I’ve always loved words. The sound of them. The shape of them. The way they can be both familiar and exotic. The way they can bring comfort but also consistently surprise, bewilder and entertain. Words are alive. Like us, and in their own way, they are organic and evolve over time, sometimes changing meaning, sometimes created out of apparent nothingness like the Big Bang, sometimes changing for very specific and progressive reasons. Words are a reflection of our societies and our lives. Our dictionaries are currently awash with words spawned from technology, often abbreviated as a nod to our fast-paced world: App, I-Pad, Hashtag, Vlog. Some of these words have shown the abovementioned evolution from their original or previous meaning: Wireless, text, memory, data, glitch, hack… If technology and science is our new religion, words of the past have reflected our foundation in the ancient and foundational beliefs: shrine, faith, dogma. Other words have developed from our propensity for organised violence and war: camouflage, torpedo, manoeuvre. And from war to crime: Alibi, culprit, ransack. And from destruction to the nurturing and noble art of medicine: Cataract, germ, inoculate—and one we’re sadly all too familiar with—virus.
I’m now going to gather together some of my favourite words—words that bring me pleasure, comfort or solace—and discuss the origin of each. It’s a really lovely, relaxing exercise for the mind, and I highly recommend giving it some time and thought yourselves. Even though, as discussed, words can mutate over time, the building blocks will always be there, a colossal and dynamic constant, like the walls of some ancient or fantasy city on a hill. Behind those walls we can feel safe. From their towers, we can observe the stories and achievements of our forebears, and build ever upwards towards a brighter future.
- Silhouette. This magnificent word has a hint of poetry about it, touching as it does on light and dark, whilst also straddling the boundary between the sinister and the beautiful. The word comes from a name: Etienne de Silhouette, an 18th century French author and politician. Why he should lend his name to the dark outline of something against a bright background remains in dispute. Some accounts connect the word to his policies as Controller General, others to his brevity in the role. One French dictionary claimed he decorated the walls of his chateau with outline portraits. We shall probably never discover the truth, adding a suitable shade of mystery.
- Nonchalant. Another French word—meaning literally ‘not being concerned.’ The laid-back, couldn’t-give-a-damn, aloof attitude was one I aspired to as a young man, but always failed to achieve. It was the cool kid in school. The movie star in sunglasses. It was an especially desirable trait to have, I remember, in close proximity to those I was interested in dating—but instead I always seemed to come across as stuttering, oafish and embarrassing. I can be nonchalant about those failures now, of course. It’s only taken twenty years to forget…
- Diddle. This is one of those words that sounds funny and silly but has rather unpleasant meaning. The current version--to ‘cheat or swindle--’came into use soon after Irish dramatist James Kenney’s play ‘Raising the Wind’ (1803) in which character Jeremy Diddler repeatedly borrows and fails to repay money, and is most likely attributed to the impact of this character.
- Eccentric. A word that always puts a smile on my face, creating surreal visions of people sitting in their underpants and a top-hat on a sofa in their front garden. There are greater and lesser displays of eccentricity, of course, and I imagine most of us have someone in the family who displays such tendencies with great regularity. The word means ‘unconventional or slightly strange,’ but it started off as an astronomical term meaning ‘a circle or orbit not having the earth precisely in its centre.’ From the Greek ekkentros, from ek ‘out of’ and kentron ‘centre.’
- Tantalize. That wonderful-but-just-out-of-reach dream or object. It comes from Greek Mythology and King Tantalus, who killed his son Pelops and fed him to the gods in a stew. In reparation, Tantalus was made to stand for eternity up to his chin in water that receded when he tried to take a sip, and under fruit that retreated when he reached for it. Lesson learned, I would expect.
From everyone at Hoogly, thank you for all your support in this crazy, unprecedented year. We hope you have a wonderful, calm and safe Christmas and very happy New Year. Until next time, keep calm and put the kettle on!
written by Chris Bedford