Sunday, 23 April 2017

Musical Terms

Whilst invigilating for a music exam a few weeks ago, the young man for whom I was acting as reader and scribe came out with several expressions. Some of these I would never have thought related to music, others I had never heard before.

As usual, I was more interested in how the terms developed and in the original usage and meaning.

Accidental - in a musical sense not used since 1868 when it was coined to describe a passage where the note changes without essentially changing the key of the passage. If you have no idea what that means you're not alone. What is clearer is this comes from 'accident', itself traceable to Proto-Indo-European kad or 'to make fall'.

Accompany - seen in a musical sense since 1744, only 13 years after it had first been used in an heraldic sense. Derived from 'companion', this can also be traced to Proto-Indo-European where pa meant 'to feed' and gave us recognisable words in Latin and French where panis and pain respectively mean 'bread'.

Adagio - first seen in a musical sense in 1746, the instruction to play 'slowly, leisurely, gracefully' has an identical origin to 'adjacent', both can be traced to Proto-Indo-European ye 'to throw, impel' - which suggests quite the opposite!

Air - used in a musical sense since 1580, it shares an origin with 'aria' (see below)

Allegro - musically 'brisk, sprightly, cheerful' and used since 1721. It originates in a Proto-Germanic term meaning 'zeal, eagerness' and is thought to have roots meaning 'wander, roam'.

Alto - means 'high' and seen since 1784, this began as Proto-Indo-European al 'to grow, nourish'.

Andante - seen since 1742, it means 'moderately slow', coming from a Latin root ambire 'to go round'. This origin would never have occurred to ABBA when they released the album Super Trouper containing the song Andante, Andante when it went round and round at 33rpm.

Arabesque - of Moorish or Arabic design and seen since 1786, it is from the Italian word for an Arab, itself thought to mean 'inhabitant of the desert'.

Aria - is literally the Italian for 'air'. The English word is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awer, which meant 'sky' as much as 'atmosphere'. It has also given us words meaning 'raising', 'mist', 'haze', 'clouds', 'artery' and 'bright'.

Arpeggio - since 1742 and meaning 'harping' which has the same origin as 'harp' (see below).

Bagatelle - 'a trifle' and used musically since 1827. It has the same origin as 'bag', itself of uncertain etymology but thought to be related to 'belly' and 'bellows'.

Baritone - a deeper male voice and the reason it is related to Proto-Indo-European gwere 'heavy' and ten 'to stretch'.

Bass - in use since 1590, the etymology can be traced to the same root as 'base' which comes from Latin bassus 'thick, stumpy, low' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwa 'to go, come'.

Beat - musically since 1842, it has the same origin as the sense 'to thrash' which comes from Proto-Indo-European bhau 'to strike'.

Bow - the earlist musical bows were curved, like the bow of an archer. Used since 1570, this shape is the reason the origin is Proto-Indo-European bheug 'bent'.

Bridge - a musical bridge contrasts with the main theme and, as the name suggests, connects them. Not seen until the late 19th century, it comes as no surprise to find it shares an origin with the more common sense and is derived from Proto-Indo-European bhru 'log, beam'.

Cadenza - musically since 1836, it is the passage near the close of a song and shares an origin with 'accidental' (see above).

Carol - a 'joyful song' and coined around the end of the 13th century when it was also used to refer to 'a dance in a ring'. Both originate in the Latin choraules 'flute player' and ultimately, which shares an origin with 'chorus', from Proto-Indo-European gher 'to grasp, enclose'. Not until the end of the 16th century was the term used to refer to a song associated with Christmas.

Chord - shares an origin with 'cord' in the Greek khorde 'gut-string, tripe' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghere 'gut, entrail' from which musical strings were once produced.

Coda - seen since 1753, this is derived from Latin cauda 'animal tail' and chosen as the coda is the concluding passage in a musical composition.

Composition - ultimayely the same as 'compose', this can be traced to com 'with' and poser which shares an origin and meaning with 'pause' and therefore the meaning of 'compose', seen today in a creative sense, began in the sense 'cease'.

Concert - since the 16th century and from a word meaning 'harmony', this comes from a Latin verb cernere 'seperate, distinguish' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European krei 'discriminate, distinguish' and has exactly the same origin as 'crisis'.

Conduct - is of Latin origin and means 'to bring together' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European deuk 'to lead'.

Flat - seen in music since 1670, it comes from Proto-Indo-European plat 'to spread'.

Harp - taken from the name of the instrument which, sadly, is of unknown origin. However it is thought to be related to the Old English harpa meaning 'instrument of torture' - clearly the harp was once confused with the bagpipes.

Instrumental - from the Latin instruere 'arrange, furnish', this has an identical origin to the word 'structure' and is derived from the Proto-Indo-European stere 'to extend, spread, stretch out'.

Key - musically since 1630, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic ki 'to cleave, split'.

Major - not seen musically until 1797, it comes from the Latin magnus 'great' and Proto-Indo-European meg with identical meaning.

Minor - also seen musically since 1797, the term comes to English from Latin minores and Proto-Indo-European mei 'small'.

Note - seen musically from the end of the 13th century, here the earliest origin we can find is Latin gnoscere 'to know'.

Opera - musically since 1640, it comes from Proto-Indo-European op 'to work' and also 'to produce in abundance'.

Overture - used to mean 'an opening' before the musical snse in 1660. Here the origin is Proto-Indo-European ap 'away' and wer 'to cover'.

Piano - effectively means 'soft', the name first used for the instrument from 1803. It shares an origin with the carpentry tool, the 'plane', in meaning 'flat'.

Pitch - musically since 1670, it is related to 'prick' and shares an origin meaning 'pointed, dagger'.

Scale in a musical sense since 1590, it comes from the Latin scala 'ladder' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European skand 'spring, leap, climb'.

Score - not seen in a musical sense until 1839, the term is ultimately Proto-Indo-European and from sker meaning 'cut' and sharing an origin with 'scissors' and 'shears'.

Sharp - 1570 was the first year when it was used musically, it shares an origin with 'score' (see above).

Solo - first seen in 1690, this is from Latin solus and Proto-Indo-European swo meaning 'so' and also the root of 'as' and 'himself'.

String - was first known in a musical sense to mean 'to tune someone or something' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European strenk 'tight, narrow'.

Suite - in a musical sense from 1680, it shares an origin with 'suit' used in both a clothing and playing card sense. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sekw 'to follow'.

Theme - not used musically until 1929, this comes from Proto-Indo-European dhe-mn 'to set'.

Tone - musically since the middle of the 14th century, this shares an origin with 'baritone' in Proto-Indo-European ten 'to stretch'.

These, for the most part, quite unrelated origins were not unexpected but at least I now have a reason for my addagios not being graceful, my piano playing sounding flat, and plucking the strings of a harp being considered torture.

Sunday, 16 April 2017


Trying out different fonts recently I admit before long I was bemused by the vast array now available. Their names, too, are rather confusing but clearly will have little etymological value as, in the main they have been created comparatively recently.

Yet I did think it might be a nice idea to find the origins of the words now used for fonts and typefaces. What follows is but a selection. Antique - is first used in English around the start of the 16th century and first seen as an adjective. It comes to us through a Latin line and ultimately comes from two Proto-Indo-European words anti 'before' and okw 'appearance'.

Baskerville - one of the few named as a typeface, this created around 1750 and named for British type-founder and printer John Baskerville (1706-75). He was not the inspiration for the famous story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Bembo - named and first used in 1930 and based on a 15th century typeface by Aldus Manutius when printing a work penned by the Venetian scholar, poet, cardinal and member of the Knights Hospitallier, Pietro Bembo (1470-1547).

Bauhaus - a German word meaning literally 'architecture house' and a reference to the school of design founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919.

Bodoni - based on and named after Italian printer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813), the modern version is a composite of his many forms.

Cascade - a word coming to English from Latin cascata 'waterfall' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kad 'fall, lay out'. Note the use as a verb began in 1702 and used to refer to 'vomit'.

Clarendon - named after the Clarendon press at Oxford University, set up 1713 in the Clarendon Building and named for the Chancellor Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon.

Doric - an architectural style and an adjective derived from Dorian, itself the Greek meaning 'of Doris' a district in central Greece and itself named for Doros the legendary ancestor of the Dorians. The name Doros comes from Proto-Indo-European do 'to give'.

Garamond - named in 1780 after French type-founder Claude Garamond (1510-61). His work saw him producing the punches used to make the type.

Goudy - named in 1917 after the typographer Fredeic W. Goudy (1865-1947). This Chicago man, a realtor his entire working life, and by his own admittance a very poor realtor, changed direction at the age of 40 and left his name in a family of typefaces featuring no less than 113 different styles.

Hanseatic - takes the name of the federation of German towns, the Hanseatic League, of the 17th century. It derives it name from the Middle Low German for 'merchants' guild'.

