Sunday, 22 October 2017


Never one to simply learn names, I have to know the origin, and having someone in the family who finds the skeleton the most fascinating part of everyone, I thought it might be interesting to see where the correct names originate. Whilst most of us would refer to it as the collarbone, I begin with the clavicle which not only comes first alphabetically but also happens to be the only bone I've broken to date which isn't in my hands or feet.

Clavicle - came to English from the French clavicule which not only meant 'collarbone' but also 'small key'. Tracing this back to the Latin clavicula, where the meaning was 'small key, bolt', it is from clavis or 'key' and shows this bone was seen as being that which fastened the shoulder together.

Coccyx - directly from the Greek kokkyx or 'cuckoo' as the Greek physician Galen believed this bone resembled the beak of a cuckoo.

Femur - a word derived from Latin, the etymology of which is completely unknown. Clearly this is an ancient term for the longest and strongest bone in the human body, for it is known as the femur in English, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Fibula - another taken directly from Latin, where fibula meant 'clasp, brooch, bolt, peg, pin' and taken from the root figere 'to drive in, insert, fasten' which is itself related to the modern 'fix'. The bone is seen as such because it resembles what we would today call a safety pin.

Humerus - this bone of the upper arm is again taken directly from the Latin, itself derived from umerus 'shoulder' and from the Proto-Indo-European root omeso which also meant 'shoulder'.

Mandible - again from Latin where mandibula meant 'jaw' and related to mandere 'chew' and derived from the Proto-Indo-European root mendh 'chew'.

Maxilla - another directly from the Latin where maxilla also meant 'upper jaw'. It is derived from mala meaning 'jaw, cheekbone'.

Metacarpus - is also Latin but here Modern Latin derived from the Greek metakarpion. Here meta 'between' or 'next after' and derived from Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle', together with Greek karpos 'wrist'.

Metatarsus - as above the meta element can be traced to Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle'. Here with Greek tarsos 'ankle, sole of the foot, rim of the eyelid' and originally used to refer to 'a flat surface for drying'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry'.

Patella - another Latin word with the same meaning of 'kneecap' but was also used to mean 'pan' as was the root patina. Ultimately both come from Proto-Indo-European pet-ano 'to spread', itself referring to the flattened or dished shape of the pan or kneecap.

Pelvis - easy to see by looking at the bones of the pelvic girdle as to why it comes from the Latin pelvis 'basin'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European pel 'container', which has also given us Greek pelex 'helmet', Sanskrit palavi 'vessel', Greek pelike 'goblet, bowl', and the word full common to both Old Scandinavian and Old English and meaning 'cup'.

Radius - has the same origin as the spoke of a wheel or that part of a circle, however just what that origin may be is unknown.

Rib - a Germanic word which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European rebh meaning 'to roof, cover'. Hence if the curved bone is seen as a rafter supporting a roof, clearly the bone's shape has been likened to that and not vice versa as a certain book may suggest.

Scapula - the Latin scapula means 'shoulder'. It was also used to mean 'spades, shovels' and this suggests the bone being used as such, albeit these of animals. Such a scraping motion when using these tools can be seen in the Proto-Indo-European root skep 'to scrape'.

Sternum - comes from the Greek sternon 'chest, breast' as well as 'breastbone'. It is related to the Greek stornyai 'to spread out' which is also seen in the original Proto-Indo-European stere 'to spread'.

Tibia - the Latin tibia means not only the 'shinbone' but also used to mean 'pipe, flute'. The instrument would have been made from said bone, and the etymological trail stops here.

Ulna - Latin again where ulna meant 'elbow' and was also a measure of lenth. This cominge from Proto-Indo-European el-ina which also meant 'elbow, forearm'.

Vertebra - in Latin meant 'joint or articulation of the body' as much as it did 'backbone'. This comes from the Latin vertere 'to turn' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wer also 'to turn' and thus seeing the backbone as a virtual hinge for the body.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Australian Territories

To define the names of the eight territories of Australia seems a little pointless, for they are obvious. Of course, this is because they were named very recently, albeit from words often coined very much earlier. Yet these are worthwhile looking at for, unlike most names which simply developed, these were chosen.

Western Australia - obviously the westernmost part of Australia, but why 'west'? It transpires this an abbreviation of the Proto-Indo-European compound wes-pero meaning 'evening'. Australia is an abbreviation of the Latin Terra Australis meaning simply 'southern land'.

