Sunday, 27 September 2015

Name of the Game

When giving a talk on the origins of pub names recently I invited questions from the audience for specific examples they would like to understand. It is something I do comparatively early as, and the same is true of my talks on place names, there are so many examples it is impossible to know which to specific names to cover - I learned a long time ago it is not good enough to prepare a list of local names, for the audience are more likely to ask about names out of the area.

I was asked for the origin of the pub name Fox & Goose. This has been corrupted for it was originally Fox & Geese, the change undoubtedly because signpainters insist on depicting this as the predator and its prey, when it is nothing of the kind. It is an advertisement, one telling potential customers there is a board game played within. Fox and geese is a variation on the classic and truly ancient game of strategy better known as Nine Men's Morris. An image of the game can be seen below, method of play I may well cover at a different time.

This made me think about other board games and the origins of these names. As a kid, assuming you are above a certain age, we all had the Compendium of Games for Christmas. This included the ubiquitous Ludo which, as any trivia buff will know, is named for the Latin for 'I play'. But what of the others, presumably these have some story to tell of their origins.

Nine Men's Morris seems the logical place to start, although the name is somewhat uncertain. The number is easy enough to see when we reveal there are also varieties known as Six Men's Morris and Twelve Men's Morris, with the 'men' also clearly why we often refer to pieces as such on a game board irrespective of the game. As already noted the game is ancient indeed, with evidence showing this was certainly played at least 3,500 years ago, and probably originated in the Middle East and thus the English name for the game is likely a corruption of 'Moorish'. Aside from the Fox and Geese name, it has also been called Mills, Merels, The Mill Game, Merrills, Merelles, Marelles, Morelles, Ninepenny Marl, Cowboy Checkers, and others.

Backgammon is known from at least the 13th century, and is thought to be 'back' because the oppoents are (hopefull) forced into turning back, while gamen is simply the Middle English origin of 'game'.

Chess came to English from Old French esches and was simply the name of the game, although the Modern French echec is used in the sense of 'check, blow, rebuff, defeat'. Originally the name is from Sanskrit, where chaturanga referred to 'four members of an army', these being elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers.

Checkers returns us to pub names again, where (in Britain) the name of the Chequers pointed out a board game similar to the modern version was played within. The name became popular as a pub name as it was soon used for a moneylender, something inn-keepers would often take up as a second string to their financial bow. Hence the name refers to the board. In Britain it is most often referred to as 'draughts', this thought to refer to the way pieces are 'dragged' across the board when making a move.

Mahjong was originally known in the Far East as maque meaning 'sparrow', although most often this is known as majiang among Mandarin-speaking Chinese today.

Parcheesi is a fairly recent introduction to English, which explains why it has changed so very little since adopted from the Hindi pachis meaning 'twenty-five' and the highest throw possible with the dice used. It seems likely the original name would still be in use were it not for the game being mass produced in 1892 and sold under the Parcheesi trademark.

Snakes and Ladders is also known as Chutes and Ladders in the USA, the American version down to the marketing of Milton Bradley who advertised it as "an improved version of England's famous indoor sport" - clearly Mr Bradley had no notion of British indoor sports! This came to Britain from India as a game intended to teach the benefits of virtue, being adapted for the British market but retaining the original snakes and ladders motifs. In India it was known as Moksha Patam, with moksha being the central concept of Hinduism and derived from the Sanskrit munc meaning 'free, release, let go, liberate' with patam meaning 'ladders'.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Etymologies and Homonyms

Whilst I am always interested in learning new words, it is the never so much the meaning as the origins which intrigue me. Overhearing a conversation where one learned there were two meanings for one word made me think about the etymologies, the origins of the word. Were there two completely different origins and the identical spelling is pure coincidence or has the word simply been used to mean two different things?

