Saturday, 2 January 2016


Seen on Facebook: Yule is derived from the Old Norse word for wheel.

In reality, yule is from Old English geōl, geohol "Christmas Day". It is cognate with Old Norse jól, "a heathen feast lasting 12 days" (OED). Its further etymology is unknown.

Wordorigins has more on yule.

The idea that it is from the Old Norse for "wheel" probably originates in the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, which says

Yule is derived into modern English from Jól deriving from Old Norse hjól, wheel, referring to the moment when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise again (compare to the Slavic karachun).

Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says of yule "The attempt to connect this word with wheel is perfectly futile, and explains nothing."

Saturday, 28 November 2015


My problem with the character of Ashildr is a very small one.

She pronounces her name wrong.

She's a viking, and she says /əʃildə/ but this can't be right because Old Norse doesn't have /ʃ/.*

It should be something more like /ɒːshildə/. If you don't know IPA, think "oss-heelder" instead of "a-shielder".

According to a few sites Áshildr is composed of Old Norse áss "god" and hildr "battle". Old Norse áss is cognate with Old English ōs "god" as in Ōsweald "god's power", modern Oswald.

The Radio Times has a bit to say about the name.

*I could be wrong about this. But even if Old Norse does have /ʃ/, it is not represented by the spelling <sh>.

Monday, 23 November 2015

sleep no more

I'm one of the four people who enjoyed Sleep No More, Mark Gatiss's weird and scary story set in a world where India and Japan have combined forces. The writing on the walls, flags and screens is a clever mix of Indic and Japanese characters.

Click to embiggen:

This looks like पाॅ

Some of these look like Devanagari and some look like kanji.

This looks upside down to me, even though it's made up.

Devanagari क with a kanji-like box, and Japanese は with a Devanagari-like horizontal line.

These characters are completely fabricated; I don't think they're based on anything real.

This is straight-up Devanagari: ऋ झ

Sunday, 12 April 2015

se betsta læcedóm

An Old English recipe kills a superbug!

I found the recipe on page 34 of Leechdoms, wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, being a 1864 translation of Bald’s Leechbook, the Old English book of medicine where the cure was found. I have mentioned this book before, in connection with beer.

Ƿýrc aegsealfe ƿiþ ƿænne gením cropleac ⁊ garleác begea em fela gecnuƿa ƿel tosomne gením ƿín ⁊ fearres geallan begea em fela gemeng ƿiþ þy leace do þonne on arfæt læt standan nigon niht on þam arfate aƿring þurh claþ ⁊ gehlyttre ƿel do on horn · ⁊ ymb niht do mid feþere on ꝥ eage se betsta læcedóm.

"Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye ; the best leechdom."

Most of these words have survived into modern English. It becomes clearer if you replace the letter ƿ with the modern w:
wyrc: work
eag: eye
sealfe: salve
wiþ: with
wænne: wen
crop: crop
garleac: garlic
leace: leek
wel: well
win: wine
geallan: gall
þy, þam: the
gemengan: among
do: do
þonne: then
arfæt: vat (minus the ar- prefix)
læt: let
standan: stand
nigon: nine
niht: night
awring: wring (minus the a- prefix)
þurh: through
claþ: cloth
horn: horn
feþere: feather
betsta: best
læcedom: leechdom - -dom is found in kingdom. Leech the doctor is not related to leech the animal.

Words that did not survive:
begea: "both"
em: "equal"
fela: "many, much" (German viel)
gecnuwian: "to pound together"
tosomne: "together" (German zusammen)
fearr: "bull"
gehlyttrian: "to make clear"

A word that sort of survived:
The past participle of genim "take" survives in numb.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

world and Fergus

Proto-Indo-European *wiH-ro- "man" combined with *-ald- "age" to form Proto-Germanic *wer-ald- "life or age of man" and English world.

*wiH-ro- became Old Irish fer "man", combining with *ǵeus- "to taste, choose" to form the name Fergus apparently meaning "having the strength of men".

*wiH-ro- is also found in werewolf.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Word crimes

I knew that Weird Al Yankovic was a grammar snob, but this song is just insulting. People who use less with count nouns (like Shakespeare) were raised in a sewer. People who use figurative "literally" (like Dickens and Fitzgerald) are stupid. Use any words that Yankovic doesn't like and you're a "moron", "dumb mouth-breather", "spastic", haven't finished second grade.

I'd like to think he's aware of the irony, that he's being just as childish as he accuses others of being. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


From Snuff by Terry Pratchett:
'So Sybil's used to come along and talk to the hermit whenever they were faced with a philosophical conundrum, yes?” 
Willikins looked puzzled. “Good heavens, no, sir, I can't imagine at any of them would ever dream of doing that. They never had any truck with philosophical conundra.* They were aristocrats you see? Aristocrats don't notice philosophical conundra.” 
*Later on Vimes pondered Willikins’ accurate grasp of the plural noun in the circumstances, but there you were; if someone hung around in houses with lots of books in them, some of it rubbed off just as, come to think of it, it had on Vimes. 

But conundra isn't the plural of conundrum. It's not even Latin; the OED Online says

Etymology: Origin lost: in 1645 (sense 3) referred to as an Oxford term; possibly originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent.
It's been pluralized conundrums, conimbrumsquinombromsConuncrumsQuadundrumsCunnunders, and conundrums, but hardly ever conundra.

A little later on there is a bit of "no words for X, lots of words for Y":

Do you know that they [goblins] have only five names for colours? Even trolls have around sixty, and a lot more than that if they find a paint salesman! Does this mean goblins are stupid?No, they have a vast number of names that even poets haven't come up with, for things like the way colours shift and change, the melting of one hue into another. They have single words for the most complicated of feelings; I know about two hundred of them, I think, and I'm sure there are a lot more! What you may think are grunts and growls and snarls are in fact carrying vast amounts of information! They're like an iceberg, commander: most of them is where you can't see or understand, and I'm teaching Tears of the Mushroom and some of her friends so that they may be able to speak to people like you, who think goblins are dumb.