Category Archives: Words



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.


The [Saharan] dust particles provide nuclei for the formation of ice crystals in clouds above the rain forest and so help to enhance or maintain precipitation over the Amazon rain forests. Equally important, trace elements within the dust such as nitrates, phosphorous [sic], and potassium are a major source of plant nutrients.

Martin Williams, When The Sahara Was Green (2021)

The word in red should, of course, be phosphorus, the name of a chemical element vital to plant growth. The error will no doubt have slipped past a routine spellcheck, because phosphorous is also a word, just not the word required—it’s an adjective meaning “pertaining to, or rich in, phosphorus”. It also has a specific meaning in chemistry, in which it is contrasted with phosphoricphosphorous acid having a different chemical formula from phosphoric acid, for example.

This is the sort of slip that would normally be picked up by a good subeditor or proofreader, but I see this misspelling of phosphorus fairly frequently. There are a few other words that fall victim to the same kind of error. Here’s one I picked up in the very next book I read:

Erosion occurring on the outside of [river] bends pulls loose the alluvial deposits. Gravel, sand and soil are transported farther downstream, creating callouses [sic] of new terrain, overlapping on the inside of bends, redirecting flow and exaggerating curvature.

Patrick Baker, The Cairngorms: A Secret History (2014)

This should be calluses, referring to the patches of hardened and thickened skin we develop in areas of frequent wear and tear. Again, callouses slips past the spellchecker because it’s a perfectly valid verb, referring to the process of causing calluses. And callous is both a verb and an adjective, so will again go undetected.

To this common misuse of phosphorous and callous, we can add mucous (for mucus) and humous (for humus). In all of these cases, an adjective ending in -ous is mistakenly used instead of a noun ending in -us. Which is actually rather odd, given that -us is a perfectly familiar ending for English words derived from Latin, whereas -ous is a vanishingly rare among English nouns. The few examples that do occur tend to be obvious foreign loanwords—there’s burnous (a hooded cloak, Arabic); nous (common sense, Greek), snous (powdered tobacco, Dutch); couscous (an alleged foodstuff, Arabic via French); houmous (Middle Eastern dip, Arabic again, often spelled hummus). The only -ous noun I can think of that looks like a conventional English word is scabious, a flowering plant with a name derived from a French adjective. So there’s not much precedent in English for -ous nouns; whereas a search of my electronic copy of the Oxford English Dictionary turns up a whopping 5640 hits for adjectives ending in -ous. Some of those will be duplicates, but still—the -ous suffix should scream ADJECTIVE! to a native English speaker.

But back to phosphorus. Before it was the name of a chemical element, it was a name for the planet Venus when it appeared in the morning sky. The name Phosphorus is Latin, but derives from Greek phosphoros, “light bearer” or “light bringer”. The latter translation seems appropriate, since when Venus rises as the morning star, the sun is not far behind.

It was also a word used by 17th century scientists to designate any plant, animal or mineral that could be induced to glow without heat—they were all called phosphori. Chemists devoted a lot of effort to producing chemical phosphori, which were often named after their discoverer. So we have Canton’s Phosphorus (calcium sulphide) and Homberg’s Phosphorus (calcium chloride), among others. The phosphorus that turned out to be the element we now call phosphorus was discovered by the alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669, after boiling a very large quantity of urine. He had managed to produce the unstable form of phosphorus called “white phosphorus”, which glows in the dark as it combines with atmospheric oxygen.

As the processes underlying the various glowing substances came to be better understood, a more precise vocabulary was built up. Anything producing light without heat was designated luminescent, and the kind of luminescence could be stipulated with a prefix—bioluminescence comes from living organisms, chemiluminescence from chemical reactions, and photoluminescence is induced by exposing a substance to light. Photoluminescence is divided into two categories, one fast and one slow. The fast one is fluorescence, in which a substance absorbs a high energy photon and then almost immediately emits a photon of somewhat lower energy—fluorescent dyes are used in, for instance, “hi-vis” safety jackets, which absorb ultraviolet light and then emit visible light. The word derives from the name of the mineral fluorite, which can be induced to glow in this way. The slow form of photoluminescence is phosphorescence, in which a substance absorbs light energy when illuminated, but releases it only slowly, so that it can glow in the dark. So the name is a reference to the various “glow-in-the-dark” phosphori of the early chemists, rather than to the element phosphorus, which is chemiluminescent.

