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Daring hypothesis: English words for “mud”, “near-mud”, “dried-mud”, and “mud like” outnumber Eskimo words for “snow”, “near-snow”, etc. etc.

Can this be true? Let’s have a look! (GJV)

Sludge, muck, slush, rile, slut, slime, bog, stabble (mud made by footprints), marsh, swill, ooze, slip, morass, slunk (a muddy or marshy place), mere, pulk, swamp, cay, blash, baygall, quag, quagmire, sump, slosh, sludge, squash, wichert (white, chalky mud, Bucks.), sleech (mud deposited by a river), clart, fen, humus, slough, bauger, slabber, warp (a moist bed of alluvial sediment), mush, chaitia (dried mud), gumbo, slumgullion (a muddy deposit in a mining sluice, US), slop, wallow, squad (dial., soft mud), slurry (thin mud or cement), parafango (a mixture of mud and paraffin), sludder, stodge (thick, tenacious mud), quicksand, schlich, slake (mud left by the tide), soss (a slop, Sc), cloam (potter’s mud), sinkhole, gunk, goo, clay, slob[Ir], palus, mire, slather (thin mud, Yorks.), sewerage (street mud), adobe (dried mud), limus, silt, loam, smirch, clag (mud entangled with wool on sheep), and this is only a start. Source: OED2

Note: the urban legend that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow can be traced to The Handbook of North American Indians, Franz Boas, 1911. Boas provides four Eskimo words for snow in this book, and merely notes the distinct roots of "aput" (snow on the ground) and "gana" (falling snow). This idea was expanded and published in an article called "Science and Linguistics" in the MIT journal, "Technology Review" in 1940. This article did not list any of the words, but proposed that there must be at least seven distinct words for snow. This article was widely cited and republished, and the number of words steadily grew to its current "urban legend guesstimate" of 400.


“Stranger Knights”

This term defines members of the Order of the Garter who do not hold British citizenship. Whilst there were always “Stranger Knights”, it was Queen Victoria who first made widespread use of this award (132 Garter Knights of whom 51 were foreign).

“Stranger Knights” in our era include the Emperor of Japan, the King of Sweden, Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and Queen Margrethe of Denmark.


“Pop goes the weasel” An on-going discussion

Up and down the City Road,
In and out of the Eagle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel

These words appear on a sign outside the Eagle Pub on London's City Road, and the OED dates the phrase "pop goes the weasel" to the mid 19th century. What does it mean?

Contributor Phil explains, "...Peng Dic. Hist. Slang tells us that 'Pop goes the weasel' was a Cockney catchphrase of the 1870s. Ware is quoted as saying 'Activity is suggested by 'pop' and the little weasel is very active. Probably erotic origin...'

'Pop' did mean to pawn but 'pop it in' was low colloquial and meant something entirely different. 'Pop' was colloquial for firing a gun and (as now) for a drink which fizzes when the cork is popped. Enough said, I think. 'Weasel' is not given separately but I'm reminded of the modern 'like a rat up a drainpipe...'

My source is the Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge, abridged by Jacqueline Simpson, 1972."

Another ucle contributor: "...I was told by my father (born in Salmon Street, E1) that the weasel was a piece of equipment used by a tailor that was small enough to lug off to uncle's..."

And from Peter Buchwald's web page devoted to the topic: "...The dance became very popular, and eventually various different words were written for it. In this version, the weasel may have been a coat or a tailor's last, and "to pop" may have meant to pawn. Therefore, the song may have been about someone pawning their coat or an item of equipment in order to be able to have a night out at the Eagle.

The City Road, on which the Eagle stands, was one of the first roads to be laid out in London, at the end of the 18th century, and now makes a semi-circle of about a mile and a half between Old Street and Angel Islington High Street. The Eagle is quite close to the Old Street end of the City Road, whereas, during most of the nineteenth century, there was a pawnbroker closer to the Angel - this may be the explanation for the line "Up and down the City Road"..."

Peter's page is at


“It’s pants”

An informal survey on the usage of the term 'pants'

Gareth (from Wales): "It means something's bad, something's rubbish. It's an exclamation of displeasure. It is not swearing..."

Amanda (from London): "It's a way of converting rude swearing to mild swearing."

Andrew (from Lancashire): "It's pants. It means 's***' or 'crap'. It is not swearing, but I wouldn't use it in polite company. It might be used as a substitute for 'that's bollocks'".

Lindsay (from Glasgow): "It means that's crap or rubbish. It is not swearing, but I wouldn't use it around older people."

Contributor Judith notes: "I have only heard 'pants' used by a young man at work. I used to work in <government department> where they are very politically correct in everything. The man was reprimanded for using the word 'f***'. He started to use 'pants'. I recently read in <newspaper> that pants meant 'rubbish'. In my teens my peers used to say knickers. We used it as a 'polite' way of saying 'f***'. So when my colleague used 'pants', I thought it was just a male gender version of 'knickers'.

