Seeing this in the Alpine foothills a few days ago, and thinking of the seemingly supernatural messages evidenced by photographs posted in tabloids and on social media last week, I was reminded that nephelomancy is divination by interpreting cloud formations, a branch of aeromancy* or aeriology – finding meaning by observation of weather conditions. The word is formed from Greek nephele, cloud and manteia, divining. (When undertaken by meteorologists using clouds to study global climate change the activity is known as nephology.) As theQueue of mourners winds its way along the Thames in London towards the late Queen’s catafalque, more celestial wonders are being reported, to add to last week’s list – reported here by the Daily Mail…
All through the summer heatwave and the accompanying drought I have been observing, and photographing as best I can, the unusually spectacular cloud formations, first above suburban London and the Surrey Hills and lately over the Julian Alps. We need not be credulous or desperate to suspend our disbelief for an instant and see in these a portent (from Latin portentum, an omen or token, borrowed into English in the sixteenth century) or a harbinger (Old French herbergere, from Old Saxon heriberga in the sense of a provider of shelter to soldiers, later a herald) of transformation, redemption or doom, or succumb for a moment to the pathetic fallacy, the notion (named by Ruskin to deride the sentimentality of Victorian poetry) that human affairs and human feelings are reflected in natural phenomena.
Of prodigies, and portents seen in air, Of fires and plagues, and stars with blazing hair, Of turns of fortune, changes in the state, The fall of favourites, projects of the great – Alexander Pope
I’m not alone in observing that the mourning rituals and public displays of grief following the Queen’s death on September 8 resemble the religious observances and collective gestures that modern society has largely put aside, the mass of people moving slowly through the city recalling pilgrimage. Just as the aerial wonders and omens (the term appeared in English in the 1580s, from a Latin word of unknown origin) seemed to ebb, on September 14 a giant meteor streaked across the evening skies of northern England…
…and the following morning Buckingham Palace was illuminated by a single ray of sunshine…
When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes – William Shakespeare
Just a few moments after posting I became aware that today is apparently Cloud Appreciation Day…and you are all invited to add your own photographs of the skies to the celebrations…
On July 11 2022 the temperature in London was 32 degrees, hotter than the notorious summer of 1976. By the 19th it had risen to a record-breaking 39 degrees, at which point I, who had mocked the complainers and declared my preference for extreme temperatures, collapsed. On a restorative stroll across the Surrey Hills five days later I could see the wildfires burning in the distance.
For the last two months on social media the hashtag #heatwaveuk has dominated the conversation. ‘Heat wave’ was first used in 1893 to describe a weather phenomenon. Noun and verb heat are descendants of Old English hætu, hæto – heat, warmth, ardor – from Proto-Germanic *haita, source also of the Old English adjective hat, hot. The ancient, pre-Germanic ancestor of these key words is unknown, although I suspect it was also the ancestor of the Greek kaiein and Lithuanian kaisti, both meaning to burn.
As folklorist Tatiana Fajardo had reminded me on a 31-degree July 17, the dog days are the hot, sultry days of summer. They were the period following the heliacal rising of the star system Sirius (known as the ‘Dog Star’), which Hellenistic astrology associated with heat, drought, lethargy, fever, & bad luck. ‘Sultry’ incidentally was first recorded in the late 15th century and is a variant form of the older swelter, to suffer discomfort from the effects of heat, itself deriving ultimately from an Old English verb meaning both to die and to burn, probably from a ProtoIndoEuropean root *swel in the sense of shine or beam.
(The French term for a period of dangerous heat, canicule, can also denote a seasonal bout of listlessness and indolence, coming as it does from Latin canicula, an affectionate diminutive of canis, dog, used of Sirius, the Dog Star.)
During this year’s dog days it has sometimes been muggy and close here in overcast suburbia. ‘Muggy’ – uncomfortably warm, humid was first recorded in 1746. It derives from rural dialect ‘mug’, mist or drizzle, via the archaic Middle English verb ‘mugen’, from Old Norse mugga, ultimately from ProtoIndoEuropean *meug- slimy, slippery.
Despite some occasional humidity we have had virtually no rain at all in July and so far in August. The ground is parched. Of uncertain origin, ‘parch’ – a verb meaning to dry by excessive heat – appeared in the 1400s referring to drying or roasting (nuts or vegetables for example). In spite of the surface resemblances it probably does not derive from either ‘perish’ or the Latin word persiccare – to dry thoroughly, which is related to dessicate. Parch is also unrelated to ‘parchment’ which came via French from a blend of Latin pergamina – writing material from Pergamum – and Parthika Pellis – scarlet leather from Parthia.
