A royal bombinator

I was browsing my shelves a couple of weeks ago for something new to read, and picked up my OWC copy of The Eustace Diamonds – the next in the sequence of Palliser novels after Phineas Finn (which I posted about HERE last summer). After skimming through the foreword by the text editor, WJ McCormack, and the first few pages of the introduction, I decided I wasn’t ready in this enervating lockdown for an 800-page, small-print whopper. Maybe when the weather perks up later in the spring.

There was an expression in that foreword, however, that stopped me short. McCormack is writing about the book trade and the business of producing new, modern editions of Victorian novels like this one in OWC’s Centenary Edition of the Palliser novels. Here’s the whole sentence:

[This Edition] has not entered into the fabulously expensive business of establishing new texts which, with bombinating minutiae, often retards or replaces the reader’s engagement with literary history.

‘Bombinating’. The context makes the meaning fairly clear, but I still had to look it up. Here’s the entry in the OED online for ‘bombinate, verb, in current use’ (as always, I’m grateful to Cornwall’s library service for making this resource available free to members):

To buzz, make a buzzing noise.

[a1553    F. Rabelais ii. vii   Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones. (In ridicule of the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen.)]

1880    A. C. Swinburne Study of Shakespeare (ed. 2) iii. 199   As easy and as profitable a problem to solve the Rabelaisian riddle of the bombinating chimæra.

1880    Daily News 21 June   The power of a chimæra bombinating in a vacuum to eat second intentions is scarcely less suggestive of a..solution.

Etymology: < reputed Latin *bombilāre, an erroneous reading (commonly accepted in medieval Latin) of bombitāre to hum, buzz, < bombus hum, buzz

The pejorative (and slightly pompous) sense in the McCormack sentence clearly chimes with that of the Rabelaisian citations here (I’ve resisted the temptation to explore that enigmatic quotation further; more detail is found at the Merriam-Webster site HERE: M-W links it to Greek ‘bombos’, from which derives the English ‘bomb’) – the (over-)subtle (or stringent?) textual forensics of academic literary scholars in editing texts by Trollope, giving too much information and thereby occluding the force of the text itself.

I was aware that the Latin bombus also signified ‘bumblebee’ – a word imitative of the buzzing or humming sound of winged insects in flight. Or so I used to think. Until I came across the Dec. 20 – Jan. 21 post on the OUP Etymologistblog by scarily erudite Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), which queried the sound-imitation notion (in a post that started off looking at the sounds and origins of the words kid, cub and bunny – it’s a brilliant blog for taking you down etymological rabbit (or bunny) holes), pointing out that the word possibly derives instead from ‘humble-bee’. OED states that another variant is the Harry Potteresque ‘dumbledore’.

Bufftailed beeCoincidentally the next morning ended a long spell of cold, wet weather and dawned sunny and warm. When I stepped outside my front door I nearly trod on a large bee. It was very somnolent – or sick. Anxious that it would be squashed by someone, I coaxed it onto a leaf and carefully placed it out of harm’s way in a flower bed. When I returned an hour later it had gone – so I hope it had revived its spirits in the early spring sunshine and taken off to do whatever it is queen bees do in the spring: start a new buff-tailed colony?

I contacted the excellent people at our local wildlife trust, who have helped with identification of various critters for me in the past (the last time I posted about it HERE: a magpie moth). A very helpful man called John emailed back the same day with the information that my picture was of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (bombus terrestris), adding ‘one of our most familiar bumblebees and one of the first to emerge each spring. As you discovered, they can be very sluggish when it’s chilly and they are still warming up.’

John provided a link to his organisation’s website entry on this bee (link HERE), which included this lovely bit of information about it:

Buff-tailed Bumblebees are known as ‘nectar robbers’: if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole. [This entry also has a lovely picture of a worker bee in this family, which instead of a buff-coloured tail has a sort of grubby white one]

Although I decided against starting this Trollope novel in my present disengaged reading state, I’m gratified for this small but (to me) fascinating piece of information about the only true and original ‘bombinator’. And a queen, a royal bombinator.









Words and #BlossomWatch

I posted last time on some words that were new to me – I liked their sound as well as their meanings. Here are some more that I came across recently.

Mrs TD drew my attention to this one: bloviate. It was used in a column by Raphael Behr on the Guardian newspaper website, in a piece about his heart attack and subsequent recovery. He referred to Boris Johnson’s first performance (he does like to play to the gallery) in prime minister’s question time after his election win in late 2019: Johnson was ‘basking in his majority, and was relieved to discover that his bloviation didn’t interfere with my breathing’.

