Category Archives: Words

Merry, Jolly, Happy


Carol singers


God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay

Traditional English Christmas carol

The three words I’m going to write about in this post are pretty much inextricably linked with Christmas, but all of them started off meaning something different from their current usage.


merry: cheerful and lively; characterized by festivity and enjoyment

This word started out in Proto-Indo-European sounding something like mreghu-, and meaning something like “short”. (That original meaning is preserved in its descendants brief and breve, among many others.) How it evolved into a word that meant “pleasant” in Old English is a bit of a puzzle, but it’s suggested that there was a verb involved, meaning “to shorten” and then “to make time pass quickly”—and something that made the time pass quickly was pleasant. The same PIE root also gives us mirth, presumably by the same etymological route.

The sense “pleasant” was around for a long time, and has left a confusing legacy for speakers of modern English, more used to the festive senses of merry. Merry England was simply pleasant, rather than noted for its liveliness. A person could be described as merry if they were in good spirits and feeling well:

Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 4
PORTIA: Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord;
Say I am merry: come to me again,
And bring me word what he doth say to thee.

And that’s the sense in which merry appears in the Christmas carol at the head of this post—”God rest you merry” means “may God keep you in good health”. That’s why a comma is correctly positioned just before “gentlemen”, who (in more sexist days) were the people to whom this wish was addressed.

The weather was merry if it was pleasant, and a wind was merry if it blew in a favourable direction:

The Comedy Of Errors Act 4, Scene 1
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: The ship is in her trim; the merry wind
Blows fair from land: they stay for nought at all
But for their owner, master, and yourself.

And a merry man or merryman was the companion in arms of a knight or chief. Robin Hood’s merry men were good people to have around, not necessarily riotous in their good humour.

But by Shakespeare’s time the meaning of merry was shifting. He was able to use it in its old sense of “pleasant”, as illustrated above, but could also deploy it with something like its modern meaning, as when Ophelia frostily describes Hamlet as being “merry” when he indulges in a tedious double entendre at her expense. Sixty years later, Charles II was called the Merry Monarch, in part because people thought it was pleasant to have a king again after the excesses of Cromwell’s government, and in part because of the lively nature of the court he kept.

Soon after that, we find merry-andrew used to designate a clown or buffoon (though no-one is sure who the original Andrew was), and the modern meaning is firmly in place.

A merrythought is an old and lovely name for the “wishbone” of a bird. A merry-go-round is a pretty boring fairground ride, but it dates from after the transition of merry to imply “cheerful and lively”, so people were obviously short of fun in those days. A merry-totter is an old name for a see-saw, and merry-go-down is obsolete slang for strong ale. Sadly, the name of the Merrydown vintage cider company seems to be unconnected—named instead after the house of one of the original owners. But the association with alcoholic beverages brings us to one final meaning for merry—as the OED coyly puts it, “hilarious with drink”.


jolly: happy and cheerful

Jolly came into Middle English from Old French, in the form of jolif. The final “f” was lost in both languages, and French joli preserves one of the word’s orginal meanings: “pretty”. The OED lists a multitude of other meanings for jolif, including “brave”, “amorous”, “finely dressed”, “gallant”, “festive” and “lively”—apparently a list of desirable attributes for the young and healthy.

So we see jolly used to imply lively spirits and good health. From there it was but a short step to using it for anyone who was in a party mood, and from that it became a euphemism for “drunk”, a meaning it had acquired by the seventeenth century. And it became fashionable to refer to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as the jolly god.

Another strand of meaning for jolly was the idea of cheerful bravery—that’s how Edmund Spenser used it in The Faerie Queene, when he wrote:

Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.

And that’s probably the sense in which it was used for the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger. (The “Roger” perhaps comes from a common nickname for the Devil at the time—Old Roger.)

Another strand relates to connotations of amorousness and lustfulness, and it’s in that sense that Shakespeare uses the word here:

Richard III Act 4, Scene 3
KING RICHARD III: Now, for I know the Breton Richmond aims
At young Elizabeth, my brother’s daughter,
And, by that knot, looks proudly o’er the crown,
To her I go, a jolly thriving wooer.

But in Shakespeare’s time all those youthful and (in the main) positive associations led to jolly becoming a sort of non-specific sound of approval, much as nice has become in the present day. And that also allowed it be used as an intensifier:

The Taming Of The Shrew Act 3, Scene 2
KATHARINA: For me, I’ll not be gone till I please myself:
‘Tis like you’ll prove a jolly surly groom,
That take it on you at the first so roundly.

Good health, bravery and lust gradually fell by the wayside during the seventeenth century, and jolly eventually settled down to its present connotation of lively good cheer with a possible side-order of inebriation. Its use as an intensifier can still be heard, but the days of Wodehousian ejaculations like, “Jolly good show, old chap!” are sadly long gone.


happy: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment

Happy was originally the adjective derived from Middle English hap, which meant “chance” or “fortune”, either good or bad. So an event was happy if it occurred by chance. But both these meanings soon shifted to concentrate on good things—hap was good fortune, and happy designated the results of good fortune.

Although hap is no longer used, it has left a list of derived words. The verb to happen originally implied “to occur by chance”. A mishap is a piece of bad luck, and someone who is hapless is luckless. Something haphazard is exposed to the hazards of chance. And a happenstance is a circumstance that happens by chance—it’s occasionally rendered as happenchance, just to make that clear. Happen-so is another word for the same thing.

We still occasionally talk about events as being happy if they are favoured by good luck—a “happy coincidence”, for instance—but we’ve largely moved on to thinking of happy as being the state of mind induced by good fortune.

For Shakespeare, though, a person was described as happy if they were blessed by good luck, even if that good luck was unlikely to be giving them much joy at the time:

Henry V Act 4, Scene 3
KING HENRY V: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The St Crispin’s Day speech is stirring stuff, but it seems unlikely that any of Henry’s listeners were “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment” at the time, especially when he got to the “sheds his blood” bit—this was grim good fortune that could only be savoured by the survivors.

Finally (wouldn’t you know it), pretty much as soon as happy became associated with a state of pleasure and contentment, it became associated with alcoholic drink—by the eighteenth century, happy had joined merry and jolly as a euphemism for drunkenness.

If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry, jolly, happy one, in the modern senses of those words; the involvement of alcohol is entirely up to you.



gangrel (noun): a vagabond, vagrant or wandering beggar; a lanky, loose-limbed person; a toddler (Scottish hillwalking: a person who wanders far among the hills)

  Only the real gangrel penetrates this remote corrie with its shivering waters and black Sgurr.

