Category Archives: Words

Pints And Pounds

Is a pint a pound?

A pint’s a pound the world around.

Traditional American mnemonic

A pint of water’s a pound and a quarter.

Traditional British mnemonic

There’s something odd going on there, isn’t there? I learned that British mnemonic at primary school, and I can still vividly recall my first encounter with the American version—in a Robert Heinlein juvenile science fiction novel, Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958). His protagonist, for reasons which need not detain us here, needs to fill a room with water. So (in that elaborate Boy-Scout Heinlein way) he measures the room using a combination of his feet, a dollar bill and a quarter coin. Armed with the number of cubic feet he has to fill, he estimates the flow rate of his water-source using an empty can:

The can looked like a pint and a “pint’s a pound the world ’round” and a cubic foot of water weighs (on Earth) a little over sixty pounds.

Up to that point I had been agog, but then the ould fella lost me—I could only conclude that he was really hopeless at arithmetic.

It turns out that a pint’s not a pound the world around at all—only in the USA, and a few other countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. But that’s a few more than play in the “World Series” baseball championship (USA and Canada for that one), so I suppose we can’t complain.

This is a fundamental difference between the measurement standard in the United States (US customary units) and the United Kingdom (British Imperial units)—we have volume and weight units with the same names, but different magnitudes. And that’s what this post is about.

First, pounds. Our word pound comes from Latin libra pondo, which takes a bit of explaining. The Romans used the word libra to designate a set of balance scales (as in the name of the zodiacal constellation), but also one of the standard weight used on those scales, which we now call the “Roman pound”. Pondo is the adverb from pondus, “weight”, so libra pondo means “a pound in weight”. Unfortunately, we derived the word pound from the pondo bit, but derived the abbreviation, lb., from the libra bit.

The Roman pound weighed about 0.329 kg, and variants of that became established all across the old Roman Empire. In Britain alone there were multiple versions of the pound, used in different regions and for different purposes.

One of the more important pounds in England was the Saxon pound, equivalent to about 0.35 kg. A Saxon pound of silver was enough to make 240 silver pennies. An Anglo-Norman penny was called a sterling, perhaps from an Old English word meaning “bearing a star”, because of the star stamped on some of these coins*. So 240 silver pennies were a pound of sterlings, which is the origin of the unit of British currency, the pound sterling. (And older British readers will recall that, in pre-decimal times, there were still 240 old pennies in a pound sterling.) Like the pound weight, the pound sterling took its abbreviation from Latin libra—the £ symbol is just an ornate capital L. A reference for this important coinage weight was kept in the Tower of London, which accommodated the Royal Mint for five hundred years—and so it acquired the name tower pound.

Another pound took its name from the twice-yearly fairs held in the French city of Troyes. There seems to have been a standard weight used in Troyes to measure out precious metals and stones, and the Troyes fairs were so important for international trade that the troy pound was adopted as a standard weight in Britain, too.

One Krugerrand

The troy pound is still in use today for weighing precious metals, and it’s equivalent to about 0.373 kg. It’s divided into twelve troy ounces, and our word ounce derives from Latin uncia, “a twelfth part”. So when you read on the reverse of a South African Krugerrand coin that it contains “1OZ FINE GOLD”, that’s a troy ounce.

Apothecaries adopted the troy ounce as a standard weight for measuring drugs, subdividing it into grains, scruples and drachms, which I might write about on another occasion.

But the pound that is most familiar today, in the USA and UK, is the avoirdupois pound, of about 0.454 kg. That word avoirdupois is a corrupted version of seventeenth-century French aver de pois, “goods of weight”. It’s divided into sixteen ounces, in a departure from the etymology of “ounce”. This was used to measure all large weights, and it’s the pound that became the standard adopted by the British Weights and Measures Act of 1824, which gave the world (or at least the British Empire) British Imperial units.

The American and British pounds are identical. Unfortunately, there are problems with larger multiples. An American hundredweight is (intuitively enough) one hundred pounds. But elsewhere in the world, a hundredweight is generally equal to 112 pounds. In both systems, it takes twenty hundredweight§ to make a ton, which makes the American ton smaller than a British Imperial ton, too. So if we want to be precise, we need to talk about short hundredweights and short tons (907.185 kg) for the American version, and long hundredweights and long tons (1016.05 kg) for the Imperial version.

Now, pints. After the above discussion, you’ll be wearily unsurprised to learn that Britain also once hosted a selection of different pint measures, only one of which eventually found its way into the British Imperial system.

The volume of the pint is tied to that of the gallon—eight pints to the gallon. No-one seems to be entirely sure of the origin of either word.

Between about the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, England (and later Britain) used an ale gallon of 282 cubic inches (4.621 litres), a wine gallon of 231 cubic inches (3.785 litres), and a Winchester gallon of 268.8 cubic inches (4.405 litres). The first two are self-explanatory; the Winchester gallon was used to measure pourable dry stuff, like grain, and was originally defined as the volume occupied by eight Troy pounds of grains of wheat, taken from the middle of the ear. (The Scots and Irish had their own definitions for their own gallons, but that’s probably a diversion too far, even for me.)

The Weights and Measures Act of 1824 did away with all these gallon variants, and defined an imperial gallon as being the volume occupied by ten avoirdupois pounds of water at 62°F, which turns out to be 277.42 cubic inches (4.546 litres). Which is all fine, except you’ll note that it happened some time after the United States became an independent country.

The USA decided to base the US customary liquid gallon on the English wine gallon of 231 cubic inches, which corresponds to almost exactly eight pounds of water. With eight pints to the gallon, the ten-pound imperial gallon accounts for the British mnemonic at the head of this post, and the eight-pound US gallon accounts for the American version.

And that’s why pints and pounds (not to mention hundredweight and tons) are so confusing.

* The Anglo-Norman silver penny seems to have been considered of good quality as currency—hence the development of the adjective, sterling, to denote something of good quality—a person of “sterling character”, for instance.
Drachm is pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “dram”. As a small measure, it gave us the word dram for a small drink, though no-one would thank you for a literal dram of whisky, being an eighth of an ounce—equivalent to a couple of thimblefuls.
In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary: The best modern spelling is the 17th c. averdepois; in any case de ought to be restored for du, introduced by some ignorant ‘improver’ c 1640–1650.
§ The plural of hundredweight is hundredweight.
The grains of wheat that defined the Winchester gallon are the same grains that apothecaries used as their smallest measure of weight. The measurement system of Winchester bushels, pecks, gallons and quarts was so named because the standard reference measures were kept in the city of Winchester.
The USA also adopted the Winchester bushel as a measure for dry goods—thereby adopting two standards of volume measurement that the British government very soon legislated out of existence. But I’m sure that wasn’t because of any sort of peevishness on the part of the Brits. Almost entirely sure.



rhoticity: pertaining to a variety or dialect of English in which r is pronounced not only in pre-vocalic position but also before a consonant or word-finally

New Scientist headline, 30 December 2023

So, there’s an American professor of theology visiting England for the first time. As his train departs from London King’s Cross station, he hears an announcement over the train’s public-address system: “Good morning, this is your guard speaking.”
And he thinks he’s having a religious experience.