To bloviate is to talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way. Perfect for characterising our illustrious leader’s rhetorical style.

Last year I was working on a project for a health service institution. Part of my background reading turned up the expression nosocomial infectionsIt means those acquired while a patient is in hospital (or other place of treatment). Derived from the Greek nosos – disease, sickness, and komein – to take care of, attend to, it seems first to have been used in English in the mid-19C. Apparently ‘nosocome’ was a 17C word for ‘hospital’.

Not surprising that the word is starting to appear more frequently in the media in these days of Covid infection and transmission.

Some dictionaries give a related, equally prickly and polysyllabic term: iatrogenic infections. These are acquired after medical or surgical management, whether or not the patient was hospitalised. Not a semantic distinction most of us are called upon to make, fortunately. It’s from the Greek iatros – physician, and the element gen – producing, creating. It’s where the word ‘geriatric’ also comes from.

Blossom treeAnother lovely sunny day today. I walked to a local park to find the blossom tree Mrs TD discovered earlier this week. She took this picture. The Japanese have the lovely word hanami for the practice of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, especially the gorgeous spring displays of cherry and plum blossom.

Magnolias are just beginning to flower, too.

The insolent squirrels have been searching our flower beds for crocuses, but have been less successful this year.

The Mrs Jellyby of Manchester: Sarah Moss, ‘Bodies of Light’

I don’t often write here about new or recently published books; mostly I read from the teetering TBR pile of older works – as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. Modern English fiction I find uneven in quality (Americans like Denis Johnson seem to me superior to what the UK can offer at present). All the fuss in the media and blogosphere about what’s on or should have been on the Man Booker long list published yesterday doesn’t pique my interest too much.

Sarah Moss

Image of Sarah Moss taken from Granta books website

Earlier this month, however, I read a review on Susan Osborne’s site A Life in Books of Sarah Moss’s new novel, Signs for Lost Children, a sequel to Bodies of Light, which was published by Granta last year; Susan put this sequel on her own list of Booker predictions. She mentioned that the central character of the first book, Ally, becomes a doctor in an asylum in Truro, Cornwall. As that’s where I live, and I find literature to do with mental health fascinating – one of my earliest posts was about Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, and I’ve long admired the seminal work on women, mental health and literature The Madwoman in the Attic, and Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present (the link is to Viv Groskop’s 2008 Guardian review) is excellent – I decided to give Ally’s story a try.

Susan did a fine job reviewing Bodies of Light, so I won’t summarise the plot in detail. It’s an account of a family’s ordeal at the hands of a fiercely idealistic and evangelical Victorian mother who, like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House, who also neglects her own children while obsessing about an obscure African tribe’s plight, devotes all her attention to the care and welfare of the poor and ‘fallen women’ while neglecting and abusing (physically and emotionally) her own two daughters – as her own mother had with her and her sister. Her husband, Alfred, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite type who builds a successful career as painter and interior designer, is also excluded by his wife, and he finds solace elsewhere.

The epigraph from RD Laing and A. Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family is salutary and apt: ‘We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not disturbing persons’.

The novel is mostly very well written. The theme of parental neglect and cruelty passing on through the generations is Dickensian in its seriousness and emotional clout. I found the novel a little slow, however. Despite the often beautiful prose (Susan gives some fine examples) the relentless narration of the mother’s cruel, deluded treatment of her girls is just too long and repetitive.

There is interesting use of catalogue-type descriptions of artworks by Alfred and his friend Aubrey West at the head of each of the ten chapters, which poetically and symbolically foreshadow the sexually ambiguous, hypocritical treatment of the growing sisters by parents and by West – but these are brief points of light in a gloomy plot.

I also found the latter part of the novel, in which Ally struggles against social prejudice and general misogyny to become one of the first women doctors, rather contrived and predictable. The author’s research (the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and its disastrous consequences for Victorian women is a central feature, for example) is a little too evident and becomes intrusive. The (justifiably) angry message dominates the narrative. Ally is ultimately a credibly damaged but insubstantially realised character.

S Moss Bodies coverI feel Sarah Moss missed the opportunity to introduce a little contrast into the depiction of this deeply unhappy family’s life. The father, Alfred, doesn’t share his wife’s tormented, demented obsessions; why couldn’t he have stood up to her more, defended his suffering children – and himself? His acquiescence seemed to me unlikely, and his character fades quietly into the background as the novel proceeds, and his wife’s tyrannical domestic regime is unchallenged.

