That comfortable feeling W/E JUN 18



I came across a list of the 50 or 100 towns around the world with the dirtiest names. I can’t tell you about them, however, because I expect some of the editors involved in this column wouldn’t allow it.

But I did come across a Texas town, not on the list, with the name Comfort. This little town was started by Germans who wanted to escape some of the horrors, or at least difficulties, they had encountered.

It started out with another name, which I could not pronounce, but the name was changed to CampComfort. I don’t know why, but I suspect the founders of this town felt comfortable, and safe, in their new surroundings, even though Comfort has had its ups and downs over the years.

The word comfort has had its ups and downs also.

When it started one of its meanings was to give aid to the enemy, and this is still one of its meanings – “give comfort to the enemy”.

It was used in the context of encouraging, or giving support to, troops. Some dictionaries say “obsolete”.

That Bible fellow Wyclif talked about comforting “with nails”.

The word came from the French conforter from the Latin confortare (note the n instead of m).

When it reached English the n was changed to m.

If I knew why, I would tell you.

But I do believe the com means something like with and the fort can still be traced to those old westerns we used to watch as teenagers on Saturday afternoons. Why don’t they show good old westerns, instead of cooking competitions, on television any more?

Later the word comfort referred to comforting people who thought evil thoughts. In 1521 J Longland commented “comfortuyng erronyous persons in their opynyons”. I suggest the word “erronyous” indicates what Longland thought of the “opynyons”.

Then the word changed to a meaning similar to refreshing, while retaining the meaning of giving comfort to the enemy.

On the way it meant to strengthen the body, or to refresh.

Then it means to relieve mental distress, or to console.

William Shakespeare in 1600 suggested: “live a little, comfort a little, cheere thy self a little”.

Finally, the word came around to the meaning we give it today, that is to make comfortable, or to allay physical discomfort.

The Collins dictionary says comfort means “the state of being physically relaxed” and it goes on to say “a style of life that is pleasant and in which you have enough money to live on without financial problems”. That rules out most of us.

Now even homes offer all modern comforts. This is a good example of words changing, even slightly, from their original intention.

Associated words include comfortable.

I thought about cold comfort. This is where words of comfort mean very little. Think of the person who has lost his job but friends tell him the economy is about to pick up.

But I keep thinking about the towns with the dirtiest names.

I wish I could tell you about some of them, but I know the editor wouldn’t approve.

But just imagine if you told your friends you lived in Horneytown, just down the road from Climax, or not that far from Intercourse or Hookersville.

They are all in the United States, if you are interested.

Anus is in France.

There’s another town in Austria, that I can’t tell you about, even though I would like to.;





First you break the egg W/E JUNE 11


“Omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs.”

I quote the words of my big dictionary.

My omelettes usually taste something like made out of sheet metal.

And that’s an indication of where the word comes from.

Omelettes go back to the Roman times.

The Romans used lamella to mean a small metal plate.

But then the French took over the word, meaning a small metal plate, but then they added and subtracted letters to come up with omelette.

In 1611 Randle Cotgrave writing in a dictionary of the French and English tongues, referred to a pancake of egges, using the spelling omelet.

Then in 1655 a Comical History of Francoin  mentioned that a person was commanded to make an amuelet, “it being Friday”.

The word in its early days was not spelt as omelette or, if you happened to live in the United States, as omelet.

My Australian English Style Guide, with Pam Peters as editor, says it prefers omelet. Omelette came into the English language many years after omelet. My Macquarie and Collins dictionaries seem to prefer omelette.

My big dictionary has omelet as its first entry, followed by omelette.

Miriam Webster, with an American influence, uses omelet. You will find omelet used mostly in the United States and omelette used mostly in British and Australian history, but no hard and fast rules have come onto my desk.

But you must have eggs and they must be “beaten and stirred”. An omelette has to have eggs.

In the early days then word omelette was spelt in many forms, often as alumette or aumelette.

Of course, people couldn’t spell in those days. They can’t spell much now either, but that’s another story.

The word that we now use had a French influence.

The word alemelle or alumelle meant a thin plate, or even the blade of a sword or knife. The word, by a process of adding and subtracting, finished up as omelette. It even had a spelling of omlet.

The big dictionary quotes an old proverb, the introduction to this column, as an indication that people cannot accomplish something valuable without sacrificing something in itself valuable.

So, if you don’t have any eggs you cannot make an omelette.

My big dictionary says an omelette is “a dish consisting mainly of eggs whipped up, seasoned and fried, often varied by the addition of other ingredients, such as cheese, apples, parsley, chopped ham, fish, mushrooms etc”. I was told never to use etc, because it indicated I did not know what I was talking about or I couldn’t think what to say next. I try not to use it, but the temptation is there.

In 1859 a comment was made that “we are walking upon eggs … and the omelette will not be made without the breaking of some”.

English struggled with a word to describe eggs beaten and stirred. Originally it came up with many variations, including omelet, omelette, even amulet and aumulet.

Eventually, by usage, we have come up with omelette, or omelet if you prefer.

Lots of recipes exist on how to prepare omelettes.

Different countries have different spellings for omelette. I am told that the word in Thai means “egg”.

If you want to make the world’s largest omelette, you will have to look at somewhere around 200,000 eggs, depending on the latest record.

If you ever want water to be boiled, I can manage that, so long as it is not too complicated.;





Don't laugh under the knife W/E JUN 7

I must admit I have been to hospital a couple of times.

One occasion was when I had a continuing conversation with the surgeon and I asked him “when are you going to start?” His reply was “I’ve just about finished”.

I was about to laugh until I realised he was serious. I had woken up a bit early.

Did you know that hospitals were places of merriment?

Don’t take my word for it. Just remember the word hospitality.

I was watching a news item recently about a doctor who went around hospitals making sick kids feel more at home, even laughing sometimes.

I thought about that word hospital and merriment.

A hospital, in the words of my big dictionary, was originally a place for the entertainment of travellers “and strangers”. The key word was entertainment.

If you were travelling the road to Jerusalem a long, long time ago you could stop over at places run by religious orders along the way. They might try to convert you, but that’s an item for another column.

The early hospitals were a bit like our modern motels, without the cars. They were places where travellers could rest for a while before continuing their journey.

Then, when the word came into our English language it denoted a place for lodging of travellers.

I found an item from 1300 that said “there is nouth an hospital arerd of Seint Thomas”. I think they were lamenting the lack of a hospital, but I could be wrong.

The word comes from Latin, which meant something like “host”.

So a hospitale was a place where guests were received. Their welfare was also considered.

French took the word as hospital, without the “e”, and in time it came into the English language.

I don’t need to tell you about the Kinghts Hospitaller, but in most cases they were good blokes who looked after the travellers, who were sometimes sick or shouldn’t be out at night.

But as the years wore on, the word hospital changed slightly.

Firstly, it became a place for the needy.

Now, travellers go to hospital if they are sick. They go to hotels or motels if they are simply travelling. Sometimes, they get sick in motels and then they go to hospital.

It wasn’t until about the 16th century that the word denoted a place where the sick could go for medical treatment. They say St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London was founded in 1123 by a traveller who had returned from Rome but had become sick along the way. He was described as a jester, in case you wanted to know.