Hamish Brown, Hamish’s Mountain Walk (1978)

Brown is talking about Loch a’ Choire Mhoir, above—an out-of-the-way spot tucked around the back of Seana Bhraigh, one of Scotland’s more out-of-the-way hills. There aren’t any topographic features called sgurr (a pointed peak) in the vicinity, but Brown’s description, black sgurr, certainly fits the ridge of Creag an Duine, which looms across the loch from Coiremor bothy, where he was spending the night. Brown uses the word gangrel fourteen times in his classic book, and always with approval. In Brown’s vocabulary, a gangrel is the very model of a hill-wanderer, someone to be admired and respected—in contradistinction to its original meanings, all of which to some extent reflect the implications of the -rel suffix, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “diminutive and depreciatory”. Brown’s book, describing his continuous, self-propelled round of all Scotland’s Munros (hills over 3000ft), was hugely popular among Scottish hill-walkers. Brown was the first to complete this feat, and his book has been pretty much continuously in print ever since. There’s no doubt that Brown cemented this particular usage of the word gangrel into the minds of a generation of walkers. How did it come to acquire this new meaning? I don’t know, but there was a fashion among hill-writers of Brown’s generation (and among his predecessors) to resuscitate and repurpose Scots words—I suspect a close examination of back-issues of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal would cast a lot of light on the subject. Brown also introduced many of his readers to the word stravaig. Its original meaning is “to stroll or wander aimlessly”, but again under Brown’s care it became a positive thing—the sort of thing gangrels do. But nowadays, any hill writer who uses gangrel or stravaig is aiming for a particular effect—a sort of couthy, misty-eyed harking-back to a Golden Age of Scottish hill-walking. Use should be sparing—anyone who puts them both in the same sentence is liable to incur mockery. Both words feel as if they’re Gaelic, don’t they? But stravaig is Latin in origin, a cut-down rendering of extravagate, “to wander”, which will perhaps be the focus of another post. This time I’m going to concentrate on gangrel, which is a fine Germanic word. Gangrel comes from the Old English gangan, “to go”, which has living cousins in many Germanic languages—German eingang and Icelandic inngangur both mean “entrance”, for instance. In Scots, the Old English verb has been kept alive as gang, “to go” as in Robert Burns‘s lines from To A Mouse:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

(The second line can be rendered into standard English as “Go oft awry”.) A person who walks is a ganger. That usage is commemorated in the cognomen of Rolf the Ganger (in Old Norse, Gongu-Hrólfr), the first Viking ruler of Normandy—a man so large he couldn’t find a horse that could carry him, obliging him to walk everywhere. (Although I’ve also seen it suggested that he was simply so tall his feet hung down to the ground when mounted on one of the diminutive horses of his time, so it looked as if he was walking.) As a noun, gang has had multiple meanings in English. First, it was used to designate the act or a style of walking, or a journey; then a road or passage, or the course of a stream. Much later, it was used to indicate the amount of something that could be carried in a single journey, by a person or a pack animal—two pails of water was a gang, for instance. From that idea, it came to mean any set of things—so a pair of oars was a gang. And from that, a group of people working or going about together—a gang of workmen, a gang of thieves—which is our current understanding of the noun. The oldest meaning is preserved in gangway and gang-plank, which are things you walk along. The Edinburgh suburb of Oxgangs gets its name from an old measure of land area, the oxgang. A carucate was the amount of land that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen in a year; an eighth of that area was considered to be the contribution of a single ox—an oxgang. (An odd measure, really, since all the oxen had walked all the way around the land.) And what the Christian church now calls Rogation Days (the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day) were once called gang-days, because they were a time of processions; Rogation Week was then called Gang-week. (Rogation means “supplication”—so the focus has shifted from the processions themselves, to the prayer chanted during the processions.) As well as people, some animals go around in gangs—bison, elk and turkeys. All of these have alternative collective nouns—a herd of bison or elk, an obstinacy of bison, and a rafter of turkeys. Finally, we have gangling, which was once applied to straggling growth in plants—as if the plant were seeking to travel somewhere. By analogy, it’s now applied to people who are tall and loose-limbed, and that’s probably the derivation of the second meaning for gangrel (“a lanky, loose-limbed person”) I gave at the head of this post. With regard to -rel, that “diminutive and depreciatory” suffix, we have numerous examples. Some are of obscure origin, like mackerel, doggerel, scoundrel and kestrel. Some are obvious diminutives—a cockerel seems to have originally been the word for a small cock, and a pickerel is a young pike. A hoggerel is a young … sheep. (The word comes from hogg, a sheep that is no longer a lamb but has yet to be sheared.) And some are dismissive—a wastrel is someone who wastes; a haverel is someone who havers (talks nonsense); a bedrel is a bedridden person; a dotterel is a stupid bird (from the same root as dote and dotard); and a mongrel takes its name from a shortened form of among, indicating a mixture. Some are splendidly obscure. A custrel was the attendant of a knight—the name coming from custile, a large two-edged knife carried by such attendants. A costrel was “pilgrim’s bottle”, supplied with looped handles so it could be carried on a belt while travelling. Its name derived from the Old French costier, “a thing which is by the side”. And a stammerel is a stammerer, but not the sort you think. Stammerers and stammerels were loose stones left in the quarry after the larger rocks had been removed—as if the rocks had developed some sort of physical stammer. Finally, Scots dialect gives us gomerel and gamphrel, both of unknown origin, both indicating a simpleton. But perhaps Scottish hill writers of the future will find a way to give them a positive spin, as happened with gangrel.

Letters From Abroad: Edh and Thorn

Eth & thornIf you were transported unconscious to a foreign country and then wakened in the street, a glimpse of this plumber’s van would tell you exactly where you were—only Icelandic contains the two unusual letters that feature in that first word viðhaldsþjónusta (“maintenance services”). In fact, the Icelanders refer to their letters ð and þ as séríslenskur: “uniquely Icelandic”.

Icelandic plumber's van

The þ character is called thorn in English, and it derives from the ancient runic alphabet once used by speakers of the Germanic languages (which include the languages of Scandinavia). Below, it appears as the third letter of the Elder Futhark, the earliest known version of runic, which prevailed in northern Europe for about the first eight hundred years of the Christian Era:

Elder Futhark runes

The þ rune was associated with the dental fricative sound now symbolized by “th” in English. In fact, the name Futhark for this alphabet comes from the pronunciation of its first six letters. (Be sure to pronounce the first syllable “foo” rather than “fuh”.)

The letter’s name in proto-Germanic has been reconstructed as something like þurisaz, meaning “giant”. If you want to know how complicated it is to figure something like that out, take a look at the first few minutes of this video, by Jackson Crawford, a historical linguist:

The letter acquired its modern English name, thorn, when the Elder Futhark was modified by the Anglo-Saxons, and used to write Old English (among other languages). Elsewhere, the Elder Futhark gave way to (you guessed it) the Younger Futhark, which was used to write various Scandinavian languages.

When languages that used the thorn rune started being written in the Latin alphabet, the old runic letter was retained, but its shape shifted from the incised straight lines of runic to a more rounded version suited to pen and ink.*

Evolution of thorn character

But the Latin alphabet already had a conventional way of indicating the dental fricative sound that thorn symbolized in runic—the Romans had used the “th” digraph when they transliterated Greek words containing the letter θ (theta) into Latin. So thorn gradually faded out of use, being replaced by “th” in every language but Icelandic.

The fading of thorn in English took an odd turn, however. As Old English evolved into Middle English, generations of scribes gradually modified the thorn letter so that its upper stem shortened and then disappeared, and the bowl of the letter opened at the top. What was left looked very like a letter y. For instance, here are the opening words of the Gospel of Saint John in a fourteenth-century Wycliffe’s Bible:

"In the beginning" from Wycliffe Bible

“In the beginning …” is written as “In þe bigynyng …” But the open-topped þ is so like the subsequent y characters, that the scribe has felt obliged to indicate the y‘s by adding a dot or a line above each.

Thorn then drifted almost entirely out of use, being retained only in a few small grammatical words—for instance, “the” was written þe, and “this” and “that” were abbreviated as þs and þt. Written down, they looked very like ye, ys and yt. Here are the latter two, looking like YS and YT, appearing in the inscription on Shakespeare’s funerary monument in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon:

Shakespeare funerary monument detail

The thorn characters are rendered identically to the letter y as it appears elsewhere in the same text. So it was natural that when the word “þe” appeared in printed books, many English printers, finding no thorn character in their imported continental type-boxes, used a letter y instead.

Which is why the world is still full of shops and pubs called “Ye Olde …” something-or-other.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Photo by George Rex
Used under Creative Commons Attribute Share-Alike 2.0 Generic licence

That “ye” should be pronounced “the”, and it’s the very last gasp of the runic character thorn in English.

Although the thorn character was imported, the edh has its origins in the Latin alphabet. (It’s also spelled eth. Either way, pronounce its name with a voiced “th”, as in the first syllable of weather.) Edh first appeared in Old English, and the curved shape of its lower-case form (ð) preserves the curved shape of a lower-case d in the uncial script of Ireland. Scribes took the uncial d, and crossed its ascender, like this:

Uncial d converted to eth

Its name in Old English was ðæt, which is often rendered as that in the modern English alphabet. The Oxford English Dictionary has no record of the name edh before the nineteenth century—presumably it was coined in imitation of its sound.

And that’s the odd thing about edh and thorn—they were both used to symbolize the same dental fricative sounds in Old English. Sometimes a scribe would even shift the spelling of a word from one letter to the other, halfway through a manuscript. It’s no surprise that one eventually won out—edh disappeared from English in the fourteenth century; thorn persisted for a while in a Middle English (as described above), before surrendering its job to “th”.

The mediaeval Scandinavians borrowed the edh for their own alphabets, but gradually replaced it with “dh” or just plain d. Even Icelandic mislaid the edh for centuries—for example, it is not mentioned in the First Grammatical Treatise, a twelfth-century work on the phonology of Old Icelandic, in which thorn performs solo duty in representing the dental fricative sound. But edh was restored when the Icelandic alphabet was finalized in the nineteenth century. Edh and thorn now have complementary roles, representing the voiced and unvoiced dental fricatives, respectively. So edh is the hard “th” sound at the start of that, while thorn is the soft “th” sound at the start of, well, thorn.

Once Icelandic got the ball rolling for edh, the letter was revived in a couple of other languages, too. An alphabet for Faeroese was adopted in 1854 (it had languished unwritten for centuries), and it included the edh on mainly etymological grounds. Written Faeroese contains an edh where a dental fricative would have been sounded in Old Norse—but that sound is absent from modern Faeroese, so the edh most often signals a gliding link between two vowels. The placename Viðareiði is pronounced something like VEE-ya-rye-ih, for instance. (The fact that written Faeroese preserves some of the appearance of Old Norse, from which Icelandic also evolved, means that Icelanders can often puzzle out written Faeroese despite being unable to understand the spoken language.)

More recently, the Elfdalian language of Central Sweden (with around 2500 speakers) acquired its own alphabet in 2005—the edh does duty for the voiced dental fricative, just as in Icelandic.

And that’s it for edh—three languages, of which Icelandic is by far the most commonly spoken. It’s also used as a phonetic symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, indicating a voiced dental fricative. The unvoiced dental fricative, for which Icelandic uses the thorn character, is indicated phonetically by the Greek letter θ (theta).

So edh is not as “uniquely Icelandic” as the Icelanders might claim, but they do speak the only modern language that uses the letter thorn.

Strangely, the BBC did recently try to insert the thorn into Turkish. Michael Scott’s fascinating television series Ancient Invisible Cities visited Istanbul for Series 1 Episode 3, which was broadcast just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post. With amazing synchronicity, and to my initial alarm and subsequent amusement, some strange orthographic misadventure in the bowels of the BBC converted the family name of the Turkish art historian Ferudun Özgümüş into Özgümüþ.

Ancient Invisible Cities screenshot

* For the runic and uncial illustrations on this page, I’m using the excellent Pfeffer Mediæval font.
You might wonder if edh and thorn performed similar duties, indicating different sounds, in Old English—but that seems not to be the case. They were treated as entirely interchangeable characters, and the reader was left to work out the voiced/unvoiced distinction for themselves, just as we do today with the “th” digraph, which stands for both voiced and unvoiced sounds.

Latin Plurals: Nouns Ending In -a

TequilaFirst Latin scholar: Crispin, I have some fresh lime. Would you decline a tequila?
Second Latin scholar: Certainly. Tequil-a, tequil-am, tequil-ae, tequil-ae, tequil-ā. Tequil-ae, tequil-ās, tequil-ārum, tequil-īs, tequil-īs.

That’s a very old joke, referring to Latin first-declension feminine nouns. (My, what a laugh we used to have at the expense of those poor Classics students.)

But the joke’s relevant here because, as a follow-up to my previous post about the plurals of English nouns ending in -us, I’m going to write about English nouns ending in -a. Many of these are derived from Latin first-declension feminine nouns which (as Crispin points out) take -ae in the plural.

The first problem is deciding how to pronounce -ae. The Oxford English Dictionary favours /iː/, to rhyme with “ski”. But there’s a body of opinion, in British English at least, that favours /eɪ/, to rhyme with “say”, and even a minority view that champions /aɪ/, to rhyme with “sky”.

But however you say it, we have alga/algae, antenna/antennae, formula/formulae, lacuna/lacunae, larva/larvae, nebula/nebulae, vertebra/vertebrae. And the female equivalent of alumnus is alumna/alumnae.

As with all unusual plural forms, there’s a tendency to regularize. Here’s the Google Ngram for the two plural versions of formula:

In the nineteenth century, formulae was the more popular; now formulas is winning. In the Google corpus, antennas achieved dominance over antennae as recently as the 1980s, but nebulae is still dominant over nebulas (though perhaps because the Google corpus contains rather a lot of scientific literature). And some first-declension feminine nouns have almost never taken the Latin plural form: area/areas, arena/arenas and era/eras. (The Oxford English Dictionary gives the plural of verruca as verrucae, with a soft “c”—but that just seems like a guarantee of incomprehension from your listeners.)

Then there are the Latin-derived English nouns ending in -a that are not first-declension feminine singular, and which therefore cannot take an -ae plural ending. Opera is already a Latin plural, of the third-declension opus, “work”, so the English plural has to be regular—operas. And we have Saturnalia/Saturnalias for the same reason—Saturnalia is the plural of third-declension Saturnalis, “something pertaining to Saturn”. Candelabra is the plural of second-declension candelabrum, “candlestick”, and so becomes candelabras in the plural. Likewise, agenda is the plural of second-declension agendum, “task to be done”, and becomes agendas. (Though when committee meetings become really tedious, there is some diversion to be had from referring to a single agenda item as an agendum. Or is that just me?) Insignia is the plural of third-declension insigne, “emblem”—it’s still widely used as a plural noun in English, with insigne as its rare singular; but the singular “an insignia” is increasingly common, with an associated plural insignias. And propaganda is not a Latin noun—it derives from the Latin Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, “Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith”, a missionary wing of the Catholic Church. In current English it tends to be a mass noun, with no plural—but Google Ngram records a couple of interesting spikes in the usage of the plural propagandas:

Can it be merely a coincidence that the spikes correspond to the rise of communism and fascism?

The singular “a bacteria” (with plural bacterias) is sometimes sighted in the wild, but is still considered an error—bacteria is the plural of bacterium. The same can be said of strata, which has been making sporadic appearances as a singular noun since the eighteenth century. (The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage wearily describes it as “a Latin plural with ambitions to become an English singular”.) But despite its long history, the singular use of strata is still considered erroneous—the singular is stratum. And then there’s datum/data. Some of us still say “the data are …” but “the data is …” has been around for a century or more, and is now the dominant usage. The singular data is generally treated as a mass noun, however, so there’s no need to reach for datas.

Then there are the English nouns ending in -a that have Greek, rather than Latin, origins. These would take the Greek plural ending -ata, but that usage is fading fast, and all can be safely regularized. Stigma/stigmata is still standard in a religious context, but stigmas is more common in general use. Miasma/miasmata is likely to be interpreted as rather affected, as will dogma/dogmata. And diploma/diplomata, dilemma/dilemmata and drama/dramata have never been popular, with diplomas, dilemmas and dramas having always been the dominant usage. (Though the marvellous phrase pedagogical dramata will turn you up a few Google hits—it means “educational computer games”, apparently.) Both diorama/dioramas and phantasmagoria/phantasmagorias are Greek in origin but came to us via French—they’ve never taken the plural -ata ending in English.

A couple of Greek plurals ending in -a have been trying to edge their way into singular use—but criteria and phenomena are the plurals of criterion and phenomenon, and treating them as a singular is still considered an error.

And finally, there are all those nouns ending in -a that have come to us from other languages, which are simply too numerous to list. But we have credenza/credenzas (Italian), pavlova/pavlovas (Russian), yarmulka/yarmulkas (Yiddish), quagga/quaggas (Nama), jerboa/jerboas (Arabic), bazooka/bazookas (nonsense) and … well … tequila/tequilas (Spanish).


Latin Plurals: Nouns Ending in -us

Gary The Grammar Cactus
© 2011 Jesse Tahirali


Most Latin words in -us have plural in -i, but not all, & so zeal not according to knowledge issues in such oddities as hiati, octopi, omnibi & ignorami

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary Of Modern English Usage (1926)

Writing about the noun form of bogus recently made me think about nouns ending in -us, and how some of them have irregular plurals derived from their Latin origins: alumnus and alumni; cactus and cacti; stimulus and stimuli—and so on. What these words have in common is that they derive from Latin second declension masculine nouns.

My three examples above are still in fairly standard use, but not all English -us words that are derived from the Latin second declension customarily take -i in the plural. Here’s the Google Ngram for crocus and its two plural forms, for instance:

Pretty much everyone is saying crocuses, while croci has always languished. Other second declension nouns in the same category are callus/calluses, campus/campuses, chorus/choruses, circus/circuses, genius/geniuses and lotus/lotuses. Virus/viruses is something of a special case, since virus (“poison”) was a non-countable noun in Classical Latin (like “music” in English) so it had no plural form. And in the singular it seems to have behaved as a second declension neuter noun, for which plural forms were rare and irregular. So viri has never been an appropriate plural.*

For -us words that do take -i, there’s been a creeping trend towards regularization. Here’s the Ngram for hippopotamus and the two versions of its plural, for instance:

There has been declining discussion of the hippopotamus in the Google corpus over the last century, but we can see that the regular plural hippopotamuses started to edge out the traditional hippopotami at some time during the 1980s.

And the two plurals of nautilus fought a brief tussle in the 1960s, but nautiluses is now the clear winner:

You can still say nautili if you want to, of course. But there are some -us nouns in English that never take -i in the plural, except by mistake.

One reason for this is that not all Latin nouns ending in -us were second declension. Some were masculine fourth declension nouns, for instance, which signalled their plural form simply by lengthening the “u” in -us—the spelling remained the same. In English, nouns derived from the fourth declension take the conventional plural form. Among the commoner examples, we have: apparatuses, censuses, consensuses, foetuses, hiatuses, impetuses, linctuses, nexuses, plexuses, prospectuses, sinuses and statuses.

Then there are the occasional neuter third declension nouns ending in -us that have carried their own elaborate plurals into English: corpus/corpora, genus/genera, onus/onera, opus/opera. And should you ever need to talk about more than one Venus, (at a classical sculpture exhibition, perhaps) you should know that as a feminine third declension noun its plural is Veneres.

Octopus was adopted into Latin from Greek oktopous (“eight-footed”), and retained its Greek plural octopodes, which is also used in English. If you’re nervous of that one, octopuses is equally acceptable. Platypus, also from the Greek, might perhaps take platypodes, but standardizes instead on platypuses. Platypus was originally the formal genus name assigned to this Australian mammal, and it’s customary for all common names derived from “modern Latin” biological nomenclature to take a standard English plural—tyrannosauruses, colobuses, ficuses, acanthuses.

Another reason for a Latin-derived English noun ending in -us to avoid the -i form in the plural is if it’s not a noun at all in Latin. So we have bonus/bonuses (an adjective in Latin); ignoramus/ignoramuses (“I do not know” in Latin); omnibus/omnibuses (“for all”) and rebus/rebuses (“by things”). I’ll spare you a few other more recondite examples, but I can’t resist mentioning the marvellous pair mumpsimus and sumpsimus. Mumpsimuses are people who cling to erroneous ideas to which they’ve become accustomed; sumpsimuses are new ideas brought in to replace old errors. Both words derive from a story told by Richard Pace, the Tudor diplomat, in his book De Fructu Qui Ex Doctrina Precipitur (1517). Pace tells how a priest, illiterate in Latin, intoned “quod in ore mumpsimus” during the Mass instead of the correct “quod in ore sumpsimus” (“what we have received in the mouth”). When challenged on the matter, he declared, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.”

While sumpsimus was good Latin (“we have received”), mumpsimus was of course not Latin at all. Which brings me to my final group of English nouns ending in -us—the ones that aren’t Latin. Many are simply nonsense sounds: wampus/wampuses, rumpus/rumpuses, ruckus/ruckuses, doofus/doofuses, goofus/goofuses. The old noun bogus/boguses, designating a counterfeit coin or an illegal coin press is (as I’ve previously described in detail) probably Germanic in origin, and related to the word bogy. The source of caucus/caucuses is obscure, but it may come from an Algonquian word cau-cau-asu. Grampus/grampuses is an old name for a porpoise (or for someone who puffs and blows like a surfacing porpoise) and comes from Old French graundepose, “big fish”. Surplus/surpluses is likewise Old French (“more over”). And hocus-pocus/hocus-pocuses is probably also nonsense, though it may have originated as a parody of the phrase hoc est corpus from the Latin Mass. But the correct version is hoc est enim corpus meum (“for this is my body”), which rather strains the proposed etymology.

And then (sigh) there’s Prius. The car made by Toyota. For reasons best known to themselves, Toyota invited the general public to vote on a plural for this name—and they got what they deserved, ending up with the frankly daft Prii. Now, Toyota are a little incoherent about what Prius means—according to their website it’s “derived from the Latin prefix meaning ‘to go before’”. Actually, prius is either a Latin adverb (“before”, “sooner”), or the neuter form of the adjective prior (“first”, “previous”). The only way to wring a plural out of that is to use the plural neuter adjective, priora. Which, I think you’ll agree, is no better than Prii.

So. Repeat after me. These cars are Priuses. Priuses.

Berlin Police Priuses (not Prii)

* And virii, concocted by the hacker community as a plural specific to computer viruses, makes no sense at all, since (if anything) it would have to be the plural of the nonexistent word virius.
Let me just write that again: IT MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.



bogus (noun): a press for producing counterfeit coins; a counterfeit coin
bogus (adjective): not real, counterfeit, existing in order to deceive
bogus (adjective, 21st Century): bad, wrong, inappropriate

A coin press
Image from ClipArt ETC

 Bogus is a potentially expensive word. Back in 2008, the science writer Simon Singh wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper, entitled “Beware The Spinal Trap“, in which he described the absence of evidence for some of the claims made by chiropractors. In the article he made a specific claim about the  British Chiropractic Association:

This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

The BCA brought a libel action against Singh. The Guardian subsequently reported the findings of the preliminary hearing:

Mr Justice Eady gave a preliminary ruling on the meaning of the words used in Singh’s piece. He held that the phrase implied the association was being consciously dishonest. Singh yesterday denied he intended any such meaning, but said such an interpretation made it very difficult for him to fight his case in court as he had planned. “If we go to trial it’s almost impossible for me to defend the article, because it’s something I never meant in the first place.”

Since Singh was surprised by the ruling, it’s evident that he had not intended his use of the word to imply “existing in order to deceive”—which is the original meaning of the adjective, referring back to its connection to the production of counterfeit coins. Presumably Singh had intended one of the word’s milder modern meanings, implying wrongness or inappropriateness, but without the baggage of any deceitfulness. Whereas it was always on the cards that a High Court judge with a well-thumbed dictionary would adhere to the older meaning. And so it turned out. Eady judged that:

Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

Singh (already on the sharp end of £100,000 in legal fees) appealed the judgement, Eady’s ruling was overturned, and the BCA subsequently withdrew their libel action. The finding of the Court of Appeal is interesting, since it deliberately steers clear of defining the word “bogus”:

Ms Rogers [representing the BCA] has understandably not sought to make a major issue of the word “bogus”. In its context the word is more emphatic than assertive.

But the written ruling then goes on to use the word repeatedly in contexts that make it clear the Appeal Court judges are using it in the way Singh used it, and not the way Eady interpreted it.

Meanwhile, British Chiropractic Association vs. Singh had become something of a cause célèbre, fueling widespread debate over the potential use of libel laws to stifle free speech, particularly in matters of science. It ultimately led to a revision of the libel laws in England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013. But I do wonder if any of that would ever have happened if Singh hadn’t settled on that fateful little word bogus.

Something that is bogus has bogusness; it behaves bogusly. But the origin of the word, as applied to a counterfeit coin press, is a little obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary relays a convoluted but pleasing story concerning the word’s first appearance in print, in the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph of 6 July 1827:

Mr. Eber D. Howe, who was then editor of that paper, describes in his Autobiography (1878) the discovery of such a piece of mechanism in the hands of a gang of coiners at Painesville, in May 1827; it was a mysterious-looking object, and some one in the crowd styled it a ‘bogus’, a designation adopted in the succeeding numbers of the paper. Dr. Willard considers this to have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object; he points out that tantarabobs is given in Halliwell as a Devonshire word for the devil.

If a tantrabogus was and “ill-looking object” in the northeastern USA, that probably explains its use as a name for a horse in rural Maine during the early twentieth century. But I do feel sorry for Tantrabogus Helvey (born c.1805), who turns up on various genealogy websites. He must have been a very ugly baby.

The OED ties the Devonshire tantarabobs, the Devil, to a little group of words signifying evil spirits of one kind or another, all deriving from Middle English bugge, “ghost”, which I’ll come back to in just a second. James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs from the Fourteenth Century (1847) also lists tantara, with the meaning “a confused noise”—so tantarabobs was presumably a noisy evil spirit. The OED says that tantara (together with its more elaborate synonym, taratantara) imitates and denotes the sound of a trumpet or drum. Taratantara is also used, metaphorically, for “loud, extravagant, or pretentious talk”. To taratantarize is to sound a trumpet, or to make a sound like a trumpet.

Now, back to those evil spirits with names derived from Middle English bugge. First, there is bug, which was a goblin of sorts. (Whether or not that bug gave its name to the insect bugs seems to be a topic of debate.) A variant form was the bugbear, a creature in the form of a bear that was supposedly sent specifically to devour naughty children. It subsequently came to designate any source of imaginary dread, and then its meaning softened towards mere sources of annoyance. Bugbeardom is the collection of all imaginary fears; someone or something that behaves in an annoying manner is bugbearish. And a bugaboo is … well, a bug that goes “Boo!”—another imaginary terror.

From bug we get bog—another word for an evil spirit or a source of imaginary dread. To boggle is to jump as if you’ve just seen an evil spirit. It was originally said of skittish horses, which were describes as being bogglish. The verb then went through a series of evolutions, all now extinct: “to raise objections, to demur”; “to quibble, to equivocate”; “to hesitate”; “to bungle”. We’re now left only with its presence in the stock phrase “to boggle the mind”, which probably harks all the way back to those skittish horses, in describing a state of uncomprehending amazement.

Adding the augmentative suffix -ard gives us the name of another goblin, or source of imaginary dread—the boggard or boggart. A gloomy place, potentially haunted by boggarts, is said to be boggarty.

Adding a diminutive suffix gives us bogy or bogey—again originally an evil spirit, again now used for imaginary sources of dread. If you promote imaginary sources of dread, you exhibit bogyism; if you are much affected by imaginary sources of dread, you suffer from bogyphobia.

The Devil himself was Old Bogey or the Bogey Man, and he ruled over bogydom—Hell. He seems to have managed to work his name, in this form, into the game of golf. The OED relishes another convoluted story:

One popular song at least has left its permanent effect on the game of golf. That song is ‘The Bogey Man’. In 1890 Dr. Thos. Browne, R.N., the hon. secretary of the Great Yarmouth Club, was playing against a Major Wellman, the match being against the ‘ground score’, which was the name given to the scratch value of each hole. The system of playing against the ‘ground score’ was new to Major Wellman, and he exclaimed, thinking of the song of the moment, that his mysterious and well-nigh invincible opponent was a regular ‘bogey-man’. The name ‘caught on’ at Great Yarmouth, and to-day ‘Bogey’ is one of the most feared opponents on all the courses that acknowledge him.

So bogey was originally the par score for a hole—only later did the name attach itself to a score that is one over par.

As an object of dread, it’s no surprise that bogey also came to be a slang word for a policeman and, during the Second World War, an enemy aircraft. Quite how it came to designate a piece of dried nasal mucus is a mystery, though.

Finally, in Scotland, we have another diminutive of bogbogle. And once again a word originally associated with evil spirits has come to be associated with mere imaginary fears. And from there, to an association with scarecrows. There can be very few Scottish children who didn’t love the word tattie-bogle (“potato-bogle”, “scarecrow”) from the moment they first heard it.

Brora Scarecrow Festival 2017
Click to enlarge
A couple of tattie-bogles in the garden of the police station, during the Brora Scarecrow Festival
© 2017 The Boon Companion



septentrionate: to tend, or point, to the north

The Bigger Dipper / Plough asterism

This word septentrion and its derivatives are hardly anglicized; they are harsh, unnecessary and little used, and may well be suffered to pass into disuse.

Noah Webster, American Dictionary Of The English Language (1828)

The Septentrion is pictured above—the seven stars that make up the asterism known in the UK as the Plough and in the USA as the Big Dipper. The name is Latin, from septem triones, traditionally understood to mean “seven plough-oxen”.*  And, pleasingly enough, the Septentrion septentrionates—two of its stars, Dubhe and Merak (the rightmost pair in the image above), point to the Pole Star.

Since the Septentrion stays always in the northern sky, it became (with a lower-case “s”) a synonym for northern things—the direction, and places in that direction. Northern things are septentrionalseptentrial or septentrionic. The state of being northern is septentrionality, and if you move northwards you travel septentrionally. (Webster, having been rude enough about septentrion and septentrionate, could barely speak when it came to septentrionality and septentrionally, dismissing each as simply “A bad word“.)

In the days when map-makers used Latin, they marked the northern edge of their maps Septentrio, as in Abraham Ortelius’s Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio (“Map of the Northern Regions”), from the sixteenth century:

Abraham Ortelius's map of northern regions (c1570)
Click to enlarge

If you look around the edges of the map, you’ll see that they’re all labelled with the names of the principal directions, and I’m going to come to the others later. But first, some more northern words.

The Greeks and Romans called the cold north wind Boreas, and that gives us our word boreal—the boreal forest, the band of conifers that circles the globe in high northern latitudes, is the largest biome on the world, outside of the oceans. And of course the aurora borealis (“northern dawn”) is a quintessentially northern phenomenon. Something pertaining to the north is borean, and something pertaining to extreme north is hyperborean. (Ortelius’s map contains an Oceanus Hyperboreus, which we now know as the Greenland Sea.) And Robert E. Howard was undoubtedly playing with the Greek concept of hyperborea (“extreme northern lands”) when he invented his own Hyborean Age for the adventures of Conan the Barbarian. Finally, I can’t move on without mentioning the verb to borealize, a word reserved for the affectation of Northern English manners or pronunciation by a Southern English person. (Does that ever happen?)

At the start of this post, I described the Plough (Big Dipper) as an asterism because, strictly speaking, it is not a constellation in its own right, merely part of the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear—the three stars of its handle forming an improbable tail for the bear:

Sidney Hall's Ursa Major from Urania's Mirror

The Greeks called this constellation Arctos (“bear”), which gives us our word arctic. Someone who explores or navigates in arctic regions is an arctician, and if you have become accustomed to arctic conditions you have arcticized. And of course the part of the world opposite the Arctic is the Antarctic.

Then there’s our word “north”, which comes from a Germanic root that also gives us nordic, “pertaining to Scandinavia and its peoples”. Nordicism is the state of being nordic, and Norway was the “north way” for ancient navigators. Finally, there’s the rather splendid Canadian concept of nordicity, which  refers to “the state, degree, awareness and representation of cold territoriality in the northern hemisphere”. Nordicity is measured using a nordic index, which scores a location against ten criteria relating to environmental conditions in high northern latitudes, allowing a map to be drawn connecting places of equal nordicity using isonords. (No, really.)

Nordicity map
Source: Historica Canada

Now, moving to the side edges of Ortelius’s map, we find the Latin directions Occidens (“West”) and Oriens (“East”), which give us the English words Occident and Orient with the same meanings, as well as the adjectives occidental and oriental, and the nouns occidentalism and orientalism, denoting the culture or style of western and eastern nations, respectively. An orientalist studies oriental languages or culture; an occidentalist does the same for occidental languages and culture, but the word is much more rarely used.

A “pearl of orient” was once the term for a pearl taken from an Indian Ocean oyster, considered to have superior lustre to European pearls—so orient is a rare technical term for pearl lustre. The verb to orient originally meant to position something so that it points east—specifically Christian churches, which are traditionally built with the chancel and altar at the east end. It later took on the more general meaning of moving something (or oneself) into a specific position, or of finding one’s position—the latter giving us the name of the sport, orienteering. The verb to orient has a cousin, to orientate, with exactly the same meaning—its use is restricted almost entirely to British English.

Churches aligned conventionally to the east are said to be oriented. Those rare Christian churches which face west instead are sometimes said to be occidented, though this seems to be more of a joke than a technical term of art.

Ortelius marks the south with Latin Meridies, which means “south” but also “mid-day”, because that’s the direction in which the sun lies at noon, north of the tropics. It gives us our word meridian, which used to mean “mid-day”. By association, it was also used as a name for some things that happened at mid-day—either a rest period, if you were a hard-working monk, or a shot of whisky, if you were a nineteenth-century Scot. Nowadays it designates a north-south line of longitude—at noon, the sun lies on the same meridian of longitude as the observer.

Something that pertains to the south, or noon, or a meridian line, is meridional. Something that occurs in the morning is antemeridian; something in the afternoon is postmeridian—hence our familiar abbreviations for these time periods, a.m. and p.m. And a meridiation is a fine old word for a mid-day snooze. Both the word and the concept should enjoy greater popularity.

The Romans called the south wind Auster, which gives us our word austral, pertaining to the south. The aurora australis is the southern cousin of the aurora borealis, and Australia is a southern country. (Confusingly, Austria is an eastern country—its German name, Österreich, means “eastern realm”.) The word austrian was once used to mean “southern”, but that never took off, for obvious reasons; and austrine died a similar death. Australopithecus means “southern ape”—it was an extinct genus of hominin first discovered in South Africa.

Finally, austromancy is a the practice of divining the future by observing the winds and cloud movements. I can offer no technical advice, but the etymology suggests that the south wind was particularly important to austromancers, for some reason.

* I say “traditionally” because triones meaning “plough oxen” is apparently only ever attested by Latin authors, such as Varro, who are attempting to explaining the etymology of the word septentrio. We don’t have any examples of its use applied to real plough oxen.
If the name really does refer to oxen, one is left wondering why. One suggestion is that the rotation of the Septentrion asterism around the Pole Star reminded the Romans of the movement of oxen around the central axis of a threshing floor. But that doesn’t explain the “ploughing” reference.

Letters From Abroad: Eng

Variants of engI’ve always been fascinated by the way languages other than English use letters other than our familiar 26—not so much completely different alphabets, like Greek, Arabic or Cyrillic, but those little tweaks to the Latin alphabet, ranging from unusual diacritical marks to additional letters, that other languages use to communicate particular sounds to their readers. So this is the first of what may or may not grow into a series of posts entitled “Letters From Abroad”—and it deals with the letter ŋ, which is called (among other things) an eng.

Eng symbolizes the nasal sound most commonly indicated by the letter pair “ng” in English—technically called a velar nasal, it’s the sound we make at the end of words like sing and thing. Less obviously, it’s also the sound we usually give the letter “n” when it comes before a “k” or a “g”—as in pink or bingo. If you try to say pink or bingo with a pure “n” sound, you’ll be aware that your tongue has to do a little leap backwards between the “n” and the next sound. The “n” is an alveolar nasal sound, with the tongue tip pressed forward behind the teeth while air flows through the nose, whereas “g” and “k” are velar stops, with the tongue moving back to block the airflow against the soft palate—hence the sense of rapid tongue movement if we try to sound an “n” followed by a “k” or “g”. In normal speech we tend to let one sound slide into the next, and so when pronouncing pink and bingo normally we just keep our tongues against the soft palate and cycle smoothly from the velar nasal to the velar stop. Since ŋ is the phonetic symbol for that velar nasal sound, we can say that pink is pronounced /pɪŋk/, not /pɪnk/.

The reason we ended up with the odd letter combination “ng” to symbolize the velar nasal sound in English is because we used to pronounce the “g” at the end of words like sing. So exactly the same thing happened to the “n” when we tried to say “sin-g” as happens to the “n” in bingo. We said /sɪŋɡ/, not /sɪnɡ/. And then, after a while, when English dropped the terminal hard “g” sound, we hung on to the velar nasal pronunciation and the original spelling. *

Long ago, the Ancient Greeks noticed the velar nasal sound that occurred before their velar stops, symbolized by their letters gamma (γ) and kappa (κ). They marked the eng sound in these locations with a letter gamma, so that γγ was pronounced /ŋɡ/ and γκ, /ŋk/. Latin writers tell us that the Greeks had a special name for a letter gamma when it was performing this duty—with a simple sound transposition, they called it an agma. That word was adopted in English as a name for the velar nasal sound, but by association with the sound it symbolized, it has mutated into angma.

Eng is an old word, dating back to at least the twelfth century, when it appears in a treatise on the sounds of Old Norse, Fyrsta Málfræðiritgerðin (First Grammatical Treatise)—in that text it’s associated with the velar nasal sound, but assigned a completely different symbol, like a letter “g” with a bar through it. The etymology of eng is probably simply imitative, like other letters of the alphabet. And it seems to have had an influence on angma, which sometimes appears in a hybrid form, engma. So we have actually four words for the same sound, but eng is the word that’s nowadays most often associated with the symbol ŋ, so that’s the name I’m using here.

So much for the sound and its name. Where did the symbol ŋ come from? William Holder seems nearly to have got it into print in 1669, but his printers let him down. In the errata to his book Elements Of Speech, he wrote that:

… there was intended a Character for Ng, viz. n with a tail like that of g …

But the printers (not having such a character in their type-box) had replaced his carefully crafted manuscript symbol with a random selection of  n‘s and y‘s.

Benjamin Franklin seems to have been the first person to both usher the eng character into print and propose it as a new letter of the alphabet (rather than just a symbol for a sound), in his “Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling” which appeared in his essay collection Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces (1779).

Franklin's engAnd it has been hanging around as a potential letter of the alphabet ever since. It featured (in a slightly curlier form, emphasizing its relationship to both “n” and “g”) in James Pitman’s Initial Teaching Alphabet, which enjoyed a brief vogue in UK “progressive” schools during the 1960s, ensuring that some of my contemporaries had to learn to read twice (and that some have been unable to spell since).


So the eng never made it into the English alphabet. But it turns up elsewhere:Orongo sign with eng, Easter IslandThis sign is on Easter Island, and it’s a new one. An older sign for the same placename looks like this:Orongo sign with ng, Easter IslandThe older Rapa Nui alphabet used “ng” for the velar nasal sound, but that alphabet was a colonial inheritance, and the digraph makes little sense, particularly since the Rapa Nui language has no other use for the letter “g”. But at the turn of the millennium there was a resurgence of interest in written Rapa Nui, with textbooks and a newspaper being produced for what had previously been largely a spoken language, and the opportunity was taken to rationalize the spelling, producing a new alphabet that ditched the colonial “ng” and replaced it with an eng. In the example of Oroŋo, above, it dissuades English speakers from reading the name of the place as O-ron-go, with a hard “g”, and reminds us to say O-rong-o instead. (Although, in a hair-tearing moment on Easter Island, I overheard an English couple solemnly deciding that “ŋ” was a combination of “n” and “j”, after which they carefully repeated O-ron-jo to each other a few times, nodding sagely.)

Elsewhere, too, old orthographies are being discarded, and native speakers are replacing them with character sets that better suit their purposes. Alphabetical restrictions that are inherited, in many cases, from the keyboard of a missionary’s typewriter, are being replaced using the rich resources available from modern electronic typesetting. So the eng now appears in a slew of African languages, extending in a line from Senegal to Sudan (with a couple of outliers in Zambia). The other big eng consumers are the Sámi languages of the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. And there are a scatter of others, from Australian Aborigines to Alaskan Inuit. The Native American Lakota alphabet also uses the eng, but in a different way from the other languages. It only ever appears after a vowel, and it indicates that the preceding vowel is nasalized—so the eng is performing the same function in Lakota as the tilde accent has in Portuguese.

Finally, there’s the matter of the capital eng. It comes in two styles, which appear at the head of this post. You can either preserve the style of the lower case letter, but make it bigger, or you can add a curved tail to a conventional capital “N”. These are called the “n-form” and “N-form” respectively. Which form you get depends on the font you’re writing in—at the head of the post, Times New Roman on the left is n-form, but the same text converted to Cambria on the right is N-form.

A factoid that echoes around the Internet claims that the African languages take the n-form capital, whereas the Sámi take the N-form. But in practice, there’s not much evidence of this. Electronic publishing often means that the writer has little or no control over the typeface seen by the reader, and it’s possible to find African websites sporting the N-form, just as one can find Sámi texts using the n-form. The distinction, if it ever existed, is certainly fading.

Every now and then, though, problems occur. Sometimes the typesetter doesn’t have either the character set or the patience to hunt down an eng. So occasionally another similar character is pressed into service. Here’s another example from Easter Island, in which some despairing Rapa Nui sign-maker has pressed a Greek lower-case eta (complete with diaeresis) into use, enlarging it to match the capital letters on either side:Rapa Nui sign using an eta instead of an eng, Easter Island

* In fact, we didn’t all drop the “g”—in parts of England, notably around Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, people still say /sɪŋɡ/ rather than /sɪŋ/, a pronunciation that’s been called “velar nasal plus”.


ˈwɒs(ə)l / ˈwæs(ə)l / ˈwɒseɪl / ˈwæseɪl

wassail: a salutation spoken when presenting a cup of wine or drinking to another’s health; the wine drunk on such an occasion; the custom of drinking wine in this way on special occasions; a carousal or celebration; a song sung during such a carousal or celebration; to celebrate or to drink to someone’s health1856 Twelfth Night Wassail Bowl

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Traditional English Christmas carol

The first problem with wassail is how to pronounce it. You can say it to rhyme with “hassle”, or you can round the first vowel to make it sound like the start of “wobble”. And instead of condensing the second syllable to something like “sill”, you can say it like “sail”. All are acceptable versions.

It started life as a salutation in Old Norse, ves heill, meaning “be well”. The equivalent in Old English was wes hál, and in both languages it was something you said on meeting or departing—the equivalent of both hail and farewell. But it seems to have mutated into a specific drinking toast among the Danish settlements in England, and it is in that form it turns up in Middle English. A cup was raised or presented with the words Wæs hæil, and the toast was return by saying Drinc hæil—“drink in good health”.

From there, wassail underwent a series of transformations. The wine drunk during the toast became known as wassail, too, and it was drunk from a wassail-cup filled from a wassail-bowl. Then wassail drinking became associated with particular festivals—Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night—and wassail came to be the name of the custom of offering wassail-cups on those occasions. From there it was a short leap to calling any sort of celebratory drinking party a wassail. And finally it became associated with drinking songs, and with Christmas carols.

The first part of the word, wes in Old English, is a little piece of linguistic archaeology, reminding us that we used to have more verb forms in English than we do now. There used to be two verbs “to be” in Old English—beon and wesan. Wesan had connotations of current relevance, while beon applied to habitual states, especially if they implied a state of being that would extend into the future. They shared a common past tense (derived from wesan), but existed in separate forms in the present, subjunctive, imperative and participial. The subtle distinction in meaning between the two different verbs seems to have been patchily observed, at best, and, the various duties of “to be” were soon divvied up between the two  verbs. In modern English, wesan has won the battle for the present tense—am, are and is are all little changed from their Old English wesan equivalents (as are the past tense was and were). But beon has kept the infinitive and the participles—to be, being, been.

Going back to Old English again, the verb in wes hál is the imperative singular form of wesan, used to issue a command or instruction to a single person. We don’t use imperative forms of the verb in English any more, but we do have imperative clauses that do the same job, and they use the infinitive form of the verb: “Be well!”

