Playing With Words

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?


40 thoughts on “Playing With Words

  1. Cornelia Read

    What a beautiful mixture of words and images, Zoe. This was a fabulous post to wake up to, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.

    I just want to add on to one of the words you’ve described here. My favorite term from when I was asked to memorize parts of a sailboat as a kid is the "clew cringle." That’s the grommet sewn into the lower rear corner of the mainsail.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    Always happy to give someone something to smile about over their coffee.

    My favourite sailing term was always ‘baggywrinkle’, which is the soft covering for rigging to prevent sails chafing on a long voyage. Amazing how many weekend warriors faked it … ;-]

  3. berenmind

    Baggywrinkle: the soft covering for my anatomical rigging; head, neck, torso, arms and legs

    Breathtaking ice pix

  4. Eika

    Something you probably didn’t know: Dipthong. Noun. A word with one vowel that’s actually two. Generally, it’s learned by high school music geeks, and (from experience) we take great joy in insulting people with it, because they don’t know it’s not an insult.

    Dipthongs are dirty, anyway. Say the word ‘say’ in slow motion, and it comes out ‘saaaa-eee’. We do it fast, so it sounds like one vowel, but when singing, it sounds terrible if you hold it out wrong.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    I actually managed to get a very good score in Scrabble recently with Dipthong! And you’re quite right, it does sound vaguely like an insult.

    There’s a little place near where we used to live that looks as though it should be pronounced Longsley-dale, but the locals pronounce it Long-sleddle, which also sounds a bit insulting. Not as much as the neighbouring village, though – Wet-Sleddle, as in "Ee, yer great wet sleddle!"

  6. Allison Davis

    Fabulous post, making my mind race. I got in early to the office to be working on a "brief" (but not in my briefs) and it calls to mind my young associates who want to use the words "aforementioned," "herein" and "pursuant." Where do they get these words? They teach them in law school? "Nevertheless" is another one I strike out all the time ("strike out" to omit or to cease your time at bat) — what I call "filler" words, like "indeed" and others.

    By the way I am writing a reply brief to a "demurrer" (but not demurely) which is also a motion to dismiss a case (just in case you were wondering). Also, a "motion to strike" – strike is another good word with lots of meanings.

    Great post, thanks so much — great photos, I could almost hear the music behind them.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Thanks for the comment, even if you can’t remember what it was…

    Whatever it was, I’ll take it as read that it was witty and incisive.

    And you can take it as read that my response was up to a similar high standard of badinage ;-]

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I love legal words and terms – there are some wonderful ones in Scots law, like ‘force and fear’, which is the amount of constraint or compulsion which is enough to annul an engagement or obligation entered into undre its influence.

    I didn’t know about ‘demurrer’ – I shall add it to my collection!

    Strike is a great word. I used the title THIRD STRIKE because of its ‘three strikes and you’re out’ connotations, but also because if a doctor loses his licence in the UK they’re struck off (the medical register) but I quickly found this is not a common term in the States.

  9. Louise Ure

    Fabulous post and pics, Zoe.

    I’m a word slut, too. And one of my favorite categories are words that also mean their opposite. Like "cleave." It can mean both to cut in two, or to hold fast to something.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Rats – I meant to include ‘cleave’ as it’s one of my favourites. I’ve no idea how I managed to miss that one out. I only recently came across cleave poems, which are laid out in two columns that can be read both separately and together. Very clever stuff!

  11. berenmind

    You wordies have inspired me to waste another day browsing through my collection of crapiture for wordliciousness. This February is not just a lover’s month, it seems it is a word lover’s month. So much talk about vocab and ‘crash blossoms’ on the internet and that recent article in the NYT. Fun!!

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Berenmind

    Hey, if you’re interested in writing, then a day spent musing over words and their meanings is ‘research’ or maybe ‘career development’ or some such modern management-speak!

    And hey, Eika, I just happend across ‘crasis’, which is the mingling or contraction of two vowels into one long vowel, or into a dipthong!

  13. Pete

    Hi Zoë,

    Wow, those pictures are incredible!

    What’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?

    Well last summer while vacationing in Greece, I went to Krinos. It’s a self service place that offers these delectable fried doughnuts, drizzled with honey. You can either eat on site or do take away. Anyway, their bilingual menu stated that the consummation of food ordered for takeout is less expensive. They were thinking of the word consume, but something obviously got lost in translation.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pete

    Menus are a constant source of amusement, but I always try to remember that their English is probably a lot better than my Greek!