Dr Rudolph Brasch in his book How Did It Begin describes an early hospital as a “guest house”.

He said the English called syphilis the French pox, the French called it the Italian disease and the Japanese linked it with the Portuguese. Forget I mentioned that. It has nothing to do with this column.

The First English Dictionary, of 1604, calls hospitality “good entertainment for friends and strangers”.

Many expressions add to the word hospital, such as a hospital ship or a hospital pass.

These days, hospitals for the most part only look after the sick.

But if you should happen to wake up during an operation, try not to laugh.;






Someone stole his thunder W/E MAY 28

Are you annoyed when someone is telling a story and another person jumps in with the punchline? I know I am. Often I have sympathy for the person telling the story.

It happened a week or so back. The person telling the story could only respond meekly: “You’ve stolen my thunder”.

Again I had sympathy for the bloke telling the story. If you’ve heard it a hundred times before, it’s only polite that you should keep quiet and laugh in the appropriate places.

Then I thought about the expression “you’ve stolen my thunder”.

Here is an expression that can be traced to one man, one place and one time.

It refers to a person who has stolen an idea and usually claims it. I’ve met a few in my time. I hope I’m not one of them.

But the words can be traced to a bloke called John Dennis. The year was 1704 at the DruryLaneTheatre, London.

Until that time theatres had used a variety of methods to produce the sound of thunder – and a lot of other sounds.

I don’t know what sort of a playwright Dennis was, but his play Appius and Virginia was a failure, except for one aspect.

Until that time sounds were made by rolling metal balls or shaking sheets of metal, but Dennis came up with a new sound for his production. Some say it was balls rolling around a mustard bowl.

But Appius and Virginia closed, well before time according to Dennis

Some time later Dennis attended the same theatre to see another play. I understand it was Macbeth. The writer of this play had a bit more success and people even now talk about it.

But -- you guessed it -- they used the thunder that Dennis had produced for Appius and Virginia.

Now, I can’t say exactly what Dennis is supposed to have done, but apparently he made a bit of a spectacle of himself.

The stories vary, but he is said to have stood up and said something like: “That is my thunder. The villains will play my thunder, but not my play.”

Variations on the words abound. I think everybody was so taken aback that nobody thought to shove a tape recorder under his nose to get the exact words, but I think you get the drift.

Meantime, the writer of Macbeth has got much praise, but the bloke in the front stalls who interrupted the performance has almost been forgotten -- except for the comment “steal my thunder”.

My big dictionary quotes John Dennis as saying: “Damn them. They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.” It just goes to show that two people will come up with two versions of what was said. And you thought it was only the newspapers that couldn’t get it right.

The big dictionary has six pages on the word thunder, which has been in print since at least the year 888 and has been spelt various ways.

It includes such expressions as thunder carriage, thunder drop, thunder house and thunder snake.

I couldn’t find thunder box, but I did find thunderer, a person employed to imitate thunder by some mechanical means..

But, whatever you are doing, don’t steal John Dennis’s thunder.;






Election with lame ducks W/E MAY 21


In January 1863 the Congressional Globe of United States Congress asserted the Court of Claims was a receptacle of lame ducks, or broken down politicians.

This was one of the first, and one of many, uses of the expression lame duck.

A lame duck in this context is a politician who has passed his use-by date or who is no longer effective.

You might hear a lot of the expression during the Australian election campaign.

I have heard it time and time again since I was a little boy -- and that was a long time ago.

But the term lame duck can also have other uses.

It is generally reserved for a politician who cannot make important decisions because he is about to retire.

However, if one side of politics, especially in Australia, can call a politician from the other side a lame duck, don’t let an election get in the way.

The expression is said to be from the United States, referring to a politician who is not standing for re-election.

But it can also refer to a ship that is damaged of without a means of propulsion.

It can also refer to an industry that cannot survive without financial help or to a disabled person who moves about with difficulty.

I must say I have only ever heard it used, in Australia, in the political sense.

The Economist in 1972 said a lame duck industry was one that could not survive without a government subsidy.

The Times referred to a board of a company having a rethink because the government refused to help.

N. Balchin in Small Back Room said it was dangerous having to lame duck it home alone.

According to John Ayto, lamon in prehistoric Germanic meant weak limbed and it developed to mean something like paralysed.

Lam, or hitting somebody, seems to have developed from lame.

Collins dictionary refers to a lame horse or weak arguments.

Websters said lame duck refers to a politician who is weak or ineffectual  or one who is about to retire and cannot make important decisions.

But Websters also talks about a speculator in stocks who has lost “a considerable amount of money” or an aircraft which is disabled.

So far as the stock market is concerned, we have bulls, bears and lame ducks. Many of us would consider ourselves as lame ducks.

The dictionaries include many entries under lame.

For instance, they include a small piece of metal, a socially unsophisticated person, a silk material interwoven with metallic threads, a crippled person, some trees and some arguments

They also include lame brain (a stupid person), and lame born (a crippled person).

In this age of political correctness we have found a betters description for those who suffer some deformity that hinders their progress.

But why duck?

I can only assume that a person or industry with no money was open to a predator.

The first use of the word, meaning a defaulter, came in 1761, but in 1771 David Garrick said “waddle out like lame ducks”.

In 1806 Maurice Beresford referred to the stock market settling day “amidst the quack of ducks, the bellowing of bulls and the growls of bears”.



Some time ago I mentioned this column had received letters from London and California. I forgot Froggy Worden from Fort Worth, Texas. He was a regular correspondent to this column, even including his photograph.

Then his letters suddenly stopped.;



Having a great party? W/E MAY 14


Many words we use now have undergone a big shift in meaning.

Take celebrate for instance.

In recent years the word celebrate has been used more and more in the same breath to mean a great party. You know the type, with plenty of food and drinks and a great time had by all.

The word came up during Anzac Day celebrations recently. It was used correctly in my hearing.

The word wasn’t always used to mark a great party – it isn’t now.

The word, going back hundreds of years, was much more solemn than that, and still is.

You can make it represent a big party, if that’s what turns you on, but it means more than that.

In 1586 it represented the rites of marriage.

The word from then on meant many things, such as to be honoured by a great assembly, to take part in a religious ceremony, to solemnise, to perform an operation, to publish and to speak the praises of.

I looked for the meaning to have a good time, but it wasn’t there, or I couldn’t find it.

But Shakespeare did find use for it, when in Henry 6 he wrote “to celebrate the joy that God hath given us”. I suppose somebody was having a good time.

The best example of something enjoyable that I could find came in the Collins dictionary, which referred to “something enjoyable, such as having a party”. Most dictionaries included the word solemnise.

The world’s first English dictionary, published in 1604, said celebrate meant “holy, to make famous, to publish, to keepe solemlie”.

Examples of celebrated included the headmaster who was one lesson ahead of his pupils; and India and the east coasts of Africa who were not celebrated for their fish.

Author Kate Burridge said in her book that the word celebrate was undergoing a shift in meaning from a solemn religious ceremony.

We’ve all heard of the wedding celebrant, or the priest who officiates at the eucharist.

The Americans have a favourite word, the celeb, which is chiefly an abbreviation of celebrity.

