THE SLANG AND NEW LANGUAGE ARCHIVE

A research portal for scholars, the press and the public

The Slang and New Language Archive was created in 1994 while I was Director of the Language Centre at King’s College London. The archive, consisting of a small library of books and periodicals and a number of databases and sub-directories, was designed as a repository for the collection, storage and dissemination of new language, in particular examples of nonstandard varieties of English such as slang, jargon and buzzwords. The archive was later expanded to take in examples of media language, political language, linguistic curiosities and etymologies. It remains a resource, unique in the UK, assisting researchers, students, teachers and journalists, as well as non-specialists, in accessing information about aspects of contemporary language that are under-represented in traditional dictionaries and reference works.

This link will take you to the Archive webpage at King’s College, where there are further links to relevant articles and published sources…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/research/slang-and-new-language

Glossaries from the archive may be accessed on this site by entering keywords, such as slang, jargon, MLE (Multiethnic London English), familect (highly colloquial language used in the home), coronaspeak (language related to the COVID-19 pandemic) and weaponised words (the contentious language of Brexit and populism) and slurs (racist and misogynist terms) in the search box. Once you have accessed a post of interest, check the tags and categories at the foot of the page for other articles or glossaries on the same topic.

Two of the larger archive datafiles are hosted on Aston University’s Institute of Forensic Linguistics Databank site. These are a glossary of current youth slang

https://fold.aston.ac.uk/handle/123456789/4

And a glossary of UK street slang, rap music and gang terminology

https://fold.aston.ac.uk/handle/123456789/5

Please note that the King’s archive focuses principally on contemporary language, that is terms used from the twentieth century to the present day. If you are interested in historical slang, I strongly recommend the monumental work by my associate, the British lexicographer Jonathon Green. His dictionary, now generously freely available online, lists current and historical slang terms with timelines and citations illustrating their usage and development…

https://greensdictofslang.com/

For more information, for queries, or to donate examples of language, contact me via this website or via the King’s College webpage. I’m on Twitter as @tonythorne007 too.

LEVITY – OR LEVY-T?

Wordplay to keep the world at bay

We are halfway through January now. The Holibobs are over and we have come to the end of Chrimbo Limbo – that uncertain period between Christmas and New Year. Dishy Rishi is still in number 10 and, despite unprecedented crises in the health services (though the Panny-D seems to have subsided and Locky-D is just a memory) and family finances (in meltdown due to the Cozzi-Liv), we will have to wait until next year for a Genny-Lec (and perhaps the predicted Labby-Maj once the votes have been counted).In the midst of adversity, on social media (on Facey-B, Insta-G, and even Linky-D) the usual barrage of banter, badinage and bonhomie continues unabated nevertheless. As my Twitter friend Amanda comments…

Platty Joobs’ (for Platinum Jubilee in case you missed it) and ‘famalam’ have a Professor Stanley Unwin feel, for me and possibly others of my advanced years. Unwin was an eccentric old chap who used to perform monologues on the radio in the 1950s in which he mangled words and phrases and challenged listeners to interpret what he was saying. ‘Unwinese’ added nonsense syllables, reversed syllables, jumbled parts of sentences – like children’s nonsense stories and nursery and baby talk does. Exaltation of childhood by way of whimsy and nonsense (as in the works of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear) has been an enduring feature of British literary and popular culture – perhaps a tactic by which we try to play down the dark side of life, smooth over social inequalities and make light of the blunders of our ruling class: deploying non-stop facetiousness, irony, cheek and irreverence in all everyday communications.

