Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

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Is there a word for . . . ?

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One of my favourite aromas (another being geranium leaves) is the one that rises from dry ground when it starts to rain. How would I describe it? No idea. Until now, that is. Because I’ve just discovered a word invented for this very purpose: petrichor.

Arriving like an interesting latecomer at a party, petrichor wasn’t coined until the 1960s. Oxford Dictionaries explains that the word is a “blend of petro- ‘relating to rocks’ (the smell is believed to be caused by a liquid mixture of organic compounds which collects in the ground) and ichor.”

Ichor? I know, one thing always leads to another. But I’m very glad it did in this case because, as Oxford Dictionaries explains, ichor is “the fluid which flows like blood in the veins of the gods.” How poetic!

Anyway, if you want to find out a bit more about this word, the people who coined it and the science behind it, here’s the Wikipedia article, plus a really interesting piece in Scientific American.

 

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Revamps, vamps and vampires

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Thinking of having a revamp? Then you’re probably not planning a trip to your local shoe repair shop.

If you revamp something or vamp it up a little you’re making it better or improving it in some way. So why the shoes? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve just found out.

Polidori: Byron’s personal physician, author of The Vampyre, and maverick speller

The word ‘vamp‘ has its origins in Middle English and referred to the foot of a stocking. The word was later used to mean attaching a new upper to a boot or shoe. It was probably sometime in the nineteenth century (views differ) when the term ‘revamp’ began to be used in a much more general sense to refer to making improvements.

Vamp can also mean a woman who sets out to exploit men.  In this case, the word is related to ‘vampire‘, referring to a corpse who drinks the blood of the living.

(Favourite moans revisited: the sheer amount of female-specific abusive words that exist is covered here).

By the way, men can be vampires too. But they’d probably wear shoes more like these:

 

Written by Wordwatch

25/04/2017 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Wordwatching

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Anchors, beech trees and boks

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Anchors and beech trees. I know, how come I’ve not covered these already? Anyway, the first bit of this will be a confession about how thick I can be, and the second bit is designed to take your mind off the first bit.

Until very recently I thought that ‘anchors aweigh’ was spelt ‘anchors away’. Well, in my defence, I’ve never had to actually write the phrase down and the ‘away’ spelling that was vaguely lodged in my mind does kind of make sense; after all, the anchor is pulled away from the seabed when the ship has to start off (or whatever the nautical phrase is for a ship starting off).

So why ‘anchors aweigh’? Well, here’s a pretty good explanation from the US Navy website:

The word ‘weigh’ in this sense comes from the archaic word meaning to heave, hoist or raise. ‘Aweigh’ means that the action has been completed. The anchor is aweigh when it is pulled from the bottom. This event is duly noted in the ship’s log.

However, the soup thickens. Apparently, says Oxford Dictionaries, nautical types are allowed to spell ‘under way’ (as when something is in progress) as ‘under weigh’. Who knew?

Root and branch investigation

So, we’ve established that I shouldn’t be editing the next edition of The Big Book of Nautical Words, but what about the beech trees?

515rbud1rl__sx362_bo1204203200_This is from the enchanting Tree Wisdom by Jaqueline Memory Paterson. She explains that the beech tree has a unique place in European legend due to the belief that thin slices of beech wood were used to create the first book, as well as surfaces for writing on.

These stories, says the author, are backed by etymology, as the Anglo-Saxon for ‘beech’ was ‘boc’ which became our word, ‘book’. ‘Buche’ is the German for ‘beech’ and ‘buch’ the German for ‘book’, and the Swedish word ‘bok’ means both ‘book’ and ‘beech’.

See, now you’ve forgotten all about the anchors aweigh fiasco. Although I will be including the phrase in future spelling tests, so be warned.

The sound of serendipity

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Horace Walpole: word coiner and frill fan

Where was I? Oh, yes: serendipity.

The Wordwatch Towers inbox has recently been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an email asking me to explain the origins of this lovely word (which means making a happy and unexpected accidental discovery).

The butler (at a loose end since my reader Gladys went to Devon to help celebrate her sister’s 86th) immediately dusted down Oxford Dictionaries online and discovered a rather lovely snippet.

walpole horace gothic B20114 47The word was coined in 1754 by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole, well known in his day as the author of The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel.

Walpole used the word serendipity in his correspondence, having based it on The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy tale (Horace called it ‘silly’) in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. You can read more about this on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

Hmm …

Here comes the hmm … as you know, I am not one to nitpick (ahem), but there’s a first time for everything. The Oxford Dictionaries blog post referred to above describes the word serendipity as ‘wonderfully onomatopoeic’. Is it?

Doesn’t ‘onomatopoeic’ mean words like ‘buzz’ and ‘bang’ and hiss’ – words based on the sound they describe? Does serendipity sound like the – er – sound of happy chance discoveries? I don’t fink so.

Written by Wordwatch

21/07/2016 at 9:50 pm

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