Thursday, 31 December 2009


So you know how the two side of a boat are port and starboard? And you know how there's an urban myth that the word "posh" (origins obscure, apparently) originated from boats travelling from England to India, from the idea that the best cabins were "Port Out Starboard Home"?

Okay. Well this myth (and in fact the word "posh" itself) only originates from the late 1800s. So does this mean that "port" was only used to describe the left side of a boat from then onwards, and that there used to be another word for this originally?

In one of those beautiful realisations of how language reshapes and reforms itself, I give you the original, stupid word for port, and you'll see immediately why it was so easily replaced with a different one:

larboard n archaic port Penguin Pocket, 2004

Larboard? Very sensible. Doesn't sound at all similar to / interchangeable with starboard. suggests its origin as 1300–50; ME laddeborde (perh. lit., loading side); later larborde (by analogy with starboard). It also suggests that port's origin as "the left side of a vessel" was in 1570-80. Taking this idea of a loading side/harbour wall side/seaport/port side, it certainly makes sense that "port" took over gradually from "larboard" to be a clearer version of the same thing.

However, the implication as I see it is that between c. 1300 and the late 1500s, our sailors had to spend over 200 years having this kind of conversation:

Captain: Turn to starboard.
1st Mate: Larboard?
Captain: Starboard.
1st Mate: Larboard?
1st Mate: LARBOARD?

Well done the English language. You only had to confuse us for 250 years before we decided it might be prudent to change one of the words.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009


No reason for this really, other than rather liking the sound of it:

roquelaure n a man's knee-length cloak worn in the 18c and early 19c. [Origin from French, after the Duc de Roquelaure (1656-1738)] Chambers, 1998

I can find very little information about the Duc online except a note on wikipedia saying that he shared his family's reputation for wit but was militarily incapable.
Perhaps that's why he spent his time getting cloaks named after him?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Another quickie:

turpitude n formal baseness, depravity or wickedness. Penguin Pocket, 2004

This seemed like a suitably un-festive/post-festive word to be learning.

Monday, 28 December 2009


adumbrate v formal to outline broadly without details; to foreshadow vaguely. Penguin Pocket, 2004

So this is the opposite to the Back to the Future method, where there's not a single image or scrap of dialogue that does not directly feed into the tightly structured narrative? I think generally it just means imprecise foreshadowing, creating an atmosphere without being specific about the details.

Again, feel like I should already know this one.

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Just a quick one today, something I feel much in need of after the traditional Christmas drain:

fillip n a boost or stimulus Penguin Pocket, 2004

Saturday, 26 December 2009


A quick poll at this end reveals that I seem to be one of the few people who doesn't already know this word. Another clue to its common usage came when I saw it was the first of the 100 Words blogger already knew how to spell. However I'm lobbing it up anyway, even though it's not very rare, as the point for me is to learn new words. In any case, it's another lovely excitable word and I think I'll allow myself one more day of festive spirit:

rumbustious adj irrepressibly exuberant Penguin Pocket, 2004


Friday, 25 December 2009


Well, it's Christmas Day for the 25th day of this endeavour, so I've picked out a nice, happy word to learn. I'm half-Italian, so I recognise the word from the Italian "ridere", to laugh. The definition says this word is normally of literary use, but I would like to see it used more frequently:

rident (literary) adj laughing or smiling radiantly, beaming. [Origin from Latin ridens, -entis, pr p of ridere to laugh] Chambers, 1998

The "ri" rhymes with "wide", and I hope your Christmas Day is full of rident faces. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 24 December 2009


This seems like another appropriate word for the festive season, pronounced like the ratty animal:

jirble (Scot) vt and vi to pour splashingly or unsteadily. Chambers, 1998

That'll be me tomorrow, jirbling the brandy onto the Christmas pudding, onto the plate, into my mouth... I'm just following Santa's lead.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


Ooh, I knew there must have been a specific word for this:

flimp (slang) vt to rob (someone) while a partner hustles. [Compare with Flemish flimpe to knock or rob] Chambers, 1998

The moral is: keep your eyes on your valuables lest ye get flimped good and proper.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


This looks Dutch to me at first glance, but it originates from Latin:

duumvir n one of two men associated in the same office or post - pl duumvirs or duumviri - adj duumviral - n duumvirate an association of two men in one office or post; a government by duumvirs. [Origin from Latin duumviri, for duoviri, from duo two, and vir a man] Chambers, 1998

For two men associated in the same post, I want to suggest a pair like Reeves and Mortimer, but I suppose it should be men who have the exact same post, like multiple editors in a publishing house or salespeople in a shop. The "du" rhymes with "moo", so it's pronounced "doo-um-vir".

