Category Archives: Words

More About “Anti-Agathic”

Artwork for Charles L. Harness's short story "Fruits Of The Agathon" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec. 1948)

From beneath the bushy V of satanic eyebrows, Rachs’ jet eyes seemed to shower sparks at him. As usual, that immobile face was incandescent, and Toring fancied he could almost hear the creaking of a carbon-arc in the brain of his superior. The Hungarian’s incredible energies frightened, rather than soothed patrons, and for years he had worked solely in the advancement of extra-sensory mechanics.
“Toring,” he clipped. “I want you to kill a man.”
[Toring] swallowed rapidly, and he was conscious of a dark silence in the room.
“I take it that the Council has finally approved your agathon program?” he asked the eyes.

Charles L. Harness, “Fruits Of The Agathon” (1948)

Browsing through the bibliography of Charles L. Harness the other day (as you do), my eye was drawn to a very early short story entitled “Fruits Of The Agathon” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948). It was, in fact, only his second piece of published fiction after “Time Trap” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1948). Courtesy of the Luminist Archives, my links will take you to copies of the two magazines in which these stories appeared. Unlike “Time Trap”, which has appeared in numerous collections over the years, “Fruits Of The Agathon” fell into obscurity fairly rapidly, and perhaps deservedly—it’s a complicated little story, chaotically full of ideas, which seems to start off in one direction, then changes course several times.

Harness was underrated throughout much of his lifetime. He specialized (as “Fruits Of The Agathon” demonstrated to excess) in idea-stuffed narratives of the kind James Blish called “intensively recomplicated”, featuring the sort of sprawling plots Brian Aldiss called “widescreen baroque”. Some day I’ll write about his first novel, The Paradox Men (1953), which features time travel, sword fights, colonies on the Sun, and a protagonist with a variety of talents indistinguishable from superpowers.

“Fruits Of The Agathon” features a device that can predict the date of someone’s death, but not the circumstances. The satanic Rachs, in my opening quote, wishes to exploit this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, by ensuring that the deaths of certain prominent citizens occur “under the circumstances considered most beneficial to the world”. That is, a carefully planned murder is carried out, rather than leaving death to potentially embarrassing chance. This “death plan” is called the agathon, and Harness helpfully opens his story with the etymology of his coined word, using one of those fake “Encyclopedia Exposita” entries with which science fiction writers often contrive a data-dump.

AGATHON: (From Greek, agathos, good, and thanatos, death.)

I won’t trouble you with the rest of the plot, which includes Freudian psychology, a mutually murderous family, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and a set of artificial eyes which overheat after prolonged us.

The interesting thing about Harness’s agathon (for me, at least), is it predates James Blish’s use of the word anti-agathic, for a drug that prevents death, which first appeared in his story “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954). Blish’s coining went on to become a science-fiction staple but (as I described in my original post on the topic) its etymology has always been a mystery, since agathic seems to lack a root relating to death. Instead, as Harness points out, the Greek agathos means “good”.

But Harness’s agathon pretty much elides the thanatos from which he claims it derives, so in his story we’re left with an agath- word that refers to death. Is it possible, then, that this is the origin of Blish’s idea that an anti-agathic would combat death?

It’s an appealing story, but there’s a sizeable fly in the ointment. As I pointed out in my original post, it took a while for Blish to settle on anti-agathic for his anti-death drugs. In his story “Bindlestiff” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950), he uses anti-agapic. The same word appears in “Sargasso Of Lost Cities” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Spring 1953). In “Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953) it’s anti-athapic. Neither of these has any evident etymological connection to death. He only settled on anti-agathic in 1954, and later revised the text of his earlier stories to reflect that choice, when they were collected into the four novels of the Cities In Flight series.

So if we’re to invoke Harness as the origin of Blish’s usage of anti-agathic, we need a fairly convoluted scenario. Why would Blish have used a couple of similar words before eventually coming up with anti-agathic? Did he misremember Harness’s word, and only finally check back in 1954? But if so, why wouldn’t he have noticed Harness’s opening etymology of agathon (it’s right there on the title page of the story)? If he had noticed, he could readily have made the switch to the etymologically defensible anti-thanatic.