    As for misuse of words, I once had someone tell me, very proudly, that their son was in a band – he played an electronic sympathiser.

  15. berenmind

    Crasis. Good one!!

    Alas, I am not a writer. I am only a reader. How to turn my passion into R & D ? I am neither an editor nor a critic. sigh

    I had a lovely childhood. The gifts I received from my family for holidays and birthdays were, of course, books. My mother always told me that sitting around reading all day is NOT a waste of time. I will blame her for my sloth. All our flaws can be blamed on the parents, right? Yeah! THAT’S what I’ll tell my husband! I’m not wasting time, I am manifesting the effects of a severely damaging upbringing. Hah!

  16. Judy Wirzberger

    My favorite sentence: On my way to vacation bible school, I ran into a friend. I asked her if she was going – her reply. "I can if I want to, but my Mom won’t let me." It brought hom the difference between ability and permission in can and may. Later I frustrated my children when they asked, "Can we go to the show." My response. "You certainly can, but you may not."

    I think I heard once that run had the largest number of definitions.

    Loved the photos.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Berenmind

    "Alas, I am not a writer. I am only a reader."

    No, you are never ONLY a reader. Without our precious readers, all us writers would be whistling to the wind ;-]

    And I know what you mean about your upbringing. I always say I brought my parents up properly, but you take them out anywhere, and look what happens …

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    I hadn’t thought about the number of definitions for ‘run’ but it certainly has a page and a half to itself in my dictionary, so you may well be right? (Or should that be you can well be right …?)

    I shall go and lie down in a darkened room ;-]

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and Pete – just remembered another lovely story about misuse of a word. Apparently, the author Lynne Truss was on her way by taxi to give a talk, when she was asked by the taxi driver where she was going and what she was doing. She explained to him that she’d written a book called EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES and was going to speak about it. The driver asked what the book was about. She told him it was about punctuation.

    "Ah," said the taxi driver, "I’d better get you there on time then …"

  20. pari noskin taichert

    I loved everything about this post. Thank you.

    My children misuse words all the time, but my favorite wasn’t a misuse at all. A few months ago — and completely out of the blue — my then 10-year old asked, "Why don’t they call it a ‘lithp?’"

  21. toni mcgee causey

    Zoe, great blog–I love the collection of words, and have a dictionary much like your own: falling apart and nearly held together by the post its. Gorgeous photos, too.

    I love regional words that are in common use, but unknown elsewhere–a reminder of our diversity. For example, lagniappe is common here (meaning a little something extra), and part of our Cajun/French heritage, but not so common elsewhere.

  22. Allison Davis

    Yeah, like I have to go "make" groceries…don’t get started on New Orleanean dialect or we’ll be here all day and I still gotta write that brief (that isn’t so brief). Who Dat!

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I know exactly what you mean. I was going to caption the pix, but in the end I couldn’t find anything to say that wasn’t said much better by the pictures themselves!

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Pete – and should we ever meet, remind me to tell you the joke about the difference between a joist and a girder – it’s one where you have to be there … ;-]

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Yeah, ‘lagniappe’ is an odd word that I think I’ve only heard Louise use before, but it’s a lovely one, I agree. Northern and Scots dialect words are particularly nice, I think!

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Thank you, but I never RUSH through the dictionary. I stroll, meander, lollygag, skip, dawdle, wander, piaffer, amble, jog, scamper, slouch, mooch, shuffle, waddle, mince, tramp, totter, potter, teeter, stagger, inch, glide, ooze and occasionally shamble through it instead ;-]

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, JT ;-]

    Hi CNDS

    I love words, too. Trawling through the dictionary is one of my favourite things to do when I’m supposed to be writing, but it’s just on the borders of being research, so I’m allowed ;-]

  28. Jake Nantz

    I’ll just post some of my favorite mix-ups from my students, whose parents honestly seem to think, "Oh, you know what he/she MEANT!" is an acceptable reason to argue over a low grade on a paper.

    They constantly screw up the following, plus many others:

    whether & weather
    where & were
    you’re & your
    bear & bare
    their, there, & they’re
    plane & plane
    through & threw
    thrown & throne (this one is my favorite, as I’ve never figured out how Macbeth sat on or usurped the thrown…)

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Some lovely examples. I read something recently by someone who’d used fayre when they meant fare, which was an odd mistake.

    And ages ago I heard about a lovely one on a school history paper, where a pupil had written that Queen Elizabeth the First could never get any rest because Mary Queen of Scots was always hoovering in the background … It’s an enduring image, isn’t it?


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