Korinna - is a Greek word meaning 'maiden'.

Melior - is a Latin word meaning 'better' and comes from Proto-Indo-European mel 'strong, great, numerous'.

Quorum - is Latin and means 'of whom'.

Roman - clearly named for the upright style of lettering, but of greater interest is the French word roman which means 'novel'.

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Now anyone who has read my blog before will not be surprised to learn I'm looking at the origins of their names, not the religions themselves.

Christianity describes one as a follower of Christ and thus takes that name. Following this back in time we find this as a Germanic translation of Greek khristos meaning 'the anointed', a translation of the Hebrew mashiah and from the Greek verb khriein 'to rub'.

Buddhism, again clearly derived from Buddha, takes the name meaning 'awakened, enlightened'. This comes from budh 'to awake, to know' and related to the Sanskrit bodhati 'observes, understands' and sharing a root with English 'bode' meaning 'proclaim, foretell'.

Hindiusm is from the Persian word Hindu meaning 'Indian' and used both as an adjective and a noun. This in turn came from Sanskrit sindhu 'river' and specifically the Indus river and thus these were 'the region of the Indus'.

Judaism can be traced through the Old French Judaisme, to Latin Judaismus, and to Greek Ioudaios or 'Jew'. In turn this comes from the Hebrew yY'hudah meaning literally 'celebrated' and traditionally held to be the name of Jacob's fourth son from whom all Jews are descended.

Islam is an Arabic word meaning 'submission', this to the will of God. It comes from the root aslama meaning 'he resigned, surrendered, submitted', this is related to salima 'he was safe' and related to salam 'peace'.

Taoism is a religious system founded by Lao Tzu in the 19th century. Here the basis is Chinese tao or 'way, path, right way (of life)' and also 'reason'.

Shintoism is a religious system heralding from Japan and dating from the early 18th century. The term comes from the Chines shin tao, translated as 'way of the gods'.

Polytheism is a belief in many gods, the name from the Greek polytheos. This can be taken further to the Proto-Indo-European pele 'to fill' which has given a word meaning 'plenty' in many languages. There is also the Greek theo, again to be traced to Proto-Indo-European and the root dhes which has given many religious concepts in many languages including Latin feriae, festus and fanum meaning 'holidays', 'festive' and 'temple' respectively.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Roman Towns in Britain

Many will know how place names ending in -cester or -chester show they were former Roman towns. Until comparatively recently this was attributed to the Romans themselves, where the Latin castra or 'fort' had produced the name. Yet records show these settlements were not known as -cesters or -chesters until after the Romans had left. Further proof of a different origin comes in the form of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where caester meant very specifically 'a former Roman stronghold'. Thus could not have been named until after the Romans departure because of (a) the specific meaning and (b) the language was not known in Britain until after the Romans had left.

The following list of Roman towns give the modern name and that used by the Romans, along with a definition wherever possible.

Bath is an Old English name, this clearly referring to 'the Roman baths'. The Romans referred to the place as Aquae Sulis, this 'the waters of Sulis'. The place was already a shrine to the Celtic goddess Sulis, the Romans seeing similarities with their goddess Minerva and always keen to adopt as many gods as possible (one can never have too many gods), a goddess perceived as the life-giving mother goddess. Further information on Bath and nearby place names can be found in my Somerset Place Names.

Canterbury speaks of itself as 'the stronghold of the people of Kent'. To the Romans it was Durovernum Cantiacorum, here the Romans referred to the former British tribe, the Cantiaci, residing at Durou ernon or 'stronghold by the alder grove'. All this is covered in my book East Kent Place Names.

Carlisle is a an old British name meaning 'the (place) of a man called Luguvalos'. The Celtic term cair added to the personal name, much as the Romans did when they called this place Luguvallum. Further information in my Cumbria Place Names.

Chelmsford comes from 'the ford of a man called Ceolmaer', while the Romans knew this as Caesaromagus or 'the market place of Caesar'. See my Essex Place Names.

for further information. Chester simply uses the basic Old English caester or 'former Roman stronghold' with no additions. For the Romans this was Deva Victrix, the Latin referring to the goddess who also gave a name to the River Dee, with Viictrix simply meaning 'victorious' and all seen in Cheshire Place Names.

Cirencester tells us it was 'the former Roman stronghold known as Corinion, the origin of which is uncertain but may share an origin with the River Churn in ultimately referring to a tribe known as the Cornovii. It is known several tribes throughout the land were known as such, the meaning is unclear but could mean 'the people of the horn' and refer to the shape of the land they occupied. These and more in Gloucestershire Place Names by, of course, me!

Colchester is 'the former Roman stronghold on the Colne', Camulodunum to the Romans who knew this as 'the stronghold of the Camulos' a Celtic deity seen as the equivalent of the Roman Mars with more information in my Essex Place Names.

Doncaster is 'the former Roman stronghold on the River Don', a British river name meaning simply 'water'. To the Romans this was Danum for the same reason, with information on the place in my South Yorkshire Place Names and on the river name in English River Names by the same author.

Dover, or Dubris to the Romans, is found in my East Kent Place Names where you will discover both originate in the British name for the River Dour, where dubras simply meant 'water'.

Exeter also owes its present name to the river on which it stands, the present name speaking of 'the former Roman stronghold on the Exe' with the river name again meaning simply 'water', while the Roman name of Isca Dumnoniorum describes the river as 'full of fish' being where the people known as the Dumnonians or 'people of the vales'. You can find more information on this and neighbouring place names in my South Devon Place Names.

Gloucester, which is the county town found in Gloucestershire Place Names, has the modern name referring to 'the former Roman stronghold called Glevum, which is exactly what the Roman name was for the Celtic settlement named as the 'bright place'.

Lancaster and the Roman name of Lunecastrum share an origin in the river on which the fortification stands - Oold English caester and Latin castrum both refer to the Roman fortification, albeit the former in the past tense. The river name, as discussed in my English River Names, comes from a British term meaning 'healthy, pure', while the Lancashire town can be found in Lancashire Place Names.

Leicester speaks of itself as 'the former Roman stronghold of the Ligore, a tribal name of unknown origins. The Romans knew the place as Ratae Coritanorum, the first element meaning 'ramparts' and the latter the tribal name of Corieltauvians, again of unknown origins as is discussed in my Leicestershire Place Names.

Lincoln, as found in my Lincolnshire Place Names, was known to the Romans as Lindum Colonia was known as the linduo colonia or 'the pool of the Roman colony (for retired legionaries)'.

London is often said to be 'the place of a man called Londinos', but just who that person was is unknown, as was it to the Romans whose form of Londinium shares an origin but was equally uncertain. A deeper look into the alternative meanings of the name is found in my Middlesex Place Names.

Manchester is traditionally a city of Lancashire, and is therefore covered by my Lancashire Place Names where we see 'the former Roman stronghold near the mamm or breast-shaped hill' was known as Mancunium by the Romans, a name of identical meaning.

Newcastle speaks for itself, although note this castle is 'new' which tells us it replaced an earlier feature. To the Romans this was Pons Aelius, this meaning 'the bridge of Aelius', this the clan or family name of the Emperor Hadrian. More information can be found in my Northumberland Place Names.

Pevensey is an Old English name meaning 'the river of a man called Pefen'. To the Romans this was Anderitum which, as discussed in my East Sussex Place Names, simply means 'the great ford'.

Rochester, found in my West Kent Place Names, is 'the former Roman stronghold called Hrofi'. This is not a personal name but badly corrupted form of the earlier name of Durobrivis, the Roman version Durobrivae, both meaning 'the walled town with bridges'.

St Albans, as found in my Hertfordshire Place Names, is named as 'the holy place of St Alban', this the saint martyred here in AD 209. Earlier this had been Verulamium, this possibly referring to 'the tribe of the broad hand'..

Salisbury refers to itself as 'the stronghold at Sorvio', hence for the Romans this was Sorviodunum. As discussed in my Wiltshire Place Names, the etymological trail ends here.

Winchester refers to itself as 'the former Roman stronghold called Venta' and known as Venta Belgarum to the Romans. Here the venta or 'town' was associatd with the tribe known as the Belgae, who not only gave their name to modern Belgium but also gave us a series of Brythonic and Gaulish derived words fundamentally telling us they had a reputaion for being angry. Find out more in Hampshire Place Names.

Worcester or 'the former Roman stronghold of the Weogora is found in my Worcestershire Place Names.Here the name of the tribe is shown to come from 'the people of the winding river', while the Roman name of Wigornia has identical origins.

Wroxeter, found in my Shropshire Place Names, speaks of 'the Roman stronghold of the Uriconio. Known to the Romans as Virconium, both these early names have given us the modern name of Wrekin and derived from a personal name with a root meaning 'man wolf'..

Yarmouth, as discussed in my Isle of Wight Place Names, stands at the 'gravelly or muddy estuary'. To the Romans this was Magna Gernemutha, the same meaning but with the addition of magna or 'great'.

