Category Archives: Words

Alba: Part 2

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

In my previous post about this word, I described how the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba, originated in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European albho-, meaning “white”. In Proto-Celtic, this evolved into another word something like albiyu. This word seems to have meant something like “bright place” or “high place”, and in the later Celtic languages Brittonic and Goidelic (spoken on the islands of Britain and Ireland, respectively) it produced place-names that ended up as Alba, Albion and Albany. Likewise in the Germanic languages, albho- gave rise to a “high place” word that gives us the name of the Alps mountain range.

As well as place-names, Proto-Indo-European albho- has spawned a number of words that have ended up in English, having first evolved and mutated in the Germanic and Romance languages.

But not much happened to this word when it entered the language that eventually became Greek. The Classical Greek word for “white” was leukos, which I’ll perhaps write about in another post. The only Greek descendant of albho- that ever seems to have entered English is alphos, a name the Greeks applied to some sort of white-spotted skin condition. In English, it was used rather vaguely for various skin diseases, including leprosy, and was then abandoned.

In the Germanic languages, albho- seems to have evolved in two directions. One was the “high place” meaning that spawned our word Alps, as I’ve previously described. But the other meaning was a supernatural one, involving a Proto-Germanic word that has been reconstructed as albiz or albaz. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots wonders if this might have originally meant something like “white ghostly apparition”—and it spawned the German word Alb, which is generally translated as “elf”. (German more commonly now uses the word Elf, borrowed from English, but Alb is still with us, embedded in the lovely German word Albtraum, “nightmare”, which literally means “elf dream”.) In other Germanic languages, the “b” sound mutated to “v” or “f”, so we have Norwegian alv, Danish alf, Old English ælf and Modern English elf, all denoting some sort of supernatural humanoid with at best ambivalent intentions towards humans. The Old Norse alfr had a similar meaning, but was adopted into English as auf, meaning “elf-child”—the word for a changeling infant left in place of a real human child that had been stolen away by fairies. Such children (it was believed) never matured mentally as they grew up—which is how the old word auf evolved into the modern word oaf.

From Old English ælf we have the personal names Alfred (from ælf-rede, “elf-counsel”) and Oliver (ælf-here, “elf army”). From Alb the Germans have the name Alberich (“elf king”), which in French became Auberi—the source of the British name Aubrey, as well as of Oberon, Shakespeare’s King of the Fairies.

The word elfin was coined by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590). It originally meant “pertaining to elves”, but has now taken on the meaning “small, delicately formed” (with perhaps an added connotation of mischievousness). But J.R.R. Tolkien despised the word as being ill-formed on philological grounds, and used elven when writing about the elves of his Middle Earth. (The same motivation was behind his use of the plural dwarves, rather than the standard dwarfs.)

In Latin, albho- gave rise to the noun album “the colour white” and adjective albus, “white in colour”. The feminine of albus is alba, which (as I described last time) was once invoked as the origin of Gaelic Alba. From the Latin we have alb, the white priestly garment; albedo, an astronomical term for reflectivity; albescent, “becoming pale”; albumen, the white of an egg; and albumins, a family of proteins related to a constituent of albumen. Albite is a white mineral, and abele is an old name for the White Poplar, which was once called albellus in Latin. Albedineity and albedony are both old words meaning “whiteness”, which could do with being revived, in my opinion. Albication is the process of becoming white, albification is the process of making something white, and something albificative has the power to make something white. An albiflorous plant has white flowers.

The Romans referred to a blank writing tablet as an album. The word was later used to refer to books of blank paper, and then took on its modern meaning because of the album amicorum (“book of friends”) which became fashionable in Germany during the sixteenth century. These were blank books in which people collected the signatures, writings and drawings of their friends. The word album was thereafter repurposed to designate a book in which one collected things—autographs, photographs, stamps. And the concept of a collection under one cover eventually fed into the idea of a record album.

The Portuguese, who were among the first Europeans to encounter Black Africans with depigmented skin, referred to them as albinos, from their word albo, “white”. The word albino was thereafter adopted in English, giving rise to the noun albinism and the adjective albinistic, which refer to a genetic lack of the usual pigmentation. One may speak, if one wishes, of an “albino rat”, but describing someone as “an albino” is a potentially offensive focus on disease over person. And we can similarly consign the old word albiness, “a female albino”, to the dustbin of disuse.

The Latin verb dealbare meant “to cover with white”—that is, to whitewash. This was absorbed into Old French as the verb dauber, and then found its way into English as daub, which originally meant “to cover in plaster”—hence the existence of wattle and daub walls. But now it has lost its connotations of whiteness and smoothness, and applies to the clumsy application of a coating of any (or many) colours.

Latin alburnus, “nearly white” became auborne in Old French and then auburn in English. The -burn bit made people thing of French brun, “brown”, so its meaning in English started off as “pale brown”, but has gradually shifted towards the redder end of the brown range.

In Spanish, Latin albus became albor, meaning “white”. But by association with the way the sky grows pale as dawn approaches, albor also came to mean “dawn-light”. By adding the suffix -ada, indicating a time period, the Spanish then produced alborada, “sunrise”. In French that was adopted as aubade, and designated a love song sung in the morning. These were the days when courtly love was a thing, and singing beneath your lover’s window at an ungodly hour was also a thing. (The aubade was an opposite, of sorts, to the serenade, which was sung in the evening, god help us.) In English, aubade still has a lingering usage referring to music and poetry connected with the morning, but mainly it’s just a fine word to use to refer to the “dawn chorus”—the explosion of birdsong that greets the sunrise.

And if that isn’t a tortuous enough piece of ornithological etymology, try this one. It starts with the Portuguese word for the pelican, alcatraz, which comes from the Arabic. Some say it derives from al qadus, “the bucket”, in reference to the pelican’s throat pouch; some say it’s from al gattas, “the diver”. Given that the Portuguese word was also applied to the gannet, which notably lacks a throat pouch and just as notably dives, I lean to the latter etymology. The prison island of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay, gets its name from the pelicans that once nested there.

The name alcatraz also ended up attached to the frigate bird, a dark and predatory creature which both has a throat pouch and dives to attack other birds in the air. English-speaking sailors, already happily in possession of names for the pelican and gannet, but evidently short of a word for the frigate bird, adopted the Portuguese name in the form alcatras. And at some point someone seems to have looked at a bird skimming the waves behind a ship in the Southern Ocean and decided that if a large, black, slim-winged bird was called an alcatras, then a large, white, slim-winged bird should be called an alba-tras. And so the albatross reputedly got its name, as a rather recondite Latin pun.

