Word: Caterpillar

Oh, go on then, let’s have another word. In writing about frass, I was minded to wonder about the origin of caterpillar, so …


1. The larva of a butterfly or moth; sometimes extended to those of other insects, especially those of saw-flies, which are also hairy.
2. A type of tractor which travels upon two endless steel bands, one on each side of the machine, to facilitate travel over very rough ground. (And by extension to other such vehicles.)
3. To move like a caterpillar or on caterpillar tracks.

The first uses, in sense 1, recorded by the OED is from c.1440 in Promptorium Parvulorum 63: Catyrpel, wyrm among frute, erugo.

I’m going to reproduce the etymology from the OED essentially in full:
Etymology: Catyrpel, in Promptorium Parvulorum, may be merely an error of the scribe for catyrpelour (or -er); [later sources have] the full form. Generally compared with the synonymous Old French chatepelose, literally ‘hairy or downy cat’ (compare the Scots name hairy woubit, ‘woolly bear’), of which the Old Northern French would be catepelose. This is a possible source, though no connection is historically established: the final sibilant might be treated in English as a plural formative, and the supposed singular catepelo would be readily associated with the well-known word piller, pilour, pillager, plunderer, spoiler. This is illustrated by the fact that in the figurative sense, piller and caterpiller are used synonymously in a large number of parallel passages. The regular earlier spelling was with -er; the corruption caterpillar (?after pillar), occasional in the 17th century, was adopted by Johnson, and has since prevailed.
(Some think the word a direct compound of piller. The giving to hairy caterpillars a name derived from the cat, is seen not only in the French word cited, but also in Lombard gatta, gattola (cat, kitten), Swiss teufelskatz (devil’s cat); compare also French chenille (from canicula, little dog), Milanese can, cagnon (dog, pup). Compare also catkin, French chaton, applied to things resembling hairy caterpillars.)

In other words, we don’t know!

Word: Frass


The fine powdery refuse or fragile perforated wood produced by the activity of boring insects.
The excrement of insect larvae.
(Or to put it in the vernacular: caterpillar shit.)

First used in an academic paper in 1854, the word is derived from the German frasz, fressen, to devour.

Word: Inosculation


To unite (as of blood vessels, nerve fibres, or ducts) by small openings.
The opening of two vessels of an animal body, or of a vegetable, into each other.
To unite so as to be continuous; blend.

It is applied anatomically especially to blood vessels and in botany to the growing together of the trunks/branches of separate trees (as shown).

Needless to say the word is derived from In plus the Latin ōsculāre (having a mouth). The first usage is recorded by the OED as being from 1673.

Word: Quidnunc


A person who constantly asks ‘What now?’.
An inquisitive or nosy person.
A gossipmonger.

As one might expect the word is derived from the Latin quid nunc, what now (quid = what, nunc = now).

The OED gives the first English usage in 1709.

Your Monthly Links

They’re off! … On the quest for this month’s links to items you really didn’t want to miss the first time.

Science & Medicine

Many statistics are lies compounded by misleading graphics. Here’s a quick guide to spotting lies in visuals.

Queueing is quite complex, both psychologically and mathematically, so no wonder there are old wives tales about how to queue. But many are wrong, and the right answers are non-intuitive. The Guardian gives us some clues.

We don’t normally think of Winston Churchill as a scientist, but he certainly had a passionate interest in, and knowledge of, the science of his day, even down to writing with great foresight about astrobiology and extra-terrestrial life.

Black chickens. Not just black feathers, but black all the way through: meat, bones and organs. No wonder they’re a special, and expensive, breed. It just seems wrong that so many are bred purely for divination.

Social Sciences & Business

In 1944 the CIA wrote a manual on how dissidents can surreptitiously sabotage an organisation’s productivity and gradually undermine it. Now it has been declassified and released.


So who was Gordon Bennett? The BBC looks at a few of the people behind famous phrases.

Writers, improve your text. Here are a number of filler words and phrases which are superfluous and serve only to bulk out your word count.

Polari is a British slang dating back to at least the 19th century. Used by a number of tightly knit cultures it is perhaps best known for its use by sex workers and the gay subculture. As you might guess the Bible in Polari is quite a hoot; here’s my blog post about it.

Art & Literature

Book blogger Karen Langley has rediscovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Here’s her blog post about it.


Construction of London’s Crossrail has unearthed a vast amount of archaeology. Here are two very different reports on the same Clerkenwell site which includes a completely lost river and a curious pair of plague victims: the first report is from IanVisits and the second from the Guardian.


Apart from the above item on Crossrail archaeology there is only one snippet on London this month …

Canals are well known for carrying water not electricity, but IanVisits, again, brings the story of how the Regent’s Canal ended up safely carrying both.


Life is stressful. Things are continually conspiring against us. We all know that if we get too stressed we get sick. So it’s useful to have a list of major life stressors, with their relative values, so you can work out your likelihood of a stress-related illness.

