Archive for the Category: Etymology


I came across the wonderful word quockerwodger on the BBC Radio 4 programme Wordaholics. Surprisingly it doesn’t appear in the OED, but on World Wide Words it is defined as “a wooden toy figure which jerks its limbs about when pulled by a string”, and also a politician whose strings are pulled by someone else. […]

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Last night a friend asked me why the word write begins with a silent w, so I thought I’d investigate. According to the OED, the word write comes from the Old English wrítan (to incise, engrave, write, draw; bestow by writing). It is related to the Old Frisian wrîta (to score, write) and the Old […]

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Cellar door words

The term cellar door has, according to J. R. R. Tolkien and a number of other writers, a particularly pleasing sound, even though its meaning isn’t anything special. An article in the New York Times discusses the origins of this idea, an example of phonaesthetics*, and cites a 1903 novel by Cyrus Lauron Hooper, Gee-Boy, […]

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Newspapers and magpies

What’s the connection between newspapers and magpies? Well, apparently the first newspapers published in Venice and were known as gazeta de la novità and cost one gazeta (Venetian) or gazzetta (Italian), a small coin which had a picture of a magpie on it. A magpie is gazza in Italian and the name of the coin […]

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Spench, spence and sbens

Recently a friend told me that in North Wales the area under stairs is know as the spench – I hadn’t heard it before and didn’t know how to write it so this spelling is a guess. I found spench in the Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “the area under the stairs (often a […]

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Downies, duvets and slumberdowns

While listening to a programme on Radio Scotland today I heard mention of downies, which seems to be a Scottish word for duvet. These days I usually call these things duvets, but when I was a child I had a slumberdown, which I think might be a trade name. I’ve also heard them called quilts […]

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Spontus is a Breton word I learnt recently that means scary or terrible, as in spontus eo an amzer hiziv (the weather is terrible today). It doesn’t sound like it comes from a Welsh or Cornish root, and I wondered where it came from. According to the Wikeriadur spontus comes from the word spont (to […]

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Handles, sleeves, tails and legs

Yesterday I discovered that there are quite a few different words for handle in French, depending on what kind of handle you’re referring to: – poignée /pwa.ɲe/ is a door handle or the handle on the lid of something. It also means handful, as in une poignée de sel (a handful of salt) or Ils […]

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Recently I came across a couple of French words I hadn’t seen before – tchatter /tʃa.te/ (to chat) and tchat /tʃat/ (chat). As far as I can tell, they seem to refer particularly to online chat. The definition of tchatter on Reverso is “discuter avec d’autres personnes en temps réel depuis un ordinateur.” (to talk […]

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A foreboding sky

Last night when I went out the sky was dark with very low clouds, and I expected it to rain at any moment. It did start raining while I was outside, but fortunately I was inside by the time the heavy rain arrived. I said to a friend that the sky had looked decidedly foreboding. […]

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