Category Archives: Words

Epicaricacy: Part 1

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

Detail from "Return To The Abbey" by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)
Click to enlarge
Detail from “Return To The Abbey” by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1868)

What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word is found. […] In the Greek ἐπιχαιρεκακία, in the German, ‘Schadenfreude’. Cicero so strongly feels the want of such a word, that he gives to ‘malevolentia’ the significance ‘voluptas ex malo alterius’ [i. e., makes ‘ill-will’ mean ‘joy in another’s ill fortune’], which lies not of necessity in it.

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

The Classical Greek word quoted by Trench, above, transliterates as epikhairekakia, from epi-, “upon”, khairo, “to be glad”, and kakos, “evil”. To be glad about evil, in other words. It was familiar to scholars of the nineteenth century because Aristotle uses the word in his Nicomachean Ethics (translated here, by the Loeb Classical Library, as “malice”).

Latin, as Trench says, seemed to lack a single-word equivalent. While Cicero struggled and failed to find a word to do the job, Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary On The Nicomachean Ethics) went with gaudium de malo—“joy of evil”.

The Greek word turns up, vaguely anglicized, in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721):

EPICHARIKA’KY  [of ἐπι upon, χαρα Joy, and  κακον  Evil] a Joy at the Misfortunes of others

This is more than a century before the Oxford English Dictionary first cites an English writer using the German borrowing schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”). And we’re into the start of the twentieth century before the OED reports anyone using schadenfreude in English without explaining what it means.

So it seems English speakers first met their need for such a word by stealing from Greek*, but then forgot the Greek and stole again from German.

Joseph Shipley resuscitated the Greek version (with modern spelling) in his Dictionary Of Early English (1963):

epicaricacy. Rejoicing at, or taking joy in, the misfortunes of others. From Greek epi, upon + chara, joy + kakon, evil. Bailey’s DICTIONARY (1751) spells it epicharikaky; the accent falls on the ick. The O.E.D. (1933) ignores the word, but alas! the feeling is not so easily set aside.

For Shipley, I’d guess it probably falls into the category he mentions in his Introduction: “Words that are not in the general vocabulary today, but might be pleasantly and usefully revived.”

And from Shipley, I suspect, it started finding its way into various lists of unusual words—first in sporadic paper format, and then in the burgeoning cottage industry of word lists on the internet. I turn it up, for instance, in my old copy of Josefa Heifetz’s Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary Of Unusual, Obscure, And Preposterous Words (1974).

And that’s how it exists today—limping along in the shadowy half-life of words largely unused except in word-lists. Shipley and Heifetz follow Bailey’s direction to place the stress “on the ick”; but such on-line resources as bother with an attempt at a pronunciation guide seem nowadays to favour putting the stress on the “car”. I think one could defend either, so I’ve given both options in my phonetics at the head of this post.

The Greek prefix epi-, with the sense “upon”, has spawned a host of English words, too numerous to deal with individually; I’ll restrict myself to listing a few that I think are of interest.

We’re tediously familiar with epidemic (“upon the people”), of course. Epicentre is the Anglicized version of Latin epicentrum, from Greek epikentron, “upon the centre”. Its original meaning comes from seismology in the nineteenth century—the point on the surface of the Earth directly above the subterranean origin of an earthquake’s shock waves. From there, people started to interpret it as meaning “the centre of something important”. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this new meaning is dated 1970, in which Snape Maltings Concert Hall is rather dramatically characterized as the “epicentre” of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. We’ve recently become used to politicians and journalists talking about the “epicentre” of the Covid outbreak in Wuhan. This can be relied upon to produce pedantic groans from those who cling to the original etymology, but the word is now demonstrably a term of art used by those who study the spread of disease, so the etymological groans are as futile as they always are.

Location of the adrenal glands

The name of the hormone epinephrine comes from Greek epinephros, “upon the kidney”. This refers to the fact that it is produced by the adrenal glands (Latin prefix ad-, “to”, + ren, “the kidney”), which perch atop our kidneys like jaunty little hats. The hormone is therefore commonly referred to as adrenaline in British English, with epinephrine being the primary usage among American physicians. And when the hormone is prepared as a drug, its “British approved name” was adrenaline, while the “recommended international non-proprietary name” is epinephrine. When the UK (as part of the European Union) began to shift towards adopting international standard drug names at the start of this century, changes like frusemide to furosemide and amoxycillin to amoxicillin passed off with only a little eye-rolling among more elderly doctors, but there was a fairly stiff resistance to the replacement of the name adrenaline with epinephrine, for reasons summarized here.

Epicene adds epi- to Greek koinos, “common”, and started life as a technical term for Greek and Latin nouns which, without changing grammatical gender, can refer to either sex. French has a few of these, too—a male or female mouse is always une souris; a male or female nightingale always un rossignol. Back in the seventeenth century, the word was used for garments suitable for either sex—what we came to call unisex in the twentieth century. And epicene was also used, generally in a disapproving way, for people who did not conform to prevailing gender stereotypes in appearance or behaviour.

The adjective epicurean pertains to the Greek philosopher best known today by his Latin name, Epicurus. In Greek he was Epikouros, which means “assisting” or “defending”, and seems to have been derived from epi- and an unattested word that probably meant something like “running”. So perhaps the original sense was of a person who travelled with someone else in order to help or protect them. Whatever the origin of his name, Epicurus is now largely remembered for advocating philosophy as a way of allowing people to live a happy life—and so, rather unfairly, the noun epicurean now principally refers to someone who makes the pursuit of pleasure their primary goal. An epicure is someone who derives their pleasure from refined enjoyment of food and drink; in pursuit of that enjoyment, they are said to epicurize.

An epidiascope was a device for projecting images of an opaque object on to a screen. The name derives from the diascope (“see through”), which projects transparent images. So an epidiascope is an “upon diascope”—it was placed on top of something like a photograph or book page in order to project its image. The shorter, but rarer, alternative name episcope is less etymologically confused, but the point is now almost moot—the ubiquity of networked digital cameras has driven the device to near-extinction.

An epigraph (“written upon”) is an inscription on a building, or a short quotation placed at the head of a piece of writing in order to summarize or hint at its content (like the quotation at the head of this post, for instance). An epigram was also originally an inscription on a building, but usually written in verse. Its meaning shifted to label short, witty poems with the pay-off in the last line, and then to its current usage, designating a short, incisively witty saying. An epistle (“send upon”) is a written communication sent to someone who is elsewhere—a letter. An epitaph (“upon the grave”) is an inscription on a tombstone, or a short statement suitable for that use. An epitome (“cut upon”) is a brief summary of a longer work; if a person or thing can be considered to be a perfect example of something, they can be said to be an epitome of that thing. An episode (“entering upon”) was originally a short bit of speech sandwiched between choral parts in the performance of Greek Tragedy—the sense being of something extra added to the main performance. The meaning was then carried over into pieces of writing that were digressions from the main narrative of a novel or poem, and thence to the modern meaning, referring to the self-contained stories that make up each instalment of a television or radio drama. The Greeks would be puzzled to learn that much modern entertainment consisted of nothing but episodes.