At the end, though, Ally has developed an interest in mental illness, and has moved at last to Truro. I hope to find the sequel (I shall certainly read it) less predictable and a bit more varied in tone. Sarah Moss can write, but she needs to preach a little less and let her characters breathe.

Postscript: in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book Sarah Moss points out that she wrote much of it in cafes in Penryn and Falmouth; is this JK Rowling type activity coming into vogue? She also states that she wrote and read a lot on the Cornish Riviera trains from Paddington to Truro, and expresses gratitude for their provision of Quiet Coaches. I would have thought that tapping away on her laptop would not have endeared Ms Moss to her fellow quiet-seeking passengers…

Hypocorism revisited: aptronyms, euonyms and caconyms

February was a busy month for me at work; my intended post on Alfred Döblin is still on its way.

Last week I visited friends in London and thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I took particular pleasure in seeing his painting of Henry James that I used in a recent post on his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’.

Back in Nov. 2013 I posted on ‘hypocorism’ – people’s names as diminutive or pet forms like Billy for William. I went on to consider mononyms, anthroponyms, endonyms, exonyms, and so on.

Just now I encountered a tweet from the OED with a similar term that I’d not previously known: APTRONYM: A name regarded as (humorously) appropriate to a person’s profession or personal characteristics. It can also be spelled (or spelt!) APTONYM.

Among the citations in the OED online are these:

1986   Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. vi. 1/1   According to the American Name Society, they’re called aptonyms, that is, surnames which..have turned out to be incredibly apt. A brief search for local aptonyms produced Tommy Trotter, the new director of racing at Hollywood Park.
2002   Winnipeg Free Press 19 Jan. a14/2   He began collecting aptronyms 30 years ago, when he saw an ad in his local paper for a flower shop operated by Flora Gardner.
There’s a long list of aptronym surnames at Wikipedia, such as a German professor of psychiatry who specialises in anxiety, and is called Jules Angst; there’s a gardener called Bob Flowerdew who regularly appears on BBC Radio 4 shows about the subject; Lord Judge is the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Arsène Wenger is the manager of Arsenal football club, the London Premier League side.
I knew a kid at school with the unusual family name Soldier. His parents, with more wit than sympathy, named him Roman. As in Polanski – which is itself a kind of aptronym; here’s the etymology of the surname at the website Ancestry
Polish (Polanski): ethnic name for a Pole, or more specifically for a descendant of the Polanie, one of the original Polish tribes.Polish, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), Ukrainian, and Belorussian: topographic name for someone who lived in a clearing, from polana ‘glade’, ‘clearing’ (a derivative of pole ‘field’), or a habitational name for someone from placed called Polana, Polanka, Polany, or any of various other places named with polana.
The OED compares aptronym with EUONYM – also new to me: it derives from the Greek element ‘eu-‘ meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’. OED online defines it as  ‘An appropriate or well-chosen name; (formerly in technical use) a name that conforms to the requirements of a particular system of nomenclature.The term was popularized by its appearance as the winning word in the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee competition.’
Its first citation is from 1889, which states that it’s the opposite of CACONYM (‘An example of bad nomenclature or terminology, esp. in biology and botany.’), in which the prefix derives from the Greek for, not surprisingly, ‘bad, evil’. Hence ‘cacophony’ (opposite of ‘euphony’). I rather like OED’s most recent citation:
1956   Nat. Cactus & Succulent Jrnl. 2 3/1   A name may qualify as a caconym in different ways. First, from sheer length… Second, from the clash of consonants making it difficult (for a European at least) to articulate.
Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Which reminded me of the plant EUONYMUS, defined by OED online thus:

A genus of shrubs (family Celastraceæ), of which many species are now cultivated as ornamental plants. The only British species is the Spindle-tree, otherwise known as the peg-, prick-, skewerwood from the uses to which its wood is applied.

Etymology:  < Latin euōnymos (Pliny xiii. xxxviii. §118), subst. use of Greek εὐώνυμος   of good name, lucky, < εὐ-   (see eu- comb. form) + ὄνομα, in Aeolic ὄνυμα name.

Pliny says that the flowering of the euonymus was a presage of pestilence; hence it seems probable that the name ‘lucky’ was given with euphemistic intention.


