The Creative Exploration of Language

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Naughty is a word that I have used for years in a silly way, almost always spoken to one of my children when admonishing them for something mildly bad they have said or done.  This usage and meaning are widely understood, but an interesting question arose as I thought about this word recently: why exactly does naughty mean “bad”?

No answer came to me immediately and I didn’t bother to pursue one, but I let the question sit in my subconscious for a few weeks.  Then, one day, I had a flash of insight that allowed me to connect naughty to naught, as in the phrase come to naught, or there’s naught else I can do.  Making this connection made me realize that the root of naughty is an archaic word for “nothing”.

This sent me running for dictionaries and websites in order to understand where naught comes from.  What I found was that naught derives from the Old English word nawiht, where na means “no” and wiht means “thing”.

From this perspective then, to be naughty is to act in a way that is not constructive, that is likely to lead to nothing.  This sense of non-constructiveness seems to be the root of the moralistic tone the word has taken on, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Protestant Work Ethic, which was particularly strong in England.  It is interesting to note that most other European languages (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not maintain this connection, by which I mean that the common way of rendering naughty in these languages has no connection to the concept of “nothing”.

This moral angle would also explain how the word has come to be used as a humorous descriptor of (often “illegitimate”) sexual behavior.

In the end, I think I find naughty to be such an interesting word because it hides in plain sight, while remaining flexible enough to change with the times and be used in various ways.


Horn is a deceptively simple word.  As a noun, it refers to a hard protuberance that sticks out from the head of certain animals.  It also refers to a class of instruments played by blowing, which were originally made from animal horns.  From a third perspective, horn refers to a device installed in your car that is used to make loud warning sound.  This meaning, like that of the musical instrument, comes from the fact that loud warning sounds were originally created by blowing into an animal horn.

As a verb, the ancient connection of horns with cuckoldry survives in the modern phrase “to horn in on,” which is used to describe the act of taking possession of something that belongs to someone else.  This sexual connotation is also present in the adjectival form horny.

While certainly divergent, one can see how they are connected and how they likely developed without too much effort.  What got me thinking about this word, however, was a different usage that seemed not to fit with others: the baseball phrase “around the horn”.  For those not familiar with the phrase, following an infield out or strikeout, the defensive players on the field customarily throw the baseball to each of their infield teammates at the various stations of the infield diamond before tossing it back to the pitcher to face the next batter.  The more I thought about this phrase, the more I wondered why the infield diamond should be referred to as a horn.

Around the same time that I had begun thinking about horn and its various uses, I stumbled across the fact that the word for corner in the Scandinavian languages was some variation on horn (horn in Icelandic, hjørne in Danish and Norwegian and hörn in Swedish).  Initially, this seemed like a strange coincidence, but then I recalled that Germanic languages generally have an “h” in place of a “c” in Latin and its daughter languages.  For instance, the English word hundred (honderd in Dutch, hundert in German, etc.) comes from the same root as the Latin centum.  Similarly, the Latin canis and the English hound (hund in German and Scandinavian, hond in Dutch and Afrikaans) spring from the same root.  In each of the examples above, the Germanic “h” is a “c” in Latin and the Romance languages.

The word corner entered English through French (corne) and is ultimately derived from the Latin cornu.  It replaced the native English term hyrne, which was cognate with its Germanic cousins.  Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the use of the word horn in the phrase “around the horn” might simply be a survival of an archaic term and was simply another way to say “around the corner”.

At first, this seemed a bit unlikely, as hundreds of years lay between the adoption of the word corner into the English language and the invention of the game of baseball.  However, as I researched additional uses of the word horn, I came across it as a geographical term in reference to two specific locations: the Horn of Africa and Cape Horn in South America.  In both cases, the usage of the word horn fits with its archaic meaning of a corner, or a place where two sides come together and meet in a point.

The final twist in the saga of horn is that, in the case of Cape Horn, the name seems to be a coincidence.  The southern tip of South America was rounded and named by Dutch sea captain Willem Corneliszoon Schouten in 1616 and named Kaap Hoorn, after his hometown of Hoorn back in the Netherlands.  However, in a truly wonderful piece of synchronicity, the medieval history of the city of Hoorn indicates that it was so named because it stuck out into the waters of the Zuiderzee, and this despite the common word in Dutch for corner being hoek.

In the end, it seems that my initial hunch was correct and that a commonplace phrase used on a daily basis in American sports vernacular hides an interesting and complex medieval linguistic survival.


Glimpse has a beautiful ring to it which stems, I think, from the fact that it is both simple and complex at the same time.  It is simple in the sense that it is a monosyllabic word with a commonly accepted definition (something like “a quick look”) that is used with reasonable frequency.  On the other hand, it is complex because it contains the relatively unusual but aesthetically pleasing consonant cluster “mps” and because its exotic construction seems to offer the promise of deeper meaning.  After all, if glimpse simply means to have “a quick look”, then why do we have also have glance?