Epilepsy is literally “seizing upon”—a disease that makes its sufferer fall to the ground and shake, as if in the grip of an invisible assailant. An epistaxis is a nose-bleed, from the Greek staxein, “to let fall in drops”.

Episcopal is an adjective meaning “pertaining to a bishop”, from the Greek episcopos, “overseer”. Our word bishop is just an Old English abbreviated form of the Latin equivalent, episcopus. Episcopalian churches are those in which administrative authority rests with a group of bishops.

And an epilogue (“upon the speech”) is a short statement delivered at the end of a narrative. Like this one. Next time I’ll write about words deriving from the paradoxical pair khairo and kakos.

* However, when Bailey wrote his dictionary, the philosophy of dictionaries was still settling down into the present descriptive format. It’s therefore possible that epicharikaky was never in use among English speakers of the time, but merely a word that Bailey thought could be usefully adopted. It doesn’t seem to be attested elsewhere.

Keplerian Orbital Elements

1. All planets move in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one focus.
2. A line that connects a planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
3. The square of the period of any planet is proportional to the cube of the semimajor axis of its orbit.

Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (formulated 1609-1619)

Okay, this is probably a bit niche, even by my standards, but it’s part of a longer project. I eventually want to write some more about the Apollo spacecraft, and the orbits they followed on their way to, and return from, the Moon. And the problem with that is that (for various good reasons) NASA didn’t document these orbits with a list of “orbital elements” that would allow the spacecraft trajectories in the vicinity of the Earth to be plotted easily. Instead, the flight documentation includes long tables of “state vectors”, listing the position and velocity of the spacecraft at various times—these are more accurate, but unwieldy to deal with. So in a future post I’m going to write about how to extract orbital elements from a few important state vectors. But first I need to describe the nature and purpose of the orbital elements themselves. Which is what I’m going to do in this post, hopefully enlivened by explanations of how the various orbital elements came by their rather odd names.

But first, the “Keplerian” bit. Johannes Kepler was the person who figured out that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits, and who codified the details of that elliptical motion into the three laws which appear at the head of this post. In doing that, he contributed to a progressive improvement in our understanding, which began with the old Greek geocentric model, which placed the Earth at the centre of the solar system with the planets, sun and moon moving in circles around it. This was replaced by Nicolaus Copernicusheliocentric model, which placed the sun at the centre, but retained the circular orbits. Kepler’s insight that the orbits are elliptical advanced things farther. (Next up was Isaac Newton, who provided the Theory of Universal Gravitation which explained why the orbits are ellipses.)

So Keplerian orbits are simple elliptical orbits.* They’re the sort of orbits objects would follow if subject to gravity from a single point source. In that sense, they’re entirely theoretical constructs, because real orbits are disturbed away from the Keplerian ideal by all sorts of other influences. But if we look at orbits that occur under the influence of one dominant source of gravity, and look at them for a suitably short period of time, then simple Keplerian ellipses serve us well enough and make the maths nice and simple. (And that’s what I’ll be doing with my Apollo orbits in later posts.)

Before going on, I’ll introduce a bit of necessary jargon. Henceforth, I’ll refer to the thing doing the orbiting as the satellite, and the thing around which it orbits as the primary. In Kepler’s original model of the solar system, the “satellites” are the planets, and the primary is the Sun; for my Apollo orbits, the satellites will be the spacecraft, and the primary is the Earth. Kepler’s First Law tells us that the primary sits at one focus of the satellite’s elliptical orbit. Geometrically, an ellipse has two foci, placed on its long axis at equal distances either side of the centre; only one of these is important for orbital mechanics. Pleasingly, focus is the Latin word for “fireplace” or “hearth”, so it seems curiously appropriate that the first such orbital focus ever identified was the Sun. Kepler’s Second Law tells us, in geometrical terms, that the satellite moves fastest when it’s at its closest to the primary, and slowest when it’s at its farthest. I’ll come to the Third Law a little later.

The Keplerian orbital elements are a set of standard numbers that fully define the size, shape and orientation of such an orbit. The name element comes from Latin elementum, which is of obscure etymology, but was used as a label for some fundamental component of a larger whole. We’re most familiar with the word today because of the chemical elements, which are the fundamental atomic building blocks that underlie the whole of chemistry.

The first pair of orbital elements define the size and shape of the elliptical orbit. (They’re called the metric elements, from Greek metron, “measure”.)

For size, the standard measure is the semimajor axis. An ellipse has a long axis and a short axis, at right angles to each other, and they’re called the major and minor axes. As its name suggests, the semimajor axis is just half the length of the major axis—the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its “ends”. It’s commonly symbolized by the letter a. The corresponding semiminor axis is b.

To put a number on shape, we need a measure of how flattened (or otherwise) our ellipse is—so some way of comparing a with b. For mathematical reasons, the measure used in orbital mechanics is the eccentricity, symbolized by the letter e. This has a rather complicated definition:


But once we’ve got e, we can easily understand why it’s called eccentricity, because the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its foci turns out to be just a times e. Our word eccentricity comes from Greek ek-, “out of”, and kentron, “centre”. So it’s a measure of how “off-centre” something is. And multiplying the semimajor axis by the eccentricity does exactly that—tells us how far the primary lies from the geometric centre of the ellipse.

The metric orbital elements, a and e
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For elliptical orbits, eccentricity can vary from zero, for a perfect circle, to just short of one, for very long, thin ellipses. (At e=1 the ellipse becomes an open-ended parabola, and at e>1 a hyperbola.)

Before I move on from the two metric elements, I should mention another concept that’ll be important later. The line of the major axis, which runs through the centre of the ellipse and the foci (marked in my diagram above), has another name specific to astronomy and orbital mechanics. It’s called the line of the apsides. Apsides is the plural of Greek apsis, which was the name of the curved sections of wood that were joined together to make the rim of a wheel. The elliptical orbit is deemed to have two apsides of special interest—the parts of the orbit closest to the primary (the periapsis) and farthest from the primary (the apoapsis), and these are joined by the line of the apsides.

Then there are three angular elements, which specify the orbit’s orientation in space. They’re specified relative to a reference plane and a reference longitude. A good analogy for this is how we measure latitude and longitude on Earth. To specify a unique position, we measure latitude north or south of the equatorial plane, and longitude relative to the prime meridian at Greenwich. For orbits around the Earth, like my Apollo orbits, the reference plane is the celestial equator, which is just the extension of the Earth’s equator into space. The reference longitude is called the First Point of Aries, for reasons I won’t go into here—it’s the point on the celestial equator where the sun appears to cross the equator from south to north at the time of the March equinox, and I wrote about it in more detail in my post about the Harvest Moon.

The first angular element is the inclination, symbolized by the letter i, which is the angle between the orbital plane and the reference plane. The meaning of its name is blessedly obvious, because it’s the same as in standard English.