So. I’d love to claim that I’ve tracked down the origin of Blish’s word, but I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. I suspect we’ll never know where anti-agathic really came from.



Festivity: Rejoicing, mirth, gaiety, such as befits a feast

Christmas Eve, by George Cruikshank
Click to enlarge
Christmas Eve as illustrated by George Cruikshank

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas.

Charles Dickens, “Christmas Festivities”, Bell’s Life in London (1835)

Dickens would have considered The Oikofuge a misanthrope indeed, and would not be the first to do so, but the title of his short story (later collected as “A Christmas Dinner”) gives me the hook for this year’s Christmas word.

A festivity is an occasion on which one is festive, the original meaning of which is “pertaining to a feast”. Nowadays, though, festive has come to have connotations of joy and mirth and gladness. And the current Festive Season has links to both feasting and (as Dickens pointed out) “jovial feelings” of various kinds. A festival was originally a time for feasting, usually tied to the ecclesiastical calendar of feast days, but now has broader connections to themed celebrations, in the form of book festivals, music festivals, and so on. Things pertaining to festivals are festal; and if you write a treatise concerning ecclesiastical festivals, you have written a festilogy.

All these words come from Latin festum, “feast day”. So also, by a more circuitous route, does festoon, originally the name for a garland of flowers hanging in a curve between two points of support. Nowadays, we can refer to anything hanging in that sort of curve as a festoon. The word comes from Italian festone, which is thought to derive from festum—festoons were apparently considered to be appropriate feast-day decorations. The French turned festum into fête, a word we borrowed directly into English, originally as another word for festival, but now rather downgraded to designate mild-mannered charity bazaars. We also stole fest from the Germans, embedded in the word festschrift (“festival writing”), which refers to a collection of writings in honour of a scholar or author. And of course the idea of an Oktoberfest beer festival is no longer confined to Munich, these days.

Latin festum is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as dhes, which seems to have been used in relation to religious concepts like gods and sacred places—and its various descendants in English tend to be connected to religion, in one way or another, as we’ll see. Dhes also found its way into Archaic Latin as fesiae, which was transformed into Classical Latin feriae, “religious holiday”, from which we derive our noun fair, which originally referred to mass gatherings of buyers and sellers during religious festivals, but now is also used to designate other gatherings with a holiday atmosphere, such as a fun fair*. Latin feriae also came into English as feria, an ecclesiastical term for a day of the week that isn’t Sunday. A greater feria is such a day of the week that has some special religious significance, like Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

A suffixed form of dhes reconstructed as dhesnom also ended up in Latin as fanum, “temple”. This gives us a largely disused English word for a temple, fane, which generally only turns up in wilfully archaic writings nowadays. Something profane is literally “outside the temple”. And our word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus, “belonging to a temple”. Make of that what you will.

In Classical Greek, dhes gave rise to theos, “divine being”, which has been a fruitful source of god-words in English, from atheism (“no god”) to pantheism (“god everywhere”) via monotheism and polytheism. Sitting between mono- (one god) and poly- (lots of gods) is the rather rarely encountered henotheism, which is a belief that only one god is relevant to one’s own tribe, while accepting that other people may have other gods. A pantheon is a temple dedicated to all gods. An apotheosis is a promotion to godhood, though its meaning has worn smooth enough over the years that achieving A-list celebrity status also counts. An entheogen is a drug that creates a sensation of divine inspiration. (The term was coined in 1979 as a way of emphasizing the spiritual nature of the experience induced, while dodging the negative connotations acquired by hallucinogen and psychedelic.) Enthusiasm was original a state of divine inspiration—another word with a meaning that has worn down over time. And the cacao tree, from which we derive chocolate, belongs to the genus Theobroma (“food of the gods”).

A theophany is a “god manifestation”. This is the name the Eastern Christian calendar applies to the feast day known as Epiphany in the West, which falls on January 6th, marking the traditional date of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Male children born on that date were sometimes named Theophanes, while female children were given the name Theophania—the origin of the English girl’s name, Tiffany. And the names Dorothy and Theodore both come from theos, “god”, coupled with doron, “gift”, albeit with the male order reversing the female.

