Category Archives: Words



Wherefore: Why

There are several ways of misquoting Shakespeare.

One is to misquote Shakespeare without knowing it’s Shakespeare at all. Most people who use the phrase “to gild the lily” probably fall into that category, unaware of the original version.

King John Act 4, Scene 2:
SALISBURY: […] To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Another is to know the quote is from Shakespeare, but to mangle it in some standard way. As in, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1:
HAMLET: […] Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

A third is to get the words exactly right, but to misunderstand the meaning. Which is where wherefore comes in.

Romeo And Juliet Act 2, Scene 1:
JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary & Language CompanionGenerations of amateur actors and parodists have uttered this line as if wherefore were a synonym for “where”, leaning emphatically on the third-last word and adding a comma before the last: “… wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Sometimes they scan an imaginary horizon anxiously. Occasionally they shade their eyes from the sun with one hand, apparently forgetting that the balcony scene takes place at night.

But Juliet is asking why Romeo is Romeo. Specifically, she wants to know why Fate has seen fit to make the man she loves Romeo of the House of Montague, a family with which her own family, Capulet, has a feud. So the emphasis is on the last word, and no comma: “… wherefore art thou Romeo?” Because life would be so much simpler if he were some other (non-Montague) guy. As she says, using another phrase that falls under Misquotes We Don’t Know Are Shakespeare: “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” *

The erroneous version ofJuliet’s wherefore has become a snowclone, spawning thousands of copy-cat phrases of the same form. A quick on-line search turns up examples like, “Wherefore art thou, telecollaboration?” “Wherefore art thou, Colin Powell?” and, inevitably, “Wherefore art thou, Shakespeare?” all with that tell-tale extra comma.

Why does wherefore mean “why”? Because it’s a cousin to therefore. The trio there/where/here have spawned all sorts of families of words, all operating from similar templates. In this case we have:

therefore: for that reason, there
wherefore: for which reason, where?

And yes, since you ask, there once also was:

herefore: for this reason, here

There are also thereabouts/whereabouts/hereabouts, thereto/ whereto/hereto, thereat/whereat/hereatthereby/whereby/hereby, theretofore/wheretofore/heretofore and a host of other triads, all operating in the sense of “that, there” / “which, where?” / “this, here” added to some preposition or adverb to come up with a new word. Shakespeare used a lot of them; in Modern English we’ve lost a large proportion, except in hold-out areas like legal language.

Wherefore is one that doesn’t see much use any more. And the only use it does get is as a noun, which just adds to the confusion. A wherefore is a reason—in effect, an answer to the question “Wherefore?”

If you feel that you’ve never seen that usage before, it’s probably because it persists only in the plural, and in the stock phrase “the whys and wherefores” meaning “all the reasons”.

The expression used to be singular (“why and wherefore”) but the plural certainly emphasizes a sense of exhaustiveness: “We need to know ever one of the reasons, all the whys and wherefores.” So this time I’m not going to claim the phrase as another Shakespearian misquotation.

A Comedy of Errors Act 2, Scene 2:
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, when in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

* Actually, there’s some doubt about whether Shakespeare wrote “word” or “name”.



Snowclone: “A multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers” (Pullum, 2003)

That definition undoubtedly requires explanation.

Geoffrey Pullum,  in my quote above, was appealing for a word to fit his definition. He felt there was a need for a word to describe a particular kind of cliché—stock phrases like, “In space, no-one can hear you scream,” which are endlessly recycled in modified constructions of the form, “In space, no-one can hear you X.” In 2003, Pullum discovered 10,000 variant forms of that phrase on the internet.

In Space No One Can Hear You Snore
© The Shop Of Epic Quotes
Click to link to shop

Other examples of the same phenomenon are: “I X, therefore I am,” “X is the new Y,” and, “We’re gonna need a bigger X.” I committed one myself in a recent post on this blog, though I flatter myself it was a cut above the usual. Can anyone spot it?