Following its tilted orbit, the satellite will pass through the reference plane twice as it goes through one complete revolution—once heading north, and once heading south. These points are called the nodes of the orbit, from Latin nodus, meaning “knot” or “lump”. The northbound node is called the ascending node, and the southbound node is (you guessed) the descending node—names that reflect the “north = upwards” convention of our maps. The angle between the reference longitude and the ascending node of the orbit, measured in the reference plane, is called the longitude of the ascending node, symbolized by a capital letter omega (Ω), and it’s our second angular element.

Those two elements tell us the orientation of the orbital plane in space—how it’s tilted (inclination) and which direction it’s tilted in (longitude of the ascending node). Finally, we need to know how the orbit is positioned within its orbital plane—in which direction the line of the apsides is pointing, in other words. To do that job, we have our third and final angular element, the argument of the periapsis, which is the angle, measured in the orbital plane, between the ascending node and the periapsis, symbolized by a lower-case Greek omega (ω). The meaning of argument, here, goes back to the original sense of Latin arguere, “to make clear”, “to show”. That sense of argument found its way into mathematical usage, to designate what we’d now think of in computing terms as an “input variable”—a number that you need to know in order to solve an equation and get a numerical answer.

The angular orbital elements
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Those five elements exactly define the size, shape and orientation of the orbit, and are collectively called the constant elements. In addition to those five, we need a sixth, time-dependent element, which specifies the satellite’s position in orbit at some given time. (The specified time, symbolized by t or t0, is called the epoch, from Greek epoche, “fixed point in time”.) There are actually a number of different time-dependent elements in common use, but the standard Keplerian version is the true anomaly, which is the angle (measured at the primary) between the satellite and the periapsis. Different texts use different symbols for this angle, most commonly a Greek nu (ν) or theta (θ).

To understand why it’s called an “anomaly”, we need to go back to the original geocentric model of the solar system. Astronomers knew very well that the planets didn’t move across the sky at the constant rate that would be expected if they were adhering to some hypothetical sphere rotating around the Earth. Sometimes Mars, Jupiter and Saturn even turned around and moved backwards in the sky! These irregularities in motion were therefore called anomalies, from the Greek anomalos, “not regular”. And there were two sorts of anomaly. The First or Zodiacal Anomaly was a subtle variation in the speed of movement of a planet according to its position among the background stars. The Second or Solar Anomaly was a variation that depended on the planet’s position relative to the Sun. Copernicus explained the Second Anomaly by placing the Sun at the centre of the solar system, because he realized that much of the apparent irregularity of planetary motion was due to the shifting perspective created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun. The First Anomaly persisted, however, until Kepler’s Second Law showed how it was due to a real acceleration as a planet moved through periapsis, followed by a deceleration towards apoapsis. Because this “anomaly” was a real effect linked to orbital position, the word anomaly became attached to the angular position of the orbiting body. And if you’re wondering why it’s called the “true” anomaly, that’s because there are a couple of other time-dependent quantities in use, which are computationally convenient and which are also called “anomalies”. But the true anomaly is the one that measures the satellite’s real position in space.

And those are the six standard orbital elements, together with their odd names. However, we generally need to know one more thing. Kepler’s Third Law applies to all orbits—the larger the semimajor axis, the longer it takes for the satellite to make one complete revolution, with a cube-square relationship. But for a given orbital size, the time for one revolution also depends on the mass of the primary. A satellite must move more quickly to stay in orbit around a more massive primary. So we need to specify the orbital period of revolution (variously symbolized with P or T) if we are to completely model our satellite’s behaviour. The word comes from Greek peri-, “around”, and odos, “way”.

So—six elements and a period. That’s what I’ll be aiming to extract from the Apollo documentation when I return to this topic next time.

* Parabolic and hyperbolic “orbits” are, strictly speaking, trajectories, since they don’t follow closed loops. The word orbit comes from the Latin orbis, “wheel”—so something that is round and goes round.
Periapsis and apoapsis are general terms that apply to all orbits. Curiously, they can have other specific names, according to the primary around which the satellite orbits. Most commonly you’ll see perigee and apogee for orbits around the Earth, and perihelion and aphelion for orbits around the Sun. See my post about the word perihelion for more detail.

(Be the first)

The Sound(s) Of wh

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not

You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not (1944)

No, your browser hasn’t had a stroke—this post really has wh in its title—that is, the two letters at the start of the word whistle. For most of the English-speaking world, these letters are pronounced like the letter w alone. So the word pairs whether and weather, whales and Wales, which and witch, sound identical—they’re homophones. Because of this, you can often see people mixing up w/wh pairs in their spelling, particularly if one of the pair is unusual, and they’ve only ever heard it spoken, rather than seen in written. For instance, “This snack will only wet your appetite,” (instead of whet); “You haven’t made a wit of difference,” (instead of whit).

I was reminded of this when I ran into a question on Quora: What does the Latin phrase “semper ubi sub ubi” mean? Semper ubi sub ubi doesn’t mean anything in Latin, of course. It’s just a jokey string of words that can be translated individually as “always where under where”, but which the listener can hear and interpret as the injunction, “Always wear underwear”. (Ho ho ho, I hear you say.) This is all explained neatly in the answer to the Quora question, but I was struck by the final paragraph in the respondent’s answer:

One might say this to a Scotsman who is anxious about the proper accoutrements to his kilt.

(Ho ho ho, I hear you say again. Particularly if you’re Scottish.) But the problem is that a Scot is exactly the wrong person to try this Latin pun on—to a Scot, “always where under where” is no more than a source of puzzlement, because in Scottish English we pronounce w and wh differently. So the w/wh homophones listed above are minimal pairs in Scottish English—they’re words that are distinguished by only one sound.

Phonetically, the sound usually associated with the letter w is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /w/ and is called a voiced labial-velar approximant. The labial bit refers to the lips, the velar bit refers to the soft palate, and the approximant bit means that your lips are close together (forming a characteristic “w” moue that’s evident to lip-readers), while the back of your tongue rises to be similarly close to your soft palate. Voiced means that your vocal cords are vibrating while you breathe out to make the sound. But when Scots pronounce wh, they generally use a sound symbolized by /ʍ/, the unvoiced labial-velar fricative. Lips and tongue are in the same position, but this time the vocal cords don’t vibrate—air just passes smoothly through the lips, producing soft, audible friction. In other words, to paraphrase Lauren Bacall, to pronounce wh the Scottish way, you just put your lips together and blow. The usual sound of a Scots wh is pretty much the same as the sound of someone blowing out a candle.

The pronunciation distinction between w and wh isn’t unique to Scottish English–it’s also present in Ireland, and it used to be standard in New Zealand, though it’s fading among younger speakers. In the USA, there’s a broad swathe across the south and east of the country where the distinction still exists, but nowhere where it’s the dominant form of pronunciation.

As you’ll perhaps have guessed from the fact that the w/wh distinction is embedded in the spelling, it was once the case that every English speaker observed this difference in pronunciation. The sound has its origin in a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European consonant, written as kw, which was like a k pronounced with the lips in w position. In Latin, this turned into a sound like a k followed by a w, written as the familiar digraph qu. In the Germanic languages the k softened into something like the fricative sound at the end of Scottish “loch”, which is written in the IPA as /x/. And thence into Old English, where it was spelled hw, and pronounced /xw/.

