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The Accidental Dictionary:

The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words (2016, UK; 2017, US)

It’s by no means rare for words to change their meanings over time, but sometimes those changes can take words in quite bizarre or unexpected directions, leaving them quite some distance from where they started out.


In fact, cast an etymological eye over the words in the dictionary, and you’ll soon uncover some very odd tales indeed. 


Girls, you discover, could once be boys. Your nephew was originally your grandson. The queen was your wife. A shampoo was a massage. Clouds were rocks. Noon was 3pm.


Once upon a time, you could eat potpourri and wear alcohol. You could paint with pencils, get drenched in a tiddlywink, fall for a hat-trick, play hijinks with dice, and end the night looking utterly raunchy.


100 of the English language’s most bizarre etymological histories, precisely like these, are collected here in The Accidental Dictionary. And here’s just a couple of sample entries to whet your appetite... 

originally meant ‘eye shadow’

There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.


When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.


Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.

Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.

But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.

The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.


was originally illegal lewdness

It’s tempting to think that as another word for disreputable, devious behaviour—and with its subtle nod towards the word skullskulduggery might have some kind of connection to the swashbuckling behaviour of pirates and buccaneers. In fact, there’s no such connection at all. In fact, it’s all a lot more bizarre than that.

Skulduggery first appeared in the language, with its current sense and spelling, in the mid 1800s, with its earliest record appearing in an American newspaper in 1867 that described it as a ‘mysterious term ... used to signify political or other trickery’. Before then, skulduggery was sculduddery, an old Scots dialect word that nineteenth-century lexicographer John Jamieson defined as:

A term, now used in a ludicrous manner, to denote those causes that come under the judgement of an ecclesiastical court, which respect some breach of chastity.

John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808)


So skulduggery—or rather sculduddery—seemingly began life as a legal term referring to any crime or misdemeanour that comprised a ‘breach of chastity’ in the eyes of Scotland’s strict Presbyterian courts. In that sense, the term has been unearthed as far back as 1663, in a letter written by the Earl of Argyll to Sir Archibald Primrose, the Clerk-Register of the Scottish court, in which he mentions that an unnamed acquaintance has been arrested ‘not for sculdudry ... but for a less gentlemanny crime, theft’. Theft carried the threat of the death penalty at that time, and the Earl was writing to the clerk-register to request leniency in passing sentence. The ‘more gentlemanny’ crime of sculduddery carried a less severe—if more humiliating—penalty, as explained in another letter dated 1730:


If any one be brought before a presbytery to be questioned for sculduddery, i.e. fornication or adultery . . . the offender . . . will be avoided by his friends, acquaintance, and all that know him . . . I was told in Edinburgh of a certain Scots colonel, being convicted of adultery . . . was sentenced to stand in a hair cloth at the kirk door every Sunday morning for a whole year, and to this he submitted. At the beginning of his penance he concealed his face as much as he could, but three or four young lasses passing by him, one of them stooped down, and cried out to her companions, ‘Lord! it’s Colonel – – .’ Upon which he suddenly threw aside his disguise, and said, ‘Miss, you are right; and if you will be the subject of it, I will wear this coat another twelvemonth.’

Edward Burt, Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1754)


Whether this anecdote is true or not, it shows that the legal definition of sculduddery was still in place by the mid 1700s, but the fact that John Jamieson, compiling his dictionary just after the turn of the nineteenth century, pointed out that sculduddery is ‘now used in a ludicrous manner’ suggests that this meaning had already weakened by the early 1800s. Indeed, by the 1820s sculduddery had become little more than a byword for obscenity or vulgarity, and it’s from there that the modern sense of ‘disreputable behaviour’ or ‘dishonesty’—and eventually the modern spelling skulduggery—emerged in the mid nineteenth century.