By the first week of August the authorities were imposing hosepipe bans in some areas, and the alarming lack of reservoir water was becoming apparent. A state of drought was officially declared for South, Central and Eastern England on August 12. The word derives from Old English drugaþ, drugoþ, from Proto-Germanic *drugothaz, noun form of adjective *dreug, dry. Chaucer used it in the Middle English form ‘droghte’ and ‘drouth’ was a variant form which has survived in some dialects.
In engaging in hot weather banter, those of us of a certain age are likely to reference the much-quoted tabloid headline of summers past (mocked and endlessly replicated, and possibly actually invented by Private Eye magazine) ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ or the Fast Show’s 1994 comedy catchphrase ‘Scorchio!’ Scorch was first thought to be related to Old French escorchier – to strip off the skin – from Vulgar Latin *excorticare to flay, but is nowadays usually derived from Middle English ‘scorchen’ or ‘scorcnen’ (to make dry, singe), probably an alteration of the Old Norse *scorpnen – to be shrivelled.
The Mirror‘s ‘Blowtorch Britain’ is a slightly more original take on ‘Tinderbox Britain’, a standard scare headline in these conditions, and for once, after the driest July since 1836, we can forgive the tabloids their perennial overexcited comparisons; ‘Hotter than Corfu!/Tenerife!/Honolulu!/Ibiza!’, ‘Hotter than the Sahara!’
At the humid, warm end of August my friend Grace Tierney looked at the origins of some other weather and climate descriptions…
*If you are searching for word origins and histories – etymologies – online, the well-known dictionary sites are not necessarily the best sources. I recommend https://www.etymonline.com/ whose author will have consulted, compared and synthesised the various ‘authorities’ before producing their own well-judged and thorough summaries.
The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…
Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.
On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’
As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.
In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.
When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.
A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’
As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.
In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.
Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.
On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.
A multitude of camels shall cover you. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord – Isaiah 60:6
Elsewhere on this site you can find reflections on the culture of Christmas cards, on traditional yuletide symbols and on the language of the very first Christmas. I realised this year that I had never considered perhaps the best known symbols of all: the gifts presented to the Christ Child in an act of adoration by the ‘three kings’ of Orient. The earliest known depiction of the Magi, in their ‘traverse afar’, is found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, a wall painting dating from the middle of the third century CE. The sole biblical account of their arrival, in Matthew’s Gospel, describes an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which a number of unnamed μάγοι, mágoi – wise men – from the East visit the baby Jesus in a place described not as a stable but as an οἰκίαν, oikian – house. The gifts they brought are specified as chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos(λίβανος)* and smýrna (σμύρνα)**. In English these are rendered as…
GOLD – a familiar symbol of earthly wealth and kingship, the word itself in English is a descendant of Proto-Germanic *gulthan gold, from the Proto-IndoEuropean root *ghel- to shine.
FRANKINCENSE – an aromatic gum resin burned as a perfumed offering in ceremony and ritual and mentioned in the Old Testament, also used in the form of an essential oil. Associated with Christ it probably evokes a priestly function and/or the worship of a deity, hence the divinity of the receiver. Our word is from Old French franc encens, literally noble or high-quality incense.
MYRRH – the rare and costly substance, obtained from an evergreen bush, was used for medicinal purposes but also for anointing the dead and in embalming, so perhaps references death, interment and the afterlife. An early modern spelling from Old English myrre, from Latin myrrha, from Greek myrrha, from a Semitic source such as Akkadian murru, Hebrew mor, Aramaic mureera and Arabic murr, from a root meaning bitter.
Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.
* Líbanos was also the ancient name for Lebanon, from a word meaning white. The connection with the perfumed commodity is that the spice trade from the orient passed at one time via the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where frankincense was cultivated, across the Lebanese mountains en route to Europe.
**Smyrna, also known as Myrrha, was an Amazon and the mother of the god Adonis in Greek mythology. In a legend which probably originated in Cyprus she was transformed into a myrrh tree after seducing her own father (the hero Cinyras who was king of Cyprus and Byblos) and giving birth to Adonis in tree form. The resin she exuded was said to be her tears. Present day Izmir on the coast of Turkish Anatolia was for centuries known as Smyrna, after the mythical mother or after the spice.
Two days after this post appeared, the aptly named DrEoin Lettice of University College Cork wrote about those same precious commodities for The Conversation. His article is here: