Category Archives: Words



Isolated: placed or standing apart or alone; detached or separate from other things or persons; unconnected with anything else; solitary

Dominic Cummings

To protect others, you must stay at home if you or someone you live with has symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19).
This is called self-isolation.

UK National Health Service, Self-Isolation Advice (2020)

During the Current Unpleasantness, people all around the world have become acquainted with the concept of “self-isolation”—an infected person’s duty to break the epidemic’s chain of infection by voluntarily withdrawing from all external contacts with other people. For those of us in the UK, that concept has become particularly salient over the last few days, as we have been amused/entertained/irritated/outraged* by the unfolding saga of the self-isolation of a senior government adviser, Dominic Cummings, which involved a rather unusual amount of travel. Who’d have guessed, as Covid-19 lock-down restrictions slowly eased, that the national conversation would be largely taken up by speculation on the bladder capacity of four-year-old children on long car journeys, or the advisability of testing your vision by taking your wife and child out for a drive?

Isolated and isolation come to us from the French verb isoler, “to isolate”. The French formed an adjective, isolé, and a noun, isolation, from that verb; both were at first adopted into English unchanged, but the intrusively French isolé evolved first into the awkward isolé’d and was finally fully Anglicized as isolated during the eighteenth century, albeit against stiff resistance. An anonymous reviewer of the book Morality United With Policy by Robert Fellowes, writing for the conservative magazine The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review in October 1800 opined:

In point of language, we have little to object to Mr. F. but we must tell him, as we have told many others, that the affected, frenchified, unnecessary word, isolated is not English, and we trust never will be. Much the same may be said of reclamation, and one or two other words; but in general his language is pure, and his style vigorous: and when he shall have a little less confidence in himself, his sober readers will place more in him.


(The British and French were going through one of their occasional episodes of disharmony at the time.)

The English verb isolate was then back-formed from the adjective isolated, which subsequently took up an additional duty as a past participle.

Something that can be isolated is isolable or isolatable; a thing that isolates is an isolator, and has an isolative function; someone in favour of political isolation is an isolationist, who favours isolationism. And a person who is an outcast from society is an isolato, a word we have acquired directly from the Italian.

Both the French and Italian roots come from Latin insula, “island”, a word that the Romans also applied to what we’d now call a block of flats or a condominium. A peninsula is, of course, a promontory of land that is “almost an island”. Insula has provided English with a list of words that relate in some way to the properties of an island. Something pertaining to an island is insular—which has also acquired figurative applications to people or societies that are cut off from the mainstream, stuck in their ways, or narrow-minded. Such people are said to show insularity or insularism. We cut things off from the rest of the world by insulating them, for which purpose we apply insulation. A thing which insulates is described as insulative; it is an insulator or insulant. And then there was the short-lived Septinsular Republic, based on the seven Ionian Islands of Greece. It existed, appropriately enough, for seven years, gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1800, and falling to the French under Napoleon in 1807.

Our English words isle and island have a complicated history. Isle was originally spelled “ile” or “yle”, brought into Middle English from Old French ile, the equivalent of modern French île, “island”. Island, on the other hand, is Germanic in origin, and was originally iland or yland. The first syllable takes its origin from Old English ieg, which was pronounced something like “eey”, and meant … well, “island”. So island is literally “island land”. During the fifteenth century, English speakers began to think of the Germanic word as containing the French word, and would write iland as ile-land. Meanwhile, the French decided to add an “s” to ile, in acknowledgement of its Latin origin in insula. This new French spelling. isle with a silent “s”, leaked into English usage, and immediately had a knock-on effect on the spelling of ile-land. So the old Germanic word acquired a Franco-Latin silent “s” that it really didn’t need, and we ended up with confusing modern spelling “island”. Another English word that ended up with a pointless silent “s” is aisle, which strictly designates the wings on either side of the nave of a church, but (probably because of confusion with the unrelated word alley), is also now the name for a passage between the rows of church pews. It came into English from French aile, which derives from Latin ala, “wing”. English speakers managed to get aile confused with ile, “island”, and when they added the silent “s” in isle, they also added one to aile. (The French later dropped the “s” from isle, marking its departure with a circumflex on the “i”, and in effect walked away whistling, denying all responsibility for the mess they’d created in English spelling.)

A sea dotted with islands can be described as islanded or islandy. Someone who comes from an island is an isleman, islesman, or a gender-neutral islander. Someone who loves islands suffers from islomania. And a small island is, of course, an islet.

Which brings me to the anatomical structures known as the Islets of Langerhans—little circular patches of cells, scattered through the pancreas like islands, and named in honour of the German anatomist Paul Langerhans, who first described them in 1869. It was known that the main part of the pancreas produced digestive enzymes, and it was known that removal of the pancreas caused diabetes. So Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer suggested, during the 1890s, that the Islets of Langerhans must be responsible for producing some substance that acted to control blood sugar. Harking back to Latin insula, “island”, he coined a name for this hypothetical substance produced by the Islet cells—he called it “insuline”, and today we know it as insulin.

Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin
Islet of Langerhans, stained for insulin (Source)

* Delete as applicable

Latin Plurals: Nouns Ending In -um

Desiderata poster

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Those are the opening lines of Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann, originally written in 1927. The text has a rather complicated history of publication, and for a while in the ’60s and ’70s was distributed in ornate little A4 posters, like the one above, but marked “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore 1692”. So prevalent was this version on the walls of student flats when I was at university, I was later rather surprised to discover it was of more recent pedigree, with an actual named author.

It ushers in the long-delayed final post in my trio about Latin plurals. I’ve previously written about the plurals of words ending in -us and -a, so this time it’s the turn of -um. In Latin, these words are second declension neuter, and they take -a as their plural ending. And desiderata is the plural of desideratum, “desirable thing”.