I took a look at a number of examples and discovered the following:

Address: as a verb to mean 'to guide or direct', it came to English in the 14th century from Old French adrecier meaning 'straighten, set right' and from Latin addirectaire with the same meaning. When it comes to the noun and meaning 'dutiful or courteous approach' it is first seen in the 1530s and is derived from the verb. As a noun the sense of 'formal speech' dates from the 1750s and in referring to a place of residence is not known prior to 1888.

Arm: when referring to the upper limb the word can be traced back to Proto-Germanic armaz and Sanskrit irmah and has probably remained largely unchanged since the development of Proto-Indo-European. Note, however, the later change in languages such as Greek arthron 'a joint', Latin armus 'shoulder', and Armenian armukn 'elbow'. In the sense of 'a weapon' it can be traced to Proto-Indo-European ar 'fit, join' and eventually used as a verb.

Bank:as a financial institution dates from the 15th century and originated in the Italian banca meaning 'table', coming to English through Middle French banque with the same meaning. Whilst unrecorded this almost certainly came from the Germanic for a 'bench'. The second use is for the slope or a bank of earth. This certainly came to English from the Proto-Germanic bangkon meaning 'slope' and having a common origin with bankiz or 'shelf'. Hence the word, despite having two quite diverse uses, has the same source in the early European tongues but by coming to English through very different routes has two quite different meanings.

Bark: when referring to the sound made by a dog, is from Proto-Germanic berkan and simply imitative of the sound. When it comes to the noun describing the covering on the trunk of a tree, the term most likely came to English from Old Norse barkr and from Proto-Germanic barkuz and seem certain to be from the name of the birch tree.

Base: when used as a verb or noun to refer to a low point or foundation, it is surprisingly recent and not seen before the 14th century as a noun and in 1841 as a verb. Both are derived from Old French bas 'depth', Latin basis and Greek basis 'foundation, step'. Also used as an adjective meaning 'lowly', this has exactly the same origins.

Beam: in the modern sense would refer to rays of light and seen since the 15th century. (Smiles and radio transmissions being derived from the same source.) Also used today to refer to wooden beams used for construction purposes, this originally referred to the 'living tree' and ultimately comes from Proto-Indo-European bheue simply meaning 'to grow'.

Board: when referring to 'a plank' it can be traced to Proto-Germanic burdam and ultimately Proto-Indo-European bhrdh both with identical meaning and thus likely one of the earliest words coined. Interestingly there is also a Proto-Indo-European bherdh, almost the same word but used in the sense 'to cut', further evidence of this being among the first key words used by the people of the European continent. The word 'board' has a number of other meanings - including 'to get onto', 'food and lodging' - are both derived from the original 'plank' meaning. In the case of the 'food and lodging' meaning, this comes from the use of a 'board' as a table top, a board not fastened down but simply resting on the trestle below - one side polished and on which the food was served, the reverse scrubbed clean but left in its natural state on which the food was prepared.

Bolt: as a verb used, in a general sense, to mean 'move rapidly' in its various forms is seen from the 13th century and undoubtedly comes from the bolt or arrow used in a crossbow. The stout arrow known as a 'bolt' is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European bheld or 'to knock or strike'.

Bow: when used to refer to the weapon used to fire an arrow comes from a Proto-Germanic bugon with the same meaning. The reference to a looped knot is seen from the middle of the 16th century and speaks of it being shaped like the weapon.

Box: the noun referring to the wooden container is probably from the Greek where pyxis refers to a box made from boxwood', while the Greek for 'the box tree' is pyxos. When it comes to 'box' being used in the sense of 'a blow' the origin is much later and completely unrelated. Traceable only as far as the 13th century, it can be found in the Middle Dutch boke and Middle High German buc, likely imitative of the sound.

Can: as the 1st and 3rd person singular of 'know', the origin of which is Proto-Indo-European gno, has its vowel change through influence from other early European languages such as Old Frisian kanna and Proto-Germanic kunnan.. In the sense of a 'container' the origins are uncertain but came to English from Proto-Germanic kanna and seen in Late Latin canna with the same meaning and early Latin canna 'reed pipe, boat'.