So you want a word that means somebody who is really most celebratory. They have a word for that too – celeberrimous, not that I have ever heard it used. My dictionary says it means “very or most celebrated”.

Celebration means the performance of a solemn ceremony, or making laudatory speeches.

Under the word celebrational came the comment “he was going to give a celebrational dinner to his 50 best friends”. I presume they had a good time.

Celebrator and celebratory, along with celebrative, meant “pertaining to celebrational”. No mention of having a good time. I suppose it was a solemn occasion.

Celebrere means “to celebrate”.

Celebrious means “a festival”.

Then my big dictionary came to celebrity, “due observance of rites and ceremonies” as well as “a person of celebrity”.

Jeffrey Kacirk said in a book of very old words a celibataire was a bachelor,

Maybe you can only have a good time if you are a bachelor, but don’t mention that I said that.;


How to describe a Tasmanian W/E MAY 7



If you should find yourself wishing to attack a Tasmanian without causing too much damage, you could consider something I found in an 1838 issue of Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle

The Chronicle had settled on Vandemonian. It was intended to be a critical remark, a bit surprising for a Tasmanian newspaper.

The newspaper ran from 1835 to 1880.

I agree that most people have heard of Van Diemen’s Land, the name given by Abel Tasman in 1642 in honour of the governor of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony Van Dieman. The name was changed later to Tasmania.

But Vandemonian is a slightly different word, and some people still use it, not necessarily in a kindly fashion.

The Great Australian Treasury of Australian Folklore said on page 161

“the Vandemonians quickly established a bad name for themselves”.

The Cornwall Chronicle of 1838 asked if Vandemonia was formed other than to “propagate the convict’s foul breath”.

A character in a letter to the Melbourne Argus of January 27, 1888, denied calling his friends Vandemonians.

Vendemonian developed into an adjective denoting an inhabitant of Tasmania or something belonging to Tasmania. Some people emphasised the “demon”.

Words to describe Tasmanians or products of Tasmania over the years have included Vandemonian wheat, Vandemonian trains, Vandemonian journals, Vandemonian youth and Vandemonian lawyers.

The word is still being used in some quarters. Probably its main use is in regard to the convict era. As late as 1961 a book, Men of Yesterday, included the sentence
“the corrupting processes of the British and Vandemonian legal systems”.

But if you come from Tasmania and somebody calls you a Vandemonian, you should cry or laugh depending on your assessment of the situation.

I pass on, for your edification, some words that have been used for or against Tasmanians over the years: Van Diemenese, Derveners, Derwent ducks, mountain devils, mutton birds, mutton bird eaters, barracouters, raspberry launders, apple islanders and Taswegians.

But if they say you come from Van Diemen’s land, that’s probably okay. I’m not sure about the others.


On the other hand, not many people have objected to the word felix.

Australia Felix (Latin for "fortunate Australia" or "happy Australia") was an early name given by Thomas Mitchell to lush pasture in parts of western Victoria he explored in 1836 on his third expedition. The reports of excellent farming land from Mitchell's return to Sydney started a land rush.

Felix has prompted a rush of other names, from restaurants to bands and even a wartime campaign. It is the Latin for happy or lucky and has prompted many other words, such as felicity. In some respects, it is associated with Australia.

But it was acquired as a nickname by the first century BC Roman general Sulla. It also appears in the New Testament belonging to the governor of Judea who imprisoned Saint Paul.

I couldn’t find the word in any Australian dictionaries. I did find felicitie in the First English Dictionary, published in 1604. It was described as “happiness”.

As a young boy I followed a comic strip called Felix The Cat. He was always a happy cat and didn’t seem to object to being called Felix at all.

But don’t get the word mixed up with felicide – the act of killing a cat.;


You too can be a billionaire W/E APR 30


About 21 years ago, when I started writing this weekly column, the first subject was billion. Someone had asked me about billion and whether we were using the British or the American version.

But after this item was published people started asking me other questions and so, 1100 or so weeks later, the column is still going. I don’t know who publishes it, but I have received responses from London and California.

Many years ago local real estate agent Russell Pirie talked me into accompanying a group of Japanese businessmen to a dinner at an RSL club. As we approached the front door a senior member of the group asked me “how much is a billion?”

My answer was that the definition of a billion depended on which country he was in. I said at the time that a billion was a million million in England and a thousand million in the USA.

The definition of a billion still causes some occasional confusion in this country, although we are rapidly coming around to the American definition. Some newspapers have a policy of reporting “a thousand million” or “a million million” to avoid confusion.

Fowler's Modern English Usage says of billion, trillion and quadrillion: “It should be remembered that these words do not mean in American (which follows the French) use what they mean in British English. For us they mean the second, third, fourth, power of a million. A billion is a million millions, a trillion a million million millions... For Americans they mean a thousand multiplied by itself twice, three times, four times, so a billion is a thousand thousand thousands or a thousand millions, a trillion is a thousand thousand thousand thousands or a

million millions.”

In 1991, probably just after the Japanese visitor asked me the question – and I never ascertained why he asked the question -- I compared notes with style authority Alan

Peterson of the Sydney Morning Herald.

In a letter of reply to my query, possibly because he and I had attended the same school, he agreed the word was confusing, “because the change in its meaning from a million million to a thousand million is not quite complete”.

Peterson said Britain had persisted with the million million definition of a billion for a long time, but by the 70s most of the British press had gone over to the thousand million standard. The Australian press had changed in the 70s to the thousand million


“By this time, even the official statisticians were using a billion to mean a thousand million in informal use,” Peterson said.

“In written information they gave exact numbers in figures, so there was no confusion.

“The Herald explained its change of policy at least twice, but that does not stop the occasional reader writing to tell us we get it all wrong,” he said in his letter.

Stephen Murray-Smith said in his Australian usage book Right Words that the old British standard “should now be regarded as obsolete and only of historical interest”.

A survey at the time, conducted by the Dictionary Research Centre at Macquarie University, showed that 33 per cent accepted billion as meaning “million million” and 65 per cent accepted it as meaning “thousand million”.

Not many people seem to remember the good old word milliard, that once meant a thousand million.

But it all seems to mean that becoming a billionaire in Australia is now a thousand times easier.                                                                                                                                                                                

Is bloody a rude word? W/E APR 23

George Shaw created a sensation when Pygmalion opened in London in 1914

He had Eliza Doolittle utter the words “Walk! Not bloody likely”.

For a long time later, people who wanted to use the word bloody were heard to use “not Pygmalion likely”.

Shaw commented in 1914: “I do not know anything more ridiculous than the refusal of some newspapers to print the word bloody, which is in common use by four fifths of the English nation.”

I thought about Shaw when I watched a television commercial recently.

Until about Christmas a car driver in the commercial was heard to say “bloody caravans”. A boy in the back seat would then repeat “bloody caravans”. Somebody complained, because recent commercials have the driver say simply “caravanners” and the boy repeat “caravanners”.

My big dictionary recorded the use of the word in the year 1000. Shakespeare used it and Dickens used it a couple of hundred years later.

The word had two uses – one involving the use of blood and the other as an intensifier.