Old phonology joke

The image at the head of this post records how New Scientist magazine ended 2023 with a bang, by printing a typographical error in as large a font as possible, in their issue of 30 December. The word, of course, is armada, with only one r.

It’s the sort of spelling error that can tell you something about the accent of the person who committed it. In the Received Pronunciation of British English, and in many dialects of Southern British English, armada is pronounced /ɑːˈmɑːdə/, because these accents are non-rhotic—the letter r is not pronounced if it occurs at the end of a word or before a consonant (positions that are called post-vocalic). Whereas people with a rhotic accent, like most of us here in Scotland, would say /ɑːrˈmɑːdə/, sounding the r.

The vanishing r in non-rhotic accents often leaves a trace behind. Sometimes this is heard as compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Or, at the end of a word, the r can turn into a short neutral vowel (technically called a schwa, and phonetically symbolized by an inverted e). So tour, fear, tire and pour come out as /tʊə/, /fɪə/, /taɪə/ and /pɔə/. But if the last vowel is already a schwa, the r just disappears—hotter is pronounced /ˈhɒtə/, for instance.

So there are often clues from a non-rhotic accent, telling us where a vanished r should be. But not always, and that’s where the difficulty with armada arises. If you have heard it pronounced by a non-rhotic speaker, but have never seen it written down, then there could be an r after one or both of those long a’s, or no r at all. The writer of the New Scientist headline went the whole hog and stuck in two. (And we should not rush to blame Leah Crane, the author of the article, because headlines are often inflicted on writers, sight unseen, by their editors.)

Armada is a rare example of the problem. The one I most commonly encounter is peninsula, which often gains a spurious terminal r. Here is one example from the World Wildlife Fund, for instance:

REUTERS – Most of the glaciers on the Antarctic peninsular are in headlong retreat because of climate change, a leading scientist said on Thursday.

That one will elude a simple spelling checker, because peninsular is a perfectly acceptable adjective—just not the right word in this setting.

The same thing can happen in reverse—the spelling error drops an r that should be there. For example, Australian accents are generally non-rhotic, and the Nullarbor Plain in the south of the country fairly frequently turns up spelled “Nullabor”.

After all that, you’re perhaps still wondering about the relevance of the alleged joke with which I also headed the post. It’s also about the perils of non-rhoticity. The southern English train guard pronounces guard as /ɡɑːd/—which is how the American theologian pronounces God.

There are other potential problems. Non-rhotic speakers in Britain, Australia and New York (but not in South Africa or southern states of the USA) usually restore the missing /r/ sound at the end of a word if the following word starts with a vowel—because the r is now sandwiched between two vowels, which is a location in which a non-rhotic speaker will pronounce it. So while in Received Pronunciation far is pronounced /fɑː/, Far East becomes /fɑːrist/. This pronunciation is called a linking /r/. But this unconscious phonetic habit can lure such speakers into pronouncing an unwritten linking /r/. So “law and order” is pronounced is if it were “lawr and order”, “Pizza Express” becomes “Pizzer Express” and “Obama administration” becomes “Obamer administration”. And it can even happen in the middle of words, if two suitable vowels butt against each other—so we often hear “drawring” instead of “drawing”.

All that’s happening here is that there’s an unconscious phonetic pattern in operation, which is being applied consistently. But the nineteenth-century prescriptivists, who nonsensically chose to pick on people for splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, also decided that daring to utter an /r/ that wasn’t supported by an r on the printed page was a Bad Thing, and dubbed that usage the intrusive r. (Which is laughably odd, given that “correct” pronunciation, for these same prescriptivists, involves not pronouncing a whole bunch of r’s that are on the page.)

And so, anxious about being judged by their intrusive r’s (oooh, missus), some non-rhotic speakers nervously omit a linking /r/ when there actually is an r on the page. So Far East comes out as /fɑːist/, the same way it’s pronounced by non-rhotic speakers in South Africa and the southern USA.

As all those r’s in English spelling suggest, everyone who spoke English was once a rhotic speaker. Rhoticity was still weakly present in Southern British English during the seventeenth century (Shakespeare would probably have pronounced all his r’s), but it faded away during the eighteenth. And this, so the story goes, had an effect on the rhoticity of other versions of English—the USA and Canada received their first English colonies while rhoticity was still common in Britain, and so largely speak rhotic versions of English today. Whereas South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were settled by English speakers after non-rhoticity had become established in Britain, and so they now speak non-rhotic versions of English.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. The USA, in particular, had a patchy relationship with rhoticity. The eastern seaboard and Gulf coastline of the United States had continuing frequent contact with British English after non-rhoticity had become established in Britain, and so non-rhoticity became a feature of accents in those regions, while rhoticity persisted in the centre, west and north. But, after the Second World War, American sentiment turned against non-rhoticity, so that General American is now rhotic, and rhoticity is also creeping into the traditional accents of the southern USA. There are holdouts, however, in New York and Boston. (I remember being puzzled, in Boston’s Logan Airport, at being told to present my ticket at the “doughy”. I had to replay that in my head a few times before I managed to reconstruct “doorway”.)

So much for rhoticity. Time for the usual quick tour of the word’s etymological connections.

The noun rhoticity and adjective rhotic derive from Greek rho, the name of the seventeenth letter of the Greek alphabet, ρ, which was pronounced /r/.

In phonology, rhotacism is the rendering of a consonant (typically d, l, n, s, t or z) as an /r/ sound. The Liverpudlian singer Cilla Black famously demonstrated this with her much-imitated phrase, “a lorra laughs” (“a lot of laughs”). And in Scottish Gaelic, the consonant cluster cn is pronounced /kr/—so cnoc, “hill”, sounds like “crock”; and cnap, “lump”, sounds like … well, you get the idea. The process is called rhotacization, a word that can also be applied to vowels that take on a hint of an /r/ sound because they precede a letter r—a characteristic feature of American English.