The type specimen of this phenomenon was, “If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, then X should have a hundred words for Y.” (“Scots” and “rain” come to mind.)

Pullum made his appeal for a name for this phenomenon in October 2003, and in January 2004 Glen Whitman made a post on his blog Agoraphilia, which provided the necessary word: snowclone, so-called because the original examples were clones of a phrase about snow. In the last decade, the snowclone phenomenon has become so well recognized that it has its own website.

Pullum, the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, was in at the origin of the word snowclone because he had a particular involvement with the vexatious issue of Eskimo words for snow. In 1989 he wrote an article entitled “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7, 275-81). The link I’ve put in the title takes you to a pdf of the original article, which is great fun to read, if you have a few spare minutes. Frankly, anyone who uses the phrase “lexically profligate hyperborean nomads” is all right with me.

TheGreatEskimoVocabularyHo30940_fThe article was one of a series of pieces Pullum wrote for NLLT, which were subsequently collected in a book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. They were primarily aimed at an audience of linguists, so some of them are hard going for those of us who are not up on the hot linguistic topics of the late 80s and early 90s.

Now, Eskimo is a loaded term—it’s an exonym (a name imposed from outside the group) that many polar indigenous people find insulting, preferring their own names for themselves, such as Inuit and Yupik. But it is the technical name for a particular language group spoken in Eastern Siberia, Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland. And that’s the sense in which Pullum uses it.

Pullum charts how an original 1911 estimate of four (yes, four) root words for snow in the Eskimo languages (since you asked: apat “snow on the ground”, gana “falling snow”, piqsirpoq “drifting snow” and qimuqsuq “snow drift”) was slowly inflated by subsequent authors until it reached the hundreds. For some reason, people seem to want the Inuit to have many words for snow.

But honestly, the Scots have more words for rain.

Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland
Looks like gana later: Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland
© 2007 The Boon Companion



Skiapod or Sciapod: A mythological human with a single leg and large foot, used to provide shade in tropical regions

A skiapod using his foot for shade (Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493)

The existence of skiapods was common knowledge in Classical times—they are mentioned by Aristophanes in his play The Birds, and by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, in which the are described as inhabiting India.

The name comes from the Greek skia, “shadow”, and the pod combining form of pous, “foot”, that I’ve talked about already. So the skiapods were “shadow feet”. Makes sense. You can use the word skiapodous or sciapodous to refer to anyone with large feet.

The skiapods were just one of many races of imaginary types of person who populated the remote corners of the Classical and Mediaeval world. The Nuremberg Chronicle also provides illustrations of the Blemmyae (who had no heads, but faces in their chests) and the Panottii (who had large ears they could use instead of clothing).

A blemmy
A panotti

Greek skia, “shadow”, produced a lot of words, but you have to go digging to find them. Skiagraphy or sciagraphy is “shadow drawing”, and it seems to have had a number of meanings over the years. It has been applied to that complicated part of perspective drawing that involves accurately rendering shadows:

Sciagraphy: diagrams of shadows, and renderings of architectural elements with shadows.
J. Petitcolin. Wellcome Library copyrighted work (Creative Commons 4.0)

But it also has been used for the drawing of silhouette portraits, for the making of X-ray images, to refer to any sort of rough sketch (presumably because the sketch  foreshadows the final version),  and for the telling of time using  shadows—that is, by sundials (of which, more later).

Skiamachy or sciamachy is “shadow fighting”: either literal shadowboxing (for training in combat sports), or metaphorical fighting with imagined enemies.

An antiscian is a person whose shadow points in the opposite direction to yours: someone on the same meridian  but in the opposite hemisphere. (Strictly, that only works properly outside the tropics.) I’ve waited all my life for a chance to use that word, but the occasion doesn’t come up very often.

