Wednesday, 30 November 2016

start and startle

As I was driving down the highway in the countryside recently, I had to stop for a pair of ducks taking their huge flock of babies across the road. (For some reason there are lots of baby ducks around this year.) After I moved on, I flashed my headlights at oncoming cars to warn them to take care and to be alert for something surprising on the road.

Continuing my journey, I wondered if anything else would dart out of the long grasses that came right to the edge of the road. (Bushfire season coming and the grasses haven't been mown!) The word start came to my mind. Would a rabbit start from the undergrowth and would I be able to stop safely to avoid hitting it?

Start. Hmmm... I wondered about the connection of an animal starting and the word startle.

So, off to to have a look.

And I found that around 1300 the word startle meant to run to and fro. It was an intransitive verb. And a frequentative form. That was a new concept to me. It means a verb dealing with a repeated action.

From the 1520s it is recorded with the meaning of 'move suddenly in surprise or fear'. That was the meaning that had popped into my head as I drove along. From the 1590s we see the transitive meaning of 'frighten suddenly'.

And it all relates back to the word start, as I thought. The original concept, in Old English, was to leap up, to move or spring suddenly. By the 1660s it is recorded in the sense of 'cause to begin acting or operating.'

I wonder why the old-fashioned meaning occurred to me when I was driving along? I guess I've read it somewhere and it has stuck, as odd words and unusual phrases have a habit of doing. It's going to bother me until I think of somewhere I might have read it.

Ooh, now I think I'm in love with frequentative word forms. Here's a site that discusses them.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Hengist and his horse

One of my all-time favourite books is '1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England', by W C Sellar.

It was indeed memorable for me, because more than a few of the dates and names stuck in my head and gave me a jolt of joy later in life when I studied history. Many a dry lecture was enlivened for me by a passing reference to Sellar's Important Dates and People.

My absolutely favourite quote is this one, about Hengist and his wife (or horse?) Horsa.

Here it is:

“Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse).”

Imagine my joy today, many decades later, to receive the daily Word a Day email and read the following:


noun: A supporter or subordinate, especially one who engages in illegal activities for a powerful boss or criminal.

From Old English hengest (a male horse) + man. Earlier a henchman was an attendant who walked or rode beside a prince. Earliest documented use: 1360.

It's an OMG moment! Hengest was named for a male horse and he was married to a woman called Horsa?

Hmm... There's more to this than meets the eye. I love it!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Alfie Dog stories win awards

I received an email from Alfie Dog publishers a few days ago. They are thrilled that all three of the stories they entered in the Write Well awards were selected as winners and will appear in an anthology soon, as an ebook or a print copy.

I didn't want to wait for the anthology, so I bought the three stories immediately and enjoyed them all. I can see why they were chosen.

I think it's wonderful that these days I can buy short stories individually. When I buy collections of stories I usually like only a couple in the book and skip through the others. This way I simply choose the ones I want to read, and it's quite inexpensive.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

a singular advertisement

It nice of the writer of this sign to set a puzzle to entertain us as we shop.

If it's about one umbrella, we're left wondering what the umbrella possesses.

Perhaps the umbrella's handle was $19.99. Or maybe its spokes.

On the other hand, if there's a 'typo' and the sign is advertising umbrellas, we're left wondering what other single item used to be $19.99 and is now $9.99.

What a mystery.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Dickens and the origin of the word boredom

One of the many problems with the internet is that we can inadvertently perpetuate myths. It seems I've done this myself, in my post about the origin of the word boredom.

I'd been watching an episode of QI in which Stephen Fry said Charles Dickens coined the word.

I'm glad that I make no pretence about being an expert on language. I'm just a person who's interested in words. So I guess I don't have to be too embarrassed about my lack of proper research. (Of course, I'm a teensy bit red in the face.)

Paul Vargas has gone to original sources, having read texts where the word was in print in 1838, 1847 and 1844, amongst others. Those texts predate the supposed first use of it by Dickens in 1852. Vargas' blog post is well worth a read. has similar information. The writer says:
Charles Dickens is often given credit for inventing words that he was not the first to use. This is not surprising, if only because he was much more widely read than some of the people who had used these words before him. Dickens was also far more attuned to the language of the streets than were most of his contemporaries, and so his writing contains many examples of recently-invented terms. Writing in the Quarterly Review in 1839, Richard Ford refers to Dickens as the "regius professor of slang."

I'm grateful to Paul Vargas for alerting me to my error.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Using punctuation to mislead

When a new pharmacy opened in my local shopping centre, I was interested to see the sign saying it was Australia's Cheapest Chemist.

But wait a minute...

There's some tiny print on the sign - Is this?

So, the sign might say, 'Is this Australia's cheapest chemist?'

Horrible punctuation, though - 'Is this? Australia's cheapest chemist.'

Who knows? I'm not going to find out, because I think a shop that indulges in such deplorable punctuation is best avoided.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

noisome cryptics

I was working my way through edition 121 of The Puzzle People's Cryptic Crosswords magazine. In puzzle number 60 one of the clues was:
'Small number is nothing to me, just offensive.' 


Small number could be 'no' - as in the shortened form of numero. Next, 'is'. Okay, getting there... what about 'nothing'. Well, that's usually a letter O, as used to represent 'zero'. Then 'me'.

Okay, I knew the answer would mean offensive, and I knew noisesome would fit the bill. Yet I had too many letters. But what if I took it exactly as the clue said: no-is-o-me.

At this stage I realised I've probably been mispronouncing noisome all my adult life. (But only in my head, when reading, because I can't recall ever actually using it in conversation.)

A look in the dictionary told me it's not noise-some, as I always thought. So, what's the etymology of this strange word I thought I knew but didn't?

According to this article in The Interpreter Magazine, I'm not alone in my confusion. (At least I did know the meaning, even if I didn't know how to spell it.)

I like the definition on this page, because it places the word noisome in its family of negatively weighted words, looking back to the earlier Latin origin:
1. Offensive, especially to the senses, as to arouse feelings of disgust or repulsion.
2. Extremely harmful or dangerous.
3. Etymology: from Middle English, noysome, "harmful, noxious", from noye, "harm, misfortune"; a shortened form of anoi, "annoyance"; from Old French anoier + -some. The meaning of "bad-smelling" was first recorded in 1577.

And I think I'll remember how to spell it now, because I'll think of it as an annoyance.