Desideratum/desiderata is a pairing that still feels Latin, and there’s little tendency to regularize to “desideratums”. Several others fall into this category, among which are: corrigendum/corrigenda, ovum/ova, phylum/phyla, stratum/strata, spectrum/spectra, serum/sera, simulacrum/simulacra, erratum/errata, quantum/quanta.

Some, like curriculum/curricula, rostrum/rostra and crematorium/crematoria have a fairly fixed dominant relationship with a minority regularized plural ending in -s, as in this example from the Google Ngram corpus:

Some are in a protracted neck-and-neck tussle between the Latin and regularized plural, likes solarium/solaria and  gymnasium/gymnasia:

Some Latin plurals have fairly recently lost the battle against regularization. In the Google corpus forum/fora lost out to “forums” back around 1930. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that “stadiums” became the preferred option for stadium/stadia:

And some Latin plurals have just never been that popular, like mausoleum/mausolea, for which “mausoleums” has been the more popular choice for a couple of centuries:

Finally, there are words for which the Latin plural form is essentially never used: album/albums, asylum/asylums, lyceum/lyceums, museum/museums, premium/premiums. To that list we can add the Latin names of plants, which generally take regularized plurals: antirrhinum/antirrhinums, chrysanthemum/chrysanthemums, delphinium/delphiniums, laburnum/laburnums, nasturtium/nasturtiums.

A few Latin plurals in this group have taken on an independent life of their own. Agenda is the plural of Latin agendum “that which is to be done”, but is established as a singular noun in English. Media, plural of medium, is a label for the various modes of mass communication—newspaper, radio, television, electronic—and has been edging towards becoming a singular mass noun. That process has been going on for a century, with the singular usage slowly gaining parity with the plural, though the Oxford English Dictionary still classifies the singular form as “erron.”

Pretty much the same thing has happened to data, which has wandered off from just being the plural of datum, and become a concept in itself:

Candelabra is the plural of candelabrum, “candlestick”. But the construction of multiple candlesticks on a single base is so common that candelabra has quite reasonably mutated into a singular noun.

And I used to think that treating bacteria, the plural of bacterium, as a singular was a fairly recent innovation, but it’s been going on for decades:

There seems to be no good reason for it, apart from the fact that people hear the word bacterium less often, and may be unaware of the singular form.

There are a few -um words that are not Latin, and so do not take a Latin plural—conundrum and panjandrum are invented words, harmonium and vellum are French, begum is Urdu.

And then there are words which are Latin, but not second declension neuter nouns. These too take regular plurals. Factotum is an instruction: “do everything”. A Johannes factotum was a “John-do-everything”—a jack-of-all-trades. Nowadays it refers to employees who are entrusted with complete control of their employers’ affairs. Nostrum means “our”, as in the Roman name for the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”. The word is applied to quack remedies and patent medicines because they are recommended by the person who prepares them (“our medicine”). Pendulum is a Latin adjective, meaning “hanging down”. The plural pendula can be defended as the corresponding plural adjective, but pendulums is much more common. Quorum means “of whom”, and its current usage derives from a standard Latin phrase calling together members of a committee: quorum vos [John Doe] unum esse volumus—“of whom we will that [John Doe] be one”. A variorum is a collected edition of an author’s work, together with notes on the text. The name comes from Latin editio cum notis variorum, “edition with various notes”.

Finally, a vade-mecum is a little book or manual suitable for carrying around with you. Of which, in my opinion, there can never be too many. Again, the name is an instruction: “go with me”. I’m fond of this word, and I remember exactly how I first encountered it. Like many medical students and paediatric residents, I carried around a copy of Ben Wood’s A Paediatric Vade-Mecum in the pocket of my white coat when I was training on the children’s wards. Mine was the green eighth edition, the envy of those stuck with the pink seventh edition.

Cover of A Paediatric Vade-Mecum by Ben WoodIt was a treasure-trove of handy facts, and I remember it fondly. So I was a little saddened to find that it seems to have expired with its fourteenth edition in 2002—this vade-mecum no longer goes with anyone. Replaced, no doubt, by a phone app.



Corona: a circular structure, or spiked circular structure, surrounding a central core

Three coronas
Three coronas: coronavirus, lunar corona, solar corona

Corona is the Latin word for a crown. And, after passing through French, it’s the origin of our word crown. In its original form, it’s used to designate all sorts of crown-like structures. The spiky protrusions from the capsule of the coronavirus give it its name. The halos of coloured light often seen around the moon are also referred to as a corona—they are generated by diffraction and interference of light passing through tiny particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. And during a total solar eclipse we are able to see the wispy outer atmosphere of the sun, which is also called a corona.

There are others. The circular chandelier of a church is called a corona lucis, “crown of light”; the tonsure of a Roman Catholic monk is called a corona clericalis, “clerical crown”; electrically charged conductors can cause a halo of ionization in the surrounding atmosphere, called a corona discharge; and there are a host of biological structures, from seeds to brains, that are called coronas because of their shape. We also have two constellations, Corona Borealis and Corona Australis, the northern and southern crowns. Both consist of tightly curved arrays of stars, more reminiscent of tiaras than conventional crowns.

Corona is still the word for “crown” in Spanish, which is why a bottle of Mexican Corona beer has a little picture of a crown on it. (Fatuous early reports that American beer drinkers were avoiding Corona beer because of confusion with coronavirus turned out not to be reflected by reality.) Corona is also the Spanish name for a particular size of cigar, intermediate in length between a robusto (“strong”) and a toro (“bull”), though slimmer than either—there seems to be no particular logic to the nomenclature.

A coronet is a small crown. A coronation is, of course, a crowning ceremony. The person who sets the crown on the royal head is variously styled a coronator or coronant. To coronize is the act of crowning, and a person wearing a crown is incoronate. Something crown-shaped is coroniform, or coronary. The latter word gives its name to the two coronary arteries of the heart, which supply blood to the heart muscle. Their ramifications around the heart make it look, I suppose, a little as if it is set inside a a rather exotic inverted crown.