Perhaps the most famous use of that hw digraph is in the opening word of the Old English epic poem Beowulf: “Hwæt!” This can be literally translated as “What!” but has generally been taken to be some sort of stereotypical injunction along the lines of “Lo!” or “Listen!” (There’s an argument, however, that it never should have been interpreted as an exclamation in the first place, and that the hwæt should be understood as part of the succeeding sentence.)

But however it’s interpreted, hwaet points up something interesting. The Proto-Indo-European kw seems to have been recurrently used at the start of single-word questions, and that pattern has persisted in the Latinate and Germanic descendants of Proto-Indo-European. So we have quid, quare, quando, quam, qua, quis in Latin; and hwæt, hwí, hwanne, (hwó)*, hwǽr, hwa in Old English, which turned into Kipling’s “Six Honest Serving Men” in Modern English: what, why, when, how, where, who.

After arriving in English, the /xw/ sound continued to evolve, its fricative /x/ softening in some dialects towards the huffing sound of the letter h, (written in IPA as /h/), or disappearing entirely to leave the unvoiced /ʍ/ I described above. So depending on your dialect, hw could be pronounced /xw/ or /hw/ or /ʍ/.

And of course the spelling changed, from hw to the familiar wh, probably standardized by Norman French scribes so that it matched other digraphs, like ch and ph, with which they were familiar.

And then came the so-called Wine-Whine Merger, a slow process of pronunciation shift, mainly spanning the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries (but still going on today!), during which most English speakers gave up on the effort to distinguish between wh and w, leaving just a dialectic fringe in Scotland and Ireland (together with some colonial exports) where the distinction was routinely maintained.

In regions where wh sounds different from w, you can still hear all the variants spawned by the original Old English hw. The predominant sound in Scottish English now seems to be /ʍ/, but /hw/ occurs too. You can hear /xw/ in the Hebrides, and the vigorous fricative is also often used when people are pronouncing something emphatically. And there are other variants, too—I hear /ʍw/ when Scots add a bit of voicing as they move into a following vowel, and /xʍ/ occurs, too.

The /xw/ pronunciation was once standard in Scotland, and accounts for one of the many puzzles Scottish proper names present for the uninitiated. When the sound was still in common use in English, British printers sometimes rendered it typographically as quh rather than wh. The practice was slowly abandoned as the fricative disappeared during the Wine-Whine Merger, but persisted for longer in Scotland, where the sound remained in use. Some time around the start of the seventeenth century, the schoolmaster Alexander Hume vigorously defended the quh spelling in his book Of the Orthographie and Congruitie of the Britan Tongue.

To clere this point, and alsoe to reform an errour bred in the south, and now usurped be our ignorant printeres, I wil tel quhat befel my self quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc., sould be symbolized with q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me.
Then (said I) a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.

You can perhaps puzzle through that with the knowledge that quh should be read as wh, but here’s my translation:

To clarify this point, and also to correct an error arising in the South [ie, England], and now wrongfully adopted by our ignorant printers, I will tell what befell me when I was in the South with a special good friend of mine. There arose, by accident, a serious argument between him and me, [as to] whether who, when, what, etc. should be symbolized with a q or w.
Then (said I) a labial letter cannot symbolize a guttural syllable. But w is a labial letter, [and] who [is] a guttural sound. And therefore w cannot symbolize who, nor any syllable of that nature. Here the doctor silenced them again (for all barked at once). “The proposition,” said he, “I understand; [but] the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.”

So, at the turn of the seventeenth century, it seems the Scots were still saying /xw/, while the English (or at least, the people with whom Hume found argument) had moved on. But the quh orthography has persisted in several Scottish proper nouns. The little village of Milton of Cultoquhey, for instance, is pronounced cull-TOE-whey. And the clan name Colquhoun has now polished the original /xw/ sound down to a simple /h/, so that it’s pronounced cull-HOON, or (more often) just cuh-HOON.

The pronunciation of wh continues to evolve in Scotland. There’s evidence that some younger speakers in the larger cities are dropping the w/wh distinction entirely. Meanwhile, in the Doric dialect of the Northeast, /ʍ/ has been transformed into /f/, so that (combined with a vowel shift) “where” sounds like far, and “what” sounds like fit. (Visitors to the region often bear an expression of anxious incomprehension.)

Meanwhile, in the erstwhile prestige English accent called Received Pronunciation, one can occasionally hear wh rendered as /hw/. John Wells, in Accents Of English (1982) writes:

But I think it is true to say that those who use it almost always do so as the result of a conscious decision: persuaded that /hw-/ is a desirable pronunciation they modify their native accent [ie Received Pronunciation] in this direction.

Whatever the reason, and despite its rarity in real life, it seems to have become part of the perception of “posh British” speech among non-British speakers of English. Hence, I suppose, the running joke in the TV series Family Guy, in which /hw/ is part of the weird Trans-Atlantic accent affected by the character Stewie Griffin:

* I put hwó in brackets because it’s a reconstructed early form. The attested form in Old English is , already partway towards modern how. How some hw-words lost their /w/ sound is a story for another day.
In Accents Of English, John Wells tells us that the use of /w/ for wh was at first considered a “vulgarism”, and that it crept into “educated speech” only during the eighteenth century. So the English doctor who disagreed with Hume, at the start of the seventeenth century, was presumably making a distinction between Scottish /xw/ and the non-guttural English /hw/.



complimentary: 1) expressive of, or conveying, polite praise or commendation; 2) presented as a gift or gratuity

Complimentary Therapies
Click to enlarge

So a guy’s sitting at the bar, drinking beer, when he hears a voice say, “You’re looking good tonight.” And he looks around, but there’s no-one there. After a while the same voice says, “That new haircut really suits you.” But still there’s no-one there.
The barman, seeing the guy looking around puzzledly, asks him if there’s a problem. And the guy confesses that he keeps hearing a disembodied voice saying nice things about him.
“Ah,” says the barman, “That’ll be the peanuts. They’re complimentary.”

Old joke

The joke plays on the two meanings of complimentary given at the head of this post. The use of compliment to designate an expression of praise or commendation goes back to the seventeenth century. A hundred years later, people began to use the phrase to make a compliment of [some item] when they were describing giving a gift as a mark of praise or respect. That usage of compliment has fallen into disuse, but the second meaning acquired by complimentary lingers on.

Compliment comes (by a roundabout route) from Latin complementum, “that which fills up or completes”, related to the verb complere, “to fill up”, and the adjective completus, “completed”. Complere is the origin of our word complete and the old word complish, “to fill up or complete”, which gives us modern English accomplish. Completus appears (in feminine form) in the Latin phrase completa hora, “finished hour”, which is the origin of the name compline for the final prayer-service of the day in Catholic ritual.