I love the way one word leads to another. A linguistic dérive…

Raisins, Sultanas and Currants: etymological notes

I’ve been working on some Henry James material, and reading Jayne Joso. Meanwhile, here’s a brief seasonal etymological note…

I’m quite partial to cake, and with the Christmas variety looming I was thinking about dried fruit. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know the difference between raisins, sultanas and currants – so I looked them up in the OED [Collins and Chambers provided extra material]:


 A grape partially dried in sunlight or by artificial means, esp. used as an ingredient in cooking or in the production of wine.

First recorded use:

1302–3  …ij fraellis de fyges et Reysingis.

c1330  (▸?c1300)    Reinbrun (Auch.) in J. Zupitza Guy of Warwick (1891) 632 (MED),   Þai brouȝte..Fykes, reisyn, dates.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman reisin, reysin… etc., grape, cluster of grapes (c1130), dried grape (first half of the 14th cent.; French raisin  ) < post-classical Latin racimus   (a1310 in a British source) < classical Latin racēmus  [Greek ‘rhax, rhagos’, grape, berry]  It is uncertain whether the following earlier example should be interpreted as showing the Anglo-Norman or the Middle English word:

1278   in J. T. Fowler Extracts Acct. Rolls Abbey of Durham (1899) II. 486   In..ficubus, Raycinys, et novem lagenis vini.

Its pronunciation  as a homophone of reason   (i.e. in modern English /ˈriːz(ə)n/ ) is exemplified by puns in Shakespeare [and]… is still defended by Webster in 1828; it survived longest in U.S. regional usage (southern and south midland), where it is recorded as rare but current in c1960 ( Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. s.v. raisin).


 In full, sultana raisin: A kind of small seedless raisin produced in the neighbourhood of Smyrna and other parts of Turkey, Greece, and Australia.

 Etymology:  < Italian sultana (Spanish sultana, Portuguese sultana) feminine of sultano  sultan [as in ruler of Turkey, from Arabic for ruler, king, or Aramaic, shultana, power] First recorded use in OED: 1841; with primary meaning of ‘wife or concubine of a sultan’, first recorded use was in 1585.


  1. The raisin or dried fruit prepared from a dwarf seedless variety of grape, grown in the Levant; much used in cookery and confectionery.

Etymology:  Originally raisins of Corauntz, Anglo-Norman raisins de Corauntz, = French raisins de Corinthe raisins of Corinth [port in Greece from where they originally came]; reduced before 1500 to corauntz, coraunce, whence the later corantes, currants, and corans, currence, currans (found in literature to c1750, and still dial.). Some of the 16th cent. herbalists restored the original form Corinth, which has been affected by some writers down to the 19th cent.

First recorded use in OED: 1334; ?c1390  Lat it seeth togedre with powdor-fort of gynger..with raysons of Coraunte. a1616   Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale (1623 edn) iv. iii. 37   Three pound of Sugar, fiue pound of Currence, Rice.

While on the subject of food names, here’s

FILBERT: a. The fruit or nut of the cultivated hazel ( Corylus avellana).

Etymology:  probably short for filbert-nut (i.e. Philibert-nut), dialect French noix de filbert (Moisy Dict. Patois Normand) from being ripe near St. Philibert’s day, Aug. 22 (O.S.) [St Filbert was a 7C Frankish abbot; cf OHG filu-berht, very bright]. Compare German Lamberts-nuss. First recorded use in OED: c. 1400


Apotropaic magic

I’ve read more Salinger in the past week, but having been to the dentist this morning and had some unpleasantly painful work done I don’t feel up to much in the way of literary blogging today; I’ll post on the Salinger stories shortly.  Meanwhile here are some musings on one of my favourite words: Apotropaic

OED online:

Etymology:  < Greek ἀποτρόπαιος averting evil ( < ἀποτρέπειν to turn away, avert)

Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning 'five', as in fingers)

Middle Eastern Hamsa(meaning ‘five’, as in fingers)

1883   Encycl. Brit. XV. 570/1   The sacrifice of the ‘October horse’ in the Campus Martius..had also a naturalistic and apotropaic character.

1904   W. M. Ramsay in Hastings Dict. Bible V. 115/1   The..employment of a bull’s head on..sarcophagi..evidently..had at first an apotropaic purpose.

1918   L. Strachey Eminent Victorians 230   The same doctrine led him [sc. Gordon]..to append, in brackets, the apotropaic initials D.V. after every statement in his letters implying futurity.

1945   Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 11 55   In the centre, an apotropaic ornament, a severed head between two volutes.

apotroˈpaically adv.