A macroscian is a person with a long shadow; not usually a tall person, but instead one who lives at high latitudes, where the sun is always low in the sky. A periscian also lives at high latitudes, but specifically within one of the polar circles. The word means “all-around shadow”, and if you live within one or other of the polar circles there will be at least one day of the year on which the sun never sets, and your shadow will sweep right around you during the course of the day.

An ascian has no shadow. The word designates someone who lives in what was called the Torrid Zone when I was at school—between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Anywhere in that region there will be two days a year when the sun is directly overhead at noon, and people appear to cast no shadow. The word amphiscian means “both-sides shadow”, and also designates the folk in the Torrid Zone, who (on every day but an “ascian” day) may see the sun either to the north or south at noon, and who therefore can cast shadows in either direction at that time.

That’s the inhabitants of the polar and torrid zones dealt with. What about those in the temperate zones? They’re heteroscians—”different shadows”. In the temperate zones, the direction of your shadow at noon is always the same—it points north in the northern hemisphere, and south in the southern hemisphere. People in the two zones are therefore always heteroscian to each other: their noon shadows point in opposite directions. So the word should really be used by one bunch of people, in one temperate zone, to talk about the other bunch of people in the other temperate zone. But instead it’s applied loosely to all the inhabitants of temperate zones, presumably because someone felt the need to come up with some sort of shadow-based nomenclature to match periscian and amphiscian.

While these are fine linguistic curiosities, they say important things about the world. Since shadow directions at noon are always opposite in the two temperate zones, but the sun always progresses across the sky from east to west, shadows sweep in opposite directions as the day progresses in the two zones: clockwise in the north, anticlockwise in the south.

So for the purposes of skiagraphy, sundials need to be numbered in different directions, according to which side of the equator they’re on:

Southern hemisphere sundial
Southern hemisphere sundial (D Coetzee)


Public domain sundial by Daniel Sinoca
Northern hemisphere sundial (Daniel Sinoca)



Sith: Since

With the imminent release of a new Star Wars film, I couldn’t resist offering up this word. No, it has nothing to do with Sith Lords.

Sith Lords
These are not the Sith you are looking for

Sith is an archaic word. Like its cousin since, it can act as an adverb, a preposition, or a conjunction. And like since, it has meanings that can involve either time or causation.

To use since as a familiar example, we have:
“Since you’re not interested, I’ll shut up.” (Causation)
“I haven’t smoked a cigarette since I was at school.” (Time)

It seems odd for a word to have developed two such different meanings, but it’s possible to concoct sentences in which the meaning of since is ambiguous:

Since you been gone, since you been gone,
Out of my head, can’t take it.

Russ Ballard, “Since You Been Gone“, 1976

Has Russ been out of his head during the time since his unnamed lover left him, or as a result of his lover leaving? I’m no expert, but it was probably a bit of both. It’s that sort of construction which likely produced a sort of semantic leak, expanding the meaning of since and sith.

The story with sith is a bit complicated. Here are the bare bones, as far as I can isolate them.

There was a way of forming adverbs in Old English which involved tacking an -s on to the end of a word. This worked pretty much as the more modern -ly adverb ending does now. The -s adverbs were formed so long ago that they’re not immediately evident in modern English—probably the purest current example is the pairing one/once (only a spelling change separates us from that original -s) and its slightly mutated colleagues two/twice and three/thrice.

This pattern was so well established that sometimes Old English would tack an -s on to something that was already an adverb, just for some sort of consistency. And then the two forms might coexist and compete for a while. As a result, two adverbs with the same meaning stumbled out of Old English into Middle English: sithen and sithence.

Sithen gave rise, by contraction, to sith, and then decently faded away during the fifteenth century.* Sithence gave rise, by contraction, to (you guessed it) since; but then it hung around indecently for a few hundred years, only eventually falling into disuse in the seventeenth century.

Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary & Language CompanionSo Shakespeare had three different “since” words to choose from when he was writing his plays. Never a man to leave a word lolling around with nothing to do, he used all of them.