Complementum turned into Spanish cumplimiento, which referred to a very special type of completion—that of fulfilling the complex requirements of formal courtesy. This was adopted into French as compliment, and thence into English. Meanwhile, the idea of meeting an obligation was reflected in the associated Spanish verb cumplir, which passed through Italian and ended up in English as comply.

To further complicate matters, complementum had already found its way more directly into Middle English as complement, “that which completes”. Nowadays, it crops up in specialist uses in grammar, music, optics, mathematics and astonomy. And there’s a set of small blood proteins called the complement system that is activated when our immune system is triggered, helping it complete its destruction of invading microorganisms. The verb to complement means “to make complete”, and things that are complementary serve to complete a whole of some kind—complementary angles sum to ninety degrees, for instance, and complementary colours combine to produce white.

Which brings me, contentiously, to the topic of complementary therapies and the practice of complementary medicine. The underlying claim, evidently, is that these practices somehow complete conventional medical practice by providing something that medicine lacks.* (But at least it’s a better adjective than alternative, which sends the message that you don’t need conventional medicine if you’ve got alternative medicine.)

But we’ve reached the point that refers back to the photograph at the head of this post. It’s a view of the rather pleasingly frosted and lettered window of an establishment quite near my house. (I’ve cropped it down quite severely to remove the establishment’s name, so you’re not seeing it to its best advantage.) There are a couple of things to take issue with in the lettering I’ve shown, but the relevant one for this post is in the top line. I suppose it’s possible that the establishment provides “complimentary therapy”—presumably either free to the recipient or consists solely of flattering remarks—but I’m betting that what was intended was “complementary therapy”. (The error is, of course, extremely common—I once found it in an official hospital communication.)

Latin complere, “to fill up”, is derived from the prefix com-, a marker of intensity, and the adjective plenus, “full, complete”. Plenus has given English a family of words beginning plen- that have something to do with fullness or completeness. To plenish is to fill something up; to replenish is to do that again. Plenty indicates a full supply of something, as does plenitude. Plenary implies that something is full or complete—plenary powers are the most power you can be granted; a plenary session is a meeting at which an entire organization assembles. And an ambassador plenipotentiary has full power to make decisions and take actions on behalf of the administration she represents.

As rare curiosities, I can offer plenilune, “the time of the full moon”, and plenicorn, which designates those ruminants possessing solid horns (like deer) as opposed to those with hollow horns (like cattle) which are cavicorns. A plenisphere is a perfect sphere, and a plenum is a space completely filled with matter—the opposite of a vacuum.

Finally, Latin manus, “hand”, combined with plenus, “full”, to produce manipulus, “handful”. That came into English as the old word maniple, which could be used literally to mean “handful”, or figuratively to mean “small group of soldiers”. And the original meaning of manipulate was “to gather in handfuls”.

And I hope you’ve found something interesting among this latest few handfuls of words.

* But then there’s another the old joke that goes: “What do you call complementary medicine that works? Medicine.”

More About “Anti-Agathic”

Artwork for Charles L. Harness's short story "Fruits Of The Agathon" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec. 1948)

From beneath the bushy V of satanic eyebrows, Rachs’ jet eyes seemed to shower sparks at him. As usual, that immobile face was incandescent, and Toring fancied he could almost hear the creaking of a carbon-arc in the brain of his superior. The Hungarian’s incredible energies frightened, rather than soothed patrons, and for years he had worked solely in the advancement of extra-sensory mechanics.
“Toring,” he clipped. “I want you to kill a man.”
[Toring] swallowed rapidly, and he was conscious of a dark silence in the room.
“I take it that the Council has finally approved your agathon program?” he asked the eyes.

Charles L. Harness, “Fruits Of The Agathon” (1948)

Browsing through the bibliography of Charles L. Harness the other day (as you do), my eye was drawn to a very early short story entitled “Fruits Of The Agathon” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948). It was, in fact, only his second piece of published fiction after “Time Trap” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1948). Courtesy of the Luminist Archives, my links will take you to copies of the two magazines in which these stories appeared. Unlike “Time Trap”, which has appeared in numerous collections over the years, “Fruits Of The Agathon” fell into obscurity fairly rapidly, and perhaps deservedly—it’s a complicated little story, chaotically full of ideas, which seems to start off in one direction, then changes course several times.

Harness was underrated throughout much of his lifetime. He specialized (as “Fruits Of The Agathon” demonstrated to excess) in idea-stuffed narratives of the kind James Blish called “intensively recomplicated”, featuring the sort of sprawling plots Brian Aldiss called “widescreen baroque”. Some day I’ll write about his first novel, The Paradox Men (1953), which features time travel, sword fights, colonies on the Sun, and a protagonist with a variety of talents indistinguishable from superpowers.

“Fruits Of The Agathon” features a device that can predict the date of someone’s death, but not the circumstances. The satanic Rachs, in my opening quote, wishes to exploit this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, by ensuring that the deaths of certain prominent citizens occur “under the circumstances considered most beneficial to the world”. That is, a carefully planned murder is carried out, rather than leaving death to potentially embarrassing chance. This “death plan” is called the agathon, and Harness helpfully opens his story with the etymology of his coined word, using one of those fake “Encyclopedia Exposita” entries with which science fiction writers often contrive a data-dump.

AGATHON: (From Greek, agathos, good, and thanatos, death.)

I won’t trouble you with the rest of the plot, which includes Freudian psychology, a mutually murderous family, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and a set of artificial eyes which overheat after prolonged us.

The interesting thing about Harness’s agathon (for me, at least), is it predates James Blish’s use of the word anti-agathic, for a drug that prevents death, which first appeared in his story “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954). Blish’s coining went on to become a science-fiction staple but (as I described in my original post on the topic) its etymology has always been a mystery, since agathic seems to lack a root relating to death. Instead, as Harness points out, the Greek agathos means “good”.

But Harness’s agathon pretty much elides the thanatos from which he claims it derives, so in his story we’re left with an agath- word that refers to death. Is it possible, then, that this is the origin of Blish’s idea that an anti-agathic would combat death?

It’s an appealing story, but there’s a sizeable fly in the ointment. As I pointed out in my original post, it took a while for Blish to settle on anti-agathic for his anti-death drugs. In his story “Bindlestiff” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950), he uses anti-agapic. The same word appears in “Sargasso Of Lost Cities” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Spring 1953). In “Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953) it’s anti-athapic. Neither of these has any evident etymological connection to death. He only settled on anti-agathic in 1954, and later revised the text of his earlier stories to reflect that choice, when they were collected into the four novels of the Cities In Flight series.

So if we’re to invoke Harness as the origin of Blish’s usage of anti-agathic, we need a fairly convoluted scenario. Why would Blish have used a couple of similar words before eventually coming up with anti-agathic? Did he misremember Harness’s word, and only finally check back in 1954? But if so, why wouldn’t he have noticed Harness’s opening etymology of agathon (it’s right there on the title page of the story)? If he had noticed, he could readily have made the switch to the etymologically defensible anti-thanatic.

So. I’d love to claim that I’ve tracked down the origin of Blish’s word, but I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. I suspect we’ll never know where anti-agathic really came from.