1956   W. H. Auden Old Man’s Road,   Apotropaically scowling, a tinker Shuffles past.

A glass 'eye' from Israel

A glass ‘eye’ from Israel

This notion of magic used to ward off evil or bad luck- whether by way of amulets, talismans or other potent symbols – is common in many cultures.  In 6th century BC Greece it was frequently found in the form of an eye, exaggerated and enlarged, painted at the bottom of drinking vessels to ward off evil spirits when imbibing.  Bad luck tended to be associated with envious looks from others, hence the use of an eye to deflect or reflect back such looks.

In most middle eastern cultures the Hamsa amulet (or Khamsa, meaning ‘five’, as in fingers of the hand) was thought to be potent in warding off envious looks.

In Turkey the Nazar eye amulet is ubiquitous still, especially on the prow of boats.


Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

Roman-era mosaic from Antioch depicting a plethora of devices against the evil eye

The ancient Romans believed that laughter could keep away evil with the use of deformed or rude images – phalluses, dwarves; deformity was thought funny.

In the mosaic pictured left: Attacking the evil eye – the eye is pierced by a trident and sword, pecked by a raven, barked at by a dog and attacked by a centipede, scorpion, cat and a snake. A horned dwarf with a gigantic phallus crosses two sticks. Greek annotation “KAI SU” meaning “and you (too)”. Roman mosaic from Antiochia, House of the Evil Eye. Hatay Arkeoloji Müzesi, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024

Similarly apotropaic are silver bullets (against werewolves); garlic and crucifixes to ward off vampires; crossing one’s fingers or knocking on wood to avoid bad luck.

'Gargouille' atop NDame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

‘Gargouille’ atop Notre Dame de Paris, construction of which began in the late 11C

Gargoyles on the parapets of churches were intended partly as a deterrent to witches and other evil spirits, especially when placed over doorways and windows, for such liminal positions were thought especially vulnerable; fireplaces were, too.




The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott, by JW Waterhouse, 1888

Mirrors were believed to have apotropaic powers, hence, perhaps, the belief that breaking a mirror brings bad luck.  The Lady of Shalott was doomed when she looked out of her window to gaze at handsome Lancelot on his horse, induced the curse against her doing so, and her mirror cracked…the rest went badly for her.  He did ok.  C’est la vie.


All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


What’s in a name? Hypocorism

A rose by any other name…

I thought I’d depart from the world of literature for a change.

In my teaching of entry-level linguistics I try to explain the concept of address terms.  There are various technical terms related to these: appellatives, onomastic meaning (onomastics being the term for the academic study of names), and so on.  I’m sure there’s a word that signifies something like ‘names of characters in fiction that indicate their nature or salient feature’ – Dickens was fond of these: Gradgrind, Mr McChoakumchild in Hard Times, to name just one novel.  Can’t recall this term right now.  Do let me know in the comment field if you can enlighten me.

They are not characternyms: that’s the term for names of characters in literature in general (I think).

Which brings me to hypocorism.

A hypocoristic name is a diminutive, familiar or reduced form of the full name.  In England there’s Will, from William.

Then there are those which don’t just shorten the name, but which distort it: William becomes Bill, then lengthened to Billy; that –y ending is popular, hence Timmy, Dicky (see the next example), Jimmy and Tony);  Richard becomes Dick; Margaret becomes Meg, Maggie or more strangely, Peg – it was common for nicknames to substitute Ps for Ms.  Mary becomes Moll, then lengthens again to become Molly.  Not quite sure why Madonna became ‘Madge’…

Ann changes to Nan (from the old form ‘Mine Ann’), though that name seems to have died out of use.

Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom

In Holland Cornelis becomes Kees (or Cees, as in the writer Nooteboom, born 1933).  Maria becomes Ria (now also becoming popular in the UK).  Alexandra becomes Sanna (the name of the little girl in Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, about which I intend blogging soon).  Ruud Gullit, the inimitable footballer (and not so imitable football manager) is derived from Rutgerus.

Donnie Darko may owe something to the Croatian hypocoristic form of the name Davorin, which is Darko.

Russian Aleksander becomes Sasha.  Natalya becomes Natasha (is that right?  Might have misremembered that one).

In Latin, diminutives often involve lengthening the name, hence Ursula means ‘little bear’ (which is ursus/ursa).  The notoriously vicious Emperor Caligula’s name is derived from ‘caligas’, the name for soldiers’ sandals.  Little Boots, if you like.

French diminutives or feminine endings also involve lengthening the masculine form.