Of course, it comes from the Latin word for "man" and there is no female equivalent for this word: no "duumfemina" or "duummulier", for example. It'd be interesting to look in a more recent dictionary to see if this word has been gender-neutralised yet. I'm presuming it would be, much as something like "chairman" is referred to as a person of either gender.

I do like this word though. It sounds almost clownish: "This is Bob. He's my favourite duumvir". I wonder if I could stretch the definition to apply to siblings or other relations over the coming festive period?

Monday, 21 December 2009


Here's another word that surprised me. I was expecting it to be linked to cabals, or kabbala, but actually it's derived from something rather different:

caballine adj relating or suited to a horse. [Origin from Latin caballinus, from caballus a horse] Chambers, 1998

Hang on. I thought the word "equine" derived from the Latin, and that "equus" was the Latin word for horse? I've double-checked and this is right. So there was more than one Latin word for horse then? Actually this is starting to feel familiar - the Italian word for horse is "cavallo".

In fact, randomly googling "caballus" leads to the wikipedia page for "horse". Even though the horse's genus is "equus" and its family is "Equidae", the trinomial name (more specific name for the sub-species) is "Equus ferus caballus".

So the biologists used multiple horse words in order to define a horse? My layman's inference is that they've treated equus as a generic "horse-type-creature" word, with caballus being a more specific "horse horse" word. But what's the difference between them? Were they originally different types of horse? And what about "ferus"? I thought it meant iron but apparently that's "ferrum". Now I need a Latin dictionary.

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA recommends William Whitaker's Words for Latin grammar and vocabulary. It knows the words I'm looking for so will use it for now until I find a better one (recommendations welcomed). It reveals the following:

equus, equi n horse; steed

caballus, caballi n horse, riding horse, packhorse; (classical usu. an inferior horse, nag)

ferus, feri n wild beast/animal; wild/untamed horse/boar

Okay. So that makes sense then. Equus is the more common word because it means a horse or steed in general, whereas caballus was classically used to describe an inferior horse, hence them using it to narrow down the sub-species of domesticated horses. Similarly, if we then look up a wild horse, it is referred to simply as an "Equus ferus". Mystery solved.

If I try and use the original word in a sentence then, I end up with something like: "Your great-aunt's hat is perfectly caballine." Hmm. Too insulting? Depends on the great-aunt I suppose.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


I want one!

prepollex (zool) n (in some animals) a rudimentary innermost finger. Chambers, 1998

Saturday, 19 December 2009


Here's another word I had no idea existed but which must surely be fairly widely known:

muliebrity n womanhood [Origin from Latin muliebritas, -tatis, from mulier a woman] Chambers, 1998

Am I the only one drawing unpleasant connotations from its similarity to "mule"? I don't think I like this word. In fact I may have to try and forget it immediately.

Friday, 18 December 2009


He sounds like a friendly sort of fellow:

joskin n a clown, yokel. [Origin from thieves' cant] Chambers, 1998

I anticipate encountering several joskins next time I head back to Devon, and that's just from my own family and friends. Oh no, I've just had a terrible thought. Does this mean I am a joskin too?

Thursday, 17 December 2009


Okay, I really was going to try and find a lively word but I was so struck by this that I had to choose it instead:

gralloch n a deer's entrails vt to disembowel (deer). [Origin from Gaelic grealach] Chambers, 1998

Reading up about deer's entrails led me to this article on, an American knife website. It tells you how best to go about handling your deer after you've killed it. My favourite crossheads in the article are "Deer is Just Like a Big Rabbit" and "Save the Heart and the Liver". Also they have a free monthly Knife Giveaway! Am now wondering if I shouldn't have tried to look at 100 strange websites I never realised existed instead of trying to pick words.