Alba: Part 1

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

Alex Salmond announces the Alba Party

Today I am announcing the public launch of a new political force—the Alba Party.

Alex Salmond, 28 March 2021

As we trundle towards an impending Scottish Parliamentary election, we seem to have acquired a new political party. From the name, Alba, one could be forgiven for assuming that the new party was created by people who feel that the Scottish National Party is in some way deficient in its Scottish-National-ness.

Alba is the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland. At time of writing, there seems to be some confusion in the party ranks as to whether to pronounce the name in the Gaelic fashion (ˈalapə) or the Scots (ˈalba), but the BBC is firmly on the side of the Gaelic.

When I first looked into the origin of this name, quarter of a century ago, the narrative I encountered was that it had originated with Latin alba, “white”—a reference to the White Cliffs of Dover, which would be familiar to Romans crossing the English Channel to the island of Britain. The story for Alba then required a rather convoluted series of events in which speakers of Old Irish adopted the Roman name for the island of Britain, then repurposed it to apply to Scotland, and then transmitted the name into Scottish Gaelic.

So I’m interested to find that the story now places the origin of the name Alba firmly within the Celtic language family—tracing Old Irish Albu, “Scotland” back to a (reconstructed) Proto-Celtic word albiyu, and then to the (even more reconstructed) Proto-Indo-European root albho-, meaning “white”. In this narrative, it is Proto-Indo-European that gives rise to both Latin alba and Gaelic Alba, by separate strands of linguistic evolution, and the similarity between the two words should not be interpreted as a direct connection.

It’s probable that the name Albion, which initially designated the island of Britain, but is now generally reserved as a poetic name for England, is also of Celtic origin. It appeared in Latin as insula Albionum (“Albion island”), a name apparently derived from various Greek sailing directions that are now lost, and which may in turn have derived the name Albion from the name used by the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the island. French inherited the name from Latin, and English borrowed it from French. Albion is largely remembered now in the phrase “perfidious Albion”, directly translated from the French phrase la perfide Albion, which was popular at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. But Lord Byron deployed it to great effect in his paean to the Scottish mountain Lochnagar:

Years have roll’d on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
⁠Years must elapse, ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
⁠Yet still are you dearer than Albion’s plain:
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
⁠To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar:
Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic,
⁠The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but if Alba and Albion actually have nothing to do with the White Cliffs of Dover, what’s the connection with “white”? Indirect, is the answer. It seems that when Proto-Indo-European albho-, “white”, became Proto-Celtic albiyu, it assumed a more metaphorical meaning, something like “bright place” or “high place”, perhaps as a contrast with a mythical dark underworld. The ancient Britons that Greek sailors would have encountered when they first ventured north would have spoken Brittonic languages, derived from Proto-Celtic. So if the Britons did indeed call their homeland something that the Greeks rendered as Albion, the name perhaps had connotations with happy, sunlit spaces.

In Ireland, the inhabitants were speaking another set of Celtic languages, called Goidelic, which had diverged somewhat from Brittonic. In Scotland, the native Picts spoke a language that was probably more closely related to Brittonic. So the Irish may have adopted their name for Scotland, Albu, from the Picts’ own name for their homeland. Or perhaps the Irish just looked across the North Channel at Scotland and used their own word for “high place”.

Interestingly, Proto-Indo-European albho- seems to have undergone a similar evolution during the development of the Germanic languages. Old High German alba meant “high pasture”. The Romans adopted the word to give the name Alpes to the mountain range in which these high pastures occur. In English, that became Alps. And later, by back-formation, we came up with the singular alp to designate those same high pastures that gave the mountains their Latin name.

But back in Scotland, the Old Irish name Albu developed into Alba in the Scottish Gaelic spoken by the Irish-descended inhabitants of the Kingdom of Dál Riata on the west coast of Scotland. And they eventually ended up running the whole of northern Scotland when King Kenneth I of Dál Riata became King of the Picts, too, in the year 843. The language of the Picts was lost after this Gaelic take-over, and Alba became the name of the new combined kingdom.

English chroniclers writing in Latin, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, referred to the consolidated Kingdom of Alba as Albania,* which mutated in English to Albany. Although there are now places called Albany all over the world, the name isn’t much used in Scotland, except for the intermittently created title Duke of Albany, occasionally bestowed on younger sons of Scottish (and then British) monarchs. In Scotland, we pronounce it with a short front “a” (ˈalbəni), in contrast to the capital of of New York State, which takes a long, rounded vowel (ˈɔːlbəni).

So that’s the convoluted story that ends with Alba being considered an epitome of Scottishness today. Next time, I’ll write about some of the English words that Proto-Indo-European albho- gave rise to.

* The country in southeastern Europe, called Albania in English but Shqipëri by its citizens, gets its name from an ancient tribe called the Albanoi by the Greeks. To what extent this name was related to whiteness, or to mountainous terrain, or to neither, seems to be a matter for debate.



inoculate: (horticulture) to insert a plant bud as a graft into another plant; (medicine) to insert a disease organism into the body by puncturing the skin, or into a culture medium using a needle; (medicine) to inject a vaccine

In May 1796, Edward Jenner found a young dairymaid, Sarah Nelms, who had fresh cowpox lesions on her hands and arms. On May 14, 1796, using matter from Nelms’ lesions, he inoculated an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps. Subsequently, the boy developed mild fever and discomfort in the axillae. Nine days after the procedure he felt cold and had lost his appetite, but on the next day he was much better. In July 1796, Jenner inoculated the boy again, this time with matter from a fresh smallpox lesion. No disease developed, and Jenner concluded that protection was complete.

Stefan Riedel “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” (2005)

That’s Edward Jenner, the inventor of vaccination, performing an experiment that would be difficult to get past an ethics committee these days.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for inoculate, meaning to graft the bud of one plant into the bark of another, going back as far as the fifteenth century. Its first citation with the sense of inserting disease organisms into the skin through a wound or puncture dates from 1722, and refers to the disease smallpox—a small quantity of fluid or scab from a smallpox pustule was rubbed into a skin incision.

