Category Archives: Words & etymology

Where Have The Real Heroes Gone?

Another hero

Another hero

Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.

The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.

Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”

A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.

It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.

Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.

Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome  – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy  – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.

And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.

Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic.  And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.

There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.

They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.

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The Venereal Game


Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

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Prenzie Scamels

CalibanFour hundred years after he wrote them, we still use in everyday speech the many words and phrases Shakespeare coined. He gave us so many, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to list them all here.

But two words he wrote have stopped us dead: prenzie and scamels. What do they mean?

Were they more of his 1,700-plus famous neologisms like accommodation, castigate, frugal, inauspicious, premeditated and sanctimonious?* If so, no one today knows for sure what prenzie and scamels refer to.

Or were they transcription errors? The typesetter or copyist reading from a crabbed, handwritten manuscript and spelling out for the folio something he couldn’t quite understand?

Scamels are something – possibly a sea creature or shore bird – collected for food. It’s a hapax legomenon – a word that only appears once in the entire canon of Shakespeare’s works. In The Tempest, Act II, Sc. II, Caliban says to Trinculo:

I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts,
Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee
To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.

Could someone have written but smudged ‘seagull’ and the typesetter not been able to make out the letters correctly? Or written scams – an archaic nickname for limpets? Neither sound very appealling for a meal.

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On the hustings

Hustings meeting
I’ve been going door-to-door for the past few weeks in my campaign for re-election. Stumping on the hustings, as it’s called in Canada. Or at least that’s how I’ve always heard it used.

Hustings is an odd, old word, an anachronism that survives, seemingly, only in the world of politics. It comes from the days when England was a series of small kingdoms suffering frequent invasions by the Danes and Vikings. A few of the old Germanic and Norse words have managed to survive in our language, reminder of those distant, violent days.

The first known use, Wikipedia says, in a charter dated 1032 CE. But it probably was in oral use long before that document.

Husting derives from an Old Norse word, “hús” which meant ‘house. ’ It combines with “thing ” to make “hústhing,” which meant a ‘household assembly held by a leader.’ The meeting of the men who were in the household of a noble or royal leader. They would be the noble’s ‘cabinet’ or advisors.

Husting later came to mean more generically any assembly or parliament. In Old English, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, it meant ‘meeting, court’ or ‘tribunal.’

The word appears in Middle English – the language of Chaucer – referring to the highest court of the City of London. From there is begins an odd transformation to mean the platform where the Lord Mayor and aldermen presided. By the early 18th century, it meant any temporary platform on which parliamentary candidates were nominated. And by 1719, it came to mean generally a platform for political speeches.

That evolved into an even more general sense of the election process itself. In England, it still refers to a meeting or an assembly where all candidates are present. Or, as Wikipedia says, “a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.” You can “go to the hustings” or “attend the hustings” as a member of the audience, or as a politician (Word Wizard notes) you can “hit the hustings” or “take to the hustings.”

I’ve often heard it said candidates are “on the hustings” when on the campaign trail, going door-to-door. This isn’t exactly the sense meant by the term, but calling it “stumping” is equally incorrect if we’re to be true to the etymology (see below).

There are online references to a verbal form too: to hust, although I’ve never encountered it in Canada. The singular form of the noun – husting – seems to have vanished while the plural form survives.

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Ruthful, funct and doleless

Crazy EnglishWhy can’t someone be clueful, only clueless? Hapful, not simply hapless? Aweless instead of just awful? Ruthful not merely ruthless? Doleless, not just doleful? Gormful, not just gormless?

We can be thoughtful or thoughtless, careful or careless, mindful and mindless. Why not ruthful and gormful? Why not the qualities of ruthiness, gormliness and doleliness?

Can we be kempt or just unkempt? Couth or just uncouth? Gruntled or just disgruntled? Shevelled or just dishevelled?* Maculate or just immaculate? Domitable, or just indomitable? Ruly or just unruly? Can we come ravelled instead of just unravelled? Can we member a corpse instead of just dismember it? Can a Wikipedia entry be an ambiguation rather than a title=”Wikipedia” href=”” target=”_blank”>disambiguation?

If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?

Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?

Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).

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