Southern Australia - from the Proto-Germanic sunthaz or quite literally 'sun side'. For the origins of Australia see Western Australia above.

Northern Territory - 'north' comes from Proto-Indo-European ner meaning 'left' as that is where north lies when facing the rising sun. Note the same word is the root of Sanskrit narakah 'hell'. Territory is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry' and orium a suffix denoting place. Together this produced the Latin territorium meaning 'a place from which people are warned off'.

Australian Capital Territory - Named as such for it is home to Canberra, itself a greatly Anglicised version of an indigenous name. Tales of this being named Canberry because of the number of native Australian Cranberry bushes growing around here seems fanciful, at best. Possibly this represents an old Ngunnawal word meaning 'meeting place', although other sources point to the two mountains which dominate the skyline and thus the river running between them is the nganbira or 'hollow between a woman's breasts'. For the origins of Territory see Northern Territory above and for the origins of Australia see Western Australia, also above.

New South Wales - a word seen since Proto-Indo-European newo and thus has hardly changed in form or meaning for thousands of years. For the origins of south see South Australia above, while Wales is an Old English word, where wahl meant 'foreigner' or, more correctly, 'not Saxon'.

Queensland - named in 1859 after former monarch Queen Victoria.

Victoria - exactly as for Queensland above.

Tasmania - is named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European to sight the island, doing so on November 24th 1642, although he called it Van Diemen's Land after the then Dutch governor-general of the East Indies. Abel's surname comes from a Germanic term meaning 'of great faith'.

What do we know of the names of regional names used by those living here for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans? Nothing, as while they had names for places they did not name vast areas as they simply did not need to.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Colonial Slang

Dialect terms vary greatly across England, words used in the north and east would be completely unknown in the south and west. What is more the English spoken in Scotland and Ireland has even more variations. Hence I wondered what terms had crept in English among the former British colonies, in particular the slang terms. There were hundreds, but having removed those referring to body parts, sex and those of more obvious meaning, I ended up with the following list.

Australian: Back of Bourke (a very long way away)

Australian: Bush oyster (nasal mucus)

Australian: Franger (condom)

Australian: Mystery bag (a sausage)

Australian: Zack (sixpence - actually 5 cents)

Canadian: Toque (a warm knitted cap)

Canadian: Cowtown (how the locals know Calgary, Alberta)

Canadian: Pablum (vitamin deficiencies) and named from a propietary baby food.

Canadian: Gastown (a region of Vancouver) named after Gassy Jack Deighton and refers to the area devoted to the arts, media, technology and tourism.

Canadian: Skookum (excellent)

New Zealand: Carked (death, not necessarily a person)

New Zealand: Choice (thanks a lot)

New Zealand: Hungus (someone who likes food a lot)

New Zealand: Squizz (a glace)

New Zealand: Dairy (expensive)

South African: Babbelas (a hangover) comes from the Zulu word ibhabhalazi.

South African: Braai (barbecue)

South African: Fundi (expert) comes from the Nguni tribe's language.

South African: Jislaaik (an expression of surprise)

South African: Shongololo (a millipede) and from the Zulu word ukushonga which means 'to roll up'.

If anyone wants to drop me a line and suggest others, feel free.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Christian Feast Days

With this being the first week of October and, as far as I could gather, no religious festival whatsoever, I thought I'd look at the names of Christian feast days.

Ash Wednesday - derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday, these placed on the heads of those present in the form of the cross.

Quadragesima - the first Sunday of Lent, traditionally the first of the Sundays when fasting is suspended. It is Latin for 'fortieth' as it is exactly forty days between then and Good Friday.

Palm Sunday - commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem, where the crowd scattered palm branches on the path before Jesus as he rode through the streets.

Good Friday - not, as is often said, a corruption of 'God' Friday but uses 'good' in an earlier sense of 'pious, holy'.

Easter Day - comes from an Old English goddess Eostre, a dawn goddess which can be traced in numerous cultures many centuries before Christianity and Easter. Her name comes from Proto-Indo-European h'ews 'to shine'.

Ascension Day - the day on which the risen Christ is said to have risen to heaven. It is always a Thursday and the fortieth day of Easter.

Whit Sunday - the eighth Sunday after Easter, the day on which the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon Christ's disciples. It is a contraction of White Sunday and is also referred to as Whitsun and Pentecost, itself from the Greek for 'fiftieth day'.

