31 August 2016

10 Words With Nautical Origins - 500 Words Ep. 34

You might have spotted this little nautical fact over on Twitter the other day:

Yep, your slush fund isn’t quite as wholesome as it might sound. 

But that fact was a neat little précis to this week’s YouTube video, which is exploring the stories behind 10 words with nautical origins.

Another maritime tweet that could have made the final cut here is this one:

Which probably needs a little bit more explanation here on the blog.

So. As a stereotypically piratical exclamation of surprise or infuriation, shiver my timbers! dates back to the late eighteenth century. Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits its earliest print appearance to the English author (and friend of Charles Dickens) Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful in 1834, earlier records have since been uncovered—including one in the script of a play, Opposition, staged in London in 1795:

Old Sailor: “Lather me!—Shiver my timbers. if so be he comes athwart me—I'll soon lower his topsails for him—Here’s King George and old England for ever!”

Oddly, the shiver of shiver my timbers! and the trembling shiver you do when cold or frightened aren’t related.

Both date back to the early Middle Ages, but of the two, shivering with cold is something of a mystery. One theory suggests it might derive from ceafl, an Old English word meaning “jaw”, and so might once have specifically referred to chattering teeth. But alas, that’s just a theory and the word’s exact origins are unknown.

The shiver of shiver my timbers! is meanwhile thought to derive from an Old German word, schever, meaning a splinter or chip of wood. That makes it an etymological cousin of words like sheave and shive, while the expression to burst or fly to shivers has been used since the fifteenth century m to mean “to break or shatter into pieces”. Shivering someone’s timbers, ultimately, alludes giving them a shock or cause for concern as terrible as the cracking or splintering of the wooden boards used to construct ships.

What isn’t known, however, is whether the (unfortunately unknown) author of Opposition made up the expression themselves, or whether—like Frederick Marryat, who served in the Royal Navy and invented the Marryat flag code used to pass messages between ships—they had naval experience and simply reused an expression he had heard elsewhere. That’s one nautical question we’ll probably never fathom out.

26 August 2016

10 Words Coined By Writers – 500 Words Ep. 33

If you’ve been keeping up with the HH 500 Words YouTube series, you’ll have seen a few literary lists crop up amidst all the weird words and word origins. Back in February, we marked Dickens’ birthday with a list of words derived from his characters. In April, we marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a list of words he used that no one can quite decipher. 

And this week, we’re heading back down the library with 10 Words Coined By Writers:

One word that could have made this list (and would have done, had we not already addressed it in our video on little-known opposites) is eucatastrophe, a term coined by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien as the opposite of catastrophe: a sudden event of sheer good fortune in the plot of a story that typically hastens its conclusion.

Lewis Carroll’s chortle could have made our top 10 too, had we not already explained its origins in our video on portmanteaux. But one word that failed to make the final cut here and yet still deserves an explanation, is the story behind James Joyce’s little known contribution to particle physics: the quark.

A quark, for those of you not too well versed in this subject (a minority, surely…) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
Each of a group of subatomic particles regarded, with leptons, as basic constituents of matter, and postulated never to occur in the free state but to be combined in pairs to form mesons and in triplets to form baryons, and to have fractional electric charges, +⅔ and −⅓ that of the proton.
Well, that clears that up. But without going too deeply into the science behind the likes of leptons and quarks, all that concerns us here is that quarks were first postulated by American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann in 1964. Although originally theoretical, Gell-Mann’s model of the subatomic “particle zoo” has since been validated, and ultimately the terminology he used in his original explanation has since become the standard across all physics. But why call them quarks in the first place? Well, why not let the man himself explain. 

In 1978, Gell-Mann wrote to the editor of the OED Supplement to explain the thinking behind his word:
I employed the sound “quork” for several weeks in 1963 before noticing “quark” in Finnegans Wake, which I had perused from time to time since it appeared in 1939 ... I needed an excuse for retaining the pronunciation “quork” despite the occurrence of “Mark”, “bark”, “mark”, and so forth in Finnegans Wake. I found that excuse by supposing that one ingredient of the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark” was a cry of “Three quarts for Mister…” heard in H. C. Earwicker’s pub.
In other words, as Gell-Mann later expounded in his book, The Quark and the Jaguar (1995), he knew the sound of the word he wanted to use before he decided on how it should be spelled; at one time, he explained, quark might even have been spelled “kwork”. But then, purely by chance, he stumbled across the word quark in James Joyce’s enigmatic writing, and the Q spelling stuck. 

One question remains, however—what was James Joyce’s quark in the first place? Well, it’s presumed that the quark used in Finnegans Wake is meant to represent the sound of a seagull, and is used in the novel as a call to buy a round of drinks. Any excuse…

19 August 2016

10 Words That Sound Rude (But Really Aren’t) - 500 Words Ep. 32

A few days ago, HH tweeted this:

It’s one of those words that, if you’re not careful, could be taken in a very, very questionable direction. But there are plenty of words that don’t even have to be mispronounced to raise eyebrows—they’re just straight-up dirty. Or, at least, that’s how it might seem.