The archives at deja indicate that the term 'pants' has been used on the television programmes "The Mary Whitehouse Experience" and "The Young Ones".


Colours that serve as beverages and vice versa…

We can offer: burgundy, champagne, chartreuse, claret, cream, rose, and possibly wine, possibly coffee. Any more?


The Ugley Women’s Institute

We don’t know if this group is still active, but the village of Ugley, Essex takes its name from an Anglo-Saxon term for “Ucga’s clearing”.


“Up to scratch”

Before the sport of boxing adopted a bell to signal the beginning of a round, the referee scratched a line in the ring. When the pugilists stepped over this line, the round began and the fight continued until one boxer was “not up to scratch”. See also “Black Ajax” by George MacDonald Fraser.


Notable British “Littles”

Little Dorritt (Charles Dickens), Little Gidding (T. S. Eliot), Little Parliament (Cromwell), Little Lord Fauntleroy (Frances Burnett), Little Venice (Lord Byron), Little John (Robin Hood), Little Jack Horner (nursery rhyme), arguably “Lilliput” (Swift), and Little John (of Robin Hood lore).



Writer Horace Walpole, to describe the phenomenon of making accidental beneficial discoveries, coined this word in the 18th century. “Serendip” is an ancient word for Sri Lanka.



“Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi” (Liza, in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, 1914)

“…[English]… is taught so bloody badly…” (Prince Charles, 1989)

“I never use the word ‘bloody’ because it is unparliamentary. It is a word I never bloody well use.” (MP, 1980)

The use of “bloody” as an excessive adjective apparently entered our language about 300 years ago. Folk etymology has it that it is a euphemism for “by our lady”. The logic of this etymology, however, fails in the translation of meaning and intent from an oath (“by our lady”) to an intensive adjective (“bloody”). For example, to say “it’s by our lady cold outside”, “by our lady hell” doesn’t really make sense, even though Jonathan Swift attempted it.

A more satisfying explanation is that it describes a state of bellicose drunkenness: it is natural that someone in a drunken state who was eager to fight would have a flushed face; and hence, “bloody drunk”. A parallel, and equally satisfying, explanation is that it comes from the term “Bloods” as used to describe young and arrogant aristocrats.

Its use as an integrated adjective seems to be from the 20th century. Examples of “bloody” as an integrated adjective are: “Not bloody likely”, “Abso-bloody-lutely”, and the Australian “Kanga-bloody-roo”. There is little doubt that the Aussies hold all known records for the use of “bloody” as an enclitic device.

“Ruddy” and “blooming” are thought to be derived as euphemisms of “bloody”.


Food etymologies traced to nobility (contributed by aue Boinkers)

Bouche a la Reine, chicken a la King, bloody Mary, Baron of beef, maids of honour tart, queenies, any kind of Sandwich, chocolate a la Marquis, pommes Dauphinois, pomme Dauphine, pommes a la Duchess, and Queen of puddings. It’s clear that potatoes have a commanding lead here. Any more?


Literary figures that could fly, and flew through British territorial airspace

Peter Pan, (Tinkerbell et al), Jacob Marley (accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Future s/b Yet to Come), an unnamed cow (that jumped over the moon), Bladud (as recorded by Geoffery of Monmouth), possibly Titania and Oberon, Count Dracula, possibly Adam (from Paradise Lost), and certainly Mary Poppins. Eros is unconfirmed. Gloriana (or anything from the Arthurian canon) is unconfirmed. Phileas Fogg doesn’t count because he used a balloon.

Concerning the name of Dickens's ghost, contributor Perchprism adds "...In my copy of Dickens's Christmas Books, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1899, the ghost is first named by Scrooge at the beginning of 'Stave Four' of A Christmas Carol: 'I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?' A few paragraphs later he says, 'Ghost of the Future!'..."


“It went pear-shaped” (GJV)

This expression is interesting because "pear-shaped" has been long acknowledged as a description for an elegant cut of diamond. This pedigree would appear to give "pear-shaped" a positive description.

"Pear-shaped" can also be used to describe the voluptuous anatomies portrayed by classical artists such as Poussin, Rubens, Raphael, or Rossetti.

"It went pear-shaped" is used in modern English to signify a comedic fiasco or similar disaster. In almost every circumstance, it refers to an undertaking or project that resulted in failure, but caused no grievous harm to anyone involved. Further, it provides a gentle suggestion that the fiasco was a result of nature and beyond the control of any specific individual. It is not regarded as vulgar or offensive.

Despite its common usage, the origin of the phrase remains obscure. Some sources attest that its origins lie in ballooning, and that a pear suggests the shape of a collapsed balloon. I can't find support for this etymology at

Others suggest that "pear-shaped" is rooted in aircraft terminology. The story goes that certain types of aircraft engine casings might go "pear-shaped" in the event of failure. Unfortunately, there is no convincing citation to accompany this claim.

