Touch wood

Many people who are not superstitious actually say things which are superstitious when wishing people well – ‘cross fingers’, ‘best of luck/good luck’ and ‘touch wood’. Cross fingers i guess comes from a religious origin – but is touching wood or knocking on wood a left-over from touching relics, or having religious relics such as a splinter from the cross, or a fragment of a ‘holy’ person’s coffin? Some people argue that it is much older than the Christian religion and goes back to pagan times when some trees were considered sacred, so touching them, or having a bit of wood with you as an amulet would keep you safe. Other people argue that the tree thing is just something made up nineteenth century romantics – and touching wood comes from reaching and touching the door into a place of safety.

There are hundreds of different explanations, from lumberjacks to cattle auctions, coal miners to sailors… here is a link to a selection:,5753,-22199,00.html

.. and here is something from the Danny Kaye film, ‘Knock on Wood’




Luke-warm… just how warm is it?

I was writing to someone, and mentioned that a mutual friend was ‘luke-warm’ in his response to something. After I had sent my message, I wondered if maybe it was lukewarm… and certainly the spellcheck thinks it is!

I got to wondering about the origin… maybe something to do with St Luke in the Bible? According to tradition he was a painter, so nothing to do with temperature. I can’t imagine that any other person would have given his name to something which is not that hot and not that cold, in fact a bit on the tepid side. I have discovered that there are places named Luke, but none of them would have influenced the English language, as many of them were named after St Luke, and some of them are from other non-English speaking countries.

I think I actually had already guessed it came from Old English, and is related to other northern European languages:

  • Dutch lauw
  • German lauwarm
  • Faroese lýggjur
  • Swedish ljum
  • Danish and Norwegian lunken

When I used lukewarm in my message, I wasn’t referring to how hot or cold our friend actually was, but I meant that he wasn’t that keen – his response was not enthusiastic, but not negative, somewhere in between but with maybe a lean towards the unenthusiastic end of the response spectrum..

So how warm is lukewarm? A facetious question maybe, but according to an interesting site which I think is aimed at children, it is between 98° F and 105° F….. or it may be between 80° F to 90° F…

See what you think:

Thrutch and galligaskins

I’m fascinated by odd names and weird words… I always have been. One of my earliest memories, probably when I was about seven, I would sit on the humpty (a pouffe) in a little gap between an armchair and the radio, reading a dictionary, looking for strange and unknown words… not naughty words, I don’t mean! At the back of the dictionary was a list of names and their meanings and I used to be fascinated by them.

Maybe it was because I have an unusual name that I was so interested; I wasn’t the only one with an uncommon name at school, there was a girl called Zebretta, another called Roseanne (common now, but very unusual then) a boy called Barto, in among all the Angelas and Patricias, Lindas and Jennifers, the Johns and Richards and Davids and Philips.

I was looking up something else today and came across a site which had a collection of ‘weird and wonderful words’ – well, I was totally lost for quite a while, finding all sort of unusual nouns and verbs. I was surprised in the list that there were quite a few I knew… such as:

  • bawbee – Scottish a coin of low value
  • claggy – dialect sticky or able to form sticky lumps
  • hoggin – a mixture of sand and gravel, used especially in road-building
  • martlet – heraldry a small, swallow-like bird with tufts of feathers in place of legs and feet (the Elsden coat of arms has three martlets!)
  • moonraker – a native of the county of Wiltshire
  • mudlark – a person who scavenges in riverside mud at low tide for anything of value
  • nesh – dialect weak, delicate, or feeble
  • ortanique – a cross between an orange and a tangerine
  • pettitoes – pig’s trotters, especially as food
  • selkie – Scottish a mythical sea creature like a seal in water but human on land
  • shippon dialect a cattle shed
  • subfusc – the dark formal clothing worn for examinations and ceremonial or formal occasions at some universities.
  • turbary – the legal right to cut turf or peat for fuel on common ground or on another person’s ground

As for thrutch and galligaskins…  one is a narrow gorge or ravine, the other is a type of loose breeches worn in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries!

Lint and gnurr (gnrr)

Lint is a funny little word… it means fluffy stuff, the sort of thing you get in a first aid kit and never quite properly use; it’s exactly the sort of thing which sticks to wounds when it’s not supposed to… or maybe it was just me being a not very good first-aider.