Why were people rubbing each other with smallpox? Because it was understood to be a way of producing a mild infection, which people usually survived, and after which they developed immunity to subsequent infection with the disease, which carried a mortality of 30%. The practice was introduced to England in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had encountered it in Constantinople. (To demonstrate its efficacy, this inoculation was carried out on several imprisoned criminals and abandoned children, who were later exposed to smallpox without ill-effect. Another one you’d struggle to get past an ethics committee nowadays, I feel.) The practice was introduced to North America by an African whose slave-name was Onesimus, and it was deployed during the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721. Another name for this practice was variolation, from variola, the medical Latin name for smallpox, which derives from Latin variola, “pustule”.

But variolation was not without risk—about 1% of those thus inoculated died. At which point, enter Jenner, and the observation that dairy workers who became infected with cowpox, a mild disease they acquired from cattle, were subsequently immune to smallpox. Using the technique of inoculation, Jenner was able to use cowpox to produce a mild case of a mild disease, which then conferred immunity from smallpox. In the medical Latin of the time, cowpox was called variolæ vaccinæ (“cow pustules”), from Latin vacca, “cow”. In English, this spawned the adjective vaccine (originally pronounced to rhyme with sign, not seen), “pertaining to cowpox”. Which in turn quickly gave rise to the noun vaccine, the stuff that was introduced into the skin by the process of vaccination. And so both inoculation and vaccination went on to become general terms for the process of injecting a substance in order to provoke immunity to an infectious disease. About a century later they were joined by immunization, and the three words have fought a battle for supremacy every since.

When I was a kid in Scotland in the 1960s, we received the limited repertoire of inoculations then on offer; but nowadays we elderly folk are invited for vaccinations. That shift in usage is reflected in the Google Ngram for the three competing terms, with inoculation taking a fairly recent dive in popularity.

In the days before smallpox was eliminated from the world, routine childhood inoculations included a descendant of Jenner’s original vaccine—in the UK, a dried extract of lymph taken from a calf infected with cowpox. This was mixed with a diluent and then carefully pricked into the skin of the recipient using a bifurcated needle charged with a bead of the vaccine, in what amounted to a medicalized reenactment of the original process of variolation. You can see the whole kit (lymph, diluent, needle) at the head of this post. The bifurcated needle was wielded several times, producing a small ring of inoculations, which initially formed up into pustules and then matured into a round, indented white scar, still visible on the upper arms of those of us of a Certain Age.

The word inoculate derives from the Latin inoculare, which in turn derives from the prefix in-, “into”, and the noun oculus, which usually meant “eye” but did double duty as an occasional word for “plant bud”. So inoculare meant “to insert a plant bud”, which is the original meaning of inoculate, too. There are no other remotely common words in English derived from this specialist meaning of oculus, and that may be part of the reason that people often associate inoculate with the unrelated word innocuous (derived from Latin in-, on this occasion meaning “not”, and nocuus “harmful”), and want to give it a double “n”. A Google search for the erroneous spelling innoculate produces 800,000 hits; innoculation about the same number, including an embarrassing 38 entries in the on-line catalogue of the Wellcome Collection of medical books.

A person who performs inoculation is an inoculator, which has a very rare feminine form inoculatrix. The stuff that is inoculated is the inoculant or the inoculum.

The remaining oculus words relate to the Latin meaning “eye”, which has the diminutive ocellus, which is applied to the primitive eyes of molluscs and other creatures, and is also the name for a single facet of the compound eyes of insects. Something biocellate is marked with two eye-spots, like a butterfly’s wings. Anatomical structure that support an eye, such as the horns of a snail, are oculiferous. The adjective ocular means “pertaining to an eye”, something possessing eyes is oculate, and a person who studies and understands eyes is an oculist practising oculism (but an ocularist is a person who makes glass eyes). Deocular is a rare old word for “blind”.

Doctors have a whole collection of eye-related words that need not detain us for long. Examples include supraocular (“above the eye”), periocular (“around the eye”) and the grim exoculation (“removal of an eye”), but there are many more.

Monocular once meant “having one eye”, but that task has largely been taken over by monoculous, leaving monocular to deal with “pertaining to one eye”. A monocule is a creature with only one eye; a monoculist, monoculus or monoculite is a one-eyed person. And of course a monocle is a single eye-glass.

Binocular has similarly surrendered the meaning “having two eyes” to binoculate, reserving “pertaining to two eyes” for its own use. A binocle is an opera glass—a little pair of binoculars on a stick that can be used to observe the action on-stage.

For creatures with greater numbers of eyes than two, we have triocular (three), senocular (six), octonocular (eight), centoculated (one hundred, reserved for the mythical all-seeing giant Argus Panoptes) and the noncommittal multiocular (many).

The three-eyed option pertains pretty much exclusively to New Zealand’s tuatara, a reptile possessing a remnant “parietal eye” on the top of its head. So triocular isn’t a word you see every day. Which is perhaps why, when science-fiction writer Larry Niven introduced a race of three-eyed aliens to his Known Space universe in 1968, in a short story entitled “There Is A Tide”, he instead used the word trinocular to describe them—a perfectly reasonable construction. In the later Known Space novel Ringworld (1970), the race is accordingly called the Trinocs.

But it’s not just a science-fiction word, because back in 1960 the trinocular microscope had been invented. No, you don’t need to be a Trinoc to use it—it consists of a binocular microscope with a camera attached, so that you can photograph what you’re looking at.



Democracy: that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole

trump exit
Credit: Evan Vucci/Associated Press

[…] we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Democracy is an ancient idea, coming to us from Athens in the sixth century BCE—though the Classical Greek idea of who had the right to vote in matters of state was different from our modern, more inclusive view. Our word democracy comes, via French and Latin, from the Greek demokratia, which was formed from demos “people” and kratos, meaning “strength”, “power” or “rule”—so “government by the people”, as Lincoln phrased it.

Kratos hasn’t given us many English words beyond the ubiquitous suffix -cracy, of which more in a moment. A cratometer is a device that measures the magnifying power of lenses. And geologists have used the terms orocratic (“mountain strength”) and pediocratic (“plain strength”) to designate geological periods in which mountain-building or erosion, respectively, are the dominant forces in the landscape. They also used to refer to the ancient, stable core of a continent as a kratogen. This means something like “strength formation” and presumably refers to the long-term stability of these regions. But the word has since been shortened to craton, which seems to be the more common usage now.

