Category Archives: Words


ˈpædʒəntrɪ / ˈpeɪdʒəntrɪ

pageantry: 1) splendid display, gorgeous spectacular show; 2) empty or specious display, show without substance

Charles III coronation, balcony of Buckingham Palace
Click to enlarge
Image used under Open Government Licence v3.0

What pageantry, what feats, what shows,
What minstrelsy, and pretty din,
The regent made in Mytilene
To greet the king.

William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act V, Scene II

The coronation of King Charles III got me thinking about the word pageantry this week. The two conflicting meanings given at the head of this post highlight what an odd concept it is—a conspicuous investment in both money and people’s time, designed to impress, but quite often failing to do so. Those disposed to the second usage customarily flag their resentment by the addition of the adjective mere. The Oxford English Dictionary allows two pronunciations of the first syllable, both of which I’ve listed here. When I was growing up the second pronunciation was the one I learned, with the first syllable sounding like “pay”; nowadays, “pah” seems to be the more common—and my American dictionaries allow only that form.

Pageantry is formed from pageant and the suffix -ry, a shortened form of -ery. These suffixes originally came from the French, and generally denote the things people do (baker/bakery, archer/archery, traitor/treachery) or broad classes of things (ribald/ribaldry, pageant/pageantry).

The word pageant originally denoted a scene in a play, the part a particular actor played in a scene, or the stage on which the scene was enacted. From that original little cluster of senses, we derived both of the current meanings—something spectacular (in particular, an elaborate procession of some kind); or something devoid of real meaning. The old phrase to play one’s pageant meant “to play one’s part”. But to play [someone] a pageant was to trick or deceived them. A pageanteer is someone who takes part in a pageant; a tapestry decorated with Biblical scenes is said to be pageanted; and the noun has been known to form a rare adjective, pageantic.

But apart from this little cluster of related words, pageant has no known relatives—it seems to have simply sprung into existence in Middle English, meaning “scene”, with no evident antecedents in other languages. In Anglo-Latin (Latin as spoken in Britain during the Mediæval period), there was an evidently related word, pagina, which also meant “scene”. And that’s identical to the Latin word pagina “leaf of a book” that gave us our word page. And through Old French we also acquired the literary term pagine, referring to a page of a book. So we can easily imagine how a pagine from a manuscript play came to be understood as synonymous with the scene it described, giving rise to the word pageant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is unable to find any intermediate forms to make that more than an etymological Just So story.

Others have suggested that Anglo-Latin pagina derived from Latin pangere, “to fasten” or pegma “a structure made of boards”. And there was, in the seventeenth century, an English word pegma or pegme that referred to a wooden structure used in the staging of theatrical performances. In which case Anglo-Latin pagina and English pageant might possibly have derived not as a reference to the pages of a manuscript play, but from the boards on which the play was being performed. But, again, the OED bemoans the lack of evidence for any such derivation.

And that’s it for pageantry—a word with a meaning very much open to interpretation, which, for all we can tell, more or less magicked itself into spontaneous existence in English. And in the centuries since it appeared, the English establishment seems to have become really quite good at it, whichever meaning you prefer.

Translating Street Names Into Gaelic

Still from "A Knight's Tale"

My own mental image that best gets to the nature of translation involves picturing each language as a fixed set of stepping-stones in a stream. Suppose you are translating from Burmese to Welsh. A Burmese utterance is a pathway from one place to another via the [Burmese] stones. They seem to be located in convenient enough places, and you can get pretty much wherever you want to go. But when it comes to translating what you have said into Welsh, you find the Welsh stepping stones […] are often not quite in the same place as the Burmese ones, and even in the cases where they are just about in the same places, they are shaped differently, and so you can’t treat them as identical to the Burmese stones you are familiar with.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas (1985)

The Boon Companion and I spent a few rainy autumnal days in Ullapool, towards the end of last year. Weather fronts were passing over briskly, and every day included a period of torrential rain and a period of bright sunshine—so we divided our time between rewatching favourite films, and venturing out into the nearby town and countryside. And so it happened that we walked into the town just after having watched A Knight’s Tale (2001), which has provided my opening picture this week. Having just seen Laura Fraser’s portrayal of Kate, the understandably cheesed-off mediæval female blacksmith (second from left, above), I was perhaps primed to misunderstand the signage on Ladysmith Street in the centre of Ullapool.

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: old translation

Isn’t that interesting, I thought. They’ve translated “Ladysmith” into Gaelic. Now I’ll see what the word for a female blacksmith is.*

But, actually, that wasn’t what they’d translated. The Gaelic Sràid Bean A’ Ghobhainn means “Wife of the Smith Street”, which would no doubt have made poor Kate the blacksmith even more grumpy. And that reminded me of Douglas Hofstadter’s analogy between translation and choosing stepping-stones, quoted at the head of this post. It turns out that Gaelic doesn’t have any stepping stones conveniently situated near the English one marked “Ladysmith”.

If the name “Ladysmith” designated an actual female blacksmith, then we could concoct a Gaelic word from gobhainn, “smith”, and the feminizing prefix bàn-. Gaelic bàn-righ, “queen”, for instance, is literally a “woman-king”, so there should be no objection to fabricating the word bàn-gobhainn, “woman-smith”, though it doesn’t appear in any Gaelic dictionary I’ve searched.

But what if “Ladysmith” actually designates Lady Smith, a woman who is married to a man, surnamed “Smith”, who holds a knighthood? (Hint: we’re moving closer to reality, here.) Gaelic has a word for that social rank—baintighearna, which is the feminine form of tighearna, “lord”. (So it’s bàn-tighearna, “woman-lord”.) But now Hofstadter’s stepping stones come into play again, because the “Lady” that corresponds to a “Lord” (certain Peers of the Realm) is not the same thing as the courtesy title “Lady”, conferred on the wife of a knight. And the lords and ladies of Gaelic tradition don’t necessarily provide an exact match for the current peerage system, anyway. And then there’s that surname, “Smith”. Should we translate that? It certainly corresponds to the Gaelic surname Mac a’ Ghobhainn, literally “son of the smith” (the origin of the Scottish surname MacGowan), but it seems a bit of a stretch to change a person’s family name to the name of a completely different family, just so we can stick a bit of Gaelic on a road-sign.

But of course, you’re way ahead of me. Ladysmith Street in Ullapool is actually named after the town in South Africa. The street name commemorates the Relief of Ladysmith, in 1900, during the Boer War. And the town was named after Juana María, Lady Smith, the Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, the governor of Cape Colony between 1847 and 1853. Only in an extremely convoluted way can the town of Ladysmith be described as bean a’ ghobhainn, “wife of the blacksmith”.

So the practice of converting English street-names into Gaelic is not without its difficulties and complications. With that in mind, an organization called Ainmean Àite nan h-Alba (“Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland”) published a guidance booklet in 2006, called Gaelic Street-Names: A Standardised Approach, which is full of sensible ideas. In particular, section E.3 stipulates that:

PLACE-NAMES with a Gaelic name or form will normally be in the genitive, and in the absence of an initial feminine or plural article, lenited where feasible. Non-Gaelic placenames will not be lenited, and names of places outwith Scotland will not be transliterated.

(My bold.) In other words, just leave that reference to the town of Ladysmith alone. And indeed, if you turn away from the sign I showed you earlier, and look across to the opposite side of the street, you’ll see a newer sign there looks like this:

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: modern translation

So this one little spot in Ullapool tells us a whole story about Gaelic street-names.

Farther along the road, there’s another street sign:

Street sign, West Terrace, Ullapool
Click to enlarge

You’ll be relieved to learn that the Gaelic for “West Terrace” is not “AAHAIA’\A”—Gaelic may contain some spelling conventions that are unfamiliar to English speakers, but it’s not that weird. But quite why the letter “A” is so resistant to Ullapool weather is a mystery to me.

