by Zoë Sharp
It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I love playing with words. My dictionary is falling apart and decorated with Post-It notes of words that would make great titles, names, or just ones I love the sound or shape of. Looking up anything always takes me longer than I expected because I get very easily side-tracked. I collect weird meanings and derivations of unusual words and phrases, many of which I’ve included in these posts.
But it’s not just unusual words that fascinate me. I love common words with unusual meanings, or slight misspellings that change everything. (Only recently I was sent an email imploring me to sign a partition.) When I started making a note of some words that caught my eye for this post, I quickly filled pages of notes, and then had to force myself to stop. Here are just a few of my favourites, in no particular order.
And, just to break things up a bit, I’ve interspersed them with some glorious pictures sent to me this week of the coloured patterns in icebergs, caused by them picking up different pigments, or frozen waves. Icebergs in the Antarctic area sometimes have stripes, formed by layers of snow that react to different conditions. Blue stripes are often created when a crevice in the ice sheet fills up with melt-water and freezes so quickly that no bubbles form. When an iceberg falls into the sea, a layer of salty seawater can freeze to the underside. If this is rich in algae, it can form a green stripe. Brown, black and yellow lines are caused by sediment, picked up when the ice sheet grinds downhill towards the sea.
While androgynous means having both male and female characteristics, androgenous means having only male offspring.
Everyone knows what angry means, but angary is a legal term meaning a belligerent’s right to seize and use neutral or other property, subject to compensation.
Pursue means to harass or persecute – or, in Scots law, to prosecute – and Spenser spelt it pursew with the same meaning. But written persue, it is not only another alternative spelling, but also means a track of blood. (Spenser again) from the act of piercing.
Consent might be to agree or comply, but concent is a harmony of sounds or voices.
The meaning of blanket is familiar, but blanquet is a variety of pear, blanquette is a ragout of chicken or veal made with a white sauce, and bloncket means grey. (That bloke Spenser gets everywhere.)
A lake is not only a body of water, but also a small stream or channel, or a reddish pigment made from combining a dye with metallic hydroxide to give the colour carmine. Spell it laik and it becomes a Northern English term meaning to sport or play or be unemployed, and lakh means the number 100’000 in India and Pakistan, especially when referring to rupees, or an indefinitely vast number.
While a block is a mass of stone or wood, a bloc is a combination of parties, nations or other units to achieve a common purpose.
One that always used to confuse me as a kid was the difference between demure, meaning chaste or modest, and demur meaning to object or hesitate.
And I know for a fact I’ve accidentally mixed up defuse, to take the fuse out of a bomb or, according to Shakespeare (and what did he know?) to disorder, with diffuse, meaning widely spread or wordy, or also to pour out all round; to scatter.
A clue might be anything that points to the solution to a mystery, but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of thread that guides through the labyrinth, as well as being the lower corner of a sail or one of the cords by which a hammock is suspended.
And this is before we get to the words with one spelling but lots of different meanings:
Pernicious means both destructive and highly injurious, but also (according to Milton) swift, ready and prompt.
A tent could be a portable canvas shelter, an embroidery or tapestry frame, a plug or roll of soft material for dilating a wound, a Spanish red wine, or the Scots word for taking heed or notice of.
A rabble could be a disorderly mob, but also a device for stirring molten iron etc in a furnace.
A race is the descendants of a common ancestor, a fixed course or track over which anything runs, the white streak down an animal’s face, a rootstock of ginger (Shakespeare) to raze or erase, or to tear away or snatch. (Both Spenser. He just made them up as he felt like it, didn’t he?)
Anyway, there are LOTS of others, so what are your favourites, ‘Rati? And what’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?
No Word of the Week this week. I think I’ve used quite enough, don’t you?