York, famously known to the Romans as Eboracum, will be covered in my forthcoming North Yorkshire Place Names, where the ancient Celtic name of Eborus is shown to refer to 'the place of the yew trees'.

Sunday, 26 March 2017


Currently reading Michael Wood's A Story of England. This book accompanied the television series of 2012. The BBC also put together a series of events at museums up and down the country and I was lucky enough to be invited to events at Coventry and Gloucester.

In the earliest part of the book the author speaks of archaeologists uncovering teeth, at which point the etymologist kicked in and I found myself wondering how these ancient ancestors referred to their dentition. Furthermore just when did the modern terminology evolve? And most importantly, why is 'tooth' the singular and 'teeth' plural?

Tooth is of Proto-Germanic origins, similar words are found in Old English, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German, and Gothic. This root (no pun intended) is also the reason why words such as Old English toth saw a plural as teth or tith. The other major source of English words, the Latin group of languages, takes us on to the next in the list .....

Dentist or dentition may be though of as a modern word but these go back to Proto-Indo-European dent, identical to the modern French word for 'tooth' and also giving us Sanskrit danta, Greek odontos, Latin dens, Lithuanian dantis, Old Irish det and Welsh dent and all with exactly the same meaning.

Bicuspid is first seen in 1826, a technical term derived from the Latin bi cuspidem or 'having two parts'.

Canine is not difficult to understand, their very shape is reminiscent to those of the dog and it comes from the Latin caninus or 'pointed tooth'. This is first seen around 1600, while the adjective for a dog has no surviving records prior to 1620 - this is not to say they were not used prior to this but simply no records survive.

Incisor is a Medieval Latin word meaning 'cutting tooth', coming from the Latin incus or 'to cut into'. The same root also gave us 'incision' and 'scissors'.

Molar is from the Latin molaris dens or 'grinding tooth'. This comes ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mel 'to rub, grind' and which is also the source of the word 'mill'.

Wisdom is best defined first in the sense of 'sage, learning, experience'. This Germanic word is a compound of wis, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European weid 'to know', and dom, a Germanic suffix meaning 'judgement' (this the same root as 'doom'). The first reference to 'wisdom teeth' is found in 1848 (prior to this the term was 'teeth of wisdom') and so-called as they erupt around the ages 17 to 25, early adulthood when a person is deemed to be wise.

Cementum is the hard substance covering the root. Clearly this is derived from the same root as 'cement', itself from Latin caementa 'stone chips used for making mortar' and ultimately from caedere 'to cut down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay'.

Crown is obviously from the use of the royal headwear, albeit used as a verb. The word is of Latin origins, where corona originally meant 'wreath, garland'.

Enamel, the hardest part of the tooth, takes its name from the other use where en is a French term preceding esmal, Frankish smalt and Proto-Germanic smaltjan 'to smelt'.

Gum, when referring to the soft tissue of the mouth, comes from a Germanic term meaning 'palate'. Ultimately this shares an origin with Proto-Indo-European gheu 'to yawn'.

Root shares an origin with the underground part of the plant, the dental sense first seen in the late 12th century. The Germanic root of 'root' is wrot and ultimately from wrad, the Proto-Indo-European word which is still found when writing a shopping list for a salad, this being the origin of 'radish', literally 'root-ish'.

Nerve had been used to mean 'sinew, tendon', never used in the modern idea of a conduit for sending impulses to the brain until around 1600. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sneu 'tendon, sinew'.

Incidentally the reason so many teeth are found in comparison to other parts of the skeleton is because they are so resilient. In humans there is the added bonus that teeth, in particular those of children, were not disappearing into the night in the pocket of the tooth-fairy as, quite astonishingly, there is no written record of such before 1964.

Sunday, 19 March 2017


Whilst my taste in music is varied it could never be described as eclectic - incidentally this is number two on my list of least favourite words, albeit a considerable way behind the P-word. But I digress. My mentioning music came after I was recently sent a list of classical composers, these were to be included in a quiz-style crossword. Followers of my blog will not be surprised to discover some of the clues were based on the etymologies of their names.Thus this time a look at the origins of a selection of the names of composers which many will infinitely better acquainted than I - and yes, 'a selection' means I have only included those I could define.

Bach - being German he took his name from the word for a stream, rivulet, brook, or creek.

Bartok - this Hungarian takes the pet form of a the Christian name Bartalan or Bertalan, itself a form of Bartholomew.

Beethoven - another of German origins where beeth, meaning 'beet', and hofen, the plural of hof, meaning 'farms', tell us this most famous of deaf people had ancestors who farmed beetroot.

Bellini - Italian operatic composer Vincenzo has a surname translating as 'the little beautiful one'.

Borodin - the Russian translation is, quite literally, 'well height' and understood to as 'tall'.

Brahms - a German name which is ultimately of Hebrew origin in Bram where it meant 'high or good father'.

Bruckner - a topographical name, the earliest meaning being for a person who lived on or near a causeway or bridge. However it is more commonly applied to those who worked at such a location, gathering tolls and/or maintaining a bridge.

Chopin - a French surname derived from an old liquid imperial measurement. In France it would be seen as roughly equal to a quart but in Scotland became corrupted to refer to a half pint.

Debussy - a French surname taken from any of several Norman place names all of which mean 'mouth' and of which there is even an example of a Norman landholder in Domesday, this being Robert de Buci.

Delius - a name of Greek origin meaning 'from Delos', a Greek island of 1.32 square miles and a population at the 2001 census of 14.

Dvorak - a common Czech surname referring to a rich landowner in a manor house.

Elgar - a name of Germanic origins, it literally means 'shining spear'.

Faure - an Occitan name, a Romance language, meaning simply 'blacksmith'.

Franck - comes from the French reference to those Germanic peoples living around the Rhine during the times of the Roman Empire, the Franks.

Glinka - a Polish name, one referring to those who came from Glinki.

Gluck - is taken from a Yiddish word glik meaning 'luck'.

Grieg - is ultimately from the Greek gregorein 'be awake, watchful'.

Handel - a Germanic name meaning 'trade' or 'commerce'.

Haydn - a Welsh name derived from the Celtic Aidan, itself meaning 'little fire'.

Holst - refers to someone from Holstein, the German town having a name coming from the people who lived here the Holcetae or 'dwellers in the wood'.

Liszt - a Hungarian name which literally translates as 'flour'.

Mahler - is a German surname and, like the above, is a trade name. Whilst it is derived from the word for 'painter', the name is very specifically used to refer to those who painted stained glass.

Mozart - derived from the Latin, this meaning 'the love of God'.

Purcell - another of Norman origin where the literal translation is 'piglet', however it would have been used a nickname or to refer to a swineherd.

Rossini - an Italian name derived from rosso meaning 'red' and originally applied to one with red hair or ruddy complexion.

Schoenberg - is another topographical name, here German scoene berg refers to 'a beautiful hill'.

Schubert - is a trade name of German origin where schuoch wurhte meant 'shoemaker, cobbler'.

Schumann - has an identical meaning, albeit here the German schuoh mann refers literally to 'a shoe man'.

Smetana - a name of Czech and/or Ukranian Jewish origins. The origin is undoubtedly smetana meaning 'cream', although whether it was a nickname, perhaps for someone who liked cream (or ironically one who did not) or a trader in this and other dairy products is unknown.

Sousa - a name of Portuguese origins, being particularly common in former Portuguese colonies. Archaically it refers to a place, any place where the people came from for it describes them as being 'of the rocks'.

Strauss - a Germanic surname which has at least three equally plausible origins. It may be the family lived in a place named Straus, itself referring to 'the ostrich'. Here this may point to a place where the feathers of this bird were used in heraldry or, and this an alternative origin, as a nickname for those who habitually wore same as an adornment. Alternatively this may also be a nickname for someone known for arguing or confrontation, for the German struz means 'quarrel, belligerent'.

Tchaikovsky - a Russian composer whose name comes from the Russian for a bird, specifically the gull.

Verdi - an Italian composer with an Italian name meaning 'green'.

Vivaldi - another Italian composer whose name is derived from vita or 'life'.

Wagner - a German name from waganari meaning either 'wagon maker' or 'wagon driver'.

Walton - an English place name, where wahl tun means 'the farmstead of the foreigners' (Britons).

Weber - a German name and another representing a trade for this translates as 'weaver'.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Nothing political here, I am talking about metrication. Those of you of a certain age will recall the days before metres and litres when measurements may have been a little more complicated but were certainly more fun.

Being of a certain age I recall the initial confusion from February 1971, when the pound sterling ceased being divided into 240 pennies but now only had a hundred. I've often thought it would be fun to change these values annually, where the pound is divided into smaller denominations. Perhaps reintroduce the shilling but this time there will be 17 shillings to the pound and 31 pennies in a shilling. Prime numbers are far more interesting.

