Daily Archives: March 5, 2015


This word seems to connote a little drip.

You may not know it if you’re from North America and haven’t read the right things. It may appear just to be the common part of fickle, mickle, pickle, prickle, sickle, stickle, tickle, and trickle (and, in sound, of nickel too), words that really don’t have a whole lot in common aside from sounding a bit like a small flow of water. It might seem a bit icky, too. But there are two things that ickle means in Britain.

Those of us who have read the Harry Potter books may recall Harry’s nemeses taunting him with “ickle Harry.” What does that mean? It’s actually just British baby-talk for little – it intentionally talks down by imitating child speech; it implies “you little drip.” It often shows up somewhere near bicky, which is baby-talk for biscuit (which, in Britain, means what we North Americans call cookie).

How do you get ickle from little? In North America, where we say the latter more like “liddle,” you don’t. But if you retain the manner (stop) more than the place (tip of the tongue), and turn the /t/ into a glottal stop, and – as one does – make that late /l/ into something halfway to a [w], the [k] is a reasonable outcome. And dropping the initial [l] is just baby talk. It wasn’t made up by JK Rowling, anyway. It shows up in Charles Dickens, EM Forster, George Orwell… It’s classic. If you’re British.

But there’s another word ickle too. Many people in England don’t use it either, but if you find someone who does, they’re probably from Yorkshire or parts near it. I hadn’t been aware of this word until I saw it mentioned in “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.” But it will be plain once I tell you what it means: ‘icicle’.

Does icicle seem like a good word for the thing it names, by the way? I’ve always thought so, but ice and icicle are words I learned at such a young age that they shaped my idea of what they named. The /k/ in icicle and ickle is hard like ice, yes; how about the syllabic /l/? Does it perhaps have a sense of the drips that trickle to the tip and make the icicle grow?

Do you wonder where the word came from?

It seems plain enough at first glance: ickle must be a clipped form of icicle, yes? But then where does icicle come from, anyway? It must be ice plus… what?

Plus ickle.

Ickle comes from an old Germanic word relating to pieces of ice. It mostly referred to these aqueous stalactites, but its cognate in Icelandic is jökull. Does that look vaguely familiar? You may remember Eyjafjallajökull; if you’ve learned anything much about Icelandic geography, you may know that the frozen centre of the country is a huge glacier, Vatnajökull. As it happens, jökull is the Icelandic word for ‘glacier’. (IPA geeks: it’s said [jœːkʏtl̥]. The rest of you: never mind.) So one way or another, ickle is a piece of ice, but in Iceland it’s rather bigger.

Well, like glaciers, icicles do grow under the right conditions – but glaciers are added to by snow on top, while icicles add a drip at a time, rolling down from the top to the bottom. A bit more, a bit more… sort of like how ickle became icicle. I guess the plain ickle (which, in Old English, was gicel, said like “yickel”) was just too, uh, ickle for them. So, for clarity, they added the ice part.

Hmm. One more drip and they would have had a means of conveyance.


One of the reasons I love National Geographic is the new words each issue brings. Look at this one! I particularly like how the p and q are facing off across a jumble of other letters. A jumble? Look closely and you’ll see that pitera anagrams to pirate. It’s like a pirate and another pirate attacking each other in a melee, each trying to win the letters.

And what is that q doing at the end? I bet National Geographic has a much-higher-than-average rate of words with q not followed by u thanks to transliterations of languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, Inuktitut… and its use in the spelling of Albanian, among others. But which language is this word from?

This word is from the article “End of the Earth,” by Murray Fredericks, who went to Greenland (also known as Kalaallit Nunaat) and photographed the scenery on the ice cap. You can see some of the photos online in “What Does Nothing Look Like?” The views are transfixing, infinite, white on white (not green – that name was just marketing by Erik the Red). But in all these pictures, you can’t see one of the most powerful things he encountered.


In Tunumiisut, the Inuit language of the east coast of Greenland, this means ‘attacker’.

It is an apt name.

Is it a polar bear? No. You can take pictures of those. This is something that besets you – besets whole towns, even – for a day or longer. You have no choice but to hide from it and hope it does not tear your protection away from you. It can cause massive damage. The only blessing is that you can see the sign of its approach hours in advance. In the snow, rising up in the distance.

But you can’t see a piteraq.

And it’s pretty hard to see much when a piteraq is attacking.

Because the snow is flying.

But who has seen the wind?

Yes. A piteraq is a wind. It’s a katabatic wind: a cold wind formed on high that comes sweeping down, aided by gravity. It can move at over 200 km/h. Here’s a nice rundown of the facts of piteraqs from the blog Ultima Thule.

And here’s a video of someone up on the ice cap experiencing one. Now imagine that sweeping down a fjord into a town.

Since Tunumiisut is an Inuit language, we know that the q stands for a voiceless uvular stop. Imagine you’re trying to get rid of a popcorn hull stuck at the very back of your mouth and you should get the tongue position about right for this sound.

So when you say piteraq, it bounces back in your mouth like a tent being blown through town by a piteraq: first off the lips, then off the tip of the tongue, fluttering for a moment more there (snagged on something?), and then accelerating to knock off the back and – it’s gone. Nothing left to be seen.