Cast: began as meaning 'to throw' and came from Old Norse kasta, every other usage came from here - including 'group of actors', 'an eye condition', 'turn', 'a shape from molten metal'.

Chip: in the sense 'piece of wood' can be traced to Proto-Indo-European keipo 'sharp post' and eventually came to mean 'small piece of wood' in Dutch kip and smiliar. The later use to mean 'that cut off' has clear connections and first seen in the early 15th century.

Clear: as a verb and as an adjective - be it to tidy, prove innocent, explain and a number of others - seen since the 13th century and new uses can be found up to the end of the 19th century. The many uses indicate several sources from other languages and there are a number of cases of influence from other languages where the meaning is somewhat different: Old French cler 'bright, shining', Latin clarus 'clear, loud', Italian chiaro and Spanish claro 'illustrious, famous, glorious'. All these can be traced to Proto-Indo-European kle meaning 'to shout'.

Club: used as a noun to mean 'a gathering, an association', is first known in a document from the early 17th century. In the late 13th century we first find the use as 'sizable stick used as a weapon', this from the Old Norse klubba meaning 'cudgel'. Note the suit in playing cards is unknown prior to the 17th century, earlier it being known by its Spanish or Italian names of basto and bastone respectively. By the 17th century the shape shown was that of the trefoil, Danish klover and Dutch klaver literally 'a club at cards' but clearly related to the English 'clover'.

Current: is first applied to the flow of electrical force in 1747, this obviously taken from the flow of water and derived from Old French corant meaning 'running, lively, eager, swift' and from Latin currere 'to run', itself from Proto-Indo-European kers 'to run'. It has been used to mean 'the present time' since around 1570 and should be seen as using 'running' in the same sense as when we speak of something currently being shown.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Yet Even More Words You Will Never Use

Some time ago I listed an A-Z of very unusual words. While flipping through dictionaries and the like on the hunt for word meanings and origins, too often I find myself distracted by words which may or may not be in official use but which would certainly be unknown to the vast majority. So the result is the following A to Z of words which would be of great help to any would-be Countdown contestant and a pain in the proverbial for guests on Call My Bluff.

A is for AZYGOUS - generally only used in an organic sense where the meaning is 'single, not existing in pairs'.

B is for BURHEL - and the name of a breed of wild sheep found in the Himalayas.

C is for CATAFALQUE - a delicious word which would probably be used more were it not for it being the name of a decorative wooden frame for a coffin, used primarily for those lying in state.

D is for DZO - the name given to a beast, the hybrid of a male yak and a cow.

E is for EUSTASY - something we may hear more often, it is the change of sea level due to melting ice caps, glaciers or techtonic movement.

F is for FURCULA - not a word you will have used to describe 'a forked organ or structure' but one you will certainly have seen as it is the correct description for the wishbone of a bird.

G is for GRALLATORIAL - is an adjective relating to long-legged wading birds.

H is for HOPPLE - the act of tying the legs of a quadruped together to prevent it going anywhere.

I is for INFUNDUBULAR - never used but often seen, it means 'funnel-shaped'.

J is for JOWAR - a variety of sorghum native to Asia.

K is for KNAG - the short remains of a dead branch.

L is for LORICATE - having bones or scales forming armour as a defence.

M is for MYRMIDON - either a hired ruffian or a lowly servant.

N is for NUCHAL - an adjective relating to the nape of the neck.

O is for ORTHOGONAL - simply means 'having right angles'.

P is for PUTLOG - a short horizontal timber projecting from a wall which allowed scaffolding boards to be used.

Q is for QUODLIBET - a medley of well-known tunes.

R is for RYOKAN - a traditional Japanese inn.

S is for SWIPPLE - the swinging of a flail.