In its natural stat lint is just random fluffy stuff, for example it can be as Wikipedia says:  ‘Fibrous coat of thick hairs covering the seeds of the cotton plant’… or it can be any old fluffy stuff such as  the ‘accumulation of fluffy fibres that collect on fabric’

The actual word is old, arriving at the end of the fourteenth century and coming by devious means from the Old English word for flax which was ‘lin‘ – hence linen.  Fluffy stuff when collected can be used for things, such as tinder for lighting fires, and as I mentioned for medical purposes – and here is a lovely description from the on-line etymological dictionary, lint is  “flocculent flax” . Because it is useful as tinder, its flammable property makes it dangerous in some situations, its combustible nature can lead to it being a fire hazard,

Exploring the word lint has led me to another odd word – gnurr… otherwise known as pocket lint, the dusty, fluffy rubbish which collects in pockets. and trouser turn-ups. No-one seems to know where it originated, and  people wondered about its pronunciation. Should it be pronounced ‘nurr’ with a silent ‘g’ like gnome, gnash, gnat and gnu? Or should the ‘g’ be voiced g’nurr, like Australians might say g’day? I have even seen it written as gnrr – with no vowel, but I think this is a mistake – unless it refers to the Georgia Northeastern Railroad which is known as GNRR… I know that trains accumulate dust and fluff, could that be the origin, from the Georgia Northeastern Railroad? I think probably not…

Spell check… dystonian or dystopian…

Spell checks are marvellous – like lots of people I am actually good at spelling – in spelling tests and quizzes I nearly always get everything right. It’s nothing to do with intelligence, it’s the way I was taught at school, reading addictively, writing every day of my life – using dictionaries before computers, being a teacher when I had to teach spelling…  However, when I’m writing, my thoughts fly faster than my fingers and I have certain words which I always misspell, eg weird/wierd, Joseph/Jospeh… There are also the ordinary typos, double letters or letters missed out, repeated words, nonsensical sentences… you know the sort of thing.

So spell checks are marvellous, but they do offer some wierd/weird alternatives, even to words spelt correctly. For example, dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one – is not accepted and it keeps trying to replace it with dystonia –  a neurological movement disorder syndrome in which sustained or repetitive muscle contractions result in twisting and repetitive movements.

I cannot imagine what a dystonian novel would be – I guess about some poor soul suffering from the syndrome. Maybe a different writer than I am could write about someone who suffers from dystopia… I have the feeling it might be a sort of black comedy sketch, maybe of the Monty Python school of humour.

I came across a list of ‘the best’ twenty dystopian novels, and i was surprised at how many I had read, ten of them – and yet it is a genre I wouldn’t have picked out as being on my ‘reading list’… Maybe I’m a secret fan of dystopia!

  • The Time Machine (1895)  H.G. Wells
  • The Iron Heel (1908) Jack London
  • We (1921)  Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Brave New World (1932)  Aldous Huxley
  • 1984 (1949)  George Orwell
  • Farenheit (1953) 451 Ray Bradbury
  • The Chrysalids (1955)  John Wyndham
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962)  J.G. Ballard
  • Logan’s Run (1967) William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson
  • Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)  Philip K. Dick
  • The Running Man (1982)  Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
  • Neuromancer (1984)  William Gibson
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)  Margaret Atwood
  • Oryx and Crake (2003)  Margaret Atwood
  • Uglies (2005)  Scott Westerfeld
  • The Road (2006)  Cormac McCarthy
  • The Hunger Games (2008)  Suzanne Collins
  • Wind Up Girl (2009)  Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Article 5 (2012)  Kristen Simmons

If you want to read more about the above novels, and links to obtaining them, here you are:



In the old days of pen and paper there was no such thing as spellcheck… obviously, but there were dictionaries, and I guess a lot of people always had a dictionary to hand – I always did. I had a small pocket dictionary, and I also had a big reference dictionary. I loved my dictionary, but it was a distraction… it was so easy to look up one word and be distracted by another word on the same page which might lead in turn to yet another word, and before I knew it quarter of an hour had gone by, I’d looked at lots of things of interest but forgotten what I was looking up to begin with.
These days we have spellcheck – but we also have predictive text. Predictive text… it doesn’t always make life easy… it’s fine if you’re writing to friends and family, they know the strange and maybe inappropriate word is not intended… but if you’re messaging someone who doesn’t know you…
I was writing about splinters, painful incidents involving splinters, and surreptitiously, without me noticing, a couple of splinters were changed to splines… this wasn’t an error on my part (well it was but the spellcheck had incorrectly changed it) this was the computer taking it into its own head to give me a spline not a splinter.
Spline… I didn’t think there was such a word, but spellcheck gave it to me so there must be! Luckily I saw it before I sent what I was writing and changed the splines back to splinters… but spline… I looked it up to discover its identity. I asked my husband if he had heard of a spline, yes of course he had it was a grooved piece of metal or wood etc etc… I asked my son, and yes it’s something mathematical,  and as well as cubic splines (a spline constructed of piece-wise third-order polynomials), there are quadratic splines, quintic splines and linear splines… Well, I didn’t come across them in school maths! (I did only get as far as GCE, my son did do physics at Uni…)
So… a spline…  a spline is a rectangular key fitting into grooves in the hub and shaft of a wheel, especially one formed integrally with the shaft which allows movement of the wheel on the shaft.
a slat of wood, metal, etc.
You can also spline something… the clutch units are splined on to the mainshaft… and there is a drafting tool called a flat spline.