* You’ll perhaps be unfamiliar with this usage of the word “lady”. In Scotland, at least, it’s a way of noting that a woman has inexplicably turned up doing a job that has historically been a male preserve. Semantically, it can occupy a variable position along a line connecting respect with disapproval: “Well, I had to see the lady doctor, but she actually turned out to be okay.”
You’ll notice that the first letter “h” which featured in the phrase bean a’ ghobhainn in the road-sign has disappeared when we’re looking at the noun gobhainn in isolation. An “h” added to the first consonant of a word is a feature of Gaelic called lenition, and it appears and disappears according to the structure of a sentence.
For an amusing account of one man’s misadventure when Facebook decided that Mac a’ Ghobhainn was not a real name, see the Glasgow Herald article here. (There’s a definite level of unintended irony to the Herald‘s piece, since they not only omit the apostrophe that probably caused the trouble in the first place, but run into difficulties of their own with Gaelic names, rendering Àdhamh Ó Broin’s name as Àdhamh Ô Broin.)



indict: to bring a charge against; to accuse (a person) of a crime

These [members of a Grand Jury] have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican Candidate, by far, for the 2024 Nomination for President.

Donald Trump, Truth Social post, 30 March 2023

One has to assume that the former president was a victim of the Curse of Predictive Text when he replaced the word “indicted” with “indicated”, above. Certainly, of words beginning with indic-, the group related to indicate are more commonly used than the group related to indict; so predictive text software, ignorant of events in the world, might well have plumped for “indicate”.

But it’s the ending of indict that made me choose it for today’s “word in the news” post. The word-ending -ict is generally pronounced as spelled—contradict, afflict, depict, evict. But indict is different, sporting one of those silent letters that bedevil the English language. Why don’t we pronounce the “c”?

It turns out that the “c” is a relatively recent acquisition for indict, which used to be spelled endite in Middle English. It was a legal term absorbed from Norman French enditer, “to charge, accuse”. That in turn came from the Old French enditer, “to declare”. Simple etymological arguments suggest that this was in turn derived from a Latin word indictare, “to speak upon”, though there’s no example of such a word in the Classical Latin texts available to us. But then English endite was Latinized during the Middle Ages, by legal scholars who were aware of the likely etymology. So indictare was reborn in the legal Latin of the times, but with the meaning “to charge, accuse”. At which point the reconstituted Latin influenced the standard English spelling, and endite became indict, the silent “c” being a nod to its Latin origins.

This sort of thing was rife, at the time, and has created a lot of heartache for people trying to learn English spelling. The pronunciation of words like receipt, salmon and doubt come to us from their French origins (receite, saumon, douter in Norman French), and they were originally spelled receyt, samoun and doute in Middle English. But Latin scholars knew that the French words had derived from Latin receptus, salmo and dubitare. So they added the silent “p”, “l” and “b” to the English words as an act of what the OED calls “learned revision”, and the rest of us would call “showing off”.*

But this sort of “Latining up” of English sometimes served only to demonstrate ignorance. The same people who gave us receipt, salmon and doubt also stuck an “s” into Middle English ile and iland, producing isle and island, in reference to the Latin word insula. They were right about ile, which came to us from Latin through French, but wrong about iland, which originated in Old English and has a Germanic origin meaning something like “water land”—the similarity to ile was coincidental.

A host of English words originate from Latin dicere, “to speak”, including Trump’s mistyped indicate. But for this post I’m going to concentrate on those words that come to us from Latin parts of speech related to dicere, but containing the letter “t”, of which indict is a prime example.

The frequentative form of dicere is dictare, “to say often”, which in Latin took on the sense of issuing an order or command, and also of speaking so that another person could write down your words. From that we derive dictate, which can signify either the process of giving dictation or the actions of a dictator. Combined with the prefix in-, dictare is also the origin of our word indict, as described above. And it gave us the obsolete word indite, which was sometimes used to mean “give dictation”, but also to “set down in writing”, particularly if putting together a document for formal presentation. Something set down in this way was a dite.

Once dictare stopped meaning “to say often”, it was free to take on another frequentative suffix, forming dictitare, “to say repeatedly or emphatically”. That gave us the obsolete old word dictitate, meaning “declare”.

The Latin noun dictio, “saying” or “speech”, gives us diction. In Mediæval Latin a dictionarium was a collection of sayings or speeches, and is the origin of our own word dictionary.

Latin dictum had a variety of meanings, somewhat overlapping with dictio, but with a general sense of “something said”. It sits in the background of a number of English words involving speaking. To predict is to “speak before” some event; to contradict is to “speak against”; a verdict is a “true statement”; an edict is a “speaking out”. A malediction is a curse, literally a “bad statement”, while a benediction is a blessing, a “good statement”. The given name Benedict is variously interpreted as meaning “blessed” (the object of a benediction), or as “speaking good things”. A jurisdiction is a region in which the “law speaks” and a valediction is a “farewell statement”, delivered by a valedictorian. To be an addict used to mean that one was “spoken for”—that is, bound by an obligation. The trajectory to the current meaning is clear.

English has borrowed dictum directly, to indicate something said in a pithy and memorable way, and with a degree of authority. A harsher version of the same thing is a diktat, an instruction by which one imposes one’s will on others—the word is borrowed from German. Ditty, meaning “words of a song”, comes to us from Old French dité, from Latin dictatum, “thing spoken”. And in Scotland we have a legal term which has the same derivation—the “Statement of Facts” issued in the New York court, pictured at the head of this post, would be called a dittay in Scottish Law.

Finally, as is almost becoming customary, I’ll finish with a plant name: Herb Bennet, commonly known as the Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), a pretty little hedgerow flower. Its alternative name comes from the Latin herba benedicta, “blessed herb”. The fifteenth-century natural history encyclopaedia, Ortus Sanitatis, has this to say on how the humble little avens earned its name:

Where the root is in the house the devil can do nothing, and flies from it; wherefore it is blessed above all other herbs.

* I’m indebted (there’s another one!) to Arika Okrent’s entertaining and informative book, Highly Irregular (2021), for the receipt, salmon, doubt examples.
At this point I found myself wondering about the Royal Navy slang word dit, meaning “story” or “report”. But dite fell out of use round about the time the Royal Navy was formed, and there’s no mention of dit in Admiral Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867)—so the theory that it has something to do with the “dit-dah” sound of Morse code is perhaps more probable.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs”

"Doing The Dubhs" illustration

[The letter] h is one of the most common letters on any page of Gaelic, and as a result has become the victim of its own popularity. In pseudo- or pidgin Gaelic it is used by many who do not know the language well and feel that the liberal insertion of a few examples of h will give a more authentic flavour to their Gaelic.

George McLennan A Gaelic Alphabet (2009)

I recently wrote about the linguistic phenomenon of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, using a puzzle poem by Lionel Hinxman (from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897) as my jumping-off point. You can find that poem, and discussion, here.

Reading that poem brought to mind another piece of poetry, about “Doing the Dubhs”, also published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, in which Gaelic hill names were pressed into use as substitutes for English words. Eventually I discovered I had four copies of this poem on my bookshelves, in two different versions—and it was one of these versions that brought to mind McLennan’s words, quoted at the head of this post.

I’ll let you read the poem in a minute, but first a couple of examples of what McLennan is talking about.

The one I’m reminded of most often comes from an organization based not too far from where I live: the Cairn O’ Mohr winery. (“Care No More.” Geddit?) There’s obviously a reference to a famous Scottish road in there, the Cairn o’ Mount, but there’s really no apparent justification for that ectopic “h”, other than as an attempt to “Gaelic up” the company’s name in the way McLennan describes. But anyone who knows any Gaelic will recognize that the “h” is in the wrong place to form any plausible Gaelic word. Then there’s the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. In Gaelic this is Rùm, though the meaning is unclear. What it certainly isn’t is “Rhum”, a name concocted by its one-time owner, Sir George Bullough, reportedly because he didn’t like to be associated with the apparent reference to an alcoholic beverage. Again, the “h” just looks Gaelic, provided you don’t know any Gaelic, and the Nature Conservancy Council (who acquired the island from the Bullough family), eventually reverted the spelling to “Rum” in 1991.

Another common example is the “h” in skean dhu, the common English version of Gaelic sgian-dubh, “black knife”—which is the (now) decorative short knife worn in the stocking-top of a person wearing formal Highland dress. The “h” in “dhu” serves no useful purpose in conveying the sound of the original dubh, “black” (which is close to “doo”)—again, it’s just there to make the English look a bit Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this spelling comes from Sir Walter Scott (he wrote “skene-dhu”), so we know who to blame. And in this case it’s actively counterproductive, because in Gaelic the “h” would alter the sound of the “d”, making “dhu” sound like “ghoo”.

