despite it’s relatively modern feel, its earliest appearance in the language dates from 1928, when it cropped up in an edition of Time magazine. The first motorcade drove through Rockford, Illinois, back in 1910. People have been eating with sporks since 1909, and enjoying brunch for even longer—it’s earliest record comes from an 1896 edition of the satirical magazine Punch that called it “an excellent portmanteau word … indicating a combined breakfast and lunch”. Unfortunately, another word the magazine tried to champion didn’t catch on:
At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination-meal, when nearer the usual breakfast hour, is ‘brunch’, and when nearer luncheon, is ‘blunch’.
Another early portmanteau—which sadly didn’t make the final cut in our video—is gerrymander. (Shameless plug #495: there’s more on this in the HH factbook, Word Drops—which is now out in the USA!)

Gerrymander derives from the name of American politician and diplomat Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was serving as a Governor of Massachusetts when in 1812 he signed a bill that redrew the boundaries of Massachusetts’ state senate electoral districts so that they would most benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. This practice was certainly nothing new (the Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry had tried the same trick in Virginia back in 1788), but it nevertheless soon became known as gerrymandering—a combination Gerry’s surname and the word salamander.

Why a salamander? Well, an article in the Boston Globe on 26 March 1812 happened to liken the shape of one of Gerry’s redrawn districts to that of a salamander, a lizard-like amphibian:

Frankly, that’s the most un-salamandery salamander I’ve ever seen, but nevertheless the name stuck.

But did Gerry’s gerrymandering work? It certainly did. At the 1812 election, the senate remained in his party’s hands. Gerry himself, however, lost his seat—but went on to serve as Vice President under James Madison the following year.

19 May 2016

10 Obscure Words For Everyday Things

You might have spotted this word over on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed the other day:

Originally used in reference to crystallography and chemistry, an enantiomorph (literally an “opposite shape”) is a mirror image or reflection, while something described as enantiomorphic or enantiomorphous resembles or provides a reflection.

And that word got us thinking about all the other obscure words there are for things you see and do everyday—and it’s 10 of those that feature in this week’s YouTube video.

But of the 10 words looked at in the video, two—calceate and discalceate, meaning “to put on” and “to remove your shoes”, respectively—are worth a little further investigation. Both date back to the 17th century in English, and both share a common root in the Latin word for “shoe”, calceus. That in turn is descended from the Latin word for the heel, calx—which opens up a whole new vocabulary of obscure heel-related words.

To calcitrate, for instance, is to kick, while to recalcitrate is to kick back or kick out in resistance or frustration. (No prizes for guessing that’s where the adjective recalcitrant also comes from.) Likewise, to calcate is to kick something down or to stamp it into the ground with your heel, while to exculcate is to tread or trample something down. To conculcate also means “to tread” or “to trample”, while the use of the word inculcate to mean “to impress upon” or “to indoctrinate” comes from the notion of figuratively “stamping” something into someone’s mind.

The “cal” of caltrop—a spiked metal weapon used to impede vehicles or horses—is also derived from the Latin calx, as caltrop is literally a “heel-trap”. Similarly, calks and calkins are both parts of a horseshoe; something that is calciform projects outwards like a heel; and a calcar is a heel-shaped spur at the bottom of a flower petal that attaches it to the stem.

But it’s not all unfamiliar and obscure territory here. Among the more familiar heel-words English has to offer is the word cockatrice, which is thought to be a part-English, part-French adaptation of the Latin word calcatrix, meaning “treader”, “tracker”—or, literally, “one who treads on your heels.”

16 May 2016


Blimey, thanks everyone! We’ve flown past the 18,000 followers landmark—which can only mean one thing. It’s time for another one of our fiendish language quizzes...

Same rules as always: no time limit, just 20 tricky word-related questions covering all the kinds of things we cover on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed. Feel free to leave your scores in the comments below or let us know how you get on over on Twitter—and good luck!

12 May 2016

10 Old Animal Nicknames

If there’s one subject that crops up fairly regularly on the HaggardHawks Twitter feed, it’s animal nicknames. You might have spotted this tweet about penguins—and the explanation behind it—over on Twitter the other day:

But it’s not just the penguins that have it bad: 

So this week over on the HH YouTube channel, we’re looking at the origins and meanings behind 10 Old Animal Nicknames.

One name that didn’t make the final cut here was mouldwarp, an old English word for a mole. The “mould” of mouldwarp has nothing to do with being mouldy (which is actually an entirely unrelated word), but is instead an ancient English word for loose earth or turned-over soil. Its etymological cousins are words like mull, meaning “ashes” or “crumbling dust”, and mool, the soil used to fill graves.

The “warp” of mouldwarp is a verb, meaning “to toss through the air”, or “to sprinkle”. You can also (should you ever need to) warp a door, which means to throw it open quickly; warp your clothes, which means to remove them equally quickly; and warp someone, which means to suddenly drop them in some kind of situation or scenario—so you could warp them into prison, into bankruptcy, or into peril. Presumably after you’ve closed the door and put your clothes on again, of course.

Put together, that means that mouldwarp literally means “earth-thrower”. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable name for a mole—and a much nicer one than this:


A few weeks ago over on the HaggardHawks YouTube channel, we looked at the origins of 10 city names, covering everywhere from Chicago (“a place to grow wild onions”) to Funafuri, the capital of Tuvalu (“banana-woman”).

