Quick & Quirky Words

The basic sources used for these and other words are here.


Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today I’m launching a new occasional series of short videos about the etymologies and early citations of weird and interesting words.Today’s word is BETWATTLED.
Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines “betwattled” as “surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the word is from 1686 (though no doubt it had already been around a while). The first person to use it in print was one John Goad. Goad was the headmaster of Merchant Taylor’s School in London, until he was dismissed due to his Catholic leanings. Goad published books on a number of topics, including religion and the Latin language, but his magnum opus was a book on meteorology, called Astro-meteorologica, or, Aphorisms and discourses of the bodies coelestial, their natures and influences, discovered from the variety of the alterations of the air … collected from the observation … of thirty years, in which we get the aforementioned first citation: “They are betwatled in their Understandings.” Goad’s book was a last-ditch attempt at rescuing astrology from the scientific scrapheap, arguing for its use in predicting the weather.Yeah, no. Let’s just say that Royal Society bigwig Robert Hooke was less than impressed with Goad’s work, and it seems in the end it was Goad who was betwattled.

Quacksalver & Toadeater

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today’s words are QUACKSALVER and TOAD-EATER.
Quacksalver, from which we get the more familiar quack, a medical charlatan, comes to English from Dutch, the salver part being obviously related to salve meaning ointment. The quack part comes either from a root meaning “scrap, rubbish”, so junk medicine, or from quacken meaning “to croak or quack”, imitative of the sound a duck or frog would make — here used of the hard sales pitch — and is comparable to similar words in many other languages such as Latin coaxare and Greek coax, famously used in Aristophanes The Frogs, a satire about poets in the underworld. And speaking of quacks and frogs, toad-eater, from which we get toady, originally referred to the assistant of a medical charlatan who would pretend to eat a toad, which were thought to be poisonous, only to be miraculously “cured” by the quacksalver’s junk medicine. Eventually the word broadened in sense to refer to a servile sycophant, first attested in a letter by gothic writer Horace Walpole: “ Lord Edgcumbe's [place]..is destined to Harry Vane, Pulteney's toad-eater.” The first to use the shortened form was future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, in his first novel Vivian Grey: “You know what a Toadey is? That agreeable animal which you meet every day in civilized society.” The novel contained in part a thinly veiled satirical account of his spectacularly unsuccessful attempt, with famous publisher John Murry (known for publishing among others Lord Byron and Jane Austen) at starting a newspaper that folded almost as soon as it started.

Not surprisingly quacksalver is first found in a satirical work too, Stephen Gossen’s 1579 attack on poets and playwrights, Schoole of Abuse, containing a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of the Commonwealth: “A quackesaluers budget, of filthy receites.” The second citation for the word quacksalver in the Oxford English Dictionary demonstrates a variation on the toad-eater ploy: “The quacksaluers in Germany swalow spiders in open assemblies to shew the vertue of their confections.” It’s from a work called Ulysses upon Ajax, probably written by avid gardener and keen experimenter with various manures Hugh Plat, as a satirical response to John Harington’s equally satirical 1596 workA New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, which, though ostensibly about Harington’s invention of the flush toilet, was actually a coded attack on the monarchy. A jax or a jakes, you see, is a slang term for toilet. So what does all this satire and excrement tell us? That then, as now, a quack is full of it.