Confusingly, the word rhotacism has a different meaning in speech pathology—it designates difficulty in pronouncing the /r/ sound. The specific problem, common in small children, of substituting a /w/ for an /r/, used to be called rhotacismus.* Another example in English is the r grasseyé, in which /r/ becomes /ʁ/, the uvular fricative sound that characterizes the French pronunciation of the letter r (with a sort of “about to spit” friction at the back of the throat), but which isn’t used in English.

Finally, there are two different usages in which Greek rho arrives in English usage unchanged. We’re all familiar, from Second World War films if nothing else, with those circular radar displays on which a beam sweeps around the screen (following the rotation of the radar transmitter-receiver dish), and highlights distant objects (ships, planes) as transient bright blips in the beam. Those are called rho-theta displays, from the Greek letters ρ and θ—the first designating the distance from which the radar echo is received, and the second the bearing.

And then there’s the chi-rho symbol (a superimposition of Greek letters Χ and Ρ to form ☧). These are the first two letters of Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, “Christ”, and the chi-rho has been used by Christians since the second century, as a monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. Hence its alternative name, the chrismon, from Latin Christus monogramma.

And I hope, whatever your accent, you’ve discovered something interesting about it from this little dissertation.

* Rhotacismus was the speech impediment suffered by the Elmer Fudd character in Bugs Bunny cartoons, back in the days when speech impediments were considered funny.
That odd word grasseyé is the past participle of the French verb grasseyer, which means “to pronounce an r as a uvular fricative”—that is, in the French manner. I find it oddly satisfying that the r in grasseyer is an r grasseyé.



Advent: in the ecclesiastical calendar, the season immediately preceding the festival of the Nativity, now including the four preceding Sundays

Advent calendar
Click to enlarge

Advent comes from Latin adventus, “arrival”, and the capitalized Advent refers, of course, to the arrival of the child Jesus, celebrated on Christmas Day. Because of the ecclesiastical business about Advent starting four Sundays before Christmas, the Advent season is of variable length. Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year (2023), so we have the shortest possible Advent season, beginning on Sunday, December 3. But in 2022, with Christmas Eve on a Saturday, we had the earliest start to Advent, on Sunday, November 27.

This variability is a problem for the manufacturers of commercial Advent calendars, like the one above, featuring little doors to be opened on each day of Advent. So they generally just start on December 1, making the product reusable from year to year.

When I was a child, Advent calendars just had little cardboard doors that opened to reveal Nativity-related scenes, generally working up to a crescendo for Christmas Eve. So you’d start off with a donkey or a sheep, progress through a star and a shepherd, and eventually get the big payoff of a luminous baby in a manger. Nowadays they seem to feature chocolate Disney characters instead. O tempora! O mores!

I had never encountered an Advent calendar in my short life until my primary school teacher unveiled one with great ceremony at the start of December. The star pupil of each day would be given the privilege of coming out to the front of the class to open a door. Reader, I was the star pupil on December 1. Having no clue what the whole thing was about, and having received a frankly inadequate briefing on the subject, I strode up to the calendar and opened the biggest door I could see—December 24. There was immediate outrage and condemnation from all quarters, and I ceased to be the star pupil. But I’m not bitter about it. Not at all.

The rare verb related to advent is advene, “to come (to)”, from Latin advenire, in turn from the prefix ad-, “to” and venire “to come”, and the noun advenement is an old word meaning “chance occurrence”—something that just comes to us out of the blue. Adventure started out with the same meaning, which is still present in the now little-used word peradventure, “by chance”, while adventure itself drifted off to find a new meaning. Something adventitious is an external addition, not part of the original. My favourite illustrative quotation from the OED for this word comes from An Essay On Waters (1756), by Charles Lucas:

[O]ur Thames, gliding with a much gentler motion over her stoney, flinty, gravelly or sandy bottom, preserves her purity and pellucidity, until she is tainted with an infinite variety of adventitious bodies from the streets and sewers of our capital, as well as from the scarce numerable ships and other vessels, that resort her port.

Old French dropped the d from Latin advenire and came up with avenir, “to approach”. The past participle of avenir was avenue, which modern French has turned into a noun, designating a broad road, sometimes lined with trees, along which one might approach a grand building. English borrowed the original meaning, but has since degraded the word so that avenue can now apply to pretty much any old residential street.

In addition to ad-, –vene has attracted a positive host of other prefixes in English. Some of these words have flourished, and some fallen by the wayside. To intervene is to “come between”; to contravene is to “come against”; and to convene is to “come together”, as at a convention or convent. Convenience also originally meant “a coming together”, in the sense of an agreement, but now it indicates something that is well-suited for its purpose. To supervene is literally to “come on top of”—that is, to happen immediately after something else. And to circumvene is to “come around”—a word which has mutated into circumvent.

Words that have been less successful in the lottery of usage include antevene, “come before”; prevene, “take action in anticipation of [something]”; postvene, “come after”; revene, “come again”; and obvene, which was a high-falutin’ way of saying “happen”. Provene, “proceed from”, has also fallen into disuse, but the related noun provenance is still with us. Latin subvenire gave us subvene, “come as a relief or remedy”, which never achieved any popularity. But it gave the French souvenir, “remembrance”. Adopted into English, then, a souvenir is something that brings remembrance.

Which is a convenient place to end this dissertation. If you’re given to celebrating Christmas, have a good one.


Never [before] has the Cenotaph, in its 103 years of standing sentry on Whitehall, been “defended” on Armistice Day by a Port Vale fan supping a can of Stella Artois.

Mark Townsend, The Guardian, 11 November 2023

The Cenotaph stands in central London, at the point where Whitehall becomes Parliament Street, opposite the weird neo-Tudor western entrance to Richmond House, which is visible in the background of the image above. It’s the focus for commemoration ceremonies on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

But the year 2023 has been a bit strange for the Cenotaph—first it was blown up by a thermobaric mortar-round in Sky Television’s political drama COBRA: Rebellion; then, in real life (as described in the quotation at the head of this post), it found itself being besieged by a group of people intent on “protecting” it from another a group of people who weren’t really anywhere near it and in any case had other things on their minds. The latter event (the real-life one) ultimately led to the sacking of the UK Home Secretary—a quite dramatic connection between that lager-sipping football fan and one of the Great Offices of State. It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

The word cenotaph comes from Greek kenotaphion, which in turn derives from kenos, “empty”, and taphos, “tomb”. So it’s a tomb-like structure built in remembrance of a person (or persons) whose remains are elsewhere. The Cenotaph in London is a war memorial designed by Edwin Luytens, originally dedicated in 1920 to those from Britain and the British Empire who were killed in World War One. It has a twin in Hong Kong.