So Nicolas becomes Nicolette, then Colette (as in the author, 1873-1954, famous for Gigi and other sex comedies considered racy at the time).  Not very pc, this tendency, for the unmarked term (which is what linguists call the culturally accepted ‘normal’ form) is invariably the masculine.  Compare English ‘usherette’ and all those other demeaning feminine linguistic terms (‘lady doctor’, ‘actress/poetess’, etc., now considered unacceptable in sensible usage).

The French also like reduplicated diminutives generally, like ‘dodo’, the child’s word for ‘dormir’ (sleep, or bedtime), as well as hypocoristically, as in Didi, etc. (and, I suppose, Gigi).

German Ignatz used to be reduced to Nazi (which was used by Hitler’s opponents as a term of abuse, signifying they were all country bumkins, for that was a popular name in provincial, rural Catholic Germany).  Heinrich becomes Heinz (so the beans are little Heinrichs).

Polish Tadesz becomes Tadzio – known to me best as the name of the beautiful boy in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  

Numerous appellations of the Virgin are common for girls’ names in Spain; one of my favourites is a person I used to know: Sole, from Soledad – solitude.  Inma is from Inmaculada – the immaculate conception (hence the once-popular Irish girls’ name, Concepta, an early character in the soap ‘Coronation Street’).

Mononyms are names for people known only by one element, like Bono.  Anthroponyms are places named after people (like Constantinople; or Disneyland).  Toponyms are place-names in general; topanthroponyms are personal names derived from places, hence Chelsea Clinton or Paris Hilton.

Endonyms are the names of places as used by the natives of those places, so Köln is what we call Cologne.  Similarly London is the English endonym; French people would call it Londres.  Paris Hilton would not change.  Unfortunately.

Exonyms are what we call these outsider names for endonyms.

Retronyms are fun; these are terms which have had to become modified, usually as compound nouns, as a consequence of technological or cultural developments; examples include TAP water (to distinguish it from bottled); ACOUSTIC guitar (not electric).  Previously it was unnecessary to qualify the noun, because there was only one variety.

Hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the world of words.





Pratincoles and Gobemouches


Gobe-mouches or Papamosques gris (source: Wikipedia)

Gobe-mouches or Papamosques gris (source: Wikipedia)

Gobemouche, n.

OED online – Etymology:  < French gobe-mouches ( < gober to swallow + mouche fly) flycatcher (bird and plant), credulous person.  In French gobe-mouches is the form employed for both singular and plural…

 One who credulously accepts all news, however improbable or absurd. Also attrib.

 First citation 1818; Most recent is from 1884.

Michael Quinion’s excellent World Wide Words site/newsletter first brought this word to my attention; he has a fuller discussion of the origins and meanings of this word there.  He explains that it probably extended from its ornithological usage to signify a rather credulous, simple person who goes through the world with an open mouth, ready to ‘swallow’ any story, however ridiculous.  There may also be a connection with a Gaelic word for beak or mouth from which English derives the colloquial ‘gob’ for mouth.

According to the French version of Wikipedia, gobe-mouches is a bird species of various genres, family Muscicapidae  in the order of Passeriformes, which includes passerines – this includes more than half of all bird species.  Sometimes known as perching birds or songbirds, the passerines form one of the most diverse terrestrial vertebrate orders, with over 5,000 identified species.  There’s also a species of Polioptila called  gobemoucherons.

Only four species of gobe-mouches are found in Europe :  grey, black, collared and dwarf; cf certain Stizorhins or Horizorin (formerly ‘gobemouche’) de Dohrn

Horizorin of Dohrn by Joseph Smit (Wikipedia)

Horizorin of Dohrn by Joseph Smit (Wikipedia)

Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers) are mainly small arboreal insectivores.  There are 274 species worldwide of which 23 species occur in France.  One such is the Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis), a rare vagrant in western Europe.

Back to the OED online, and citations for this word, among which I noticed this:

1844   A. W. Kinglake Eothen v. 67:  ‘ The gobe-mouche expression of countenance with which he is swallowing an article in the National.’  Alexander William Kinglake · Eothen; or, Traces of travel brought home from the East · 1st edition, 1844.

Alexander William Kinglake (1809 – 1891) was a travel writer and historian.  He was born near Taunton, Somerset; in 1856 he abandoned his legal practice in order to devote himself to literature and public life.  Eothen was a very popular work of exotic orientalism, in which he described a journey he made about ten years earlier in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  I read this so long ago I can hardly recall it; must have another look and maybe report back here.

In my notebooks I found another curious ornithological term which I feel compelled to share:

pratincole, n.