Sith and sithence he used with connotations of both causation and time:

The Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1
TRANIO [taking on Lucentio’s identity]: In brief, sir, sith it your pleasure is, and I am tied to be obedient […] I am content to be Lucentio.

Henry IV Part 3 Act 2, Scene 1
WARWICK: I come to tell you things sith then befallen.

All’s Well That Ends Well Act 1, Scene 3
REYNALDO: This she delivered in the most bitter touch of sorrow  that e’er I heard virgin exclaim in; which I held my duty speedily to acquaint you withal, sithence in the loss that may happen it concerns you something to know it.

Coriolanus Act 3, Scene 1
CORIOLANUS: Have you informed them sithence?

Since was short-changed, being used only for time:

The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2
PROSPERO: Twelve years since, Miranda, twelve years since, thy father was the Duke of Milan, and a prince of power—

Whereas the archaic phrase since that did the job of indicating causation:

Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3
MACDUFF: When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again, since that the truest issue of thy throne by his own interdiction stands accursed and does blaspheme his breed?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was a period of a century and a half (1520-1670), spanning Shakespeare’s lifetime, in which sith was commonly used for meanings involving causation, while since was restricted to time. This seems like a good and sensible way of dealing with the then-prevailing overabundance of “since” words— but clearly, no-one had informed Shakespeare.

So sith eventually pegged out around 1700, shortly after the departure of sithence, thereby abandoning since to do double semantic duty.

Except there was one last gasp from the corpse, when sith was disinterred in its sense of causation, and pressed into use by the Romantic poets, to lend a pleasing touch of archaism to their writing:

Weep, Lovers, sith Love’s very self doth weep,
And sith the cause for weeping is so great;

Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova
Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

That’s exactly the sort of mopey stuff that makes people score you off their party invitation lists, in my opinion.

* In northern Britain sithen spawned another “since” word, syne, which is still with us only in the phrase auld lang syne, from Robert Burns’s poem of the same name. Auld lang syne is literally “old long since”—old times or bygone days.

Note: I’m intrigued that my website spell-checker is happy with the word sith, but not sithence. Either it was trained on a corpus of words taken from the Romantic poets, or it knows about Star Wars. I’m guessing the latter.



Podoscaph: A canoe-shaped float attached to the foot, for walking on water

The word is formed by attaching the Greek prefix pod(o)- (derived from pous, meaning “foot”) to skaphos, “ship”.

In the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci toyed with podoscaph design—but, realizing that they wouldn’t be a particularly stable mode of locomotion, he sketched in a pair of ski-pole floats for his water-walker, too.

Leonardo podoscaph sketch
Leonardo’s podoscaphs

The little model built for the Macchine di Leonardo exhibition makes the design clearer, but no more convincingly stable.Model of Leonardo's podoscaphsThe Greek skaphos gave Auguste Piccard the name for his bathyscaphe (“deep ship”), the free-diving, deep-sea submersible that he designed in 1937, which he contrasted with Beebe and Barton’s earlier bathysphere (1934), which merely dangled from a cable.

And before moving on to other things, I can’t help but mention Jean Baptiste de La Chapelle‘s scaphander (“ship man”), a sort of cork jacket to aid locomotion in water. The illustration below, from his book Traité de la construction théorique et pratique du scaphandre, ou du bateau de l’homme (1775), speaks for itself. Though I’m not entirely sure what it’s saying.Illustration from La Chapelle's Scaphander (1775)

A thing that looks like a ship is scaphoid. There’s a gently curved scaphoid bone in your wrist. (It has a Roman cousin in your foot—the navicular bone, from the Latin navicula, “little ship”.)

A feature of extreme malnutrition is a scaphoid abdomen. When a starved person lies flat, the abdomen sags inwards. The v-shape of the ribs above is the prow of this abdominal ship, the curve of the pelvic bones below is the stern, and the inward-sagging abdomen between resembles the hollow inside of the ship’s hull.