Which brings me, seamlessly, to the two versions of the famous “Doing the Dubhs” poem. The most commonly quoted version appears in my copy of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s regional guide, Island of Skye (2nd ed., 1948), and their Climber’s Guide to the Cullin of Skye (1958), as well as in Hamish MacInnes’s mountain-rescue memoir, Call-Out (1973). It goes as follows:

Said Maylard to Solly, one day in Glen Brittle,
“All serious climbing, I vote, is a bore;
Just for once I Dubh Beag you’ll agree to do little,
And, as less we can’t do, let’s go straight to Dubh Mor.”

So now, when they seek but a day’s relaxation,
With no thought in the world but of viewing the views,
And regarding the mountains in mute adoration,
They call it not “climbing” but “doing the Dubhs.”

Gaelic “Dubh Mor” is doing duty for English “do more”, while “Dubh Beag” is filling in for “do beg”. The former makes a reasonable fit between the Gaelic and English, but the latter relies on a common pronunciation in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic—in Scottish Gaelic dubh beag sound more like “do bake”.

So that’s the bilingual wordplay dealt with. But unless you know your way around the Skye Cuillin, there’s a bit of background required before I go on to discuss the other version of the poem. “The Dubhs” to which the poem refers are three summits along a ridge that extends eastwards from the main Cuillin ridge towards Loch Coruisk—the summits are, from west to east: Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (“Black Peak of the Two Mountains”); Sgùrr Dubh Mòr (“Big Black Peak”) which is the highest point; and Sgùrr Dubh Beag (“Little Black Peak”). Here they are on the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet of 1903:

Sgurr Dubh ridge, OS 6-inch 1903
Click to enlarge

(Notice, in passing, that the cartographer has mistakenly placed the diacritical mark intended for the “u” in “Sgùrr Dubh Mòr” over the “g”.)

“Doing the Dubhs” generally means making a traverse of this ridge, which is by no means an easy undertaking. But my link also reports that:

Doing the Dubhs’ is a paraphrase born from the Isle of Skye that translates roughly as ‘having one of the best days possible in UK hills’.

This seems to refer back to the “day’s relaxation” of the poem.

For a full explanation we need to move on to the second version of the poem, which appears in The Munroist’s Companion (1999) by Robin N. Campbell.

Campbell provides a publication history for the poem, tracing its origin to the reverse of the menu card for the Scottish Mountaineer Club’s annual dinner in 1905, and deduces that the poem, though unattributed on publication, is perhaps the work of William Douglas, a pillar of the SMC in its early days. He also reproduces the cartoon that graces the head of this post, presumably from the same source. And he gives us a title, which takes the form of a quotation attributed to A. Ernest Maylard, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club:

“We Had Always Wanted To Do The Dubhs” – A.E. Maylard

Maylard, of course, features in the first line of the poem. His companion, “Solly”, is no doubt Godfrey A. Solly, a notable climber of the day. And the inspiration for the poem is, Campbell tells us, an article Maylard wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1905, entitled “Only a Beautiful Day on the Hills”. This was something notable in the SMCJ of the time, which dealt largely with new routes and daring adventures—Maylard chose to write about a day:

[…] with no further objective than to enjoy ourselves, and with just that charming sense of inertia that is felt when nothing special has to be accomplished.

It’s by no means lacking in physical activity—it involves a snowy ascent of Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. But it also involves quite a bit of strolling and sitting and enjoying the scenery—the essence of “doing the Dubhs”, according to the poem.

But now (finally), I can get to the aspect of Campbell’s version that brought to mind McLennan’s observation about the intrusive, pseudo-Gaelic “h”—because the version of the poem reproduced by Campbell talks about “Dubh Bheag” and “Dubh Mhor”. Now, Campbell is a careful editor, who elsewhere in his book comments in negative terms about the Ordnance Survey’s distortion of Gaelic hill names; so I assume he has faithfully transcribed the spelling in the original version. In support of that assumption, we can note that Maylard, in his original article, also writes of “Sgurr Dubh Mhor”. (The Ordnance Survey seems to be blameless on this occasion, as my image taken from their contemporary mapping shows, above.) And, lest you imagine that this is merely a century-old variant, you can still find “Sgurr Dubh Mhor” on the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s own website, as well as scattered around the internet in walk reports and photo captions.

But that variant spelling is a tragedy for the poem. While “Dubh Mor” and “Dubh Beag” are reasonable stand-ins for “do more” and “do beg”, “Dubh Mhor” and “Dubh Bheag” are most definitely not—the intruded “h” shifts their Gaelic pronunciation to “do vore” and “do vake”.

There’s also the problem that, while mhòr and bheag are perfectly good Gaelic adjectives (they’re the lenited forms of mòr and beag), they do violence to Gaelic grammar when applied to the noun sgùrr.

Gaelic uses lenition (the “weakening” of an initial consonant, usually by adding an “h”) as a grammatical marker. In particular, with relevance to the naming of hills, adjectives are lenited after nouns with female gender, but not after those with male gender—and sgùrr is a masculine noun. So Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is the correct form. To see appropriate lenition, we must look for hill names that use feminine nouns like beinn and creag. We can, for instance, see both dubh and mòr being appropriately lenited in the name of Creag Dhubh Mhòr.

So it should be easy enough to figure out when the adjectives in a hill name can be appropriately lenited with an “h”, and when it’s just pseudo-Gaelic. If the hill is a beinn or a creag or a stùc (all female), then lenite away; but if it’s a sgùrr, a tom, a càrn, a meall or a stob (all male), then don’t.

Unfortunately, while this can serve as a useful rule of thumb, it’s far from infallible. Look, for instance, at Beinn Dearg (“red mountain”). It’s a common name—I’ve linked to just one of the many hills in Scotland called Beinn Dearg. But a modern Gael, asked to translate “red mountain” into Scottish Gaelic, would probably offer the lenited form: beinn dhearg. And yet I search in vain for a Beinn Dhearg in the Ordnance Survey database that comes with my Anquet Outdoor Map Navigator software.

What’s going on? It turns out that Scottish Gaelic used to have a fairly wide-ranging pronunciation rule, the “homo-organic rule”, which blocked lenition under some circumstances. This has largely faded from modern Gaelic, the last survivor of the rule being that a noun ending in “n” blocks lenition of a following adjective beginning with “d” or “t”. This is still stated in modern Gaelic grammar books, like my copy of Olaf Klöcker’s Concise Grammar: Scottish Gaelic (2015), but there’s evidence that many modern Gaelic speakers aren’t actually following the rule. However, Gaelic placenames, which are centuries old, generally abide by it. In this case, because the terminal “n” in “Beinn” and the initial “d” in “Dearg” are both pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the back of teeth, the one sound slides into the other easily, and lenition was consistently blocked in Gaelic at the time when these landscape features were being assigned names by the Gaels.*

There’s a fine example of blocked and unblocked lenition quite close to the Dubhs, in the form of Beinn Dearg Mhòr. There you can see how the homo-organic rule blocks the lenition of “d” after “n”, but not of “m” after “g”.

So is that it all sorted, then? Are lenition and the homo-organic rule all we need to know, to decide whether we should insert that pesky “h”? Sadly, no. There are many departures from these rules. For instance, there’s a fully unlenited Beinn Dearg Mòr out there, sitting incongruously right next to a half-lenited Beinn Dearg Bheag. I’ve no idea what that’s about—perhaps it reflects some peculiarity of local pronunciation, or is just one of the Ordnance Survey’s notorious errors of transcription. And sgòrr, a variant of sgùrr that is listed as a masculine noun in modern Gaelic dictionaries, frequently turn up accompanied by lenited adjectives, as if it were feminine—for instance Sgòrr Dhearg and its neighbour Sgòrr Bhan.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has explanations for these.

* The sgian-dubh I mentioned at the start of this post is another example of blocked lenition preserved into modern usage—a so-called “frozen form”. Sgian is a feminine noun, so if you took a knife and painted it black, a modern Gael would call it sgian dhubh. The old, lenition-blocked name sgian-dubh now applies solely to the decorative stocking-top item. (Which, so the story goes, was named dubh in a figurative sense, because it was originally a concealed weapon. The Gaels are said to have used dubh, “black”, in the same metaphorical way that English sometimes uses “dark”—the Victorians labelled the regions of Africa that were yet to be seen by Europeans “Darkest Africa”, for instance; and the “dark side of the moon” was so named because it is hidden from view, not because of any imagined lack of sunlight.)

Until / Till

ʌnˈtɪl / tɪl

until / till: up to the time of (an event); during the whole time before

"Sip Til Send"

So I was perusing the pre-operative fasting guidelines for a local hospital the other day (as you do), when I discovered a heartening bit of text:

Once in hospital the ward staff will allow you to sip clear fluids until you are sent for your procedure

Anyone who has fasted for a medical procedure, even quite recently, will realize that this is innovative stuff. In fact, it’s the fairly recent culmination of a rather protracted process that started even before I retired from hospital medicine seven years ago—anaesthetists have gradually been establishing that prolonged fluid fasting doesn’t actually make anaesthesia any safer for most people, might well be counterproductive in many instances, and also makes their patients feel horrible. You can read about the rationale for the new guidance in an article published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, “Two hours too long: time to review fasting guidelines for clear fluids” (2020).

So that was all great stuff. The text was accompanied by the almost inevitable photograph of a person sipping clear fluids (just in case some particularly hard-of-thinking reader might be in doubt about what the process involves) and three words enclosed in quotation marks. The photograph and the words form the head image for this post.

Sip Til Send

Reader, I believe I uttered a small shriek. I certainly flinched, and may well have blanched.

There’s the slight grammatical unease, of course, induced by the fact that the person doing the sipping (the patient) is not the person doing the sending (some member of hospital staff). So the construction feels like it needs a “sent for”, or at least a “sent” in place of the final word.

But it’s that word in the middle that provoked the shriek. As a stout descriptivist when it comes to word usage, it goes against the grain for me to write any sentence beginning “There’s no such word as …” But really, truly, and for pity’s sake, there’s no such word as til.*

At first I assumed this was some isolated typographic misfortune, but it turns out to be the name of a major campaign aimed at changing medical practice for the better, with a Twitter feed, a hashtag and at least two logos to its name:

And it seems to be having considerable and deserved success, with the protocol being widely adopted—though some anaesthetic departments are apparently as disconcerted by the language as I am. I’ve found it rebadged “sip until send” in Worcester, “sip until sent for” in Calderdale and Huddersfield (people after my own heart, clearly), and “sip till send” in Greater Glasgow. I particularly like the approach at the New Victoria Ambulatory Care Hospital, which calls the initiative “Sip Til Send” (which is its name, after all), but seems to have edited the logos on the accompanying documents to read “sip till send”.

So how did we get into a situation in which a laudable, important and successful campaign to improve medical practice is lumbered with a non-standard spelling of the common word till?

I think two things have been going on. One is that, at some time during the twentieth century, people began to feel inappropriately uneasy about till, interpreting it to be a slovenly contraction of until. As a result, they started nervously writing ’til. Bryan Garner, in his rather marvellous Modern English Usage (2016), writes that this only became widespread during the 1980s—which fits with my own recollection of encountering it for the first time in the late ’70s, in a handwritten note in a patient’s medical records.

And of course the long, slow decline of the apostrophe during the twentieth century has been accelerating of late, as companies like Waterstone’s have started abandoning their possessive apostrophes:

Waterstones shop front, before and after 2012

It’s an expensive business for a large company to change its logotype in this way, so there must be some financial pay-off—I find it difficult to believe that the driver for this is merely that internet addresses don’t accommodate apostrophes, so that companies are changing their shopfronts to match their URLs, but that’s the justification I usually see.

And then there’s the business of trying to find an apostrophe while thumb-typing on your phone—for many people that’s just not going to happen, in the white heat of getting a social media post out into the world.

So apostrophes have come to be seen (in some quarters) as a disposable affectation of a bygone age—hence, I think, the transformation of ’til to just plain til.

But til will look odd to many English speakers, I think, because short words ending with the sound /ɪl/ are usually spelled with a terminal -ill. Will, fill, shrill, drill, chill, ill … You get the picture. These words are generally very old, embedded in the language since Middle English or Old English, and of Germanic origin, and their spelling has become standardized over the centuries. The only common exception is nil—an odd little word that popped into existence in the nineteenth century as a contraction of Latin nihil, “nothing”. And it’s common enough to see it misspelled nill, under the influence of all those other -ill words.

And till is indeed a very old word—it comes to us from Old Norse, courtesy of the Scandinavian settlers who occupied the part of northern England called the Danelaw. In Norse, its meaning was “to [a place]”, and that meaning persisted in northern English dialects for a long time, and in Scots up to the present day. But it also acquired its current meaning of “to [a time]” very early—the OED‘s first illustrative citations are from the fourteenth century.

The word until is almost as ancient as till, and is formed from it. The un- prefix in this case is Norse, implying “up to” or “as far as”. So while till related to a destination, until referred to points on the way to the destination, as well. Using modern English words in their old Norse sense, there was a difference between going “till Iceland” (in which the destination is the prime consideration) and crossing the sea “until Iceland” (in which the journey itself is also important).

Like till, until eventually came to refer exclusively to periods of time. But it still retains the Norse sense of “up to” or “as far as”—you stay in the office until a certain time, for instance—and that meaning has rubbed off on to till, obscuring the original difference between them.

Norse un- also found its way into southern dialects of English, modifying the word to, to produce unto, which had the same original meaning as northern until, and then became synonymous with to, and then faded out of use. Probably many of us have only ever encountered it in quotations from the King James translation of the Bible:

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 22:21

The fading away of unto serves as a reminder of how odd it is that we’ve retained both until and till, which seems like one more word than we really need. Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), tells us that until is more likely to be used at the start of a sentence than till, and is “fractionally more formal”.

This might account for the fact that until occurs much more frequently than till in edited prose (including fiction). In practice until is six times more likely than till to turn up in such work (according to a standard dictionary of word frequency).

So it seems to be primarily a matter of linguistic register—how formal or informal do we want our message to be? Which means there’s a subtle difference between “sip until send” and “sip till send”, in terms of how the reader will perceive the writer. Do people prefer their hospital communications to be couched in formal or informal language? Depends on the person, I think. But trying to adhere to standard spelling does seem like a good idea.

* The logophile in me compels me to admit that there’s a plant in India with the Hindi name til, and a tree in Madeira with the same name in the local dialect of Portuguese, both of which have leaked into English in a limited way, which is why til is a legal Scrabble word.
There seems to be a cycle in these things. The OED records that, during the eighteenth century (when the spelling untill was common), till was frequently printed as ’till.
This quotation was the first place I encountered the archaic word unto, when I was a fairly small child but nevertheless already fascinated by words. So I knew about the function of the Germanic prefix un-, expressing negation, reversal or deprivation, but was a bit shaky on the meaning of render, and of course had no clue that there was another, Norse, version of un- with a completely different meaning. So as far as I was concerned, unto had to mean the opposite of to, which led me to believe that Jesus wanted people to deprive Caesar and God of their belongings. I was (just) wise enough to keep this idea to myself.



pretentious: professing or making claim to great merit or importance, especially when unwarranted

Halloween costumes for pretentious children, by Tom Gauld
Credit: Tom Gauld

among […a]nd amongst. Most such forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are archaisms in American English. Amongst is no exception: in American English it is pretentious at best.

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Bryan Garner, but that’s really pretty striking, isn’t it? A common, short, solidly Anglo-Saxon word that suddenly becomes “pretentious at best” with the addition of a couple of letters. (And I find myself wondering what consequences worse than “pretentious” Garner has in mind.) Garner no doubt knows how speakers of American English respond to certain words, but it’s a bit of a worry if a simple word choice can earn you the label “pretentious” in American English.

But Garner goes on to reassure us that:

Amongst is more common and more tolerable in British English where it doesn’t suggest affectation

Well, phew! There can be few less affected usages of the word amongst than the Scottish exhortation to “Get in amongst it!” (“Participate vigorously!”), but I’ve now made a mental note not to encourage any Americans in this way.

Anyway. There’s not much to say about the etymology of amongst, but pretentious has some interesting connections, which are what I’m going to write about today.

Pretentious, and its associated nouns pretension and pretentiousness, come from Latin prætendere, “to put forward”, derived in turn from the prefix præ (which gives us our English pre-) and tendere, “to stretch”. All of these words have connotations of self-aggrandizement, in contrast to their relatives pretend and pretence, which indicate only that a person is portraying themselves as something different from reality. One can pretend to be a goldfish, for instance, which is the antithesis of pretentiousness.