Still, I like the sound of it - gralloch.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


I am extremely excited today, but unfortunately this means that I have little time to scour the dictionary for a word that adequately reflects my mood. Instead I'm picking this one because it sounds nice, even though I've currently got no time to do anything of the kind:

pandiculation n the act of stretching and yawning [Origin from Latin pandiculari, -atus to stretch oneself] Chambers, 1998

I thought stretching and yawning was the only way to describe stretching and yawning but no - there is a single word to cover the combined actions! I will indulge in some pleasant pandiculation later on after my busy, exciting day is finished, and I'll try to find a more excitable, lively word for tomorrow.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


lagniappe or lagnappe n something given beyond what is strictly required; a gratuity. [Origin from Louisiana French, from American Spanish (Quechua yapa addition)] Chambers, 1998

Aside from its interesting American French/Spanish origins, and aside from the idea that it might mean no more than leaving a tip, I really like the primary meaning: namely one of polite kindness. It feels like a very gentle word (the gn is soft, like in lasagne) and a remnant of more courteous times. Lovely.

Monday, 14 December 2009


zugzwang (chess) n a blockade position in which any move is disadvantageous to the blockaded player. [Origin German] Chambers, 1998

I like this word a lot. I'm pretty sure you can apply it to lots of other games too. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure I've been in conversations that could very accurately be described as zugzwangs.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


This feels like a bit of a sci-fi word, though I suppose it's more about nature than robots:

astomatous adj mouthless, or without a mouthlike opening. Also astomous. [Origin from Greek a- (primitive), and stoma, -atos mouth] Chambers, 1998

So, R2D2 would be astomatous, although I wonder if that black slit on his body is meant to represent a mouth somehow? This word is probably more useful in biology, talking about very small organisms. I would like to make it a bit broader in meaning though. Something like, "Would the royal family be better liked if Prince Philip was astomatous?" for example.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


This seems like an appropriate Saturday word:

badinage n light playful talk; banter. [Origin from French badinage, from badin playful or bantering] Chambers, 1998

I'll look forward to a little badinage over the weekend.

Friday, 11 December 2009


williewaught (Scottish) n a deep draught. [From misunderstanding of Burns, Auld Lang Syne, 4.3, 'a right guid willie) or guid-willie) waught' (where 'guide willie' means 'good will'), a generous and friendly draught] Chambers, 1998

Mmm. Another word based on a misunderstanding. I'm starting to see a pattern. Will look forward to my next williewaught in the pub later (the "augh" bit is pronounced like "loch"), though it's not to be confused with a williwaw:

williwaw n a gust of cold wind blowing seawards from a mountainous coast, eg in the Straits of Magellan; a sudden squall; a tumult or disturbance. [Origin uncertain] Chambers, 1998

Looking out of the window, I expect I'll experience a williwaw on my way to a williewaught later tonight.

Actually, saying "origin unknown" for williwaw may not be entirely correct. Further down the page there's an entry for the not entirely dissimilar "willy-willy":

willy-willy (Australian) n a cyclone. [Aboriginal] Chambers, 1998

Just a coincidence? Surely that implies they're both Australian then? I'm starting to feel a bit like it's me vs the dictionary, which is odd. Fun, though.

Thursday, 10 December 2009


rumbelow n a meaningless word, occurring as a refrain in old sea-songs.

I have heard this word before, notably regarding the old electronics retailers and cup final sponsors in the 90s. I've never known what it meant, though. I am completely thrilled to discover that it doesn't actually mean anything. There's not even any origin beyond "old sea-songs". How wonderful! Does this mean Mr Dictionary is admitting defeat?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


This delightful-sounding word is nothing to do with pores or dimples, but is a very simple adjective:

porraceous adj leek-green [Origin from Latin porraceus, from porrum a leek] Chambers, 1998

If I'd already known the Latin word for leek, I expect this word would have seemed fairly obvious. It's funny though, I don't tend to think of leeks as being eaten by Romans or anywhere in the Mediterranean really. Is this just because I used to live in Swansea and saw one too many giant inflatable leeks being brandished by rugby fans?