There are many more theos words, and I’ve merely cantered through the ones I find interesting, in the hope you’ll feel the same way. But to end this festive post, I’ll loop back to Latin festum, and mention the “non-commercial secular holiday” Festivus. In Latin, festivus is an adjective, meaning “pertaining to feasts”, but that seems not to have been in the mind of Daniel O’Keefe when the name for an idiosyncratic family celebration “just popped into his head” in 1966. Originally a rather protean affair, the concept leaked into consensus reality when O’Keefe’s son, Dan, ended up as a writer for the television series Seinfeld. “Festivus for the rest of us” featured in a 1997 episode entitled “The Strike”, in which the date was nailed down to December 23rd, and the various components of the celebration (including the “Airing of Grievances”) were laid out.

I’m making this post on December 22nd, so you may well become aware of it in time to construct your own Festivus Pole, and to admire its simplicity, lack of decoration, and philosophical opposition to all that a Dickensian Christmas stands for. Have a good one, or at least have one as good as circumstances permit.

* The Oikofuge’s misanthropy, previously established, means that that phrase fun fair came very close to featuring scare quotes on the fun. But hey, it’s Christmas …

Begging The Question

Although not much encountered these days, the original meaning of the phrase “to beg the question” refers to a piece of faulty logic, which H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary Of Modern English Usage (1926) defines as:

The fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself

Fowler offered two examples that could have fallen straight out of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories of P.G. Wodehouse:

That foxhunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun, & that one must keep servants, since all respectable people do so

These have the (very slight) kudos of attempting to justify one claim by at least offering a different unsubstantiated claim in its support. But we can also (with tedious frequency) encounter examples that are just a closed loop, in which the speaker attempts to justify a claim by referring to the same claim dressed up in different language. Here’s one concocted by Madsen Pirie for his splendid guide, The Book Of The Fallacy (1985):

Justice requires higher wages because it is right that people should earn more

So that’s the earliest usage of “to beg the question”, going back to the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But (as I imagine you’ll agree) the phrase itself seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the concept it describes. Little wonder, then, that people have taken the stock phrase, puzzled over it, and given it new meanings.

The most common current usage is as a synonym for “to prompt the question”:

If this law is not enforced, it begs the question, “What’s the point of making it a law in the first place?”

The other (in my experience much rarer) usage is synonymous with “to dodge the question”. That’s how Howard Jacobson used it in his novel Redback (1987):

However, our tearful fight […] had nothing at all to do with politics. I’d say it had to do with women, except that’s not true either. Let’s settle for its having something to do with love, and beg the question of just who was in love with whom.

But pretty much no-one uses it to refer to a logical fallacy, except in discussions of logical fallacies, or in rants about how no-one speaks English properly any more.

So how did a fairly straightforward example of woolly thinking (or deliberate deception) acquire such an opaque label? It was probably an ill-considered translation of an equally opaque Latin tag.

The name of this logical fallacy in Latin is petitio principii. Now, in my compact Latin dictionary, petitio has meanings involving attacking or pleading—it’s the origin of our word petition. And principii is the genitive case of principium, which means things like “foremost”, “origin” and “beginning”. Principium is related to our words prince and principle. In the plural it is principia, which features in the Latin title of one of the most famous scientific works of all time, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), often referred to in familiar terms as just “The Principia”. So that would make petitio principii translate as “petition of the beginning”, which isn’t any clearer than “to beg the question”, really.

But petitio acquired a new meaning in post-Classical Latin—beyond the scope and remit of my little dictionary, but available in the Dictionary Of Medieval Latin From British Sources. When mediaeval scholars were discussing mathematics in Latin (as they were wont to do), they used petitio to mean “postulate”. In mathematical terms, postulates are the assumptions on which all further reasoning is based—Euclid built the whole of his understanding of geometry systematically from just five famous postulates. And I can’t offer a better definition of “postulate” than the one given by Sir Henry Billingsley in 1570, in the first English-language translation of Euclid’s mathematical textbook, the Elements.

