Monthly Archives: November 2008


Not a bird. Not necessarily something so good as to be called “boffo.” Not a buffoon per se. Certainly not a big hairstyle or an overgrown cupcake. Not a marine mammal… well, perhaps: the first known use, in 1941, was for an “older” (over 32) naval officer. Then it came to be used for a person engaged in “back-room” scientific research, for example on radar. Now it refers to an egghead, a nerd, a geek, a wonk – not a mere buff or (as in golfing) duffer, but a guy who knows how to fix the world but still doesn’t get invited to parties. Does the word somehow have the sound of a propeller spinning on a beanie? The b imparts a rosy-cheekedness quite lacking in coffin. There is a definite effect from the off in, but what is it? Perhaps we can’t know. There is much that boffins know that is forever opaque to the world at large. It may be that out there is some boffin who even knows with some certainty where the word boffin comes from. If so, he ought to tell the rest of us. The best we can guess is that it’s somehow an eponym; Boffin is a Welsh surname.


A rather hard- and bucolic-sounding word for something you may find caught on a bird-dog’s tail. The bur can make one think of a snagging plant, a Scottish accent or a chill lake; burd adds an avian echo; dock is the wood platform on a lake but it’s also chopping, cutting short – what one may do to a paycheck or a tail. Those who know it’s some sort of plant will get a sense of hickory or perhaps something medicinal like myrrh; it may sound like something the village wiccan keeps in her sack. It has three points sticking up, making it like a bed of needles; the different facings of the b, d and k can make it seem almost wily, watchful, like a meerkat triumvirate (or, more locally, prairie dogs looking up from the herb). The plant, in fact, has many of the characteristics the word may seem to suggest. It has a prickly, burry head, looking almost like a spiky brush-cut human head – and its root is used to help maintain and promote healthy hair growth. It is also used as a blood purifier. And it may show up in your sushi – or, in England, in your soft drink. The prickly head inspired the invention of Velcro. So where does the word come from? The mists of Anglo-Saxon and the Germanic languages. Bur is from a word meaning a ring or protective casing – in this case a rather prickly one. The dock refers to a whole family of plants of various names all containing dock; it is unrelated to wharves or short tails.


This word, which was quite current 30 years ago, now sounds almost quaint to many people, yet it hasn’t lost its usability. Many a person, of course, will fondly recall youthful listening experiences – with their fathers saying “Al, you bum, put away that Beatles record and get studying!” Other people will think more happily of scrapbooking. Certainly the common collocations are all one or the other: photo, wedding; record, cover, White. Ah, the White Album – not its official name, of course (which is The Beatles, and nothing more), but the name it’s known by. It illustrates this word more perfectly than most, because it’s white. You see, there’s a reason album and albumen look similar: they’re family – them and Dumbledore too: the source is Latin albus, white (Dumbledore’s first name, of course). Albumen is egg white, so that one’s easy. An album – just a neuter version of albus – was first of all a blank (i.e., white) tablet on which public notices were written. From that the word came to be used for such things as autograph books and guest books, and from that scrapbooks. All of these had the book format in common (fortuitously hinted at by the book-spine-like gusset between the l and the b in the word), and so when records were brought out in similar presentations, they, too, were albums (at least since 1957). And now, of course, since nearly all CDs are presented in folding presentations, they also can be albums – though the reference has transferred to the medium itself for some people, leading them to mock one who refers to a CD as an album. But I say the mockers are all bums.