But -cracy has been the dominant legacy of kratos in English. In contrast to democracy we have aristocracy, “best rule” (for a particular usage of “best” defined by social status), and autocracy, “self rule”, for an absolute monarch who answers to no-one. Less commonly seen nowadays is timocracy, “value rule”, a term over which Greek philosophers disagreed. For Aristotle, the word implied rule by people who owned some minimum amount of property; for Plato, it indicated rulers who valued honourable behaviour. Aristotle’s meaning is duplicated in plutocracy, “wealthy rule”. A gerontocracy is ruled by the elderly, a hierocracy is ruled by priests, and a theocracy by gods (or their earthly representatives). An isocracy or a pantisocracy is ruled by everyone, with equal power. An androcracy is governed by men, a gynæcocracy by women. Oddly, the latter is by far the older word, dating from the seventeenth century, while the male equivalent is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1903. Perhaps gynæcocracy was considered so aberrant that it urgently needed a label, while androcracy was just the normal state of things. The advent of Communism brought with it a need for a new word—ergatocracy, government by the workers, which first appeared in English in 1920. As an ironic contrast to the assumptions underlying the word aristocracy, we have kakistocracy, “government by the worst”. Equally undesirable are ochlocracy, “government by the mob”, barbarocracy “government by barbarians” and kleptocracy, “government by thieves”. The alarming word pornocracy, “government by prostitutes”, refers specifically to the influence of the Empress Theodora upon the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Despite being considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Theodora’s reputation has never recovered from the salacious allegations in ProcopiusSecret History, in which she is described as the “most depraved of all courtesans”. A near-synonym, hetærocracy, has had an amusing double life. Literally “government by companions”, it has been used to mean “government by courtesans”, but also “government by fellows”—as in, the fellows of an English university college. That must have been the cause of a few brittle, erudite jokes in the Fellows’ Dining Room, over the years.

All of these words are, I think, legitimately formed from Greek roots. But in more modern times people have thrown caution to the winds, and pressed all sorts of prefixes into use. For this to work, the correct -cracy suffix, which represents the original kratos, often accretes the recurring “o” of the Greek prefixes above, so that -ocracy has become a word-forming suffix in its own right. There are simply to many of these to deal with individually. The punning mediocracy, “government by the mediocre” has been around for a century, whereas meritocracy is barely fifty years old. In various times and places, various groups have risen to power and influence—so we have landocracy (landowners), plantocracy (sugar planters), cottonocracy (cotton-growers), albocracy (white people) , shopocracy (shop-owners), papyrocracy (newspaper publishers), clubocracy (members of elite London clubs), chumocracy (friends of the ruling elite), millocracy (mill-owners), technocracy (technologists) and my personal favourite, beerocracy (brewers). Foolocracy needs no explanation.

And then there’s the curious bureaucracy, formed from the French bureau, “office”, which notably lacks the “o” common to all the other -cracy examples above, but is nevertheless pronounced as if it has one. In Future Shock (1970) Alvin Toffler offered his vision of what an organization might look like if it tried to eliminate bureaucracy and operate with a flexible and informal organizational style—he called it an ad-hocracy.

Now, demos. For the Greeks, at a time when few people travelled more than a few miles from the place they were born, demos also referred to the place inhabited by a particular group of people—a nation or a region—and that sense lurks in the background of many English dem- words. It’ll reappear in my final example.

Demos has given us a number of currently relevant words in addition to democracy. There’s demagogue, “leader of the people”, which used to have a positive sense, but it now more often applied to those who appeal to the passions of the mob in order to raise themselves to power. And there’s epidemic, “on the people”, which refers to an infectious disease that appears and spreads widely in a particular region; if it spreads around the globe it is a pandemic, from “all the people”; if it settles into a place so that it is always present to some extent, it has become endemic, “in the people”. That final word has assumed a broader meaning, “specific to a group of people or a certain place”—so we have the idea of endemic plants, for instance, which are native to a specific place, and to be contrasted with exotics, which are intruders from elsewhere.

Demegoric refers to the art of public speaking. Demography is the study of the living conditions of groups of people, and demographics are the characteristics of groups of people. A demonym is a name for people who live in a particular place—Liverpudlians from Liverpool, Angelenos from Los Angeles, Michiganders from Michigan, Kittitians from St Kitts, and so on. A demophil is a “friend of the people”, pretty much a synonym for philanthropist, and such a person is described as being philodemic. Demotic means “pertaining to the common people”—Demotic Greek is the current form of spoken Greek, descended from Ancient Greek; Demotic Egyptian was the simple writing style used by the common people of Ancient Egypt, distinct from the hieroglyphic (“sacred carving”) symbols used by the priesthood.

Demos is also embedded in a few Ancient Greek personal names, two of which are more familiar in their Latinized versions. Demosthenes means “vigour of the people”, Democritus means “chosen of the people”, and Academus means “of a silent region”. An area of land near Athens, said to have been owned by the legendary Greek hero Akademos, was planted with trees and named the Akademia. The philosopher Plato subsequently gave lectures among these trees—the “groves of Academe”. Which is where we get our word academy.



nativity: Birth, in particular the birth of Jesus Christ

The Adoration Of The Shepherds, by Matthias Stom
The Adoration Of The Shepherds, by Matthias Stom

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

John MiltonOn The Morning Of Christ’s Nativity” (1645)

Nativity paintings, like Stom’s above, have been largely replaced by  little dioramas, featuring toy figures of shepherds, wise men, farm animals, and the holy family. Getting the figures and props of a “Nativity Scene” out of their box and setting them out in dramatic poses under the Christmas tree was a childhood ritual for many kids, when I was growing up. (And I’d have killed for a luminous baby Jesus like the one in the painting.)

Nativity comes to us via French from the Latin phrase in nativitate Domini, “at the birth of the Lord” and so its earliest usage in English, in the fourteenth century, relates specifically to the birth of Christ. Nativitate is the ablative singular of nativitas, “birth”, which has a related adjective nativus, “inborn”, and a verb nasci, “to be born”.