But one city that didn’t make the final cut was the largest city in the UK and the second largest city in Europe. The home of Britain’s smallest police station. The world’s oldest underground network. Two of the world’s best universities. And a woman with a pig’s face. Yep, we’re talking about London. 

So why—to resurrect our occasional series of Questions About The Language You Never Even Thought About—is London called “London?”

In terms of etymology (or rather toponymy, to give the study of place names its proper name), London is something of a mystery. Actually, that’s putting it mildly—over the past few hundred years, a number of linguists, scholars and geographers have put their heads together and come up with little more than a mutual discrediting of each other’s theories and one gigantic Buckingham Palace-sized question mark. Why is London called “London”? The short answer at least is that no one really knows.

That’s partly to do with a lack of written evidence. It’s also partly to do with the fact that we’re dealing with exceptionally old words and word elements, the barest bare bones of the language. And partly it’s because London is such a unique name—it really just doesn’t look like any other ancient word or word element that we know about, which makes working out what it might mean an especially tricky business. But just because we don’t have a definitive answer, doesn’t mean that we don’t have any answer at all.

By far the oldest explanation on record is that of the twelfth century Welsh scholar and historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1135), Monmouth claimed that London was founded by and named in honour of a pre-Roman king of Britain named Lud, who built the city on the site of an even more ancient city called “New Troy” that had been founded by Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, in 1100BC. It’s a nice story alright. It’s just a shame it’s complete rubbish.

Geoffrey of Monmouth probably based his mythical tale of King Lud on that of a legendary figure from Welsh folklore called Lludd Llaw Eraint, or “Lud Silver-Hand”, who is said to have saved Wales from a plague of dragons and a magical giant who had the power to send people to sleep by playing music; to escape the giant’s soporific tunes, Lud dipped his head in a bucket of water. 

Oddly enough, it’s likely that none of that ever actually happened, which makes the idea that London is named after a dragon-slaying monarch with his head in a bucket somewhat implausible. Oh, and linguistically it’s highly unlikely that a word like Lud would morph into something like “Lond”. But still—dragons and giants. That’s probably all the proof you need there.

...and over there is the bucket I put my head in.

As unlikely as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s theory might be, he nevertheless might’ve been onto something by suggesting that London was named after or in honour of someone—but precisely who that “someone” was is another question.

For a while, one popular theory was that London was founded by or named in honour of someone called Londino or Londinos, a hypothetical name supposed to derive from an old Celtic word meaning “wild” or “fierce”. But there’s no historical precedent for that name whatsoever, and (without getting into too much detail) phonologists tend to agree that a Celtic word beginning lond– would give you a modern English word pronounced something like “loaned”, not like the “lund” of London. So despite being more than century old, this theory is now widely discredited. 

Alternatively it might not be the Lond– part of London that’s taken from someone’s name, but rather the –don. It’s been suggested that London might once have been called Lunadin, Luandan or Lan Dain, an ancient name meaning something like “moon temple of the goddess Diana”. Sir Christopher Wren certainly believed that he had unearthed a Roman temple dedicated to Diana when he rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral, but again the linguistic and historical evidence just isn’t there to back this theory up.

So if it’s not an honorific name, how about a geographical one? 

Another theory is that London was originally llyn din, or llyn dain, both Welsh-inspired names literally meaning “lake-fort” or “pool of the river” respectively (the “lake” and “pool” in question possibly being the widening, deepening part of the river Thames)They’re both plausible theories, but linguistically a word like llyn would be expected to produce a modern name like Lindon-with-an-I, not London-with-an-O. 

And London has almost always been London-with-an-O: the earliest records we have of it are all from ancient Roman Latin documents and inscriptions that refer to it as Londinium or Londinion. The people of London themselves were the Londiniensi—a word taken from a stone tablet dating from around AD 150 that was unearthed at an archaeological dig in Southwark in 2002, and which provides us with the earliest known evidence of the name “London” that we have. And for the Romans to have spelled their “London” with an O (or a U, as they sometimes did) casts doubt on those Welsh-origin theories. 

Instead, we might have to look even further back in time.

Bring on the wall!

In 1998, Professor Richard Coates—then President of the English Place-Name Society—put forward perhaps the most convincing argument for the origin of the word London yet: Plowonida. If you think Plowonida sounds more like something you’d use to treat athlete’s foot rather than the origin of one of the most famous cities in the world, you’ve got a point. But the reason this looks so unfamiliar—and so unlike the modern name “London”—is because we’re dealing with impossibly old pre-Celtic language.

In Coates’ theory, Plowonida would have started life as a hydronym (a river name) referring to the part of the Thames on which London was founded. It combines (brace yourselves, we’re going even further back in time here) two Proto-Indo-European word roots meaning “to flow”, plew– and nejd–, whose descendants are found in river names all across Europe. In combination, it’s theorized that these two elements might have referred to the first noticeably deep, fast-flowing part of the Thames, where it was impossible to ford or cross on horseback.

Knowing what we know about pre-Celtic language, calling the river itself Plowonida would have given the town or village that stood on the banks of the river the name Plowonidonjon, which over centuries of simplification and alteration would have become a Celtic name along the lines of Lūndonjon, then the Latin name Londinium, and ultimately the modern English name “London”If Coates’ theory is correct, that would mean the name “London” could be interpreted as something like “the town at the unfordable part of the river”—which is a considerably better theory that “the town of the king who put his head in a bucket”.