budget /ˈbʌdʒɪt/

Most of us spend a fair amount of our lives trying to make money so that we can do the things we want to do. The juggling of income and expenditure is typically referred to as a budget. The concept behind working to a budget is stunningly simple and was expressed very well by the Mr. Micawber, a character for the Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, where he says;

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

Economists and politicians will spend lots of time trying to make this sound complicated – especially since the former want you to pay them for their services and the latter want you to vote them into power. But so long as what you spend is less than what you earn, you’re good to go. Sure you can borrow money, which feels like extra income, but of course, it isn’t income because you have to pay it back.



So when governments make budgets, all they are doing is telling us all how they intend to use taxes (government income) to keep the country running (government expenditure). In the US, when the opposition parties can’t agree on budgets, it can lead to a shutdown – as happened on 1st October, 2013. And if a government overspends its budget, then they run the risk of losing the next election.

The word budget wasn’t originally anything to do with balancing income and expenditure and it made its way into English via the French bougette, which in turn was a diminutive of the word bouge – a leather bag. It’s transfer to the meaning we all use today came from British parliamentary procedure back in the early 18th century when the Chancellor of the Exchequer would submit a financial plan for the next few years to the members of the House of Commons. He would carry his notes in a small leather bag, the budget, and then “open the budget” to read his statement. In 1771, Horace Walpole wrote in his Memories of George II that;

The time was now come for opening the budget, when it was incumbent on him to state the finances, debts, and calls of Government.

Going back in time a little further, we find that the word budget also referred generally to the contents of a purse or bag. So in 1597, Thomas Morley wrote in his A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke that, “You shall have the hardest in all my budget.” And seeing as how a bundle of papers could easily be carried inside a purse, the word became used to refer to newspaper print for periodicals such as The Pall Mall Budget or the Young Folk’s Weekly Budget. This is similar to how we use words such as gazette, record, or chronicle in the names of other newspapers.

The Old French bouge (or sometimes boulge, buche, or buge) can be traced back to the Latin bulga, a leather bag – or even the womb! Note that in Old Irish we also find the words bolg and bolc being used to refer to a leather sack or bag. The word bulge for a protuberance or lump comes from the same root.

Its move to taking on verb characteristics was first noted at the beginning of the 17th century. In the sense of “to draw up or create a budget,” John Taylor wrote in Works (1618) that, “We eate a substantiall dinner, & like miserable Guests we did budget vp the reuersions.” By the 19th century, it was happily being used in the same verb sense as it is today.

It’s also worth noting that up until the late 19th century, the phrase “open one’s budget” was used to mean “speak one’s mind.” In Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (1847) she wrote;

There’s Matilda..and I must go and open my budget to her.

Related to this sadly obsolete phrase was its similarly defunct counterpart, mumbudget, which means “to keep silent.” Here the addition of mum (to stay silent) creates an opposite of the word budget. It’s a great word and worthy of resurrection!

scholium /’skəʊlɪəm/

As I’ve mentioned many posts ago, one of my favorite ways to waste time is to do crosswords. Earlier this week, a clue from The Daily Telegraph Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords 16 was as follows:

                           Much oil’s used – explanatory note required (8)

It’s a pretty standard cryptic clue with the word “used” suggesting the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” – and the fact that it’s an 8-letter word is another giveaway. So, the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” and it’s “an explanatory note.” Now, given that some of the letters were already in place as “S_H_L_U_” my best guess was scholium – but this was a new word to me so although it fit, I couldn’t be happy until I found out what it meant.

Picture of crossword puzzle

Crossword: Creative Commons license, Mark Sunter

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

An explanatory note or comment; spec. an ancient exegetical note or comment upon a passage in a Greek or Latin author.

The first cited example is from a 1535 tract by George Joye entitled An apology made to satisfy, if it may be, W. TIndale, where we find “And when I shulde make scholias, notis, and gloses in the margent as himself and his master doith.” In Medieval Latin, a singular note would be a scholium and more than one would be scholia, so it looks like Joye was an early adopter of using the “s” plural for Latin words – a step toward modern English.

Scholium can be traced further back to the Greek scholion (σχόλιον ) that comes from the word scholi (σχολή ) meaning “school.” If we take a look at Liddell and Scott’s classic A Greek-English Lexicon,[1] we find it defined as an “interpretation,” “comment,” or “short note.” Interestingly, another meaning mentioned is as “a tedious speech or lecture” – something I’m sure Classics students have been able to leverage with their teachers for many years.