If this seems rather odd, cast your mind back to the days when our exercise books had a series of tables on the reverse telling us how many pecks were in a bushel and other imperial measurements the younger generations may never have heard of. Each of these seeming oddities has a beginning and therefore a meaning. There are so many it is impossible to work all of them but here are a selection and taken in alphabetical order.

Acre is probably one of the better known imperial measurements. It is commom to many languages and originates in the Proto-Indo-European root agro which simply meant 'field' and not used as a measurement in the modern sense until the 13th century.

Bar, as a unit of pressure, comes from the Greek baros 'heavy' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwere 'weight'.

Bushel, a measure of volume for dry goods, came to English from Old French. Of much more interest is where the French got the term, for it is derived from Gaulish bosta 'palm of the hand', a term still seen in the Irish bass and Breton boz 'hollow of the hand'.

Chain is most often associated with the length of a cricket pitch - 22 yards - and was named because it was measured by using an actual chain. Yet it began with surveying land, the length conveniently being one-tenth of a furlong and any field measuring one furlong in length (220 yards) and a chain in breadth (22 yards) has an area of 4,840 square yards or one acre. It is also still used in identifying any given point on a length of railway track, it seen expressed in miles and chains, and also in distances quoted in horse racing.

Dram comes from the Greek drakhma 'measure of weight' and originally simply meant 'handful'.

Foot holds no surprises, it has always been said to be the length of a man's foot - meaning the measurement varied with the size of the person's feet. As a body part the word dates from Proto-Indo-European (and probably earlier) when ped meant 'foot'.

Furlong is derived from the Germanic furh lang 'the long furrow', and clearly originated through ploughing. Although the mile is the basic measurement of distance today, until Elizabethan times the furlong was the standard and so much so the mile was redefined to make it equal to eight furlongs.

Gallon comes from galleta meaning 'bucket, pail' but also used to refer to 'a measure of wine'.

Grain is clearly related to the same word being used to describe the seed of cereals, and that is exactly what the Proto-Indo-European gre no meant.

Hour predates the clock and can be traced to Proto-Indo-European yor-a meaning 'year' and 'season' and understood as 'point of time'.

Inch is derived from the Latin unus 'one', used in the sense 'a small amount' before becoming a unit of length.

Mile comes from the Latin for 'one thousand' and refers to the number of paces. Now although the mile was rather shorter than the modern 1,760 yards (see furlong), it would still seem a good stride to walk 1,600 yards in a thousand paces. That does not mean the Romans were giants or had impressive inside leg measurements, it is simply the Roman 'pace' would be seen as two paces by us.

Minute has two pronunciations - as a sixtieth of an hour and to refer to something small. Originally the former meaning was the only one used and this became the name of the part of the hour, ie a small or minute part of the hour (see second).

Month takes its name from the moon.

Ounce, as with 'inch' can be traced to Latin unus 'one'. What is not well known is the 'ounce' has not only been a measurement of weight but also of time (about 7.1/2 seconds) and length (3 inches).

Peck is another used to refer to volume of dry goods, particularly associated with oats. It is thought to be a variation on 'pick' and used in the sense of 'allowance'.

Perch was a linear measurement of 5.1/2 yards and marked out using such a stick or pole, the reason why it takes the name - this is the French version, also seen in the Old English 'rod' and 'pole' and even 'yard'.

Pint has the same origin as 'paint', for early vessels marked the liquid volume equal to a pint with a painted line.

Quart, or two pints, is also a quater of a gallon and the latter is where the name originates.

Second, as in a sixtieth of a minute, was originally secunda minuta and, as seen in 'minute' above, this was also a 'small part' of an hour but the 'second small part'. Thus as the minute was originally as in 'diminuntive' and the first part of an hour, this measure of time was spoken of as 'the one after the first'.

Ton shares an origin with 'tun', a large cask of wine or beer - most often seen today in the many pubs known as the Three Tuns (symbolising the guilds of brewers and vintners). Thus the weight 'ton' began as a volume 'tun'.

Week is thought to be related to the Old Norse vika, which had the original meaning of 'a turning'. Thus as 'month' is from 'moon', perhaps the four distinct phases of the moon are referred to as 'changes' or 'weeks'.

Year is so old it is impossible to know for certain, the annual cycle clearly not only known to the ancients but what they lived their entire lives by. With similar forms common to many early languages, the root ei with a sense of 'that which makes (grows, produces)' seems likely.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Blooming Etymologies

With spring fast approaching here in the UK and, undoubtedly aided by a mild winter, the flowers associated with the season are already adding a splash of colour. Snowdrops have come and will soon be gone, crocus are putting on an excellent show, yellow daffodils are out or nearly so, and tulips will soon be flowering and looking past their best seemingly hours later.

As with all nouns, names of flowers were originally created in order to be recognised. Over the years these have been corrupted and changed beyond recognition, or named by science for reasons usually only they understand. Thus this time, as you may have guessed, a look at the origins of some flower names. Taken in alphabetical order we begin with .......

Agave is named from the Latin, itself from Greek Agaue, a proper name in Greek mythology. Her name, and thus that of the flower, is derived from the Greek meaning 'noble, illustrious' and thought to have been used by scientists to refer to the flower stem rather than the flower.

Alyssum certainly comes from another Latin loan word from the Greek, although just why alyssos describes the plant as 'curing madness' is not clear.

Amaryllis also has a Latin/Greek origin and comes from amaryssein meaning 'to twinkle, sparkle'.

Anemone is a Greek word meaning 'wind flower', literally 'daughter of the wind' and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European animus, to breathe', with a feminine suffix.

Aster is named from the Latin and Greek for 'star', a refernece to the flower shape.

Azaleas like sandy soil and is named from the Greek azaleos 'dry'. Related words are found in Hittite hassa 'hearth' and Sanskrit asa 'ashes, dust'.

Begonias are named after the French governor of Santo Domingo and patron of botany Michael Begon (1638-1710).

Chrysanthemum comes from the Greek khrysanthemon literally meaning 'golden flower' and unites the elements anthemon 'a flower' and Proto-Indo-European andh 'bloom'.

Cowslip is named for it was thought to grow only on ground where cow dung could previously have been found.

Cyclamen comes from Latin/Greek where ultimately kyklos meant 'circle', a reference to the bulbous shape of the root.

Dahlia comes, as many will know, from Anders Dahl, the Swedish botanist who first found and identified it.

Delphinium is another of Latin/Greek origins. Here Greek staphis agria literally means 'wild raisin'.

Edelweiss, as Vince Hill will undoubtedly have told you, is from the Old High German edili weiss of 'noble white'.

Erica is a plant genus named from the Greek ereike 'heath'.

Forsythia, which just so happens to be showing the first signs of the yellow flower through the window, is named after Scottish horticulturalist William Forsyth (1737-1804). His family name is of Gaelic origin, Fearsithe meaning 'man of peace'.

Fuchsia comes from German botanist Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566) whose name means 'fox'. While the term 'fuchsia' has been taken for the red colouring of the same name, the idea of 'red' referring to the colouring of the fox is, to say the least, fanciful.

Geraniums are named from the Greek and Latin, where grus means 'crane' and refers to the seed pods resembling a bill of the crane, indeed the plant is still sometimes referred to as 'cranesbill'.

Gladiolus is Latin for 'small sword', a reference to its sword-shaped leaves.

Gypsophila comes from the Greek, where gypsos philein literally describes 'to love chalk'.

Hydrangea comes from the Greek hydor angeion meaning water vessel' and a reference to the seed pods.

Lavender came to English from French and ultimately from Latin, where lavare meant 'to wash' and a reminder the scent was used to wash and perfume fabrics.

Magnolias are named after the French physican and botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715).

Narcissus comes from the Greek narke 'numbness' and related to narcotic becuase of the sedative alkaloids obtained from the plant.

Orchids are the favourite flower of many because of their numerous forms and extraodinary colours and shapes. It is also my favourite flower, but for very different reasons. It came to English from Latin orchis and Greek orkhis meaning 'testicle' because of the shape of the root. Around 1300 it was known in England as the 'ballockwort', where 'ballock' is simply the diminutive of 'ball'.

Poinsettias are named after Joel Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico who is credited with bringing the plant to the attention of the rest of world - but this may be a load of orchids.

Rhododendron is the Greek for 'rose tree'.

Snapdragon flowers are said to resemble the mouth of a dragon - and also, since 1704, the name of a game where players pluck raisins from burning brandy and them eat them while still burning.

Tansy is a herb, its name from the French and ultimately the Greek athanasia 'immortality'., itself a a prefix meaning 'not' and thanatos 'death'. This may seem a strange meaning until we learn the plant has always had negative associations with pregnancy, either as a contraceptive or to bring about a miscarriage.

Tulips are my least favourite flower, the leaves begin to droop even before the flower emerges and the petals fall far too easily. It came to English through French and ultimately from Turkish tulbent 'a turban' as it is said to resemble such.

