If linguistic trivia is your flavour of the month, there’s a treat in store for you. Speaking of which, did you know the first thing to be described as having a flavour of the month is ice cream? This inconsequential yet pleasing fact is one of many to be found in Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones, aka Haggard Hawks.
The publishers of this diverting work, Elliott & Thompson (who kindly sent me a review copy), describe it as addictive – and it is certainly that. Each page contains a handful of intriguing word-related trivia, much of it etymological or semantic. Weird terms, old slang and surprising histories abound. But unlike most trivia books, which are structured thematically, Word Drops is arranged sequentially:
In Victorian slang, a sandillion was an incalculably large number, equivalent to the number of grains of sand on a beach.
A sandgroper is an inhabitant of Western Australia.
Hanyauka means ‘to tiptoe across hot sand’ in the Kwangali Bantu language of Namibia.
Anyone described as tiptoe-nice is overly and fastidiously prim and delicate.
The ‘toe’ of mistletoe is derived from the Old English word for ‘twig’.
A brancher is a young bird that has just left the nest and begun hopping about the branches.
And so it continues, hopping playfully from one ‘drop’ to the next in a book-long string of word lore. It’s a simple but effective conceit, inducing a second-order curiosity quite aside from one’s interest in the items themselves: you begin wondering which element of the line you’re poring over will prove the seed for the next, and how.
Many ‘drops’ stand alone, as above, but others are accompanied by supplementary material indented in smaller text. These lend historical and other background information, and provide a nice change of pace. Here’s a sample passage supplementing the datum that people from Wiltshire are known as moonrakers:
According to the eighteenth-century lexicographer Francis Grose, the nickname moonraker commemorates ‘some Wiltshire rustics’, who ‘seeing the figure of the moon in a pond attempted to rake it out’. Wiltshire locals today, however, tend to put their own spin on this story by claiming the men were actually trying to reach smuggled barrels of brandy they had earlier sunk in the pond when they were interrupted by revenue officers and feigned stupidity to escape prosecution.
Some drops left me wishing for more such elaboration. Machaeromancy, for instance, ‘is a form of divination that uses knives and blades’. Marvellous – but uses them how!? I had to look elsewhere to find out. Endnotes would have countervailed some of the vagueness and equivocation (‘thought to derive from’, ‘said to mean’…), but other readers may favour the uninterrupted presentation chosen.
The fact-checking occasionally falls short. Volcano is not an example of anapaest, since the order of short/unstressed and long/stressed syllables is crucial. Platypodes and octopodes are not ‘the only truly correct forms’ unless you think English should behave like Greek. Fuck is a couple of centuries older than 1475 (and bowdlerising another swearword seems unduly prim). I also noticed a handful of typos.
But these are rare lapses in a book that proves a frequent delight. It glosses such euphonious eccentrics as frumberdling (a boy growing his first beard), aspectabund (having a very expressive face), vernalagnia (a good mood brought on by fine spring weather), hibernacle (where a hibernating animal sleeps), mateotechny (a pointless scientific study), ignipotence (the power to control fire), our old friend clishmaclaver, and my new favourite rhabdosophy (gesturing with a stick to help convey a meaning).
Nonce words make an appearance too, such as James Joyce’s mrkgnao for the sound of a cat’s miaow – though it seems a shame to omit the other onomatopoeic spellings Joyce used in Ulysses, since the great effect lies in their graded impression of the animal’s anticipation of breakfast: Mkgnao!; Mrkgnao!; Mrkrgnao! (and once the milk is served, Gurrhr!).
Etymology is a recurring theme. Fesnyng, a word for a group of ferrets, arose from a 15thC misreading of besynes [business]. The dashboard of a car was extended from an analogous item in horse carriages designed to stop mud dashing the driver. The magic exclamation shazam is acronymic, appearing first in Whiz Comics in 1940 where it bestows Billy Batson with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury – at which point he becomes Captain Marvel for the first time.
Oddities from other languages also feature in abundance. After noting that the German slang word Unterhosenbügler ‘wimp’ literally means ‘one who irons his underpants’, Jones reports an early-20thC trend in German for coining ever more evocative compounds with the same essential sense as Weichei ‘wimp, softie’:
Amongst the first to emerge was Warmduscher, ‘one who takes warm showers’, but this was soon joined by countless others, including Schattenparker, ‘one who parks their car in the shade’; Bei-Mami-Wäscher, ‘one who does his laundry at his mother’s house’; Auf-dem-Schrank-Staubwischer, ‘one who dusts on top of the wardrobe’; Beipackzettel-Leser, ‘one who reads the warning labels on drug prescriptions’; Vorwärtseinpacker, ‘one who drives forwards into a parallel parking space’; and even Sitzpinkler, ‘one who urinates sitting down’. As well as being an Unterhosenbügler, incidentally, you can also be a Sockenfalter – ‘one who folds his socks’.
Word Drops is sure to go down well with confirmed word lovers, but it will also appeal more broadly – it’s hard to imagine anyone not being charmed by this breezy medley of self-contained yet interconnected miscellany. Once you pick up the string, you’ll be tempted to keep pulling till you reach the end, and how quickly that takes may depend chiefly on how often you stop to share its contents with a neighbour.
You can order Word Drops from your usual bookstore or via Elliott & Thompson.