That’s a neat modern scientific classification, but in common usage the noun phosphorescence, the adjective phosphorescent and the verb phosphoresce are all still philosophically connected to all those various unclassified phosphori of 17th century science—anything that glows in the dark can be described as phosphorescent. In particular, the glow produced in the sea by tiny bioluminescent organisms is commonly called phosphorescence. This drives marine biologist Edith Widder wild. In her book about bioluminescence, Below The Edge Of Darkness (2021), she writes:

Phosphorescence is not bioluminescence, despite how often you hear the words equated. It’s a very common misconception that has been repeated so many times it borders on a disinformation campaign.

It’s not really a misconception at all, though—just a conflict between long-standing common usage and newer scientific usage, something which is widespread in the sciences.* So I’d guess Widder was left unimpressed by the title of Julia Baird’s recent book, which takes the experience of swimming in a bioluminescent sea as a metaphor for “flashes of life in the middle of the dark, or joy in difficult times”. It was, of course, entitled Phosphorescence (2020)—the persistence of the old usage is what lets the metaphor work, while insisting on scientific precision would have killed it dead.

There’s more to write about the word phosphorus, but I’ll come back to it another day.

* Widder undermines her position of authority a little, for me at least, by repeatedly describing bioluminescent organisms as “neon-blue”. Neon is the gas responsible for the classic orange colour of decorative gas-discharge tubes—it’s mercury that glows blue. The common usage of the word neon to indicate “a particularly vivid colour” is (ahem) a very common misconception that has been repeated so many times it borders on a disinformation campaign.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 2

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

Last time, I introduced the concept of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, which I abbreviated “HG” to distinguish it from Scottish Gaelic (“SG”). I did so in the context of a comic poem entitled “The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue“, which appeared in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897, probably written by the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. It’s a sort of puzzle poem, in which Gaelic hill names are rhymed with English words that have been spelled to match the Gaelic—serving to obscure the English meanings unless the reader knows the customary Hillwalkers’ Gaelic pronunciation of the hill names.

This time, I’m going to decode Hinxman’s poem a couplet at a time, revealing the “hidden” English words, and discussing the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic and Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. As a reference for the correct Gaelic pronunciation (or, at least, one dialectic version of the correct pronunciation) I’ll add, where possible, links from each hill name to the corresponding page on the Walkhighlands website, where a Gaelic speaker pronounces and translates the names.

So here we go:

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snow,

This is Beinn an Dòthaidh, the last word of which sounds like “doh-hay” in SG, but usually more like “doughy” in HG. However Hinxman, in omitting the Gaelic definite article “an”, seems to be invoking a recorded local pronunciation, “ben doe”—see, for instance, Frank Alcock’s article, “A Matter of Look”, in the Fell and Rock Journal of 1972.

And nothing will stay him
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;

This is most probably Sgùrr a’ Mhàim, which was listed as “Sgòr a’ Mhaim” in the first version of Munro’s Tables. There seems to be no reason to omit the Gaelic article “a’” on this occasion, apart from scansion. This is often “skoor uh viym” in HG, which is a good approximation to the SG heard in my link, but one also hears an English interpretation put on the “ai” diphthong, giving “skoor uh vame”, as in Hinxman’s rhyme. (See, for instance, the cheerfully titled “Give Gaelic a Go!” section of the Forestry Commission’s guide Explore The Glens Around Fort William.)

If he’s long in the leg he
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,

The HG “craig meg-ee” is a pretty good match for the SG pronunciation of Creag Meagaidh.

Or, job that is harder,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.