Coronary Arteries
Original image by Mikael Häggström used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Something pertaining to a crown is coronal. So in anatomy, we have the coronal suture of the skull, which crosses the head from side to side; and the coronal plane, one of the three principal anatomical planes of the body, which cuts through from side to side and top to bottom.

Anatomical Planes
Principal anatomical planes. Labels added to original blank graphic by OpenStax College, used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

We often use the phrase “The Crown” to refer to the royal office itself.* A coroner was once a local or regional officer assigned to protect the property rights of the Crown. (Nowadays in England, a coroner’s main role is to hold inquests into deaths caused by violence or accident.)

Corolla is the Latin word for a small crown, or a garland of flowers, and it’s the name applied in English to the petals of a flower. In ancient Rome a corollarium was a small sum of money paid for a garland of flowers; it went on to mean a tip or gratuity. Then,  in a metaphorical sense, it became the word for a little extra bit of detail at the end of a mathematical proof—something that followed naturally from the proof already given, which did not require a proof of its own. Which is where the English word corollary comes from, designating something that is an immediate consequence of what has previously occurred or been said.

And finally, have you ever wondered why the military rank of colonel is pronounced in English as if the first “l” is an “r”? The word, and its spelling, comes from Italian colonnello, which is derived in turn from colonna, “column”. So the military rank of colonnello was the person who led a column of men. The French adopted this as coronel—probably just because l’s sometimes change into r’s, especially if there is more than one “l” in a word, but also perhaps under the influence of couronne, “crown”—the French version of Latin corona. But then, in a delayed burst of etymological exactitude, the French word was revised to colonel during the 16th century. English acquired both spellings from the French, but then managed to eliminate the “r” version during the 17th century, while perversely preserving the “r” pronunciation.

* This substitution of an attribute for the name of the thing meant, which is a common enough formulation, is called metonymy. Other examples are “The Vatican”, “The Oval Office” and “The Kremlin”.

Pettifoggery, etc

Justice Roberts & PettifoggingI think it is appropriate for me to admonish both the House managers and the President’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body. One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.
In the 1905 Swayne trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word “pettifogging” and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used. I don’t think we need to aspire to that high of a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.

Chief Justice John Roberts, 22 January 2020

The word “pettifogging” was recently introduced to many people when it was spoken by Chief Justice John Roberts on the first day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. He was admonishing those speaking at the trial to avoid the use of insulting or inflammatory language—and the news media found themselves obliged to explain what exactly “pettifogging” meant.

The act of pettifogging is pettifoggery, and the word’s little moment of fame reminded me that there seem to be rather a lot of strange and obscure compound nouns ending in -ery that are used in a pejorative manner. And that’s what this post is about.

A pettifogger is a lawyer who uses sharp or dishonest practice in order to win cases. The first element comes from petty, which derives from French petit, “small”; the second element probably derives from the Fuggers, a family of wealthy merchants and bankers based in Augsburg during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even during their ascendancy, the word fogger, derived from their name, was used to designate a person who was prepared to use underhand methods for financial gain. The verb to pettifog, quoted by Justice Roberts, is a back-formation from the noun.

Skulduggery is underhand dealing, secret machination, or just plain trickery. No-one seems to know the origin of the expression, which started out as sculduddery in the eighteenth century. It has a back-formed verb, to skuldug, which has failed to gain as much popularity as it deserves.

Tomfoolery is foolish behaviour. The word comes from the stock character Tom Fool who appeared in mediaeval plays—the name “Tom” was used to designate the common man, much in the manner of “Joe Public” today. Damfoolery is a more modern equivalent, the behaviour of “damned fools”. It has an associated adjective damfool, which in the nineteenth century was occasionally spelled damphool, for no readily apparent reason.

Crackpottery is the behaviour of a crackpot—the “pot” in this case being a slang term for the skull. Crackpot was once synonymous with the now obsolete crackbrain—a person who’s brain isn’t working properly. In modern times, the pejorative crackpot seems to be reserved to designate cranks and other harmless eccentrics. Crackpottery has an apparently medical synonym, psychoceramics—this is the fictitious field of study of the equally fictitious Professor Josiah Stinkney Carberry. Carberry originated as a hoax in 1929, but has now become a tradition at Brown University, Rhode Island.

Madcappery is a little like crackpottery, except the madcap is maniacal in behaviour. The derivation is obvious, though quite why the headgear is relevant is unknown.

Fruitloopery, a word championed by the magazine New Scientist since 2005, is the ignorant misuse of scientific jargon to add a superficial air of plausibility to one’s speech or writing. It derives from fruit loop, a slang expression for someone who is eccentric or credulous, which has been around since the 1980s. And that, in turn, presumably has something to do with the alarming children’s breakfast cereal Froot Loops, though I’m hard-pressed to think what.

Loonspuddery is a naive willingness to accept or transmit even the most outlandish conspiracy theories or “alternative” viewpoints. Although it has been knocking around for the better part of a decade, the word doesn’t seem to have made it into the dictionaries yet. But if I had to hazard a guess at the etymology, I’d say loon in the sense of “lunatic”, and spud in the Scottish sense of “potato”—which is to say, both mad and not very clever.

Nincompoopery is the state of being, or the actions of, a nincompoop—a word of obscure origin, meaning “idiot”. Samuel Johnson hazarded that it might have something to do with the Latin non compos mentis, “not of sound mind”, but that doesn’t seem to match with the earliest form of the word, nickumpoop. Nitwittery is a synonym, referring to a nitwit—a person who has no more wit than a nit (which is the egg of a headlouse, and therefore not particularly bright). At the other end of the intelligence scale is eggheadery, which derives from the noun egghead, applied to an intellectual or “high-browed” person—one with a stereotypical brow as smoothly rounded as an egg.

