Top 10 Blog Posts of 2018

I belatedly realised that I should have copied every other blogger in the universe and done one of these to finish off 2018! Oops!

This year was the year I really started trying to produce content for this blog, and I’d like to say thank you very much to everyone who’s come along for the ride!

(Note, I’m taking out things like my homepage and about me page … they don’t count)

So, in reverse order, here we go!



From a truly ambitious period when I was trying to post a word origin every single day comes one of my favourites – did I say favourites I mean BANE OF MY EXISTENCE – hay-fever. You seemed to like it too!



This post gives you 10 words that we still use today which descend from old Scandinavian words. I think my favourite is still ‘rotten’.



In which I touch upon the internationalism of the Anglo-Saxon world.



I’m not surprised this one made the list, as it was very popular on Facebook – thanks, I suspect, to my friend Helen who pointed out that it was basically where she lived.

I read this BBC article and thought I had to investigate a bit!



A summary of some place-names of Huntingdonshire which contain elements related to animals.

This is such a very random post to have been popular that I suspect it’s coming up on a Google search for something unexpected. Unfortunately you can’t see which search terms people use to reach you on Google.



Thank you to everyone who read any of my Christmas etymology series!

I’m told that the first post in a series being the most popular is a widespread blogging thing so I’ll try not to feel too much like lots of people didn’t like it enough to carry on …



Aw, thanks for the support, guys! Fourth most popular of the year was only posted in October! About my short story.


by the way

is no longer ‘upcoming’.

BUY IT HERE! Kindle price is only £4.55! Look at the paperback here:

Blog author stood in front of crammed bookshelf holding the anthology containing her published short story



Perhaps unsurprisingly, this blog post about ‘Viking surnames’ is very popular. McCloud? Rogers? Johnson? Check them out here!



A summary article about some Anglo-Saxon tree coffins (think tree sarcophagus) in which I theorised a little about ‘Death Orchards’.


And in a perfect tribute to the power of Google, the top post of 2018 is


Why is this tiny little post number one thanks to the power of Google? Well, because for some reason utterly unknown to me, if you enter “Old English numbers 1 to 10′ into Google, I’m not only on the first page of Google, but the second option! Wow!

(I mean, I know WHY it happened, because apparently that’s the nichest keyword in existence, but that doesn’t mean I can do it again so it’s functionally not helpful)

Thanks for a great 2018, everyone, and here’s to me doing better with regular content in 2019!

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2018

The Last of the Christmas Etymologies

Good afternoon all! Merry Christmas Eve! I hope you’ve all got more decorations up than we have. I have at least finished wrapping my presents …

Today’s words are going to be Father Christmas and Santa Claus, because, hey, he’s on his way! 

Father Christmas etymology

To initially break the word down, both Father and Christmas are from Old English (fæder and late Old English/early Middle English Cristes mæsse) though the ‘mass’ bit does originally come from Latin.

Father Christmas first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in a seventeenth century  Puritan text:

Honest Crier, I know thou knewest old Father Christmas; I am sent to thee from an honest scholler of cry Christmas, for they hear that he is gone from hence, and that we have lost the poor old man.

“father, n.”. OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 24, 2018).

He has a few appearances going as far back as the Tudor period as Old Christmas, Captain Christmas, Lord Christmas, King Christmas, etc.

The reason why the Puritans write about Father Christmas in 1646 is because they hated the whole celebration of Christmas, and attempted to stop it from happening. The personification of Christmas became a useful way to rail against ‘popery’ (Catholicism). In the text referenced, Father Christmas escapes from prison and the town crier says a lot of nasty things about him: you can read it here!

(And I’ve just had a brainwave that I’m way too lazy to research, was that why the sudden switch to ‘Father?’ To mock Catholic priests??)

Santa Claus Etymology

This comes from a dialect form of Dutch, Sante Klaas. (The standard Dutch form is Sint(er) Klaas, and a possible older Middle Dutch form is sinter clâes.)

This is related to St Nicholas, an early Christian bishop and saint from Turkey, who had his feast day on the 6th December. In the Netherlands and the surrounding area, it was a tradition for ‘St Nicholas’ to give presents to children on that day.

He appears in the New York Gazette in 1173:

1773   N.Y. Gaz. 26 Dec. 3/1   Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.

“Santa Claus, n.”. OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 24, 2018).

So, thanks America!

Thank you so much to everyone who has been reading this series – I’ve had 208 views and that makes me very happy indeed.

I wish you all an exceedingly merry Christmas!

The Last of the Christmas Etymologies

Twenty-Second Day of Christmas Etymologies!

Good afternoon, everyone!

I’ve returned from some frantic but successful panic-buying, and am largely writing this post to put off the actual wrapping. I wrap like a six-year-old.

So bearing that in mind what else could today’s word possibly be but:

Present(s): an etymology

This came into English with the Normans, from French présent ‘donation/gift’.