The answer is found quickly once one investigates the origins of glimpse.  It comes ultimately from the Old English word glimsian, which meant “to shine faintly”.  In Middle English, this became glimsen and meant “to glow” or “to glimmer”.  So, from an etymological standpoint, glimpse clearly has a connection to seeing something that is both difficult to see and also something that stands out from its surroundings, usually through emitting light.  This is an interesting paradox and seems to limit the number of things that might become the subject of a glimpse.

The connotation of “quickness” that sometimes causes glimpse to be confused with glance is somewhat misleading and is a secondary characteristic that stems from a structural source: something that is difficult to see is likely to be seen only briefly.

Once this clarification between glimpse and glance is made, some interesting observations result, such as the dichotomy between the words in terms of being passive versus aggressive.  To glance at something is an active effort which is controlled by the glancer and which often, but not always contains a hint of disdain which is the natural byproduct of the active nature of the glance.  What I mean is that if one controls the length and intensity of one’s gaze, then it follows that, by choosing to give something only a quick, cursory look, one is indicating that the item or person being observed is trivial or merely utilitarian.

A glimpse, on the other hand, is passive.  Something glimpsed is something that is revealed to the observer, and is often something that is subtle, incomplete or incongruous.  The true power of glimpse is that it implies a mystery, an incomplete view that promises more and entices the observer to try to see the whole that is hidden.

While a glance might tell you how much your dinner cost or which person in your subway car is speaking too loudly on their cellphone, a glimpse is often the catalyst for an adventure.


I never believed that shambolic was a real word until I looked it up.  While the word is clearly related to shambles, its limited and specific use, along with its non-standard feel, give it an air of unreality.  In fact, I had only ever come across the word in one particular context, as a derogotary description of a British football team’s defending (e.g., Liverpool’s defending has been absolutely shambolic!).

Despite its unfamiliarity, its relationship to shambles and the context in which I had heard it being used made its meaning as something that is a ‘mess’ very clear.  However, the arcane nature of shambolic indicates that something described as such is not just any mess, but something truly disastrous.  This led me to question what type of special mess could be meant by the use of shambolic or, for that matter, shambles.

As it turns out, shambolic has a long and interesting history that provides a surprising answer to that question.  It comes down to us in its present form from the Old English word sceamel, which itself derives from the Latin term scamnum, meaning ‘bench’.  As the word developed in English into shambles, it took on the connotation of a butcher’s bench, the bench on which butchers did their messy work.

Over time, the specific connotation of a butcher’s bench became the dominant one and shambles became a synonym for a butcher’s shop or even a slaughterhouse; in other words, a literal bloody mess.  Eventually, the literal level of meaning was lost and it is tempting to see the ‘bloody’ aspect as fading into the figurative, which, in my opinion, causes the word to lose some of its inherent power.

So, the next time you hear a British football commentator (or anyone else) describe a team’s defending as shambolic, don’t just think of their back four as being a bit disorganized, think of it as a bloody, gory mess.


I have always seen perdition as a poetic and romantic word, as if I instincually understood that it was a word which has two levels of meaning, both of which are interesting.  The word is a variation on the Old French perdiciun, derived from the Latin perditionem, which means “destruction” or “ruin”.  However, perdition carries with it special connotations that are intriguing.

The first meaning of perdition is the simplistic, religious one, where it acts as a synonym for “hell”.  While I have less affection for this meaning because in this context it is simply replacing an English word, I still can’t help but be somewhat taken in by the borrowed glamour of its more figurative and poetic meaning as a state of total and hopeless ruination.  What I find so compelling about the word is that the condition implied is ongoing, as if one is beyond hope or help, forever lost.  It is easy to see why the word became associated, presumably in medieval or early modern times, with the Christian concept of hell, a place of eternal suffering.

A further layer of meaning is uncovered if one looks further into the Latin perditio.  As it turns out, it derives from the base verb perdere.  When one breaks down the parts of the Latin root perditio, which are per-, which means “away”, and –dare, which means “to give” or “to put”, a sense of culpability, of wastefulness, is attached to the word.

Perdition can then be understood as a state of ongoing and utter ruination brought upon oneself by poor choices and it works equally well in religious and secular terms.  I think that the word would be even more interesting if used in contexts that highlight or reveal this sense.


The word bashful came to mind recently and I realized that, while I understood its meaning, I didn’t understand how the meaning was arrived at.  In short, I realized that I had no idea what “bash” meant.