In mathematics, a spline is a special function defined piece-wise by polynomials. In interpolating problems, spline interpolation is often preferred to polynomial interpolation because it yields similar results, even when using low degree polynomials, while avoiding Runge’s phenomenon for higher degrees…. (Wikipedia)

In the computer science subfields of computer-aided design and computer graphics, the term spline more frequently refers to a piece-wise polynomial parametric curve. Splines are popular curves in these subfields because of the simplicity of their construction, their ease and accuracy of evaluation, and their capacity to approximate complex shapes through curve fitting and interactive curve design.

So where does it come from? What is its origin? Well,  it originates from the flexible splines used by shipbuilders and draftsmen to draw smooth shapes…. which are long, thin pieces of wood or metal, the actual word probably East Anglian dialect which may have come from the Danish splind or the North Frisian splinj.

The things spell-check can teach you! So, once again from Wikipedia, in brief…

  • mechanical spline  – a mating feature for rotating elements
  • mathematical spline – a  function used for interpolation or smoothing
  • smoothing spline –  a method of smoothing using a spline function
  • multivariate adaptive regression splines – statistical modelling
  • flat spline – used to draw curves (so why isn’t it a curved spline?)
  • spline drive –  a type of screw drive
  • Spline – alien beings, fictional alien beings which appear in eight novels and fifty three  short stories and novellas by Stephen Baxter
  • spline cord – a thin rubber cord used to secure a window screen to its frame
  • spline – otherwise known as star filler, a type of plastic cable filler for CAT cable

I may very well have made mistakes here… sorry if I have, I made need a smoothing spline to get rid of them!!




More moggy

I shared this a couple of years ago, but it is the sort of delicious sounding, simple, chilly afternoon sort of a thing to make… I know most people would think a moggy is a cat, maybe not a pedigree cat, maybe just an ordinary sort of every day cat. In fact, it’s thought that a moggy was original a cat which was good at catching mice and rats, because a moggy was actually a mouse (in the north of England)  Gradually a good mouse/moggy catcher would be called a moggy itself. It’s also thought by some that the name comes from Margaret/Maggie, but most etymologists think this is just a lingusitic urban myth.

Not very interested in catching anything except some zeds

However, moggy here means a cake/biscuit/cookie… Since originally writing this post, I’ve discovered some other recipes for moggy, sometimes called ‘Yorkshire moggy’, traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve by some Yorkshire folk. Moggy, as far as anyone seems to know, dates back to the 1870’s. Recipes vary enormously – some add an egg into the mixture, and ginger and other spices and ground almonds. One recipe described moggy as ‘dry and chewy’, in other recipes the sugar is supposed to be demerara, and I came across one which uses oatmeal, and another mashed potato!  Sometimes it seems more of a biscuit than a cake, very dense and flat. I have seen ‘moggy with a modern twist’ with stem ginger, honeycomb. rhubarb, and even one with dark chocolate added!  I think each person  who makes it probably uses their mum’s or their granny’s recipes, and that, for the, is the only traditional way of making it!

Here is my original story about moggy…

I was looking through some old recipes I have and came across one for moggy, a curiously named Yorkshire cake cum biscuit; according to my notes, moggy comes from an old Norse word meaning a heap of corn… I discovered that there was an Old English word múga which meant exactly that, a heap of corn – corn wouldn’t be maize, it would be any grain… so maybe it’s so! Certainly this recipe is very, very old, and although syrup is used, I guess in the old days it would have been honey. I’ve looked up other recipes and they always include ginger, but the recipe I have makes no mention of it. This recipe is much less a cake, and more like a pastry or biscuit.


  • 1½ lb plain flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 6 oz lard
  • 6 oz margarine
  • 8 oz syrup (some recipes have a mixture of black and golden treacle)
  • 8 oz sugar
  • salt
  • milk
  1. rub the fats into the flour, salt and baking powder as you would to make pastry
  2. add the sugar and syrup and mix to a stiff dough with milk
  3. shape into two pieces 1½ thick and put onto a well-greased baking tray
  4. bake for 25 mins at 180°C, 350°F, gas mark 4
  5. serve it with butter

This recipe really does sound as if it comes out like a type of pastry scone – as opposed to some of the other recipes I’ve seen when it seems to be more like a mild gingerbread or spice cake! I think the only way to resolve it is to make some and eat it!