If this word stays in the jungle, it’s alright by me, but it’s more likely heard in a bungalow, perpetrated by some blundering dumb bunny. So where did we get this word from? Well, it seems that it just sounded right. It fits in comfortably with bumble, brangle, boggle, fumble, mumble, stumble, rumble, tumble… The -le could be taken as the frequentive ending heard in such words as suckle, but with the nasal and voiced stop it’s rather more reminiscent of the kindred words just mentioned; finagle comes to mind, too, and especially tangle – all words that involve messes, trips and things getting shaken like marbles or going like a string of Christmas lights all balled up. The vowel in bungle, represented in phonetic transcription by a caret or schwa, is often associated with dullness and dumbness, especially in context with nasals and voiced stops. The bung has that hollow sound you might hear when a cork is jammed into an empty barrel… by the head of somone tripping. There is little resonance from a front-vowel sibling such as tingle – far too bright and sharp. This mid-central unrounded vowel (heard as a mid-high back rounded vowel in some dialects) seems to group with back vowels, such as in bongo – and perhaps Congo, though the influence of other sounds carries Bangalore too close to torpedo. Bugle is hiding in the form of this word, but you might not notice it, while you probably will think of bangle. But one thing’s for sure: when a bungle’s done, you’re left with a shambles.


A word for a place you probably don’t want to get to. In the sound, it comes across as the beginning of get away, but the final o can give a mournful hollowness fading away like a dying cry echoed among tenements, especially when sung after the words in the. The look is spookier still, with the gh of ghost to start – and that silent h gives a sense of hollowness realized in a context like this (but quite absent in spaghetti, which this word seems little reminiscent of in spite of the commonality in form, due to the great difference of emotional tone in the referents). The tt could be twin tenements. The flavour of this word is strongly inner-city African-American now, as evidenced by the well-known ghetto blaster (now so common a phrase that the ghetto reference is skimmed across with nary a glance) and the newer ghetto fabulous and similar locutions (including descriptions of things as very ghetto, so ghetto, etc.). But any even passing student of European history – anyone who has learned anything at all about the persecution of Jews in Europe – will know this as a word first of all not for a vaguely defined lower-class area into which people (usually of a single disadvantaged ethnic group) slide and try to climb out but for a sharply defined quarter in which Jews were often forced to live. And where was the first one, the one that gave the name to the type? If you spotted this word as Italian, you were right: Venice, 1516 – a city in which also lived many merchants, as Shakespeare noted. The place name predated this assignation, and its origin is uncertain, but it may have come from and industry that had formerly occupied the island: the flames and smoke of a getto, a foundry.


This word brings echoes of reddish, radical, even perhaps raffish, laddish and kaddish. Those who have eaten its object may think of burning when they hear the sh and perhaps think of raw or mad (or even bad) when hearing the first syllable. (Those who have seen the word laddish lately might think of that, too.) This word probably will not bring to mind the name Radisson, but the converse is likely often true. Ironically, this word for a root plant has no descenders… Of course, you could think of the x-height as the soil level and the ascenders and dot as the greenery sticking up. The word may also be seen to match the plant in that the rad is like the red outside and the ish is perhaps, in its white noise, like the white inside. This duotonality, while not typically raised in comparison to the Canadian flag, made radish at times a term of abuse for communists who only paid lip service. But while the radish communists may not have been true radicals, the radish certainly is – not because of its peppery flavour (however “rad” that may be, dude), but because radish comes from Latin radix, meaning “root”… which also gives us the word radical. Radical change is change at the very roots. And it’s often rather hot to the taste, too.


A word that purrs like a tiger – a big masculine one. Although the visual hint of rogue is weakened by the pronunciation and the sound of Raj is mitigated by the spelling, the r‘s have it here – the same growl we learn as kids from “They’rrrrre grrrrreat!” and produce when imitating race car sounds, with the voiced alveolar affricate in the middle standing in for the gear shift (or any other mechanically connecting working). Nor does the chest hair stop there. The word begins with the raw ro and then the ger could be starting jerk – another quintessentially masculine word – or even German, calling on the Teutonic testosterone. It’s renowned as the rough and ready word of flyboys. It has had a few other senses over the ages, including a ram (male sheep) and a man’s todger. From the lodging of the latter, by 1711, came a still-popular verbal use, a very laddish way of referring summarily to an act that female writers sometimes require whole paragraphs to circumlocute. Look to the collocations for further piss and vinegar: Jolly Roger, the sign of a pirate, yet another archetypally laddish occupation. And what morphemes were mated to make this macho murmur? Germanic hrod “fame” and ger “spear.” Say no more. Say no more! Or, rather: Roger that!