The word also has a more restricted usage in the field of mathematics to refer to a note added by the actual author to illustrate or further develop a specific point. This meaning pops up in 1704 but hardly becomes a frequently used word.

And speaking of frequency, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a measly seven examples from its 450 million word sample, and of those, four refer to something called The Scholium Project, a wine-making project that began in 1999, and the other three were comments on an essay by Isaac Newton, his General Scholium, which became an appendix to his Principia or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The plural scholia fairs no better with only five examples, all from fiction books.

You might expect that such an academic word would be more likely to be found in the British National Corpus, created in the home of crusty Classicists, Oxbridge dons, and Civil Service mandarins schooled in Greek and Latin. Alas, out of 100 million words, scholium only manages one example and scholia only two.

In short, it’s a very, very low frequency word and possible found more in cryptic crossword books than actual written texts!

[1] Although I have a copy of Liddell and Scott sitting on the bookshelf, I often use the Perseus Search tools at Tufts University. The search page (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/search) let’s you search for Greek words and includes Liddell and Scott. Well worth bookmarking and very useful for looking for examples of Greek words in a number of classical texts.

Almost six years ago, the UK’s The Guardian newspaper contained a short article by feature writer Jon Henley – not to be confused with the drummer, and later solo artist, from The Eagles, Don Henley. Entitled A glossary of US military torture euphemisms, it present a short list of words and phrases used by government agencies to talk about things that they really don’t want to talk about. Where most people would define “taking someone by force and holding them against their will” as kidnapping, the military would describe this as special renditions – well, as long as it’s our folks who are doing the rendering! And when “enemy combatants” are subjected to water-boarding or sleep deprivation, this is not torture but enhanced coercive interrogation techniques. “Torture” is what Johnny Foreigner does to our chaps, not what we do to theirs.

UK's The Guardian

UK’s The Guardian

Euphemism, from the Greek euphemos (εὔϕημος) meaning “speak well” or “fair of speech,” is a standard tool in politics, and something that George Orwell excoriated in his classic 1946 article, Politics and the English Language, describing it as using language in”the defense of the indefensible.” It’s also a social tool that allows us to talk about sensitive or shocking topics without actually using words that offend our sensibilities or shock. People don’t die, they pass on; they aren’t sacked, they’re let go; they’re not drunk just a little worse for wear; and they are not lying just being economical with the truth.

The general aim of euphemism is to “soften the blow.” Euphemism implicitly recognizes that words are not just a cluster of sounds that transmit meanings but that they can also be carriers of significant emotional content. Shit, crap, dung, poop, and feces are all the same thing – but you wouldn’t use them all with your granny or a Sunday school teacher [1].

Peculation is a word that should be used more as a euphemism but hasn’t really caught on. It’s defined as;

The appropriation of money or property held in trust for another by a servant, employee, or official; esp. the embezzlement of public funds belonging to a ruler, state, or government.

To all intents and purposes, it is really a more polite and less emotionally laden way of saying embezzlement.


The word made an appearance in 1658 as an entry in a dictionary written by Edward Phillips, defined as; “a robbing of the Prince or Common-wealth.” It appears to have then been used on and off during the 18th and 19th centuries but was much rarer in the 20th. It’s use in the UK’s Daily Telegraph in the phrase;

It would no longer tolerate a form of politics that favoured politicians above people and peculation above principles

seems to be more of a nod toward alliteration than any serious attempt to revive the word.

We can trace it back to post-classical Latin peculatio, the embezzlement of money or property, which in turn comes from classical Latin peculari meaning “to rob or defraud.” Earlier than this was peculium, used to refer to both money and private property. This same root (peculium) is also the origin of the words peculiar, which is an adjective used to describe something “distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others” or “special, remarkable, or distinctive.” The sense is that of a quality that is private to an individual.

Although peculation appeared as a noun in 1658, the word peculator was around two years earlier in 1656, as an entry in the first edition of Thomas Blount’s Glossographia; or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin… as are now used in our refined English tongue. By the early 18th century it had slipped on its verbal slippers to appear as to peculate, followed by wearing its adjectival cloaks of peculative (1779) and peculant (1853).