Festivity: Rejoicing, mirth, gaiety, such as befits a feast

Christmas Eve, by George Cruikshank
Click to enlarge
Christmas Eve as illustrated by George Cruikshank

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas.

Charles Dickens, “Christmas Festivities”, Bell’s Life in London (1835)

Dickens would have considered The Oikofuge a misanthrope indeed, and would not be the first to do so, but the title of his short story (later collected as “A Christmas Dinner”) gives me the hook for this year’s Christmas word.

A festivity is an occasion on which one is festive, the original meaning of which is “pertaining to a feast”. Nowadays, though, festive has come to have connotations of joy and mirth and gladness. And the current Festive Season has links to both feasting and (as Dickens pointed out) “jovial feelings” of various kinds. A festival was originally a time for feasting, usually tied to the ecclesiastical calendar of feast days, but now has broader connections to themed celebrations, in the form of book festivals, music festivals, and so on. Things pertaining to festivals are festal; and if you write a treatise concerning ecclesiastical festivals, you have written a festilogy.

All these words come from Latin festum, “feast day”. So also, by a more circuitous route, does festoon, originally the name for a garland of flowers hanging in a curve between two points of support. Nowadays, we can refer to anything hanging in that sort of curve as a festoon. The word comes from Italian festone, which is thought to derive from festum—festoons were apparently considered to be appropriate feast-day decorations. The French turned festum into fête, a word we borrowed directly into English, originally as another word for festival, but now rather downgraded to designate mild-mannered charity bazaars. We also stole fest from the Germans, embedded in the word festschrift (“festival writing”), which refers to a collection of writings in honour of a scholar or author. And of course the idea of an Oktoberfest beer festival is no longer confined to Munich, these days.

Latin festum is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as dhes, which seems to have been used in relation to religious concepts like gods and sacred places—and its various descendants in English tend to be connected to religion, in one way or another, as we’ll see. Dhes also found its way into Archaic Latin as fesiae, which was transformed into Classical Latin feriae, “religious holiday”, from which we derive our noun fair, which originally referred to mass gatherings of buyers and sellers during religious festivals, but now is also used to designate other gatherings with a holiday atmosphere, such as a fun fair*. Latin feriae also came into English as feria, an ecclesiastical term for a day of the week that isn’t Sunday. A greater feria is such a day of the week that has some special religious significance, like Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

A suffixed form of dhes reconstructed as dhesnom also ended up in Latin as fanum, “temple”. This gives us a largely disused English word for a temple, fane, which generally only turns up in wilfully archaic writings nowadays. Something profane is literally “outside the temple”. And our word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus, “belonging to a temple”. Make of that what you will.

In Classical Greek, dhes gave rise to theos, “divine being”, which has been a fruitful source of god-words in English, from atheism (“no god”) to pantheism (“god everywhere”) via monotheism and polytheism. Sitting between mono- (one god) and poly- (lots of gods) is the rather rarely encountered henotheism, which is a belief that only one god is relevant to one’s own tribe, while accepting that other people may have other gods. A pantheon is a temple dedicated to all gods. An apotheosis is a promotion to godhood, though its meaning has worn smooth enough over the years that achieving A-list celebrity status also counts. An entheogen is a drug that creates a sensation of divine inspiration. (The term was coined in 1979 as a way of emphasizing the spiritual nature of the experience induced, while dodging the negative connotations acquired by hallucinogen and psychedelic.) Enthusiasm was original a state of divine inspiration—another word with a meaning that has worn down over time. And the cacao tree, from which we derive chocolate, belongs to the genus Theobroma (“food of the gods”).

A theophany is a “god manifestation”. This is the name the Eastern Christian calendar applies to the feast day known as Epiphany in the West, which falls on January 6th, marking the traditional date of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Male children born on that date were sometimes named Theophanes, while female children were given the name Theophania—the origin of the English girl’s name, Tiffany. And the names Dorothy and Theodore both come from theos, “god”, coupled with doron, “gift”, albeit with the male order reversing the female.

There are many more theos words, and I’ve merely cantered through the ones I find interesting, in the hope you’ll feel the same way. But to end this festive post, I’ll loop back to Latin festum, and mention the “non-commercial secular holiday” Festivus. In Latin, festivus is an adjective, meaning “pertaining to feasts”, but that seems not to have been in the mind of Daniel O’Keefe when the name for an idiosyncratic family celebration “just popped into his head” in 1966. Originally a rather protean affair, the concept leaked into consensus reality when O’Keefe’s son, Dan, ended up as a writer for the television series Seinfeld. “Festivus for the rest of us” featured in a 1997 episode entitled “The Strike”, in which the date was nailed down to December 23rd, and the various components of the celebration (including the “Airing of Grievances”) were laid out.

I’m making this post on December 22nd, so you may well become aware of it in time to construct your own Festivus Pole, and to admire its simplicity, lack of decoration, and philosophical opposition to all that a Dickensian Christmas stands for. Have a good one, or at least have one as good as circumstances permit.

* The Oikofuge’s misanthropy, previously established, means that that phrase fun fair came very close to featuring scare quotes on the fun. But hey, it’s Christmas …

Begging The Question

Although not much encountered these days, the original meaning of the phrase “to beg the question” refers to a piece of faulty logic, which H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary Of Modern English Usage (1926) defines as:

The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself

Fowler offered two examples that could have fallen straight out of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories of P.G. Wodehouse:

That foxhunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun, & that one must keep servants, since all respectable people do so

These have the (very slight) kudos of attempting to justify one claim by at least offering a different unsubstantiated claim in its support. But we can also (with tedious frequency) encounter examples that are just a closed loop, in which the speaker attempts to justify a claim by referring to the same claim dressed up in different language. Here’s one concocted by Madsen Pirie for his splendid guide, The Book Of The Fallacy (1985):

Justice requires higher wages because it is right that people should earn more

So that’s the earliest usage of “to beg the question”, going back to the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But (as I imagine you’ll agree) the phrase itself seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the concept it describes. Little wonder, then, that people have taken the stock phrase, puzzled over it, and given it new meanings.

The most common current usage is as a synonym for “to prompt the question”:

If this law is not enforced, it begs the question, “What’s the point of making it a law in the first place?”

The other (in my experience much rarer) usage is synonymous with “to dodge the question”. That’s how Howard Jacobson used it in his novel Redback (1987):

However, our tearful fight […] had nothing at all to do with politics. I’d say it had to do with women, except that’s not true either. Let’s settle for its having something to do with love, and beg the question of just who was in love with whom.

But pretty much no-one uses it to refer to a logical fallacy, except in discussions of logical fallacies, or in rants about how no-one speaks English properly any more.

So how did a fairly straightforward example of woolly thinking (or deliberate deception) acquire such an opaque label? It was probably an ill-considered translation of an equally opaque Latin tag.