Wisteria was wrongly named after American anatomist Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), making it rather less of an honour.

Sunday, 26 February 2017


When someone recently referred to me as a 'dinosaur', they were suggesting I am reluctant to take on new technologies and changes. As 'dinosaur' is first used in this context in 1952, thus isn't it about time they found a new one?

Used in its better-known context it was coined in 1841 and coined by Sir Richard Owen from the Greek deinos sauros 'terrible lizard'. Something of a misnomer as dinosaurs are not lizards but are reptiles which could be said to be another translation. The term saurus is common to many of the names, its origins are unclear but may be related to saulos 'twisting, wavering'.

Scientists have identified more than one thousand non-avian species. Clearly that is far too many to define etymologically but here follows a selection of the better-known types.

Allosaurus were first identified in 1877 by Othniel Charles Marsh who, rather unimaginatively, named it from the Greek allos saurus 'different lizard'.

Ankylosaurus was first named in 1907. This armoured creature is named from the Greek ankylos saurus or 'curved lizard' and a reference to the shape of the ribs, the first part of the creature to be discovered.

Brachiosaurus is another from the Greek, where brakhion saurus literally means 'arm lizard' and a reference to its front limbs being much more evident than the rear.

Brontosaurus were first named in 1879, where the Greek bronte saurus referred to this as the 'thunder lizard'. While Brontes was the name of a Cyclops in Greek mythology, both share a root in Proto-Indo-European bhrem meaning 'growl'.

Hadrosaurs were named as such in 1865, where Greek hadro saurus describes the 'stout lizard'.

Iguanodon dates from 1825, a composite noun taking 'iguana', itself the local Arawakan name for the creature, and the Greek odonys 'tooth'.

Megalosaurus almost speaks for itself, the Greek megas saurus meaning 'great lizard'.

Mosasaurus is the marine dinosaur seen in Jurassic World and named from the Latin Mosa and Greek saurus describe 'the lizard found near the river Meuse' near Maastricht.

Stegosaurus is first identified in 1892 and named from the Greek stegos saurus, literally 'rood lizard'. This refers to the armour plates which instantly identify the creature, the first element having changed little since Proto-Indo-European steg 'having a roof'.

Diplodocus is from the Greek diplos dokus, quite literally 'double beam' and a reference to the doubling of the bones beneath the long tail.

Tricertops, first identified in 1890, is named from the Greek tirkeratos ops meaning 'three-horned face'.

Tyrannosaurus, first named in 1905, comes from the Greek tyrannos saurus 'tyrant lizard'.

Velociraptors were named in 1924, with the Latin velox raptor 'speedy, swift robber'.

Sunday, 19 February 2017


Have not paid any attention to the news for years. Don't watch it, listen to it, or read about it - virtually every single item I found frustrating or it angered me. If something major happens, someone will tell me.

And this is just how I learned someone nobody likes had been invited to speak in Britain and then wasn't and now has .... I lost interest halfway through and already wondering why various terms had been coined for parliaments around the world. Thus rather than being political, which isn't me, I've opted for the etymological, which is not only me but also infinitely more interesting. There are many different terms for the body of government but will start with the English term.

Parliament is not recorded in English until the end of the twelfth century. From Old French parlement and parler 'to speak'.

Althing, the Icelandic version, is derived from the Germanic thingam 'assembly', also seen in Old English thing, Middle Dutch dinc, and Old High German ding among others. All these can be traced to Proto-Indo-European tenk, literally meaning 'stretch' but used in the sense of 'time' or 'session' put aside for a meeting. Note the modern 'hustings', only heard today to refer to politicians on the campaign trail, shares this origin and came to English from Old Norse husthing or 'house assembly'.

Bundestag and Bunderstat are the two houses of the German parliament, these translating to 'Federal Diet' and 'Federal Council' respectively. Here 'Diet' comes from the Latin dieta or 'parliamentary assembly' and, etymologically speaking, shares an origin with the idea of food intake.

Commons as in 'House of' simply means 'general' and came from the Latin communis.

Congress is first used in the late 14th century to refer to 'a body of attendants' or 'meeting of armed forces', not seen in the modern sense until the early 16th century. This is derived from the Latin congressus, which could be used to mean both a friendly or hostile encounter, depending on the context. Taking this back further we find Latin com 'together' and gradus 'a step'.

Cortes is Spain's version, from Latin cortem which shares an origin with 'court'. While used in the sense of 'assembly' and those present, it also refers to 'the enclosed yard' and where such could assemble.

Curia shares an origin with the above 'Cortes', as we should expect as this is the senate of Rome and where curia meant 'court' and could well come from co wiria 'community of men'.

Dail, the Irish parliament, simply means 'assembly'. Interestingly the root of this Irish term is also the root for the English 'deal', as in the sense 'share, quantity, amount' and both have a common root in Proto-Indo-European dail 'to divide'.

Diet was an assembly of the Roman Empire and is discussed under Bundestag above.

Duma is from the Russian verb meaning 'to think, consider'. First used for local councils from about 1870, it is not seen for the national assembly until 1905. Having a common root with both 'doom' and 'deem', these all originate in the Proto-Germanic doms 'judgement'.

Knesset, the Israeli parliament, takes its name from the Mishnaic Hebrew keneseth 'gathering, assembly'.

Majlis, the Persian version, is from the Arabic for 'assembly' although literally 'session' and derived from jalasa 'to be seated'.

Poliburo, another Russian term, dates from 1927 and the Russain politbyuro. It is a contraction of politicheskoe byuro meaning 'political bureau'.

Presidium is also Russian but dates from much earlier than the previous example. While the modern idea is not seen until 1924 as prezidium, this originates from Latin praesidium 'to preside over'.

Riksdag is a Swedish word and the general term for 'parliament' or 'assembly'. Along with Finland's Riksdag, the Estonian Riigikogu, historical German Reichstag and Danish Rigsdagen. All these are derived from rike 'royal power' and dag 'conference'.

Senate is from the Latin senex 'the elder' or even 'the old one'. Here suggesting with great age comes wisdom.

Tynwald is derived from the Old Norse 'the meeting place'. Famously this parliament of the Isle of Man is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world.

Witan, the Saxon political institution, is a contraction of Witenagemot and from the Proto-Germanic witan 'to know' and ultimately Proto-Indo-European weid 'to see'.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


I first began tracing my ancestry more than thirty years ago. Oral family history spoke of an ancestor being 'the Honourable' and I began a long search.

It turned out to be half right but did make me wonder just where these titles came from.

Earl is possibly the most likely to be known, this being of Saxon or Old English origins where eorl originally coiuld be used to mean 'brave man, warrior, leader, chief' and contracted with the peasant or churl.

Baron came to English from Old French, and ultimately from Latin baro or simply 'man'. Note the Franks used the same word to mean 'freeman', which may well have helped develop the idea of a higher ranking. Clearly both 'baronet' and 'baroness' are derivations.

Count is another coming to English from Old French. Here conte is from the Latin comitem meaning 'companion, attendant', and used as the title for a provincial governor. The feminine 'coountess' is first seen in the middle of the 12th century.

Duke, once again, came from Old French where duc and the earlier Latin dux both meant 'leader'. All these terms can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European deuk meaning 'to lead'. Interestingly the rank od duke, or indeed duchess, is unrecorded before the end of the 12th century.

Lord comes from Old English hlaford 'master of the house' and is itself from the earlier Old English hlafweard, quite literally 'one who guards the loaves'. This dovetails quite nicely with the origins of 'lady' or hlafaeta meaning 'bread kneader'.

Marquis, and therefore marchioness, is from Old French marchis, quite literally 'ruler of a border area' and taken from Old French marche and Latin marca both meaning 'frontier'.

Viscount and viscountess can be traced to Old French visconte and ultimately from the Latin vice 'deputy' and comes 'nobleman'.

Dame is from Old French dame, 'lady, mistress, wife' and genrally referring to 'the woman of the house' as this comes from the Latin domus 'house'. Both Spanish and Portuguese 'don' share the same origin.

Hidalgo is unrecorded before 1590, this thought to be a shortened form of filho de algo or 'son of someone'. Late Iberian usage probably points to an Arabic origin of ibn nas or 'son of the people' which was used as an honorary title.

Knight came from Old English cniht meaning 'boy, youth, servant, attendant'. Not until the Normans arrived did it become any sort of title or standing.

Noble is a collective term first seen at the end of the 12th century. Coming to English from Old French noble and Latin nobilis, it simply means 'of high birth' just as it does in English today. Interestingly this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European gno 'to know' and used in the sense of 'well known'.

Seneschal is an Old French term meaning 'steward, majordomo' in its simplest terms. Despite coming to English from French, the term is Proto-Germanic where sini-skalk 'senior servant' is related to modern words such as 'senile' and 'marshal'.