The first reference that the Oxford English Dictionary has it the early 13th century, from the same source as the holly reference I talked about earlier.

Well, that was short …

Yes it was … here’s a synonym for present to beef this entry up a little:

Gift: an etymology

There was a word ‘gift’ in Old English, but its meaning was exceedingly different!

It meant ‘payment for a wife’, and in its plural form it was translated as ‘wedding’.

Probably not the sort of thing you’re giving this Christmas!

(Christmas weddings do sound fun, though)

The way that we pronounce gift today suggest that our word doesn’t come directly from Old English, but instead come from the Old Norse version, which was identical in spelling but would have been pronounced differently.

Click here for more ‘Viking’ words which survive in English today

To be specific:



  • In Old English, ‘g’ next to ‘i’ would have been pronounced like our modern-day ‘y’ in ‘yep’. (It was pronounced with the familiar hard sound in other situations. There was also a third possible pronunciation fo ‘g’, which we don’t have in modern English. The Internalatiobal Phonetic alphabet uses this symbol for it: ɣ. Scottish Gaelic and Irish have this sound.)
  • In Old Norse, at the start of a word, ‘g’ was as we would recognise it today. (They changed the sound when ‘g’ wasn’t at the start of the word)

So that’s how we know our ‘gift’ is at least very heavily influenced by Scandinavian pronunciation.

The sense of ‘gift’ as in, ‘thing you give someone without bartering expectations’ first appears in writing in the early thirteenth century.

(I would argue with the ‘without expectations’ thing but then I have a whole rant about present-giving which I’ll probably subject someone to over Christmas)

Right then, I should at least go and sit in the same room as all these unwrapped presents. That’s step one, right?

Thank you so much for reading my blog series: the final post will be tomorrow!

(Bet you can guess what it’ll be …)

Twenty-Second Day of Christmas Etymologies!

Twenty-First Day of Christmas Etymologies!

Good evening all, and happy Saturday on what for many of us is the beginning of the Christmas holiday season!

Today’s word is mince pie!

Etymology of mince pie

‘Mince pie’ as in the thing we eat at Christmas first enters the written record at the start of the 17th century (for the record, that’s when James I was on the throne and one year before the Gunpowder Plot)

Despite what you might think, the origin of the type of mince pie you eat at Christmas is not just ‘mince’ + ‘pie’.

Instead, the mince element comes from ‘mincemeat’. This in turn is not ground meat of the sort you’d have in your spag bol, but is this:

“The mixture of currants, raisins, sugar, suet, apples, almonds, candied peel, spices, etc., and originally meat chopped small, typically baked in pastry …”

“mincemeat, n.”. OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 22, 2018).

As to how on earth mincemeat came to mean fruit, I’m not sure. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the ingredients were ‘minced’, that is, cut very finely???

Here’s a nice blog on mince pies from the English Heritage site! Their rationale is that there used to be meat in the mince pies alongside the fruit, right up until just over a hundred years ago.

However, BACK TO THE WORD HISTORY which I love so much …

Mincemeat does obviously come from ‘minced meat’. Sooo …

  • ‘Minced’ first appears as an adjective (a describing word) in the late 14th century. As a verb “to mince’, it’s a pretty straightforward loan from Old French/Norman as mincer, to cut up (food) into small pieces’.
  • Meat is a word of Germanic origin (so languages like German, Icelandic etc have related words), which in Old English was mæte. Originally it meant food of all types, not just animal flesh.

(‘Meat’ as we know it today was often called flesh, hence lines like in the carol Good King Wenceslas, “Bring me flesh and bring me wine.” Flesh was also an Old English word.)

Thank you for reading, everyone, and I’ll see you tomorrow, once I’ve finished frantically wrapping presents …

Twenty-First Day of Christmas Etymologies!

Twentieth Day of Christmas Etymologies

Evening all! Tonight we’ll be examining the origins of a certain type of vehicle very closely associated with Santa …

Etymology of Sleigh

This is the word with the latest entrance into English that we’ve looked at so far, I think!

Sleigh comes to us originally in the early 18th century from Dutch slee, as a shortening of slede ‘sled’. It used to be largely an American word, and I am assuming that it gained its popularity over here in the UK with the importing of Santa Claus. (I’ll be doing a post on Father Christmas/Santa Claus a bit closer to the day, just you wait!)

Sled/slead has been around since the fourteenth century, also coming from the Middle Dutch slede.

Sledge comes from the Dutch (potentially specifically Frisian) word sleedse, and is related slede like the others.

(A point on how you can’t trust what words look like how to tell you about their history: the sledge in sledgehammer comes from Old English slecg (so a completely different time and language.))

Just a quick post tonight! See you all tomorrow!

Twentieth Day of Christmas Etymologies

17th, 18th and 19th days of Christmas Etymologies

Today’s three-word (oops, sorry, I’m very behind) theme is the Nativity!