OED online again (slightly abridged): Etymology:  < scientific Latin Pratincola, former genus name (G. H. Kramer Elenchus vegetabilium et animalium per Austriam inferiorem observatorum (1756) 382) < classical Latin prātum   a meadow) + incola   inhabitant.   Compare scientific Latin Hirundo pratincola, adopted by Linnaeus ( Systema Naturæ (ed. 12, 1766) 345) as the taxonomic name of the collared pratincole….

  Any of several long-winged, fork-tailed, plover-like birds of the Old World genus Glareola (family Glareolidae), closely related to the coursers, which resemble swallows when in flight and are found near rivers and marshes.

Small pratincole, Glareola lacteal (Wikipedia)

Small pratincole, Glareola lacteal (Wikipedia)

First cited 1773.  One eye-catching citation is this:

1866   Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900, author of Lorna Doone):  Cradock Nowell xlvii,  ‘A woman’s perception flies on the wings of the pratincole.’

My Chambers dictionary has this: ‘a bird akin to the plovers, with swallow-like wings and tail.’  I like that ‘akin to’: as if written by a Victorian rector.  Wouldn’t plover make a great slip of the tongue error for lover.  As in ‘I want to be your plover’…

According to Wikipedia they are unusual, being waders, for hunting their insect prey on the wing like the swallows they slightly resemble; they can also feed on the ground.  They are distributed across S. Europe and Africa, through Asia to Australia.

Naumann, Glareola p.; Glareola nordmanni (Wikipedia)

Naumann, Glareola p.; Glareola nordmanni (Wikipedia)

The above image is taken from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Natural history of the birds of central Europe) of 1905.  Pratincoles’ status in UK: ‘accidental’ (BTO website; 1 sighting per annum).  Shame: they’re quite pretty little birds.

Zoris, woodpeckers and Carignan

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

In Denis Johnson’s epic novel Tree of Smoke (2007), a densely plotted existential Conradian thriller set in Vietnam and elsewhere in S.E. Asia from 1963 to the present day, a character with the wonderful name of Carignan goes to wash in a river in Mindanao in the Philippines:

‘wearing his zoris and underclothes’

I didn’t know what a zori was, so looked it up; this is what the OED entry says:

Japanese, < grass, (rice) straw + ri footwear, sole

With pl. concord. Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.

The first citation dates from 1823 (from a book about Japan); the most recent is from 1984 (a text from the British Judo Association’s Coaching Award Scheme: ‘Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events…’

Zori image

From J-Life website where we’re told that the pair illustrated are made from ‘real igusa grass’ and called Tatami/Zori…which led me to check out

Tatami.   OED:  1. A rush-covered straw mat which is the usual floor-covering in Japan and the size of which (approx. six feet by three feet) functions as a standard unit in room measurement.  (Citations begin 1614; the most recent is: ‘1981   G. MacBeth Kind of Treason ix. 92   He relaxed on the tatami and spoke with polite approval of the cousin’s tsuba.’

Tatami was originally a luxury mat used mostly by Japanese nobility.  As their aristocratic houses were mainly wooden, Tatami was highly prized as floor cover and for seating.  As the architectural style of homes developed, Tatami became more widely popular with the general public.  It’s valued for its texture, unique elasticity, and has excellent moisture absorbing and discharging functions, achieved by weaving in the natural rush grass, igusa.

‘A recent study has found that the scent of Igusa as an effect aromatherapy. We would like not only Japanese but people throughout the world to try our Tatami that has such excellent features. Igusa-mono was developed as a new stylish Tatami blended into overseas living spaces…’ (From the website igusa-mono.com)

If you’ve read anything else on this blog you’ll know I’m fascinated by words, so naturally I looked at unfamiliar words nearby in my Chambers dictionary; this is what I came across:

ZYGODACTYL/OUS: ‘with toes arranged in pairs, two facing forwards and two backwards…eg woodpeckers’ (adj.  and n.)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

A pair of GSWs often visits my birdfeeder in the garden: they’re very fond of peanuts.  Handsome birds, but very shy – they hide behind tree trunks if they think they’re being watched.

Lexicographers and cockneys


Title page of Blount's 'Glossographia' 1661 edition (BL website)

Title page of Blount’s ‘Glossographia’ 1661 edition (BL website)


Cockney or Cockneigh applyed onely to one born within the Bow-bell, that is within the City of London, which term came first (according to Minshew) out of this Tale; a Citizens Son riding with his Father out of London into the country, and being utterly ignorant how corn grew, or Cattel increased, asked, when he heard a horse neigh, what he did? his Father answered the horse doth neigh: riding farther, the Son heard a Cock crow, and said, doth the Cock neigh too? Hence by way of jeer he was called Cock-neigh.