Squire may not have been the highest of ranks but proved to be the first step on the ladder for many. This comes from Old French esquier or 'shield carrier' and most often seen today in the form of address 'esquire'.

Honourable was the one which started all this and is recorded in English from the end of the 13th century. Clearly a word used as an adjective and derived from 'honour', the latter coming from Old French onor, which is why we do not pronounce the 'h', and from Latin honorem 'dignity, reputation'.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Native American Tribal Names

With the continent of North America very much in the news of late, it is to pre-European days I turn and a look at the origins of the names of the Native American peoples. What I thought would be challenging research, thinking these could have little connection with the Indo-European languages with which I am familair (etymologically speaking), proved less of a problem that I suspected.

Apache is first recorded by the Spanish Conquistadors, who referred to those they encountered as Apachu de Nabajo around 1620. To confuse matters the Spanish later used the same Apachu to refer to other groups they encountered further east and that tends to suggest the word is unlikely to have been how the people referred to themselves. Indeed oral tradition maintains they referred to themselves as Inde meaning either 'person' or 'people' depending on the context. Most consider the Spanish to be from the Zuni word a-pacu which meant 'Navajos' (see below), although some have suggested the Yavapai pace or 'enemy' as an alternative. A third suggestion, the Spanish mapache or 'raccoon', may seem to fit etymologically but has little else going for it.

Arapaho is uncerain, but may be from iriiraraapuhu meaning 'trader' or a Crow word meaning 'tattoo'. They refer to themselves as Hitano'iv 'people of the sky' or Hetanevoeo 'cloud people', while other peoples described them as 'blue cloud men', 'blue sky people', 'pierced nose people', and also 'dog-eaters'.

Cherokee refer to themselves as Ani-Yu-wiya, literally 'the principal people'. Origins of the modern name have many theories, none certain, and include Choctaw cha-la-kee or 'people who live in the mountains', Choctaw chi-luk-ik-bi 'people who live in cave country', or Iroquois Oyata'ge;ronon also 'inhabitants of the cave country'. Sometimes we hear the name of the Cherokee given as Tsalagi but this is the Cherokee name for their own language.

Cheyenne is correctly the collective name given to two Native American tribes: the So'taeo'o and Tsetsehestahese, ostensibly the north and south peoples, tke their names from their name for the Cree language and a name literally meaning 'those who are like this' respectively. The later name of Cheyenne probably comes from a Siouan language meaning 'red-talker' and effectively describing those who talk differently.

Choctaw have been said to take their name from an early leader but more commonly from the phrase hacha hatak which, in their language, means 'river people'.

Comanche is the Ute name for them where kimantsi means simply 'enemy'.

Crow refer to themselves as Apsaalooke or 'children of large-beaked bird' and it was French explorers who translated this as 'people of the crows'.

Illinois is a state which takes its name from the Illinois people. Here their name is an Algonquin word meaning 'tribe of superior men'.

Huron is a name taken from the Algonquin irri-ronon or 'cat nation'> Note some sources give this as ka-ron 'straight coast' and others disagree completely in suggesting this is tu-ron or 'crooked coast'. Also known as the Wyandot people, taken from their language possibly wendat 'forest' or yendata 'village' - the vast difference due to corruption as the trail is followed through the French name of Ouendat.

Ioway, who gave their name to the state of Iowa, take their name from ayuhwa or 'sleepy ones' although they refer to themselves as Baxoje or 'grey snow'.

Kiowa call themselves the Ka'igwu or 'principal people', although earlier this is held to have been Kutjau 'emerging' or Kwu-da 'coming out rapidly'. Possibly the modern form is simply a corruption of their name as no convincing etymology has been suggested.

Mohawk comes from the name given them by neighbouring tribes, where maw-unk-lin or 'bear people'. They refer to themselves as Kanien'keha'ka, which translates as 'flint stone place'.

Mohican take their name from the place where they lived, muh-he-ka-neew referring to 'the people of the great flowing waters'.

Navajo are a Athabaskan people and comes from their language. Here nava 'field' and hu 'valley' is understood as 'large planted field'.

Pawnee refer to themselves as Chaticks si Chaticks meaning 'men of men' - to the French they were Pani which later became a term describing a slave.

Seminole is derived from a Spanish term where cimarron could mean either 'runaway', 'untamed' or 'wild one'.

Shawnee is a Munsee name where sawanow means 'people of the south'.

Sioux is an Algonquian name where natowessiwak meant 'little snakes'.

Swanee could be a corruption of the Spanish San Juan 'Saint John' but this seems unlikely when we have the Suwannee River. This gave the name to the people who could be found alongside the sawani or 'echo' river.

Ute gave their name to the state of Utah and is generally believed to refer to themselves as 'people of the mountain'. However some sources give an alternative, suggesting this is an Apache name where Yudah means 'tall'.

Yaqui call themselves the Hiaki or Yoeme meaning simply 'people'.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A Better Deal

I accept some find card games fascinating. Unfortunately for them I am not one of them. Playing the few games I know the rules to is bad enough but watching others play just leaves me bemused. Still, each to their own and it would be a tedious world indeed if we all liked the same things.

What does interest me is the mathematics of chance and also the origins of their respective names and is the latter which I shall turn to today. Note some of these games are the same but have different names around the English-speaking world.

Baccarat is first recorded in 1848 and certainly comes from the French but is officially of unknown origin. While it is tempting to suggest this name comes from the French town of Baccarat, noted for glass-making and a place name meaning 'the altar of Bacchus', he the Roman god of wine, as the French spelling is baccara this seems unlikely.

Bezique is another of French origins, here known in France as bezigue and first seen in a document dated 1861. The game, although not the name, had been played in France since the 17th century. The name came to French from the Italian Bazzica and originally meant 'correspondence' or 'association', depending on context.

Blackjack is an alternative name for twenty-one (see below) and dates from the time when American casions were keen to attract further interest and offered increased odds should the players' hand contain the ace of spades and a black jack (either spades of clubs). This increased the game's popularity to the point where the name given to the hand, a blackjack, became the name of the game from around 1900.

Boston is based on the siege of the American city of that name and first seen around 1800. The city took its name from the town in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom and began as 'Botolph's stone'.

Brag, as a card game, is first recorded in 1734. While the origins of the name are uncertain, the name may well come from an earlier use of 'brag' to mean 'swear, curse, oath' rather than the modern usage as 'boast'.

Bridge has been recorded since 1886 but certainly much older. A version of the game is thought to have originated in the Near East. If so, then perhaps Turkish bir - uc or 'one - three' would fit the bill.

Canasta is a Uruguayan card game first recorded as recently as 1948. Played with two decks and four jokers it is the Spanish word for 'basket' and from the Latin canistrum. Thought to be named for being played with a collection of cards rather than simply a single pack.

Chemin de fer is the original version of baccarat and a name literally translating as 'the railway'. Just how this refers to a card game is not clear.

Cribbage dates from around 1620 and is named for the 'crib' or box representing the dealer's hand. Cribbiage is the oldest of the card games played with the modern pack and is derived from an earlier game known as 'noddy', 'noddle' or 'nodde' - nothing 'foolish' about this term, it simply refers to the jack or nave.

Ecarte is from the French for 'discarded', an important phase of the game involves discarding cards.

Euchre is similar to 'ecarte' and thought to come from an 18th century Germanic game Juckerspiel - the Americanisation of 'jucker' giving 'euchre' - and a reference to the top two trumps being jacks or 'jucker'.

Gin, or gin rummy, is a variation of rummy (see below). First recorded in 1941, it seems the variation was called 'gin' to link to the drink seen in 'rum(my)'.

Gleek is an old card game first seen in 1530 and, most unusually, designed for three players. This comes from French glic or ghelicque, itself from Muddle Dutch ghelic 'alike' as the aim is to collect three of the same rank.

Loo, dating from 1670, is another early card game. In full this is lanterloo, from French lanturelu and taken from a popular French comic song - the English equivalent 'turra-lurra'. Both came to mean the 'pot' via the 'bag' used to produce the music - this the loure, a bagpipe-like instrument which also gave a name to the dances associated with same.

Ombre is a 17th century card game originating in Spain and indeed named from the Spanish hombre or 'man'. Originally the player declaring would state Yo soy el hombre or 'I am the man' but this was soon abbreviated.

Patience is aptly named as it takes a good deal (pun intended) of it for the solution is not always possible.

Pinocle is derived from bezique (see above) and comes from the French word binocle meaning 'eyeglasses' and also the source of the English 'binoculars'.

Poker is first mentioned in a document dated 1834. While the etymology is not certain, it could come from a similar German game Pochspiel where the first element pochen means 'to brag as a bluff'.

Quadrille is taken directly from the French where, in the 17th century, the military paraded four mounted horsemen in series of moves and formations. The card game also requires some tactical manoeuvres by four players.

