Visit theallusionist.org/word-of-the-day to read more about this episode and hear it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, attempt to pull Excalibur out of the linguistic stone. It won’t budge! It won’t budge...
Coming up in today’s show is - possibly the very reason why you listen to this show?
Before that, here’s a little word history sponsored by Fallen London. Since I last talked about Fallen London on the show, a lot of you have been in touch to say how much you’ve been enjoying playing it. Happy to hear it. It’s the huge text adventure game that’s like roaming through ten meaty novels that are always evolving. You start the game in prison, but once you break out, the whole of a subterranean version of Victorian London is yours to do what you want in. Reminds me, I need to check in with that squid I married.
Fallen London is free to play, but take yourself over to failbettergames.com/allusionist, sign up, and you’ll get a special gift that you can use in the game when you play in your browser or in the new Fallen London app.
And thanks to Fallen London, here’s an etymological request from listener Gav, who says: “My 4-year-old just asked: does ‘bully’ come from ‘bull’?”
Good question, child of Gav, to which the immediate answer is ‘no’. ‘Bully’ is not to do with ‘bull’ the bovine male, from the Old English word for the same, ‘bula’. It’s not from a papal bull, which is from ‘bulla’, a medieval Latin word for a sealed document, from the older Latin for a round blob, presumably referring to the raised wax seal on the document. Nor is ‘bully’ from the ‘bull’ that people talk, which could be from the Medieval Latin ‘bulla’, a game or jape, or from the Old French ‘bole’ meaning deception or scheming. So that was a surprise to me, that that kind of bull is also not referring to the animals or what comes out of their bottoms.
But I was more surprised that ‘bully’, when it was first around in English some 500 years ago, meant a sweetheart or a beloved friend, from the Middle Dutch ‘boele’, a ‘lover’ - which may have come from ‘brother’.
It’s not fully clear how ‘bully’ turned from loving to bullying by the late 17th century, but the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that ‘bully’ was a term for the person who protected a sex worker - like a pimp. Which does take you right from the love sense to the intimidation sense in one swift move.
Oh, and the ‘bully’ in bully beef doesn’t have anything to do with bullies, or bulls, it’s an anglicization of ‘bouilli’, the French for ‘boiled’. So there you go, child of Gav: a load of old bull.
On with the show.
Listeners who have the stamina to last the full fifteen to twenty minutes of this show know that at the end of every episode, I read out a randomly selected word from the dictionary. And people often ask, is that word genuinely a randomly selected word, or am I using some sort of algorithm?
Of course, when the show has a bigger budget, I’ll be delegating the whole thing to algorithms. Including these bits. But at the moment, I’m stuck with the manual drudgery of randomly opening a dictionary myself.
Every day since 1999, dictionary.com has been publishing a Word of the Day. For them, finding one is a touch more complex than just opening the dictionary.
RENAE HURLBUTT: It’s a fairly intuitive process. We had a question the other day from a user inquiring whether there’s an algorithm for the Word of the Day, and there definitely is not. It’s got the human touch.
HZ: That human touch is administered by Renae Hurlbutt.
RH: My name is Renae Hurlbutt, and I do ‘Word of the Day’ at Dictionary.com.
JANE SOLOMON: My name is Jane Solomon; I’m a content editor and lexicographer here at Dictionary.com. So that means I work on things like defining words.
HZ: So here’s how these non-algorithm humans go about choosing one word from the hundreds of thousands available in the English lexicon.
RH: It starts with us being word lovers, being very excited to discover new words. It starts with mapping out the new month, noting which holidays and notable days we might want to give a nod to with our word selection. And then really we’re just in deep discovery mode. We’re drawing from the reading that we do - we’re all voracious readers, that’s an essential part of the job; it comes from careful listening to conversations around you - a few weeks ago, my dad said ‘namby-pamby’ and immediately my radars went off, “That’s a fun one”. So a lot of it comes from recalibrating the way you’re listening as you move through the world. Some of it comes from our trending data to see what kinds of words people are curious about; looking at social media and seeing how people are responding to certain words.
HZ: On Dictionary.com’s Your Word Wednesday, users submit words they want to see as Word of the Day.
RH: Occasionally we’ll see a word that fifteen people have submitted, so clearly we have to go with ‘wanderlust’ this time, ‘defenestrate’ - there are some that are always going to be requested. ‘Defenestrate’ is a combination of: it sounds funny; it’s got such a specific meaning that doesn’t seem it’d ever be useful, so why was the word ever coined - but it’s got a really interesting history, it’s tied to some event...
JS: The Defenestration of Prague. Not to be confused with all the other defenestrations over time.
HZ: The various different Defenestrations of Prague are confusing enough on their own, but the one usually being referred to as THE Defenestration of Prague took place on the 23rd May 1618, when during religious and political upheaval, two Catholic lord regents were tried, found guilty and defenestrated - thrown out of the window. They did survive - the Catholics believed the Virgin Mary caught them, the Protestants that did the defenestrating claimed their fall was broken by a pile of manure. Whatever happened, it sparked the Thirty Years War. Defenestration.
