Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

What is unusual about the word pulchritude. It means beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. Pulchritude is certainly not an attractive word. How about the word diminutive or unwritten. Diminutive is not a short word, and unwritten is a word that can obviously be written. What is distinctive about these words is that they are all words that have been described as ‘not being themselves’. What they appear to mean is different from what they actually mean, their structure or appearance contrasts with their meaning, or they contradict themselves.

The term for such words is heterological, meaning something that does not describe itself, A study of such words is an esoteric one, of interest to language academics or lexicologists.

As this post is a little on the dry side (except perhaps for the bit about oxymorons etc at the end), I thought to lighten it up with a few cartoons on the subject of language and learning.

Words that do describe themselves are called homological or autological words such as finite, meaningful, numberless, pronounceable, readable, unhyphenated, thing, and visible. Good examples are grandiloquent meaning pompous or extravagant in a way intended to impress, and sesquipedalian meaning long-winded or characterized by long words. Such words are actually hard to find.

Are not almost all words heterological words? I suppose they are.

Misleading Words 

Apocryphal sounds as if it’s a story of great importance whereas it means a tale of dubious authenticity.

Belladonna may mean beautiful lady in Italian and sound like a stylish woman, but it’s the poisonous plant deadly nightshade.

Bemused might sound like amused, but it means puzzled or confused.

Benighted suggests someone who is honoured but it refers to someone who is ignorant or lacking in morals.

Bodkin ought to mean a little body but its a large needle without a point.

Bucolic surely means chocked up if not a severe illness, but it refers to an idyllic rural life or it suggests a pastoral way of life as with shepherds.

Crapulous sounds dirty but it’s excessive indulgence, intemperance.

Callipygian sounds as if describes a feature of an animal but it means well proportioned buttocks

Crepuscular refers not to a skin ailment but to creatures like bats or rabbits that are active in twilight, the period before dawn or after dusk

Decimate historically this was to kill one in every ten soldiers but nowadays it means destroying a large portion of something

Disinterested means to be impartial or unprejudiced, but it is often confused with uninterested, that is to be unconcerned or not bothered with something

Enervate is to be lacking in energy, though it sounds like the opposite, or even to annoy someone.

Enormity might be something to do with size or magnitude, but it’s actually about the seriousness or extent of something that’s bad or morally wrong.

Erstwhile means former not as often thought esteemed.

Fungible sounds like it describes a spongy fungus, but its a legal term describing goods or commodities that can be replaced by equivalent items.

Hiatus is not a commotion or a ruckus, but a pause in activity.

Inflammable suggest it can’t be set on fire, that it can’t be burnt, except that it means it can. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Ironclad has nothing to do with somebody dressed in armour, but it describes arguments that are impossible to disprove or contradict.

Mawkish sounds as if it might be to do with mocking someone or something, but it means to be excessively sentimental

Mordant might suggest someone who is ponderous or broody but it actually means humour that is biting and incisive. It also refers to a substance used to fix dyes to cells and textiles, and to a musical notation.

Noisome is to have a very disagreeable smell. Nothing to do with being noisy,

Nonplussed sounds like it means not caring too much about things, but it means very surprised or confused.

Nugatory must be something to do with nougat but it means futile, trifling, or having no value.

Orrery might be an animals nest or lair but it’s a mechanical model of the solar system showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.

Phlegmatic refers to a person who is calm, composed, unemotional, not as it might seem someone who gets easily excited or is animated.

Plethora means an excess of something, not an ancient Greek musical instrument

Priceless sounds as if it could mean cheap or worthless though it means the opposite, very valuable.

Prodigal looks and feels like the word prodigy which means a talented individual who invites admiration, but in reality means recklessly wasteful.

Prosaic comes from the word prose and means commonplace, lacking in imagination, dull, even though the word sounds elegant or ornamental.

Pulchritude sounds like ineptness or even a pustule, or refers to a rather large person, but as mentioned above it’s a showy word for beauty.

Saturnine was said to be the temperament of someone born under the supposed astrological influence of Saturn, but it nowadays means gloomy or melancholic.

Scurrilous could describe how some small animals move, but it’s the making or spreading scandalous claims about someone in order to damage their reputation.

Vomitorium contrary to what might seem obvious was the tunnel-like entrance in an amphitheatre or stadium.



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apocalypse now, kurtz, willard, francis ford coppola, marlon brando, macguffin

There are only fleeting glimpses of Kurtz when Willard meets him face to face in the closing acts of the film, but the character of Kurtz drives the action of the film from the very beginning.

Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.

The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

titanic, heart of the ocean, blue diamond, billy zane, kate winslet, leonardo dicaprio. macguffin

Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) gives Rose (Kate Winslet) the blue diamond necklace as an engagement present. To keep Rose away from Dawson, Hockley has the diamond planted on Dawson, who is then arrested, but the diamond plays little or no further part as the Titanic has already collided with the iceberg.

What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.

It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.

The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

39 steps, thirty-nine steps, richard hannay, robert donat, mr memory, macguffin

In the theatre, Hannay asks Mr Memory ‘what are the Thirty-Nine Steps?’. Mr Memory compulsively answers that it is a secret organisation of spies but is shot before he can finish. Backstage, the dying Mr Memory recites the details of the aircraft engine he has memorised, the MacGuffin, and says before he dies ‘It was the biggest job I ever tackled …. I’m glad it’s off my mind.’

In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike.

In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.

Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.

Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.

‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’

Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.

In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.


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Do you lie on the sofa or on the settee? Do you eat pudding or a dessert? Do you wear spectacles or glasses? What does it matter? Well at one time, in post war Britain, that is after 1945, your use or choice of words was said to be an indicator of the social class to which you belonged. A lot of nonsense or a matter for serious debate? Or just lighthearted fun? It all started in 1954 when an article titled Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English by British linguist Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, appeared in a learned but obscure Finnish academic journal.

Ross’ article covered differences in word usage, pronunciation, and in writing style, but it was his thoughts on the differences in vocabulary that received the most attention. He coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to refer to the differences in English language usage between social classes. ‘U’ indicated upper class, and ‘non-U’, not upper class, though it focused on the aspiring middle classes. Ross considered that the middle classes preferred to use fancy or fashionable words, even neologisms (meaning a newly coined word) and often euphemisms, in their attempts to make themselves sound more refined. The speech of the working classes was not dealt with, as in many instances Ross considered they often stuck to the same plain and traditional words that the upper classes used, since being conscious of their status they had no need to make themselves sound more refined. Ross added that ‘it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else’.

nancy mitford, mitford sisters, bright young people, pursuit of love, u and non-u

Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was one of the ‘bright young people’ on the London social scene in the inter-war years, and is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France, and for her sharp and often provocative wit.

In his article, Ross used the semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945 by the English novelist, biographer and journalist Nancy Mitford, to exemplify upper-class speech patterns. Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the renowned Mitford sisters. There were six sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles, and they have been caricatured by the journalist Ben Macintyre, as ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.

Mitford picked up on Ross’ reference to her novel and incorporated the U and Non-U thesis into an article she was writing, The English Aristocracy, for the magazine Encounter. Her argument was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word was usually the non-upper class thing to say, or, in Mitford’s words, simply ‘non-U’. Thus it was very non-U to say ‘dentures’; ‘false teeth’ would do. ‘Ill’ was non-U; ‘sick’ was U. The non-U person ‘resides at his home’; the U person ‘lives in his house’, and so on. Nowadays, the distinction between U words and non-U seems antiquated. Were U words really plainer or ‘better’, or did the upper classes simply need to use them so as to distinguish themselves from everyone else?

U Non-U
Lunch Dinner (midday meal)
Dinner Evening Meal
Vegetables Greens
Pudding Sweet or dessert
Ice Ice cream
Jam Preserve
(no equivalent, there would be separate containers eg. salt-cellar) Cruet
(Table) Napkin Serviette (unless you are literally in France)
Sofa Settee or couch
Drawing-room or Sitting-room Lounge or front room
Chimneypiece Mantelpiece
Lavatory or loo Toilet or WC (unless you are in Italy, where ‘toiletta’ is U)
Looking-glass Mirror
Mad Mental
Decent Civil (behaviour)
(no equivalent) Rude (indecent)
(no equivalent, except possibly ‘civilised’) Cultivated or cultured (people)
Sick Ill
Die Pass on
Graveyard Cemetery
Rich Wealthy
Smart Posh
False teeth Dentures
Dinner jacket Dress suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Scent Perfume
Spectacles Glasses
Writing-paper Note-paper
Wireless Radio
Bike or bicycle Cycle
Riding Horse-riding
Master or Mistress (also prefixed eg. maths-mistress) Teacher (children also say ‘Teacher says …’)
England (Britain) Britain


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What does boffin, hooligan, leotard, nicotine, tarmac and wisteria have in common? Very little it would seem, except that they are all eponyms, words derived from a real, fictional or mythical persons. Most eponyms come from a person’s surname such as mackintosh from the Scottish chemist, Charles Mackintosh, or sandwich from John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Conversely, eponym also refers to the person from whom the word is derived. The word eponym comes from the Greek epi meaning ‘upon’, and onyma meaning ‘name’.

