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8 September 2016

10 First Names Used As Words | 500 Words Ep. 35


You may remember this fact from the HH Twitter feed a while back:
...which led to a bit more explanation here on the blog: the name Rebecca was used (in allusion to a story from the Old Testament) for a series of toll gate protests in Wales in the mid nineteenth century. And it’s that story again that kickstarts this week’s YouTube video, which looks at the origins and meanings behind 10 first names that can be used as words in their own right.



One name that didn’t make the final cut here, however, is John.

John has a number of different uses in English, ranging from a toilet to a signature, a cuckolded husband to an unidentified corpse, and from a policeman to a priest, to the client of a prostitute. Blimey, definitions don’t get much more varied than those. 

In the majority of these cases, it’s the sheer commonality (and, therefore, the familiarity or anonymity) of the name John that is the root of the meaning: John was the most popular male first name in American every year since records began in the nineteenth century through to 1924 (and it remained in the top 10 until 1987), while in the UK 5.8 million men have been named John since 1530, and either it or William held the top spot among British men from the mid-1500s right through to the mid-1900s.

The use of john as another name for a person’s signature, however, owes its origin to John Hancock, the Governor of Massachusetts whose sign-manual gloriously outdoes everybody else’s on the Declaration of Independence (and which you can see—or rather, fail to miss—at the top of this page).

As another name for a toilet, meanwhile, john is probably an alteration of jakes or Jacques, a French borrowing that has been used as a euphemism for the smallest room in the house since the fifteenth century at least. And as another name for a detective, john has its roots in the French word for a policeman, gendarme.

The term gendarme (which itself began life as gens d’armes, or “men of arms”) was originally the name of a mounted soldier or infantryman, and it was in this sense that the word was first borrowed into English in the sixteenth century. It wasn’t until the first formal police forces began to be organized in the 1800s that the word gained its modern sense in its native French—and, for that matter, in English, where it quickly morphed into the humorous form johndarm in early Victorian slang:
“John Darm! Who’s he?” “What, don’t you know?! In Paris he is all the go; Like money here,—he’s every thing; A demigod—at least a king! You cannot fight, you cannot drink, Nor have a spree, nor hardly think, For fear you should create a charm, To conjure up the fiend John Darm! 
That’s an extract from John Darm, a song first published in 1823 and written by a nineteenth century “writer of verse” named John Ogden, recounting a trip taken by John Bull (the kedge-bellied personification of England and the English) to France. Once there, Bull attends a theatre, gets into a fight with a number of audience members, is arrested by “John Darm”, and thrown into prison. 

The trip ends with the two on better terms, however, with John Bull concluding:

Says I, “To-morrow home I go;
One Frenchman I’d not leave my foe;
John Bull, believe me, meant no harm—
Let’s part in peace—farewell John Darm!”

Ogden’s song (which was apparently a follow up to an earlier comic poem, Mounseer Nongtongpaw, once falsely attributed to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) provides us with the earliest record of the name john as a nickname for a policeman that we know about. And although the word’s French origins and its connection to the gendarmerie has long since vanished into the haze of language history, the word itself has remained in use to this day.

31 August 2016

10 Words With Nautical Origins - 500 Words Ep. 34


You might have spotted this little nautical fact over on Twitter the other day:


Yep, your slush fund isn’t quite as wholesome as it might sound. 

But that fact was a neat little précis to this week’s YouTube video, which is exploring the stories behind 10 words with nautical origins.



Another maritime tweet that could have made the final cut here is this one:


Which probably needs a little bit more explanation here on the blog.

So. As a stereotypically piratical exclamation of surprise or infuriation, shiver my timbers! dates back to the late eighteenth century. Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits its earliest print appearance to the English author (and friend of Charles Dickens) Frederick Marryat’s novel Jacob Faithful in 1834, earlier records have since been uncovered—including one in the script of a play, Opposition, staged in London in 1795:

Old Sailor: “Lather me!—Shiver my timbers. if so be he comes athwart me—I'll soon lower his topsails for him—Here’s King George and old England for ever!”

Oddly, the shiver of shiver my timbers! and the trembling shiver you do when cold or frightened aren’t related.

Both date back to the early Middle Ages, but of the two, shivering with cold is something of a mystery. One theory suggests it might derive from ceafl, an Old English word meaning “jaw”, and so might once have specifically referred to chattering teeth. But alas, that’s just a theory and the word’s exact origins are unknown.

The shiver of shiver my timbers! is meanwhile thought to derive from an Old German word, schever, meaning a splinter or chip of wood. That makes it an etymological cousin of words like sheave and shive, while the expression to burst or fly to shivers has been used since the fifteenth century m to mean “to break or shatter into pieces”. Shivering someone’s timbers, ultimately, alludes giving them a shock or cause for concern as terrible as the cracking or splintering of the wooden boards used to construct ships.

What isn’t known, however, is whether the (unfortunately unknown) author of Opposition made up the expression themselves, or whether—like Frederick Marryat, who served in the Royal Navy and invented the Marryat flag code used to pass messages between ships—they had naval experience and simply reused an expression he had heard elsewhere. That’s one nautical question we’ll probably never fathom out.


26 August 2016

10 Words Coined By Writers – 500 Words Ep. 33


If you’ve been keeping up with the HH 500 Words YouTube series, you’ll have seen a few literary lists crop up amidst all the weird words and word origins. Back in February, we marked Dickens’ birthday with a list of words derived from his characters. In April, we marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a list of words he used that no one can quite decipher. 

