Good Pickaxes

In French when you make a good guess or choice, you are said to be making une bonne pioche or literally “a good pickaxe” [source].

Claes Oldenburg

The word pioche [pjɔʃ] means pickaxe, and also a stock or pile of undealt cards in a card game, and chance or luck. It comes from pic (woodpecker, pick), from the Vulgar Latin *piccus (sharp point, peak, spike, pike), from the Latin pīcus (woodpecker, griffin), from the Proto-Italic *pikos, from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)peyk- (woodpecker; magpie), or from the Vulgar Latin *pīcca (pickaxe, pike), possibly from the Frankish *pikkōn (to peck, strike), from the Proto-Germanic *pikkōną (to pick, peck) [source].

Here are some examples of how pioche and related words are used:

  • faire une mauvaise pioche = to pick the wrong card
  • manche de pioche = pickaxe handle
  • pioche de jardinage = garden hoe
  • piocher = to dig up, to take from the pile, to take a card
  • piocher dans = to dip into
  • piocher pour qch = to cram for sth

Are there any interesting equivalents of this phrase in other languages, or any pickaxe-related phrases?

Enlisted Fathers

As today is St Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d look into the origins of the name Patrick.

Happy St Patrick's Day / Lá ḟéile Pádraig sona ḋuit! / Dydd Gwyl Padrig Hapus

Patrick comes from the Latin name Patricius, which comes from the word patricius (patrician, noble), from patrēs cōnscrīptī (Roman senators, or literally “enlisted fathers”) [source].

patrēs is the plural of pater (father, head of household, parent, forefather, priest), which comes from the Proto-Italic *patēr (father), from the Proto-Indo-European *ph₂tḗr (father), from *peh₂- (to protect, shepherd) and‎ *-tḗr (agent suffix) [source].

Another word that comes from pater is patronus, which in the magical world of Harry Potter is a spirit guardian that can be summoned with the charm Expecto Patronum [source]. This is genunine Latin and means “I await my protector” [source].

cōnscrīptī is the plural of cōnscrīptus (senator, counsel(l)or; enrolled, enlisted, composed), which comes from conscrībō (I enroll, enlist, draw up, compose), from con- (with), and‎ scrībō (I write) [source].

The English word conscript (One who is compulsorily enrolled, often into a military service) comes from the same Latin root [source].

Stellar Stars


Here’s an interesting question that I was sent to me by email:
I am curious as to why some of the languages that developed from Latin had to put an extra ‘e’ at the start of some of their words.

Here are some examples:

Latin Italian French Spanish English
stēlla stella étoile estrella star
status stato état estado state
spero speranza espère esperanza hope
spōnsa sposa épouse esposa wife

It looks as if the Gauls, and the people living in the Iberian peninsula, couldn’t cope with the st- and sp- beginnings, and had to stick an ‘e’ on the front. Is this because words in the Celtic languages they spoke didn’t have such beginnings? I can’t find any similar words in modern Welsh.

Incidentally, the words for hope have a cognate in English – esperance, which is a old word for hope or expectation [source], and the ones for wife have a cognate in spouse (husband, wife).

Let’s look at the origins of some of these words to see how they have changed over time.

The Latin word stēlla (star), comes from the Proto-Italic *stērolā (star), from Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr (star). This became estoile/esteile/estelle in Old French, and estoile in Middle French. It was (e)strela in Old Portuguese and estrella in Old Spanish So the extra e has been there for a while [source].

In Proto-Celtic the word for star was *sterā, from the same PIE root as the Latin stēlla. This became *ster in Proto-Brythonic, Old Breton and Old Cornish, and ster in modern Breton and Cornish. So at least some speakers of Celtic languages could cope with the initial st-. In Old Welsh it was *ser, in Middle Welsh it was ser / syr, and in modern Welsh it’s sêr. It was also borrowed into Old Irish as ser [source].

The Latin word status means state, status, condition, position, place or rank. It became estat in Old French, from which we get the English word estate. Meanwhile in Old Spanish it was (e)strela, and in Old Portuguese it was estado [source].

It was borrowed into Old Irish as stad (stop, stay, delay), which is the same in modern Irish [source]. Proto-Brythonic borrowed it as *ɨstad from the Vulgar Latin *istatus, this became (y)stad / (y)stât in Middle Welsh and ystad (state, condition, situation) in modern Welsh [source].

Do any of you have any thoughts on this question?

What the Deuce‽

The expression “What the deuce‽” can be used to express surprise, shock or bafflement. It’s an example of a minced oath in which deuce is used in place of devil [source].

If you run like the deuce, you are running very quickly and wildly, or like the devil, or maybe like you’re being pursued by the devil.

Apparently deuce was first used in the 17th century exclamations and was associated with bad luck or mischief, because when playing dice, deuce (two) is the lowest and most unlucky throw. The connection with the devil developed later [source].