I spoke to Serena Smith, editor at Dazed Digital, about the sassy, cutesy – or cringe-inducing – humour involved in abbreviating, coining nicknames, dismantling and reassembling words and phrases in a particularly British manner, then a few days later answered questions on the same subject from Andrew Marr on LBC Radio. Serena’s article is here…

https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/57904/1/why-do-british-people-love-to-abbreviate-things-cozzie-livs-platty-joobs

It’s heartening that, despite the seeming indifference of older commentators and experts, some, mainly younger academic linguists are beginning to study these developments, applying statistical techniques to tracking the spread of new terms and analysing specifics of their users. Dr Christian Ilbury of Edinburgh University, with whom I’ve exchanged ideas, has been doing this for some time and writes here of the online personas created and celebrated by new labels, catchphrases and in-jokes…

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/josl.12563

LANGUAGE, ‘AESTHETICS’ AND INNOVATION IN 2022 – THE ROLE OF GEN Z

Fads, Fashions, Lifestyles and Vibes – thirty years on

During 2022 I wrote several times about the new terminology that has been generated by younger generations’ (younger Millennials and so-called Gen Z or Zoomers) online celebration of an accelerated series of Fads, Fashions and Cults (the title of my book on the same topic published back in 1993). I was bemused, but not surprised that my articles and posts received little attention. Those over 40, even if active online or otherwise in touch with the wider culture, seem to pay no attention to what their children and grandchildren are saying, or perhaps just view their activities on social media as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. It’s slightly absurd that someone of my advanced age should be trying to record and comment on youth-based popular culture, but, just as back in the nineties, only a few fashionistas and influencers and a handful of style journalists manage to achieve any sort of critical perspective on the high-speed succession of poses, performances and pastiches that plays out on 21st century cyberspaces (and incidentally in teenagers’ bedrooms and college dorms too).

At the end of the year, however, I was asked to contribute to a major press review of these same phenomena, and discussed them with the MailOnline’s science reporter, Fiona Jackson. Fiona had picked up on recent mutations in slang and online jargon, in the novel use of emoji and punctuation, and changes, too, in the accents and intonations used on platforms such as TikTok – in particular the voice affectation known as ‘vocal fry.’

It’s interesting that Gen Z is seen as having a particularly exotic or impenetrable vocabulary, baffling and irritating parents, teachers, journalists and anyone too old to keep up. Inventing new words and changing the meanings of old ones, though, is something that each generation does (see UK millennials with their MLE – Multiethnic London English) and is a natural part of language. Accent is another essential component in curating and projecting one’s identity. ‘Vocal fry’ or ‘creaky voice’ first got noticed and was fiercely debated in the USA in 2015. The low, raspy growling voice tone favoured by female US celebrities has since been imitated by some younger people in the UK, and by British ‘influencers’ online, but not to the same extent. What I have noticed is not specifically vocal fry but something newer and more complex: a UK accent favoured by fashionable younger females which mixes a sort of high-pitched, lisping breathless ‘girly’ delivery with a lower-pitched drawl that can slide in and out of American intonations. Something like this is now prevalent, particularly on TikTok which is where Gen Z goes to influence and be influenced.

In the US now 63% of people aged 13 to 17 use TikTok weekly, a rate that now tops both Snapchat and Instagram. TikTok is also the go-to environment for the celebration of youth fads, fashions and lifestyle trends, not to mention the parodies, mash-ups, spoofs and in-jokes which are central to its video performances. Older people trying to keep up or simply to comprehend what is happening on TikTok or understand what Gen Z is saying and messaging should however beware: I have a suspicion, shared by a few other commentators, that many of the fads, fashions and trends they celebrate (they call them ‘vibes’ or ‘aesthetics’) are not really taken seriously at all by most of them, are passing fancies or simply spoofs perhaps designed to mock the tedious concerns of outdated millennials. Fashionable new ‘looks’ like so-called ‘goblin-mode’ which has, unusually, been noticed and publicised in the mainstream, have been appearing and disappearing on Gen Z platforms with a bewildering speed (see ‘cottagecore’, ‘blokecore’, ‘hag chic’, ‘frazzled English woman’, etc.).

The MailOnline article is here…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-11541685/How-Generation-Z-changed-communicate.html

…and my articles from 2022 are here…

Gen Z, as they come of age and begin to access power and influence in mainstream society, will inevitably affect the way we collectively behave and of course communicate. But there is an interesting phenomenon that those like me who try to track slang and new language have to face up to. That is that it’s quite impossible to predict exactly how language is going change. No so-called linguistic authorities have ever been able to guess how technology and society is going to mutate, or how fast, or which aspects of human behaviour will come to predominate in the future – even in the near-future. Gen Z may settle down into family life and work and become distracted by adult responsibilities, just as we once-radical Boomers, muted, tortured Gen X and much misunderstood millennials have done before them. Or perhaps they will not, and will manage to realise the boomers’ dream of staying radical, innovative and young forever? How their destiny plays out will dictate what they say and how they say it (and they will have to find ways to negotiate their obsessions and describe their changing environments), but I, for one, don’t dare to hazard any more than that.