Now, back to the other half of podoscaph:

That combining form pod(o)-, for “foot”, gives us podiatry “foot surgery”. Chiropody, a different name for the same job, is a “factitious designation”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s not clear whether the inventor of the term meant to combine cheiro-, “hand”, with pous, “foot” (thereby suggesting chiropody should involve both the hands and feet) or was using the Greek cheiropodes, “having chapped feet”. Neither quite makes sense, but neither is quite nonsense, either.

There are a huge number of foot-related words ending either -pod (Greek) or -ped (Latin), which are hardly worth discussing individually. But it’s worth mentioning octopus (“eight foot”) and platypus (“flat foot”), which are both derived from Greek pous, “foot”. That -us at the end is a trap for the unwary, luring us into trying out a Latin plural form, after the fashion of cacti, fungi, nuclei and hippopotami—but “octopi” and “platypi” are just plain wrong. If you want a Classical plural, it needs to be Greek: octopodes (ɒkˈtəʊpədiːz) and platypodes (plæˈtɪpədiːz) are what’s required— each with four syllables, emphasis on the second syllable. Try it, by all means. But people will look at you strangely. There’s nothing wrong with forming standard English plurals instead: octopuses and platypuses.

The Greek -podes plural is familiar from antipodes, “opposite feet”—people on the opposite side of the world have their feet pointing towards us. But note that antipodes is singular: each location on the globe has only one antipodes, all to itself. It’s tempting to work backwards from octopus and platypus to come up with a truly singular antipodal form: “antipus”. (Well, I find it tempting.) But that would imply that there was only one person in the opposite side of the world from you, and that they had only one foot.

Hybrid words

Television? The word is half Greek, half Latin. No good can come of it.

C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian

Hybrid formations are words made up of elements derived from different languages. Some people can get very annoyed about this, as did C.P. Scott, above, back in the early days of television. Scott was objecting to the fact that the new word television had been formed from the Greek root tele-, meaning “far off”, attached to the familiar word vision, which is of Latin origin. It had presumably been created by analogy with telegraph and telephone; but both those words are Greek from start to finish, formed from graphe, “writing”, and phone, “voice”.

The trouble with getting annoyed about hybrid words is that they’re everywhere. If you clap an Old English suffix like -ness on to a Latin import like genuine, you have a hybrid; if you add an imported suffix like -able on to an Old English stem like read, you have a hybrid. It gets rather difficult to use English if we disallow all combinations of this sort.

But the ire of the self-styled purists is generally reserved for recently formed words—their newness and unfamiliarity seems somehow toDictionary Of Modern English Usage make their hybrid nature more objectionable. H.W. Fowler could be relied upon to express weary contempt for a lot of common English usage, and hybrids were not exempt. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) he made a list of words “of which all readers will condemn some, & some all”. The list included words that are now commonplace, such as amoral, bureaucracy, coastal, colouration, pacifist and speedometer. It also contained a selection that are now pretty much extinct: amusive, backwardation, dandiacal and funniment.

So it seems that there must be other factors that determine whether a word survives and flourishes, or withers and dies. As Robert Burchfield noted in the revised third edition of Modern English Usage: “… a word will settle in if there’s a need for it and will disappear if there is not … amoral, bureaucracy, and the other mixed-blood formations persist, and the language has suffered only invisible dents.”

Hybrid words are sometimes referred to as heteroradicals, from Greek heteros, “different”, and Latin radix, “root”.  I’m sure I can’t be the only one who derives an utterly disproportionate amount of satisfaction from the idea that heteroradical is a heteroradical.

Unfortunately, heteroradical is also used to designate a completely different class of words, a subdivision of the homonyms.