The name of this logical fallacy in Latin is petitio principii. Now, in my compact Latin dictionary, petitio has meanings involving attacking or pleading—it’s the origin of our word petition. And principii is the genitive case of principium, which means things like “foremost”, “origin” and “beginning”. Principium is related to our words prince and principle. In the plural it is principia, which features in the Latin title of one of the most famous scientific works of all time, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), often referred to in familiar terms as just “The Principia”. So that would make petitio principii translate as “petition of the beginning”, which isn’t any clearer than “to beg the question”, really.

But petitio acquired a new meaning in post-Classical Latin—beyond the scope and remit of my little dictionary, but available in the Dictionary Of Medieval Latin From British Sources. When mediaeval scholars were discussing mathematics in Latin (as they were wont to do), they used petitio to mean “postulate”. In mathematical terms, postulates are the assumptions on which all further reasoning is based—Euclid built the whole of his understanding of geometry systematically from just five famous postulates. And I can’t offer a better definition of “postulate” than the one given by Sir Henry Billingsley in 1570, in the first English-language translation of Euclid’s mathematical textbook, the Elements.

[…] certain general sentences, so plain, and so perspicuous, that they are perceived to be true as soon as they are uttered

For instance, Euclid’s First Postulate is just:

A straight line can be drawn joining any two points

Back to petitio. The late-Latin meaning, involving a fundamental assumption on which further reasoning is based, was so solidly adopted that Billingsley happily used the word “petition” instead of “postulate” in his translation of Euclid—the definition I offered above is actually his definition of the word “petition”, as he is using it.

So now we’re making progress. Petitio principii, in post-Classical Latin, meant “assumption of the beginning”. While it is okay (and indeed absolutely necessary) to make some initial assumptions in mathematics, cogent arguments in the real world need to be founded on observations made in the real world. So the Latin phrase petitio principii is saying, “Oops, this argument is based on nothing more than an assumption at the beginning!”

But how did that end up as “to beg the question” in English? It seems that the mathematical and scientific usage of petitio was lost in translation at some point, and people went back to the Classical Latin meanings relating to pleading—hence, “to beg”. And the “question” bit comes from an unusual usage of the word, only tangentially related to queries, but still with us in various stock phrases. In its long entry on “question”, the OED offers the following definition:

A subject for discussion, a proposal to be debated or voted on […]

We use this meaning when we say, “That’s completely out of the question!” And the bit at the start of an argument, which leads to subsequent discussion, is “the matter in question“.

So petitio became “to beg” because of a confusion between Classical Latin and specialist post-Classical Latin usages; and principii became “the question” as a reference to the fundamental matter which leads to the subsequent discussion.

One can hardly blame people for forgetting the original meaning and coming up with new ones.

(Be the first)



stravaig: (verb) to wander aimlessly; (noun) an instance of such wandering

Striking For The Back Country (Kemble, 1885)
Huckleberry Finn” illustration by E.W. Kemble (1885)

Not all who wander are lost

J.R.R. TolkienThe Riddle Of Strider” (1954)

This Scots word has been on my “to do” list for a while, linking back as it does to my recent post about useful Scottish words, and farther back to my discussion of the transformed usage of the word gangrel in Scottish hill-walking circles.

Like gangrel, the use of stravaig, as a noun or verb, has become a little distorted among hill-walkers—the defining aimlessness of the original usage seems to have faded into the background, and it’s often used now to indicate long-distance, multi-day or particularly energetic walks. But here at The Oikofuge I’m constitutionally disposed to adhere to the original meaning. Long-time readers of my various Sidlaws adventures will appreciate that they are stravaigs in the true sense, undertaken with little objective in mind except getting home in one piece and in time for tea. Someone who wanders in this way is a stravaiger.

For all its appearance of coming from the Gaelic, the word is actually Latin in origin—an aphetic and apocopic trimming of the word extravagate, “to wander at large”, which is formed from the Latin prefix extra- “outside” and the verb vagari, “to wander”.

To call something extravagant originally indicated that it was wandering beyond normal bounds. Only in the eighteenth century did the word transform into an adjective for things that were overly expensive or wasteful. Shakespeare used it in its original sense when he had Horatio say:

Awake the god of day, and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th’ extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine

Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 1

By which he meant: “The rising sun drives wandering ghosts back into hiding.” (And notice that Shakespeare was using erring in its old sense of “wandering”, too—a usage we’d now replace with errant.)

On a related note, the Italians used estravaganza to designate things that had strayed outside the normal—oddity or eccentricity, in other words. English adopted the word to describe musical or literary works that were bombastically over-the-top in composition—but we revised the prefix to a more familiar form, creating the word extravaganza.

The prefix extra- is responsible for a large number of English words, all indicating a state of being outside something—so for instance we have extramural (“outside walls”), extracurricular (“outside the set work”), extraordinary (“outside the ordinary”) and any number of medical words describing anatomical relationships. Extraordinary originally meant “beyond the usual quantity”. It became contracted to extra, which retains that original meaning, while extraordinary evolved to its current meaning, designating something remarkable, aberrant or strange.

Latin vagari is at the root of a range of English words, some common, some disused and some obscure. If you are vagant, you are wandering, and an instance of such wandering is vagation (disappointingly unrelated to vacation). The corresponding verb is to vagitate. To divagate is to wander from one place to another, to pervagate is to wander through, and evagation is the act of wandering off. A vagary was originally a sort of roaming tour, but it came to be used metaphorically for rambling speech or writing, from which it evolved to take on its current meaning, designating eccentric conduct or strange tricks of fate.

Our word astray comes from Old French estraier, “to wander”, a heavily condensed descendant of Latin extravagari. Shortened further in English, it turned into stray. A stray animal is legally designated an estray.

With the suffix -bundus, the verb vagari forms the adjective vagabundus, “wandering about”, from which we derive our word vagabond. But, despite appearances, vagrant proves to be unrelated—it came into English from Old French wacrant, which in turn derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root as our word walk.

A shorter adjective related to vagari was vagus, “wandering”. It gives us the name of the vagus nerve, which wanders widely on its course through the body, and our word vague, for things that are poorly defined.

Finally, I offer a little crop of -vagant words that deserved to be resuscitated from their current obscurity. Someone or something that roams at night is noctivagant; something floating around in the sea is fluctivagant; someone who wanders alone is solivagant. And, coming back to topics dear to the Oikofuge’s heart, someone who roams the mountains is montivagant and someone who roams the world is mundivagant.

Five Useful Scottish Words

Scotland is a picturesque country where the people are friendly yet completely incomprehensible.

Adam Schlesinger

Setting aside Scots accents, which most people manage to tune into after fairly short exposure, it’s the vocabulary of Scottish English which is the main source of incomprehension for visitors. Some Scots words are easily translated: to swither is to vacillate, for instance, and a spaiver is a trouser fly. But some seem to serve functions that have no exact synonyms in standard English, and I thought I’d offer a brief selection of those here.



Dreich: (of experiences) protracted, hard to bear, depressing; (of weather) damp, overcast, unpleasant.