There are thousands of eponyms in the English language. Many are so common that we don’t realise that they are eponyms, such as bigot after Nathaniel Bigot, an English Puritan teacher, diesel named after Rudolph Diesel, the German mechanical engineer, or teddy bear from the nickname for the USA president Theodore Roosevelt. And would you have any idea that Granny Smith apples are named after Marie Ana (Granny) Smith who in 1868 in Australia grew an apple from a chance seedling. 

decibel, bel, sound, alexander graham bell, eponym

The decibel, commonly used as a measure of sound levels, is ten times the power of a bel. The bel was named after Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the Scottish-born scientist and engineer who invented the telephone.

People who discover or invent things are a major source of eponyms, and a large number of astronomical objects (eg. Barnard’s star, Halley’s comet), chemical elements (eg. Curium, Titanium), diseases (eg. Huntington’s disease, Münchausen syndrome), mathematical theorems (eg. Fibonacci sequence, Pythagorean theorem), minerals (eg. Fergusonite, Herbertsmithite), and scientific laws and phenomena (eg. Avogadro’s number, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Newton’s laws of motion, Richter scale), are eponymic. 

And there are proprietary names that have become eponyms, though some would say they are not eponyms, just brand names that have come into general use. Some are still actively trademarked, the use of which manufacturers try to protect, whilst others are now defunct. Aspirin, blu-tack, coke (as in Coca Cola), escalator, filofax, frisbee, granola, heroin, highlighter, hula-hoop, ketchup, jacuzzi, jeep, pogo stick, post-it note, sellotape, shredded wheat, teflon, thermos, valium, velcro and zipper are eponyms in common use, though alka seltzer, brillo pad, celluloid, dettol, kleenex, linoleum, nescaf, polaroid, roladex, tippex, tupperware, walkman and xerox are now less well-known. Biro and hoover are eponyms in the United Kingdom for pens and vacuum cleaners respectively, but not apparently in the United States. 

garibaldi biscuit, giuseppe garibaldi, italy, jonathan carr, peek freans, eponym

The garibaldi biscuit was named after Italian patriot, general and politician Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), known as one of the founding fathers of Italy. It was invented by Carlisle biscuit-maker Jonathan Carr working for the Peek Freans biscuit company in Bermondsey, London, in 1861, the year the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed.

Spam, a product and trademark of Hormel Foods in the USA introduced in 1937, was originally used eponymously to refer to any brand of canned chopped pork and ham. It became part of folklore and humour through a Monty Python sketch in 1970, in which spam was portrayed as ubiquitous and inescapable. With the coming of email, spam was the ideal name for the unsolicited commercial messages that were sent indiscriminately to millions of people. 

Eponymous is the adjective and there are hundreds of eponymous adjectives in the English language such as herculean from Hercules of Greek mythology, machiavellian from Niccolò Machiavelli, or sadistic from Marquis de Sade. British monarchs have given their name to eponymous adjectives of time periods or fashions such Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian

The word eponymous is used to when referring to the title of a book that is named after the hero as in The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe or after the heroine in Emma by Jane Austen. It is also used when a band give their name to the name of their album, often their first, as in Roxy Music, the name of Roxy Music’s first album released in 1972. (more…)

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secondhand bookshop, charing cross road, london, uncountable noun

There is a secondhand bookshop at 56 Charing Cross Road in London that bears the name ‘Any Amount of Books’. It is an acclaimed place to browse, but surely it ought to be called ‘Any Number of Books’ as a book is not an uncountable noun. The proprietor not doubt knows this. If he really liked the word ‘amount’, ‘Any Amount of Literature’ would have been more correct, but would it have been better?

Learners of English often struggle with uncountable nouns, that is nouns that cannot be counted. You can have ‘three squirrels, ‘six earthquakes’, or ‘twenty gargoyles’. These are countable nouns, but you can’t have ‘four weathers’, ‘eight pollutions’, or ‘eleven traffics’.  These nouns, also described as mass nouns, are uncountable.