Australian tourism had a campaign that used the expression “where the bloody hell are you?” That was one of our more unforgettable campaigns.

The Bulletin in 1904 described the word as “the Australian adjective”.

The word was considered respectable in Britain until about 1750. Then it was considered profane. In the 20th century it was seen as nothing more than an intensifier, in other words “it’s bloody hot” or “it’s bloody cold”.

It is now used mostly in Australia and New Zealand and surprisingly seems to have had little use in America. Americans seem to use it only when making fun of the British.

Many people have tried to describe where the word comes from. Some say it came from the Dutch bloote.

In the 1940s an Australian divorce court judge held that “the word bloody wasso common in modern parlance that it was not regarded as swearing”. 

The transportation of British convicts to Australia resulted in the word being entrenched on these shores. In 1847 a writer called A Marjoribanks wrote a London article called Travels in NSW and he said about the “favourite oath” he had encountered here: “I had once the curiosity to count the number of times a bullock driver used the word in the course of a quarter of an hour, and found that he did so 25 times. I gave him eight hours in the day to sleep and six to be silent, thus leaving ten hours for conversation. I supposed that he had commenced at twenty and continued till seventy years of age … and found that in the course of that time he must have pronounced this disgusting word no less than 18,200,000 times.”

Not so long ago in the newspapers we would see b….. where such a word was supposed to go. Of course, even though we didn't read bloody we all knew the dots spelt out the word bloody, so the dots seemed a bit pointless to me.

I will write about the word hell some time. I recall that a few years ago a town in the USA tried to encourage people to greet each other with the word “heaveno”.

Heaveno didn’t take off.;


Who would supply vandals? W/E APR 16

I came across a store recently that said it was a supplier to vandals, or something like that.

I had forgotten about it, but then I found a store that described itself as a “vandals supplier”. I don’t know if there is a difference, but I wondered why a store would advertise itself in such a way. It had a long list of items and they were all advertised as “of top quality”.

The town where I live doesn’t have much trouble from vandals, but I have heard of other towns where people take great delight in destroying things.

But I wondered why those people were called “vandals”. Didn’t they occupy a key place in the world’s history?

This vandals supplier probably found its niche in the world’s best, or worst, names.

But then I found that the word vandal goes back, in print, to at least the year 1555.

The word, with a capital V, named a Germanic tribe that caused mayhem throughout western Europe and further afield, even northern Africa.

They were, literally, the first vandals.

They didn’t worry about writing rude words on train carriages or bare walls. No, they killed people instead. They apparently found this much more fun.

But how did a word that described a group in Europe become a word we still use to describe people who cause social disruption in our own shores?

Well, so far as I can understand, the Vandals become prominent during the last days of the Roman Empire.

Then, after a few defeats, they slid into the background for a few years. But their name lingered on.

After a few acts of barbarism and destruction, the name Vandals sprung to mind.

The Vandals first use in print that I could find came in 1663, when they were linked with Goths. The Goths weren’t much better, although they later became Christians, so I suppose there was an element of goodness in them somewhere.

Somebody found a way to write an adjective. In 1648 a bloke called Winyard writing in Midsummer Moon said “the whole university resembles Greece overrun by Turkes, or Italy Goth’d and Vandald”.

In 1780 William Cowper, lamenting the Vandals’ burning of books, said the Vandals had burnt a “nobler pile than ever Roman saw”.

In 1801 came a comment about “modern Vandals”.

But about this time came “the second inroad of the Vandal race”. Even a senator was described as a vandal. He must have been bad.

Notice that about this time the Germanic people had given way to a generic word and anybody who destroyed things was described as a vandal, with a lower case v.

The word prompted other words.

Vandalic represented destruction.

Vandalism was coined by Henri Gregoire, Bishop of Blois, who in 1703 talked about the Vandals’ ruthless destruction of anything beautiful or venerable. He left his criticism a bit late. Most people had forgotten about the Vandals by that date.

Then there was vandalistic and vandalise and a few other words that all meant roughly the same thing.

I came across a wall recently where somebody had written “question everything”. Underneath, somebody else had written “why”.

But next time you see a person writing on a train carriage or a blank wall have pity on him. He might simply be trying to keep alive a culture that went into hibernation a few hundred years ago.

Then again, he might just like destroying things.;


Did they? W/E APR 7

Don’t read this during meals, or maybe even if you are left-handed.

The term cack-handed was used recently to describe a friend of mine, who was left-handed and standing next to me. It might have gone unnoticed except that another friend with a loud voice wanted to know why a left-handed person was sometimes called cack-handed.

I say at the outset – I find nothing wrong with people who are left-handed, but history has not been kind to such people.

Years ago – and I am sure it doesn’t happen now, at least not among my circle of friends – a cack-handed person had a peculiarity that set him or her apart from others.

My big dictionary describes a cack-handed person as “ham-handed, clumsy, awkward”. It also says such a person is left-handed.

But there’s another definition of cack-handed people, and I am trying not to be too offensive in this. A little bit offensive is probably satisfactory under the circumstances.

The word cack, according to my big dictionary, means “to void excrement” and cacky means “to void as excrement” or even “foul with excrement”. Michael Quinion agrees with this definition, adding that cack comes from the Latin cacare, meaning to defecate. He says left-handed people do everything backwards and the term is a “well-known British informal term”.

John Ayto says cack means “defecate” and he adds “the connection with cack-handed is usually explained as being that clumsy people make a mess”.

Ayto adds: “The traditional role of the left hand in many cultures is wiping the anus.”

The expression cack-handed is allegedly British, but it was also popular in early Australia, and has been used mostly to describe a person who can be described as clumsy.

The word comes from the Latin cacare, meaning to defecate.

Another word, meaning privy, entered our language via the old English cachus

In the early days, and I suggest very early, the right hand was used for most uses and the left hand was used for cleaning oneself after defecating. These were in the days before toilet paper.

Even today, in some cultures offering something with the left hand is considered rude. Well, that’s understandable. You never know where the left hand has been.

You might remember Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds contained the words “spent my life wiping snotty noses and cacky bums”.

But much earlier than this, let’s say 1859, if a man at hay time or harvest held his fork with his left hand lowest some people would say he was no good “he’s keck-handed”.

Yes, keck was similar to cack. They were in the days before spelling was standardised.

The Urban Dictionary, describing cack-handed, says it comes from cultures that “use their right hand to eat and their left hand to wipe their behind”.

The Merriam Webster dictionary people say synonyms for cack-handed include left-handed, along with awkward and graceless.

The Oxford people go a step further and talk about a great song ruined by cack-handed production.

My Macquarie says the third definition for left-handed people is “insincere or ambiguous”.

Readers Digest avoids controversy by saying that a “cackie-handed” person is simply “left-handed”.

Incidentally, I believe about 10 per cent of the world’s people are left-handed, yet many tools and other implements are designed for right-handed people.

I should say here that most of my left-handed friends are not clumsy.

Another expression for land-handed people is “sinister”.

Cack can have other uses, but left-handed people have had a hard life.

Let’s all be kind to left-handed people. I believe Most of them use toilet paper these days.;


Left-han ded people W/E MAR 31

We were sitting in the club watching the crowds of people collecting their raffle prizes while we won nothing. It was a depressing sight.