Trinity Sunday - is the first Sunday after Whit Sunday or Pentecost, marking the Trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Corpus Christi - Latin for 'the Body of Christ', it is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

Advent - the period from the fourth Sunday before Christmas up to, but not including, the day itself. Its name comes from Latin and means 'to come'.

Christmas - literally 'the mass of Christ', where 'mass' comes from mittere 'to let go' and 'Christ' is a translation of the Hebrew mashiah to Greek khristos 'the annointed'.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Etymology for Entomologists

Recently talking to a represent of Staffordshire Wildlife Trust about the excellent work they do and offered to talk on the origins of some of the names of the animals whose habitat they help to both preserve and create. Here I take a look at the origins of the names of insects, but if you're interested in hearing how other creatures got their names, perhaps you would care to book me for a talk. And if you're missing the story behind the name of Butterflies and Moths, I covered these a few years ago.

Ant - a Germanic term, seen in Old English aemette which is why it is still known in the southwest of Britain as the 'emmet', and coming from the Germanic root ai 'off, away' and Proto-Indo-European mai 'to cut' (a word which has also given us 'maim'). Thus the ant or emmet is actually 'the biter-off', a reference to how the creatures chop up larger prey to take back to their nests.

Aphid - the gardener's traditional enemy has an odd name which has never been understood. It is unknown before 1758, the colloquial name of ant-cow from 1847, when it was apparently coined by Linnaeus as aphides, the plural of aphis. Here the trail goes cold, although it has been suggested this comes from Greek apheides meaning 'unsparing, lavishly bestowed' and a reference to its unbelievable rate of production. While this etymology seems plausible there is nothing to show it to be true. What is true is their prodigous breeding capability for, under optimal conditions and with no predation, disease. parasites, and unlimited food supplies, a single female aphid can, through asexual reproduction, theoretically produce 600,000,000,000 (six hundred billion) descendants in a single season. Now you see why insects have been suggested as the answer to the world's food problem - although it doesn't answer the question the aphids ask about their food problem.

Bee - since humanity's days as hunter-gatherers honey will have been an important natural resource. Freely available, albeit not easily gathered, nutritious, sweet (and who doesn't like sweet), and with a long shelf life, it was the answer to many needs. Hence there has been a long association with the bee and that is reflected in the name. Coming from Old English beo, Old Norse by, Old High German bia, Middle Dutch bie, Proto-Germanic bion, and Proto-Indo-European bhei, all mean simply 'bee' and thus the name of this now worryingly endangered insect has not only never changed but has always been imitative of the buzzing sound associated with it.

Beetle - from Old English bitela, itself from Proto-Germanic bitel 'biting', and ultimately traceable to the Proto-Indo-European bheid 'to split' and referring to the formidable mandibles of beetles.

Caterpillar - the larval stage of butterflies and moths does not have a name it can call its own for, no matter what it is known as and from what language, the creature is always alluded to as resembling something else. For example, the English 'caterpillar' came from Old French chatepelose or 'shaggy cat'. Nothing different in other tongues, Swiss German teufelskatz 'devil's cat', Milanese cagnon 'little dog', Italian gattola 'little cat', Portuguese lagarta 'lizard', and Kentish where it was either a 'hop-dog' or 'hop-cat'.

Centipede - simply unites Latin centum and Proto-Indo-European ped 'foot' - although known centipedes have anything from 30 to 354 legs (or 15 to 177 pairs) and always an odd number of pairs of legs and therefore no centipede can have a hundred legs (see also millipede).

Chafer - a kind of beetle taking its name for a similar reason. Here Proto-Germanic kabraz meant 'gnawer' and came from Proto-Indo-European geph 'jaw, mouth'.

Cricket - comes from the Old French criquet from criquer, which means exactly what it sounds like 'creak, rattle'.

Dragonfly - is a fairly modern name, dating from the early 17th century and an example of folklore more than its earlier name of adderbolt, a good description of its shape and movement.

Earwig - named because it was thought the the wicga 'beetle, worm, insect' would be likely to hide inside the human ear - French perce-oreille and German ohr-wurm give the same warning - although there is not a single recorded instance of any earwig found in any earhole throughout the entire human history. The term wicga shares an origin with 'wiggle' in Proto-Indo-European wegh 'to go, move'. Also worth noting is the old dialect term from the north of England, where it was known as a 'twitch-ballock'.