Quacksalvery pertains to the activities of quacksalvers—ignorant people peddling miracle cures. The derivation seems to come from salve, meaning “ointment”, and an analogy between the quacking of a duck and the meaningless speech of the quacksalver. The word has now been abbreviated to just plain quack, for a bogus doctor. Another word applying to the same deceitful profession is mountebankerymountebanks take their name from Italian montimbanco “mount-on-bench”, because they would often climb on to a chair to address their audience and peddle their wares.

Thimbleriggery is another deceitful profession—that of the thimblerigger. The reference is to the old “hunt the pea” sleight of hand trick, performed with three thimbles (or inverted cups) and a single pea, but it has application to anyone who cheats you by nimble deception.

Jiggery-pokery is another word for manipulative deceit. It comes from the Scots joukery-pawkery, and in my home town a hybrid version, joukery-pokery is still in current use. In Scots, to jouk is to dodge or dive; and a pawky person is sly, though the word has now acquired light-hearted connotations—in the phrase “a pawky sense of humour”, pawky could perhaps best be translated as “arch”.

While we’re on the subject of deceit, scallywaggery covers all possible modes—the derivation of scallywag is obscure, but it’s a word applied to deceitful, disreputable or just plain idle folk.

Swashbucklery, on the other hand, is all about noisy activity. A swashbuckler is a person who swashes a buckler—that is, strikes a shield noisily (with a sword or other weapon). It’s a rather dismissive term for those who indulge in swaggering braggadocio. To swashbuckle is to indulge in swashbucklery—a verb back-formed from the original swashbuckler.

Gimcrackery is a collection of gimcracks—tawdry and worthless ornaments. Be sure to pronounce it with a soft “g”. The etymology is obscure, but it seems to refer to an object that breaks easily.

Godwottery is an over-elaborate style of gardening. It takes its mocking origin from a poem by T.E. Brown entitled “My Garden“, which opens with the line:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!

Wot is the third person singular of the old verb wit, meaning “to know”, and “God wot!” was a common enough exclamation in Shakespeare’s time, meaning something like “It is certainly so!” The Victorian poets briefly revived the expression, as they did with so much archaic language.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of the many words coined by James Joyce in Finnegans WakeScandiknavery. Which is a deceit perpetrated by one or more Scandinavians.

Apostrophe: Part 2


apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case

Greengrocer's apostrophe in fairground
Click to enlarge

In my previous post about apostrophes, I wrote about the use of the punctuation mark, and mentioned briefly that the name comes from Greek apostrophe, compounded of the prefix apo-, “away” and strophe “a turning”. I’ve written before about the prefix apo-, and its various applications, when I dealt with the words perihelion and aphelion. So this post will deal with the family of words descended from Greek strophe.

Last time, I gave a Shakespearean example of the rhetorical kind of apostrophe (the first definition at the head of this post). Here’s another, more modern example:

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

That’s Paul Simon, “turning away” to address a literal or figurative darkness at the start of his song “The Sound Of Silence” (1964). If you indulge in apostrophe of this sort, then you apostrophize. But if you apostrophate, you cut short your discourse—a more literal interpretation of “turning away”.

Another rhetorical device is epistrophe, “turning upon”, in which a word or phrase is repeated, for emphasis, at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Abraham Lincoln used it to good effect in his Gettysburg Address when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

And then there anastrophe, “turning back”, another rhetorical device, in which normal word order is reversed so as to place emphasis where it needs to be—”life eternal”, “body beautiful” and Longfellow’s “forest primeval” all use anastrophe to put the emphasis on the adjective, rather than the noun.

The word catastrophe, “turning over”, was originally used to mean a reversal of fortune, for good or bad, at the conclusion of a drama. Only later did it come to have its current extreme, negative connotations. J.R.R. Tolkien felt that we really needed a specific word for a reversal of fortune that produced a good outcome, and so added the Greek prefix eu-, “good”, coining the handy word eucatastrophe.

In Ancient Greek theatre, scene-setting was done by a chorus, who would sing poetic odes to introduce the characters and their situation. This was traditionally done in matched sections, the strophe and antistrophe—the first sung as the chorus moved across the stage from right to left, and the second (matching the poetic structure of the first but delivering some alternative aspect of the plot) as the chorus moved from left to right. So the strophe (“turn”) and antistrophe (“turn against”) were literal movements as well as figurative opposites. Nowadays, strophe applies to a metrical group of lines of verse, a usage almost indistinguishable from stanza. But antistrophe has taken on new meanings—as a synonym for epistrophe; and to designate the deeply satisfying practice, in debate, of turning one opponents’ own words against them. An example of such debating judo is called an antistrophon.

Greek strophe also gives us many scientific words, of which the following is just a sampler. Diastrophism (“turning across”) is the geological process of folding and faulting that produces much of our landscape. In biology, a snail-shell that curls in the reverse direction to the normal for its species is said to be heterostrophic (“different turning”). Exstrophy (“out turning”) is the turning inside-out of an organ during embryological development (never a good thing). Geostrophic (“earth turning”) winds or ocean currents are movements of air or water under the influence of the Earth’s rotation (I wrote about this phenomenon in my post about the Coriolis force). And hypostrophe (“turning back”) has had several medical usages over the years—the tossing and turning of delirious people; a relapse of a disease that had been in remission; and as a synonym for what’s now more commonly called retroversion—the process by which an internal organ folds back on itself (never a good thing).