We were thinking of complaining that it was surely our turn to win something – anything would do. Then the subject suddenly turned to left-handed people and mollydooks.

Some people call it mollydook, some say molly duke and some say molly hander, but it all means the same thing.

And it is credited as being Australian, although I don’t think the word was always Australian.

The word has a very short history, if my big dictionary is anything to go by. All dictionaries seem to go back only to 1926.

The dictionary says mollydook is Australian slang and refers to a left-handed person, the word molly referring to an effeminate man or a milksop. I’m only saying what the book says.

It said mauldy referred to the left hand and that is apparently where the word molly comes from. Mauldy was also spelt mauley in some places.

The Oxford Australian National Dictionary also refers to mollydook as two words, molly and dook.

Molly, in this dictionary, refers to an effeminate man or a milk sop and dook refers to the hand.

It therefore concluded that a mollydook refers to a left-handed person. I know, there is nothing about left-handed there, but I am only telling you what the dictionary says.

If we go back in another direction, we see that molly refers to a fussy man who is used to doing women’s work. So says Susan Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, who has gone back to the British dialect.

Susan says dook refers to a hand or a fist. Have you ever heard a person inviting you to “put up your dooks”. That was an invitation to a fight, usually referring to children, although I have seen some arguments on the bowling green.

Author Sidney Baker, who attempted to put in one collection the Australian words we all use, said mollydooker referred to “a left-handed boxer (taken from old English mauley) and dook, or duke, the fist or hand”.

Going back to 1926, my two Oxford dictionaries quote JV Marshall as saying mauldy refers to left-handed.

Mauley refers to “a hand, a fist”, but I could find no reference to an effeminate man.

GA Wilkes in writing about mollydooker says such a person is a “cissy” and “therefore awkward”. He quoted Sidney Baker as saying a mollydooker was a left-handed person.

The Northern Daily Leader in Tamworth – it uses this column each week -- is quoted in the Australian National Dictionary as saying on December 2, 1983, that five of the top seven batsmen doing battle for Australia were mollydookers.

Rolf Boldrewood, who wrote Robbery Under Arms (my copy had Peter Finch and a very young David McCallum on the cover), said in one part of the book “it takes a good man to stand up to me with the gloves or the naked mauleys”.

I tried to find a reference to an effeminate man in the word mollydook, but although the books seemed to take it for granted I could find nothing that I could refer to as proof.

But I do have something about cacky hander. I’ll save that for another column. It’s not very pleasant reading.;

He didn't like machines W/E MAR 24

A metropolitan newspaper headline recently used the word Luddite. The story was about somebody who did not like the march of technology, although I can’t remember the details. But I wrote the word on a scrap of paper as the subject for a future column.

Here is a word that can be traced to a precise event. That is, if you want to believe the story, and some have their doubts.

The word is named after an English bloke called Ned Lud, or Ludd, a person my big dictionary said was of “weak intellect”, but who might not have existed at all.

It’s amazing how some of our simple words can be traced to one incident. The word was popular in my younger days, but it’s only occasionally used now. But it did show, to me at least, that you don’t have to be an Einstein to have a word named after you. Actually, did Einstein have a word named after him?

Some dictionaries said Ludd was called Captain Ludd, without saying he actually existed. Some said he was General Ludd. One even said he was King Ludd.

Anyway, Ludd apparently lived around Leicestershire, England, about 1779. The story goes that Ludd rushed into a factory, or a house, and destroyed some knitting frames that were there. The story goes that in subsequent months whenever some machinery was destroyed the comment was made that “Ludd must have been here”.

Now, I don’t know how much machinery was destroyed, so don’t go and spoil a good story. And I don’t know why people would rush around destroying machinery, but I imagine this was in the time when many jobs were being lost as the machine age took over.

The first use of the word, in print, that I could find came in 1811. In that year an article in a historical review said “the rioters assumed the name of Luddites and acted under the authority of the imaginary Captain Ludd”. So this bloke of weak intellect had suddenly become a captain. Please, if you are a captain don’t write to me. That goes doubly if you’re a general, or even a king.

The next year, 1812, an English publication reported that several persons had been apprehended at Huddersfield “on various charges of Luddism”.

The same magazine five years later really went to town in its criticism. It said: “That atrocious system of combination, outrage and hired assassination, which has prevailed in some of the midland counties, under the name of Luddism…”

A Luddite was generally a member of an organised band of English mechanics and their friends who set themselves to destroy manufacturing machinery in the midlands and north of England. Often they were anonymous, so they weren’t able to rat on each other if they were caught.

Over the years the word has been spelt with a capital L and without.

The word has prevailed, in the march of mechanisation.

These days it can refer to computers or the modern gadgets we can’t do without. It can refer to a person who refuses to understand technology and who is behind the times – perhaps like the person who goes into the bank with an old bankbook in hand.

But did Ned Ludd exist? Some suggest he was Edward Ludlam, a weaver.

I haven’t been able to prove that Ned Ludd ever existed. But if your name happens to be Ludd, don’t take out your frustrations on me. I just reported what’s in the book.

And some people still do go into banks with bankbook in hand.;

Back from the dead

Richard Trench wrote in 1846 that revenant was often used by the religious romance writers of the middle ages as a vehicle for their conception of the lower world. This was an early use of revenant, but by no means the first use. And I’m not sure what he means by “lower world”, although I can guess.

I was interested in the word revenant, especially as it was used as a movie title recently. Some of the dictionaries I consulted chose not to use the word, but my 20-volume Oxford dictionary had several examples going back many years.

I was discouraged from seeing the movie. Apparently it was too brutal for my delicate eyes. When I grow up I might sneak out one night to watch it. I did see Spotlight, however, the film that won the Academy Award against Revenant, but that’s another story.

The word revenant comes from the Latin word reveniens and the French revenir, to return, and it means “one who returns from the dead, a ghost”.

The word revenant means one who returns from something dastardly, not from a day shopping.

A revenant can’t come back from the beach with a good sun tan; he must come back from the dead, or maybe almost dead -- and a few bullet holes would help.

A revenant apparently shares some characteristics with vampires, or even of zombies in modern usage.

William of Newburgh wrote in the 1190s about corpses who wandered about seeking revenge against their killers or for some other purpose, but always returning to their allotted tomb. He seemed obsessed with revenants apparently.

There was also the story about revenants who called on women at night. Couldn’t the wives have fun with that one. “Oh, that wasn’t the man from down the road. That was a revenant….”

Revenants were also described as wicked, vain or unbelievers.

Those who saw the movie might remember that the man who returned “from the dead” was not a ghost, but he did experience some moments that were described to my ears as gruesome. It was largely a story about survival and revenge.

It was one of those films that was “almost a true story”, as The Lady in The Van was described, probably with emphasis on the word “almost”.

It happened so long ago and details are sketchy.

In the film Revenant, trapper Hugh Glass is attacked in 1823 by a grizzly bear and is left for dead by his so-called friends. The key parts of the story are what happened next. I can’t tell you what happened in the film because I haven’t seen it, but I know that actor Leonardo diCaprio sheds his pretty-boy image.