The original meaning of this word involved duration and tedium—journeys could be dreich, tasks could be dreich, sermons could be dreich. But the soul-sapping original meaning has now become inextricably linked to that most characteristic of Scottish weather—low cloud weeping gentle rain on a chilly day. So iconic has the word become for native Scots that it keeps being voted “Scots Word of the Year” in various polls.

Like many Scots words, it derives from older English vocabulary rather than (as one might guess) Gaelic. It is related to Old English dréoᵹan, “to work”, from which we get the word drudge. Dréoᵹan also gave us dree, “to do duty, to suffer”, which is now pretty much obsolete, but I do still take every opportunity to use the splendid expression to dree (one’s) weird, which means “to submit to (one’s) fate”.


ˈθrɑːn; ˈθrɔːn

Thrawn: perverse, obstinate, intractable, sullen

Thrawn is a personality type, rather than a temporary state of mind, though one may become increasingly thrawn with age (I know I have). And those who are thrawn may develop a particular set to their facial features, making them thrawn-faced or thrawn-gabbit (“thrawn-mouthed”).

Again, the word has English origins—it’s no more than a dialectic version of the word thrown. This originally meant “turned” or “twisted”, and the last relic of that old meaning in standard English is in the idea that we “throw” a pot if we mould its clay on a rotating potter’s wheel. But the Scots word has stayed close to the original meaning, implying that thrawn people have a twisted attitude to life.



Slaister: to move around or work messily in water or mud

You can slaister because you’re clumsy, or because you have no other choice. In Scottish hillwalking circles, the occasional need to slaister your way out of a peat bog is almost inevitable. By association, someone who is a particularly messy eater can also be said to slaister.

As a noun, a slaister is an instance of slaistering—the crossing of a peat bog can be described as a slaister, for instance, and the bog itself is said to be slaistery. You can also make a slaister of a job if you make a complete mess of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the origin of the word as “obscure”, but I can’t help hearing a certain onomatopoeia to it.



Shoogle: to rock, oscillate slightly, or shift unsteadily

When I was first asked by a non-Scot to explain the word shoogle, I said that it meant “to shake”, but was quickly corrected by a friend who pointed out that there’s no such thing as “Shoogled Baby Syndrome”. Indeed, babies tend to enjoy being shoogled.

The key features of shoogling are a small applied force and a slight resultant movement. A baby dandled on the knee is being shoogled; a table that rocks on an uneven floor is shoogling; a child’s baby teeth will shoogle before they fall out. Something that is unstable enough to shoogle is said to be shoogly. Which gives rise to the lovely metaphorical usage “on a shoogly peg” or “on a shoogly nail” for anything that is insecure. “Your jacket’s on a shoogly peg” is a blunt way of advising someone that their employment may soon be terminated.

The word comes from Middle English shog, “to shake”, which is probably also related to the modern English words jog and shock.



Coorie: to stoop or crouch; to nestle

The verb to coorie is a diminutive form of coor, which is a Scots dialectic form of standard English cower. So it originally indicated a small act of cowering—stooping or crouching for protection, perhaps to get out of the wind or to conceal oneself. This association with seeking comfort then led to a usage which emphasizes warmth and safety, most commonly in combination with the word doon (“down”). As a child on a cold night I was often encouraged to “coorie doon” with my hot-water bottle among the warm bedclothes.

And building on that idea, Coorie has recently turned into a proper noun and an honest-to-God lifestyle trend. It has been dressed up as a translation of Gaelic còsagach (“snug, warm, cosy, sheltered”), which it never really was, and offered as the Scottish alternative to Danish hygge. Apparently, Scots are no longer stern Calvinists who scorn central heating and palatable cooking, but serious proponents of comfortable living with a product to sell to the world. You can read all about it in books like The Art of Coorie: How To Live Happy The Scottish Way and Coorie: What You Need to Know About The Scottish Lifestyle Trend. There’s even (saints preserve us) a colouring book.

Coorie has come a very long way from a shivering child clutching a hot-water bottle on a winter’s night.



Wanhope: hopelessness, despair

Caxton's Canterbury Tales
Caxton’s 1477 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
(Folger Shakespeare Library call number: STC 5082, fol. 108v)
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence

Now comth wanhope þat is dispeire of the mercy of god þat comth somtyme of to moch outrageous sorow and som tyme of to moch drede

Geoffrey Chaucer The Parson’s Tale (c.1400)

I’ve fallen into the habit, recently, of picking words from current affairs for my posts about etymology and usage. I thought it was perhaps about time I reverted to resuscitating obscure words with interesting histories, and wanhope, which turned up recently in my reading, gives me the opportunity.

Wan- is an Old English prefix “expressing privation or negation”, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It has long ceased to be active in producing words, but in its day was used to modify meaning in the same way as un- or mis- does today. So a state of wanhope was a state of complete deprivation of hope. In Chaucer’s time, that loss of hope was often religious in nature—”despair of the mercy of God”, as he puts it. It was an extreme condition, as Chaucer makes clear, coming “sometimes of too much outrageous sorrow, and sometimes of too much dread”.

J.R.R. Tolkien used many fine old words in his Lord of the Rings cycle, and wanhope was among them. Here it is in one of the Unfinished Tales, “The Istari“:

[Gandalf] was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress

In The Origins Of English Words (1984), Joseph Shipley errs in giving it a milder meaning:

Almost forgotten is wanhope, gentler than despair, softer than hope against hope.

He seems to have been influenced by the modern meaning of the adjective wan, “pale, sickly”. But the old English prefix is more related to the verbs wane and want, implying something lacking. The origin of the adjective wan seems to be obscure, and the OED is uncertain whether it is related to wane or merely influenced by it. But it originally meant “dark, leaden hued, lacking in light”—the Scots noun wan, meaning “bruise”, preserves that old meaning. Then confusion arose. The faces of the sick or dead were described as being wan; the light of dim stars was also wan—and so the word switched its meaning from “dark” to “pale”.

The prefix wan- barely survived into Middle English, but it spawned a fine list of now-forgotten words: for instance, wanchancy “unlucky”, wandought “feeble”, and wanthriven “stunted”. My personal favourite is wanweird, “ill fate”, from the old usage of the word weird to mean “destiny”. The only one that has survived into current usage is wanton, “undisciplined”, which comes to us from Middle English wantowen, “lacking training”.

I won’t spend much time on hope, beyond pointing out that I doubt Shipley’s attempt to connect it to hop (“watch a boy in eager expectation”), and mentioning that I’ve dealt with the unexpected original meaning of forlorn hope in a previous post dealing with the prefix for-.

Oh, and then there’s hopefully, a perfectly useful adverb meaning “with a feeling of hope”, which does not deserve the vitriol poured upon it. It’s become strangely popular to hate the use of the word  hopefully at the start of a sentence. This usage is called a sentence adverb, it has a long history in English, and there must be a hundred adverbs that are used in this way, either to say what the writer feels about what follows, or to put the rest of the sentence into a particular context—obviously, technically, curiously, regrettably, ironically, clearly, thankfully, theoretically … and so on.

Frankly, I’ve no idea why the grammar snobs have all piled on to poor little hopefully.

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