Greek strophos, “twisted cord” gives us the genus name Strophanthus (“twisted cord flower”), which includes some African species that were used to create arrow poisons. (The name comes from the fan of thin, twisting petals sported by some species.) The pharmacologically active ingredient of the arrow poison was extracted and named strophanthin—it has an action on the heart similar to that of digitalis. And just as digoxin is the purified drug made from digitalis, a drug called ouabain was made from strophanthin, its name deriving from Somali waabaayo, “arrow poison”. It was still something I learned about when I studied pharmacology back in the 1970s, but I never saw it used, and it has now  vanished from the pharmacopoeia.

Strophanthus hispidus, from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen, Volume 2 (1889)

Finally, there’s boustrophedon, “ox-turning”. This originally referred to the path taken by a team of oxen pulling a plough—moving first from left to right, then turning at the end of a furrow so as to plough the next furrow from right to left. Then turning again, and repeating the process. It is applied to the Ancient Greek style of writing which was read in from left to right on one line and then from right to left (with the letters mirror-reversed) on the next. In (slightly) more modern times, it refers to the motion of the printing head of a dot-matrix printer, which would zip alternately from left to right and right to left, so that it printed every second line in the reverse of reading order.

And that concludes my turn for today.



impeachment: The accusation and prosecution of a person for treason or other high crime or misdemeanour before a competent tribunal; in Great Britain, the judicial process by which a person may be tried before the House of Lords at the instigation of the House of Commons; in the U.S.A., a similar process in which the accusers are the House of Representatives and the court is the Senate.

Cover of Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution Of The United States

As a sort of companion to my post about the etymology of the word prorogation, it seems like it might be time to investigate another unusual word that is freighted with political significance at present.

It’s an interesting fact, often omitted from potted histories of the U.S. Constitution, that its drafters borrowed both the technical usage of the word impeachment and the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” from British constitutional law. Impeachment was originally a process by which the English Parliament could remove from office (and indeed judicially kill), representatives of the King who were deemed to be abusing the powers of their office. (That’s what the “high” in “high crimes and misdemeanours” means—the crimes and misdemeanours cited are not of the sort available to the common person, only to those who hold high office.)

Impeachment comes from the verb to impeach and the suffix -ment, which forms nouns from verbs, relating to either the process or result of the verb’s action. The verb to impeach came to us from Old French empechier, which in turn derived from the Latin verb impedicare. And impedicare refers to the Latin noun pedica, meaning “shackle” or “snare”*. So impedicare was the act of placing a person in shackles, and it gives us our English word impede. The same etymology applies to Modern French empêcher, which means “to hinder”, and that is also the original meaning of the English word impeach. But in English the sense of hindering a person, or impeding what they were doing, gradually evolved into the idea of legally challenging their actions, and so to its current highly specific usage. We also used to have a verb appeach, with the same derivation, and which underwent the same slow evolution in its meaning. It’s now obsolete and replaced by impeach, but it has left a tiny residue behind by dropping its first letter to form the verb to peach—to peach on someone is to give evidence against them.

Returning now to impedicare and our word impede, an impediment is of course something that impedes; impedimenta are things that impede progress, and the word has come to be applied to bulky baggage.

Latin impedicare had an opposite, expedire—to release from fetters. Which of course gives us English expedite, meaning to clear of difficulties or to hasten progress. Something expeditious is speedily performed, and an expedition is a well-organized movement of people and equipment. However, the word expedient has taken on negative connotations—an expedient may clear difficulties and hasten progress, but the final result is deemed unsatisfactory or reprehensible. (Expedite also once came with an exact opposite, impedite, which has become obsolete in favour of impede.)

There seems also to have been another Latin opposite to impedicaredepedicare. There’s now no written Latin evidence for it, but it is presumably the origin of the French verb dépêcher “to hurry”. And we used to have an English word depeach, derived from the French, meaning “to send away” or “to dispose of”. But its function has now been entirely taken over by dispatch, which (despite the similarity in sound) has a different etymology.

Finally, if you’ve been fretting about the derivation of the name of the fruit, peach, it has nothing to do with any of the above. The Romans thought of it as a “Persian apple”, persicum malum, which in Late Latin mutated into persica, then into Italian pesca, French pêche, and finally into our peach.

* And if you’re thinking that pedica has something to do with Latin pes, “foot”, you’re right. Pedica was something that tangled up your feet and stopped you walking.



manger: A box or trough in a stable or byre, from which horses and cattle eat. 

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)
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Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Nineteenth-century Christmas carol

The text above is often attributed to Martin Luther, but that story seems to have been invented when the first two verses of the carol were published in the The Christian Cynosure in 1882. The true author is unknown, and the slightly chilling third verse seems to have been added later. (When I was a tot, and obliged to learn these supposedly uplifting verses, I wasn’t that keen on the prospect of Jesus taking “all the dear children” to heaven—I rather wanted to stay at home with my Mum and Dad.)

The other problem I had with this carol was that I had no idea what the first line was about—no-one ever thought to explain what a “manger” or a “crib” were. But after a while I learned that a “crib” was what we in the UK call a cot*; and close inspection of Nativity scenes like the one above led me to believe that a “manger” was a sort of short, wooden trough, triangular in cross-section and comfortably stuffed with hay. But it turns out that’s not generally true—the Oxford English Dictionary notes parenthetically that the manger is “[c]hiefly used for those kinds of food which cannot be placed, like hay and straw, in the rack above.” So really the baby Jesus should be depicted nestling comfortably on a bed of slightly decaying turnips.

Well, not really. The relevant Biblical verse is Luke 2:12, which the King James edition renders into English as:

And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

The Greek word translated here as “manger” is phatne, which could mean a manger, a feeding trough or even an animal stall. The sign the angel is reporting to the shepherds is that they’ll find a conventionally dressed baby (swaddling clothes) resting in an unusual location (somewhere farm animals are fed), but not necessarily in the specific bit of farmyard kit we associate with the word manger.