[…] certain general sentences, so plain, and so perspicuous, that they are perceived to be true as soon as they are uttered

For instance, Euclid’s First Postulate is just:

A straight line can be drawn joining any two points

Back to petitio. The late-Latin meaning, involving a fundamental assumption on which further reasoning is based, was so solidly adopted that Billingsley happily used the word “petition” instead of “postulate” in his translation of Euclid—the definition I offered above is actually his definition of the word “petition”, as he is using it.

So now we’re making progress. Petitio principii, in post-Classical Latin, meant “assumption of the beginning”. While it is okay (and indeed absolutely necessary) to make some initial assumptions in mathematics, cogent arguments in the real world need to be founded on observations made in the real world. So the Latin phrase petitio principii is saying, “Oops, this argument is based on nothing more than an assumption at the beginning!”

But how did that end up as “to beg the question” in English? It seems that the mathematical and scientific usage of petitio was lost in translation at some point, and people went back to the Classical Latin meanings relating to pleading—hence, “to beg”. And the “question” bit comes from an unusual usage of the word, only tangentially related to queries, but still with us in various stock phrases. In its long entry on “question”, the OED offers the following definition:

A subject for discussion, a proposal to be debated or voted on […]

We use this meaning when we say, “That’s completely out of the question!” And the bit at the start of an argument, which leads to subsequent discussion, is “the matter in question“.

So petitio became “to beg” because of a confusion between Classical Latin and specialist post-Classical Latin usages; and principii became “the question” as a reference to the fundamental matter which leads to the subsequent discussion.

One can hardly blame people for forgetting the original meaning and coming up with new ones.

(Be the first)



stravaig: (verb) to wander aimlessly; (noun) an instance of such wandering

Striking For The Back Country (Kemble, 1885)
Huckleberry Finn” illustration by E.W. Kemble (1885)

Not all who wander are lost

J.R.R. TolkienThe Riddle Of Strider” (1954)

This Scots word has been on my “to do” list for a while, linking back as it does to my recent post about useful Scottish words, and farther back to my discussion of the transformed usage of the word gangrel in Scottish hill-walking circles.

Like gangrel, the use of stravaig, as a noun or verb, has become a little distorted among hill-walkers—the defining aimlessness of the original usage seems to have faded into the background, and it’s often used now to indicate long-distance, multi-day or particularly energetic walks. But here at The Oikofuge I’m constitutionally disposed to adhere to the original meaning. Long-time readers of my various Sidlaws adventures will appreciate that they are stravaigs in the true sense, undertaken with little objective in mind except getting home in one piece and in time for tea. Someone who wanders in this way is a stravaiger.

For all its appearance of coming from the Gaelic, the word is actually Latin in origin—an aphetic and apocopic trimming of the word extravagate, “to wander at large”, which is formed from the Latin prefix extra- “outside” and the verb vagari, “to wander”.

To call something extravagant originally indicated that it was wandering beyond normal bounds. Only in the eighteenth century did the word transform into an adjective for things that were overly expensive or wasteful. Shakespeare used it in its original sense when he had Horatio say:

Awake the god of day, and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th’ extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine

Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 1

By which he meant: “The rising sun drives wandering ghosts back into hiding.” (And notice that Shakespeare was using erring in its old sense of “wandering”, too—a usage we’d now replace with errant.)

On a related note, the Italians used estravaganza to designate things that had strayed outside the normal—oddity or eccentricity, in other words. English adopted the word to describe musical or literary works that were bombastically over-the-top in composition—but we revised the prefix to a more familiar form, creating the word extravaganza.

The prefix extra- is responsible for a large number of English words, all indicating a state of being outside something—so for instance we have extramural (“outside walls”), extracurricular (“outside the set work”), extraordinary (“outside the ordinary”) and any number of medical words describing anatomical relationships. Extraordinary originally meant “beyond the usual quantity”. It became contracted to extra, which retains that original meaning, while extraordinary evolved to its current meaning, designating something remarkable, aberrant or strange.