Sadly it’s now more likely to turn up in a spelling bee more than the pages of a newspaper, magazine, book, or web page – unless the web page is talking about the etymology of the word! The mighty Corpus of Contemporary American English has 5 examples from its 450 million word database, and even the mind-bogglingly huge 1.9 billion word sample of the Corpus of Web-based Global English (GloWbE) only turns up 31 instances.

Slim pickings indeed.

[1] I know that someone reading this will probably have a granny who swears like the proverbial trooper and can use more profanities than the Urban Dictionary can keep up with. However, the point is that we not only choose our words to convey a specific meaning but that we may choose different but similar words based on the context in which we expect to be saying them.

zany /ˈzeɪnɪ/

Sometime last week, I was doing a crossword where one of the answers was zany. The clue was along the lines of “Back from Arizona to the Big Apple the crazy way.” For those who don’t typically do cryptic crosswords – a staple for any cruciverbalist from the UK – the “back from Arizona” gives you the ZA elements (the abbreviation for Arizona backwards), the “Big Apple” gives you NY, and the “crazy” is the clue itself – the meaning of the word zany.

On reflection, it seemed to me a little old-fashioned, and not a word I recall using or seeing for many years. If anything, my recollection would be in relation to ads for “zany” American TV shows or movies. And I say “American” because classic Brit comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Benny Hill show, even The Young Ones, were never, to my recollection, labeled “zany” – more likely “crazy,” “loony” or perhaps “surreal.”

According to the Corpus of Historical American  (COHA), my go-to source for questions about word use over time, the word seems to have made its appearance in the 1930′s, peaked in the 70′s, and is now on a slow decline.

Zany over time

Zany over time

As to its origins, it’s a relatively recent word from the 16th century where it was used to refer to;

…a comic performer attending on a clown, acrobat, or mountebank, who imitates his master’s acts in a ludicrously awkward way; a clown’s or mountebank’s assistant, a merry-andrew, jack-pudding; sometimes used vaguely for a professional jester or buffoon in general.

Resisting the temptation to go off and explore the delightfully intriguing – and clearly underused – Jack-Pudding, the reason the word applies to a comic performer is that it refers to the name of characters in a form of Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte. In its day, which is the 16th century, it was the Improv comedy of the age. Actors wearing masks would give improvised performances, and the clown characters would be called zanis or zannis, which in turn comes from the Italian Gianni meaning “John.” From this, it was just a small step to switch the word from a noun to an adjective that could be used to describe someone behaving like a “zani.”

Picture of a clown


This use of the word – as an adjective – is now the dominant one. In fact, it’s so dominant that most people don’t even know that it was originally a noun and are surprised to discover its origin. The single reference to zany in the COHA chart above in 1840 is as a noun from Herman Melville’s Mardi and a Voyage Thither, where he writes, “Azzageddi, you are a zany!”

Between 1870 and 1890, the COHA examples similarly have it as a noun, but by 1940, we see a mix of examples of the word as both noun and adjective, and by 1960 it is almost exclusively used as the adjective.

The flip has happened.

Either Life has been incredibly busy of late or I have been terribly lazy (idle, indolent, slothful, lurdan, recrayed [1]) because I just discovered that my last post was over a month ago, which is a sorry state of affairs when I’d always planned for weekly updates. I mean, how hard can it be to write something once a week? Well, apparently harder than I thought!

I was mortified! How could so many weeks slip past without me noticing? It’s bad enough that I’m plagued with the notion that I’m getting closer to being dead but to find that my tumbling towards becoming a footnote in the Great Dictionary in the Sky is accelerating just pumps up my existential angst to a new and frightening level.

Of course, when I say I am mortified, I am using the word in its most recent and common sense; deeply humiliated and embarrassed. Jonathan Swift used the word in this sense in his A Tale of the Tub (1710) where he says, “I have been told, Sir W. T. was sufficiently mortify’d at the Term.”

Jonathan Swift: when center partings were in

Jonathan Swift: when center partings were in

Prior to this sense, in the 15th century it was used to mean “affected by gangrene or necrosis” and this connotation was also around when Swift was writing, as we can see in Danial Defoe’s story, Captain Singleton (1720)  in the sentence, “He cut off a great deal of mortified Flesh.” Fortunately for all of us, we turn realities into metaphor but not the other way around.

The OED defines its original adjectival use as being related to the body;

Of persons, or their actions, occupations, intentions, etc.: dead to sin or worldly desires; having the appetites and passions in subjection; prompted by a spirit of religious self-mortification; ascetic, unworldly.