Manger comes to us from French mangeoire, which means … well … “manger”, and is related to the French verb manger, “to eat”, which comes from the Latin mandare, “to chew”. In Old French, mangeue meant both “to eat” and “to itch” (maybe there is an analogy between repetitive chewing motions and repetitive scratching motions). The duty for the second meaning has been taken over by démanger in modern French, but the old word gave us English mange, an itchy skin disease suffered by furry animals. The French verb manger has leaked into culinary English just a little, in the form of blancmange, literally “white eat”, and mangetout, “eat all”—the kinds of peas you can eat along with their pods, also called snap peas and snow peas.

Latin mandare gives us the anatomical name of the jaw-bone, the mandible, and manducate, an obscure word meaning “to chew”. Manducation is the act of eating, but is applied almost solely to the Christian ceremony in which the bread of the Eucharist is eaten.

Mandare is descended from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as mendh-, which meant something like “to chew”. Despite promising first appearances, the Germanic word “mouth” actually has a different PIE root, but mendh- did give rise to Classical Greek mastax, “mouth”. Mastax gives us masticate, “to chew”, and masseter, the big chewing muscle on either side of the jaw. Maxilla is the anatomical term for the bone of the upper jaw, which came to us from the Greek via Latin. And mastic is a chewy resin obtained from the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus).

Finally, we have mystax, a word from the Doric dialect of Greek, related to Classical Greek mastax. Doric was spoken is southern Italy, among other places, and mystax eventually gave rise to Italian mostaccio, and then French moustache. Which gave us, respectively, English mustachio and moustache.

I hope that’s given you something to chew on, whether or not you’re chewing on Christmas dinner.

Pistacia lentiscus

* Interestingly, though, the earliest usage of the word crib recorded by the OED has the meaning “barred receptacle for fodder”. It seems to have acquired the meaning “child’s bed with barred sides” by early association with the story of Jesus lying in a manger, which was sometimes referred to as a “crib”.

Apostrophe: Part 1


apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case

Greengrocer's apostrophe in fairground
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[I]t appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.

The Oxford Companion To The English Language (1992)

The Oxford English Dictionary treats the two meanings of apostrophe, given above, as two separate words. Both are Greek in origin. The first, rhetorical, usage comes from Greek apostrophe, “turning away”.

Here’s Macbeth, for instance, “turning away” from his soliloquy to directly address a dagger of the mind:

Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

The second, more familiar use, as the name of a punctuation mark, comes from a Greek punctuation mark with a similar function, the apostrophos prosoidia (“turning-away accent”). This was a little curve, line or point inserted into written Greek poetry, to indicate places where a syllable needed to be omitted to maintain the prosody. That idea was transferred to Latin as apostrophus, and then to French as apostrophe. It was the sixteenth-century engraver and typesetter Geoffroy Tory who first used a raised comma as an apostrophe in French, after which the practice spread into English typesetting.

For much of its life, the word for the punctuation mark was pronounced in the French manner, with three syllables and the emphasis on the first syllable:ˈapɒstrɔf. It was only in the nineteenth century that people began to pronounce it in the same way as the rhetorical device, shifting the emphasis to the second syllable and pronouncing the terminal vowel: əˈpɒstrəfiː. This seems unexceptional now, but when James Murray was editing the OED in the 1880s he inserted a small rant into the entry for apostrophe² (the punctuation mark), which immediately follows apostrophe¹ (the rhetorical device):

It ought to be of three syllables in Eng. as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with the prec. word.

That note is still present in my late-twentieth-century electronic version of the OED.

So the apostrophe started out as a sixteenth-century mark of elision, standing in for the missing “v” on o’er or the “i” in ’tis, work it still does today in words like couldn’t.

By the seventeenth century, it was also being used, sporadically, in its other major role, that of marking possession—as in “the man’s head” or “the ship’s anchor”. This seems to have been because the apostrophe was originally being used to mark a missing letter “e”, present in singular possessive-case endings in Old and Middle English—for instance mannes (“man’s”) and scipes (“ship’s”).

During the next two hundred years, the apostrophe began to spread to indicate possessives generally, but it took until the nineteenth century for its use to be codified as it is today—singular nouns and plurals without a final “s” take “’s”; plural nouns ending in “s” add a final apostrophe. Possessive pronouns don’t take an apostrophe: hers, theirs, yours, ours and its. The final one seems to be the only source of regular confusion, probably because “it’s” is also prevalent, but the apostrophe there marks an elision—“it is”.

And (as ever) there are a few refinements. Many style books suggest that classical proper names ending in “s” should take only a final apostrophe in the possessive (“Xerxes’ ships”, “Hercules’ labours”) but modern names need the conventional “apostrophe s” (“Bridget Jones’s diary”, “Keats’s poetry”).

For place names, it’s a matter of choice for the community involved: St. John’s, Newfoundland, but St Andrews, Scotland.* Likewise for the names of organizations, which have been showing a continuing tendency to drop their apostrophes—in part to make themselves more internet-compatible.

Waterstones shop front, before and after 2012

The apostrophe was once commonly used in some plurals. When I was growing up, we were taught to write “the 1960’s” and “V.I.P.’s only”, but it’s now more common to see “the 1960s” and “VIPs only” (full stops within initialisms having also been generally abandoned). The last hold-out for the plural “apostrophe s” is when pluralizing letters of the alphabet: “Mind your p’s and q’s” still looks better than “Mind your ps and qs.”

Finally, there’s the apostrophe in Irish surnames like O’Connor and O’Reilly. Unusually, it marks the elision of a space, in converting an original Gaelic patronymic to an Anglicized surname—in the examples above, from Ó Conchobhair meaning “descendant of Conchobar” and Ó Raghallaigh meaning “descendant of Raghallach”. Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic also used the patronymic Mac, “son”, which produces familiar Scottish surnames like MacDonald and MacAlpine. The original “Mac” prefix suffered a number of contractions, including “Mc” and “Mc”, which are still with us today, but also one that has fallen by the wayside. Uniquely, it involved the turned apostrophe—an inverted version of the usual. Right up to the nineteenth century, it was common to see names like M‘Donald and M‘Alpine, pronounced in exactly the same way as the unabbreviated versions. Presumably the turned apostrophe was used because it bore a resemblance to a superscript “c”, and therefore hinted at what it had replaced.