Its finger still on the pulse of the zeitgeist, the Mail followed up with a warning to older generations that Gen Z disapprove not only of their language and their emoji use, but of their gesturing too (unsurprisingly the hand-signals castigated are all part of my own sad repertoire)…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11627655/Generation-Z-reveal-hand-gestures-cool.html

Last summer the Daily Mash had issued another (spoof) warning to the middle-aged, this time of Gen Z‘s behaviour in the workplace…

https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/work/the-middle-aged-guide-to-fitting-in-with-gen-z-work-colleagues-20220704222915

At the end of January I talked to Karyn Hay of Radio New Zealand about Generation Zed (the preferred term in Wellington and Auckland), their language and online activities…

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights/audio/2018875098/tony-thorne-gen-z-communication

THE BIG HEAT

Etymologising* in the heat of the moment

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 hætuhæto – 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 Word(s) on the Street(s)

GANG CULTURE, RAP MUSIC, STREET SLANG AND POLICING

I have written elsewhere on this site about my own unusual forays into forensic linguistics, whereby I have helped legal defence teams, police forces and other interested parties in decoding, interpreting and assessing the slang used by gang members, an authentic urban language variety which is shared with rap music genres, particularly Drill music.

The citing of rap lyrics in the context of criminal trials and attempts to ban Drill lyrics is very controversial and some academic linguists, musicologists and criminologists argue that they should never in any circumstances be admitted in evidence – a stance I sympathise with, but feel is mistaken.*

One London Met Police officer with whom I have worked has written about his own recent activities at the intersection of music, youth culture and youth violence. The article offers a very rare professional insider’s perspective on the issues in contention, and with Michael Railton‘s permission I have linked to it here…

https://www.college.police.uk/article/analysing-gang-related-music-linked-serious-violence

*journalist Will Pritchard and I have debated the value of such evidence in court. Here he puts the case against in The Face

https://theface.com/music/rap-lyrics-used-in-court-young-thug-gunna-racist-stereotypes-rap-music

Tick Tock, TikTok

Earlier in May I talked to Dillon Thompson of Yahoo News about slang and its online incarnations. Dillon was exploring the ways in which slang and new language both affect the way we interact in an accelerated digital age, and the way in which digital environments such as TikTok and Instagram and Twitter and the internet-based rituals, gestures and poses embraced by Generation Z in turn might influence the sort of language we – or some of us – are creating, adopting and using.

Dillon’s article, with new insights and with contributions by me and from US linguists Sunn m’Cheaux and Daniel Hieber is here…

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/internet-changing-think-slang-133422776.html

More on how internet culture has displaced ‘pop culture’, from Günseli Yalcinkaya for Dazed magazine…

DO TRY TO KEEP UP

Following fashions is an exhausting task. And has become more exhausting still.

I have been recording the fads, fashions, cults and trends that energise popular culture, and the labels by which they register themselves on our collective consciousness, for more than thirty years. With the advent of the Internet and messaging the lifestyle innovations, aesthetic novelties and personal badges of allegiance are nowadays free to go viral, go global, and in many cases to disappear, virtually instantaneously. I talked to Olive Pometsey of The Face magazine (itself an iconic vehicle for the propagation of new ideas and images) about the latest, accelerated, overheated iterations of micro and macro-identities competing on online platforms. The equally frenzied quality of much comment and analysis is perhaps conveyed by the notes I made before we spoke…

Olive’s excellent article is here…

A crowdsourced, online, free-for-all, 24/7 source of slang, catchphrases and new terminology is my friend Aaron Peckham‘s Urban Dictionary. As the Face article was going to press this was its phrase of the day…

vibe shift

Coined by trend forecaster Sean Monahan, a vibe shift describes the emergence of a “new era of cool.”