Latin vagari is at the root of a range of English words, some common, some disused and some obscure. If you are vagant, you are wandering, and an instance of such wandering is vagation (disappointingly unrelated to vacation). The corresponding verb is to vagitate. To divagate is to wander from one place to another, to pervagate is to wander through, and evagation is the act of wandering off. A vagary was originally a sort of roaming tour, but it came to be used metaphorically for rambling speech or writing, from which it evolved to take on its current meaning, designating eccentric conduct or strange tricks of fate.

Our word astray comes from Old French estraier, “to wander”, a heavily condensed descendant of Latin extravagari. Shortened further in English, it turned into stray. A stray animal is legally designated an estray.

With the suffix -bundus, the verb vagari forms the adjective vagabundus, “wandering about”, from which we derive our word vagabond. But, despite appearances, vagrant proves to be unrelated—it came into English from Old French wacrant, which in turn derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root as our word walk.

A shorter adjective related to vagari was vagus, “wandering”. It gives us the name of the vagus nerve, which wanders widely on its course through the body, and our word vague, for things that are poorly defined.

Finally, I offer a little crop of -vagant words that deserved to be resuscitated from their current obscurity. Someone or something that roams at night is noctivagant; something floating around in the sea is fluctivagant; someone who wanders alone is solivagant. And, coming back to topics dear to the Oikofuge’s heart, someone who roams the mountains is montivagant and someone who roams the world is mundivagant.

Five Useful Scottish Words

Scotland is a picturesque country where the people are friendly yet completely incomprehensible.

Adam Schlesinger

Setting aside Scots accents, which most people manage to tune into after fairly short exposure, it’s the vocabulary of Scottish English which is the main source of incomprehension for visitors. Some Scots words are easily translated: to swither is to vacillate, for instance, and a spaiver is a trouser fly. But some seem to serve functions that have no exact synonyms in standard English, and I thought I’d offer a brief selection of those here.



Dreich: (of experiences) protracted, hard to bear, depressing; (of weather) damp, overcast, unpleasant.

The original meaning of this word involved duration and tedium—journeys could be dreich, tasks could be dreich, sermons could be dreich. But the soul-sapping original meaning has now become inextricably linked to that most characteristic of Scottish weather—low cloud weeping gentle rain on a chilly day. So iconic has the word become for native Scots that it keeps being voted “Scots Word of the Year” in various polls.

Like many Scots words, it derives from older English vocabulary rather than (as one might guess) Gaelic. It is related to Old English dréoᵹan, “to work”, from which we get the word drudge. Dréoᵹan also gave us dree, “to do duty, to suffer”, which is now pretty much obsolete, but I do still take every opportunity to use the splendid expression to dree (one’s) weird, which means “to submit to (one’s) fate”.


ˈθrɑːn; ˈθrɔːn

Thrawn: perverse, obstinate, intractable, sullen

Thrawn is a personality type, rather than a temporary state of mind, though one may become increasingly thrawn with age (I know I have). And those who are thrawn may develop a particular set to their facial features, making them thrawn-faced or thrawn-gabbit (“thrawn-mouthed”).

Again, the word has English origins—it’s no more than a dialectic version of the word thrown. This originally meant “turned” or “twisted”, and the last relic of that old meaning in standard English is in the idea that we “throw” a pot if we mould its clay on a rotating potter’s wheel. But the Scots word has stayed close to the original meaning, implying that thrawn people have a twisted attitude to life.



Slaister: to move around or work messily in water or mud

You can slaister because you’re clumsy, or because you have no other choice. In Scottish hillwalking circles, the occasional need to slaister your way out of a peat bog is almost inevitable. By association, someone who is a particularly messy eater can also be said to slaister.

As a noun, a slaister is an instance of slaistering—the crossing of a peat bog can be described as a slaister, for instance, and the bog itself is said to be slaistery. You can also make a slaister of a job if you make a complete mess of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the origin of the word as “obscure”, but I can’t help hearing a certain onomatopoeia to it.



Shoogle: to rock, oscillate slightly, or shift unsteadily

When I was first asked by a non-Scot to explain the word shoogle, I said that it meant “to shake”, but was quickly corrected by a friend who pointed out that there’s no such thing as “Shoogled Baby Syndrome”. Indeed, babies tend to enjoy being shoogled.

The key features of shoogling are a small applied force and a slight resultant movement. A baby dandled on the knee is being shoogled; a table that rocks on an uneven floor is shoogling; a child’s baby teeth will shoogle before they fall out. Something that is unstable enough to shoogle is said to be shoogly. Which gives rise to the lovely metaphorical usage “on a shoogly peg” or “on a shoogly nail” for anything that is insecure. “Your jacket’s on a shoogly peg” is a blunt way of advising someone that their employment may soon be terminated.

The word comes from Middle English shog, “to shake”, which is probably also related to the modern English words jog and shock.



Coorie: to stoop or crouch; to nestle

The verb to coorie is a diminutive form of coor, which is a Scots dialectic form of standard English cower. So it originally indicated a small act of cowering—stooping or crouching for protection, perhaps to get out of the wind or to conceal oneself. This association with seeking comfort then led to a usage which emphasizes warmth and safety, most commonly in combination with the word doon (“down”). As a child on a cold night I was often encouraged to “coorie doon” with my hot-water bottle among the warm bedclothes.

And building on that idea, Coorie has recently turned into a proper noun and an honest-to-God lifestyle trend. It has been dressed up as a translation of Gaelic còsagach (“snug, warm, cosy, sheltered”), which it never really was, and offered as the Scottish alternative to Danish hygge. Apparently, Scots are no longer stern Calvinists who scorn central heating and palatable cooking, but serious proponents of comfortable living with a product to sell to the world. You can read all about it in books like The Art of Coorie: How To Live Happy The Scottish Way and Coorie: What You Need to Know About The Scottish Lifestyle Trend. There’s even (saints preserve us) a colouring book.

Coorie has come a very long way from a shivering child clutching a hot-water bottle on a winter’s night.



Wanhope: hopelessness, despair

Caxton's Canterbury Tales
Caxton’s 1477 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
(Folger Shakespeare Library call number: STC 5082, fol. 108v)
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence

Now comth wanhope þat is dispeire of the mercy of god þat comth somtyme of to moch outrageous sorow and som tyme of to moch drede

Geoffrey Chaucer The Parson’s Tale (c.1400)

I’ve fallen into the habit, recently, of picking words from current affairs for my posts about etymology and usage. I thought it was perhaps about time I reverted to resuscitating obscure words with interesting histories, and wanhope, which turned up recently in my reading, gives me the opportunity.

Wan- is an Old English prefix “expressing privation or negation”, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. It has long ceased to be active in producing words, but in its day was used to modify meaning in the same way as un- or mis- does today. So a state of wanhope was a state of complete deprivation of hope. In Chaucer’s time, that loss of hope was often religious in nature—”despair of the mercy of God”, as he puts it. It was an extreme condition, as Chaucer makes clear, coming “sometimes of too much outrageous sorrow, and sometimes of too much dread”.

J.R.R. Tolkien used many fine old words in his Lord of the Rings cycle, and wanhope was among them. Here it is in one of the Unfinished Tales, “The Istari“:

[Gandalf] was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress

In The Origins Of English Words (1984), Joseph Shipley errs in giving it a milder meaning:

Almost forgotten is wanhope, gentler than despair, softer than hope against hope.

He seems to have been influenced by the modern meaning of the adjective wan, “pale, sickly”. But the old English prefix is more related to the verbs wane and want, implying something lacking. The origin of the adjective wan seems to be obscure, and the OED is uncertain whether it is related to wane or merely influenced by it. But it originally meant “dark, leaden hued, lacking in light”—the Scots noun wan, meaning “bruise”, preserves that old meaning. Then confusion arose. The faces of the sick or dead were described as being wan; the light of dim stars was also wan—and so the word switched its meaning from “dark” to “pale”.

The prefix wan- barely survived into Middle English, but it spawned a fine list of now-forgotten words: for instance, wanchancy “unlucky”, wandought “feeble”, and wanthriven “stunted”. My personal favourite is wanweird, “ill fate”, from the old usage of the word weird to mean “destiny”. The only one that has survived into current usage is wanton, “undisciplined”, which comes to us from Middle English wantowen, “lacking training”.