This is a convoluted one. The abbreviation of “corrie” seems to be for scansion. The beautiful corrie east of Creag Meagaidh was recorded as Coire Ard Dhoire on the Ordnance Survey six-inch map of 1870, meaning “corrie of the high copse”, which would be pronounced in SG as something like “corr-yuh art ghorr-yuh”. But it seems that the local pronunciation had condensed the Gaelic, because the OS Name Book originally transcribed the corrie’s name as “Ardair”, which was then edited to read “Ard Dhoire”, presumably on etymological grounds. By 1903, the OS had plumped for “Ardair”, and it’s been that way ever since. You can hear a Gael pronounce “Ardair” on Walkhighlands’ page for the hill Stob Poite Coire Àrdair, which overlooks the corrie. Notice that the person speaking the name uses a “sibilant r” in the pronunciation of “rd”, turning “Àrdair” into “ars-tuhr”. But HG avoids this complication, and makes the corrie sound like “ardour”.
The “posts” are an array of gullies on the south-west face of the corrie wall, which is often called the Post Face, and the rim of this face has been labelled Puist Coire Àrdair (“Posts of Corrie Ardair”) by the Ordnance Survey.

He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest way

The SG pronunciation of Beinn Eighe gives it a second syllable, with the final “e” being pronounced as a short neutral vowel. English rarely has such a sound at the end of a word, so HG omits it, giving Hinxman his rhyme with “way”.

If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blue.

The “bh” is silent in SG Sgùrr Dubh, and in HG.

Very grand is the view he
Will get from Meall Buidhe,

The SG pronunciation of Meall Buidhe finishes with another of those short neutral vowels, making buidhe sound like “boo-yuh”. HG on this occasion errs on the side of over-emphasizing the terminal vowel, producing “boo-ee”.

But more will he see
From Bruach na Frithe.

There’s another of those terminal neutral vowels to Bruach na Frithe, and the “th” has an “h” sound—so “free-hih” in SG. HG ignores these subtleties, making frithe into “free”.

Then for sport that is royal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,

“Beinn Laoghal” was used on the OS six-inch map of 1878; by 1908 this had become Ben Loyal. The old form seems to have been an attempt to produce a Gaelic etymology for what was originally a Norse name (though the exact Norse meaning is debated). In SG the name is rendered Beinn Laghail, and you can hear it pronounced in my Walkhighlands link. The HG pronunciation accords with the modern spelling.

And surely will strive
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,

The “mh” at the end of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh, is pronounced “v”, and a silent “dh” separates two vowel sounds in chlaidheimh. So SG sounds like chly-iv. HG tends to merge the two syllables, leaning towards “clive”.

And gaze from afar
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.

The OS was rendering this hill as both Beinn Airidh Charr and Beinn Airidh a’ Char (one “r”) on maps available to Hinxman, who appears to have gone for a hybrid version in order to get the rhyme with “afar” while being able to distort the spelling. The OS subsequently settled on Beinn Airidh Charr until some time after the Second World War, when they shifted to the current spelling, Beinn Airigh Charr.

To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an hour,

This seems to be a typographical error for Stob Ghabhar. Hinxman here uses the classic HG pronunciation of ghabhar as “gow-er”, invoking a hard “g”, a silent “bh” and rounding the first “a”. Some HG speakers choose to retain the “bh”, saying “gav-er”. Interestingly, the Gaelic speaker at Walkhighlands pronounces ghabhar is if it were ghobhar (“goer”, but with a fricative initial “g”)—acknowledging, I think, its derivation from gobhar, “goat”.

But considerably less
The ascent of Carn Eas.

No Walkhighlands pronunciation for this Top of Ben Avon, but the SG pronunciation of eas, “waterfall”, can be heard at the Faclair Beag Gaelic dictionary—click the loudspeaker icon next to the top entry on the left in my link. It’s closer to “ace” than Hinxman’s HG version, “ess”.

Now one cannot conceal
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol

Hinxman had bad timing, here. “Sgriol” was the phonetic transcription used by OS maps of the time, but this was later revised to Gaelic Beinn Sgritheall, which would have allowed him a more elaborate spelling of “conceal”. The SG pronunciation gives the “th” an “h” sound— “skree-hal”. HG tends to ignore this, producing “skree-uhl” or even “skreel”.