Fashion is a realm that experiences frequent vibe shifts, especially with the arrival of a new decade. Gone are the days when frosted tips and low-rise jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch were in.

We’re in the midst of a vibe shift right now with the widespread lifting of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We’re going out again and adapting in new ways to our environment; some will survive the shifting tides, and some won’t.

Yeah I’m in my vibe shift right now. You won’t catch me in the club now that things are opening back up again. I’m all about going to the Home Depot, renovating my home and hearthyknow? Once I tried topless gardening things changed a lot for me.

by bruhdisease April 24, 2022

Those once-thriving subjects, Cultural Studies and Media Studies, which I used to teach in the 1990s, are nowhere to be found in today’s educational landscape, and the cultural practices we used to analyse are these days ignored by most commentators, the subcultures (and microniches, hyperlocal communities) if they are mentioned at all are dismissed by older cohorts as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. I doggedly persist, in solidarity with The Face, Wire, Dazed, i-D, TikTok, nanoinfluencers and microcelebrities, in finding them fascinating and significant.

Just a few days after the Face article appeared, the Mail Online announced the latest look for Summer 2022…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10782439/Why-blokecore-set-biggest-trend-summer.html

And if you want a comprehensive list of currently trending aesthetic genres, it’s here…

https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/Special:AllPages

A November update from the Guardian features one influential fashion website, and more of the latest terminology (‘auntwave‘)…

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/nov/09/blackbird-spyplane-newsletter-jonah-weiner-interview?CMP=share_btn_tw

…But then, in January 2023 Vice revealed the trend beyond all trends – (and beyond my understanding at first sight)…

https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxnmeq/corecore-tiktok-trend-explained

CALIFORNIFICATION

Royal accents in the news again

Just over a year since I defended Meghan Markle‘s speaking style*, the Daily Mail returned to the subject with the latest interview given in his new US home by Prince Harry, in which, along with dropping several ‘truth bombs,’ he was perceived to be modifying his natural accent to sound more American. I once again pointed out that what linguists call ‘accommodation’** or ‘convergence’, the phenomenon whereby participants in a conversation alter their pronunciation and intonation to sound more like their interlocutors, is something quite natural and unsurprising. I have found my own natural rhythms and tones subtly changing when spending time with speakers of Australian or North American English, and the posh-sounding Brit who morphs into a cockney or northerner when the plumber or builder visits is a stock target of mockery on social media. In the case of the royal family, wits remarked long ago that Prince Charles and Princess Diana‘s incompatibility could have been predicted by listening to their differing accents – the former’s clipped, tense, military-sounding while his bride attempted a more muted, classless diction with glottal stops and ‘Estuary English’ vowels.

The Mail’s article, in which they mercifully didn’t distort what I told them (though ‘new wave’ should read New Age), is here…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10736025/Language-expert-says-Prince-Harry-adopted-Americanisms-sound-approachable-US.html

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2021/03/09/a-duchess-speaks-and-endures-trial-by-tabloid/

** https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-accommodation-speech-1688964

2022 – THE STORY SO FAR

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…

Scurrilous

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.

Glee

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.’

Image

Airfix nostalgia

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.

Fib

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.

Rhubarb

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.

Endemicity

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.’

Lawfare/lethal aid

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.

Languishing

Are you Languishing? - The Performance Room

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.

The prospective and retrospective pathways to and from depravity are... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Depravity

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.

Guile

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.

*https://boris-johnson-lies.com/johnson-in-parliament

**https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/11/mark-peters-bullshit-word-of-the-day-rhubarb-is-a-tart-theatrical-term-for-bs.html

***https://theconversation.com/languishing-what-to-do-if-youre-feeling-restless-apathetic-or-empty-174994?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton

UNWRAPPING GIFTS – at the first CHRISTMAS

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

– Longfellow

* 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.

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Two days after this post appeared, the aptly named Dr Eoin Lettice of University College Cork wrote about those same precious commodities for The Conversation. His article is here: