Posts Tagged ‘Old Norse’

So what do the following tweets have in common?

Just seen the TV ad for the unauthorised book on me. Yikes! (@SimonCowell)

Being a celebrity has afforded me many opportunities but has also boxed me in creatively (@kanyewest)

The desk is almost clear. Work on memoir, film all but done. Maybe I can allow myself the weekend off before beginning work on my TV series? (@SalmanRushdie)

Well, they are all examples of humblebrags, and a humblebrag is defined by the sporadically accurate but always entertaining Urban Dictionary as;

When you, usually consciously, try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility.

The rise of Twitter has ushered in a golden age of humblebragging, and not only for celebrities. Here are a few examples from ordinary folks, just like you and me;

I gave a speech at TEDx and now it’s on the internet. If you’d like to be uninspired for fifteen minutes, click here:

Great. The same week I lose my fake tooth down a sink, I get asked to be a photoshoot model. I’ll be serving gap-toothed realness.

I hate when people tell me, ‘You’re too pretty for tattoos’ …shut up …it’s art.

As you have probably worked out, the art of the humblebrag is to combining shameless self promotion along with fake humility. In all of the examples above, you’ll see the two basic components; the brag and the self-deprecation. For example, the underlying structure of the statement from Simon Cowell is;

The Deprecate [1]: Yikes, I am the victim of an unauthorized biography.
The Brag: I am so famous people want to write whole books about me.

In the Kanye West example:

The Deprecate: I am stifled by my celebrity status.
The Brag: Hey, I’m a celebrity!

And in the Salman Rushdie tweet:

The Deprecate: I’ve been so busy and need a rest.
The Brag: I’m so busy because I’m so clever and have TV shows and memoirs.

The Brag/Deprecate structure can, I suggest, be applied to any humblebrag. The deprecate also functions to try and give the impression that the braggart is “just a regular person” but is clearly just a smokescreen to allow for the brag.

And even the Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Solokowski is not above the occasional humblebrag, as evidence in this recent tweet:

I’m very humbled by the wonderful piece in @slate‘s @browbeatslate blog by @abbyohlheiser: http://slate.me/LOpxCp Thank you!! Welcome all

And the underlying structure?

The Deprecate: How humble I feel.
The Brag: Look, the folks at Slate are writing about me!

It’s possible that some folks unconsciously fall into humblebragging, but in the Twitter environment, one of the major points of the entire system is to allow people to talk about themselves and share their lives with a world that they think cares. Twitter is, by and large, an example par excellence of the “Me Generation,” [2] and is up there with Facebook, its more wordy companion.

Facebook takes humblebragging to extremes. It’s an opportunity to people to post to the world how special they are, how great their lives are, how talented/beautiful/important they are, and indulge in an orgy of mutual appreciation. It’s tailor-made for parent humblebraggers, whose postings are always thinly veiled brags about how smart their kids are.  The subtext for “My 18-month-old won’t stop talking and it is driving me crazy!” is;

The Deprecate: I’m stressed, just like normal parents.
The Brag: Look how smart my kid is! Talking at 18-months. Must be a genius. [3]

A colleague of mine will go for months without posting to Facebook – until she takes a trip abroad and starts the rounds of “OMG, so tired after landing in Sydney” or “Almost fell asleep in the Sydney Opera house because of the jet lag.” Once back home, we never hear “Just got back from Wal-Mart with a new can opener” or “Took the trash out and it was raining.” Nope, it’s only the glamorous world that we hear about.

And that, of course, is what humblebragging is ultimately about; it’s a way of creating the image we want to be, as opposed to displaying the image of what we actually are.  We post the edited highlights of our lives and polish them up just a little because we don’t want to appear – heaven forbid! – boring.

Tweets and Facebook posts therefore take on an air of excitement and drama, which is the purpose behind editing. The film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once famously said;

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Hence the rise of the humblebrag. We become dramatic; we become interesting; but we also want to be simultaneously special and ordinary. Kanye West may want to sound like “just like an everyday person” but he doesn’t actually want to be one! When celebrity Tila Tequila tweeted;

I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!

..you know she’s trying to sounds “just like one of us who gets pulled over” but she also wants you to know she (a) has a Lamborghini and (b) gets let off because she’s a celebrity.

Tila Tequila's lamborghini

Tila’s lambo: Such a bore

The humblebrag is essentially a form of paralipsis, which is a rhetorical device used by a speaker to bring attention to something by professing to be ignoring it. If a politician says, “Irrespective of my honorable friend having once been charged with tax evasion, I believe there are many reasons for not voting for his being Head of the Treasury,” that’s paralipsis.

Although humblebrag has not yet made it into any of the standard dictionaries, it did make it into the American Dialect Society 2011 Word-of-the-Year list, an although it lost out as WOTY to occupy, it did place first in the “Most Useful” category. It therefore may simply be a matter of time before it becomes a dictionary word.

Clearly it’s a portmanteau word made from humble and brag. The OED defines humble as;

Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud.

It appeared in Middle English as umble, humbul, humbyll, and oumbbylle, originating from the Latin humilem, meaning lowly, small, or insignificant. This, in turn, came from humus meaning earth or ground.

Back in the 16th century, brag meant, “A loud noise, the bray of a trumpet,” and it is that sense of a braying trumpet that lead to the modern meaning of arrogant or boastful language. There’s still uncertainty about the word’s origins but one suggestion is that it derives from the Old Norse brak, which is a “creaking noise.” Another is that it is from Old Norse bragr meaning “the best, the foremost, the boast or toast.”

Whatever the origin may be, I’m betting that humblebrag will slide into the dictionaries within 5 years – unless we all suddenly decide that self-promotion is a bad thing. And my guess is that the world will end before true humility makes a comeback.

Postscript 6/11/12
Remiss of me not to mention the excellent @humblebrag Twitter stream run by Harris Wittels. It’s well worth following for the splendid examples of painfully obvious false humility, or just catch up now and again at http://twitter.com/humblebrag

[1] I’m using the term deprecate to refer to the element of the sentence (or narrative) structure that is used to convey a sense of “ordinariness.” The word itself derives from the Latin deprecare meaning “to pray away” or “to ward off.”

[2] Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Free Press.

See also Twenge, J.M. (2009) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Sadly, the bitter truth is that although everyone believes their children are above average, statistically that cannot be the case. The odds are that your kiddo is average and no amount of humblebragging will change that. I am, in fact, so confident of my claim that I predict that YOU who is reading this NOW will be convinced I am wrong and that your child is the exception, and although you might grasp the statistical truth, you are psychologically unable to accept that your offspring is anywhere other than at the top end of the bell curve.

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My last posting made an opportunist reference to the cinematic flavor du jour, New Moon, the latest in the made-for-sequels Twilight series. I use the word opportunistic because I am fully aware that I am shamelessly exploiting the current pop culture zeitgeist to snag (or is that snare) hapless web surfers and drag them to this site.

The current cultural vogue for sparring between vampires and werewolves is, for me, much better covered in the movie, Underworld, with Kate Beckinsale proving that female vampires can be just as erotic as male ones, and Bill Nighy turning in a splendidly entertaining performance as Viktor, the 1500-year-old vampire elder.

Kate Beckinsale as a Vampire

So having dealt with the etymology of vampire, it seems only fair to bite into werewolf and the plural, werewolves. And we can start with the definition offered by the OED:

A person who (according to mediæval superstition) was transformed or was capable of transforming himself at times into a wolf. (obsolete) also, an exceptionally large and ferocious wolf. (OED, Vol.XX, p.158)

The first written definition of a werewolf in the English comes from Richard Verstegan‘s A restitution of decayed intelligence: in antiquities (1605) where we see;

The were-wolues are certaine sorcerers, who hauing annoynted their bodyes, with an oyntment which they make by the instinct of the deuil; and putting on a certaine inchanted girdel, do not only vnto the view of othres seems as wolues, but to their own thinking haue both the shape and nature of wolues, so long as they weare the said girdel.

The word itself is found as the Old English werewulf, which is thought by most to have been formed from the Old English wer meaning “man” and wulf meaning “wolf.” The latter is a found in many of the Germanic languages as ulfr (Old Norse); wolf (Old Frisian, Old High German); and wulf (Old Saxon).


In Greek, the word for wolf is λύκος, which forms the basis for the other common word for werewolfery (or werewolfism) – lycanthropy. The word for “man” in Greek is ανθρωπος or anthropos, where we also get such words as anthropology, the study of mankind. Note that anthropos refers to humans, not just the sexual gender of “man” as opposed to “woman,” and lycanthropes can be both male and female.