I won’t spend much time on hope, beyond pointing out that I doubt Shipley’s attempt to connect it to hop (“watch a boy in eager expectation”), and mentioning that I’ve dealt with the unexpected original meaning of forlorn hope in a previous post dealing with the prefix for-.

Oh, and then there’s hopefully, a perfectly useful adverb meaning “with a feeling of hope”, which does not deserve the vitriol poured upon it. It’s become strangely popular to hate the use of the word  hopefully at the start of a sentence. This usage is called a sentence adverb, it has a long history in English, and there must be a hundred adverbs that are used in this way, either to say what the writer feels about what follows, or to put the rest of the sentence into a particular context—obviously, technically, curiously, regrettably, ironically, clearly, thankfully, theoretically … and so on.

Frankly, I’ve scant idea why the grammar snobs have all piled on to poor little hopefully—the argument that curiously (for instance) can be expanded to “it is curious that …”, whereas hopefully unpacks to “I hope that …” (thereby unavoidably intruding the writer into the sentence) doesn’t seem to stand up to careful thought. Surely curiously expresses the writer’s opinion that what follows is indeed curious (“I find it curious that …”), and obviously reflects the writer’s opinion on what is obvious, just as much as hopefully expresses the writer’s feeling of hope (“I am hopeful that …”). But poor hopefully has become what Bryan A. Garner calls a “skunked term”—one can no longer use it either as a standard adverb or a sentence adverb without creating confusion or annoyance in some of one’s readers.

(Be the first)



Labyrinth: 1) A structure consisting of a number of intercommunicating passages arranged in bewildering complexity, through which it is difficult or impossible to find one’s way without guidance. 2) A structure consisting of a single passageway winding compactly through a tortuous route between an entrance and a central point.

Maggie's Centre, Dundee, with labyrinth
Click to enlarge

When Minos reached Cretan soil he paid his dues to Jove, with the sacrifice of a hundred bulls, and hung up his war trophies to adorn the palace. The scandal concerning his family grew, and the queen’s unnatural adultery was evident from the birth of a strange hybrid monster. Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Dædalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Mæander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Dædalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.

Ovid Metamorphoses Book VIII (A.S. Kline translation)

The connection between the legendary labyrinth of the Minotaur and our local Maggie’s Centre, in the picture above, is perhaps not immediately evident. But all will become clear.

The labyrinth in which the Minotaur was confined, constructed by the architect Dædalus on the instruction of King Minos of Crete, was clearly imagined to be an exceedingly complicated maze of some kind—in the words of my first definition above, “consisting of a number of intercommunicating passages arranged in bewildering complexity”. So complex, in fact, that Ovid describes how the designer himself was hard-pressed to find his way out.

But during the Hellenic Age in Crete (long after the fall of the Bronze Age civilization associated with Minos and Dædalus), a representation of the labyrinth started to turn up on Cretan coinage; and it was quite obviously not a maze. It looked like this:

Classical Labyrinth

There’s no difficulty or confusion about finding your way in or out of a structure like this, because there is only one continuous route from its entrance to the single dead-end at the centre. So it corresponds to the second, more technical definition of labyrinth given above. In the jargon, the branching maze in which the Minotaur was confined is multicursal (“multiple paths”), whereas the labyrinth pattern on the coinage is unicursal (“single path”).

The multicursal maze went on to become an entertainment, as a feature of grand ornamental gardens during the 17th century—complex branching pathways bounded by hedges, intended to confuse and divert. The oldest surviving example in the UK is Hampton Court Maze, which looks like this:

Hampton Court Maze

These hedge mazes are nowadays often called “puzzle mazes”, but in their heyday were sometimes referred to as wildernesses. That seems like an odd word to use for something so manicured, but it derives from the old verb wilder, “to cause to lose one’s way” (as you might do in a wild or unknown place). And of course to bewilder is to put someone in such a state. In a striking parallel, our noun maze derives from the obsolete verb maze, meaning “to confuse, to drive mad”, and to amaze is to put someone in a state of confused astonishment.

In complete contrast to the alleged entertainment value of mazes, the unicursal labyrinth turned into an object of Christian devotion, laid out in stone on the floors of the great gothic cathedrals, such as the one at Chartres. Their exact purpose is unclear, but walking the winding route of the labyrinth seems to have been part of a ceremony or penitence, or perhaps a substitute for pilgrimage. Similar devotional labyrinths were also laid out in the open air using turf—they’re often referred to as mizmazes, and a few mediaeval examples still exist, like the one at Breamore, in Hampshire.

These mediaeval labyrinths had a more complex pattern than the classical version—instead of travelling in long arcs back and forth, the mediaeval labyrinth-walker encounters more frequent turning points. Here’s the pattern used at Chartres, which is very common elsewhere too.

Which brings us back to the local Maggie’s Centre. The centre itself is designed by Frank Gehry, who has given us many astonishing and beautiful buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. And the sculpted landscape in front of it was designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd. As you can see in my photograph, it contains a copy, in cobblestones set in turf, of the Chartres labyrinth—a modern mizmaze, in fact.

If you want to draw a classical labyrinth for yourself, you need to start with a “seed”—a cross, four right-angles and four dots. The black figure in the diagram below is the seed. Start by connecting the top of the cross to the top of one of the right angles (red line below), then the top of a right angle to the dot nested in the opposite right angle (orange path). The sequence thereafter should be clear, working your way through each successive pair of anchor points, joining them by wider and wider loops, indicated by the successive colours of the rainbow below.

Drawing a classical labyrinth

The result is the classical labyrinth I presented earlier, which is a seven-circuit, right-handed labyrinth—there are seven loops around the dead-end centre, and the first turn after the entrance is to the right. The left-hand version is simply the mirror image of this one. You can add more circuits by nesting four more right angles into your seed, interposed between each dot and each existing right angle—that adds four more circuits. And you can keep adding multiples of four in this way for as long as your time, patience and drawing materials last.

Labyrinth is a bit of an etymological loner, coming to us pretty much straight from the Greek, and forming a little cluster of words in English directly related to its meaning. Of its adjectival forms, only labyrinthine (“like a labyrinth”) has survived in common use, leaving labyrinthal, labyrinthial, labyrinthian, labyrinthic and labyrinthical in the dustbin of disuse. Labyrinthiform is still in technical use, designating anatomical structures that form convoluted tunnels.

The loops and curls forming the hearing and balance organs of our inner ear sit in a cavity within the temporal bone of the skull, called the bony labyrinth. The delicate winding and branching tubes themselves are collectively called the membranous labyrinth. The derivation of the name should be obvious from the diagram below:

Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of these organs, which causes disabling dizziness and unpleasant tinnitus.

The legendary King Minos, who commissioned the original labyrinth, has given us two words. The first is Minotaur (“Minos bull”), the name of the half-human creature confined within the Cretan labyrinth. This seems a little unfair on poor Minos, since the Minotaur was the product of his wife Pasiphaë’s lust for a bull. (Though admittedly she had been cursed, and it may have been Minos who offended the gods and caused the curse. So it goes.) The second word Minos has given us is Minoan, the designation for the Bronze-Age civilization that flourished on Crete between 2000 and 1500 BCE. It was named in Minos’ honour by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the palace at Knossos in 1900.

Dædalus, the architect of the labyrinth (who had also reprehensibly aided Pasiphaë in her assignation with the infamous bull) has a slightly larger footprint in the English language than his king. We know him best by the Latinized version of his name—the original Greek was Daidalos, “the cunning one”. which is why a skilled artificer was once referred to as a Dædal. And something skilfully fashioned could be described with the adjectives dædal, Dædaleous or Dædalian. To dædalize is to make things unnecessarily complicated, and something pan-dædalian has been wrought by curious and intricate workmanship.

Finally a logodædalus or logodædalist is a person who is cunning with words; an example of such cunning is called logodædaly. I hope this post has given you material for some logodædaly of your own.

Alba: Part 2

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alba: Part 1

ˈalapə / ˈalba

Alba: Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)

Alex Salmond announces the Alba Party

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

Alex Salmond, 28 March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Be the first)