Title page of McAlpine's Gaelic Dictionary
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Neil McAlpine, A Pronouncing Gaelic Dictionary (1832)


That’s all for now. In my next post on this topic, I’ll write a little about other -strophe words.

* Notice that the full stop after the contraction “St” is a matter of national typographic convention, however. It’s used after contractions and abbreviations in North America, but only after abbreviations here in the UK. So when we abbreviate “Professor” by dropping the ending, we write “Prof.”, but when we contract “Doctor” by removing the middle letters, we write “Dr”.



prorogation: the act of discontinuing the meetings of an assembly without dissolving it

Westminster, showing separation of powers
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Base map © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

For present purposes, the relevant limit on the power to prorogue is this: that a decision to prorogue (or advise the monarch to prorogue) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive.

Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court, 24 September 2019

Here in the UK we’ve recently been getting a little lesson on the importance of the Separation of Powers in a democratic state. In particular, the judiciary has just, at time of writing, intervened in the relationship between the executive and legislature (see above), thereby limiting the ability of the Government to prorogue Parliament. So the unfamiliar word prorogation has been on everyone’s lips.

The verb to prorogue comes from the Latin prefix pro- and the verb rogare, “to ask”. The meaning of prorogare in Latin was “to extend” (a term of office). In English it was used to mean both “to prolong” and “to postpone”, and as early as the fifteenth century it acquired its specific relevance to the (then) English Parliament—to discontinue meetings for a (usually brief) period. Quite how a Latin construction that should mean “asking before” or “asking on behalf of” acquired its connection to prolongation is unclear. It has been suggested that perhaps, at some period in Roman history, the extension of some period of office required specific permission to be asked for, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support that idea.

Latin rogare also gives us rogation—in Roman history, the act of submitting a proposed law to the people to ask for their approval. In the Christian calendar the Rogation Days are the three days before Ascension Day, marked by processions and prayers—the prayers being the act of “asking” for which the days are named.

So we have two associations for rogare in English—law-making and asking, and each has spawned its own list of words.

First, in the legal sense, we have the verb to abrogate means “to repeal” or “to do away with” (a law or established custom). To derogate is to abrogate in part—to diminish the force of something (originally a law, but now more generally applied). And that sense of diminishment gives us the usually meaning of derogatory—”disrespectful” or “disparaging”. To obrogate is to repeal a law, and to irrogate was an old Scottish legal term meaning “to impose” (a legal penalty). To subrogate is to replace one person with another, the original meaning having to do with legally replacing office bearers or election candidates.

When it comes to the sense of asking, we have the verb interrogate, which literally means “asking questions at intervals”, and the noun prerogative (literally “asked first”), meaning a right or privilege.* To erogate is to pay out money—the reference is to disbursing funds from the public purse after asking permission from the Roman people. To arrogate is to claim something for oneself (or about another). It has now come to be associated with false or unjustified claims, but its original meaning was “to adopt a child”. Its cousin adrogate has a specialized meaning, referring to the Roman custom of adopting adults into one’s own family.

Finally, there’s corvée, a French word that has come a long way, in terms of pronunciation, from its Latin origins in corrogare, literally “to ask together”. The Latin word referred to a sort of tax paid in labour by Roman citizens, who would do work on public structures like roads and bridges rather than pay money to the state. The word then evolved to designate the duty of unpaid labour owed by a mediaeval vassal to his feudal lord—a practice which persisted in France right up to the French Revolution. In both senses (public work in lieu of tax, or as a duty imposed by a government on its citizens) corvée labour persists in several countries today, including Myanmar, Vietnam, Rwanda and Bhutan.

There’s a certain irony embedded in the etymology of prorogation, I think, in the context of the current fuss. It seems that something for which one once had to ask permission has turned into something that can be unilaterally imposed, requiring legal intervention to undo.

* And a prerogative is how the monarchy becomes involved in the whole prorogation stramash. In the UK, prorogation is a Royal Prerogative—a power exercised by the monarch, in this case under the advice of her government. Royal Prerogative is, however, trumped by statute law—which is how the Supreme Court became involved.

Letters From Abroad: Ash, Slashed-O, A-Ring

Scandinavian letters ash, slashed-o and a-ringIf you were (according to my usual scenario) sedated, abducted and awoken in a foreign country, then a glimpse of a road-sign featuring all three of these special letters would mean you were in one of two places—Norway or Denmark. These are the three additional characters that go to make up the 29-letter Dano-Norwegian Alphabet—added, in the order shown above, after the letter Z of the standard 26-letter Latin alphabet used in English. They also demonstrate three different ways of fusing together two letters to make one new letter—stick them together side by side (a ligature), superimpose them, or place one above the other. The Å character represents the sound /ɔ/ in both Danish and Norwegian—like the vowel in English “pot”, if the word is spoken with the tongue high and the lips very rounded, as we do in Scotland. Ø is pronounced the same as its phonetic character /ø/—the vowel in French deux or German schön. In Norwegian, the vowel Æ is (as its shape suggests) midway between the open front “ah” and “eh” sounds—it’s the /æ/ sound of the vowel in “act”, if that word is spoken by someone with the “posh English” tones affected by the actors of Downton Abbey. In Danish, the sound has moved to plain [ɛ], as in “bet”.

