Hoot, ninnyhammer, tap-shackled: words you might use this Christmas!

COG_BLOG_CRYSTAL_DEC2014_2ppAlexandra Mellas, Higher Education Sales and Marketing Assistant, takes your holiday conversations to the next level with David Crystal’s Words in Time and Place.

Have you had to stump up a pretty penny on presents? Is eggnog making your cop-shotten uncle act like a saddle-goose this year? Use your words these holidays to add a distinctive flair to your family or work-place banter, with a little help from Words in Time and Place.

You haven’t just been spending money this year, you’ve been spreading your:

  • Gingerbread (1699): The highly decorated shapes made from ginger-flavoured cakes led to the word being applied to things that were attractive and showy. (The bread ending is a popular etymology, due to a misunderstanding of the unfamiliar final syllable of Latin gingiber ‘ginger’.) It was eventually used as slang for ‘money’: if you had the gingerbread, you were well off.
  • Hoot (1820): Utu is a Maori word meaning ‘reward’ or ‘payment’; so in New Zealand English slang it came to be used for ‘money’, to begin with the spelled hutu or hootoo, and then shortened. It crossed the sea to Australia by the end of the nineteenth century. A quotation from 1970 in the New Zealand Listener says ‘I hadn’t heard that word for money in years’, but it is still listed as colloquial in the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005).

Don’t act the fool, or you might be called a:

  • Ninnyhammer (1592): Originally quite a strong word, judging by some early quotations: ‘whoreson Ninihammer’ (1592), ‘Clod-pated, Numbskulled Ninny-hammer’ (1712). The hammer element suggests ‘blockhead’. It is much milder in later usage, as illustrated by the quotation from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Two Towers (1954, Book 4.1) when Sam Gangee calls himself ‘nowt byt a ninnyhammer’.
  • Possum (1965): Australian slang for ‘fool’, but recorded only in a single dictionary source.

Throw some class into your bousy talk and call your friends:

  • Tap-shackled (1604): A different view of the drunkard: fettered to the tap of a beer barrel. In his translation of Bishop Hall’s The Discovery of a New World (c.1609), John Healy tells us of a man who, ‘being truly tap-shackled, mistook the window for the door’.
  • Plotzed (1962): A Yiddish expression, from the verb plotz ‘crack, split’, which leg to several US slang uses, recorded since the 1920s, such as ‘display strong emotion’ (‘she plotzed for joy’) and ‘sit down wearily’ (‘I plotzed into an easy chair’). Either or both of these nuances could have led to the association with drunkenness.

All words and their definitions listed here have been taken from Words in Time and Place, a fascinating read for any word-lover and an in-depth analysis of the history of fifteen different fascinating sets of words from oaths and exclamations, to spacecraft and terms of endearment. For a great visual representation of some of the word sets, go to this post at oxforddictionaries.com.

Author, David Crystal, is known throughout the world as a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster on language. He has published extensively on the history and development of English, including The Stories of English (2004), Evolving English (2010), Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (2010), The Story of English in 100 Words (2011), Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling (2012), and Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain (with Hilary Crystal, 2013).

9780199680474Words in Time and Place: Exploring language through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
David Crystal

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