One report from a few hundred years ago was that a revenant wandered the streets and called out the names of people who would die within three days, so the body of the alleged wanderer was dug up and his head cut off.

That fixed that.

My big dictionary reports that in some parts of Europe thousands of people still believe the word has relevance.

The word seems to be popular in computer games. One question that came to the fore is “does anyone know how to kill a revenant?”

A person close to me wants to be buried – as distinct from cremated – and she wants to take a mobile phone with her, just in case.

The problem of reception is yet to be resolved.;

Humpty Dumpty origins

A recent mention in this column of Jane Taylor sitting in her upstairs bedroom in Colchester and writing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star produced a flurry of questions.

While some newspapers are in recess (news apparently takes a holiday at this time of the year) I thought I would bring you again the story of Jane Taylor and of Humpty Dumpty, which also owed its origins to the same English town. Actually, the story goes that Old King Cole and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders  have local links also.

Jane Taylor spent much of her time in an upstairs bedroom in West Stockwell Street, Colchester, in 1806 in the English town of Colchester and she dabbled in poetry, as did other members of her family. Her biggest claim to fame was in writing the five-verses of The Star.

You know the poem: Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are, and so on.

Later this poem was set to music (some say Mozart’s music). Incidentally, another story: I was going through a European town and somebody remarked “that building needs some renovation work” and the guide said “that’s where Mozart was born” and continued walking. People are rarely acknowledged in their home town.

Details about Jane Taylor were given to me a long time ago by Catherine Newley, from the tourist association in or near Colchester. It was almost an after-thought in response to my inquiry about Humpty Dumpty.

Ages ago I read a report, headed “Humpty Dumpty falls from favour”, suggesting Australian parents were losing the capacity to recite nursery rhymes.

My trail led to the old English city of Colchester, 90kms north-east of London, population 104,000. Local businesses included the Humpty Dumpty Brewery and the HumptyDumptyPre-School.

The Humpty Dumpty story goes like this:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The most popular story said Humpty was a cannon used to defend Colchester during the English Civil War in 1648. It was mounted on top of the St Mary’s at the WallChurch and manned by a bloke called Thompson.  Colchester, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged by Roundheads for 11 weeks before falling. The church tower was hit by cannon fire, sending Humpty to the ground. The Royalists’ attempts to mend the cannon were unsuccessful.

Tourists who go to the site can read the verse that says:

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight

When England suffered the pains of state

The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town

Where the king's men still fought for the crown

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall

A gunner of deadliest aim of all

From St. Mary's Tower his cannon he fired

Humpty-Dumpty was its name

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

Catherine Newley, assistant curator of community history at Colchester, wrote me a long letter, explaining the story.

She added in passing that the name Colchester was said to hark back to the medieval story of Old King Cole and his daughter, St Helena.

However, if you should be passing through Colchester and you want to see where Humpty Dumpty fell off that wall, go to St Mary at the WallsChurch, Colchester, dig a hole in the road and see what you can find.;


Blame the subs

Some journalists are good at reporting the news and some are good at putting words together.

Some are no good at all.

Some newspapers, seeking to cut costs and provide more income for shareholders, have lowered their standards and have decided either to outsource sub-editing or demand that the people who write the stories do their own sub-editing. The readers have noticed.

Subediting is a skill that is developed. In years past subs toward the end of their journalistic careers have developed the skills necessary to become subs. Some have been good at it and some have chosen to retire gracefully. The advent of computers saw many older journalists quit rather than learn new skills.

I should say at this stage that I spent much of my working life as a sub-editor.

In the early days subs sat in a little room of their own, and hours would be spent in discussions over words, such as whether they should allow “hospitalise” or whether “chopper” should be used for helicopter.

To be called into the subs’ room was similar to an errant schoolboy being sent to the principal’s office. Everybody looked and tongues started wagging about “what has he done?” Very few women were journalists in the early days I am writing about.

Each newspaper had a style and journalists had to follow that style.

Some subs had a reputation for drinking and errant behaviour, but they were the brains of the newspapers. They gave their particular newspaper its personality.

In the early days by-lines did not exist. Reports were the property of the newspaper and reporters were writing for that newspaper. They reported what happened and the readers were free to make up their own minds.

Radio and television changed all that.

Newspapers, with shareholders in mind, found ways to cut costs. Did it matter if an occasional hospitalise or chopper made it into the news columns. Would the reader notice anyway?

I still hear the comment lamenting the lack of proof readers on newspapers. With some exceptions, proof readers were not responsible for the editorial style and accuracy of newspapers. In the old days, when printers set editorial matter into type, proof readers were employed to ensure that what the printers set was what the editorial department wanted. It had nothing or little to do with editorial standards. Some newspapers still employ proof readers, but this is mainly to do with advertising. One day proof readers will be a thing of the past.

I have to say that sub-editors were not always the most popular people on their newspapers. Firstly, they were criticised by readers if a mistake appeared in the paper. Then they were criticised by reporters for cutting their stories or eliminating the “best” bit.

Have you ever wondered how every line in every page finished exactly where it was supposed to finish? Blame the subs for that.

I lament the downgrading of subs on newspapers, but I also lament the rise of computers in every line of business, as managers seek to keep shareholders happy.

Where will it all end?

Newspapers have reduced their staff and some have gone too far. As I write this, I notice that a paper, which retrenched several people recently, had five advertisements for staff.

Perhaps one day we will see on every news story a comment along the lines of “not a single error appeared in this story”.

Of course, that is the aim of all newspapers, but don’t hold your breath.;

Wagon for drunks W/E FEB 27

I went into the club and said I would shout my friend. “No, I’m, on the wagon” he said. He could have said “about time”.

I haven’t heard “on the wagon” for years. When I was a little boy this was a popular saying to indicate that the person wasn’t drinking. It might still be popular.

The story of on the wagon gained prominence in the United States of America, but there are several versions of how it began.

One story says that very early in the 20th century prisoners from the Newgate prison, United Kingdom, were sent to be hanged, but on the way the wagon containing the prisoners stopped at a local pub and the prisoners were allowed one last drink before they were sent into eternity.

Think what you like of this story, but I have my doubts. Can you imagine a prisoner about to be hanged being allowed to stop at the pub on the way? Anyway, would they feel like a drink knowing what was around the corner?

I can’t imagine this was the start of the story. Just think of the minders they would need in case one of them slipped away via the toilet window out the back.

And what would they tell the missus? “I was going to be hanged this morning, but I fled out the back and escaped. Remind me to pay for the damage to the window.”

Another story relates to water carts being used to settle the dust on New York streets and people, whether drunk or not, hailing the water wagon and drink the water instead of alcohol.

I like the Salvation Army and temperance movement story better.

The story says that Evangeline Booth, Army founder William Booth’s daughter, was known to have driven a wagon through the streets of New York picking up drunks and taking them back somewhere to sober up.

Those drunks, or sometimes people on the way to being drunk, could tell friends they had been “on the wagon”.

The problem is that I understand the expression “on the wagon” predates Evangeline Booth’s efforts, even though her efforts might have brought the expression to the fore.

The Salvation Army story goes back to very early in the 20th century or even to the late 19th century. It started out as being “on the water cart”.