The Food Museum says the first ever mention of a leek was by a Mesopotamian scribe, meaning that its origin is likely to have been in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. The leek was also apparently the Roman Emperor Nero's favourite vegetable. Blimey.

Hang on, doesn't the colour fade from deep green to white along the body of a leek? I wonder if porraceous refers to a specific bit of the green, or just a greenish colour that is reminiscent of a leek in general?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


Roughly speaking, this is pronounced "suh-ran" and I think it's a wonderful word. The definition feels very poetic:

serein n in the tropics, fine rain falling from an apparently cloudless sky after sunset [Origin French, from Latin serum evening, from serus late] Chambers, 1998


And good use of the word "apparently". I was close to replacing the meaning with "fantastic miracle performed by rain witch". Surely this must have cropped up in a David Attenborough documentary at some point? Being in London though, I suppose I'm less likely to have seen it on the weather.

In trying to learn all these words, I've found myself using the archive list of previous posts as a quick testing post for meanings. It feels a bit like being back at school, only at least now my mum isn't cutting my hair to look just like hers. I think mumpsimus is most likely to make it into my active vocabulary so far, though I'm trying to shove in as many as possible. Here's an attempt to use all the words I've learned to date:

Poor old Bob. He may only be a spoffish mumpimus with endless rodomontades, but his nights have been filled with floccillations ever since he found his beloved Fluffy, now no more than a morkin, under his back tyre. He thought Fluffy was irenic. His wife said Fluffy was just a flamfew.

It needs a bit of work, obviously...

Monday, 7 December 2009


The more I try to find words I've never heard of, the more I feel guilty that I don't already know them. This one, for example, is so small and unassuming that I feel sure I should already know it:

morkin n an animal that has died by accident [Origin from Anglo-French mortekine, from Latin morticina (fem adj) carrion, from mors death] Chambers, 1998

I wonder if there's also a word that specifies "an animal that died of natural causes" or "an animal that died under suspicious circumstances"? Was it the rabbit, in the hedgerow, with the revolver?

Sunday, 6 December 2009


I really like this word, the way it rolls off the tongue:

rodomontade n extravagant boasting vi to bluster or brag [Origin from the boasting of Rodomonte in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso] Chambers, 1998

It's another word originating from a work of creative writing, like mumpsimus, and actually I think the two of them make a nice pair: "Have you heard Bob's latest rodomontade?" "Oh, he's just an old mumpsimus" etc.

As to the word's origins, Ariosto was an Italian poet who wrote the romantic epic poem Orlando Furioso in c.1513. Rodomonte is a boastful warrior who joins forces with the King of Africa to overrun Europe. They besiege the Emperor Charlemagne in Paris, but the bulk of the action takes place all over the world in a fantastical love story that even takes a detour to the moon.

"And boastful Rodomont, with vengeful doom,
Gives Paris to the flames, and levels Rome."

(original Italian)
"e Rodomonte audace se gli vanta
arder Parigi e spianar Roma santa."

[from Canto 65, taken from Project Gutenberg]

It's perhaps needless to say that things don't go too well for old Rodomonte. He's cruel, haughty and scornful and the poem ends with his death. Beware boasters: don't get cocky.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


Time for a quickie. This sounds like something from the Beano or perhaps Harry Potter:

spoffish (archaic) adj fussy, officious [Origin obscure] Chambers, 1998

I love it when even the dictionaries don't know the origin of a word. Where did spoffish come from, I wonder?

Friday, 4 December 2009


I feel rather sad that I've never heard this word before, not only because it must surely be in fairly common usage, but because it has such a lovely meaning:

irenic or irenical adj tending to create peace; pacific [From Greek eirene peace] Chambers, 1998

There are a few derivatives. Irenology is the study of peace and irenics is a branch of theology that promotes peace between Christian churches. Perhaps it's not used very often because of a perceived limitation due to the link with Christianity rather than multiple religions? Or perhaps it gets used lots and I've just been spending too much time watching The Wire to listen out for peaceful words.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Only two days in and I've already used two F-words. Hmm. Should I be using some kind of system? Should each letter of the alphabet be proportionally represented? Maybe I should focus on words that will help me win at scrabble? Oh well, I'll worry about that tomorrow. Today's dictionary browsing has already yielded the delightful "mumpsimus":

mumpsimus n a view or opinion stubbornly held, even when shown to be misguided; a person holding such a view, or one adhering stubbornly to old ways. [Origin from an ignorant priest's blunder (in an old story) for the Latin word sumpsimus, we have received, in the mass] Chambers, 1998