And this week, we’re heading back down the library with 10 Words Coined By Writers:



One word that could have made this list (and would have done, had we not already addressed it in our video on little-known opposites) is eucatastrophe, a term coined by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien as the opposite of catastrophe: a sudden event of sheer good fortune in the plot of a story that typically hastens its conclusion.


Lewis Carroll’s chortle could have made our top 10 too, had we not already explained its origins in our video on portmanteaux. But one word that failed to make the final cut here and yet still deserves an explanation, is the story behind James Joyce’s little known contribution to particle physics: the quark.

A quark, for those of you not too well versed in this subject (a minority, surely…) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
Each of a group of subatomic particles regarded, with leptons, as basic constituents of matter, and postulated never to occur in the free state but to be combined in pairs to form mesons and in triplets to form baryons, and to have fractional electric charges, +⅔ and −⅓ that of the proton.
Well, that clears that up. But without going too deeply into the science behind the likes of leptons and quarks, all that concerns us here is that quarks were first postulated by American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann in 1964. Although originally theoretical, Gell-Mann’s model of the subatomic “particle zoo” has since been validated, and ultimately the terminology he used in his original explanation has since become the standard across all physics. But why call them quarks in the first place? Well, why not let the man himself explain. 

In 1978, Gell-Mann wrote to the editor of the OED Supplement to explain the thinking behind his word:
I employed the sound “quork” for several weeks in 1963 before noticing “quark” in Finnegans Wake, which I had perused from time to time since it appeared in 1939 ... I needed an excuse for retaining the pronunciation “quork” despite the occurrence of “Mark”, “bark”, “mark”, and so forth in Finnegans Wake. I found that excuse by supposing that one ingredient of the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark” was a cry of “Three quarts for Mister…” heard in H. C. Earwicker’s pub.
In other words, as Gell-Mann later expounded in his book, The Quark and the Jaguar (1995), he knew the sound of the word he wanted to use before he decided on how it should be spelled; at one time, he explained, quark might even have been spelled “kwork”. But then, purely by chance, he stumbled across the word quark in James Joyce’s enigmatic writing, and the Q spelling stuck. 

One question remains, however—what was James Joyce’s quark in the first place? Well, it’s presumed that the quark used in Finnegans Wake is meant to represent the sound of a seagull, and is used in the novel as a call to buy a round of drinks. Any excuse…




19 August 2016

10 Words That Sound Rude (But Really Aren’t) - 500 Words Ep. 32


A few days ago, HH tweeted this:


It’s one of those words that, if you’re not careful, could be taken in a very, very questionable direction. But there are plenty of words that don’t even have to be mispronounced to raise eyebrows—they’re just straight-up dirty. Or, at least, that’s how it might seem.




Peniaphobia, for instance, is nothing more than the fear of poverty and destitution. Pissasphalt is a type of bitumen. A tittynope is a crumb or portion of something, left over after all the rest has been used. A cockchafer is a beetle. A cock-bell an icicle. In fact, whether you’re talking about assart or spunk-water (you can thank Tom Sawyer for that one), there are quite a few words in the English language that sound rude, but really—genuinely—aren’t.

So brace yourselves, because it’s 10 of those that are the subject of this week’s YouTube video:




If you haven’t had your fill, there are nearly 100 words like these for your perusal over on Mental Floss, any one of which could have made the final cut here. One word that didn’t, however, and that perhaps needs a little more explanation, is this:


The key to this word (and others like it) is that sluttish originally meant just “untidy” or “slovenly”, while labelling someone (of either sex—Chaucer describes a man as sluttish in the Canterbury Tales) as a slut once simply implied that they were messy or disorganised.

But by the end of the fifteenth century that meaning had begun to broaden. Now it was people’s characters and morals—and, wholly unfairly, women’s morals in particular—that were being described as sluttish, if they were loose or disreputable, and it’s from there that the word’s modern connotations eventually emerged.


The older use of slut and sluttish to mean “untidy” survived right through to the early 1900s, giving the word coverslut more than enough time to emerge in the language in the mid-1600s. Essentially, it referred to nothing more than a garment warn to disguise untidy clothes underneath, or to protect your clothes from messy work or chores. So despite appearances, it was really nothing more than an apron.




15 August 2016

20,000 followers!



Great Scott! Good old Haggard Hawks isn’t even three years old, and yet here we are—20,000 lovely people are now following our online shenanigans. Seriously, thank you. Everyone. It’s nice to have you on board.

If you’ve been with us since the start, over the last 15,500 tweets you’ll have expanded your vocabulary by almost as many words—from aa (a type of Hawaiian lava flow) to zwischenzug (a time-buying tactical move). You’ll have found out what Shakespeare’s father did for a living (spoiler alert: he had the best job ever), what the opposite of a catastrophe is, what Inuktitut word you’ll need for the morning rush hour (ninniuralauttut, of course), what to call a group of pandas (frankly, there is no better group term), and what’s so special about the number 88. And now here we are—another milestone must mean that it’s time for the tenth of our devilishly difficult quizzes. 

Same rules as always—no time limit, just 20 multiple choice questions, the answers to (most) of which have been tweeted over on HH. Feel free to let us know how you get on either in the comments below or over on Twitter or Facebook—and stay tuned for two more big announcements on their way soon…

And best of luck!