Peniaphobia, for instance, is nothing more than the fear of poverty and destitution. Pissasphalt is a type of bitumen. A tittynope is a crumb or portion of something, left over after all the rest has been used. A cockchafer is a beetle. A cock-bell an icicle. In fact, whether you’re talking about assart or spunk-water (you can thank Tom Sawyer for that one), there are quite a few words in the English language that sound rude, but really—genuinely—aren’t.

So brace yourselves, because it’s 10 of those that are the subject of this week’s YouTube video:

If you haven’t had your fill, there are nearly 100 words like these for your perusal over on Mental Floss, any one of which could have made the final cut here. One word that didn’t, however, and that perhaps needs a little more explanation, is this:

The key to this word (and others like it) is that sluttish originally meant just “untidy” or “slovenly”, while labelling someone (of either sex—Chaucer describes a man as sluttish in the Canterbury Tales) as a slut once simply implied that they were messy or disorganised.

But by the end of the fifteenth century that meaning had begun to broaden. Now it was people’s characters and morals—and, wholly unfairly, women’s morals in particular—that were being described as sluttish, if they were loose or disreputable, and it’s from there that the word’s modern connotations eventually emerged.

The older use of slut and sluttish to mean “untidy” survived right through to the early 1900s, giving the word coverslut more than enough time to emerge in the language in the mid-1600s. Essentially, it referred to nothing more than a garment warn to disguise untidy clothes underneath, or to protect your clothes from messy work or chores. So despite appearances, it was really nothing more than an apron.

15 August 2016


Great Scott! Good old Haggard Hawks isn’t even three years old, and yet here we are—20,000 lovely people are now following our online shenanigans. Seriously, thank you. Everyone. It’s nice to have you on board.

If you’ve been with us since the start, over the last 15,500 tweets you’ll have expanded your vocabulary by almost as many words—from aa (a type of Hawaiian lava flow) to zwischenzug (a time-buying tactical move). You’ll have found out what Shakespeare’s father did for a living (spoiler alert: he had the best job ever), what the opposite of a catastrophe is, what Inuktitut word you’ll need for the morning rush hour (ninniuralauttut, of course), what to call a group of pandas (frankly, there is no better group term), and what’s so special about the number 88. And now here we are—another milestone must mean that it’s time for the tenth of our devilishly difficult quizzes. 

Same rules as always—no time limit, just 20 multiple choice questions, the answers to (most) of which have been tweeted over on HH. Feel free to let us know how you get on either in the comments below or over on Twitter or Facebook—and stay tuned for two more big announcements on their way soon…

And best of luck!

11 August 2016

10 Words Borrowed From Other Languages - 500 Words Ep. 31

A long, long time ago over on HaggardHawks, this little fact popped up:

In retrospect, that’s a little disingenuous (not least because linguists can’t really decide what actually constitutes a word), but regardless of the parameters involved, studies of etymology tend to agree that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the English language has been borrowed directly into English from French.

Elsewhere in the dictionary, things get increasingly far-flung: besides the likes of German, Spanish and Italian, English has adopted words from practically every major European language, including Norwegian (slalom), Finnish (sauna), and Czech (robot), as well as a number of global big-hitters like Russian (vodka), Arabic (almanac), the Chinese (lychee) and Japanese (karate) languages, and Hindi (juggernaut), Bengali (jute), Urdu (cummerbund) and all the other languages of the Indian subcontinent.

And it’s borrowed words and the languages we have taken them from that are up for discussion in this week’s HH video:

We might owe the humble word tattoo to (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the video) one of the furthest of the far-flung languages of the south Pacific, but it is by no means alone. 

Other somewhat surprising languages to have provided words to English include Tamil, another Indian language and the official language of both Sri Lanka and Singapore, which is the origin of the likes of catamaran, cheroot and pariah. Javanese, the most widely spoken language in Indonesia, is the origin of batik and lahar, another name for a volcanic mudflow. 

The native Aboriginal languages of Australia have given us billabong, budgerigar and dingo. When you run amok, you’re using a Malay word (borrowed into English via Portuguese) meaning “attacking frenziedly”. The boondocks take their name from a Tagalog word meaning “remote place”. And over in the Caribbean, the Taíno language is responsible for a number of very familiar words adopted into English via Spanish Caribbean colonists, including tobacco, hurricane, potato, canoe and even Caribbean itself. But these words, and several others like them, are almost all that remains of the Taíno civilization.

An indigenous Arawak people, the Taíno were once the most numerous people in the entire Caribbean. As such were the first Native Americans that Christopher Columbus came into contact with when he arrived in the Americas in the late 1400s; Columbus’s misinterpretation of the Carib people’s word for themselves, Caniba (as well his misapprehension that they were anthropophagous) even gave us the word cannibalism.

But as more Europeans arrived in the Caribbean, the Taíno population collapsed as its people contracted diseases for which they had no natural immunity, most notably smallpox. Within three decades, their numbers had dwindled by as much as 90%; according to some accounts, by the mid 1500s there were fewer than 500 individual Taíno people alive in the world. 

Although the population understandably never recovered, pockets of Taíno people survive across North America today. But their culture and language suffered so terrifically in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival that the handful of Taíno words to have survived in English offer an extraordinary and tantalizingly rare glimpse of a long-lost civilization... 