The second word in the phrase that gave us wassail is hál, “healthy”. And we still use hale in that sense, in the phrase “hale and hearty”. And since wes hál was originally a greeting, we also have hail, in the sense of a greeting (“hail and farewell”), which is now more commonly associated with the act of shouting to someone to attract their attention, as with a loudhailer. Another association with greeting provides hail with yet another meaning—a cry of adulation, as in “Hail, Caesar!” The German equivalent is heil, as in the notorious Nazi salute, “Seig Heil!” meaning “Hail victory!”

Hál is also the origin of health, healthy and heal. In the 15th century there was a sudden enthusiasm for adding “w” to the start of words beginning with “h”, and that gave us wholesome, “health-giving”, and whole, with an original sense of being uninjured, and therefore healthy.

Another strand of development for this word takes us back to its Teutonic roots. While heill meant “healthy” (or “lucky”) in Old Norse, heilagr meant “holy”. The same thing happened in Old High German, in which the adjective heil, meaning “healthy”, contrasted with heilag, “holy”. And in Old English we have hál, “healthy” and halig, “holy”. The link seems to have been with the idea that something holy is inviolable or perhaps indestructible—it stays healthy (if it is a person or god) or whole (if it is an object).

The association with holiness and healthiness made these roots a popular source of children’s names—we have Helga, Olga and Ole, and an old German name Heiluid (“healthy and wide”!) which is the origin of the French Héloïse , which in turns gives us Eloise, Louise, Louis and Lois.

Old English halig of course gave us holy and hallow. In addition to being a verb, “to make holy”, hallow also used to be a noun—a hallow was a holy person or saint. All-Hallows meant “all the saints” (a common dedication for a church). All Hallows’ Day was the festival of All Saints, celebrated on the first day of November, and also called Hallowmas. The day before Hallowmas was Hallow-Eve or Hallow-e’en, which is the origin of our (generally very different) celebration of Halloween.

Halidom is a combination of holy with the suffix -dom, which designates either a state of being (boredom, freedom) or a domain of some kind (kingdom, Christendom). So a halidom is in a state of being holy—it’s a holy place or holy relic. A piece of folk etymology later stepped in to produce the variant holidame— in the belief that the word referred to a “holy dame” in the form of the Virgin Mary. Although neither version crops up much in conversation these days, it was common in the 16th century to swear using references to holy objects and personages, and the oath “By my halidom” crops up several times in the plays of Shakespeare.

JULIA: Host, will you go?
HOST: By my halidom, I was fast asleep.

Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2

And finally there are plants of  family Malvaceae that used to be called hocks, but which are now known as mallows. There are many varieties, including the Common Mallow, the Marsh Mallow, and the Hollyhock—the “holy mallow”.


To finish on a Christmas theme, I’d love to tell you that the name of the holly plant has the same derivation—but it doesn’t. It seems instead to have a long and obscure etymology stretching back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kel-, meaning “to cut or prick”.

So I’ll just wish you a good wassail, if you’re inclined to have one.


Perihelion: Part 3

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

At last, the final instalment of my series of posts about words relating to perihelion. In my first post on the subject, I discussed the various technical terms in astronomical use (and some that have simply been invented by Wikipedians). In my second post, I discussed words formed from the prefix peri-, and its opposite, apo-. This time around I’m going to talk about words relating to Greek helios, “sun”.

The element helium takes its name from helios because it was, improbably, discovered in the sun before it was known here on Earth—its presence heralded by an unidentified emission line in the spectrum of solar prominences.

A heliograph is a “sun-writer”—a system of mirrors used to send messages by reflected sunlight. If something resembles a child’s drawing of the sun—a central circle and spreading rays—it is helioid. A heliolator is a sun-worshipper, and heliotherapy is an attempt to treat disease by exposure to sunlight. An animal or plant is heliophilous if it loves sunlight; it may exhibit heliotaxis (moving towards the sun) or heliotropy (turning towards the sun). Something that exhibits heliotropy is a heliotrope—a name once given to plants like sunflowers and marigolds that turn their flowers to follow the sun, but now applied to a family of little purple flowers that were once imagined to turn in this way. (Which is why the colour heliotrope is a shade of purple, and not a cheery sunflower- or marigold-yellow.)

Heliotrope flowers

The opposite of heliophilous is heliophobic (“sun-fearing”), heliofugal (“sun-fleeing”) or apheliotropic (“moving away from the sun”); the last of which employs our old friend, previously discussed, the prefix apo-. A leaf is paraheliotropic if it turns itself edge-on to overly bright sunlight, so as to avoid burning; and a lizard is diaheliotropic if it turns its long axis transverse to the sunlight, so as to present a large surface area in order to warm quickly on a chilly morning.

I’ve written in the past about parhelia (“beside-suns”)—the patches of bright rainbow light that can appear on either side of the sun, which are also known as sun-dogs. An anthelion is a patch of back-scattered sunlight directly opposite the sun—it’s responsible for the glory that is sometimes seen surrounding aeroplane shadows, or the shadows of mountaineers. And paranthelia are a kind of sun-dog to the anthelion—patches of vague brightness caused by multiple reflections within hexagonal ice crystals either side of the antisolar point. (Although anthelion is formed from the prefix ant- combined with helion, it’s pronunciation gives it a central soft “th” sound: ænˈθiːlɪən.)

And by slipping in the word anti-solar, “opposite the sun”, I’ve made my segue to Latin—sol is the Latin word for “sun”, and solar pertains to the sun. As you’ll know if you’ve read Andy Weir’s book The Martian (or seen the film), sol is the technical term for a Martian day, which is forty minutes longer than its Earth equivalent. The actors in Ridley Scott’s film seemed to be a little uncertain about how to pronounce it—it’s sɒl, with a short vowel that rhymes with doll, not dole. The word has shaken off its Latin origins, and with them its Latin pronunciation. If something resembles the sun in its brilliance (literal or metaphorical) it is soliform; and a solarium is a place you go to enjoy the sun.

The word solstice comes from Latin solstitium, “sun standstill”—the times twice a year, when the sun stops moving towards higher latitudes and starts drifting back towards the equator. A summer solstice produces the longest day and shortest night in one hemisphere of the Earth, but it is simultaneously a winter solstice for the opposite hemisphere, bringing the longest night and shortest day. So unless the context is geographically specific, it’s better to talk about the June solstice and the December solstice. At best talk of “the” summer solstice creates potential confusion; at worst, it causes offence to folk in the southern hemisphere who are justifiably tired of “north-centric” usages.

Something you can hold between yourself and the sun, to get a little shade, is a parasol. An oriental parasol, made of bamboo and oiled paper, used to be called a kittisol, from the Portuguese and Spanish quitasol, “warding off the sun”. And the idea of warding off the sun is implicit in the English word umbrella, too—from the Italian ombrella, “little shadow”. The French at least have a name that matches function—French umbrellas are parapluies, “against the rain”.

Something that follows the sun is solisequious. That gives us the Latin equivalent of Greek heliotrope—solsequium or solsequy, old names for the marigold. French tournesol, “turn-sun”, gives us the English turnsole, an old word for both the heliotrope plant and a kind of purple dye. And Italian girasole (“turn-sun”, again) is the origin of girasol, an old name for the sunflower.

The North American sunflower Helianthus tuberosus was imported to Italy in the seventeenth century, primarily as a root vegetable. Its tubers were found to taste like artichoke, so the Italians called it girasole articiocco “sunflower artichoke”. English speakers imported the vegetable, but misheard the name. And so the girasole articiocco became the Jerusalem artichoke.

Jerusalem Artichoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers photographed by Paul Fenwick, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.