When astronomers refer to the famous Almagest written by Claudius Ptolemy, they may not realize they are repeating themselves. Ptolemy’s “greatest” work (Greek Megistē) was preserved for centuries in an Arabic version called The Greatest (al-Majisṭī). Saying “the Algamest” therefore amounts to saying “the the greatest”. The words discussed in this instalment have all smuggled the Arabic article al- into common English, through various linguistic trade routes.
Words are tireless soldiers of fortune. They go where they’re needed, and they’ve been known to follow the money wherever it leads. Sometimes these wandering words fit in seamlessly when they land in a given language. Other times, they’re unlike anything else in the local vocabulary—just ask anyone who’s tried to find an English rhyme for the Wanderwort orange. This instalment discusses three colour-related wanderers that are known for giving English poets a hard time when it comes to rhyme.
In these exceptional times, this month’s words are never far from our thoughts. Not only do they dominate the news cycle, but they are an inescapable part of daily life: returning travellers are instructed to quarantine, parts of the world have imposed curfews, while almost all of us are being encouraged to isolate.
As our regular readers will know, the relationship between our selected words is not always obvious. Even so, this month’s offering may appear particularly perplexing.
The festive season is drawing to a close. As in previous years, gifts were exchanged, cards were sent, and people were scolded for using the abbreviation Xmas. Criticisms of Xmas are manifold: some simply advise against using it in formal contexts, while others object more strongly, describing it as an attempt to secularize the holiday by replacing the name Christ with an “X”. Is there any truth to this last charge?
Our last instalment of Word Stories, with its focus on divine attributes, was all goodness and light. Now, as the days of late autumn get rapidly shorter, we, too, find ourselves in gloomier territory, turning our attention to darker matters.
Who wouldn’t welcome a person who brings spirit, enthusiasm and inspiration to any situation? It may come as no surprise that these words, before they came to describe those transcendental human characteristics, were all used in relation to the divine. We hope that their stories leave you suitably inspired.
Every June, around the 21st day of the month, the year reaches a milestone. With the sun at its highest latitude, the northern hemisphere experiences its longest day in terms of daylight hours. This day, known as the summer solstice, has played an important part in how we humans measure and record time. Our methods for doing so have evolved considerably over the years, as have the words we use to describe them.
Although we humans are quite different from our fellow inhabitants of Earth, we can’t help but see a little bit of ourselves in them. Just look at how often we liken our own physical characteristics or personality traits to those of other creatures, or consider the number of animal-inspired words and expressions used to describe people.