5 August 2016

10 Rhymable Unrhymable Words - 500 Words Ep. 30

A little while ago, this fact cropped up on the HH Twitter feed:

It ended up sparking quite a debate about whether carpet actually did have a rhyme, with everything from trumpet to market thrown into the mix. But, no. Seriously. Nothing rhymes with carpet. And nor does nothing, for that matter. In fact nothing rhymes with nothing either (depending on your accent, of course), but at the risk of tumbling into existential vortex, let’s just move on. 

Rhymes—and in particular words that purport not have any rhymes but actually do—are the focus of this week’s YouTube video, the 30th in the 500 Words series we’re running every week this year:

But following on both from this week’s episode, and from the misnomers episode from a couple of weeks back, one question we want to answer: what came first, orange or oranges? (Shameless plug: there’s more on this in the HH factbook, Word Drops—which is now available Stateside too…)

Chicken-and-egg language questions like this crop up on HH every so often (case in point below), but what about orange vs. oranges?

Well, the fact is that there was no word for the colour orange in the English language until oranges first began to be imported into England with any regularity in the early Middle Ages. Before then, anything orange coloured simply had to be described in terms of red and yellow, as in this description of a fox from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed, 
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris 

[His colour was between yellow and red, 
and tipped was his tail and both ears.]

The earliest record of the word orange—which derives at length from the Sanskrit word for the orange tree, naranga—comes from the Sinonoma Bartholomei, a fourteenth century Latin herbal, which listed all the plants known to have medical applications. And there, on page 15, “orenge” was listed as the English equivalent of the Latin “Citrangulum pomum”, or “citrus fruit”.

The colour orange didn’t appear until around a century and a half later. In 1557, orange cloth was listed in a legal document, collected in the so-called Statutes at Large in the late sixteenth century, that prohibited the selling of all fabrics except those of a certain set of colours:

And moreover, be it enacted by the authority aforesaid that no person nor persons … shall sell or put to sale within the realm of England any coloured cloth of any other colour or colours than are hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, tawny, russet, marble grey, sad new colour, azure watchet, sheeps colour, lion colour, motly, iron grey, friers grey, crane colour, purple, and old medley colour, most commonly used to be made above and before twenty years past.

Thank goodness “sheeps colour” made the final cut, frankly. And same goes for the “sad new colour”, otherwise I’d have nothing left to wear. But Chaucer’s foxes and sartorial rules and regulations aside, it’s clear that in this particular chicken-and-egg situation, it was the chicken that came first: the bright orange fruits gave the colour orange its name, not vice versa

All in all, it’s a colourful little story. 

2 August 2016

10 Words For Other Words

If you’ve been keeping up with the HH “500 Words” YouTube series, you’ll so far have found out about 280 of the 500 words we’re going to look at this year. But this week, we’re turning things around. 

So from hypernyms and hyponyms to holonyms and holophrases, this week’s video is looking at 10 Words for Other Words.

(And for more words like those, then be sure to check out the HH article that inspired it over on Mental Floss.)

One word that didn’t make the final cut here, however, is backronym. We’ve discussed some backronyms on YouTube before—mainly in our 10 Word Origins Stories That Are Completely Untrue video—and it’s a myth-busting topic that’s always worth revisiting.

Backronyms are words or phrases that are widely and mistakenly believed purported to be acronyms. Posh, for instance, is often claimed to stand for “port out, starboard home”, a reference to moneyed cruise ship passengers paying for the best views on both the outward and homeward bound parts of their voyage. Golf too is said to stand for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” (or ladies do something else that begins with F). And the distress signal SOS is famously claimed to stand for “save our souls”, or “save our ship”.

“It says, ‘you may have been missold PPI.’”

None of these is true, of course. Posh is simply thought to come from an old slang word for cash or loose change. Golf is probably descended from an old Dutch word for a club, colf or kulf (albeit with perhaps some influence of a Scots word for a stout blow to the head). And the letter combination “SOS” was chosen as a distress signal for no other reason than that its rhythmic and symmetrical combination of dots and dashes [· · · – – – · · ·] is so immediately noticeable. Incidentally, precisely the same combination of dots and dashes could also be used to spell the letters “VTB” in Morse code, but the designation SOS was used because of its own symmetry and memorability.

Before SOS was adopted in the early 1900s, however, the standard telegraph distress signal was “CQD” [– · – ·    – – · –    – · ·]. It’s fair to say that that’s hardly the most recognisable or memorable arrangement of dits and dahs on offer, so why pick that?

Well, on their own the letters “CQ” had long been used as a telegraphic distress signal as they sound identical to the French word “sécu”, an abbreviation of sécurité. The Marconi Telegraph Company simply added a letter D to this to make their first recommended distress signal, CQD. But just like SOS, CQD also fell foul of backronymy and before long myths had emerged claimed that it stood for “come quickly—danger!”, or “come quickly—drowning!”

Problems with interpreting the confusing set of letters “CQD” over a poor signal, however, eventually led to calls for a more immediately recognizable distress signal to be adopted, and so SOS was officially introduced in 1906.