(See the entry for manger here)

Etymology of Shepherd

As you may have already predicted, this comes straight from Old English scéaphirde. That divides probably exactly as you would expect, scéap for ‘sheep’ and hirde for “herd”.

It is worth recognising that “herd” was a noun in its own right at that point, whereas these days we would need to pair it with another noun, e.g. herdsman to describe the general role.

Pretty simple!


The sense of shepherd as in a religious leader being the shepherd of their flocks started to be used from the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century. (In an attempt to give some context to the centuries, Edward I was on the throne at this time. Does that help?)

The similar but not identical sense of referring to God or Jesus as a shepherd first appears a bit further on through the fourteenth century (the king at this point was Edward III or Richard II, as in the Shakespeare play, depending on whether you take the exact manuscript date or want to assume it was in spoken use for a few years beforehand)

The feminine form shepherdess came about in the 15th century, and isn’t used today.

Sheepdog appears first as ‘shepherd’s dog’ in the fifteenth century and then as sheepdog in the late eighteenth century.

Etymology of Angel

Right, this is very fun but a fraction complicated in the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ll try to keep it simple.

Very, very simple: this was adopted into Old English from Latin.

More fun:

In the original Hebrew, the word was mal’āk-yĕhōwāh ‘ messenger of Jehovah’. This was shortened to mal’āk.

When the Greeks started writing the New Testament and translating what they then called the Old Testament, they adopted this word as ἄγγελ-ος, which I have attempted to transliterate as angelo (Rafaella if you’re reading this I’m sorry!)

Latin adapted this as angelus.

This was then borrowed from Latin into pretty much every Germanic language (I assume because the concept was so specific and so vital to writing down the Christian Bible). So in Old English we got ęngel, and in Old Norse engill. 

This would have originally been with a hard g, just like in ‘angle’! But that died away by the fourteenth century due to the soft ‘g’ influence in French.


Etymology of Ass

Am I sniggering slightly? Perhaps. But this definition will be about the donkey! I very much suspect that will be the original definition. Let’s find out.

Ooh, this is an interesting one too.

The Old English word for ass was assa. It is theorised that this came into OE via a Celtic language such as Irish, which borrowed it from the Latin asinus. Neither the English nor the Irish had much exposure to donkeys, they weren’t widespread at the time, so they didn’t have a clear native word.

Even the ‘original’ Latin asinus is thought to be a loanword which originated outside of Europe, as demonstrated by its appearance in lots of very old European languages (Indo-European to use the fancy term … I need to do a blog post on language families, don’t I?).

The sense of ass as ‘fool’ and other insults already existed in Latin (gotta love the Romans) and it did get used in this way in Middle English and possibly one or twice in Old English too. ‘To make an ass out of [you]’ came about in the sixteenth century

I started this post thinking, “Oh no, I have to catch up, oh this is so annoying,’ and ended it enthusiastically looking up the Sumerian cuneiform for ass. That’s a successful etymology night!




17th, 18th and 19th days of Christmas Etymologies

Sixteenth Day of Christmas Etymologies

Evening all! I’ve just written 11 Christmas cards so this won’t be a long post, but I will get a post out on the actual day it’s supposed to be out for once!!

Etymology: Holly

This comes from Old English holen. At the end of the 19th century when this Oxford English Dictionary entry was composed, there was still a directly descended form hollin in Scots.

(I don’t know if it’s still around today – do you?)

The more common shortened form first appeared in Middle English, in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century.

Rambling about historical changes

This is actually a very good example of how much English changed. Ok, so, this first entry is very early Middle English, from the early 13th century:

a1200)    Ancrene Riwle (Nero) (1952) 191   Ne mid holie [?c1225 Cleo. holine]. ne mid breres. nene biblodge hire sulf.
I’ll tell you now, I have no idea what that means. Not with holly, not with berries … something themselves???
Oops, I googled because I can’t live without knowing the answer. It’s from a guide for female anchorites, a type of religious lifestyle which clearly attracted intense people:
[she should not beat herself] with holly or with brambles, or draw [her own] blood
That’s a loose interpretation of the translation you can find here on page 158.
(Dammit I should have been able to figure out brambles – doesn’t breres look a lot like briars????)
Whereas this next one is from the 15th century:
1470–85   Malory Morte d’Arthur iv. xxvi   He sawe hym sytte vnder a tree of hoolly.
Much better! You just need to adjust the spelling and it’s basically fine.

Today in “Strange Things the OED Has Taught Me”:

in 18th century Kent there was a Holly Boy and Ivy Girl who were burnt on Shrove Tuesday.

The girls (aged 5 to 18) burnt the Boy and the boys burnt the Girl, and apparently they were stolen from each other??

There’s very little around about it that I can find other than a lot of references back to the original 1779 source, sadly.

Well, I always enjoy looking at the way English changes – hope no-one fell asleep! Thank you for reading, and I’ll see tomorrow!


Sixteenth Day of Christmas Etymologies