Other ceno- words in English don’t share an etymology with cenotaph. The geological era called the Cenozoic comes from Greek kainos, “new”, signifying the “new life” that replaced the extinct dinosaurs. And the ghastly supernatural cenobites that appear in Clive Barker’s inadvertently comic Hellraiser films take their name from Greek koinos, “common”—the original cenobites were members of religious orders who lived in communities, in contrast to anchorites, who lived alone.

To find more words relating to kenos we need to flick through the dictionary to the letter k. The noun from kenos is kenosis, “emptying”, which was imported unchanged into the English of Christian theology. Kenosis is the theory that, in becoming human, Christ renounced his divinity—emptied himself, in other words. Kenodoxy comes from kenos and doxa, “glory”—so it’s “empty glory”, which we’d more commonly call vainglory. The Greek alternative is so rare that the Oxford English Dictionary can find its citations only in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dictionaries. And a kenotron was a particular kind of thermionic valve containing a high vacuum, back in the days before solid state electronics. So not much of an etymological haul for kenos.

Taphos has been slightly more productive in English, producing at least one other word you might recognize—epitaph, which originally signified words written on a tomb. A cepotaph is a tomb in a garden, or a garden in which the ashes of the deceased are scattered. And a bibliotaph is a person who “buries” books—by keeping them under lock and key and refusing to let others see them. Taphophobia is a pathological fear of being buried alive, which (among other things) has given us Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” (1844), William Tebb and Edward Vollum’s Premature Burial And How It May Be Prevented: With Special Reference To Trance, Catalepsy, And Other Forms Of Suspended Animation (1896) and the patented Safety Coffin. Taphophilia, marginally more cheerfully, designates an urge to visit and admire the graves of prominent people. Those who pursue this interest are taphophiles (sometimes more dismissively called “tombstone tourists”).

Finally, taphonomy is both a branch of forensic pathology, studying the decay of corpses, and a branch of palaeontology dealing with the process of fossilization.

And I hope you’ve enjoyed the scattering of linguistic fossils I’ve unearthed for you today.


Sorry emoticon

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John / Bernie Taupin (1976)

Every now and then, a journalist gets some mileage out of writing about how British people say “Sorry!” a lot in trivial settings—when we’ve found ourselves in someone’s way, when someone has misunderstood our meaning, when we’ve snaffled the last biscuit just before someone else reached for it.

I recently encountered yet another one of those pieces in the Guardian. With the aid of a stern talking-to from a German flatmate, the author describes how she has now given up “constantly apologising”:

Apparently, it would have an impact on my self-esteem. I’d believe that I was at fault for things – and that would make me feel like a general nuisance, which I wasn’t.

If she really does suffer from low self-esteem, then I really do hope that abandoning the use of a short word that functions as a lubricant in British social interactions will improve her situation—but I doubt if writing about it in the Guardian will have helped, given the negative responses in the Comments section at the end of her piece.

I think the problem here is a category error—confusing the utterance “Sorry!” with being apologetic. The writer almost identifies this confusion herself:

I would analyse my speech and ask myself: What do I really feel in this moment? Is what I’m about to say really necessary? Am I saying this because I feel I should or because I actually want to?

So it’s evident that she doesn’t feel apologetic when she says “Sorry!” but she stops short of the obvious implication that the word, in this sort of setting, isn’t an apology at all. It merely acknowledges the existence of a transient and ever-so-sightly awkward human interaction, and allows both parties to draw a line under it. It has more or less the same semantic content as “Oops!” We can tell the difference because, on those rare occasions when these interactions actually cause injury or embarrassment (we stand on someone’s foot, knock their drink out of their hand, or inadvertently kick their dog), we say more than just “Sorry!” We say a lot of words conveying our regret—in other words, we actually apologize.

The thing the Guardian writer is fretting about is simply the most worn-down and minimal usage of the word sorry, which has never, in all its history, been solely a word conveying apology.

Its career in English is about as old as English itself—the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation is to King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy. In Old English it was sáriᵹ, where that curly letter like a “3” is the insular g, which represented the voiced velar fricative sound we can hear in Spanish amigo. Sáriᵹ was the adjective formed from the noun sár, “bodily pain or suffering”, and so sáriᵹ originally conveyed a level of grief or sorrow that was so distressing it felt like bodily pain. That long “a” vowel later evolved into an “o”, so sár has given us our word sore, while sáriᵹ ended up as sorry. (That vowel evolution may have been influenced by Old English sorᵹ, the root of our word sorrow.)

Some more antique usages of sorry still retain that sense of painful grief. Shakespeare, for instance, has Macbeth look at his hands (stained with the blood of murdered King Duncan) and exclaim, “This is a sorry sight,” because he is wracked with guilty sorrow at what he has done.

But sorry could also be used to indicate a condition of wretchedness or worthlessness, and that usage persists in a few phrases, though they may sound a little affected. We can still say, “He was in a sorry state when we found him,” or “He’s a sorry excuse for a human being”, and have our meaning understood.

When we describe ourselves as being “sorry”, we nowadays mean one of two potential sources of sorrow—we’re either expressing sympathy with someone else’s situation, or stating our own sorrow about something we’ve done. The wearily anodyne phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” is an example of the first usage; “I’m sorry to interrupt” illustrates the second. In this latter category, there’s a to/for distinction that is sporadically observed by English speakers. “I’m sorry to interrupt” apologizes for something that is happening now—it’s the phrase you use in order to interrupt. Whereas “I’m sorry for interrupting” is an apology for something that has already happened—having already interrupted, you follow your interruption with an apology.

And if we choose to omit the “I’m” and just say “Sorry!”, we’re to some extent dissociating ourselves from the word, and just dropping it as a social token. Which is the idea with which I started this post.

Finally, I’d like to share a couple of obsolete usages of sorry that make surprising reference to a fairground ride. A sorry-go-round is a depressing cycle of events; whereas a merry-go-sorry is a situation that makes one happy and sad at the same time. The Oxford English Dictionary has no citations for merry-go-sorry since the start of the seventeenth century, but I’m sure we could revive it.

Abbreviation & Contraction

First US and UK editions of Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, and movie poster

We were watching the excellent Lesley Manville in the film Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (2022) the other night, and I found myself mildly irritated by the punctuation of the title. (This sort of thing happens to me—it’s a curse.)

Cover of Mrs. 'Arris Goes To Paris DVD (1992)

The film is based on a book by Paul Gallico, Mrs. ’Arris Goes To Paris (1958) which was published in the UK as Flowers For Mrs Harris. Quite why the title was changed by the British publisher, Michael Joseph, is a mystery, but they also decided they could dispense with that apostrophe in the title, intended to indicate that the eponymous Mrs Harris dropped her h’s. The first American film adaptation of the novel, in 1992, kept Gallico’s original title, and starred the magnificent trio of Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg and Omar Sharif. Unfortunately, the 2007 DVD release of that version fell victim to the “inverted apostrophe” horror so frequently perpetrated by the combination of automatic typesetting and inattentive designers—more on that in my post Quotation Marks.

So much for the apostrophe, which is a bit of a red herring as far as the topic for this post goes. If you look carefully at the “Mrs” in the American and British editions of the novel, you’ll see that the American version is “Mrs.” while the British version has no full stop (or period, as the punctuation mark is called in American English). This is a standard distinction between British and American punctuation. What very slightly irks me is that the film version has retained the American punctuation mark—whereas Mrs Ada Harris is about as quintessentially salt-of-the-earth British as it is possible to be.

Anyway. That reminded me of the difference between an abbreviation and a contraction, and how they are treated differently by British, but not American, typesetters. Both are ways of shortening words, to make a part stand for the whole—but an abbreviation, in strict usage, shortens the word by removing letters from the end; whereas a contraction removes them from the middle. So “Prof.” is an abbreviation of “Professor”, while “Dr” is a contraction of “Doctor”. In British English (as you can see in my example), the abbreviation takes a full stop, but the contraction doesn’t. In American English, they all take a period. So in British English you need to stop and think about what you’re dealing with—you can use the contraction “Revd” or the abbreviation “Rev.” to shorten the title “Reverend”, for example. And “Ms” is a special case—it is a word in itself, and not a shortened form, so takes no full stop in British English. American English adds a period anyway, by analogy with “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

Now, a quick look at the etymological connections of the two words.

Abbreviation is of course the noun from abbreviate, “to shorten”, which comes from the Latin verb abbrevio, with the same meaning. Abbrevio is in turn an intensified version of brevio, which also means “to shorten”. (The original version was actually adbrevio, but the d and b sat uneasily together on the tongue, so the pronunciation and spelling mutated with time.)

The related Latin neuter adjective is breve, “short”, from which we get our word breve, designating the accent resembling a little u, placed over vowels to indicate that they are short, thus: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ. It is also, confusingly, the British name* for a musical note so long that it’s almost never used nowadays:

Breve note

At eight beats, the breve is too long for a four-beat bar, so we generally only encounter the semibreve, four beats in duration:

Semibreve note

How did a long note end up with a name meaning “short”? Because in the old mensural notation used in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, the breve was a short note, contrasted with the longa. (Which was long, obviously.) But once old time signatures like 4/2 fell out of favour, these remarkably long notes largely disappeared.

Breve also gave the French bref, “short”, which entered English as brief. As a noun, brief applies to a short letter, giving authority of some kind to the bearer—someone who carried a brief was a breviger. A diminutive form of bref is brevet, also applied to a short letter of authority. It has particular use in the military, where it applies to a warrant that bumps an officer in rank, without assigning the full pay and privileges that go with that rank.

Lawyers have applied the word brief to a summary of the facts and legal precedents involved in a case, and this idea of “giving information and instructions” carries over into the verb to brief—to briefly inform and instruct.

The masculine and feminine version of breve is brevis, from which we get brevity. The word breviary used to mean just “short statement”, but it’s nowadays most commonly used by the Roman Catholic Church, to designate the book containing the Divine Offices—the list of prescribed readings for each day of the year. Someone who is breviloquent is given to short, concise utterances; breviature is an old synonym for abbreviation; a brevipen is a short-winged bird, whereas a brevirostrate bird has a short beak.

Finally, Old French did something odd with Latin abbrevio, converting it to abregier, from which English derived the word abridge, which has nothing to do with bridges.

Contraction comes from Latin contraho, “to bring together”, formed from the prefix con-, signifying “with”, and traho, “to drag”. The related noun, contract, similarly implies a bringing together—this time in the form of an agreement between two or more parties.

Traho, with various prefixes, has given us a whole host of English words ending in -tract. To extract is to “drag out”; to attract is to “drag to”. To abstract is to “drag away”—it can imply the extraction of relevant information from a document, a mentally absent state, or a kind of non-figurative art. There’s a related meaning in detract, but in this case the dragging away is of reputation or value. And while subtract is literally to “drag under”, it also implies the removal of part of something. To retract is to “drag back”, and to distract is to “drag apart”—pulling someone’s attention away from their work, for instance. And something protracted is “dragged forth”, as if someone is pulling the finishing time of a protracted meeting ever farther into the future.

The noun of action associated with trahere is tractionem, from which we obtain traction, the act of pulling. Something that pulls used to be called a traction engine, or just a tractor. The name tractor beam, a staple of a certain kind of science fiction story, was coined in 1931 by author E.E. “Doc” Smith, in the novel Spacehounds of IPC, which was originally serialized (in heavily edited form) in the magazine Amazing Stories, and later published as a book (1947), with Smith’s original text restored.

And I hope this post has briefly provided you with a pleasant distraction.

Cover of Spacehounds of IPC by E.E. Smith (1947)

* In American English, the breve is called a double whole note.

Alan S.C. Ross: Linguistic Class Indicators In The Present Day (1954)

Alan S.C. Ross's "Linguistic Class Indicators In Present Day English", 2007 reprint

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

George Bernard Shaw, introduction to Pygmalion (1913)

Alan Ross was Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University when he published this paper in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, the journal of the Modern Language Society of Helsinki, although The Dictionary of National Biography tells us he started writing it as “an undergraduate amusement at Oxford”. So it had simmered on his back-burner for a quarter-century or so before it finally saw the light of day. (One can imagine Ross, now academically senior and secure, deciding it would be a bit of a lark, and could now do him no harm, to place his “undergraduate amusement” in a learned journal.)

This is the paper that gave the world (or at least a select English-speaking part of it) the idea of “U” and “non-U” usage—patterns in speech and writing which (Ross suggested) distinguish the language of the English upper class from that of the aspiring middle class.