The only reason this word exists is because a priest said the word wrong in mass. That's already brilliant, but particularly so because it wasn't even in real life - it was a fictional priest in a story. Also, I love the definition. It implies that when everyone pointed out his mistake he just put his fingers in his ears, sang "la laa laa" loudly and pretended he'd meant to say it that way all along.

I also like the fact that it can describe the opinion as well as the person. So it could be either "There's no shaking that Louis Walsh from his mumpsimus" or "There's no shaking that mumpsimus, Louis Walsh". I can already think of twenty places on the internet where this word is going to come in very handy.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


I heard the word "flocculent" at a reading last night and decided to look it up to make sure it means what I think it means. I'm guessing some sort of adjective characterised by the ability to flock?

flocculent adj woolly; flaky; flocculated Chambers, 1998

Okay, and so "flocculated" means?

flocculate vt and vi to collect or mass together in tufts, flakes or cloudy masses
Chambers, 1998

They're both derivatives listed under the main entry for "floccus":

floccus n a tuft of woolly hair; a tuft, esp at the end of a tail; the covering of unfledged birds [From Latin floccus a lock or trifle]
Chambers, 1998

There are some more fantastic derivatives listed there though. My two favourites are:

floccillation n fitful plucking at the bedclothes by a delirious patient
Chambers, 1998

floccinaucinihilipilification n (facetious) setting at little or no value
Chambers, 1998

I keep giggling in the middle of the second one, so instead today I'm going to learn "floccillation" (pronounced flock-sill-ation). I'm imagining a sentence along the lines of "Hastings' description of the poor woman's floccillation meant that Poirot was immediately able to identify the poison used". Of course it's unlikely to come up every day, but then again I do watch an awful lot of Poirot.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


Okay, first day. I'm already paranoid that I'm going to choose words that everyone else already knows, so the first one had better be good. I'm flicking through a 2,000-page 1998 Chambers dictionary that I have to hand, although I'm thinking that it's no longer very NEW, as proudly proclaimed on the cover. May have to rectify this over the next 100 days.

So, after flipping through the left-hand pages of the dictionary (must remember to favour the right-hand next time), I've decided to pick the word "flamfew". It's already marked as obsolete and it only prompts around 2,000 hits from google, which makes it a perfect word to learn and try to resurrect. Here's the definition:

flamfew n a fantastic trifle or gewgaw. [From French fanfelue] Chambers, 1998

Three problems. Problem One: do they mean "a fantastic trifle or a fantastic gewgaw" or do they mean "a fantastic trifle OR a gewgaw", implying that flamfew is just another word for gewgaw? Problem Two: Is a trifle meant to be something of little value or is it a spongy cake with fruit and custard? Problem Three: What on earth is a gewgaw? Blimey. Looks like I'm going to get two new words for the price of one today.

gewgaw n a toy; a trifling object, a bauble. adj showy without value. [Origin unknown] Chambers, 1998

Not a truly fantastic trifle cake then.

Gewgaw rhymes with "queue-gore" and flamfew is just as it looks. So, a flamfew is basically the same as a gewgaw, only a bit more whimsical or fanciful. Picture it as the difference between a nodding dog on a car dashboard (gewgaw) and a nodding dog on the dashboard of a unicorn-drawn Mini Cooper (flamfew).

More tomorrow. In the meantime I'm going to try and spot as many flamfews as I can and point them out to people.

Monday, 30 November 2009


Okay, I'm going to start learning a new word every day as of tomorrow. Hmm... where shall I look for these words? I think I'm going to start just flicking through the dictionary at random, but I wonder how satisfying that's going to be for 100 days? Also, I'm going to be away a lot, and there's no way I'm lugging my attack-weight dictionary around with me. Must have a think.