A Cockney, according to some, is a child that sucks long: But Erasmus takes it for a child wantonly brought up, and calls it in Lat. Mammothreptus.


Cambden takes the Etymology of Cockney, from the River Thamesis, which runs by London , and was of old time called Cockney. Others say the little Brook which runs by Turnbole or Turnmill-Street, was anciently so called.’

(British Library: Learning – Culture and Knowledge)

From Thomas Blount (1618-79), a lexicographer (among other things) born in Worcestershire: Glossographia (first edition 1656; edition cited here is published by Tho. Newcomb for George Sawbridge, London, 1661).  It has entries for over 11,000 words:

derived from Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Saxon, Turkish, French and Spanish. He also explained specialist words – those used in fields such as mathematics, anatomy, war, music and architecture. In the preface to the dictionary, Blount explains how he had often stumbled over these words in books, without completely understanding them. He believed the ‘Glossographia’ would be ‘very useful for all such as desire to understand what they read. (BL )

J. Minsheu, 'Ductor in Linguas' title page, upenn.edu website

J. Minsheu, ‘Ductor in Linguas’ title page, upenn.edu website

John Minsheu (the usual spelling) was a London-born lexicographer and linguist, 1520-1627.  Now usually thought of as a plagiarist in his dictionary-making, this entry with its delightful speculation on the etymology of ‘Cockney’ is also cited in the online OED, with slightly variant spelling .

The BL page on Blount points out that he wrote about a number of words that had newly entered street English, mostly picked up in their trading trips abroad by merchants: coffee, chocolate, balcony, boot, drapery and omelette had begun to be used in public drinking houses, artisans’ shops and so on.

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

John Mulcaster, uncredited image

Portrait on Mulcasterfoundation.org website.

Glossographia was unusual for the complexity and detailed narrative definitions/etymologies of the entries, a task not attempted in earlier dictionaries, for example by the London schoolteacher Richard  Mulcaster (c. 1530-1611; the Elementarie of 1582 contains a list of 8,000 words without definitions, not all of them obscure – he is credited as making the first reference in print to ‘football’ in another work of his – in an attempt to redeem English as a legitimate language for scholarly use, and to attempt some standardisation in orthography).

Mulcaster's entry including 'flea' and 'flindermouse'

Mulcaster’s entry including ‘flea’ and ‘flindermouse’

What is a ‘flindermouse’?  A word for ‘bat’, from ‘flinder’ – moth; first OED citation is from Caxton’s 1481 edition of The History of Reynard the Fox; the latest citation is from 1875 in a glossary of Sussex dialect terms.

Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) was the first single-language dictionary of English words published.  Some 3,000 words are listed and given definitions.  He was aware that the rise in the use of ‘inkhorn’ words of classical or contemporary foreign origin was causing confusion and consternation in some people; Cawdrey explained in the first edition, rather ungallantly, who he was targeting in this enterprise:

‘Ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.’ (BL website)

It should be said that at that time few girls would have undergone a formal education.  Like Mulcaster he made no attempt to provide etymologies or citations to indicate usage, and his definitions were simplistic and subjective:

Sodometrie: when one man lyeth filthily with another man

Solitarie, alone, or without company (from the third edition of 1613, reproduced on the BL site).

Cawdrey's title page, from BL website

Cawdrey’s title page, from BL website

To go back to cockney; OED gives the etymology as coken – ay: cocks’ egg, referring humorously to small or misshapen eggs; there’s an apparent parallel in the French ‘coco’, a child’s name for an egg, which became a term of endearment for children themselves (a ‘mother’s darling’, one who ‘suckled long’, as Minsheu suggested, or ‘a cockered child’ – cocker as a verb to mean ‘indulge’ or ‘pamper’ derives from the 15th century from the same lexical root), or derisively for men, hence ‘a squeamish or effeminate fellow’ or milksop.

From 1520 it could also mean ‘A derisive appellation for a townsman, as the type of effeminacy, in contrast to the hardier inhabitants of the country’.  From there it’s a small step to the now usual sense of native Londoner,  ‘more or less contemptuous or bantering, and particularly used to connote the characteristics in which the born Londoner was supposed to be inferior to other English people.’  OED’s first citation with this denotation is from 1600.

My mother was a cockney.