Rummy is first recorded in 1910 as 'rhummy'. The word has been used as both a 'drunkard' from 1851 and to refer to 'one who opposes temperance' from shortly afterwards. However neither of these seems truly related to the name of the card game and thus the origins must be said to be unknown.

Sevens is similar to patience and/or solitaire in style but played by between three and seven players. However the number of players is not the origin but how the game progresses, for the idea is to rid oneself of all cards in one's hand in order of rank but, in order to give equal chance to play above and below, the starting point for each suit is the seven.

Snap, as a name, really does explain itself. It is related to other games with far less obvious names such as Egyptian Ratscrew and Beggar-my-neighbour.

Solitaire is an alternative name for patience (see above) and another apt name for a solitary card game.

Twenty-one is the same game as blackjack (see above) where the object is to score that number.

Vingt-et-un is the French for 'twenty-one' and nothing more needs to be said.

Trump is something I could not resist examining because it's a name I could not get out of my head - for those unaware Mr Trump is among the world's best snooker players. In cards it is a variation of 'triumph' and a noun used to refer to a card of a higher ranking suit. 'Trump' is also used as verb to mean 'surpass, beat' since 1580 and earlier, since 1510 and again as a verb, to mean 'fabricate, devise' in one context and 'deceive, cheat' in another. I have to say I have never had cause to think Judd Trump ever cheated at snooker and thoroughly earned his number one world ranking in 2011.

Sunday, 22 January 2017


Being a confirmed tee-totaller (unless there are more than 167 hours in the week) it never occurred to me that Champagne is not simply a place name but also the correct name for what is often known as 'bubbly'.

As many will know the rules around the right to call anything 'champagne' has to conform to a series of rules and regulations, these are not important here. However it is worthwhile mentioning that the place name refers to land that is 'flat', ironic for a drink often referred to as 'bubbly'. And while on the subject of words we should also note the alternative use of 'varnish', in the late 19th century used to refer to bad champagne.

Always one to enter a quiz, I have never managed to master the oft-repeated questions regarding champagne bottle sizes. Being a man of words perhaps understanding the origin of the names may be of assistance. As the basis for all of these is the standard bottle, it makes sense to start with the basic term.

Bottle, as we know it, evokes an image of something in glass. Yet glass production means this is a comparatively recent development and early bottles were of leather sealed with pitch. This is the reason we occasionally see pubs named the Leathern Bottle. The word 'bottle' came to English from Old French boteille and of Latin origins in buttis 'a cask' which, albeit on a small scale, a bottle could be said to be. Incidentally, purely as a memory aid, a standard bottle contains 0.75 litres.

Magnum, containing the same as two standard bottles or 1.5 litres, is taken directly from the Latin, the neuter of magnus meaning 'great in size'.

Jeroboam, again doubles the volume at 3 litres, is a name taken from the Bible where Jeroboam was said to be 'a mighty man of valour who made Israel to sin'. His name comes from the Hebrew Yarobh'am, literally 'let the people increase'. (Try and stop them!)

Rehoboam, this equal to 4.5 litres, is another Israelite king mentioned in the Bible. His name comes from the Hebrerw and means 'he who enlarges the people'. (I suppose being king has its benefits.)

Methuselah, this 6 litres, is also named after a Biblical character and one of great age, said to be 969 years old at the time of his death. The origin of his name is disputed, some sources give 'man of the spear' while others translate this as 'his death shall bring judgement'. This latter translation is undoubtedly due to the date of his death being the 11th of Chesvan in the year 1656 Anno Mundi - coincidentally seven days before the start of the Great Flood - he being named as Noah's grandfather.

Salmanazar, 9 litres, was the name of five kings of Assyria (correctly Shalmaneser), although the Biblical theme probably points to the last of his name (727-722BC) and conqueror of the northern part of Israel. Their name is said to mean 'Shulmanu is preeminent', in the area of Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age he the god of the underworld, fertility and war. (With so many diverse strings to his proverbial bow no wonder he was considered preeminent.)

Balthazar, 12 litres, is undoubtedly the Biblical king or Magi associated with the nativity. He is held to be the King of Arabia and the one who brought the gift of myrrh. His name is ultimately from the Babylonian Balat-shar-usur or 'save the life of the king' - oddly symbolic of the future death of the infant Christ. (This rather reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty.)

Nebuchadnezzar, 15 litres, keeps us in Babylon where the native tongue spoke of Nabu-kudurri-usur or 'Nabu, protect my first-born son'. The same question occurred to me and I discovered Nabu, son of the god Marduk, was the deity of wisdom. (Perhaps he should be remembered for a quote such as 'don't drink the whole bottle'.)

Solomon, 18 litres, is another associated with wisdom, althogh his name comes from the Hebrew shelomo meaning 'peaceful' and related to shalom.

Sovereign, 26.25 litres, is a later term and of much later etymology. First seen in English in the 14th century, it comes from Old French soverain and Latin superanus 'chief, principal'. Whomsoever came up with this did not look into the origins of the word as it is not the largest. (And no, not going near that Latin word or its meaning.)

Primat, 27 litres, is another Biblical name although we would know the character better as 'Goliath'. 'Primat' comes from Latin primus 'first', and while 'Goliath' is today a synonym for large size, it actually only refers to a person from Gath, one of the five city states of the Philistines. 'Gath', sometimes as 'Geth', was once a common place name in the Middle East. The origins of the name are not overly clear but, for obvious reasons, we shall opt for the most popularly quoted meaning of 'wine press'. Goliath maybe, but still not the largest.

Melchizedek, 30 litres, is another Biblical figure, this king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon mentioned in Genesis. His name comes from the Hebrew Malki-tzedeq and literally describes 'the king of righteousness'. (Perhaps not the best choice for something which is going to be extremely difficult to pour, never mind drink. Here the volume of liquid alone is going to tip the scales at almost 60 pounds - and the glass bottle will add considerably to this.)

It should be noted how, the method of fermentation being in the bottle, means only the standard bottle and the magnum see champagne produced in the correct way. Furthermore the latter is considered of superior quality, as there is less oxygen in the bottle, and the volume to surface area favours the creation of appropriately sized bubbles. However, there is no hard evidence for this view. Other bottle sizes are generally filled with champagne fermented in standard bottles or magnums.

It seems that exercise, while interesting, will never prove a useful memory aid. However I did find a mnemonic listing the seven most popularly-named bottle sizes and using the initial of each in ascending size order with: "My Judy Really Makes Splendid Belching Noises". Hardly the most memorable mnemonic - except perhaps for Judy.

Note sizes larger than the Jeroboam are rare and some of the larger sizes are not universally acknowledged.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Guatemala Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. Continuing an alphabetical tour of the world and a look at the largest of Guatemala's settlements.

Guatemala City clearly takes its name from the country. Both, as covered in earlier posts looking at first the country and later its capital city, where I explained this was the Spanish version of a native name. The local Tuendal word uhatzmalha described 'the mountain that gushes forth water' and likely refers to the volcanic mountain now known as Agua.

Villa Nueva is clearly of Spanish origins and means 'new outlying farmstead'. Had the place been of Saxon origin we would today call it Newthorpe.

Quetzalenango had been known by the Mam Maya people as Xelaju, this from xe laju' noj meaning 'under ten mountains'. By the time the Spanish arrived this city had been in existence for at least three centuries.

Chimaltenango had been known as B'oko prior to the arrival of the Spanish. However the Conquistadores opted, as always, to use the name given by the their Nahuatl-speaking allies from central Mexico who used Chimaltenanco or 'shield city'.

Huehuetenango was, in the original Mam Mayan language, known as Zaculeu, but the Cnquistadors used the Nahuatl name meaning 'place of the ancients or ancestors'.

Puerto Barrios has only been known as such since 1895, indeed only founded at the end of the 19th century, and named after president feneral Justo Rufino Barrios.

Chichicastenango is another taking the Nahuatl name as used by the Conquistadores, where Tziticaztenanco meant 'city of nettles'.

Santa Catarina Pinula takes the Spanish name for the patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria, and adds pipil meaning 'flour of water'.

Antigua Guatemala literally means 'ancient Guatemala' and a reminder this was the third capital of the country.

Zacapa is another held to be from the Nahuatl language, here zacatl apan referring to 'the river of grass'.

Fraijanes is a corruption of the earlier name of Frailes Juanes, itself a reminder of the place being under the control of two priests Juan Milan and Juan Alvarez in the late 18th century.

Esquipulas is a Spanish-influenced version of the earlier Nahuatl name of Isquitzuchil or 'place where flowers abound'.

Xekik'el is a river name meaning 'where the blood spread' and a reminder of 20th February 1524 when conquistador Pedro de Alvarado killed the legendary K'iche' king Tecun Uman in single combat.

Nahuala is translated locally as either 'enchanted waters' or 'water of the spirits', objecting quite vociferously to any suugestion of 'water of the shamans' as this comes directly from the Spanish idea of aqua de los hrujos and clearly points to the man and not the spirits with which such are associated.