The nat- stem cropped up in a lot of Latin words. Nativus gives us native, which can mean both “inborn” (as in “native wit”) and “borne in a particular place”. Natio, “race, people”, implied a group of people all born in the same place, from which we derive nation. Hence, the Native Americans of the United States, and the First Nations of Canada. The French derived their word naïve (feminine, naïf) from nativus. The dieresis on the “i” reminds them to pronounce the “a” and “i” separately, rather than as a diphthong “ai”—in effect, it’s a relic of the departed “t” that used to separate the two vowels. The implication is that a person in a “native” state is rather simple and unsophisticated, and that’s the sense we’ve adopted in English—though nowadays we increasingly drop the dieresis accent, and ignore the masculine/feminine distinction, settling for plain naive.

Latin natura meant “character”, understood as an inborn property, present from birth. From which we derive nature, meaning a fundamental and original property. From there, we can go on to designate the natural world as being distinct from the world that humanity has built for itself. Things that are unnatural are tainted to the extent that they deviate from what we think of as natural, whereas things that are supernatural are more powerful than mere nature. A naturian is a person who studies the natural world—a “natural philosopher”; not to be confused with a naturist, who is a person who indulges in communal nudity. The derivation of the latter word is unclear—naturism originally meant “nature worship”, so perhaps modern naturism derives from that; or perhaps it refers to nudity as being a natural state for humans. In either case, the word was officially adopted in 1961 by the British Sun Bathing Association, replacing the previous term, nudism. Naturesse is a fine old word for “affection” or “generosity”, charmingly implying that these are natural attributes of humanity. And naturopathy is the belief that diseases can be treated using only the products of the natural world.

Latin natus (sometimes gnatus) meant “offspring”. Something innate is inborn. Things that are connate are “born together”—coming from the same origin or arising at the same time. We more often see this word in the form cognate, which applies to words with common etymological origins.

From the Latin verb nasci, “to be born”, we get our adjective nascent, “in the act of being born or brought forth”. Something innascible is not subject to being born—a word that seems only to be applied to the Christian concept of God the Father. Something renascent is being born again; and although we have the French to thank for the word Renaissance, we have the Italians to thank for the fourteenth-century cultural revival that the word designates.

Finally, there’s the Latin natalis, “pertaining to birth”, from which we get our word natal, with the same meaning. In 1497 the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, having rounded the southernmost point of Africa, spent Christmas Day travelling along a northward-trending coast which he called Terra Natalis, because the Portuguese word for Christmas Day is Natal. This became the site of the British settlement of Port Natal (now Durban). The hinterland of Port Natal was subsequently fought over by Zulus, British and Boers, and is now the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

So from English Nativity I’ve worked my way to Portuguese Natal—both of which refer to Christmas Day. If you’re planning on celebrating, in whatever modified form the Current Unpleasantness permits, have a good one.

Trilingual welcome sign, KwaZulu-Natal
Trilingual welcome sign, KwaZulu-Natal



Unpled: (legal) not used as an argument; undefended by evidence

Brann Decision header

This Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in the contest of an election, in terms of the sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated. One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption, such that this Court would have no option but to regrettably grant the proposed injunctive relief despite the impact it would have on such a large group of citizens.
That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.

Judge Matthew Brann, Memorandum Opinion, 21 November 2020

Unpled? Unpled? UNPLED? Now there‘s a word that would have had my old primary-school teacher, Miss Macpherson (of blessed memory), clutching her (understated, heirloom) pearls in horror. The verb “to plead” is a weak verb, she would have assured us, and so forms the past participle pleaded. To inflict pled upon it (she would have continued) is an illiterate barbarism, to be avoided by all right-thinking people. And I’m pretty sure she’d have flinched at the prospect of adding an un- prefix even to pleaded. (And don’t even get her started on “to regrettably grant”.)

And yet. The fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage tells us that pled “occurs in America, Scotland, and some dialects in the UK beside pleaded.”

And so it seems to be. But pled is nevertheless comparatively rare in Google’s British English corpus:

And really not that much more common in American English:

Those who seek to defend pled (and reader, they do exist) argue by analogy with bleed/bled, feed/fed and lead/led, while ignoring heed/heeded, need/needed and knead/kneaded. There is, in fact, no logical argument either way on this one—it’s all just a matter of common and accepted usage.

Both plead and its noun, plea, originated as legal terms in the thirteenth century—a plea was an action brought in court, and to plead was to bring such an action. The meanings then mutated to refer to specific formal statements or arguments made on behalf of the defendant, and then sneaked into general use, referring to arguments made in one’s own defence.

When charged with a crime, one may enter a plea of not guilty, which will involve a set of detailed legal arguments designed to prove your innocence. Alternatively, one may enter a special plea, which does not deny the charges brought, but produces some new information that prevents the defendant being tried for the alleged crime—having been a minor at the time of the offence, for instance. But in general use, accusing someone of special pleading usually means that you think they’re using specious arguments to get themselves off the hook. And, despite longstanding common usage, you can’t sensibly “plead guilty” to an offence, because once you’ve declared yourself guilty, no-one is required to offer legal arguments about whether or not you committed the crime. As the Oxford English Dictionary has it:

Guilty is technically not a plea, but a confession. Blackstone Comm[entaries on the Laws of England] IV. 324, 332, 399, never uses plead guilty, but writes of the prisoner confessing the fact.

With all that in place, we can see the derivation of the legal term unpleaded/unpled. Unpled is absent from Google’s British English corpus, but has been doing fairly well in American English during the last fifty years.

So Judge Brann hasn’t struck off into entirely unrecorded grammar with his deployment of unpled.

Plea comes to us from Anglo-Norman plai,* “law-suit”, which in turn descends from Latin placitum, meaning something that pleases or is agreed upon, related to the verb placere, “to please”. The first-person singular future active indicative of placere is placebo, “I shall be pleasing”, and from that we derive our word placebo, for a preparation devoid of pharmacological ingredients, which nevertheless has a physiological action mediated by the patient’s expectations.

Placit is an old word for a decision or judgement, but most English words derived from placere have the sense of something pleasing. So we have please, pleasant and pleasure; placid, placate and implacable. The last of these used to be the opposite of the now disused adjective placable “capable of being appeased”. If you are complacent, you are showing pleasure, though not necessarily justified pleasure. Whereas the fine old word beneplacit, “good pleasure”, indicated a pleasure that was just and appropriate.

And that’s it for the ramifications of unpled. I hope you’ve found my dissertation placent (“pleasing”).

* I know what you’re thinking. Anglo-Norman plai, “law-suit”, must have something to do with plaintiff, right? But no—plaint and plaintiff and complain all derive from Latin plangere, “to beat one’s breast in lamentation”.

An Abundance Of Caution

US Capitol Building

The office of Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., announced April 9 he had a positive test for the coronavirus after visiting the emergency room “out of an abundance of caution” the evening of April 6.
“Congresswoman Fletcher sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. At the determination of her physician, she was tested for COVID-19 today. She will continue to work from home until she receives her test results,” a statement from her office reads.
A statement from spokeswoman Lina Francis continued, “Congresswoman Pressley sought professional medical treatment out of an abundance of caution. She has been tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting test results.”
Moulton said a House doctor advised a test wasn’t needed because he and his wife, Liz, had only minor symptoms and the results wouldn’t change their treatment. He said he will stay at home “out of an abundance of caution” and could miss key votes in Washington as a result.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in a statement on March 19 he would self-quarantine following news that Diaz-Balart tested positive for COVID-19, saying he was “around him for an extended period last week.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, I am following the doctor’s instructions to self-quarantine until March 27,” he continued, reiterating he has “no symptoms and feel fine.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., released a statement on Tuesday, March 17, saying he has decided to self-quarantine after meeting with a “Coloradan who visited my Washington office for a constituent meeting” who has tested positive for coronavirus. Gardner said he is not showing any symptoms, but is self-quarantining out of an “abundance of caution.”

Savannah Behrmann‘Abundance of caution’: Several lawmakers quarantine out of fear of contact with coronavirusUSA Today


Since the Current Unpleasantness began, we’ve had something of an abundance of “abundance of caution”. I chose the example above simply because it illustrates so well how the phrase has become mind-numbingly popular during these Times of Covid. (I haven’t even quoted all the examples appearing in the USA Today article at the other end of my link above.) It certainly seems that “an abundance of caution” has been something of a go-to phrase for the elected representatives of the American people recently. (Except, of course, for that group that has been exhibiting an abundance of incaution.) There has even been a beer brewed in its honour.

It’s certainly a fine politician’s phrase. “Caution”, on its own, can be parsed as a negative attribute; but an “abundance” of anything has got to be a good thing, doesn’t it? The phrase also allows the user some considerable wiggle room if challenged. An abundance of caution can imply, “Well, I have no good supporting evidence for the course of action I took, but I did it with the best of intentions.” Or it can imply, “Look, I know you think I shouldn’t have done this, but other people think I maybe should have done it, so my abundant caution drove me to acknowledge all viewpoints and make the best of a bad job.”

I don’t recall registering the phrase before this year, when I’ve been encountering it to a positively nauseating extent. But it has been around for long time, it turns out. The extraordinary Reverend John Newton used it in a letter in 1763, for instance, but in context it’s clear he intended the phrase to mean something like “carefully noncommittal”.

The phrase in its current meaning comes to us from legal Latin, ex abundante cautela, “by way of extreme caution”, which was used when a person took extreme measures to avoid an unlikely adverse outcome—“belt and braces”, in other words. In that sense it seems to have leaked into English in the mid-1800s, mediated by people with a background in law. In a search of the Hansard corpus (the written records of the British Parliament) it first appears in 1856, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Lewis, a qualified lawyer) proposing a vote to provide funds to the Royal Navy, covering unexpected expenditure arising from the Crimean War.

I intended to state to the Committee that the Vote which I have proposed is a Vote taken simply from abundance of caution …

Soon after that, in 1859, it turns up being used in the same sense in the written corpus of US Supreme Court opinions. And so it trickled on for a century and a half, until suddenly exploding into prominence this year.

So much for the phrase. With reference to etymology, both abundance and caution have sparse but interesting connections.

Abundance, its adjective abundant, and the verb abound all derive from Latin abundantem, “overflowing”, from the verb abundare, “to overflow”. The verb in turn is formed from the prefix ab-, “away from”, and undare, “to flow in waves”. And undare is the verb from unda, “wave”, the root of our word undulate, as well as the obscure old words und, “wave” and oundy, “wavy”. Undated, meaning “having wavy markings” has also fallen into obscurity, perhaps because of the confusion it could cause with undated, “lacking a date”. Then there’s inundate, literally “to cover with waves”, and undine, a kind of water nymph. We also have redound, which as a noun is a rare synonym for echo. It derives from redundare, “to return in a wave”. As a verb, redound originally meant “to come back upon”, but nowadays that has mutated slightly into “to contribute greatly to”. Then there’s surround, from superundare, another Latin “overflow” word. Its original meaning was “to cover with water”, in the sense of a river bursting its banks, but the subsequent progression to its current meaning is clear, if we imagine buildings surrounded by floodwater.

Caution and its adjective cautious come from Latin cautus, meaning … well, “cautious”. And cautus is the past participle stem of the verb cavere, “to beware”. Cautus also gives us precaution, literally the act of being cautious in advance, and the old word cautel, which, confusingly, seems to have been used to mean both “precaution” and “trick” (that is, the thing one might take precautions against). The third person singular active present subjunctive of the verb cavere is caveat—”let him beware”. In English, a caveat is a warning of some kind, and it’s also familiar from the Latin tag caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”, telling us we should always inspect our purchases before handing over the cash (something that has rather gone by the board in these days of internet shopping). It has a corollary in caveat venditor, “let the seller beware”, which cautions sellers that they are responsible for problems the buyer may have as a result of their purchase. Then there’s caveat lector, “let the reader beware”—don’t accept anything you read uncritically. In 1975, however, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison®* put a whole new spin on that phrase when his short story collection Deathbird Stories was published. He prefaced it with the following injunction:

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

(Ellison was never much given to underestimating the effectiveness of his own writing.)

The present singular active imperative of cavere is cave, often written with an exclamation mark to indicate its imperative nature: Cave! “Beware!” Posting a notice reading Cave Canem (“Beware of the Dog”) on your front gate was once a way of showing off your classical education, but achieved the exact opposite of “keeping out the riff-raff”—only the classically educated postman was saved from injury. Which may well have been the object of the exercise, I suppose.

And anyone who has read the Billy Bunter books of Frank Richards will know that English public schoolboys of a certain vintage were constantly shouting “Cave!” to each other if a teacher approached the scene of their wrongdoings.

Cave!” shouted Hazeldene suddenly.
The form of Dr. Locke, the Head of Greyfriars, appeared suddenly from a door in the passage. He stood, and stared at the juniors in amazement.
“M-m-my hat!” gasped Bob Cherry.
“Dear me!” said the Head, in wonder.

Bunter the Sportsman (1965)

So “to keep cave” was once slang for “to keep watch”. But the pedant in me wants to tell the hapless Hazeldene that he should have shouted “Cavete!” since there were plural juniors present.

Cue the obligatory scene from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979):

* Ellison registered his name as a trademark in 2001. Which tells you something about him, I suppose.



Immunity: Exemption from a service, obligation, or duty; the condition of being insusceptible to the contagion of a specific disease

Covid-19 finger-prick antibody testOur aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.

Sir Patrick Vallance, BBC Radio 4, 13 March 2020

We’ve been hearing a lot about immunity lately. Developing herd immunity to COVID-19 suddenly turned into a Very Bad Plan only a week or so after Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, made the above statement. But it will probably turn into a Very Good Plan at some unspecified time in the future, if it can be achieved through mass vaccination rather than mass infection.

The word comes from the Latin adjective, munis, “ready to be of service”, from the noun munus, meaning “service” or “duty”. By adding the negating prefix im- to munis, the Romans derived immunis, which meant “free from service or duty”. And that was the sole meaning of the English word immune until the late nineteenth century, when the nascent science of medicine co-opted it to mean “not susceptible to a specific infectious disease”. And so we now have the medical specialty of immunology, and the practice of immunization.

The Romans also added the prefix com- to munis, suggesting “shared duty”—but the meaning of communis broadened to indicate anything that a group of people shared. From which we derive community, commune (noun and verb) and common (as in, “we have something in common”). From an original meaning of “belonging equally to more than one”, common quickly developed additional connotations—if something was common, there was a lot of it about, and it was a bit ordinary, and maybe even something that could be looked down on as being rather vulgar. Interestingly, common has managed to hang on to all those different meanings for six hundred years. It also assumed duty as a noun, designating the land to which a community shared access, and it’s still used in that sense in England today. For a while, it was also the name for the specific rights that a person had to that common ground—so you had common of pasture if you were entitled to graze your livestock, common of piscary if you had fishing rights, common of turbary for digging turf, and common of estovers if you could gather firewood.

The House of Commons, the name given to the “lower house” of the bicameral parliament in both the United Kingdom and Canada, is so called because its members (in theory at least) represent the interests of the communities that elected them.

Latin communis also gives us communism, a doctrine that rejects all private ownership; communion, a coming together in a spirit of sharing; and the verb to communicate, which implies the sharing of information. And, coming full circle to the word that started this post, a disease is communicable if it can be shared with (that is, infect) others.

Latin munus, meaning “service” or “duty”, acquired another oddly unrelated meaning—”gift”. This may relate to the fact that it was the duty of prominent Roman citizens to finance what were essentially gifts to the populace—public games and performances, financed by the wealthy elite, also fell within the ambit of the noun munus.

Both senses of the word have reached English. If you remunerate someone, you pay them for services rendered. And a municipium was a city whose inhabitants enjoyed the privileges, and duties, of Roman citizens—from that, we get our words municipal and municipality.

Someone who is munificent gives generous gifts; they exhibit munificence. Sadly, several related words have fallen into disuse—if you were carrying a gift, you were muniferous; if you plied another with gifts, you munificated them; and anything pertaining to gifts was munerary.

These handy little words are my gift to you. Let’s get them back into common usage.



Anthropause: The period of reduced human mobility brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic

Original photograph used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Over the past few months, many countries around the world went into lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19. Brought about by the most tragic circumstances, this period of unusually reduced human mobility — which we suggest be coined ‘anthropause’ — may provide important insights into human–wildlife interactions in the twenty-first century. Anecdotal observations indicate that many animal species are enjoying the newly afforded peace and quiet, while others, surprisingly, seem to have come under increased pressure.

Rutz et al. Nature Ecology & Evolution 22 June 2020

So there’s the coining of a new and useful word, happening before our very eyes, although in the quotation above the authors use the verb “to coin” in a way that’s still largely considered erroneous. The metaphor underlying coin is a reference to minting money—you coin a word or phrase by newly creating it. But there’s been a tendency of late, perhaps driven by the increasing obscurity of the metaphorical reference, for people to use coin in situations where the verbs name or dub would be the customary choices. That’s language for you.

The authors acknowledge that their new coining should really be anthropopause, from Greek anthropos, “human being” and the scientific suffix -pause, which usually indicates an ending of some sort. For instance, the menopause is the end of menstruation; the magnetopause is the outer limit of a planet’s magnetic field. But the authors seem to have been influenced by the common meaning of the noun pause—“the act of stopping for a brief interval”.

So there are things about this new word that are not quite right, etymologically speaking. It’s also a hybrid word, with mixed Greek and Latin roots, because pause comes to us from the Latin noun pausa, meaning “halt”. But nevertheless it seems like a name for something we needed a name for, and it seems to have been finding its way into scientific currency during the month since it was invented.

The Latin verb associated with pausa was pausere, “to halt”, which mutated into French poser. But poser doesn’t mean “to halt”—it means “to place”, “to put down”, “to rest” and, well, “to pose”. These meanings properly belong to Latin ponere. How did they get transferred to poser? Well, in the past tense ponere conjugates into a whole load of verbs beginning “pos-”, and that may have been the source of the confusion.

Whatever the reason, English acquired the verb to pose from the French. We also acquired, or built for ourselves, a whole batch of -pose words. To compose is to “place together”; to juxtapose is to “place side by side”; to dispose is to “place apart”; to expose is to “place away”, and so on through many others.

Now: anthropos.

The prefix anthropo-, referring to human beings, has been fairly busy in forming words, as has the suffix -anthropy. Anthropause is just the latest in a series of such words that refer to the human impact on nature. There’s also Anthropocene, which is a serious proposal for the name of a new geological period defined by human impact on the natural world; anthroposphere refers to that part of the world dominated by human activity (there’s even a magazine of the same name); and of course Anthropogenic Global Warming is the thing we were all preoccupied by before we became preoccupied by the anthropause. (In the nineteenth century, anthropogenic referred to anthropogeny, the science of human origins; only in the twentieth century did it acquire its present meaning of “caused by humans”.)

Anthropometry is human measurement, useful in designing tools and environments for human use. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human organisms or objects, and anthropopsychism is the attribution of human motives to these same things. Anthropotomy, literally “human cutting”, is a fine old word for the study of human anatomy, and anthroponymy is the study of personal names. Ananthropism is a lack of fellow-feeling for humanity, as is aphilanthropy; apanthropy is a love of solitude; anthropophobia is a fear of humans, as is phobanthropy; misanthropy is a hatred of humans; and crinanthropy is being judgemental about humans. Philanthropy is, of course, a love of humankind, especially a love expressed through aid or kindness to others. A gastrophilanthropist is one who expresses philanthropy by feeding others.

Unpleasantly, anthropophagy is the practice of eating humans, and anthropomancy is a supposed method of divining the future by inspecting human entrails. (This latter was, as you have guessed, invented by the Romans.)

Something anthropoid is in the form of a human—most commonly, the anthropoid apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan). Anthropology is the study of humans, and palaeoanthropology is the study of ancient humans.

Palaeoanthropology has given us a whole crop of genus names for extinct humans, many now disused—Africanthropus was “African human”, now understood to be ancient Homo sapiens; Eoanthropus was “dawn human” (the classification of the famous Piltdown Man hoax); Sinanthropus was “Chinese human”, the genus to which so-called Peking Man was assigned, before being reclassified as a subspecies of Homo erectus; and Pithecanthropus was “ape human”, another Homo erectus subspecies informally called Java Man in less gender-neutral days. There are others, but you see how it goes. All of these long-dead humans are known to us by their anthropolites—fossilized human remains.

There is also an oddly detailed list of psychiatric states involving the suffix -anthropy, though I suspect few are in current clinical use. The overarching concept is of zoanthropy, in which a person imagines themselves to be an animal. But under that umbrella lurks a list of specific delusional creatures—boanthropy (ox), cervanthropy (deer), galeanthropy (cat), cynanthropy (dog), hippanthropy (horse) … and of course the grand-daddy of them all, lycanthropy (wolf). Only the final example seems to have made the transition from “delusion” to “supernatural creature”, the word lycanthrope now being used almost exclusively as a synonym for werewolf. (For whom the act of turning back into human form is anthropomorphosis.)

Finally, I offer you anthropoglot, a word that is usually defined as “an animal with a tongue resembling that of a human”. Puzzlingly, the illustrative example always given is a parrot. Now, parrots’ mouths do contain something that looks like a rather wizened and discoloured human tongue, but many mammals do a better job in that regard. What’s different about a parrot’s tongue is that it uses it to produce speech, in much the same way a human does. (See, for example, the splendidly named paper Vocal-Tract Filtering by Lingual Articulation in a Parrot, in Current Biology of September 7, 2004.) So I do believe that the real and original nineteenth-century meaning of this rare word was “an animal capable of speaking like a human”.

Parrot tongue
Original source



knee: The joint between the thigh and lower leg; an object or structure which resembles this joint

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)

I’ve got to say, on this “taking a knee” thing—I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history but it seems to be taken from The Game of Thrones—feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation.

Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary: talkRADIO, 18 June 2020

Oh dear. That’s Dominic Raab displaying a remarkable (and, given his job, rather alarming) ignorance of the multithreaded historical symbolism underlying the gesture of “taking a knee”—there’s Martin Luther King’s prayer at Selma and National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the American national anthem, as well as resonances that stretch across centuries, from the medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (at the head of this post), to the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.

The whole sorry episode was marvellously lampooned on Michael Spicer’s “The Room Next Door” channel on YouTube. (For those not familiar with his oeuvre, Spicer pretends to be a live off-screen adviser to politicians who are making particularly disastrous speeches.)

Raab also seems to think that there’s a popular television series called The Game of Thrones, but we’ll let that one slide.

However, there’s no doubt that the word knee, with its curious silent “k”, has featured more in the mass media recently than possibly in the entire previous history of journalism.

The silent “k” marks this out as being a Germanic word, along with a long list of other English words beginning with kn-: knight and knave and knob and knife and knell, and so on. The “k” used to be pronounced, in Old English and Middle English, but at some time during the sixteenth century, English speakers seem to have just become tired of saying it. Unfortunately, the spelling had recently become enshrined because of the invention of the printing press, so the “k” stayed in place to mock everyone subsequently trying to learn English as a second language. Other Germanic languages seem to have been quite happy to keep sounding the “k”—it’s still there in German Knie, for instance.

Knee, and its verb to kneel, are descended from a Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as genu-, probably meaning “knee” or “angle”. Which evolved neatly into Greek gonia, “angle”, and Latin genu, “knee”.

Greek gonia gives us the -gon suffix used for geometrical shapes. A polygon has many angles; and we have, specifically, the common words pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, decagon and dodecagon for shapes with five, six, seven, eight, ten and twelve angles (and therefore sides), respectively. Possibly less well known are the enneagon (nine angles), hendecagon (eleven), quindecagon (fifteen) and chiliagon (a thousand). The tetragon (Greek, “four angles”) is more commonly called a quadrilateral (Latin, “four sides”). Tetragonism was the old sport in constructive geometry of trying to square the circle. Now that we know it is impossible, the word has drifted out of use. A trigon (“three angles”) is a triangle—the Greek version appears only in a variety of technical terms, ranging from astrology to anatomy.

An amblygon is a shape with an obtuse angle; an oxygon has an acute angle. The word diagonal literally means “across angles”—the diagonal of a square splits the angles at its corners. A goniometer is a device for measuring angles, and the gonion is the anatomical name for the angle of your jaw.

Latin genu gives us our adjectives genual, genicular and geniculate, which refer to things that are knee-shaped, or pertain to the knee. The genicular arteries form a network around the knee; the geniculate ganglion, in the facial nerve, has a knee-shaped bend to it. To genuflect is to “bend the knee”—that is, to kneel, usually in worship. Genuflexion is the act of genuflecting, but something genuflexuous is zigzagging—producing knee shapes in alternate directions. The art of heraldry keeps alive (just barely) the old word genuant, “in a kneeling posture”, but there is little use in English  nowadays for genouillère, the French technical term designating the complicated part of a suit of armour which protected the knee.*

Right Poleyn from Armour of Claude Gouffier (1501–1570) (MET LC-1994 390-004)

The French still use the word. But now it refers, much less glamorously, to an orthopaedic knee brace.

* Also called a poleyn. No-one knows why, but I thought I’d just mention it.