But the original meaning of our word pretend was close to that of Latin prætendere—it had the sense of putting forward an argument, or advancing a claim, with no implication of falsity or deception. And so anyone with a potential claim on an inheritance would be called a pretender, in the eighteenth century. Here’s Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), on the issue of Title by Descent:

Whereas, by dividing the inheritance according to the roots or stirpes, the rule of descent is kept uniform and steady: the issue of the eldest son excludes all other pretenders, as the son himself (if living) would have done …

In other words, the eldest son inherits a title on the death of his father, which can pass to younger sons should the eldest die (they are the “other pretenders”); but if the eldest son has children (“the issue”), the title passes into that generation instead.

As you read your Scottish history, it’s useful to be aware of this older usage of the word pretender, since both the Old Pretender, James Stuart, and his son the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie), were advancing well-founded claims to the throne—there was no pretence in the modern sense.

Latin præ, in the form of English pre-, has spawned more words than could be dealt with here. Usually, it implies prior time, as in precognition, “foreknowledge”, or prehistory “before (written) history”. Sometimes, it implies superior importance or degree, as in pre-eminent and predominant. And in anatomical nomenclature, it implies a position in front of some other structure—if you have a pretibial laceration, for instance, it’s on the front of your tibia, or shin-bone. Beyond that quick summary of usage, I’ll pause only to express horror at such tautological constructions as preplan and prewarn. The former has been around since the middle of the last century, and the latter is first attested in 1603, though the OED touchingly and optimistically describes it as “v. rare”. Long history doesn’t make their use any less fatuous, however, given that both plans and warnings already imply priority in time. After all, it’s impossible to postplan or postwarn (though I’ve admittedly worked with people who made a fair stab at both).

The prefix præ– wasn’t the only one attracted by Latin tendere, and we have a family of corresponding English words as a result. To contend is to “stretch against”—to strive in opposition to something. To distend is to “stretch apart” and to extend is to “stretch out”. To intend is literally to “stretch inwards”—Latin intendere had a wide range of meanings, including our modern meaning of formulating a purpose. The verb to portend was original protend, to “stretch forth”. We use it in the sense of “foreshadowing”, and the metaphor behind this meaning is of future events “stretching forth” to influence the present. Subtend, “stretch under”, is a term used in geometry, applied to a line or curve that is on the opposite side of a geometrical figure from an angle of interest—the hypotenuse of a right triangle is said to subtend the right angle, for instance.

Ostend, to “stretch before” (not the Belgian seaport), means to reveal or demonstrate. An object or event designed to be particularly showy is ostentatious. The act of ostension, during the Catholic mass, is the moment when the priest holds up the consecrated wafers and wine before the congregation. For semioticians, ostension means the use of an object or an action (rather than language) to communicate a message—holding up your empty glass to indicate that you want another drink; jangling your car keys to suggest that it’s time to go home. And for folklorists, ostension refers to one of those disturbing moments when something previously known only from urban legend or folklore seems to leak into the real world.

I’ve saved attend, “stretch towards”, for the last of this list of -tend words. It has acquired two, related meanings. The first involves directing one’s thoughts and senses towards something—paying attention, in other words. The second involves physical presence—one can attend a ceremony, for instance. In this second meaning, attend frequently loses its prefix (a process called aphesis), and becomes merely tend. One tends to the sick, for example, by being physically present at their bedside; and a bartender is physically present behind the bar.

But tend is really two verbs masquerading as one, and the second versions of tend comes directly from tendere. Latin tendere cursum means “to direct one’s path”, and our word tend has the same implication—“I tend to believe him, despite his tendency to lie.”

Our verb to tender, as in tendering one’s resignation or one’s apologies, also comes to us from tendere—the metaphor here seems to refer to the physical stretching forth of a hand when making an offer of some material object.

My last tendere word is tendril, the slender organ stretched forth by some plants. Tendon, on the other hand, comes from the Greek tenon, designating the same anatomical structure as our modern word. The Romans borrowed from the Greek, but stuck in an extraneous “d”, no doubt influenced by the existence of their own word tendere, and produced Latin tendo, which in turn gave us the English word.

But there’s more. The perfect passive participle of tendere is tentus, “stretched”, which gives us our word tent, for a temporary dwelling of stretched canvas. The word can also function as a verb, meaning “to stretch”, and something which performs a tenting function is a tenter, a name usually applied to a frame on which cloth is stretched. Such tenters are equipped with tenterhooks, the origin of our metaphor “on tenterhooks”, indicating a state of painful suspense.

In later Latin, tentus became tensus, the origin of our adjective tense and noun tension. Something that resists breaking under tension has tensile strength. In anatomy, tensor muscles pull other structures tight; in mathematics, tensors are complicated mathematical objects that can be used to describe (among many other things) the stretching of elastic materials.

But what, I hear you ask, about the adjective tender? From Latin tener, “delicate”. And tentacle? From tentare, “to feel”. I make no pretence of my disappointment.



angel: One of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:8-11

At the age of eight, I was press-ganged into playing the angel Gabriel in my school’s Nativity play. With cardboard wings, a bed-sheet smock, and a wobbly wire halo, I fluted my way through “Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …” and so on. The language of the King James Edition did not commit easily to my eight-year-old memory, or trip lightly off my eight-year-old tongue, and I developed a deep and life-long antipathy to participation in the performing arts as a result. (I would, however, have killed to glow in the dark like Bloch’s marvellously effulgent specimen, above.)

Another bit of damage done to my brain by the Nativity-play experience was that I spent a few decades convinced that it was the angel Gabriel who delivered the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Because that’s what it said on the script I received from my primary-school teacher, and she was a Person Who Is Never Wrong. But, as you’ll see above, Luke doesn’t actually specify the name of the angel who delivered the good tidings, and Luke is the only one of the Four Evangelists who tells the story of the shepherds.

Perhaps my teacher just got her Annunciations mixed up. The angel Gabriel turns up only twice in the New Testament, both times in the first chapter of Luke—once delivering the Annunciation to Zacharias (of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist); and once delivering the Annunciation to Mary (of the forthcoming birth of Jesus).

So when preparing the by-now traditional Christmas “Words” post, I started wondering about how many angels are actually named in the Bible, and how many remain anonymous, like the one who delivered the Good News to the shepherds. This led me off at a tangent which I hope you’ll indulge—there will be some etymology at the end, I promise.

It turns out that, depending on your disposition, there are either two, or three, or four, or five angels specifically named in the Bible. Gabriel is one, appearing twice in the Book of Daniel and twice in the Gospel of Luke. He seems to fulfil a role as a messenger. Then there’s the warrior angel, Michael—he’s quoted a couple of times in Daniel and referred to in the Epistle of Jude, but has perhaps his most notable mention in the Book of Revelation:

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

(We’ll come back to “the dragon” in a moment.)

So Gabriel and Michael are the two biggies. Then there’s the Book of Tobit, which is considered canonical by Catholic and Orthodox Christians but consigned to the Apocrypha by Protestants. It narrates Tobias’ journey between Nineveh and Ecbatana, in which he is aided by an angel called Raphael, who performs various acts of healing along the way.

For more named angels we have to resort to the Fallen Angels—those who were cast out after the war in heaven mentioned above. And the big kahuna of the Fallen is, of course, Satan. He is named on multiple occasions in the Bible, and is identified as the “dragon” against whom Michael fought, in a passage immediately following my quote above:

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

There’s also an assumption that he’s the same entity who turns up under a different name in Isaiah:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!

But Lucifer is a Latin translation of the original Hebrew Helel ben Shakhar, “shining one”, a name applied to the planet Venus when it appeared as the morning star. And the passage in Isaiah in which the name Lucifer appears is actually a prophetic vision concerning the downfall of an unnamed king of Babylon, so it seems that the name was intended as a metaphorical reference to this king—Venus being the brightest object in the morning sky for a while, before it sinks closer to the rising sun and eventually disappears from view. So the association of the name Lucifer with Satan seems to have been out of a confusion of identities arising from that “fallen from heaven” phrase.

And finally there’s this one, again from Revelation:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

So Abaddon/Apollyon seems to be another Fallen Angel, but turns out to be a rather dubious one. If we go back to the original Hebrew texts again, Abaddon tends to turn up as the name of a place, which the King James Edition translates as “Hell”. Other translations, however, preserve the original name—see, for instance the many translations of Job 26:6 here. So Abaddon may really refer to the “bottomless pit” itself, rather than to the angel thereof.

And those are all the named angels in the Bible: two definites, one debatable, one Fallen, and one that’s both Fallen and of doubtful validity. Which I found slightly surprising, given that my copy of Gustav Davidson’s Dictionary of Angels contains 330 pages of names and biographies, from A’albiel to Zuriel. But these are all gleaned from various non-Biblical sources—the Pseudepigrapha, later mediæval writings, and grimoires, among others. Among my favourites are:

Wall: an angel formerly of the order of powers, but now a grand duke in Hell. When invoked he manifests in the form of a dromedary


Yaasriel: an angel in Jewish legend who is in charge of the “70 holy pencils.”

(Lest these examples, which I’ve cherry-picked for their amusement value, make you think A Dictionary of Angels is a work of comic imagination, I assure you it’s a fascinating work of considerable scholarship.)

But now (and finally, I hear you sigh), on to the etymology bit.

Gabriel derives from Hebrew gavriʾel, “God is my strength”, and has lent his name to a couple of English words. A Gabriel-bell was once rung at the parish church to remind people of their morning and evening prayers; and the yelping cries of migrating wild geese as they pass overhead has led to a sort-of-charming-but-also-a-bit-disconcerting nickname—they’ve been called Gabriel’s Hounds.

Michael is Hebrew mi kaʼel “who is like God”, and Michaelmas is a feast day in the Church calendar—celebrated on 29 September in the Western tradition. It’s more formally known as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. The feast in turn gave its name to Saint Michael’s pear, which ripens around the time of Michaelmas, and the Michaelmas daisy, which flowers at the same time.

Raphael derives from rafa el, “healing of God”, which fits with his activities as a healer in the Book of Tobit. His contribution to English comes via the Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, commonly known in English as Raphael. Art that adopts his distinctive style is called Raphaelesque. And the nineteenth-century artistic movement that rejected Raphael’s “mechanistic” approach in favour of earlier styles was initiated by a rebellious group who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Satan is Hebrew tsatan, “adversary”, and has spawned a cluster of fairly self-explanatory words like Satanic, Satanist and Satanism. One to be avoided is a Satanophany, a “visible manifestation of Satan”. His other Biblical name, Lucifer, means “light bringer”—the Latin equivalent of the Greek phosphoros, which I’ve written about previously. It’s a name that sits puzzlingly on the Prince of Darkness, so it’s usually interpreted as being Satan’s name when he was still an angel in good standing, before he was cast out of heaven. It has spawned a little cluster of adjectives, now disused: Luciferine, Luciferian and Luciferous, all of which were synonyms for Satanic. A lucifer match, often called just a lucifer, was a nineteenth century invention that had nothing to do with Satan, but was merely a “light bringer”; likewise for the naturally glowing biological molecules produced by bioluminescent organisms, luciferins, and the enzyme that activates them, luciferase. Nothing devilish about them.

Abaddon comes from Hebrew ʾabaddon, “destruction”, and Greek Apollyon, “destroyer”, is simply borrowed from the Hebrew. Neither word has gained much traction in English, beyond the abortive seventeenth-century coining of Apollyonist as an unsuccessful synonym for Satanist. (It sounds like some sort of public-relations ploy by Satanists, but it actually originates with Phineas Fletcher, a Church of England rector, who applied the word in all seriousness to the Jesuits.)

I’ll stop there. When I set out to research this post, I imagined I was going to regale you with tales of the seraphim, cherubim and archangels, but that’s probably a post for another day.

If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I trust your only encounter with a fallen angel will be one that’s become dislodged from the top of the Christmas tree. Have a good one.

Woman in front of angel wings
Click to enlarge
© The Boon Companion, 2022

Système International Prefixes: Part 4

SI prefixes table, 2022
Click to enlarge

Back in 2016, I wound up my third post on the topic of SI prefixes with the words “And that’s all we’ve got so far …” followed by a table summarizing the complete set of SI prefixes at that time. These prefixes are a shorthand way of indicating that some base unit of measurement should be multiplied by some power of ten. So a kilometre is a thousand metres, a microgram is a millionth of a gram, and so on. The range of prefixes was last expanded in 1991, with the addition of the zetta-/zepto- and yotta-/yocto- pairs.

But now the table needs another update, which I’ve provided above, because four new prefixes, denoting extremely large and extremely small quantities, have been adopted under Resolution 3 of the 27th Meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures, which took place in November 2022.

These prefixes were proposed in 2019 by Richard Brown, of the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. The need for a formal decision on new prefixes was primarily driven by the potential for massive data generation and storage. The largest prefix within the Système International was (until November 2022) yotta-, denoting 1024 of something—for instance, the Earth’s mass is 5972 yottagrams. But computer scientists were starting to talk about storing 1027 or even 1030 bytes, and they were starting to make up informal names for these quantities. The first of these was hella-, proposed by Austin Sendek in 2010, via an on-line petition. This was derived from a slang expression popular in Northern California at the time—hella, meaning “very”, probably a contracted form of “hell of a”. It was sufficiently popular to be adopted by Google, for a while, though I can’t now get Google to offer anything but “1.0 × 1027 bytes” in response to a search on “1000*yottabytes”.

Round about the same time the prefix bronto- turned up, also indicating 1027, as in brontobyte. The derivation is from the (debated) dinosaur genus Brontosaurus—that is, a very big thing. But the genus name derives from Greek bronte, “thunder”, and sauros, “lizard”, so the etymology of brontobyte gets a bit confusing if you think about it for too long.

There have also been efforts to continue the alphabetical trend suggested by the prefixes zetta- and yotta-, with xenna- (which actually obeys the rules for SI prefix formation!) and xano- (which doesn’t).

Beyond 1027, we start to see prefixes that exist only in the more fanciful corners of the internet, and I won’t get into those.

What Richard Brown noted was that hella- and bronto- get into difficulties when it came to finding a single-letter abbreviation, which needs to avoid duplicating any existing prefix letter, or any of the single letters used for SI units or the additional units accepted by the SI. As large multiples either prefix would be symbolized by an upper case letter, but “H” is taken by the unit of inductance, the henry, and “B” by both the bel and the byte.

A search through the alphabet convinced Brown that the only remaining useful letters, available in both upper and lower case (for multiples and divisors, respectively), were “Q” and “R”. So those were going to be the initial letters of his new units. He also proposed to continue the trend established by peta-, exa-, zetta- and yotta-, which is to reference the power of a thousand that the prefix represents. Peta- is from Greek pente, “five”, (10005= 1015); exa- from hex, “six”, (10006); zetta-/zepto- from Latin septem, “seven”; and yotta-/yocto- from Latin octo, “eight”. So to form his new prefixes, Brown chose to reference Greek ennea, “nine”, and deka, “ten”. Other factors to consider were the well-established principle that prefixes which reduce the size of the base unit end in “o”, while those that increase it end in “a”; and the emerging trend that multipliers contain a doubled consonant, while diminishers contain a consonant pair (zetta-/zepto-, yotta-/yocto-).

Having put all those requirements together, Brown came up with ronna- for 1027, ronto- for 10-27, quecca- for 1030 and quecto- for 10-30. Simple!

But wait a minute. My table at the head of this post shows that the adopted prefix symbolizing 1030 is quetta-. What happened to quecca-? Just one of the things that international organizations need to be careful about, when making up new words. It turns out that queca is a taboo slang word in Portuguese, which would create an amusing effect for Portuguese speakers using Brown’s new prefix. I think I’ll leave you to look the word up for yourself, if you’re so inclined.



Still from Outlander TV series

“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach. Ye canna say more than ye know, but tell me it all, just once more.”

Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (1992)

sassenach: (Scots, adjective or noun) English; an English person

I must have gone for years without hearing or reading this word until the advent of the improbable television series Outlander in 2014 (based on Gabaldon’s novels), which brought the word to the attention of (apparently) the entire English-speaking world, if not beyond. The first season of the series introduced a time-travelling twentieth-century nurse to Gaelic-speaking eighteenth-century Highland Scots, who call her a “Sassenach”.* At which point, people started talking nonsense about the word on the Internet. So no change there. Two of the most common misleading claims echoing around social media about the word Sassenach are that it is a) derogatory and/or b) designates anyone who is not a Gaelic-speaker, be they English, Scottish Lowlander, or indeed any kind of foreigner. But neither of these is strictly true—which is what this post is about.