When I looked into it, I was surprised to find that “bash” actually comes from a French root, “abaissier”, which means “to humiliate” or “to bring low”.  In this case, the word seems to have been adopted into English and altered to sound, and be used, like an English word.

The meaning has changed slightly in English to mean shy or timid rather than humiliated.  Bashful, then, means to be full of shyness.  What I find interesting is the way that the French word was absorbed and modified until it reached a point where it looks and sounds like a native English word.  This seems not to be the case very often.

For instance, a word like office is incongruous because it involves pronouncing the letter “c” in a way that is not natural in English.  In other words, office is obviously a foreign loan word, while bashful masquerades successfully as a Anglo-Saxon.


Sound is an interesting word because, despite its relative simplicity, it carries a number of extremely divergent meanings.  As is often the case with English homonyms, this is due to words entering the language from other languages with which it came into contact.  In the case of sound, this would be Norman French and Old Norse.

When considering sound in a modern context, three potential meanings quickly come to mind.  The first, and native English, meaning is to be whole or healthy.  The word is still used in this context relatively often (e.g., in phrases like of sound mind) and in phrases relating to inanimate objects (e.g., determining that a set of stairs is sound.).  As might be expected, there are strong cognates in German (gesund, Gesundheit) and Dutch (gezond, gezondheid).

The second meaning that comes to mind easily is something that is heard.  This meaning came into English via French (son), itself derived from the Latin sonus, which both carry this meaning.  The word morphed in Middle English into soun and from there seems to have been modified further into a more familiar form by adding a ‘d’.  In this case the equivalent terms in German and Dutch (klingen and klink, respectively) do still have a cognate in English, which is clinkClink, however, also seems to have been borrowed from Dutch and refers in English to a specific type of sound and not sound in general.

The third meaning of sound that comes to mind immediately is of a narrow body of water, either between two landmasses or between an island and the mainland.  Two well known examples from the United States are Puget Sound and Long Island Sound.  This meaning comes from the Old Norse word sund, which was used to describe just such a body of water.  The same word also exists in Old English, but seems to be indirectly related, as it holds a meaning related to swimming.  As with the Latin-derived term described above, there seems to have been an effort to make the word conform to comfortable patterns by changing the spelling and pronunciation, in this case by adding a vowel.

English is perhaps uniquely susceptible to these types of overlaps and inconsistencies due to the amount of borrowing that has gone on from other languages over the centuries.  However, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that, unlike other languages such as French, German and Afrikaans to name a few, there is no board or commission designated to oversee the language and institute rational reform or even consistency within the language.

As a native English speaker, I recall being baffled as a child at English spelling conventions such as pronouncing “laugh” as “laf” and I have always marvelled at the ability of people around the world to learn what to me seems to be a largely non-sensical and capriciously structured language.  Having spent a considerable amount of time studying other languages, I find that it is hugely helpful to have reliable rules and phonetic spelling applied to a language and I believe English could benefit greatly from this.


Dependent is a common word that is generally understood and one that is well established in English, as evidenced by its many uses and variations.  It is most frequently used in one of two ways, either as a noun (e.g., such as when noting how many dependents one has on a form), or as an adjective (e.g., X is dependent on Y).

Dependent comes to us, as do so many words in Modern English, from Latin (dēpendēntem), via French (dépendant) and is made up of two main elements: de- meaning “from” and -pendent referring to something that hangs.  So, dependent means something that hangs off (or “hangs on”) something else.

I know that many view the different registers available in English (Romance vs. Germanic in everyday speech, and Latin in academic and professional situations), as a strength, but I cannot help but see it as a fundamental weakness.

The reason for this is that when we use a word like dependent, very few of us can assign any meaning or context to the word outside of the rote memorization of its definition, since its separate parts mean nothing in and of themselves to the average English speaker.  For this reason, the word lacks depth, much like a cardboard cutout when compared to an actual person.

Contrast this situation with other Germanic languages and the difference is starkly apparent.  In German, Afrikaans, Dutch and Norwegian, the words for dependent are abhängig, afhanklik, afhankelijk and avhengig, respectively.  Based on a review of this list, it is relatively easy to reconstruct likely Modern English cognates, such as offhanger (noun) and offhanging (adjective).  While these words might seem new or even made up to modern ears, they do clearly communicate the idea being expressed in a simple manner.

They achieve this clarity because they are made up of two commonly used and understood English words.  This instant familiarity and understanding imbues the word with a sense of depth, nuance and poetry that is born from the associations the speaker or reader brings to the word parts.

So, should one reconstruct new words based on words commonly used in Modern English?

My answer to this question would be: yes and no.  In many cases, new words don’t have to be created, because there are already extant words from Old English that have the same meaning but have been superseded by Romance or Latin terms.  In other cases, if a word simply did not exist in an older version of English or is not attested, a new term should be constructed based on solid linguistic foundations and research.