San Andres Itzapa is an ancient town. The Spanish adding 'St Andrew' to the original name meaning 'flint'. Note the Spanish also referred to the place as Valle del Durazno or 'valley of the peaches'.

Dos Pilas is an ancient Maya site, one named from Guatemalan Spanish meaning 'two wells'.

Iximche is another anceint site, this from the Mayan name of the ramon tree which the Mayan referred to as ixim che or 'maize tree'.

Kaminaljuyu is another anceint site, this name from a K'iche' word meaning 'mounds of the ancestors'.

Naranjo is an ancient Mayan site named from the Spanish for 'orange tree'. This a transliteration of Sa'aal meaning 'the place where maize abounds'.

Piedras Negras is a Mayan site with the Spanish name meaning 'black stones', while the original name is thought to read Yo'k'ib' or 'great gateway'.

Q'umarkaj is another Mayan site, this meaning 'place of old reeds' in the local K'iche' tongue.

Tikal is from the Yucatec Mayan language and means 'at the waterhole'.

Nakbe appears to come from the Mayan sacbe or 'white way', appropriate as the causeway still comes to the surface here.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

Sunday, 8 January 2017


I know what they do and I know why they are there but rarely remember the correct names of those dots, lines and squiggles above and below letters to amend pronunciation. Perhaps it would help if I understood the etymologies and thus knew why they were named.

Acute accent - not 'accent' in the sense of 'mode of pronunciation used', normally due to point of origin, but the written instruction. The term 'accent' came to English from Middle French, where accenter, meaning 'stress' or 'accentuate' and used as a verb, came from the noun. This in turn is derived from Latin accentus, with the same meaning, and ultimately from Latin ad 'to' and cantus 'a singing' and has exactly the same origins as the word 'chant'. The addition of 'acute', to differentiate from the grave accent (see below) and to show indicate a higher pitch than the latter, comes to English through the same French and Latin route and is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ak meaning 'to a point, sharp' - and is why the term is used to describe such as an illness or feeling. It came to French from the use of the apex in Latin, itself indicating a long vowel sound.

Breve - indicating a short vowel is much easier to see as this comes from the Latin brevis meaning 'short, brief'. It is the opposite of the macron (see below)

Cedilla - comes from the Spanish where, along with French and Portuguese, it is used to instruct the speaker to use, for example, the sibillant 's' (as in the English 'facade') instead of the hard constant sound for 'k' (as in the English 'arcade') when under the letter 'C'. This is the most common example although, in truth, the use is much more complex. The image of the cedilla comes from the Visigoth representation of their letter 'Z', easy to see in the image.

Circumflex - used to mark vowels where pronunciation begins at a high pitch then falls, this comes from Latin circumflexus or 'bent around', a reasonable description of the symbol.

Diaresis - comes from the Greek meaning 'division, separation, distinction', it is used to show where a vowel letter is not pronounced as one vowel when alongside another vowel. In English these are always loanwords, best seen in names such as Zoe and Cloe, although today the use of the symbol is rarely seen.

Grave accent - shares the same 'stress' origins with 'acute accent' above, the addition not only to differentiate but to indicate a lower pitch than the acute accent. This French term shows it comes from the Latin gravis which, when used in the sense of sounds, is used as 'deep, low, bass' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root gwere or 'heavy'. This ancient root has produced words of similar meaning in Greek and Sanskrit as well as Latin gravis which also gave terms meaning 'ponderous, burdensome, loaded, oppressive, grievous, troublesome' and also 'pregnant'.

Hacek - most often seen in Baltic, Slavic and Finnic language is also known as a 'caron'. Such changes the pronunciation so the vowel sound begins low and then rises, ostensibly the reverse of the circumflex (see above).

Macron - is used to indicate a short vowel and is the opposite of the breve (see above) and is derived from the Greek makron literally meaning 'long' and most often seen in the suffix 'macro-'

Tilde - is a stroke over a word to indicate missing letters. It is related, not in its use, to the 'tittle' that dot above the ninth and tenth letters of the alphabet. The 'tilde' and 'tittle' share an origin in the Latin titulus meaning 'inscription, heading' - this meaning also seen in the origins of the word 'title' and for obvious reasons.

Trema - is simply another name for the diaresis (above) or umlaut (below). The different name is used because it comes from the Greek trema meaning 'perforation, pip, orifice' and thus a description of the symbol rather than the function.

Umlaut - another name for the diaresis or trema (above), this coming from the German ambi 'about' and laut 'sound'. The term was first coined as recently as 1774 by poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock but not used in the sense 'modification of vowels' until Jakob Grimm did so in 1819. Earlier uses of the umlaut had the same function but were not known as such but simply accepted as the norm. Klopstock used the German hlut which shares its origins with the modern English word 'listen'.

Did learning the origins help? Not in the least. But it did confirm that 'umlaut' is among the most wonderful-sounding words in any language - ironic considering its literal meaning.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Geological Ages

A new year and, unlike the Chinese calendar, it doesn't have a name but a number. Remember the good old days before humanity took over the planet when great beasts roamed the land or earlier still when no life-form on the planet existed unless it was single celled? No? In those days at least they had the good sense to give the eons names instead of numbers.

Precambrian is, well, as the name suggests tha which came before the Cambrian. Not overly imaginative you would think but it does cover four billion years from the start of the planet up to 541 million years ago. Credit should also be given to correctly forecasting the name given to the following eon, the Cambrian.

Cambrian was coined by Adam Sedgwick, who named the period of 541 to 485 million years ago after the Latinised form of Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales as this is where he felt the rocks from this time were best exposed. The Welsh Cymry, the word for the people of Cymru, means 'fellow countrymen', rather different from the Saxon wahl from which comes the name of Wales which meant 'foreigner', although this could hardly be considered xenophobic as all the Saxons were saying was they were not Saxon.

Ordovician is named after the Celtic Ordovices, as chosen by Charles Lapworth in 1879, to describe the period from 485 to 443 million years ago. The Ordovices may have farmed the land and kept sheep but they were named for their word for 'hammer'.

Silurian period covers the period 443 to 419 million years ago and named by Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, a friend of Adam Sedgwick, who named it after another Celtic tribe, the Silures. This Welsh tribe's name has most often been described as 'unknown', although this has not stopped a great number of suggestions. One suggests the personal name Essyllt giving the region the name Essyllwg and the people the Essyllwr. Essyllt was a daughter of the king of Germany and one of three damsels of celestial beauty, who married Locrinus and their daughter, Hafren, gave a name to the river Severn in which she drowned along with her mother.

Devonian period of 419 to 358 million years ago takes its name from Devon, again because this was where rocks from the period were first studied. The county is also named from a tribe iof Britons, the Dumnonii, who took their name from the Celtic dubnos and speaks of them as 'dwellers of the deep valley'.

Carboniferous, the period from 358 to 298 million years ago, is named because these rocks are said to be 'coal-bearing', coming from the Latin carbo 'coal' and fero 'I carry'.

Permian, 298 to 252 million years ago, was named in 1841 by Sir Roderick Murchison as these rocks were associated with the region of Perm Krai in Russia. Perm comes either from Finnish or Vepsian Peramaa or Hungarian perem meaning 'far away land' or 'edge' respectively.

Triassic period lasted from 252 to 201 million years ago. Named in 1834 by Friedrich von Alberti after three rock layers known as trias.

Jurassic lasted from 201 to 145 million years ago and is named from the Jura mountains, again where these rocks were first studied. The name Jura is from juria, a Celtic term for 'forest'.

Cretaceous, 145 to 65 million years ago, is a period named by Belgian geologist Jean d'Halloy in 1822 for the chalk beds found around the Paris Basin. The Latin creta means 'chalk'.

Eocene, from 65 to 33 million years ago, is named from the Ancient Greek eos 'dawn' and refers to the new fauna which appeared after the mass extinction of 65 million years ago.

Oligocene, 33 to 23 million years ago, is another from Ancient Greek, this time where oligos 'few' and kainos 'new' refers to the scarcity of molluscs found with the rock strat from this period.

Miocene period, 23 to 5 million years ago, is another from Greek, where meion 'less' and kainos 'new' means literally 'less recent' because this period has fewer marine invertebrates than the following.

Pliocene, from 5 million to 2.5 million years ago, was named by Sir Charles Lyell and, once again, comes from the Greek. Here pleion 'more' and kainos 'new' was chosen to mean 'continuation of the recent', a reference to the fossil molluscs found within these rocks which are essentially the same as seen today.

Pleistocene, from 2.5 million to just 11,700 years ago, comes from the Greek pleistos 'mostly' and kainos 'new', and shows this is almost as recent as the ages get.

Holocene has only been around sinc 11,700 years ago and means 'entirely recent' from the Greek holos kainos.

These time spans are further divided into periods, epochs, and ages and all with much more imaginative names than simply 2017. Happy New Year.