The first thing to know is that sassenach is a Scottish English word, adopted from Scottish Gaelic in the eighteenth century, which has had three centuries to diverge in meaning from the Gaelic original. This is a really important distinction that generally seems to get lost in discussions of sassenach. But we can tell immediately that it’s not a Gaelic word because it breaks a fundamental rule of Gaelic spelling—caol ri caol is leathann ri leathann, “slender with slender and broad with broad”, which prevents the vowels “a” and “e” being paired on either side of a consonant. And that double “s” is not a standard piece of Gaelic orthography, either. The Gaelic word from which English sassenach derives is sasannach. (You’ll sometimes see the archaic forms sasunnach or sasgunnach in the etymology section of English dictionary entries.)

Modern Gaelic Sasannach is both an adjective and a noun. As a noun, it designates someone who comes from the country of Sasainn, which is England. As an adjective it means “pertaining to England”.

Sasainn is cognate with the word “Saxon”—the Gaels designated all the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain “Saxons”. This included the Angles of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, which straddled the modern Scottish border and occupied what is now eastern Scotland south of the Forth estuary. But nowadays Sasainn means “England” and Sasannach (plural Sasannaich) means “Englishman” or “English person”. Now, Sasannach is a masculine noun, and some Gaelic dictionaries record a specific feminine version to designate an English woman—ban-Sasannach (literally, “woman-Englishman”, just as banrigh, “queen”, is “woman-king”). I’ve no idea to what extent ban-Sasannach is used in modern Gaelic, but it’s perhaps relevant to the eighteenth-century Gaelic of Outlander.

The important thing to point out here is that Sasannach is the standard Gaelic word for an English person. It simply can’t be a derogatory term in and of itself, any more than simply calling a French person “French” can be derogatory. Certainly context can make a derogatory intention clear—the online Gaelic dictionary, Am Faclair Beag, contains a marvellous example of this in the phrase cho mealltach ris an t-Sasannach, which they coyly translate as “as treacherous as quicksand”, but which actually means “as treacherous as the Englishman”. But it’s the context that makes this insulting, not the word Sasannach.

As to whether Sasannach is a word applied to Lowlanders, foreigners and (ahem) outlanders in general, the experts are clear:

[…] contrary to common misunderstandings, Sasannach is not used in Gaelic to refer to a Scottish Lowlander.
In the High Middle Ages [~1000-1300CE] Gaels began to refer to foreigners who were settled amongst them as Gall (plural Goill). This initially denoted a person from Gaul—someone from outwith the British Isles—but was subsequently applied to the Vikings, Anglo-Normans and Englishmen.
By the early modern period [~1500-1800CE] in Scotland, Gall came to mean generically the people of the Lowlands who spoke a form of English (in distinction to Sasannach ‘Englishman’). This terminology indicates a Gaelic perception that the English-speaking peoples who became ‘naturalised’ in Scotland were different to those who lived south of the Scottish border.

Michael Newton: Warriors of the Word (2019)

[…] the Scots word “Sassenach,” derived from the Gaelic word “Sasannach,” […] does not mean “outlander” or “foreigner” — it only means an Englishman. In Gaelic the word is neutral […]

Emily McEwan: How (Not) to Use Scottish Gaelic in Your Novel (2019)

The distinction in meaning between Gall and Sassanach is made clear in lines from a song entitled Cuiribh Glùn (“Overcome The Rogues”), written by Gilleasbuig Mac Iain, in response to the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, which put an end to school-teaching in Gaelic:

’N d’rinn an nàdurrachd a chall?
’N d’rinneadh Galld’ iad is Sas’nnach?

(“Did Nature make a mistake? Were they [the children of Gaels] born Lowlander or English?”)

Despite this, you’ll find any number of Lowland Scots explaining on social media that, to Highland Gaels, all Lowlanders are Sassenachs. (If you scroll down the through the comments section on such postings, you’ll usually find a weary Gael pointing out the error.) I remember my father told me the same thing, sixty years ago, so it’s not some new, Outlander-driven phenomenon. In fact, the idea has been around for centuries—here’s Tobias Smollett, in his novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771):

I was not a little surprised, when asking a Highlander one day, if he knew where we should find any game? he replied, ‘hu niel Sassenagh’, which signifies no English: the very same answer I should have received from a Welchman, and almost in the same words. The Highlanders have no other name for the people of the Low-country, but Sassenagh, or Saxons; a strong presumption, that the Lowland Scots and the English are derived from the same stock […]

This exchange is presumably based on something that Smollett had experienced or heard about, but whatever it was the Highlander actually said (it looks to have been something like Chan eil mi sasannach, “I’m not English”), we’re told by Pons-Sanz and MacCoinnich, in The International Companion to Scottish Literature (2018), that the Gall/Sasannach distinction had been around in Gaelic since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Indeed, we have a fine example of a Gael addressing himself to the shortcomings of Lowlanders, specifically, eighty years before Smollett’s spurious claim, in Iain mac Ailein’s poem honouring the exiled Sir John Maclean:

Cha dùth do Ghall àrd bheann a dhìreadh

(“It is unnatural for a Lowlander to climb a high mountain.”)

So contrary to the assumption of Smollett’s narrator, the Gael would certainly have had the linguistic tools to differentiate between a Scottish Lowlander and an Englishman, but was presumably just unable to distinguish between a Scottish and English accent in a foreign language.

So this idea that Gaels call Lowlanders Sasannaich has been around almost as long as the word Sassenach has existed in Scottish English, and the number of Lowlanders who understand that they are Goill, rather than Sasannaich, is regrettably low.

It’s a shame, because Gall has some interesting etymological connections. In Gaelic, the Hebrides are still called Na h-Innse Gall, “The Islands of the Foreigners”, a reference to the time when these islands were under Viking control. The Vikings had also planted colonies in Dublin, and later began to settle in southwestern Scotland, where they assimilated the Gaelic language and culture and came to be known as Gall-Ghàidheal, “foreign Gael”, which is still with us in the modern Scottish surname and placename Galloway. The surname Galbraith records a different ethnic origin—it comes from Gall-Breathnach, “foreign Briton”, which probably designated the old inhabitants of Strathclyde, who spoke a Brittonic language similar to Welsh. And finally there’s gall-òglach, “foreign soldier”, which is the origin of our lovely old word gallowglass, meaning a mercenary soldier.

So much for Gaelic sasannach. What about the English version, sassenach? Speakers of English have a default word for English people, which is of course “English”. So they have had the scope to attach a subtly different meaning to sassenach.

We’ve established that some Lowlanders (and English people, and Americans) describe themselves as Sassenachs, in a self-deprecating way that communicates “I am unfamiliar with Gaelic and/or Scottish culture”, and that this is born of a very common misunderstanding of the usage of sasannach in Gaelic.

Can it be used by Scots in a derogatory fashion aimed at English people? I’ve never encountered it, outside of fiction produced by non-Scots. The problem is that the word Sassenach is wince-inducingly redolent of the “heuchter-teuchters the noo” variety of cartoon Scottishness, and any modern Scot uttering the word can’t help but feel as if they are appearing in a remake of Brigadoon. The only usage with which I’m familiar is friendly and jocular, when Scottish and English friends encounter one of those occasional episodes of cultural misunderstanding or incomprehension, and in my experience it’s often the English person who’ll label themselves a Sassenach during that sort of exchange. I’m not claiming that the word Sassenach has never been uttered with derogatory intention by a Scot, in all of recorded history—just that if you visit Scotland in the hope of hearing Scots hissing “Sassenach!” at passing English folk, you’re going to be very disappointed indeed. Sorry about that.