RH: But it’s always fun to see their submissions. They always give a reason: sometimes it’s personal, sometimes they saw it in a book, but it’s just fun to see they love it too, how excited they are about word discovery. One that comes to mind from recent months is ‘slugabed’, which is such a great word, and there was some story from the guy who submitted it that his wife always calls him a slugabed. So you get these little anecdotes -HZ: - from the divorce courts.
JS: One time someone submitted the word ‘lonely’, and the reasoning behind it was “Because I am lonely.”
HZ: I feel there is a lot to unpick in that statement. But often the Word of the Day aficionados seek simple pleasures.
RH: People like words that sound silly. Compound words that have a lot of elements to them, like ‘catawampus’ - people are always going to love ‘catawampus’, and I think it’s just how it sounds, those Lewis Carroll-esque words that are just fun to say. We recently did ‘waffle stompers’, it’s just one of those words that has that je ne sais quoi, so silly you know you’re going to get a rise out of people. In a good way. Waffle stompers are hiking boots. Why would you ever say ‘hiking boots’ again?
JS: We had a lot of cat words.
RH: I don’t know if it was a lot, but we’re not afraid to pander occasionally.
JS: The internet loves cats…
RH: We had ‘allurophilia’, which is the love of cats.
JS: What was the word for an elderly cat?
RH: Grimalkin. That was a good one.
HZ: OK, cats, FINE, you win another corner of the internet. What else do people want from the Word of the Day?
JS: Users really like agent nouns. “A person who -” and then definition.
RH: Quidnunc -
HZ: - quidnunc, noun: a person who is eager to know the latest news and gossip; a gossip or busybody.
RH: - bluestocking, gapeseed…
HZ: What’s one of those?
RH: A person who stares in wonder.
HZ: There are 19m linguistics gapeseeds subscribing to the word of the day email. I think the question any listener to this podcast will be asking is: why on earth is anyone interested in words and where they come from?
RH: Oh man, I think etymology is fascinating…
JS: I think people are interested in a rough idea of when a word entered the language, which is something we always put in our etymologies if we can find it; and people are also interested in what language it came from, and the literal translation.
RH: It illuminates something in the word today you might not have thought about.
JS: "Of course it’s related to that other word that is similar but I never made that connection before."
RH: So it’s almost the revealing of this system that is always there that we are not really cognisant of. These words make sense.
HZ: If you go back far enough.
RH: If you go back far enough.
HZ: Just humans made a lot of strange-looking decisions in the interim.
RH: And English is such a strange mishmash. But I think etymology is a little like a treasure hunt.
HZ: And sometimes at the end, there’s just a shoebox full of rocks.
JS: Actually most of the time. But that’s ok, because rocks are great.
HZ: As well as being a prism through which to view the history of humans, a dictionary can be really quite revealing about one’s own psyche, as Jane herself discovered the first time she ever read a dictionary cover to cover, during a proofreading job.
JS: I think that we bring our own experiences into the words that we look up in a dictionary, and when I was proofreading the dictionary, it just so happened to align with a really hard breakup I was going through, and as I was proofreading it, what left a mark on me were all these words relating to relationships, like ‘boyfriend’, ‘love’, and ‘cherish’. So that’s what I took away from reading a dictionary straight through. When you’re reading a dictionary straight through, you’re really reading what’s going on inside your head.
HZ: Dictionary therapy! Has anyone made a career out of that yet? If not, the field is open…
HZ: Why are you interested in words?
RH: Oh my… I saw a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the gist of it was: when you see something genius, when you see something creative out in the world and taking it in, is really a moment of seeing something in yourself reflected, some thought you had once had or some feeling you once experienced, but you hadn’t externalised, and you hadn’t brought it out into the world. So I think that with words, often it’s giving face to and externalising all these interior parts of ourselves, and that’s a very exciting thing.
JS: Whether or not you like words, you have to use them. Or you have to use some form of communication. And it’s just nice if you like them, and you take joy in your word choice, and knowing different ways to communicate the same thing.
RH: Loving language, loving words, a lot of it, if you boil it down, comes down to connection, with other people and with the world. What words are for a lot of us are tools to get at these moments and get at these parts of ourselves; and the more tools we have, the more we can connect, the more we can fine-tune what we’re trying to say about ourselves and what we want people to know about us, and what we need, and all of that span, the more we can connect.
HZ: Thanks to Jane Solomon and Renae Hurlbutt. You can subscribe to the Word of the Day at Dictionary.com. And if you don’t have it already, download the app. It’s the first app I ever got, back in the old iPod Touch days, and I still use it every day, because you’d be surprised at how often you need to look up etymology on the fly. In fact, I was using its thesaurus function when I came up with the name of this show.
This episode is sponsored by Bombas, who make socks engineered to give your feet a good time. And somebody else’s feet, too, because for every pair of socks you buy, Bombas will donate a pair to a homeless shelter, where socks are the most requested item. So get some socks and give some socks by visiting bombas.com/allusionist, and to save 20% on your purchase, enter the code ‘allusionist’ at checkout. If you’re not completely happy with your socks, Bombas will refund you, no questions asked.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts on the interwaves. Radiotopia exists thanks to the generosity of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s manually chosen, genuinely randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
misprision, noun, the deliberate concealment of one’s knowledge of a crime.
Try using it in an email today.