In this article I use the terms upper class (abbreviated : U), correct, proper, legitimate, appropriate (sometimes also possible) and similar expressions (including some containing the word should) to designate usages of the upper class; their antonyms (non-U, incorrect, not proper, not legitimate, etc.) to designate usages which are not upper class.

The paper would probably have fallen into obscurity had it not been read by Nancy Mitford, who referred to it in an article entitled “The English Aristocracy”, published in Encounter magazine (1955). This was sufficiently well-received that Mitford went on to edit Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956), which contained her original essay and a condensed version of Ross’s paper, together with contributions from Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, Christopher Sykes and a poem (“How To Get On In Society”) by John Betjeman.

And so Ross’s distinction between “U” and “non-U” became the 1950s version of an internet meme—it was a topic for excited and amusing conversation, to which people could make their own contributions, and which gave those in the know a sense of “in-crowd” satisfaction. This led to Ross’s original paper becoming “famous by repute but paradoxically little-known”, to quote from Clive Upton’s introductory comments, written when the paper was reprinted by Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in 2007.

So I thought I’d take a look at it.

Ross gives his reason for studying the difference between U and non-U usage as follows:

It is solely by its language that the [English] upper class is clearly marked off from the others. In times past (e. g. in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) this was not the case. But, to-day, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of this class.

He then admits that there are some minor differences in manners and interests between the upper class and the others—his list includes “an aversion to high tea” and “not playing tennis in braces”. It’s at this point one begins to suspect that Ross may not be entirely serious. This is confirmed when he goes on:

Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.

Truculence, I deduce, would be the mark of a cad. Or perhaps a bounder.

Ross presents his linguistic analysis in two sections. The first is “The Written Language”, which deals with how people address envelopes and postcards, and the forms of salutations and letter-endings. This really does little to contrast U and non-U usages—it’s merely a list of ways of doing things that are considered “correct”, easy mastery of which Ross identifies as a U domain. So, for instance:

Modes of address, particularly those used for the nobility, have always been a bugbear to the non-U. It is, for instance, non-U to speak of an earl as The Earl of P—; he should be spoken of and to as Lord P— and also so addressed at the beginning of a letter if an introduction between him and speaker/writer has been effected.

Many of these rules of etiquette in writing are still around; some are now gone, but familiar to me from my schooldays, like:

Letter-endings. The U rules for ending letters are very strict; failure to observe them usually implies non-U-ness, sometimes only youth. In general, the endings of letters are conditioned by their beginnings. Thus a beginning (Dear) Sir requires the ending Yours faithfully […]

Well, duh. Miss Macpherson, my fearsome primary-school teacher, got that one well drummed into this (very non-U) youth before I turned twelve.

The section ends with a dissection of the advice given by R.W. Chapman in Names, Designations and Appellations (1936*), published by the Society for Pure English, no less. In general, Ross thinks that Chapman’s reflections were dated, even for their time of writing. To Chapman’s discussion of the use of surnames, Ross adds an observation about U schoolchildren addressing each other by their surnames only (as in the “Jennings and Darbishire” books by Anthony Buckeridge):

It is not until a boy gets older (c. 16?) that he realises that he must deliberately ascertain his friends’ Christian names in order to be able to refer to them correctly to their parents. At Oxford in the late twenties the use of the surname in these circumstances was a known gaucherie and must therefore have been fairly usual.

I also rather relish Ross’s personal anecdote on the use of the suffix “Esq.” (“Esquire”), which in Ross’s day was a standard way of addressing a letter to a gentleman.

Knowledge of at least one initial of the recipient’s name is, of course, a prerequisite for addressing him with Esq. If the writer has not this minimum knowledge (and cannot, or is too lazy to obtain it) he will be in a quandary. In these circumstances I myself use the Greek letter θ (as θ. Smith, Esq.) but this is probably idiosyncratic.

I think it may well be, Professor Ross.

Section Two, “The Spoken Language”, begins with pronunciation. This section is a bit difficult to follow for a modern reader, because Ross’s phonetic notation predates the standard International Phonetic Alphabet. But, among other things, we learn that U-speakers say “temprilly” rather than “temporarily”; drop the letter l from “golf” and “Ralph” (“goff” and “Rafe”); and pronounce “tyre” and “tar” the same way (“taa”). “Either” pronounced with the first syllable sounding like “eye” is U; first syllable “ee” is non-U.

Ross then asks, rhetorically, if it is possible for a non-U speaker to become a U-speaker. He concludes that there is only one way:

This is to send him first to a preparatory school, then to a good boarding school. This is a method that has been approved for more than a century and, at the moment, it is almost completely effective.

Good to know.

It’s not until we get to Part 6 of Section 2 that we reach the bit for which Ross is now remembered, and around which most of the U/non-U excitement took place in the 1950s—U and non-U vocabulary and phrasing, arranged in an itemized list. So we’re told that “They’ve a lovely home” is non-U; “They’ve a very nice house” is U. Non-U people call the lowest-ranking face-card the “jack”; the U equivalent is “knave”. “Serviette” is non-U; “table-napkin” is U. And then there’s this:

Coach. ‘char-a-banc’ is non-U, doubtless because the thing itself is. Those U-speakers who are forced, by penury, to use them call them buses, thereby causing great confusion (a coach runs into the country, a bus within the town).

Finally, and to me unexpectedly, Ross addresses the issue of ephemerality—the fact that what’s U for speakers in the 1950s was not so in the 1850s or 1750s. To make his point, he quotes extensively from relevant sections of John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791). His conclusion is:

The ephemeral nature of our present system of linguistic class-indicators is very clear from the above citations from Walker. Nearly all the points mentioned by him—only one hundred and sixty years ago—are now “dead” and without class-significance, in that one of the pronunciations given is to-day no longer known in any kind of English save dialect. […] In three cases of double pronunciations, to-day’s U alternative is chosen by Walker as the non-U one.

Which is refreshing—Ross is too much of a linguist to believe “that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (to quote George Bernard Shaw again).

So this is, in essence, a glimpse of the language spoken by the English aristocracy in the mid-twentieth century, and the shibboleths they used to identify an out-group by which they undoubtedly felt somewhat threatened. And Ross is certainly an entertaining guide.

I haven’t been able to find a version of Ross’s original paper that doesn’t require either an academic institution log-in, or signing up to some document server service. You can, however, read the condensed version that appeared in Noblesse Oblige here. He went on to write a series of popular books on English usage and pronunciation: What Are U? (1969), How To Pronounce It (1970) and Don’t Say It! (1973). I haven’t read any of these, but if I get around to it, I’ll report back.