Unsurprisingly the second most highly-rated stress is divorce. Here are four behaviours which appear to be the most reliable predictors of divorce.

Finally in this section is our favourite zen master talking about immigration and tribalism. It’s a perspective worth reading.

Food & Drink

And finally, finally … Garlic. Whether you love it or hate it trying to supress the resulting odour is far from obvious.

Be good until next month!

Book of Gloria

I posted about this on Facebook earlier, but it’s so brilliant I have to say more here.

Earlier today on the intertubes I came across the Bible in Polari. Those who know Polari, or are old enough to remember Julian and Sandy from the radio show Round the Horne, will guess how much of a hoot it is. Here, for example, are the first five verses of Genesis …

1 In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4 And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
5 And Gloria screeched the sparkle journo, and the munge she screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the first journo.

And here, the Immaculate Conception from Luke 1:26-35 …

26 And in the seyth month the fairy Gabriel was laued from Gloria unto a smoke of Galilee, named Nazareth,
27 To a nanti charver espoused to a homie whose name was Josephine, of the lattie of Davina; and the nanti charver‘s name was Mary.
28 And the fairy trolled in unto her, and cackled, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Duchess is with thee: fabed art thou among palones.
29 And when she vardad her, she was troubled at her cackling, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
30 And the fairy cackled unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with Gloria.
31 And, varda, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and parker forth a homie chavvie, and shalt screech her name Josie.
32 She shall be dowry, and shall be screeched the homie chavvie of the Highest: and the Duchess Gloria shall parker unto her the throne of her Auntie Davina:
33 And she shall reign over the lattie of Jacob for ever; and of her kingdom there shall be no end.
34 Then cackled Mary unto the fairy, How shall this be, vardaing I know not a homie?
35 And the fairy answered and cackled unto her, The Fantabulosa Fairy shall troll upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that fabulosa fakement which shall be born of thee shall be screeched the homie chavvie of Gloria.

Brilliant isn’t it?!

Incidentally it’s worth downloading the PDF version, even though it is big, as it contains some wonderfully captioned “old style” images (“Gethsemane had always been a notorious cruising ground”) and a huge dictionary of Polari.

What I find interesting is how much Polari has passed into modern parlance (possibly as some was stolen from existing dialect like Cockney and entered the modern English from there). Just in writing this I’ve noticed acdc, troll, barney, butch, drag … the list goes on!

This is what I find so entrancing about language: not just the fun but the interplay between language, dialect, argot and idiolect. And I love it when something in one form is translated into another, but remains amusingly intelligible to speakers of the original – as here and as with the Pidgin of Papua New Guinea for Prince Charles: nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin.

Just excellent!

Word: Cunctation


Procrastination; the action of delaying; tardy action.

The word is derived from the Latin cunctātiōn-em, noun of action; cunctārī to hesitate or delay.

The OED records the first English use as being in 1585.

Word: Marmorean

Marmorean / Marmoreal

Resembling marble, or a marble statue, as in smoothness, whiteness, hardness colouring etc.

The word derives, as one might expect, from the classical Latin marmoreus (like marble).

The OED records the first English usage as 1656.


Does anyone else have the occasional memory spring randomly into their mind about something heard or learnt in childhood but had long forgotten? Of course it usually happens when you’re in the shower or just dropping off to sleep, so you forget about it again even though you would like to investigate it.

Well that happened to me the other night, yes, as I was dropping off to sleep. Luckily I wasn’t so asleep I couldn’t scribble a reminder. (I always have a pad of Post-Its and a pencil by the bed.)

And what was this? Something I got from my mother as a child: dialect numbers and counting used by shepherds in various areas of the UK. I learnt one from my mother, but there are many and they’re all slightly different.

Imagine you’re counting sheep on a hillside. The one I learnt goes like this:

1    Yan
2    Tyan
3    Tethera
4    Methera
5    Pimp
6    Sethera
7    Lethera
8    Hovera
9    Dovera
10   Dick
11   Yan-a-dick
12   Tyan-a-dick
13   Tethera-dick
14   Methera-dick
15   Bumfit
16   Yan-a-bumfit
17   Tyan-a-bumfit
18   Tethera-bumfit
19   Methera-bumfit
20   Giggot

You can just see the old shepherd, who can just count to ten on his fingers, using this to count his flock.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Wikipedia lists a couple of dozen such sheep counting schemes from around the UK. Apparently this one comes from Borrowdale. That would fit as my mother certainly spend time hostelling in the Lakes before the war.

At least it is logical — well as logical as the way the French count above sixty, where for instance 63 is soixante-treize, and 92 is quatre-vingt douze.

Isn’t it just brilliant?!

A Word for Our Times: Kakistocracy


Government by the least qualified or worst persons.

The word derives directly from the Greek κάκιστος worst + -κρατία rule, but ultimately from the Indo-European root kakka-/kaka– (to defecate), which apparently also gave us poppycock, cacophony, cacology and cacography; as well as the Francophone caca. The earliest documented use was in 1829.

H/T: A.Word.A.Day