T is for TYCHISM - the idea that chance is the controlling factor in the entire universe.

U is for UMBLES - the edible offal of deer.

V is for VELUTINOUS - covered with soft fine hairs.

W is for WIGHT - an archaic term for a person.

X is for XERIC - means 'very dry'.

Y is for YERKNOD - a donkey.

Z is for ZNEES - a synonym for 'frost'.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Back to School

As children across the country return to school after the long summer break, coincidentally this week I found myself examining an edited transcript of the events at a nearby village school. Records began in 1872, sadly the first two lines record the deaths of two pupils - the first of which, a boy of six years of age, said to have died "from a softening of the brain."

Perhaps some of the other notes would never make it into modern diaries, although they do give an insight into what staff considered important in times gone by.

January 1873 - Mrs Arblaster visited and brought the children a packet of sweets. (One hopes it was a large packet as there were at least 80 children in attendance at this time.)

June 1875 - the school is now very full, the children rather noisy.

October 1886 - Five children had to be sent home this week suffering from a scurvy complaint.

June 1899 - Attendance not so good owing to Rugeley pleasure fair.

December 1907 - A visit from His Majesty's Inspector who reported: "A new timetable must be drawn up for the infants. Their lessons at present are far too long. The main room is very narrow, badly lighted and ill ventilated and is wedged between the Teachers House on one side and some farm buildings on the other. I understand that at times there is a most offensive smell from some neighbouring premises."

January 1912 - Mrs Orgill visited the school on Monday and gave each child the present of an orange.

May 1915 - Impromptu census of parents' occupations reveals: 54% farm workers; 17% pit workers; 30% various trades (yes this does add up to 101%)

February 1917 - Timetable will be varied during the next few months in order that many additional gardening lessons may be taken for the purpose of cultivating waste land.

July 1917 - Mr J. Price, a bee expert, called to examine the school hive.

August 1918 - Headmaster absent through examination by the Army Medical Board.

August 1918 - Commencing today children will be frequently engaged in blackberry picking (apparently this was part of a national scheme)

March 1927 - Gardening class will be allowed to attend the pruning competition in the orchard belonging to Mr Jones opposite the school at 2pm.

May 1939 - Emergency Supplies S arrived today and have been duly stored unopened (it seems they knew what these were, although I wish they had bothered to note what "Emergency Supplies S" actually contained.

September 1939 - Outbreak of war meant the school remained closed in the morning to allow the headmaster to attend a meeting in Lichfield (this would have been to discuss taking evacuees).

June 1940 - Ten evancuated children from Westgate-on-Sea arrived at the school.

September 1940 - Air raid siren at 3:15pm saw the children head for the shelters until the all clear sounded at 4pm. (Until the end of this year the siren sounded out a further eight times)

September 1941 - two groups of children were out picking blackberries which were later delivered to the Drink Preservation Centre. Later that month other parties collected elderberries and rose-hips.

November 1947 - children had a day's holiday to mark the wedding of a certain Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

June 1953 - 64 children and three teachers had a half-day's holiday and attended Rugeley Plaza to see a film entitled The Queen is Crowned.

October 1953 - another day's holiday, this time to allow the children to travel to see Queen Elizabeth, th e Queen Mother open Blithfield Reservoir.

January 1964 - During the holidays the school had had toilets installed and connected to the main sewer, the old privy buildings were demolished.

February 1965 - Granada Television delivered the school's first ever television.

April 1969 - overnight the school rabbits were stolen.

December 1970 - industrial action by power station workers resulted in children being sent home with a letter warning parents they may find the children sent home at any time when the temperature in the school dropped too low.

July 1990 - (and my personal favourite) saw the evening report by the school governors attended by a single parent. This was July 4th 1990 which, as any football supporter will be well-aware, was the evening of the World Cup Semi-Final at Italia 90 between West Germany and England. The match went to extra time and then penalties - although I just can't recall who won the penalty shoot-out.