Kenspeckle, Beau, Bedizened

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today’s words are KENSPECKLE, BEAU, and BEDIZENED.
Writing of the metre of ancient Greek epic poetry, 19th century essayist Thomas De Quincey, most known for his first-hand account of addiction, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, wrote “The Homeric metre..is certainly kenspeck, to use a good old English word—that is to say, recognisable.” His word kenspeck, possibly from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse kennispeki meaning “power of recognition”, now a Scottish and northern English dialect word, may not be as recognizable as De Quincey imagined his topic was. It’s first recorded in the writings of the keen huntsman Sir Thomas Cokayne: “The most Buckes haue some kenspeck marke to knowe them by vpon their heads.” The suffixed form kenspeckle, also meaning ‘recognisable’ was first used in print by 18th century playwright Susanna Centlivre in her play The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret “Geud troth, she's ne Kenspekle, she's aw in a Clowd.” An earlier play by Centlivre called The Beau’s Duel or a Soldier for the Ladies tells the story of the aptly named Mrs. Plotwell, who disguises herself to trick the father of young Clarinda into marrying his daughter to Plotwell’s lover Colonel Manly. Beau in the title means fop, something of a stock character in such plots. A beau catcher is a curl of hair in front of the ear that a woman might adorn herself with to, I suppose, attract a beau. And a beau trap, according to Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is “ A loose stone in a pavement, under which water lodges, and on being trod upon, squirts it up, to the great damage of white stockings; also a sharper neatly dressed, lying in wait for raw country squires, or ignorant fops.” A play by Centlivre’s earlier contemporary George Farquhar called The Beaux’ Stratagem, tells the story of two foppish rakes who scheme to marry rich country women. In this context Farquhar is the first to use in print the adjective bedizened meaning “dressed up with vulgar finery”: “I took him for a Captain, he's so bedizen'd with Lace.” So to use our words for the day in a sentence, a flashily bedizened man is kenspeckle as a foppish beau, as I’m sure you’ll now easily recognize.


Today’s Quick and Quirky word is SCATCH.
Scatches are stilts for walking in swampy or dirty places, such as on a farm, without getting your shoes all mucky, used from the 16th to 19th centuries. I guess scatches would save you from an earlier meaning of ‘poaching’, related to ‘poke’: “making slow progress due to sinking into muddy ground”. Apparently the entire town of Landes in France went about their swampy countryside on such stilts in the 19th century. The word ‘scatch’ comes from from French escache or echasse, which is either related to the same root as ‘shake’, in the sense of moving quickly, or to the same root as ‘shank’, since they are, after all, leg extensions. This French word also came into Dutch as ‘schaats’, where it somehow transferred its sense to refer to skates instead — a bit similar I suppose — and when the exiled followers of Charles II who were hiding out in Holland returned to England during the Restoration in the 17th century, they brought skating back with them, along with the word, which became skates (now reanalyzed as a plural word in English). Of course there are other unrelated ‘skates’ in English: the fish, from Old Norse skata, and skate as a short variant of blatherskate or blatherskite, meaning a “blustering talker of nonsense”. The ‘skate’ or ‘skite’ of that word comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *skei- meaning “to cut or split” which also gives us quite a large number of words, including another piece ofwinter sporting equipment ‘ski’, and, well, ‘shit’, which you certainly wouldn’t want to poach in on a mucky farm--so thank goodness for those scatches!


Today’s Quick & Quirky word is DEIPNOSOPHIST.
The word comes from Greek and literally means “one wise at dinner”; it refers to someone who is a master at the art of dining, in other words a good dinner conversationalist. The word was first used in English in the 16th century by one Richard Mulcaster, who is considered the father of English lexicography for producing a list of 8000 difficult words and calling for, though not himself producing, English’s first proper complete dictionary of both hard and common words. Mulcaster, by the way, was also an early and fanatical advocate of football (though he wouldn’t have had ‘hooligan’ in his wordlist as it’s not attested until the end of the 19th century). Of course if you were to use words like deipnosophist in dinner conversation you might be accused of using “break-teeth” words, that is words that are hard to say, and you might even be branded a ‘clatterfart’ or a ‘blatteroon’, both words for babblers. But whatever you speak about, be sure to speak up clearly so as not to be considered someone who ‘snoaches’, that is, speaks through the nose. That word was first used by William Barnes, another philologist (in the 19th century), who produced a comprehensive grammar of English. Of course Barnes probably wouldn’t have gone in for break-teeth words like deipnosophist — he was an English language purist who wanted to purge English of Latin and Greek derived terms, so ‘sun-print’ instead of photograph or ‘wortlore’ instead of botany. So, hopefully all of this will give you enough to be considered a deipnosophist at your next dinner party, unless I’m just a clatterfart.