The original werewolf is arguably the Greek king of ancient Arcadia called Lycaon. A thoroughly wicked king, Zeus decided to test him to see if he had any redeeming qualities whatsoever and after taking the form of a man, he made his way to Lycaon’s palace. There, in a reversal of roles, Lycaon decided to put Zeus to the test to see if he would eat human flesh. While relating the story of his encounter with the Arcadian king to his fellow gods, Zeus said of Lycaon that;

“…he took
a hostage sent by the Molossians,
and after severing his windpipe, cut
his body into pieces and then put
the throbbing parts up to be boiled or broiled.” [1]

King Lycaon becomes a wolf

Yummy! Of course, Zeus refused to eat the Molossian snack and instead set about tossing thunderbolts across the land, killing all of Lycaon’s fifty sons and turning the king himself into a wolf:

“His garments now become a shaggy pelt;
his arms turn into legs, and he, to wolf
while still retaining traces of the man:
greyness the same; the same cruel visage
the same cold eyes and bestial appearance.” [2]

In a further fit of pique, Zeus followed up by causing a flood that destroyed the world, except for the virtuous couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha, who managed to build a boat and survive.

Anyhow, if you’re wanting to score points at the office party this year, while simultaneously trying to look hip, cool, and “in the moment” as regards popular culture, you might want to casual mention that in old Scottish dialect, a werewolf was something very different from the usual 500 lbs of fur, claws, and teeth with a penchant for ripping out throats. In the 1808 An etymological dictionary of the Scottish language, John Jamieson defines a warwolf as “a puny child or an ill-grown person of whatever age; pronounced warwoof.”

And one other quirky definition relates to the an attempt by the Nazis at the end of World War II to create an underground paramilitary group that would continue the fight. The group was conceived by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who initiated Operation Werewolf (Unternehmen Werwolf) with the aim of having small groups of elite forces wreak havoc as guerrilla fighters behind enemy lines. Although nothing came of this, except a few alleged actions that have since been disputed due to lack of evidence, it’s a great story to use to impress your hosts.

Operation Werewolf

As with modern vampires, werewolves have assumed a romantic semi-heroic status, being seen more as naughty puppies who need a cuddle rather than a solid silver slug through the head.


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“This Horse pictur’d showes that our Tatter-de-mallian Did ride the French Hackneyes and lye with th’ Italian.”

So wrote Ben Johnson in his 1611 book Introductory Verses in Coryat’s Crudities. It refers to “a person in tattered clothing; a ragged or beggarly fellow; a ragamuffin” (OED, Vol.XVII, p.664). The word is also found written as tatterdemalion or tatterdemallion.



The first part of the word, tatter, seems to derive from the hypothesised Old Norse word *taturr, which appears in Icelandic as toturr, and Norwegian dialects as totra. The Old French variation is taterles meaning “rags.” In fact, all these versions refer to rags, scraps, and jagged items.

The second part is thought to be a derivative of the Old French, maillot, which refers to swaddling clothes or simply long clothes, according to Spiers and Surenne’s 1863 French and English pronouncing dictionary. Thus, you get the whole flavor of someone in tattered and torn clothes.

It isn’t a dead word – just not used very often. It scores an admirable 95,900 ghits and James Joyce was happy to toss it into his Ulysses when he said, “Florry Talbot, a blond feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdemalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spreadeagle in the sofa corner, her limp forearm pendent over the bolster, listening.”

Tatterdemalion is also the name of a Marvel comic character, who, according to Marvel’s official website, “Wears Kevlar body armor underneath his outfit. His outfit is coated with a substance that makes it difficult to hold the Tatterdemalion. He has specially designed gloves treated with solvent which dissolves paper and fabrics.”

The OED offers the word tatterdemalionism as a nonce word, which appeared in print in an 1887 edition of Blackwood Magazine in the sentence, “His coat was out at both elbows – it was a kind of defiant tatterdemalionism that the Colonel liked to hug.” It is certainly noncy (occurring, used, or made only once or for a special occasion) and only scrapes together 131 ghits – many of which are simply spam fillers or references to this particular example.

So next time you’re late for a meeting and rush in looking bedraggles, try confusing your colleagues with “So sorry, please excuse my tatterdemalian appearance.” I dare you.

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