* The Highlanders of Outlander speak Standard English awkwardly spiced with bits and pieces of Scots and Gaelic vocabulary to provide colour. In Scots, for instance, no-one would say “Dinna fash yourself”, as in the quotation at the head of this post. It would be either “Don’t upset yourself” (Standard) or “Dinna fash yersel” (Scots). But ensuring that most of the dialogue is in Standard English gives viewers a fighting chance of following the plot. It certainly doesn’t reflect the culture of the time, though, in which a wealthy and privileged Highlander would speak Gaelic, understand Scots very well, and perhaps might also have a command of Standard English, Latin, or one or more European languages, while most of the common folk would be monoglot Gaels.
The usually excellent on-line Dictionaries of the Scottish Language don’t help things, claiming in the entry for Sassenach that it was “formerly also applied to the Lowlanders of Scotland”, without providing any supporting citation beyond the erroneous statement by the narrator of Smollett’s novel. They then add an extraordinary etymological footnote, “[Gael. sasunnach, Saxon, English, an Englishman, an English-speaking Lowlander of Scotland, the Scots and English languages not being differentiated in Gael.]” This is not correct, as Michael Newton makes clear in Warriors of the Word: “The Gaelic word beurla refers to language in general […] Beurla Shasannach is the English of England, while Beurla Ghallda refers to Lowland Scots. Because of the common presence of English, beurla alone implies any variety of English. In the seventeenth century the blanket term luchd na Beurla [“English speakers”] appeared, with a note of disparagement, for speakers of both English and Lowland Scots.”
This, of course, means that Gaels speaking English have the option to code-switch and say “Sasannach” if they want to convey something that they can’t when using the standard word “English”. I’ve heard it said that modern Gaels sometimes use Sasannach in this way, as a disparaging term for a Lowlander—so something similar to the luchd na Beurla usage in my previous footnote, lumping Lowlanders and English together. But I haven’t had this confirmed by an actual Gael.



omnishambles: a chaotic situation, especially in politics, brought about by multiple serious mistakes and a lack of basic understanding

Prime Minister's Question Time, 19 Oct 2022
Credit: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Malcolm Tucker: Not only have you got a [redacted] bent husband and a [redacted] daughter that gets taken to school in a [redacted] sedan chair, you’re also [redacted] mental. Jesus Christ, see you, you are a [redacted] omnishambles, that’s what you are.

The Thick Of It, Season 3 Episode 1 (2009)

Above is the first ever use of the word omnishambles, in a script for the British political comedy series The Thick Of It, written by Tony Roche. (The line is delivered in full-on profane style by the spin-doctor character Malcolm Tucker, played with a sort of unholy glee by Peter Capaldi.) It could have turned out to be a mere nonce word, used for a particular occasion and then discarded, but it struck a chord and seems to have filled a need, and it went on to become the Oxford English Dictionary‘s Word of the Year for 2012.

In the UK, of late, we’ve been getting a lesson in what happens when a fiscal policy apparently formulated in some sort of parallel fantasy universe encounters our own economic reality. And so it seemed like an appropriate time to give the word omnishambles an airing.

Omnishambles, of course, is formed from the word shambles, meaning a mess, intensified by the Latin prefix omni-, which is derived from the adjective omnis, meaning “every”. So it’s a sort of universal mess.

Shambles has had quite a long journey through the history of English before arriving at its current meaning. The singular, shamble, started out back in the ninth century, when it meant “footstool”. It had arrived in English via the Germanic languages, but ultimately seems to have derived from Latin scamellum, a diminutive of scamnum, “bench”. But the name soon shifted to a different piece of furniture—the table on which a person might lay out goods for sale in the marketplace. By the fourteenth century, it referred specifically to a butcher’s table or stall, and in the plural to a meat-market—hence the name of the mediæval street in York which once hosted a meat market, and which is still called Shambles. Then it began to applied to the slaughter-houses in which meat was prepared for market, and then, by analogy, to any place that hosted wholesale slaughter, such as a battlefield. Finally, having made the transition from humble footstool to scenes of carnage, the word has more recently declined in intensity—frequent hyperbolic usage, comparing scenes of mild disorder to those of ruination and destruction, has now worn the meaning down to little more than “a bit of a mess”. And in this most recent usage it has spawned an adjective, shambolic, which is often given as a synonym for chaotic, but which usually hints that the chaos is actually someone’s fault.

In the days when shambles referred to butchery, the verb to shamble enjoyed a couple of centuries when it meant “to cut up and dispose of a corpse”. But its current meaning actually has older origins—if a person was said to have shamble legs, it meant that they walked awkwardly with their legs wide-spread like those of a trestle table, and anyone who walks in this way is said to shamble. Their gait can be described as shambling or shambly.

Omnis in the plural is omnes, “all”, which appears in the Latin stage direction exuent omnes (“all go off”). At the end of Act V, Scene 3 of Cymbeline, for instance, Shakespeare clutters up the stage with multiple characters, and then almost immediately empties it:

Enter CYMBELINE, BELARIUS, GUIDERIUS, ARVIRAGUS, PISANIO, Soldiers, Attendants, and Roman Captives. The Captains present POSTHUMUS LEONATUS to CYMBELINE, who delivers him over to a Gaoler: then exeunt omnes

And the Latin instruction “Extra omnes!” (“Everybody out!”) is still uttered at the beginning of a Papal Conclave, when everyone but the cardinals is expelled from the Sistine Chapel, and the doors then locked.

Omnibus is the dative plural of omnis, and means “for all”. In the seventeenth century the French called an early form of mass public transport a voiture pour tous (“vehicle for all”), but sometimes tarted up the name with a bit of Latin, voiture omnibus. Which was then imported into English as just plain omnibus, and then contracted to bus. At the start of the twentieth century the phrase “the man on the Clapham omnibus” became a standard expression when seeking to invoke the desires and opinions of an “ordinary, reasonable person”. It’s sometimes credited to the English judge Charles Bowen, though without a good citation.*

Omnium is the genitive plural of omnis, meaning “of all”. It appears in the English word omnium-gatherum, “miscellaneous collection”. It’s clearly intended to imply a “gathering of all things”, but the gatherum bit is fake Latin—just the English word gather with an -um stuck on the end.

The prefix omni-, implying widespread or universal application, has produced too many words to deal with individually, so I’ll touch on only a few that seem of special interest.

Supreme Beings attract a lot of omni- words. The Christian God is often described as being omnipotent (“all powerful”), omniscient (“all knowing”), omnipresent (“everywhere at once”) and omnibenevolent (“benevolent to all”). The omnipotent bit unfortunately leads to paradoxes, exemplified by the question, “Can an omnipotent being create a rock so heavy it cannot lift it?” Such paradoxes have exercised theologians for centuries. The combination of omnibenevolence with omniscience and omnipotence also creates a paradox, when we look at the world around us—the Problem of Evil. An omniscient being must be aware of evil in the world; an omnibenevolent being must deplore such a situation; an omnipotent being has the power to get rid of it. And yet there is evil in the world.

In other areas of human endeavour, we have a range of rare but handy words: omni-erudite (“erudite in all things”), omnicredulous (“believing anything”), omnifutuant (“tolerating or practising all kinds of sexual behaviour”), omnigerant (“performing all kinds of work”), omnilegent (“reading everything”), omninescient (“ignorant of all things”), omniscian (“one who professes to know everything”), omnisciturient (“desiring to know everything”), omniscribent (“writing on all topics”) and omnivagent (“wandering everywhere”).

In my early days as a medical doctor, we used a drug called papaveretum, which was a mixture of opium alkaloids, really just one step removed from the stuff harvested from the opium poppy. In recognition of that fact it was marketed under the trade name OmnoponOmn- for “all”, -op- for “opiates” and -on to provide a fancy Greek-sounding ending.

And some among us will fondly recall the magazine Omni, a fairly beefy publication that covered a wide range of science and para-science, along with publishing some excellent science fiction. The paper edition was published from 1978 until 1995, and at time of writing the entire run is available, in occasionally blurry pdf files, from the Internet Archive.

Finally, I’ll leave you with omniana. That suffix -ana means “pertaining to”, and is probably most familiar in the word Victoriana, “objects or ideas from the Victorian era”. So omniana literally means “about everything”—in practice, a collection of writings about many, varied topics. It was, in fact, a contender for the name of this blog.

* Bowen is also said to have been the author of one of my favourite pieces of poetic wit:
    The rain it raineth on the just
    And also on the unjust fella;
    But chiefly on the just, because
    The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

That could change, though. The original Archive collection was taken down for a while, and Kindle editions of the magazines appeared on Amazon, under the auspices of Jerrick Publishing. Then there seemed to be a lawsuit, and the Kindle editions subsequently vanished (all but one, oddly), and the Archive collection reappeared. It’s all a bit mysterious.