John Taylor, writing in Extra Dry, said it was better to have been on and off the wagon than never to have been on it at all. In 1934 a person when asked if an associate had been “oiled” at the time of an accident replied that he had been “on the wagon again”.

In 1976 Len Deighton in the book Twinkle Twinkle Little Spy said a key character had “stayed on the wagon for years”.

Different versions are favoured, and probably all are correct, so go with the one you like best.

Incidentally, my big dictionary has pages of the word wagon and I don’t have room for them all.

Remind me to tell you about the pioneering bloke who took his missus and kids to start a new life in northern New South Wales. During a wet night he slept under the wagon. Next morning the wife, in the middle of nowhere, found that the wagon had sunk during the night and the man was dead. He was a distant relative.

You probably don’t want to know, but Lee Marvin commented on his singing in the movie Paint Your Wagon: “The first 3313 recorded at 45.”;




Don't talk back to your butcher W/E FEB 20



I was in a restaurant – a building that used to be the place where I worked – and I was telling my companions all about the building when somebody suddenly switched the topic to butchers. That happens to me a lot.

The man telling the butcher story explained that some butchers had a habit of saying the important things backwards. I didn’t say anything, because my knowledge of such subjects was extremely limited.

But another companion felt he had to have his say. “That can’t be true”, he said.

I also had my doubts, but I vowed I would look it up when I returned home.

I am sure you are yet to be convinced, but it was true, at least of some butchers anyway.

I don’t know if spelling backwards was an apprenticeship subject and I don’t suggest you start talking backwards to your neighbourhood butcher, because he might think you need some form of correction therapy, but butchers were singled out for mention in all the checking I did.

For instance, one site said “blokes in bloody aprons”. Most sites came straight out and said butchers.

The trend started a long time ago, apparently as a way to avoid the serious antics of authorities.  Smithfield markets in London were mentioned several times.

Some say backward speaking was used by butchers to speak to each other about the quality of the meat without offending customers. It was also used to make comments about customers

Then it expanded to subjects less serious, such as when a good-looking girl entered the shop. Some words used were spoken in code, rather than backwards, but I couldn’t find many words that I could use here without upsetting somebody.

They even made a film on the subject a few years ago. It was an Australian film called The Hard Word, starring Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths. Garry Maddox, film writer, described it as “shining a new light on a little-known aspect of Sydney’s retailing life”.

Backwards talk was referred to as rehctub klat or sometimes rechtub klat.

Some sites referred to this slang as a precursor to cockney slang.

I saw several examples on the website but, considering the sensitivity of this paper’s editor, I can’t use any of them, except perhaps beef which could be pronounced as feeb. Another site said the expression tluciffid namow meant “difficult woman”.

But I have to conclude that my companion who said “that can’t be right” was wrong.

If you try out some rude words on your local butcher and you get a blank stare in return, don’t blame me.

Incidentally, did you know that the literal sense of the word butcher, in the words of my big dictionary, is something like “dealer in goat’s flesh”?

The word butcher has many meanings, including murderer, a vendor of sweets in a train or theatre, a fourpenny glass of beer (mine must be an old dictionary), a shade of dark blue, a bird, a shrub and other uses, including a look (“take a butcher’s at this”).

In March 1934 the Bulletin commenting on Sydney said “a butcher is identical in volume with the fourpenny glass of the other capitals”. I have no idea what that meant.

It might be fun, if you are a butcher, calling out at the top of your voice, in slang, that you are dealing with a difficult customer.

The customer might just happen to be another butcher.;


When we gave a dink W/E FEB 13


What has happened to our country?

Has it gone downhill or are the newspapers, and others, just reporting things that previously they thought were not worth discussing?

When I was a boy at Cardiff, admittedly a long time ago, we would ride our pushbikes and play for a whole day well away from home. Then, around 5pm, the mothers would stand at the front door and call out the child’s name and indicate that tea was ready.

We had a mailman who would come around twice a day, and once on Saturdays, sometimes on a horse. When he left mail he would blow a whistle. The rabbit man would ply his trade on the gravel roads; the ice man would call in the back door, unannounced, and we didn’t have to wear helmets when we rode our bikes. Some bikes didn’t have brakes.

They were the good old days, or at least how I remember them.

I thought about those days when I heard a man on the ABC telling how he used to give his girlfriend a “double dink”.

Although that was a blast from the past, I had to look it up. We used to give each other a dink, but I had always thought it was a word that we children had made up.
But there it was – dink and sometimes double dink; even double donk and double bank.

It brought back lots of memories, none of which you want to know about.

It didn’t refer to the modern term of double income, no kids.

My big dictionary listed the word as Australian, origin unknown. Its first reference is from The Bulletin in 1934,”the fortunate Melbourne schoolkid with a bike is asked by his cobbers for a dink”.

Sidney Baker in his Dictionary of Australian Slang also had the term donk. I had never heard of this term, and apparently neither had my big 20-volume dictionary, because it said donk was an abbreviation of donkey or “a very silly person”.

My only copy of Sidney Baker’s work is an old book called The Australian Language. This was published in 1945 and he mentions dink.

But I was disappointed to discover that we kids didn’t make up the word, after all.

Dink also these days has several other meanings, according to the big dictionary, such as to dress finely, a tennis term, an abbreviation for dinkum and a derogatory term for a Vietnamese person.

I admit I had never heard of some of these terms, only the term to give a lift to a person on my bicycle.

The lift was very uncomfortable, because the person had to sit on the crossbar. There was no other place to sit.

GA Wilkes says the term came from doubling up on a horse. He refers to double bank or double dink.

The Australian Dictionary mentions dink, double dink and double bank.

A person once close to me jumped one side of a horse and promptly slid off the other side. The horse just stood there, I am sure with a smile on its face.

But that had nothing to do with dink.

I have to tell you about a Sydney Morning Herald story on February 13, 1980. The Herald reported that a particular boy only rode a pushbike. Then it added: “Girls only start to get interesting after they cease to accept dinks on bikes”.

I decline to say that is the way I remember it.;



Was she fascinating? W/E FEB 6



I have no problem with witches. I have known some people who have been called witches, but I can’t think of an occasion when I have used the term to describe someone – not to her face anyway.

But I suggest you be careful when you describe a woman as fascinating. You could be calling her a witch without realising it.

Did you know that one of the earliest uses of the word fascination was a description of someone who engaged in witchcraft?

For example, Ben Jonson said in 1598 that he had been fascinated by Jupiter but he would be “unwitch’d by law”.

In 1621 Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy asked why “witches and old women fascinate and bewitch children”.

That, of course, raises another question: Why did they include old women when writing about witches? I don’t seek an answer; it was just an observation.

I would never call an old woman a witch. I might think it, but that doesn’t count.

The word fascinate was even used in an item about a cure for bad breath, if a 1657 comment by Richard Tomlinson can count for anything – “to fascinate and cure stinking breaths”.

In 1845 Todd and Bowman in The Physiological Anatomy and Physiology of Man said “the serpent fascinates its prey, apparently by the power of its eyes”.