Maths experts and "Quants" can be expected to attest that "pear-shaped" refers to a so-called "normal" or "Gaussian" distribution where the extremities of the distribution have become enlarged. In such a situation, improbable events would become much more probable. This is, at the moment, the preferred origin for "It's all gone pear-shaped".

Editor's note: If you have a definitive citation for "pear-shaped", please contact the webmaster.

Note:   An e-mailer has sent some comments on "pear-shaped".  You can see them here.


One more time: The Etymology of Milton Keynes

The name “Milton Keynes” is not an amalgamation of the names of two former villages: “Milton” and “Keynes”. It is not named after the poet (Milton) and the economist (Keynes). The town of “Milton” was recorded in the Domesday Book as “Mideltone” in 1086. In the 12th century, a manorial grant was given to the “de Cahaignes” family, who settled there. The name was anglicized into “Kaynes” by the 13th century. And from “Mideltone Kaynes (recorded in 1227) the modern English name of “Milton Keynes” was derived.


What British literary personages named their dogs…

Camp, also Hamlet, also Rover (Walter Scott), Jed (P. G. Wodehouse), Bijou (Mary Stewart), Turk (Charles Dickens), Flush (Elizabeth Browning), Boatswain (Lord Byron), Dash (Charles Lamb), and Bounce (Alexander Pope).



“Anorak” comes from a Greenland Eskimo word for a type of jacket.  An “Anorak” is characteristically made of waterproof materials and has a hood attached.  In recent years, it has been adopted for other purposes, most commonly as a noun to describe train-spotters, computer geeks, and unpopular college students.  It has also appeared as an adjective, for example, “He’s too Anorak for me”, with the same pejorative connotation.  At the time of this writing, “Anorak” has not yet found its place in English usage as a verb.  But these things take time.


Holidays in England and Wales (GJV)

Holidays in England and Wales fall in to three categories: "Common Law" (or "Public") holidays; "Statutory" (or "Bank") holidays; and "Holidays by Royal proclamation".

The "Common Law" holidays are Good Friday and Christmas day. If Christmas day falls on a weekend, it is observed on the following Monday.

The "Statutory" (or "Bank") holidays are Easter Monday, the last Monday in May, the last Monday in August, and Boxing Day. If Boxing Day falls on a weekend, it is observed on the following Monday, unless Christmas also falls on a weekend, in which case Boxing Day is observed on the following Tuesday.

Holidays designated by Royal proclamation are New Year's day (since 1974) and the first Monday in May (since 1978). When New Year's day has fallen on a weekend, the Queen has traditionally designated the following Monday as a proclaimed holiday.

It is commonly accepted (but inaccurate) English usage to refer to all eight of these days as "Bank holidays". To my knowledge, no one has yet tested this wording in court with respect to service level agreements, maintenance contracts, delivery notices, consulting agreements, and so forth.

Note also that under UK employment law, there is no *statutory* right for an employee to take holiday or to receive compensation for a holiday. The awarding of paid holidays is established in the terms of employment between an employee and his or her employer.


Rivers in London used as Literary Allusions (GJV)

The Thames: The phase “to set the Thames on fire”, appeared in common usage in the late 18th century, and has always been used as an ironic expression to describe someone who is lethargic, simple minded, or lacks enterprise. “…I hardly expect him to set the Thames on fire; but I hope his mother will never have reason to be ashamed of him...” (W. E. Norris). The etymology of “Thames” is thought to be Celtic, but the precise meaning is unknown.

The Tyburn: The Tyburn River lent its name to the prison and public execution place at what is now Marble Arch. It was used in English for nearly seven centuries as an allusion to both imprisonment and execution. “…Many idle persons fall into offence of lawe, and are many times eaten up by Tyborne…” (Crosse Vertues Commw).

As a side-note, the odd curvature of Marylebone Lane is one of the few artifacts we have of this river, as this street was built upon its banks. South of Regent’s Park, the only place the Tyburn can be seen today is at the Sloane Square tube stop, where a massive water duct is visible.

Note:  An e-mailer has registered a differing opinion about the Tyburn.  You can read it here.

The etymology of “Tyburn” is unknown, perhaps “Ty (= two) and Borne (= water source) refer to the bifurcation the river made just west of what is now St James Park. While historians can trace the eastern branch of the Tyburn to the environs of Westminster Abbey, they are in disagreement about what course the western branch followed to reach the Thames.

The Fleet: This river ran from Hampstead Heath and emptied into the Thames near what is now Blackfriars Bridge. No fewer than two-dozen streets, parishes, and neighborhoods refer to it somehow in their names. This includes “Fleet Street”, which was built up along its banks. “Fleet Street” is used in modern English as an allusion to British journalism.

“Fleet” comes from an Anglo Saxon word meaning “river inlet”.

The Tigris:  This is the reverse situation!  In the 11th century, Cnut dug a channel from Rotherhithe to Chelsea via what is now Elephant and Castle.  He named it the “Tigris River” (also appearing in some sources as “Tygris”), thereby accruing all the fame that its namesake (the “Cradle of Civilisation”) endowed. 





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