* Ross’s article misprints this date as “1946”

Four English Words Derived From Gaelic

Opening title of Whisky Galore! (1949)

Ach, he’s feeling the shortage of whisky. We’re all feeling it, Sergeant. Never mind. Good things will come again, and we’ll have whisky galore. Uisge beatha gu leòir.

Compton Mackenzie, Whisky Galore (1947)

I’ve written before about the relative dearth of Scottish Gaelic vocabulary in Scottish English. Instead, much of the difference in vocabulary between Scottish English and Standard English is because Scottish English has held on to Middle English forms that Standard English has lost.

Of the Scottish Gaelic words that are used in Scotland, many deal with landscape features, and are little changed from their original forms—bens, lochs, corries and cairns. But there are a few familiar words in English that have Gaelic origins, and I was inspired to write about some of them after rewatching the 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, based on Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel of the same title (though lacking Ealing’s exclamation mark)—because the title of book and film contains two words derived from Scottish Gaelic, as my quote from Mackenzie’s novel implies.


Whisky derives from Gaelic uisge beatha, “water of life”, which is the poetic name the Gaels give to the same drink. Plain drinking water is just uisge, and the statement “It’s raining” is rendered in Gaelic as Tha an t-uisge ann—literally, “The water is here”.

Beatha is “life”, and the Scottish king called Macbeth was MacBeatha, “son of life”. We generally associate the Gaelic prefix mac-, “son of”, with surnames, derived from original Gaelic patronymics. But this one is a given name, not a patronymic, and it implied something like “righteous man”. Since Macbeth was the son of Findlay of Moray, his full name was MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh in Modern Gaelic, or Macbethad mac Findláech in Mediæval Gaelic.

Our present English word is the final point of a period of evolution. Originally adopted from Gaelic as usquebaugh, it mutated to whiskybae, and then dropped the final syllable.

You should take care how you spell the English word. The Scottish stuff is always whisky, and the same spelling is favoured by Canadian and Japanese distillers. Whiskey, with an “e”, is distilled in Ireland and the United States. Scotch is a name that non-Scots apply to Scottish whisky. So anyone who writes “Scotch whiskey” is just looking for a slap.


As we can see in the quotation at the head of this post, galore derives from Scottish Gaelic gu leòr (Compton Mackenzie used the older spelling leòir). But it shares etymological honours with Irish Gaelic go leór, which has the same meaning. The English meaning, “in abundance”, rather overstates the sense of the original Gaelic. In Scottish Gaelic, leòr means “sufficiency”. Gu, as a preposition, means “to”, which we can see in those Gaelic road-signs that declare Fàilte gu Alba, “Welcome to Scotland”. Added to a noun, gu is used to form adverbs and adjectives. So gu leòr, literally “to sufficiency”, means “adequately” or “enough”. If a Gael wants to say that something is merely okay, they’ll say ceart gu leòr—literally “right enough”. So it’s a bit low-key compared to the glorious plenitude suggested by galore. The Faclair Beag on-line dictionary offers gu leòr mhòr as a way of saying “more than enough”, but it’s not widely attested.


Slogan comes from sluagh-ghairm. Sluagh is a group of people, or a crowd; gairm is a cry or call. Put them together, and sluagh-ghairm is literally “cry of the crowd”—a rallying cry or battle cry.

In English, this was originally adopted as slughorn. Sir George Mackenzie, in his Science of Herauldry (1680), had this to say about slughorns:

Not unlike these Motto’s are our Slughorns, which are called Cris de guerre in France. The use of them is either to serve as a Watchword to all of one Family, or are the name of the place at which a Family should meet in time of Warr: And thus the Mckenzies have for their Slughorn, Tulloch Ard, which is the place at which this Clan does meet; and the Name of Hume have for their Slughorn (or Slogan, as our Southern Shires terme it) a Hume, a Hume: For it is most ordinar to have either the Name of the Family who do meet, or the Name of the Place at which they do meet

The word slughorn was to become a source of confusion for poor old Robert Browning, who interpreted it to mean a literal horn, of the kind that could be sounded in battle. In the last stanza of his poem “Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came” (1855) he writes: “Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew.”*

From The Science of Herauldry, we can see that the condensed form, slogan, was already in use in the “Southern Shires” during the seventeenth century, but still in the sense of “battle cry”. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it was firmly established with its current meaning, “a short, memorable phrase used as shorthand for a particular idea”.


I know this word only from the expression in American English, to glom on to, meaning “to grab hold of”. Jack London provides the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for glom, in his memoir The Road (1907). He spelled it “glahm”, and used it to imply stealing:

We shook hands like long-lost brothers, and discovered that our hands were gloved. “Where’d ye glahm ’em?” I asked. “Out of an engine-cab,” he answered; “and where did you?” “They belonged to a fireman,” said I; “he was careless.”

For British readers today, glom is an American word, but it comes from the Scots verb to glaum, “to grasp at”. The word can also be used for the behaviour of a dog, gulping at food. That, in turn, comes from Scottish Gaelic glam, verb and noun, which describes the act of gobbling or devouring. So we can trace a line of descent from Scottish dogs seizing their food, to Scottish people grabbing things, to Jack London stealing a pair of gloves when he was travelling the United States as a hobo.

My favourite use of glaum is in a song written by Robert Burns, “The Battle of Sherramuir” (1790). It’s framed as an argument between two shepherds about the outcome of the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715). Burns’s Scots can be impenetrable to a modern reader, so I’ll give you a link to a version accompanied by a translation into Standard English. It’s a blood-curdling evocation of hand-to-hand combat in the eighteenth century:

I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran monie a sheugh;
My heart for fear gae sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

The “clans frae woods in tartan duds” are the supporters of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. They were arrayed against the Hanoverian forces commanded by John Campbell, Duke of Argyll. And they “grasped at kingdoms three”—seeking to overthrow George I, king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The song was originally composed to be sung to the Cameronian Rant, a piece of traditional pipe music. But by far the most stirring rendering I’ve ever heard is the abridged arrangement by Scottish folk duo The Corries, entitled “The Sherramuir Fight”. Give it a listen:

It starts quietly enough, but once the bodhrán starts up in the first chorus, and Ronnie Brown really gets his teeth into the repeating line “Hey dum a-hidder-um a hey dum dan”, I defy you not to be stirred.