Are hardly as sheer
As the crags of Carn Bheur,

Another change of spelling by the Ordnance Survey. This was Càrn Bheur on Hinxman’s maps, but changed to Càrn Bheadhair by 1902. There seems to be some doubt as to whether this name derives from Gaelic beur, “pinnacle”, or beithir, “serpent”. Despite its steep crags, this isn’t a prominent enough summit to have a Walkhighlands entry. The lenited Gaelic bheur would be pronounce “vee-uhr”. I’ve never heard the name of this hill pronounced in HG, but Hinxman’s “veer” would be a normal enough evolution.

Nor can one maintain
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin

Another apparent typographical error—the OS has always rendered this Beinn Mheadhoin (though very old maps sometimes mark it as “Ben Mean”). In SG it is “vee-un” or “vee-an”, but HG has worn it down to “vane”.* (Indeed, there’s a Ben Vane in Arrochar with the same Gaelic derivation.)

Surpasses the view he
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

An easy one to finish on. This hill is now more commonly known by its Anglicized spelling, Ben Lui, which reflects its pronunciation.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* I was once sternly “corrected” on my pronunciation of Beinn Mheadhoin, by two worthies with posh Morningside accents who were sitting outside Derry Lodge as I passed by.
“Oooh, you’re walking exceedingly quickly,” called one, in rounded tones that would not have disgraced Miss Jean Brodie. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
I told them, giving Mheadhoin its two-syllable Scottish Gaelic pronunciation. They smiled patronizingly: “You mean Vane,” they assured me.
As I walked off without replying, one said loudly to the other: “He won’t last another mile, going at that rate.”

(Be the first)

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: Part 1

Title page of Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897

The pronunciation of Gaelic hill names is fraught with difficulty for the non-Gael. One problem is the striking way in which some consonants are not pronounced at all. This is the Gaelic phenomenon of lenition, in which the addition of an “h” to a consonant changes and softens its pronunciation. Some lenited consonants, particularly “dh” and “gh”, have a tendency to disappear entirely when they appear towards the end of a word. More vexingly, when “bh” appears in a similar position it is sometimes pronounced (as “v”), and sometimes omitted—and the practice varies not only between words, but between dialects of Gaelic. So you can hear the second-person plural pronoun sibh pronounced “shiv”, “sheev” or “shoe”, for instance.* The “mh” pair is also sounded as a “v”, but rarely disappears; “th”, on the other hand, can either vanish or sound like “h”.

Then there are the vowels, which sometimes appear in clusters unfamiliar to English speakers, which sometimes indicate sounds not present in English, which are sometimes used to alter the quality of neighbouring consonants in unfamiliar ways, and which tend to reduce to short, simple sounds towards the end of a word—either a short neutral vowel or a short “ih” sound.

This tendency for consonants to disappear and vowels to collapse as one nears the end of a Gaelic word led one early (English-speaking) writer to remark:

[T]he terminations, where they exist, are so much curtailed, and in practice slurred over and cheated of their proper value in such a fashion, that for the common purposes of social communication they scarcely seem to exist.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 4th Edition (1875)

Monoglot English speakers, confronted with disconcerting Gaelic orthography, tend to pass through three distinct stages in their Scottish hillwalking lives. First, there’s the nervous pointing at the map phase (“We’ll climb … um … this one here”). Then there’s the treat it like it’s English phase, usually delivered in an apologetic mumble (“Have you been up, um, Sgurr Nan Keith-Ream-Han?”). Then there’s the slow acquisition of “standard” Anglicized versions of the hill names, either from walking guides or other walkers. But Hillwalkers’ Gaelic (which I’ll abbreviate “HG”) is often some distance from the original Scottish Gaelic (“SG”)—there’s a strong tendency to bend Gaelic vowel sounds towards English norms, to ignore unfamiliar Gaelic colouring of the consonants, and to either drop or overemphasize short terminal vowels—Gaelic has a lot of words that end with an unstressed schwa vowel (like a little “uh”); English, very few.