Deuce also appears in the phrase there will be the deuce to pay (there will be a huge amount of trouble).

In card games deuce refers to a card with two pips. In baseball a deuce is a curveball. In tennis it refers to a tied game where either player can win by scoring two consecutive points, and in Canadian slang it refers to a two-year prison sentence.

It comes from the Middle English dewes (two), via Anglo-Norman from the Old French deus (two), from the Latin duo, from the Proto-Italic *duō (two), from the Proto-Indo-European *dwóh₁ (two) [source].

Deuce might also be linked to or come from the Late Latin dusius (phantom, specter), which comes from the Gaulish *dusios (incubus, monster), probably from Proto-Indo-European *dʰeus- (spirit) [source].

Alternatively it might be linked to the Old French deus (God), from the Latin deus (god, deity), from the Old Latin deivos, from the Proto-Italic *deiwos, from Proto-Indo-European *deywós, from *dyew- (sky, heaven) [source].

Other Anglo-Norman numbers that are/were used in cards, dice and other games include ace (one), trey (three), cater (four), cinque (five), sice (six) [source].

Flaming Llamas!

In Spanish the word llama has several different meanings. As well as being a domesticated South American camelid of the genus Lama glama, it also a flame, and means “he/she/it calls”, or in other words the third person singular present tense form of the verb llamar (to summon, call, knock, ring). Each version of llama comes from a different root [source].

The animal llama [ˈʎama] comes from the the Quechua word llama. Other members of the genus lama include:

  • alpaca [alˈpaka] (Vicugna pacos) comes from the Aymara word allpaqa
  • guanaco [ɡwaˈnako] (Lama guanicoe) comes from the Quechua word wanaku
  • vicuña [biˈkuɲa] (Lama vicugna / Vicugna vicugna) comes from wik’uña


The flaming version of llama, which is pronounced [ˈʝama/ˈɟ͡ʝ], is an alternative version of flama (flame), and comes from the Latin flamma (flame, fire), from the Proto-Italic *flagmā, from Proto-Indo-European *bʰlē- (to shimmer, gleam, shine) [source].

Junior Jarl squad

Some English words from the same root include flame, flambé and flagrant.

Llamar [ʝaˈmaɾ/ɟ͡ʝaˈmaɾ] (to summon, call, etc) comes from the Old Spanish lamar, from the Latin clāmāre, from clamō (cry out, clamer, yell, shout), from the Proto-Indo-European *kelh₁- (to shout) [source].

Words from the same root include acclaim, claim, clamour, council and haul [source].

When I see words beginning with a double l, which are quite common in Spanish, I have to stop myself giving them a Welsh pronounciation [ɬ]. There is in fact a Welsh word which resembles llamallamu, which means to jump, leap, bound, spring. It comes from the Proto-Celtic word *lanxsman (jump), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁lengʷʰ- (light; move lightly) [source]. The Welsh for llama is lama, by the way.

Hoary Hair

One of the words that came up in my Spanish lessons today was cana [ˈkana], which means white or grey hair. I hadn’t come across it before, so thought I’d find out more about it and where it comes from.

Many Shades Of Grey

Cana is related to, and possibly derived from, cano (ancient, old (person), hoary, white/grey-haired). Cano and cana come from the Latin word cānus (white, hoary, frothy, grey), from the Proto-Italic *kaznos (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱas- (blond, grey, white) [source].

Retaled words and expressions include:

  • canoso = grey/white-haired, grey, white
  • encanecer = to go grey, to go mouldy
  • tiene canas = He has grey/white hair
  • echar una cana al aire = to let one’s hair down, to whoop it up (“to throw a grey hair in the air”)
  • echar la última cana al aire = to have one’s last fling
  • faltar a las canas = to show a lack of respect for one’s elders
  • peinar canas = to be getting on

Some words from the same PIE root include:

  • Portuguese: = grey hair; cão = white-haired
  • Welsh: can = white, shining, brilliant; cannu = to bleach, blanch, whiten; cannydd = bleach; ceinach = hare
  • English: hare
  • Greek: ξανθός (xanthós) = blonde, fair, flaxen, tawny; golden

Cana is also a slang word for the police and prison in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

Cana should not be confused with caña, which means cane, reed, a slim type of glass, or a hangover. It comes from the Latin canna (reed), from the Ancient Greek κάννα (kánna – reed), from the Akkadian 𒄀 (qanû – reed), from the Sumerian 𒄀𒈾 ( [source].

Incidentally, the word hoary (white, whitish, greyish-white) comes from hoar (white/greyish colour, antiquity), from the Old English hār (hoar, hoary, grey, old), from the Proto-Germanic *hairaz (grey), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ḱeh₃- (grey, dark). [source].

Slimy Islands

For various reasons, I thought I would investigate a few disease-related words to find out where they come from.

Let’s start with virus, which comes from the Latin vīrus (poison, slime, venom), from the Proto-Italic *weisos, from Proto-Indo-European *wisós (fluidity, slime, poison). Virus used to mean venom as well, apparently [source].