Countable nouns can usually have a singular form and a plural form and they usually refer to things. Most countable nouns become plural by adding an ‘s’ at the end of the word (or in some cases, ‘es’ as in ‘boxes’). There are quite a few exceptions though. Nouns can be mutated: child = children, mouse = mice. Latin or Greek forms can be kept: criterion = criteria and fungus = fungi. And nouns that end in certain letters can have irregular plurals: a consonant and a y, as in baby = babies, an f or fe as in leaf = leaves, or an o as in hero = heroes. But this is to deviate, which is almost inevitable when discussing the ins and outs of the English language. 

lewis carroll, alice in wonderland, curiouser, english, uncountable noun

Chapter 2 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland begins “Curiouser and curiouser! cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)”. These days ‘curiouser and curiouser’ would more likely be used to politely express disbelief rather than a sense of wonder, and such might be the reaction of students of the English Language students wrestling with uncountable nouns.

Uncountable nouns are for the things or substances such as tea, sand, water, air, rice, that cannot be divided into separate elements, we cannot ‘count’ them. They are often collective nouns: equipment, furniture, luggage; or abstract ideas, concepts, or qualities such as anger, beauty, fear, knowledge, love. Uncountable nouns do not usually have a plural form. We cannot say sugars, angers, knowledges.

Why do we have these uncountable nouns? Many of these nouns are countable in other languages but not in English. This might be connected with the way English speakers picture these nouns as a single concept or one big thing which is hard to divide. But there are no rules as to when a noun is countable, and hence have a plural form, and when a noun is uncountable, and this apparent randomness makes it very difficult for people learning the language.

Whilst countable nouns can be quantified by saying ‘a meal’, ‘few holidays’, or ‘many books’, we can’t say ‘a rice’ or ‘a few milk’. We have to say an amount of something, that is quantify it: ‘a grain of rice’, ‘bottles of milk’, ‘a burst of sunshine’, or ‘a piece of research’. So where something is described in this way, it is a sure sign that you are dealing with an uncountable noun.

Uncountable nouns are usually preceded by: Countable nouns are usually preceded by:
some some money these or those, each or every, either or neither these plants, each day, neither game
a little, less, or least a little salt, less homework  few or fewer few cars, fewer students
enough, lots of, plenty of or much enough rice, lots of sleep, much sleep several or many several books, many changes

And uncountable nouns are only used with a singular verb, ‘the news is very worrying’, ‘your luggage looks heavy’. 

The wide variety of uncountable nouns is illustrated in the table below.  (more…)

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Many words have opposites, and we learn many of them in the classroom. Blunt and sharp, odd and even, private and public, thick and thin. Some words have several opposites eg. modern, new, young are opposites of old. The literary term for these words are antonyms, though grammarians would say that some antonyms are not strictly opposites. For example, parent and child, teach and learn, doctor and patient, floor and ceiling, are only opposites when used in the context of their relationship.

There are also opposites formed by the use of prefixes such as dis-, ex-, im-, in-, irr-, non-, un-, eg. able and unable, conformist and nonconformist, discreet and indiscreet, fortunate and unfortunate.

wooster, p g wodehouse, gruntled, prefix, opposite

In The Code of the Woosters published in 1938, P G Wodehouse wrote ‘He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled’. Here ‘gruntled’ is used as an opposite to humorous effect, but in fact ‘gruntle’ by the end of the 16th century came to mean grumbling or complaining, so the dis- prefix intensifies the original word rather than creating an opposite.

Prompted by my sister-in-law who has an interest in such things, there are quite a number of negative words which when the prefix such as dis- or un- is removed, don’t have an opposite. Someone can be described as unkempt, unruly, disconsolate or uncouth, but we don’t usually say that they are kempt, ruly, consolate or couth.

Here are some other words that use prefixes but which don’t have opposites.

defenestrate, dejected,  disdain, disgruntled, disrupt, impetuous, impromptu, inane, incessant, inchoate, incognito, incommunicado, indescribably, indomitable, ineffable, infernal, infinity, inhibited, innocuous, insidious, insipid, insouciant, intact, invert, misgiving, misnomer, nonchalant, noncommittal, nondescript, nonpareil, nonplussed, nonsensical, unbeknownst, ungainly, unravel, unscathed, unstinting, unswerving, untold, untrammelled, untoward.