So HG is a rendering of SG in which the vowels and consonants are made to sound more like English (often influenced by the English-speaker’s interpretation of the Gaelic spelling). Have a listen below, for instance, to Sorley MacLean’s Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Aonach Eagach in an episode of The Munro Show, and then wait for a few seconds to hear Muriel Gray’s rendering of the same name in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic. (Then turn the video off again, or you’ll go mad. Seriously.)

MacLean says /ɯːnəx ekəx/, starting with an unrounded vowel that doesn’t occur in English, using short neutral vowels in the second syllables of each word, and employing a soft “k” sound for the “g”; but Gray says /anax iɡax/, which is the standard HG pronunciation—simple Scottish front “a” sounds throughout, apart from an “ee” at the start of eagach where MacLean has an “ay”, followed by a hard “g” instead of his “k”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about this—it’s just what always happens to foreign words when they’re imported into another language. And any Scottish hillwalker who was ill-advised enough to claim to have traversed the “oenuch aykuch” would find themselves swiftly put right: “Do you mean the annach eegach?”

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic was essentially invented in two stages—first by Ordnance Survey surveyors, who sought out a few locals (often literate landowners and ministers) and then did their best to transcribe what they heard into their regional Name Books; then by a succession of Victorian climbers and walkers, who reached a sort of gentleman’s agreement about the “standard” names of the things they climbed.

I was prompted to write about all this when I happened on a poem in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal for 1897 (Vol.4 p.238), which I reproduce here on the assumption that it’s long out of copyright, and in any case freely available from the SMC’s own website. While being entertaining and/or puzzling in its own right, it can also tell us a lot about the difference between Hillwalkers’ Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic.

The Climber’s Guide to the Pronunciation of the Gaelic Tongue

Oh, a terrible tongue is the tongue of the Gael,
And the names of his mountains make Southrons turn pale;
It’s ill to pronounce them, to spell them is worse,
And they’re not very easy to hitch into verse.

A mountain’s a mountain in England, but when
The climber’s in Scotland, it may be a Beinn,
A Creag or a Meall, a Spidean, a Sgòr,
A Carn or a Monadh, a Stac, or a Torr.

For he goes up Beinn Dothaidh
In the ice and the snothaidh,
And nothing will staim
From climbing Sgòr Mhaim;
If he’s long in the leagaidh
May tackle Creag Meagaidh,
Or, job that is hardhoire,
The “posts” of Corr’ Ard Dhoire.
He strolls up Beinn Eighe
By the easiest weighe
If he’s wise—but Sgurr Dubh,
Will make him look blubh.
Very grand is the vuidhe
Will get from Meall Buidhe,
But more will he sithe
From Bruach na Frithe.
Then for sport that is raoghal
He hies to Beinn Laoghal,
And surely will straidheimh
To ascend Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh,
And gaze from afarr
On Beinn Airidh a’ Charr.
To get up Stob Gabhar
Takes more than an abhar,
But considerably leas
The ascent of Carn Eas.
Now one cannot conciol
That the slopes of Beinn Sgriol
Are hardly as sheur
As the crags of Carn Bheur,
Nor can one mainteadhoin
That the view from Beinn Meadhoin
Surpasses the vaoigh
Observes from Beinn Laoigh.

And besides the above there are dozens which I’m
Unable at present to put into rhyme;
Whilst most of these hills, it’s no libel to say,
Are easier climbed than pronounced, any day!


I’m grateful to Dave Hewitt for identifying “L.W.H.” as (most likely) the geologist Lionel W. Hinxman. (His middle name was “Wordsworth”, which seems almost appropriate.)

Next time, I’ll go through the middle part of the poem a couplet at a time, elucidating the various hills, Gaelic names and linguistic acrobatics involved.

Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic—my command of the language is at the level of being able to exchange cheerful greetings and order coffee. If anyone with more knowledge is able to correct me on anything I’ve written above, it’ll be gratefully received.

* This tendency to pronounce a terminal “bh” as “oo” explains why the hill with the Gaelic name Beinn Mheanbh is commonly known as Ben Venue.

Epicaricacy: Part 2

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

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

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

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

In my previous post about the rare English word epicaricacy, I traced its history and discussed some other words that use the Greek epi- prefix. This time, I’m going to deal with English words derived from the other components of epicaricacy—Greek kakos, “evil”, and khairo, “to be glad”.

Kakos has spawned a fairly large number of words for bad things of various sorts in English, but with the exception of cacophony, “bad sound”, most are quite obscure.

If you are cacopygian, you are possessed of ugly buttocks*—which might make you cacochymic, “ill-humoured”. Cacodoxy is the state of having wrong opinions—the opposite of orthodoxy. Cacœconomy is bad management, particularly of finances; cacotechny is bad art; a cacoethes is a bad habit; cacopathy is a bad or painful disease; and cacophagy is bad eating—the wrong food, or not enough food.

Something cacodorous smells bad—an example of which is the poisonous metallo-organic compound arsendimethyl, As2(CH3)4, which is possessed of such a repellent garlic odour that it was given the common name cacodyl.

A cacodæmon is an evil spirit. By association of ideas, Robert Hooper’s New Medical Dictionary of 1811 listed the word as a medical synonym for nightmare. He also defined cacosphyxia as a “disordered or bad state of the pulse”, reminding me that asphyxia is literally translated as “no pulse”—which was its original meaning before it was co-opted to refer to the process of suffocation. On which usage the Oxford English Dictionary notes wearily:

It indicates a curious infelicity of etymology that the pulse in asphyxiated animals continues to beat long after all signs of respiratory action have ceased.

Cacology is a bad choice of words, whereas a cacemphaton is a swear-word, and a caconym is a rude name. Cacography is bad handwriting, and a cacophemism is an unfairly harsh description. Finally, cacoëpy is bad pronunciation—which has a certain irony, given how difficult it is to figure out how to pronounce that word.

Khairo has fewer relatives in English than kakos, and those there are have followed independent routes into English from a cluster of Greek words related to khairo. The verb khairo meant “to be glad”, “to be cheerful”, or “to enjoy [something]”. Epikhairo was “to rejoice at [something]”, from which the Greeks derived epikhairekakia, “rejoicing at misfortune”, the origin of our word epicaricacy. (There was also epikhairagathos, “rejoicing at good events”, but that seems not to have produced an English equivalent.)

Eukharisteo meant “to give thanks”, and in the Greek of the New Testament that verb featured prominently in the story of the Last Supper. Here’s the King James translation of the relevant verses in Luke 22:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:  
For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.

It’s the recurrent use of the verb eukharisteo in this story that led to the name Eucharist being applied to the Christian ceremony of sharing bread and wine, in ritual commemoration of the Last Supper. Charister is an obsolete word for a song of thanksgiving.

Kharis, in Greek, referred to the spiritual sensation of being in a state of grace, of being blessed—the sort of state that would make anyone rejoice. Kharisma was the gift of such grace, and the original meaning of the English word charisma referred to a “God-given” gift or talent. Only in the twentieth century did it take on its current meaning, designating an ability to inspire devotion or enthusiasm. The original meaning is preserved in those Christian churches described as charismatic, which practise speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy.

Kharientismos meant “gracefulness of style”, and it has given us the useful but largely disused word charientism—the ability to impart unpleasant information in a soothing and pleasant way.

Finally, there is the herb the Greeks called khairephullon, “joy leaf”, presumably because it could be used to perk up the taste of a spring salad, or perhaps because it was considered to be effective against gout. This became chærephylla in Latin, cærfille in Old English, and finally chervil in modern English. As one of the four French fines herbes, it’s still used to add flavour to food.

And I hope this little dissertation has added flavour to your day.

* You’ll be pleased to learn that cacopygian has an opposite, callipygian, reserved for those among us with particularly well-formed buttocks.
The emphasis is on the second syllable, and the central -coë- rhymes with “snowy”.

Epicaricacy: Part 1

ɛpɪkærˈɪkəsɪ / ɛpɪˈkærɪkəsɪ

epicaricacy: malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others

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

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

Richard Chenevix Trench, The Study Of Words (1851)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location of the adrenal glands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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