Disease comes from the Anglo-Norman desese / disaise, from the Old French desaise (disease, deformity, melancholy), from des- (apart, reversal, removal) and aise (ease – lack of anxiety) [source].

In Middle English words for disease included adle, which comes from the Old English ādl (disease, sickness); and co(a)the, from the Old English coþu (disease). The latter continued to be used in some English dialects as coath (sickness, disease, pestilence) [source]

Pandemic comes from the Ancient Greek πάνδημος (pándēmos – of/belonging to all the people, public) and -ic (of/pertaining to) [source].

Epidemic comes from the French épidémique (epidemic), from the Latin epidemia (epidemic), from Ancient Greek ἐπιδήμιος (epidḗmios), from ἐπί (epí – upon) and δῆμος (dêmos – people) [source].

Isolation comes from the French isolation, from isolé (isolated, placed on an island) [source].

Hope you’re okay and coping with self-isolation, or whatever restrictions are in force / suggested where you are.


Procrastinate Now! (or tomorrow, or whenever you feel like it)

Procrastination – “the act of postponing, delaying or putting off, especially habitually or intentionally.” From the Middle French procrastination, from the Latin prōcrāstinātiō (a putting off until tomorrow), from prōcrāstinō (procrastinate), from prō (of) + crāstinus (tomorrow), from crās (tomorrow) [source].

Crās comes from the Proto-Italic *krās, and is probably from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱerh₂- (head, top), which is the root of words for head, horn, cow and others in various Indo-European languages

Crās became crai in Italian, crás in Portuguese and cras in Sardinian. These all mean tomorrow, but only the Sardinian one is still used. Tomorrow is domani in Italian – from the Late Latin dē māne (of the early morning), amanhã in Portuguese – from Vulgar Latin *ad maneana (at morning). The French demain (tomorrow), and the Romanian dimineață (morning), come from the same root as the Italian domani.

The antonym of procrastination is precrastination / pre-crastination, or “the completion of a task too quickly or too early, when taking more time would result in a better outcome” [source]. It was coined by David Rosenbaum in an article he wrote in 2014: Pre-crastination: hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. [More information].

I have a tendency to procrastinate, and often put off things that don’t seem important or urgent. For example, there’s a pile of papers on my desk that could do with filing, and I might just get round to it one of these days. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t though.

Sometimes, when I’m in a getting-things-done-mood, I go round doing all the things I’ve been putting off for days/week/months/years. Or at least as many of them as I can before I get distracted by something more interesting.

Some things I put off and do something easier instead – writing this blog post, for example, rather than recording the next episode of my podcast, or doing some language lessons rather than practising one of my instruments.

I precrastinate as well, but wasn’t aware of it. Or at least I didn’t have a word for this practice until now.

Are you a procrastinator, and/or a precrastinator?

What task / jobs / activities do you tend to put off?

What things to you prefer to do instead?

Registering the Matrix

Language quiz image

Yesterday I learnt that the French for a number plate / license plate / vehilce registration plate is une plaque d’immatriculation [source].

The word immatriculation means registration, and comes from the word immatriculer (to register), which comes from the Medieval Latin immatriculare (to join) [source]. This comes from the Latin mātrīcula (public register), a diminutive of mātrīx (uterus, womb, source, origin, list, register) [source].

Mātrīx comes from Latin māter (mother, woman, nurse, motherland), from the Proto-Italic *mātēr (mother), from Proto-Indo-European *méh₂tēr (mother), which is the root of words for mother in many languages [source].

The English word matrix comes from the Latin mātrīx, either directly, or via the Old French matrice (pregnant animal) [source].

I never know what connections I’ll find when I set off on an etymological adventure like this. Yesterday I found that matriculation and mātrīx were connected, which inspired me to write this, but I wouldn’t have guessed that mātrīx and māter were also connected.

Furtive ferrets

What do the words furtive and ferret have in common?


They come from the same root – the Latin word fūr (thief).

Furtive comes from the French furtif (stealthy), from the Latin fūrtīvus (stolen), from fūrtum (theft), from fūr (thief) [source].

Ferret (Mustela putorius furo) comes from the Middle English furet / ferret (ferret), from the Anglo-Norman firet / furet (ferret), a diminutive of the Old French fuiron (weasel, ferret), from the Late Latin furo (cat; robber), a diminutive of the Latin fūr (thief) [source].

Alternatively ferret comes from the Latin furittus (little thief) [source].

The Latin name of the ferret, mustela putorius furo, means something like “stinking robber weasel” [source].

Fūr comes from the Proto-Italic *fōr (thief), from the Proto-Indo-European *bʰṓr (thief), from *bʰer- (to carry) [source], which also the root of words for child in Germanic languages, such as bairn in Scots, barn in Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish, and barn/bern in West Frisian [source].