And here are some words where the positive forms are rare or have fallen out of popular usage.

disarray, disconcerting, immaculate, impeccable, inadvertent, incapacitated, incorrigible, inevitable, innocent, inordinate, inscrutable, insensate, insufferable, interminable, unbridled, unflappable, unfurl, unmitigated, unrequited, unthinkable, unwieldy, unwittingly

These can all be described as unpaired words. Curiously, where the positive form previously existed, it is often the negative that has survived, as if we find negative words more useful and hence more enduring. Unkempt was derived from the Old English word kemb, ‘comb’, and its usual negative form was unkembed. But by 1580 unkempt was used to mean ‘inelegant language’; by the eighteenth century it meant ‘uncombed’ or ‘dishevelled’, and it took on its stronger sense of ‘not cared for’ in the middle of the nineteenth century. Unruly was formed as the opposite of ruly, an adjective from about 1400 meaning ‘law-abiding’. Then unruly meant ‘ungovernable’ or ‘disorderly’, whereas now it is ‘difficult to control’.

Ungainly came into use around 1600, and was derived from its opposite gainly. In 1300, gainly, not a common word, had meant ‘straight’ or ‘near’, but quickly took on a figurative sense when applied to people of ‘well-disposed’ or ‘kindly’, or ‘useful’ when applied to objects. Thus ungainly meant ‘awkward’ or ‘ungraceful’, but gainly fell out of use. Untoward was formed from a medieval sense of toward that was applied to young people of ‘promising’ or ‘moving forward’ (in ability), and it meant ‘stubborn’ or ‘disinclined’ (to work). It developed its modern meaning of ‘unseemly’ or ‘perverse’ from about 1630. The origin of a negative word is often therefore quite complex with the negative form sometimes coming to mean something quite different from its positive obsolete predecessor.

Sometimes because a prefixed word has come from another language, it only appears to be unpaired. In the case of dishevelled or dismayed, there never was shevelled or mayed, as the words come from the Old French deschevelé and desmaier. Similarlyinert has never had an opposite, ert, as the word comes from the Latin, ineptus, meaning ‘unsuited, absurd, foolish’.


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What does caziques, a Native American chieftain, and quixotry, meaning visionary schemes, have in common? And what has this to do with Alfred Butts? Well Alfred Butts was an inventor of a board game ……

alfred butts, inventor, lexiko, scrabble

Alfred Mosher Butts, inventor of Lexiko in 1931, the predecessor to Scrabble

Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect in Jackson Heights, New York, enjoyed chess, crosswords and word games. After he lost his job at Holden McLaughlin and Associates in 1931 during the Great Depression, he set out to design a word game that utilized both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles, a popular pastime of the 1920s. He studied the front page of The New York Times to calculate how frequently each letter of the alphabet was used so as to determine how many of each letter he would include in the game. He found that just 12 letters (E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L and U) accounted for 80% of the letters that are normally used. Although ‘S’ was a very common letter, he decided to only include four ‘S’ tiles to avoid making the game too easy by having too many plurals.

Butts called the game ‘Lexiko’. Players would draw nine lettered tiles from a pool of 100 tiles and then attempt to form words from their letters. It was initially played without a board. Scores were calculated according to the length of the words formed. The first players were Mr Butts, his wife, Nina, and their friends. Mrs Butts was better at the game than her inventor spouse, and he admitted that she ‘beat me at my own game,’ literally.

alfred butts, milton bradley, lexiko, parker brothers, scrabble

The rejection letter from Milton Bradley Co for Alfred Butts’ first game, Lexiko. Parker Brothers also rejected Lexiko. 56 years later, Milton Bradley purchased the North American rights to Scrabble.

In 1933 Butts unsuccessfully tried to register the trademark of his new board game, and he approached all the major games manufacturers, including Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, but they rejected the game. He changed the name to ‘IT’, then to ‘Criss Cross’, and in 1938, he changed it again to ‘Criss-Cross Words’. He added the 15×15 square gameboard, reduced the number of tiles held at time to seven, and changed squares to double or triple the value of the letter or word placed on them. Butts manufactured some 200 sets himself, $2 a set plus 25 cents for shipping, but again the games manufacturers were not interested. By then Butts was again employed as an architect and he put aside his efforts to develop the game, which was relegated to a novelty played by a handful of people.

In 1948, Butts sold the rights of his game to James Brunot, a Federal official and social worker, who had a friend who had bought one of Butts’ handmade sets. Butts, as the inventor, retained the patent rights of the game and earned royalties on each set sold. Brunot added the 50-point rule for playing all seven tiles at once, changed the colours on the board, and came up with the name Scrabble, a word meaning ‘to scrape or grope around frantically with your hands’ from the Dutch ‘schrabben’ to scrape or scratch.


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