In the case of dependent, there is an Old English word, gelang, that was used in adjectival situations, but as the meaning of this term is less clear to a Modern English speaker,  would support the reconstruction noted above that sticks close to the pattern of the other Germanic cognates.

While many would scoff at such efforts, I believe that we as writers and lovers of the English language, and language in general, are fully justified and even obligated to explore the possibilities offered by this process.


One can often make speculative but very interesting assumptions about the relationships between words within the same language or language family based on similarities in the sound and placement of consonants.  The reason consonant sounds are the key is that they tend to remain relatively static over time and to change their pronunciation less between different dialects and languages than do vowel sounds, which change with every regional accent one encounters.

As an example of the relative stability of consonants, consider Germanic cognates for the English word house: haus in German, huis in Dutch and Afrikaans and hus in the Scandinavian languages.  All of these words demonstrate the foundational elements of an initial ‘h’ and final ‘s’ with a vowel or diphthong in the middle.  There are many such examples, and I won’t belabor the issue further other than to point out that these relationships are not always obvious due to changes in the way consonants and consonant clusters are treated as languages evolve over time.

I got onto this line of thinking when I encountered the word donker, which means ‘dark’ in both Dutch and Afrikaans.  From here, it was an easy leap to connect this word to its German cousin dunkel, which has the same meaning.  There seemed to me to be a pattern in Germanic languages in which words for ‘dark’ were anchored by an initial ‘d’ sound and an ‘nk’ cluster.  So far, so good.

However, when I attempted to complete the transfer into English, I encountered an obstacle, in that ‘dark’ does not follow this pattern.  It has an initial ‘d’, but rather than having an ‘nk’ consonant cluster, it has ‘rk’.

After doing some research, I established that ‘dark’ evolved from a different root word, Old English deorc, which was a more metaphorical term that had the connotation of being hidden or obscure.  As it turns out, the English word that fits the overall Germanic pattern best is ‘dank’.

‘Dank’ is interesting in this context because it carries with it not only a connotation of being dark, but also of being wet and, for that matter, cold.  Next, I searched for other Germanic cognates that might line up more closely with “dank’ and found one in the first place I looked: the Old Norse word dökk, which is an adjective meaning ‘dark’ and is used in many compound expressions such as dökk-hárr (‘dark hair’)However, as a noun, it had the meaning of ‘pool’ or  ‘water hole’, which ties the two concepts of darkness and wetness together.

From an auditory perspecitve, the reason that dökk can be considered to be cognate with ‘dank’ is that in Old Norse (and in modern Scandinavian languages) the ‘n’ sound before the ‘ngk’ consonant cluster has been lost.  As an example, the English word ‘drink’ translates into modern Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish as drekka, drikke and dricka, respectively.

This now brings us to an interesting point in that the question of what the connection is between darkness and water seems to be relevant.    As I have indicated in other posts, I have noticed a tendency for the root meanings of works to hark back to primordial conceptions that often have much in common with religious or esoteric ideas.

In this case, the primordial esoteric concept being evoked is that of ‘the waters’, which are a symbol of potential, reflecting the ancient conception (and echoed in modern scientific explanations of life) that all thing arise from water.

Darkness and water therefore represent, in a deep linguistic sense, the concept of potential (viewed positively) or chaos (viewed negatively).  In both cases, principle acts to obscure or hide things that are under development; out of water comes life and out of darkness comes light.


The word tarnation popped into my head the other day and I realized that I had no idea what it meant.  I had always had the sense that it was some type of Americanism and, like many Americanisms, that it was also a euphemism.  Beyond those vague impressions, I had never thought much about the word since the last time I had heard it from the mouth of Yosemite Sam many years ago.

I can’t recall what brought it to my mind now, but as I looked into it, I found that there are two competing theories in relation to where the word comes from.  The first is that it is simply a variant version of ‘darnation’, an American euphemism for ‘damnation’.

The second theory is that it is actually a combination of two words that make up a euphemistic phrase.  The original phrase was ‘eternal damnation’, which, in some 19th Century American accents, could be pronounced as ‘etarnal damnation’.  From here, the words were simply combined into a new word, ‘tarnation’, which combined elements from both words in the phrase.  This process is reminiscent of the one which formed the Elizabethan euphemism ‘zounds’, which was a somewhat tortuous combination of ‘God’s wounds’.

Whichever theory is correct, both methods are interesting and represent potentially fruitful areas to explore for modern language lovers, whether they are writers or not.  New terms and modifications such as those that produced the word ‘tarnation’ are valid linguistic expressions, though, as with other creative uses of language, I believe that the writer bears the responsibility to ensure that any new words created proceed from legitimate antecedents and are not simply created ex nihilo.