So Norwegian and Danish feature all three letters, doing very slightly different jobs. But if you see Æ and Ø only, then you’re looking at Faeroese, a fact that could be confirmed by checking for the presence of the letter edh (Ð), too. And if a careful survey turns up only Æ then it’s probably Icelandic, which features both the edh and thorn (Þ) characters, letters that I’ve written about previously. Å on its own is most likely Swedish—the Swedes use Ö instead of Ø, and Ä instead of Æ.

So these letters are very strong indicators that you’re in a Scandinavian country, particularly given that they also crop up in the orthographies of several of the minority Sámi languages spoken in Norway and Sweden.

From their origins in the Germanic languages of northern Europe, all these letters have leaked out, individually, into alphabets used to write various minority languages in Africa, South America, Europe and the Pacific. Of these, the only one most Westerners might have heard of is Walloon, spoken by around half a million people in Belgium. Walloon uses a ring accent to modify the sound of the letter A, but doesn’t treat the combination as a separate letter of the alphabet.

About the only place outside Europe where you might encounter one of these letters on a road sign is the island of Guam, where Chamorro has about 50,000 speakers, who view Å as a separate letter of the alphabet. The Chamorro name of the island’s capital is Hagåtña.

Guam map, CIA World Factbook
Source: CIA World Factbook

Now, a little about the origin and usage of the three individual letters.


Icelandic road sign
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Æ in Iceland (Can you find it?)

The Æ character, ash, derives its name from Old English æsc, “ash tree”. The character was part of the Old English alphabet, in which it symbolized the same /æ/ sound as it does in Norwegian today. It inherited its name from the Anglo-Saxon runic symbol for the same sound (which doesn’t look much like an ash tree to me):Anglo-Saxon rune aescThe derivation of the Æ character’s shape is pretty obvious—a sound somewhere between A and E, symbolized by mashing the two letters together in a ligature. In English, it still turns up occasionally as a typographical choice in words of Latin or Greek origin. That used to be fairly common, but in modern English it’s generally done in order to present an appearance of being well-established, if not positively antique:

Encyclopaedia Britannica title page


Faeroes sign
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Æ and Ø in the Faeroes

The Ø character most commonly symbolizes the sound /ø/. In the Germanic languages that sound came about via a vowel shift called umlaut, or i-mutation—the round back vowel associated with the letter O strayed forward and upward in the mouth into the vicinity associated with E and I. That combination could have been symbolized by mashing two letters together in a ligature again: Œ. (And indeed, if a Dane or Norwegian can’t find a Ø on a foreign keyboard, they’ll render it as OE.) But it seems the letters were superimposed instead, though there’s debate about whether the slanting cross bar of Ø started life as a vertical I or the horizontal central arm of an E. However it came about, the Danes were already using it during the Middle Ages, and passed it on to Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes.


Norwegian train
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Å in Norway

The Å character is another letter combination—an A with a little O written directly above it. The hybrid symbol was created because a long “ah” sound in Old Norse, written as AA or Á, underwent a mutation to become more like an “oh” sound in its descendant Scandinavian languages. Despite the sound shift, the Icelanders continued to use Á and the Danes to use AA, but the Swedes felt it was worth noting that this particular A now sounded like an O, and so added the little circle.

Here’s one of its first appearances, in the Gustav Vasa Bible of 1541:

Gustav Vasa Bible Psalm 81
Opening of Psalm 81

Not only can you see the little o modifying the a, but there are examples of a little e modifying both a and o, too, like this:

Superscripts from Gustav Vasa BibleThose e modifications are doing the job, in Swedish, that is done by Æ and Ø in Danish and Norwegian—symbolizing the umlaut vowel shift in the sounds of A and O that I described above. It was a common typographical convention, used in German, too. And (you’re probably ahead of me here), after the little e‘s had been worn down by a few centuries of manuscript writing, they mutated into the double-dot accents we call umlauts today—producing the Ä and Ö that Sweden uses instead of Æ and Ø.

But back to Å as a substitute for AA which sounded like O. The Swedes kept this letter to themselves for centuries. The Norwegians adopted it only in 1917, and the Danes as late as 1948. So the Norse King Haakon I of Norway is now known as Håkon. But Haakon VII, a Dane who acceded to the Norwegian throne in 1905, retained the traditional spelling of his name until his death in 1957.* And that’s common—given names may use old or new spelling; family names tend to stick with the old spelling. Place names have generally shifted to the newer spelling, but there have been pockets of resistance from people who prefer the old style. Here are three examples of the spelling of the name of the second-largest town in Denmark:

Spelling of Aarhus in 1922, 1986, 2019
Aarhus in the 1922 Times Atlas, Århus in the 1986 Times Atlas, Aarhus again on the VisitAarhus website in 2019. This isn’t purely based on nostalgia—the decision was also driven by the absence of accented character options in internet domain names, as well as consideration for potential tourists searching the internet using a non-Scandinavian keyboard.

I’ll finish by mentioning that Å is the only abbreviation for a basic unit of measurement (that I know of) which uses something other than the 26 letters of the standard Latin alphabet. It’s the symbol for the ångström unit, a metric measure of length, equal to 10-10 m. It’s not part of the International System of Units, in which it is defined as 0.1 nm, but it still shows up occasionally. It’s named for the physicist Anders Ångström. (Who, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll immediately be able to identify as Swedish, just from the letters of his name.)

* Haakon’s name was (as you’ll realize) pronounced something like HAWK-uhn, but English speakers tended to pronounce it HACK-on. When Haakon VII was in exile in Britain during the Second World War, there’s a story of how he turned up at the BBC to make a radio broadcast aimed at Norway. When asked for his name at reception he replied simply, “Haakon,” (you get to do that when you’re a king) only to find himself addressed as “Mr Hawkins” thereafter.

Of course, there’s the μ prefix used in SI units, denoting a millionth part of the base unit, but it’s not in itself a unit of measurement. (Using μ on its own, to symbolize a “micron”, was abolished from the SI units in 1967.)