26 June 2016

10 Chemical Element Names

So a lot of very big things have happened this week. For one, the UK voted to leave the European Union for some reason. Secondly, the shelves on the HH bookcase were starting to sag a bit in the middle, so they were rotated. And thirdly, the four new chemical elements discovered at the start of the year were given their names.

One of those stories is of much higher import than the others, of course, but don’t worry—those shelves will be fine. As for those chemical elements, well, the names chosen were nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganasson. Each has a story attached to it: the first three honour their places of discovery, Japan, Moscow and Tennessee respectively, while the last honours Russian-Armenian physicist Professor Yuri Oganessian.

Elsewhere on the periodic table, however, there are another 114 elementary etymologies to tell—although we only had enough time (and bandwidth) to talk about 10 in this week’s video…

Of course Yuri Oganessian and (SPOILER ALERT in case you haven’t watched the video) Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets aren’t the only eponymous honourees on the periodic table. Elements like einsteinium, curium, bohrium and seaborgium honour some of the most famous names in science. 

Nor are nihonium, moscovium and their neighbours the only geographical namesakes: besides tennessine, America can offer berkelium and californium, as well as americium, while the UK has strontium, which takes its name via the mineral strontianite from the village of Strontian in the Scottish Highlands. And then there’s gallium, element number 31, which uniquely manages to honour both its place of discovery and—if the rumours are trumours—its discoverer.

The father of the periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev (who has the element mendelevium named after him), predicted the existence of gallium in 1871, but it wasn’t until four years later the snappily-named French chemist Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran obtained a sample of it from the mineral sphalerite. The metal de Boisbaudran discovered was bright silver and brittle, and melted just above room temperature. He called it gallium, from Gallia, the Latin name for the Roman territory of Gaul, corresponding to modern-day France. But it’s possible he had other ideas in mind.

One of de Boisbaudran’s many, many names, Lecoq, means “the rooster” in French, while the Latin word for “rooster” is gallus. Had de Boisbaudran wryly named gallium after himself? Some fellow scientists at the time accused him of such, but he insisted that the connection was purely coincidental. Even if it was, it’s certainly a very convenient one and makes de Boisbaudran an interesting footnote to the dozens of famous names honoured on the periodic table. 

19 June 2016

10 Fossil Words

A while ago on the HH blog, we looked at the history of time immemorial—an expression now used to mean “time beyond memory” or “time out of mind”, but which began life as a legal term in mediaeval England referring to anything that happened before the coronation of Richard I, on 6 July 1189.

And that’s just one of 10 so-called “fossil” words that we’re looking at in this week’s YouTube video.

Fossils, or “fossilized” words, are words—like the immemorial of time immemorial, the shrift of short shrift, and the lurch of left in the lurch—that survive in the language only in one stock phrase or expression.

It’s fair to say that words like these are often hiding in plain sight: the phrases they appear in are so familiar that the obscurity of the word or words they contain slips by unnoticed. So you might not know what a caboodle is (it’s actually an alteration of boedel, an Old Dutch word for a person’s belongings), but you’ll know precisely what someone means when they talk about the whole kit and caboodle. You might not know that a pale is a wooden picket fence, but if someone or something is beyond the pale you’ll know it’s outside the accepted standards. And if we agree to let bygones be bygones, we let go of earlier contentious issues or disagreements. But what exactly is a bygone?

Well, back in the fifteenth century, bygone was an adjective rather than a noun, essentially meaning “former”, “elapsed”, or “that has gone by”—Shakespeare spoke of “the by-gone-day” in A Winter’s Tale in 1611. From there, the word came to describe anything dead or departed, and later obsolete or anachronistic—Dickens spoke of “the byegone old Assembly Rooms” in a letter dated 1869. But for bygones to be plural, it has to be a noun. So when did that happen?

Well, based on the original meaning of the word, back in the mid-sixteenth bygone came to be used not merely to describe something that has gone by or expired, but essentially as a placeholder name for it itself. Soon everything from overdue payments and financial arrears to a criminals’ previous convictions were being labelled bygones, before what we might call the modern meaning of the word—that is, “any past incident or event”—began to emerge in the mid-1600s. According to the OED, the earliest record of the phrase bygones be bygones itself dates from 1648. 

8 June 2016

10 Colour Names

A few weeks ago, this intriguing factoid popped up on the HH Twitter feed:

It’s an interesting story, which we touched on again in this week’s YouTube video, all to do with the names and etymologies of 10 colours—including the perfect word to describe the perfect colour of a perfectly ripe banana (spoiler alert: it’s not yellow), to the reason why magenta is called magenta, and what connects a Tudor folk dance to a bowl of porridge and to a pile of goose droppings. Truly, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

But back to oranges. Yes, that fact above is completely true: the earliest record of an orange in the English language comes from the early 1400s; the earliest record of something being described as orange in colour, dates from as relatively recently as 1557. But things have been orange coloured since—well, forever. 

Take foxes, for instance. They and their orangey-brown fur have been around ever so slightly longer than the English language (a few hundred thousand years, give or take), which meant that writers in pre-orange-importing times had to get creative when it came to describing what colour they were. As in this line, from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed,
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris 
With blak, unlyk the remenant of hise heeris;
His snowte smal, with glowynge eyen tweye.
[His colour was between yellow and red,
And tipped was his tail and both his ears
With black, unlike the remainder of his hair;
His snout small, with two glowing eyes.]
With no word for the colour orange, Chaucer—writing in the 1390s—had to resort to describing the fox in terms of yellow and red. And things stayed like that for another century-and-a-half, until a connection between the colour orange and it’s corresponding fruit was made, and the English language finally gained a separate name for the second colour of the rainbow. (Shameless plug #4,229: there’s more on this in the HH factbook, Word Drops.)

So that’s that. But, just when you think English and it’s colours are all sorted, you find out this:

3 June 2016

10 Useful Scrabble Words

Chances are that if you like words, you’ll like Scrabble. It’s just so much fun, isn’t it? Waiting the entire game for the letter Q to come up so you can play jonquils and score 500 points, only for your opponent to get it first and play qi on a triple word square and score 501. So. Much. FUN.

Scrabble-related facts crop up on the HH Twitter feed every so often (and there’s a darn sight more where that came from in the fact book Word Drops):

And it’s Scrabble that’s the focus of this week’s HaggardHawks YouTube video—10 indispensably useful Scrabble words, from aa to oxyphenbutazone. Good luck slipping that one into your next game...

One fiendishly useful Scrabble word that didn’t make the final cut here however is euouae. According to the Guinnes Book of Records, that’s the longest vowel-only word in the English language, and is well worth remembering if you’re looking to ditch a superfluity of vowels midway through a game. That being said, there’s some contention over whether or not euouae should actually be permissible in Scrabble play—not to mention whether or not it’s actually a word or not.

The word euouae (pronounced “you-oo-ee”) is an abbreviation used to memorize the pattern of syllables forming the cadence of a Gregorian chant known as the Gloria Patri, “Glory Be to the Father”. The Gloria Patri ends with the line, “In saecula saeculorum, Amen”, literally meaning “in a century of centuries”, or “forever and ever”. Euouae refers to the pattern of tones corresponding to the last six syllables of this line: saeculorum amen.

So strictly speaking, euouae is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase used as a mnemonic device. Does that make it a “word” in the strictest (Scrabble-playing) sense? It’s a tough call, and it’s certainly true that not every dictionary—and not every Scrabble word-list—has admitted it to its pages thus far. 

But when you’re sat in front of a rack of seven vowels, you’ve really got to take what you can get…