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.