* I say “poor old Robert Browning” because he already had a history of word misuse. In his verse drama Pippa Passes (1841), he’d used the word “twat” in a context that suggests he thought it was part of a nun’s attire.



fulsome: offensive to good taste, by reason of being done to excess

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

A news organization has an obligation—and it is an obligation—to report news fulsomely, wholesomely and without fear or favor. That’s what Fox News has always done and that’s what Fox News will always do.

Lachlan Murdoch quoted in The Guardian (13 March 2023)

It’s probably safe to assume that Lachlan Murdoch did not intend to suggest that his own news channel is offensive to good taste. And, in the time it’s taken me to get around to writing this post, I notice that the Guardian has come to a similar conclusion and added a little warning “[sic]” after the word I’ve highlighted in red, above. Which is a journalist’s way of saying, “This is what he said, but maybe not what he meant.” (It’s also not clear to me how a news broadcast can be “wholesome”, but I’ll come back to that later.)

Murdoch, like many people, was probably using fulsome as if it were a rather recherché synonym for “fully”. That usage has become so common it has turned fulsome into what Bryan Garner calls a “skunked word”—one you can’t use without generating misunderstanding and/or condemnation.

The interesting thing about fulsome is that it started out with the meaning that it’s now drifting back to. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest citations (from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century) offer the splendidly wordy definition, “Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full.” But it quickly began to acquire negative connotations—overgrown plants, unhealthily obese people, offensively strong smells, excessive amounts of food … these were all labelled fulsome. And by the seventeenth century, the word had completely parted company with ideas of abundance and plenitude, and had set up camp dealing with offensive excess.

Fulsome is formed from the adjective full and the suffix -some, which was used in Old English to form adjectives from nouns, and to make new adjectives from other adjectives. Full was (and is) a fairly concrete adjective, describing water-jugs and stomachs; whereas fulsome (in its original sense) could be applied to fertile fields or plentiful water supplies.

Full has an associated verb, fill, and a noun, also fill. This latter is familiar from the phrase to eat (or drink) one’s fill, but it also applies to the stuff archæologists dig out of old pits and ditches while investigating their contents, and the stuff road-builders put in to gullies and hollows, to create a level surface for their roadbed.

And then there’s the adjectival suffix -ful, which means something between “full of” and “characterized by”. So we have manful, masterful, beautiful and graceful, for example. Grateful is a remnant of the old adjective grate, “pleasing”, and bashful of the verb bash, “to daunt”. And more recently -ful started helping to form nouns, too. What was originally a hand-full (of something) became a handful, and likewise a spoonful and cupful, among others.

Finally, there’s fulfil (or fulfill in American English). The OED gives its original meaning succinctly: “To fill to the full”. This meaning shifted to imply the act of providing the full amount requested or desired, and then to the act of bringing something to completion—in that sense, you can fulfil a prophecy, your own destiny, or (more prosaically) a contract. And in a more dilute form, you can fulfil something simply by complying with a set of rules—the entry requirements of a university, or the conditions of a visa application, for instance. The noun formed from fulfil, fulfilment, can be used in the same specific contexts as fulfil, but has taken on something of a life of its own as a slightly woolly contributor to mental health—we’re encouraged to seek “personal fulfilment”, which seems to mean getting stuff done that you want to get done. Can’t argue with that.

On, then, to the suffix -some. This started work back in Old English, was productive in Middle English, and has been churning out a supply of new words ever since. The newer words, like quarrelsome and fearsome, tend to have fairly transparent etymologies, because their root words have retained their meanings. (Another word in this category was awesome, until people started using it to mean little more than “satisfactory”.)

Scottish English invented a whole list of numerical -some words that drifted into wider usage—the OED has citations for everything from twosome to tensome, but maybe foursome golf and eightsome reels are the most common examples nowadays.

But many older words have drifted away from their original meanings—which brings me to Lachlan Murdoch’s use of wholesome. This started off in Old English with the meaning “conducive to health”, derived from an old meaning of whole, “fit and well”, which eventually mutated into hale, as in the phrase “hale and hearty”. Wholesome shifted its meaning from “health-giving” to “healthy”, and then became a judgement not just of physical but of moral well-being. The next development occurred at the end of the twentieth century, pretty much unnoticed in the UK. But in American English as spoken by certain parts of US society, it came to mean “sexually chaste”. From there it got stirred into a general pot of “family values”, and emerged in the 2010s (presumably somewhat shell-shocked) as a signifier for all things cosy and nice. To quote from Constance Grady’s Vox article on the topic:

Wholesomeness as we’re using it now means friends supporting friends. It means valuing kindness. It means not judging simple pleasures.

Are you any nearer to understanding what Lachlan Murdoch means when he says he wants the news to be reported “wholesomely”? Nope, me neither. I’d have given him another “[sic]” for that one, but that’s possibly just me.

Winsome is the only commonly used survivor from Old English. It derives from an old noun win, meaning “joy”. So something winsome was joy-giving. Only later did the meaning narrow down to designate young women of pleasing appearance, character and manner.

Handsome originally meant “easily handled”, then mutated into “able to handle things easily”, then “skilful”, then “courteous”, before finally arriving at its current meaning, “of pleasing appearance”.

By way of contrast, noisome hasn’t changed its meaning much, but we’ve forgotten its derivation, making it harder to deduce that meaning. It comes from the old verb noy, “to trouble or injure” (the origin of our modern word annoy). So noisome things are harmful or repellent.

Then there’s buxom, a word rarely far from the company of wench or maid. It implies brimming good health and a sort of jolly comfortableness of figure and manner, but perhaps not one to use unless you’re writing a rather formulaic historical novel. It originated as bowsome, “readily bent”, then shifted through “indulgent” to “gracious”, to “good-tempered” to its current (albeit justifiably waning) usage.

I’ll leave you with a couple of -some words that are dear to my heart. A reviewer once described my book The Complete Lachlan (2013) as “chortlesome indeed”. By the standards of -some words, that’s a fairly recent coining, given that the word chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass (1872):

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

In contrast, the word toothsome, once used by an on-line commentator to describe my post about the -ise/-ize suffix, is really rather old—it has been used to mean “tasty” since the sixteenth century. It originates in an old usage of the word tooth, referring to the sense of taste—the phrase to love the tooth was once a way of saying “to be fond of eating”; and a having a sweet tooth meant that you were fond of sweet tastes, not (as I assumed when a child), having teeth rotted by too much confectionary.

And I hope you’ve found something toothsome about this post, too.


ˈpædʒəntrɪ / ˈpeɪdʒəntrɪ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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