Flea - see 'fly' below.

Fly - this is from the sense of movement through air, but this comes from the word 'flee' (as is 'flea' above) as it was the fastest means of escape. Here 'flee' comes from Proto-Indo-European pleuk, from the root pleu 'to flow'.

Gnat - shares a root with 'gnaw' as this means 'biter' but understood as 'little biter'.

Grasshopper - is basically the same thing as a locust, except from time to time the locust form vast swarms. The name is obvious, unlike the locust (see below), referring to its movement and habitat.

Greenfly - obviously some are indeed green and they are capable of flight.

Grub - derived from the verb and thus 'the digging insect', in turn this is from Proto-Indo-European ghrebh 'to dig, bury'.

Hornet - there is no doubting this is from 'horn', but whether this refers to the instrument and thus the buzzing sound of the creature or to the sharp feel of its sting is unknown. Interestingly as the first instruments known as horns were likened to the shape of the animal horn, both share an origin.

Katydid - named for the sound made when the male vibrates its wings. Of more interest is the alternative name for the insect, again imitative of the males but said to sound more like "Katy didn't".

Ladybird - or in the USA the ladybug, the latter are far more sensible name as it clearly is not a bird - although better still was the earlier name of 'ladyfly'. The 'lady' here is the Virgin Mary, which can be seen better in the German Marienkafer.

Locust - shares an origin with the name of the lobster, indeed the French form is languste and the Latin locusta meaning both 'locust' and 'lobster'. Now onbviously it referred to any multi-limbed creature with an external skeleton but, other than that, the etymology is a mystery. Note the Latin lacerta is the only other word known to refer to two quite different creatures, in this case the lizard and the mackerel.

Louse - a parasitic insect and one which has been with humankind for so long its name has never changed, at least not since Proto-Indo-European lus.

Mantis - often referred to as a 'praying mantis', where the first element is superfluous as the name 'mantis' comes from the Greek mantis meaning 'one who divines, prophet'.

Millipede - as with centipede (see above) this combines Latin and Proto-Indo-European to give 'a thousand feet', although the most ever discovered had 750 feet.

Mite - can be traced to Proto-Indo-European mei 'small', something which is seen as another meaning of the word 'mite' today. And before anyone points this out, I know a mite is an arachnid, not an insect.

Mosquito - is a Spanish word, itself derived from Latin musca 'fly' and ultimately the Proto-Indo-European mu 'gnat, fly'.

Nit - little change in this, the egg of the louse (see above), since Proto-Indo-European knid which referred to exactly the same thing today.

Spider - an obvious name when we realise this can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European spen meaning 'stretch, draw, spin' and thus the spider is literally 'the spinner'. And before anyone points this out, I know a spider is an arachnid, not an insect.

Tarantula - named from the seaport city of Taranto in southern Italy where these spiders are frequently found, as a place name it is thought to come from darandos 'oak trees'. And before anyone points this out, I know a trarantula is an arachnid, not an insect.

Termite - began as the Latin terere 'to rub, erode', then termes 'woodworm, white ant', and then to Modern Latin termites, pronounced as three syllables: 'ter-mi-tees', which was mistakenly thought to be plural and the final 's' dropped to produce an apparent singular.

Wasp - no matter how far back we trace this word it, like 'bee' (see above), has only ever meant 'wasp'. It is likely related to webh meaning 'to weave' and a reference to the production of the nest.

Weevil - exactly as 'wasp' (see above) in coming from Proto-Indo-European webh 'to weave'.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Norse Gods

In my work on English place name, particularly in the north of the country, I often find names referring to Norse gods and thought it might prove interesting, especially with the new Thor film due out later this year, to see how and why they were named.

Should start with the home of the heavenly hall in which Odin receives the souls of those slain in battle. The name is from Old Norse valr 'those slain in battle' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wele 'to strike, wound'. This root has also given us Latin veles 'ghosts of the dead', Old Irish fuil 'blood', and Welsh gwel 'wound'.

Aegir - the Norse sea god has a name meaning 'sea' and related to Old English ieg 'island', Gothic ahua 'river, waters', Proto-Germanic akhwo 'river', Latin aqua 'water', and Proto-Indo-European akwa 'water'.

Balder - his name is related to Old English bealdor, baldor 'lord, prince, king'. This honorific likely comes from a Proto-Germanic term related to balpaz, Old English bald, and Old High German pald, all meaning 'bold, brave'.