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation and spelling, but different meanings: for example, the address that you live at, and the address that you make to an audience. Heteroradicals are the subclass of homonyms that also differ in etymology (that is, they’re derived from different roots): for example, the chain mail in a suit of armour and the mail that is delivered to your letter-box. So for the kind of words we’re discussing here, the term hybrid turns out to be more commonly used than heteroradical. This makes me a little sad, but that’s probably just me.

However, I’m cheered by the fact that the abstract little debate about hybrid words seems to have leaked into popular culture, in a post-ironic sort of way. You can now buy the T-shirt:

Polyamory is wrong
Click to visit to the seller

(Do I need to tell you that polyamory is the practice of maintain several loving sexual relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved? I’m sure I don’t.)



Oikofugic: Having a desire to leave home,  an urge to wander or travel

This word was coined in 1904 by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, in his two-volume opus Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, and Religion. (Given the title, it’s amazing that he managed to hold it down to two volumes.) According to Hall, adolescents were trapped between oikofugic and oikotropic impulses: the desire to leave home on the one hand, and the desire to stay at home on the other. Hall was a great and ponderous coiner of new words. He also described adolescence as being characterized by “a marked decrease of scoliotropism”—that is, a reduced desire to go to school.

Striking For The Back Country (Kemble, 1885)
One of Kemble’s “Huckleberry Finn” illustrations (1885)

Hall seems to have formed his word from the Greek noun oikos, “a household”, and the Latin verb fugere, “to flee”. So it’s one of those Greek-Latin hybrids that made C.P. Scott write, “No good can come of it.”

Oikos also gives us oikology, a fancy name for home economics, and oikonisus, the desire to start a family. Both these words seem to have no actual life beyond featuring in collections of unusual words.

The Greeks called the whole civilized world the oikumene, as if it were one big residence or household. And when the first great gathering of Christian bishops took place at Nicaea in 325 AD, the resulting Council was called oikumenical, because attendance came from all over the (Christian) world. The English word ecumenical still applies to religious gatherings of this sort.

Fugere gives us fleeing words like fugitive, refuge and refugee. The Latin fugax, “fleeting”, is related, and crops up in medical Latin in the form of amaurosis fugax (“transient darkening”), which is a brief loss of vision in one eye; and proctalgia fugax, a transient, severe pain in the rectum.

The suffix -fuge is problematic. When derived from fugere, it has the sense “fleeing from”—as in centrifugal force, which makes objects appear to fly away from the centre of rotation. But medical Latin treated it as being derived from fugare, “to put to flight”. None of the resulting words is in common use today, but we once had febrifuge, a drug that drives away fever; vermifuge, a drug that causes the expulsion of intestinal worms; and dolorifuge, a drug that drives away pain (what we’d now call an analgesic).

The state of being oikofugic should logically be called oikofugia, though this doesn’t seem to be much attested. And someone suffering from oikofugia should be called an oikofuge.

The difficulty, of course, comes from that ambiguity in the suffix -fuge. So an oikofuge could also be interpreted as something that gets rid of oiks.

Words: Introduction

I’ve always loved words: unusual words, technical words, words with interesting etymologies, words that are often misused.

For a while at the end of the last millennium, I wrote little filler items about words for the British Medical Journal, under the slightly self-congratulatory title Words to the Wise. Some have survived to become accessible on the internet, albeit mostly behind a paywall on the BMJ website:

Turning the worm
Byzantine connections
An extended family
Poison arrows
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Words that count (free full content)
The white album
Muscling in (free full content)

I also used to write occasional Word of the Day items for the site, almost all of which have now disappeared. There seems to be a solitary example remaining, oddly preserved on a completely different website. Not even my best one …

So, the set of posts Categorized as “Words” is my chance to get back into that sort of thing. And this time, since I’m setting the rules, I may make occasional diversions to talk about letters, phrases or quotations, too.

I’m planning to include phonetic pronunciations, which will involve a little preliminary fiddling around with web fonts. I apologize in advance if you find yourself peering at some little white boxes or question marks where there should be IPA characters.