A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities
(2015, UK; 2016, USA)
As the HH Twitter feed became ever more popular, it soon became clear that leaving all that fantastic wordy trivia merely floating around in cyberspace wasn’t quite doing it justice. The quest was on to put together a Haggard Hawks factbook, and the result—published in the UK and beyond in 2015, and in the US in 2016—was Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities.
Word Drops brings together 1,000 word and language facts just like those from the HH Twitter feed in one long word association chain, so that each fact ‘drops’ into place beside the next. Working its way from aardvark to zenzizenzizenzic and back again, footnotes and annotations are used along the way to flesh out some of the most intriguing entries in the book, adding the kind of background information and context that there just isn’t room for on Twitter.
Here you’ll find out the perfect word for the place you like to go to when you’re angry, what noise dogs make in Malaysia, what hangovers are called in Iceland, how to play a 15-letter word in a game of Scrabble, and what happened when Samuel Johnson was woken up in the middle of night by all his drunk friends.
To give you an idea of how all that works, here’s a sample chain of 30 facts—taken straight from the pages of Word Drops...
The alveary is the name of the part of
your ear that contains the wax.
It’s also another name for a beehive.
Melissa means ‘honeybee’ in Greek.
Dumbledore is an old name for a bumblebee.
Dor was a general word in Old English for any large flying or buzzing insect, and it’s been variously applied to different species of fly, beetle, bee and hornet ever since. Dumbledore dates from the eighteenth century, when it was first listed in A Provincial Glossary (1787) of English dialect terms and localisms—although an even earlier form, drumble-bee, dates back to the Tudor period. Nowadays, it’s irretrievably attached to the character of Professor Albus Dumbledore in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books; Rowling apparently chose the name in allusion to the professor’s love of music, as she “imagined him walking around humming to himself,” just like a bumblebee.
In Middle English, a muggle
was another name for a fish’s tail.
In Tudor England, fishmonger’s daughter
was a euphemism for a prostitute.
The opposite of a euphemism is a dysphemism —
an insult or unpleasant turn of phrase used in place of a nicer one.
Innuendo literally means ‘by nodding’ in Latin.
Latin had no words for yes and no.
Latin is actually one of a number of languages with no precise equivalents of yes and no. In their place were a system of so-called sentence adverbs, like sane (‘indeed’), nimirum (‘without doubt’) and minime (‘not at all’), which could all be used to indicate either agreement or disagreement. Latin speakers also employed a clever technique known as echo response, in which part of a preceding question would be repeated to show a person’s response: “Are you going?” / “Going!”
There is no letter Q in any of the names of the states of the USA.
In fact, Q is the only letter of the alphabet absent from a full list of the United States: J appears in New Jersey, X in both Texas and New Mexico, and Z in Arizona. Likewise, there’s no Q or Z in the names of the state capitals: there are Js in Jackson (Mississippi), Jefferson City (Missouri) and Juneau (Alaska), and an X in Phoenix (Arizona). Incidentally Pierre, South Dakota, is the only state capital that doesn’t share a single letter with its corresponding state.
Ventriloquism contains every letter of the alphabet from Q to V.
Excluding exceptionally long and uncommon technical terms, no English word has yet been found to contain more than eight consecutive letters of the alphabet somewhere inside it. But what makes the chain of letters in VenTRiloQUiSm (and its derivatives) so exceptional is that it contains includes two of the least frequently used letters of the alphabet, namely Q and V. Other six-letter chains are found in feedback (ABCDEF), kleptomania (KLMNOP) and liverwurst (RSTUVW); a seven-letter series appears in lightfaced (CDEFGHI); and an apparently unsurpassed eight consecutive letters are used to spell propinquities, quadruplications (NOPQRSTU) and, if the alphabet is allowed to loop back on itself, brazen-facedly (YZABCDEF).
Engastrimyth is another name for a ventriloquist.
Both words literally mean ‘stomach-speaker’.
The proper name for stomach rumbles is borborygmi.
In Tudor England, to fish out of the bottom of your stomach
meant ‘to divulge your biggest secret’.
Angledog, clap-bait, gilt-tail and cow-turd-bob
are all words for a worm used as fishing bait.
An amnicolist is someone who lives beside a river.
Spear fishing is also known as weequashing.
Weequash is derived from wigwas, an Algonquin word meaning ‘birch-bark’, and it seems likely that it would originally have referred to a birchwood torch used by Native Americans while hunting after dark. Eventually, the name came to apply to any hunting or fishing trip carried out by torchlight, as in this description taken from a letter written by a Massachusetts resident in 1792: “Great Neck in Mashpee [near Boston] is a place famous for eels. The Indians, when they go in a canoe with a torch, to catch eels in the night, call it Weequash”.]
Sir Walter Scott invented the word freelance.
The ‘free’ of freelance doesn’t mean ‘without payment’ (although modern-day freelancers might disagree) but rather ‘unrestricted’ or ‘uninhibited’, and it originally referred to a medieval knight who would offer his services to any side in return for cash. The word first appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1819: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them — I will lead them to Hull … and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.” Before then, freelancers like this had been known as free-companions, members of a so-called ‘free company’ of mercenaries without any allegiance to a particular side.
The Scots word tartle refers to the awkward hesitation of having
to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember.
Onomatomania is the annoyance of not being able to come up with
the right word at the right time.
Word is the 487th commonest word in the English language.
Elsewhere, man is ranked as the seventh-commonest noun, ahead of woman in fourteenth place; the most frequently encountered part of the body is hand, in tenth place, followed by eye in thirteenth; and year, the third-commonest noun, is followed by day in fifth place, week in seventeenth, and month in fortieth. Time, incidentally, is the fifty-fifth most frequently used word in the entire English language.
Time is the commonest noun in the English language.
O’clock is an abbreviation of ‘of the clock’.
Grandfather clocks are named after
a Victorian music-hall song called My Grandfather’s Clock.
Grandfather clocks are properly known as ‘long-case’ or ‘pendulum’ clocks (although in the early 1800s they were also nicknamed wag-at-the-walls). Their more familiar name comes from a popular ballad written by the American composer Henry Clay Work in 1876: “My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, / So it stood ninety years on the floor. / It was taller by half than the old man himself, / Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.” The song was published in sheet music booklets featuring an image of a long-case clock on the cover, and its extraordinary popularity in the late 1800s no doubt helped to establish grandfather clock as the long-case clock’s more preferred name.
Your quatrayle is your father’s grandfather’s grandfather
— or your great-great-great-grandfather.
Your siblings are your brothers and sisters.
Your niblings are your nieces and nephews.
Googol—a 1 followed by 100 zeros — was coined by
the nephew of the US mathematician Edward Kasner.
A googolplex is a 1 followed by a googol of zeros.
A googolplexian is a 1 followed by a googolplex of zeros.
A zenzizenzizenzic is a number raised to its eighth power.
In the Middle Ages, square numbers were also known as zenzics, a name derived from a German spelling of the Italian word censo, meaning ‘squared’. Based on this, English mathematicians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could talk of zenzicubes (‘the cube of a square number’), zenzicubicubes (‘the square of a cube number cubed’), and zenzizenzizenzics (‘the square of a square of a square’), all of which were coined by the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde in his grand arithmetical textbook The Whetstone of Witte (1557). A zenzizenzizenzic is ultimately a number raised to eighth power, or ((x²)²)² , so 256 is the zenzizenzizenzic of 2.