Bragi - got his name from Old Norse bragr 'poetry'.

Buri - the first god of Norse mythology, has a name where the origin is unknown but (as always) has several suggestions. Some hold this to be from Old Norse burr meaning 'son' which, as he is the first Norse god, hardly fits. However his status as the founder of the gods does add weight to the idea this came from buri 'producer'. He came into being when the cow Authumbla released him from a salty block of ice by licking it - which is probably my favourite creation myth.

Eir - a goddess associated with medical knowledge has a name from Old Norse meaning 'help, mercy'.

Frey - a name derived from Proto-Norse frawjaz 'lord' given to a god associated with kingship, virility, prosperity, sunshine, and fair weather.

Freyja - a goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, war and death has a name from Old Norse freyja meaning 'the lady'.

Frigg - a goddess who gave her name to Friday seems to come from the same root as Freyja (above) and thus simply means 'the lady'.

Hel - a female figure associated with the place of the same name, both likely coming from Proto-Germanic xaljo or haljo meaning 'concealed place' or 'the underworld'. Hel had a horse named Sleipnir meaning 'the slipper'.

Hermothr - is Old Norse for 'war spirit', he often spoken of as the messenger of the gods.

Hlin - a goddess whose name means 'protectress' and thought to simply be an alternative name for Frigg.

Loki - this god's name has never really been understood but may be related to Old Norse luka meaning 'close, shut', which would fit with Loki's role in the Battle of Ragnarok.

Nanna - Balder's wife and another whose name has uncertain origins. This may be nanth 'the daring one' or, and this seems less likely, typical baby-babbly meaning 'mother'.

Od - sometimes given as Odr, is Old Norse for 'mind, soul' and related to Proto-Germanic words meaning 'madness, furious, vehement, eager'.

Odin - has exactly the same origins as Od or Odr (see above).

Ran - a Norse goddess associated with the sea whose name means 'runner'.

Sif - a goddess associated with the earth, her name is a plural form of Msifjar and understood as 'in-law-relative'.

Sigyn - is the goddess wife of Loki whose name means 'victorious girlfriend'.

Thor - the hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, protection of mankind, and fertility has a name associated with the Germanic thunraz 'thunder'.

Tyr - a god whose name means literally 'god'.

Vidar - a Norse god whose name means 'wide ruler'.

Wotan - has exactly the same origin as Odin (see above).

Saturday, 9 September 2017


Always been interested in heraldry, although I know very little. Hence I thought if I looked at the etymology of the terms it may help me to understand more and thus interpret what I see before me.

Abatements - marks showing some dishonourable act, not actual marks but seen as several pieces removed and all of different shapes. Mostly used in a legal sense to mean 'destruction or removal of a nuisance' - the two clearly connected.

Achievement - refers to the ranks and/or titles of the family. No surprise then to find it comes from Old French meaning 'to accomplish'.

Ambulant - describes the figure as 'walking', for obvious reasons.

Anchor - used to refer to 'hope' more often than any maritime connection, this a biblical quote where one's faith is said to be an anchor through life's storms.

Baton - in earlier generations it signifies illegitimacy of the first bearer.

Chevron - one of the simplest of images and one of the earliest, hence its original usage is unknown. What we do know is it comes from the French word for 'rafter' or 'roof'.

Courant - describes an animal - such as a horse, stag, dog - running at full speed.

Crescent - not a crescent as we would think, ie in a crescent moon, but one usually elongated and lying on its back with horns uppermost.

Dexter - heraldic terminology for the righthand side.

Escutcheon - a lovely word referring to the shield, and derived from the Latin scutum meaning 'shield' and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning 'hide, conceal'.

Gradient - a term meaning 'walking'.

Lampasse - refers to the tongue of any quadruped when of a different colour to the rest of the creature. No, neither have I.

Martlet - perhaps not an actual bird, although some sources say this is a blackbird or swallow, but is marked by its lack of legs, thighs yes, legs no.

Potent - another name for a crutch or cane.

Saltire - as many will know is a cross, the most famous that of the cross of St Andrew, but heraldically it refers to a cross not in the usual vertical and horizontal form.

Sinister - lefthand side.

Tierce - refers to the shield being divided into three.

Vorant - is a term telling us one figure is swallowing or devouring another.

Does knowing the origins of thus the meaning of the terms help me understand more of heraldry? Only time will tell.