My copy of the First English Dictionary, published in 1604, said the word “falcinate”, which seems to be the same as fascinate – maybe they couldn’t spell -- meant “to bewitch or disfigure by inchauntment”.

Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary said the word meant “to bewitch, to enchant, to influence in some wicked and secret manner”. Why secret?

The word comes from the Latin fascinare, “to bewitch” among other things.

An early bloke was involved in sorcery. I could tell you more about him, but some people, including this paper’s editor, might find it not a subject for the clean family newspaper. Let’s just say that some people around that time hung around their necks an amulet in the shape of a penis “to ward off evil spells”.

I don’t think it worked.

In subsequent years the word fascinate climbed in the social scale. Women discovered it and decided they could use it to their advantage. These days, when we describe a woman as fascinating, we are being complimentary, most of the time anyway. We are describing her as enchanting, or at least attractive.

My big dictionary says to fascinate is “to affect by witchcraft or magic, to bewitch, enchant, lay under a spell”. So that word witchcraft still exists.

The dictionary goes on to say “the casting of a spell, sorcery, enchantment”.

John Scott in A Visit to Paris said “a Frenchwoman will ever be felt to be a creature of fascination”. He said this in 1816, so was he saying Frenchwomen were witches or they were so good looking they put him under a spell?

We have to assume he was trying to be complimentary.

The big dictionary described a fascinator as either a magician or a charming or attractive person. I couldn’t find a mention of the hats they wear to the races.

H James in 1878 described a woman, “ a fascinatress”, as “a charmer”.

So, take your pick. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. A fascinating woman is either a bit of a witch or someone who meets all your desires.

Take your pick -- and leave me out of it.;







Yellow ribbons were real W/E JAN 30


Many years ago I was walking along a street in Tulare, California, and every tree in that street bore a yellow ribbon.

They weren’t just ribbons from a hit song of the moment; they were real.

For many years yellow ribbons had been a symbol of remembrance for men and women who were serving their country far from home – and who might never return alive.

Somebody chose those trees in that Tulare street to make a public display of love and a hope that a loved one would return safely.

No doubt you have heard some of the songs. I remember “tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree”.

Some people say the idea of a yellow ribbon started in the Gulf War, but yellow ribbons, or at least ribbons, preceded the Gulf War by many years.

Such ribbons were mentioned more than 400 years ago, and various origins have been put forward, but people in England are credited with reviving the practice of yellow ribbons.

Opinions differ about how yellow ribbons started, and historians trying to specialise on the history of the yellow ribbons have just about given up.

People have their own ideas on the subject.

The Americans have tried to claim the origins of yellow ribbons. Some say it is a folk tale, but others give grudging acceptance to the British.

Several examples exist of people tying ribbons around trees until loved ones returned from conflict and even convicts hoping to be accepted back into society

In one case, a British girl thought to be dead but who loved yellow was the catalyst for yellow ribbons and she was found, safe and well, two years later.  Her name was Sasha Cameron.

During the English civil war, many years earlier, the Puritan army of English Parliament wore yellow ribbons onto the battlefield.

The idea of yellow ribbons was quickly adopted by other countries.

Yellow is apparently the official colour of a branch of the US Army.

A 1917 American song talks about a yellow ribbon for a lover “who is fur, fur away”. This was again released, with slightly different words, about 40 years later, “for her soldier who was far, far away”.

Arsenal football fans have been known to sing a song “we’re the famous Arsenal; and we’re going to Wembley”.

The yellow ribbon has been used in Australia and New Zealand for a variety of messages, including suicide prevention. But it has been adopted in many countries. In Singapore the government initiated a campaign to encourage people to give ex-convicts a second chance at rehabilitation.

John Wayne starred in a 1949 film called She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Shakespeare talked about ribbons of all the colours of the rainbow, but that doesn’t help us much.

The word yellow has been added to just about every word imaginable, from dogs to frogs.

A couple of years ago I attended the Rotary world conference in Sydney. A Rotary stall, very proper and serious, was selling ribbons indicating each person’s level of achievement in that organisation. An opposition stall nearby was doing a roaring trade selling ribbons, but they were not as serious as the Rotary stall. I bought one that I presented to another person with due ceremony when I returned home.

This ribbon said something like” “I’m a nobody; I just like ribbons”.


If you’re interested: Invitations are going out now for Doris Day’s 92nd birthday party at the Cypress Inn, Carmel, California, on April 1. The cost is $50.;

Villain with some soft touches W/E JAN 23


A hagiography is the biography of a saint.

I want to tell you about a young man who received an award for bravery.

This young man saved a child, seven-year-old Richard Shelton, from Hughes Creek in Victoria, from drowning in a flooded creek.

The boy’s parents, Essua and Elizabeth Shelton, had been proprietors of Avenel’s Royal Mail Hotel, near Seymour.

The rescuer had been near the creek when he came across Richard Shelton, in the creek and near death.

Without hesitation, this young man jumped into the swollen creek and saved young Richard.

“He was a champion bloke, an absolute bloody champion,” said Richard Shelton’s grandson years later.

Richard’s parents presented the boy with a green silk sash for his bravery. The sash was 221 centimetre long and 14 centimetres wide, made of green silk complete with gold bullion fringes at each end. The colour chosen was symbolic of Irish heritage.

The rescuer’s name?

Ned Kelly.

Ned thought so much of the sash, and his effort in being awarded it, that he was wearing the sash beneath his armour at the 1889 Glenrowan siege.

The family of Dr John Nicholson, who treated Kelly’s 28 bullet wounds after the siege, donated the blood-stained sash to the Benalla museum in 1973.

Things could have been different for Ned Kelly and he could have slipped into the obscurity that involves all of us, if only things had been different.

Then I come to the word hagiography.

Lawyer and television presenter Geoffrey Robinson said several years ago that the Kelly family grievances were no excuse for the Kelly hagiography.

Here is a word that has caused several people to consult their dictionaries.

Hagiography is a branch of literature or legend relating to the lives of saints.

Surprisingly, several documents have used the expression “saint or sinner” when discussing Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly dictated to Joe Byrne what has become known as the Jerilderie Letter. He wanted to hand it to a local newspaper editor but that plan failed so he gave it to a bank teller instead. Kelly said about one incident: “I was not there or I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain; I would manure the Eleven Mile with their bloated carcasses and yet remember there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins.”

Just as well he wasn’t there!

The Greeks had a word hagio or hagi that related to the rule of saints. Hagiocracy referred to the government of persons “esteemed holy” – obviously not referring to any government in Australia. Hagiolatry was the worship of saints.

In 1656 a hagiographer was described as “he that writes holy things”.

Throughout the world, Ned Kelly is associated with Australia. I was in Singapore standing to one side, embarrassed, while an Australian friend bartered with a shop assistant for more than half an hour. Eventually, the shop assistant muttered to himself “Ned Kelly”.

Kelly died in 1880. Australians associate the expression “Such is Life” with Kelly, but Charles Dickens used that expression in Our Mutual Friend in 1865.

I give the last word to Ozwords editor Frederick Ludowyk: “He (Kelly) is regarded in Australian culture as both hero and villain.

“On the positive side, it is difficult to think of another personal name that has contributed so much to the word hoard of our Australian English,” he said.;