The verb form, mortify, existed prior to this in the 14th century and meant to deprive of life, to kill, put to death, or to render insensible. It derives from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word, mortifier, which means “to cause to die.” The use of the verb as meaning “to cause embarrassment” can also be tracked to the 16th century – about a century before Swift’s use of it as an adjective. Mind you, just because we may not see a word in print doesn’t mean it isn’t being used orally, so the adjective form of the word will have existed much earlier than 1720.

We can track the word back to the post-classical Latin mortificare, to deprive of life, which in turn derives from the classical Latin mors meaning death. Digging even deeper we can hypothesize that mors has the same Indo-European root as morth, which means murder. And murder being pretty much a common feature of humanity, it’s not surprising that it pops up slightly modified in different languages e.g. Ancient Greek βροτός and Sanskrit mṛtyu. Russian morit means “to exterminate” and a previously covered word, moribund, comes from the same root.

Mortified has also been used in the past as a cookery term to refer to the process of tenderizing meat by hanging it up. Fynes Moryson (1566-1630), a Cambridge Fellow, spent four years traveling around Europe to gather information about the customs and mores of the different countries he visited, which resulted in a three-volume social commentary with the splendid title of An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Turkey, France, England, Scotland and Ireland. In this, he makes the comment that, “The French alone delight in mortified meates.”

This connotation of the word is clearly not around today in our food-obsessed Western culture, where celebrity chefs are feted and lauded as something more than what they really are – cooks with an attitude [2]. Still, it’s probably only a matter of time before some pretentious food snob decides to add “mortified pork” to the menu.

The other big use of mortified is in connection with religious ritual, where mortification is;

The action of mortifying the body, its appetites, etc.; the subjection or bringing under control of one’s appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, esp. by the self-infliction or voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort.

Any religion worth its salt has to include some element of mortification or else it runs the risk of being seen as “soft.” Hair shirts, self-flogging, lopping off body parts, and fasting are some of the ways used to “kill off” bodily desires, all of which are wicked, evil, sinful, or simply wrong in the eyes of a religious body. As H.L. Mencken has so famously said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I’d be so bold as to suggest that the more fundamentalist a religion is, the greater its use of mortification.

Image copyright of the Walters Art  Museum under a Creative Commons license

St. Jerome feeling mortified

And as a final note, if you’re one of those people who thinks their mortgage is a “dead weight,” you are closer to the etymological truth than you know! The gage element of mortgage means “a pledge,” so your mortgage could be called a “death pledge” – although not with the meaning that “I’ll be paying this damned thing until I die.” The “death” element comes from the idea that when you take out a loan to pay for something, the loan becomes “dead” to the creditor when it’s paid off in full. Otherwise, if you fail to pay it off, it the thing you bought becomes the property of the creditor and so becomes “dead” to you.

[1]  indolent (1710), slothful (1400), recrayed (1340), lurdan (1330), idle (825).

[2] The elevation of cooks to the level of superstars is, for me, a wonderful example of the absurdity of life, where millions of people in the world are starving while others spend the GDP of a small country to eat a tiny plate of meat and vegetables given a fancy name by some self-important, self-obsessed, pan-wielding snob, whose only skill is to make a potato taste slightly better than some other cook’s spud, which is of zero relevance to a starving family who would be happy to eat the damn thing raw and covered in shit just to stay alive. Politics over.

irruption /ɪˈrʌpʃən/

One of my favorite classic guitar solos from the 70′s has to be Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption from the 1978 eponymous first album Van Halen. It’s classic status was confirmed in 2009 when it was included as one of the tracks on the Guitar Hero: Van Halen video game, allowing a whole new generation of air guitarists to pretend to be Eddie. And just a year earlier, Guitar Magazine named it the 2nd greatest guitar solo of all time, bested only by Jimmy Page’s Stairway to Heaven.

In the same year that the song Eruption was released, the UK R&B band called Eruption has their biggest hit with the song, I Can’t Stand the Rain, which reached #5 in the UK charts and #18 on the US Billboard charts.

An eruption is characterized by some type of “breaking forth,” and is most often used in reference to a volcanic eruption, which is “the ejection of solid or liquid matter by a volcano, of hot water from a geyser, etc.” (OED).

(C) gnuckx under Creative Commons

In contrast, the word irruption is the opposite and defined by the OED as;

The action of bursting or breaking in; a violent entry, inroad, incursion, or invasion, esp. of a hostile force or tribe.

The inward motion as opposed to the outward is what makes the difference between the words, although they are both pronounced the same.

The first appearance in print of the word is in Heinrich Bullinger’s 1577 page turner, Fiftie godlie and learned sermons, in the quote;

In that hurlie burlie and irruption made by the barbarous people.

It can be traced back to the Latin irruptionem, a noun of action derived from the verb irrumpere, which means “to break into,” and it can be furthered analyzed as the prefix ir- meaning “into” and rumpere, “to break.” Contrast this with eruption, which has the same base verb, rumpere, but the prefix e- means “out.”

The Latin rumpere is the base of a number of other English words, including abrupt (ab- prefix meaning “off,”‘ so “to break off”), route (a way or a course, from the Latin phrase via rupta or “broken way”), and rupture (a break or a tear).

By the 20th century, the word had taken on a special meaning in relation to zoology, namely to refer to;

An abrupt local increase in the numbers of a species of animals.

Thus, in A.L. Thompson’s 1936 book entitled Bird Migration, we see;

Apart from all the categories of annual movements, there are movements which occur at irregular intervals in the form of invasions or irruptions… In the spring of certain years the birds have ‘irrupted’ in large numbers.

It’s in the birding world that irruption seems to be used most frequently. However, the decline in its general usage seems to have been started in the mid 1800′s and even the Corpus of Contemporary American English only offers 27 instances between 1990 and 2012.

History of the word irruption

“Irruption” 1810-2009

As a final comment, it’s worth mentioning that even Mark Twain got the words eruption and irruption mixed up. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) he used the phrase, “A firmament-obliterating irruption of profanity,” and in the context, it would seem that he meant an “eruption of profanity.”

Happens to the best of ‘em, I guess.

Each year at the beginning of January, the American Dialect Society announces its Word of the Year (WOTY), based on thousands of submissions from anyone who cares to send them an e-mail. Word junkies  look forward to this and often pitch in with their own suggestions. I thought Gangnam style might well have been in with a chance but I’ve never yet predicted the winner and2012 was no exception. The winner was the hashtag – very familiar to those of us who use Twitter – with Gangnam style at least being in the final six.

Over the pond, the good people of the Oxford English Dictionary announced their WOTY for 2012 as omnishambles. This is a noun defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” To my knowledge, it hasn’t gained any currency in the US – but should! It’s a great little word that was actually modified during the November US elections into “RomneyShambles” by European political pundits who were less than supportive of Mitt.


Clearly it’s a marriage of the Latin prefix omni- meaning “all” and shambles, meaning a great disorder. Omni is also the name of the first writer in the Book of Omni, one of the books that make up the Book of Mormon. Sadly for Omni, his personal contribution to the book that bears his name is three paragraphs, which contains the sum of what we know about him. Basically, he claims to be a bad man, prone to breaking commandments, and fought a lot with the Lamanites, who were descendants of an Israeli family who moved to the US around 600 BC. We also hear in these paragraphs that Omni was the son of Jarom and the father of Amaron, and that he was the keeper of the golden plates that were found by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., and then translated into the Book of Mormon.

The word shambles is from the Old English sceamel, which was used back in the 9th century to mean a footstool. It’s a wonderful example of how a word can change its meaning over time, piece by piece. By the 10th century it was being used to describe a table used to sell goods of any kind, but this evolved into the 14th century word schamell meaning specifically “a table from which meat was sold.”

meat stall

Meat stall

By the 15th century, it was used to refer to any place where meat was sold – essentially a meat market. Then by the 16th century it was used figuratively to describe a place of carnage, such as a battlefield or any place of mass slaughter. And by now, the word had settled down as shambles.  It then took on its modern meaning of “a scene of chaos and disorder” in the 20th century, with its original sense of a footstool having long been lost.

Tourists to the city of York in England typically visit a street called The Shambles, which is very narrow and contains some buildings that date back to the 14th century. It was originally called The Flesh Shambles because is was full of butchers’ shops. Other places in the UK have streets called The Shambles but the one in York is perhaps the most well known.

The Shambles in York, England

The Shambles

So try slipping omnishambles into your next conversation. As I write, here in the US we’re facing the prospect of swingeing government cuts in the near future and the failure of our elected representatives to sort this one out really will be an omnishambles!


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