Widdershins and myriads

Familiar words that I’m curious about the etymology of.

Chink in the sense of narrow opening or crack. Collins English dictionary tells us that it is from the Old English “cine” meaning crack, which has cognates in Danish and Middle Dutch. I was pleased to note that it’s related to the word “chine” used on the south coast, which I like the sound of but never previously realised that it was a word. It’s in the dictionary though as a southern English dialect word, meaning a deep fissure in the wall of a cliff.

Smirk, defined in the Concise Oxford as smiling in an irritating. smug or silly way, originating from the Old English sme(a)rcian, from a base shared with “smile”. Wikipedia tells us too about the common origin of smirk and smile, giving me the impression that smirk has somehow besmirched its reputation over the years. According to Collins, smirk is associated with the Old High German “bismer” meaning contempt (leading my thoughts to besmirch) and my Old English dictionary has “smerian” to laugh or to scorn, indicating that perhaps “smirk” has had a bad reputation from way back.

Myriad, which I’m fond of and know that it had to do with a large number, comes from (Classical) Greek meaning ten thousand and later innumerable. If you’re facing 10,000 enemies, you haven’t much time to count them so it’s best not to stop to count but to move on and regard them as innumerable (at least until you’ve decimated them).

Consiglere, I was familiar with as some kind of boss with sinister over or undertones. But it has a more exact meaning as the boss (often a criminal boss’s) right-hand man, someone high up in the organisation who is not the top dog. I’m glad to know but unlike myriad, it’s going to trip off my tongue rarely, if at all.

Barney – I vaguely knew and associated with groups of inebriated (mostly men) being together in a rowdy way but more exactly it seems to be a quarrel.

New words

“widdershins” was new to me and is apparently a Scottish word meaning contrary to the direction of the sun or more generally in the wrong direction. Collins adds that it’s a variant of “withershins”. I’m not sure that I can find a use for this word even though I do my share of widershinning.

Then there was “tunbellied”, to keep “potbellied” company, which I rather like. It’s easy to guess the meaning as “tun” is a beer cask. Somewhat more grandiose then than a pot belly.

And some “general knowledge words”

“peplos” is an item of apparel that women wore in ancient Greece.

I read in Wikipedia about the sacred peplos “On the last day of the month Pyanepsion, the priestess of Athena Polias and the Arrephoroi, a group of girls chosen to help in the making of the sacred peplos, set up the loom on which the enormous peplos was to be woven by the Ergastinai, another group of girls chosen to spend about nine months making the sacred peplos. They had to weave a theme of Athena’s defeat of Enkelados and the Olympian’s defeat of the Giants. The peplos of the statue was changed each year during the Plynteria.

The peplos played a role in the Athenian festival of the Great Panathenaea. Nine months before the festival, at the arts and crafts festival titled Chalkeia, a special peplos would begin to be woven by young women. This peplos was placed on the statue of Athena during the festival procession. The peplos had images of the mythic battle between gods and giants woven into its material and usually consisted of purple and saffron yellow cloth”.

I’m struck by similarities between the Nordic myths about the battles between the Gods and the giants and the Greek. But also about the great gaps in my education about the Greek myths. I would like to fill them.

Finally, a Swedish word “blodsten”, hematite in English. TNC’s geological dictionary (geologisk ordista) gives “hematite” (derived from the Greek for blood (haema) and meaning “blood resembling, some varieties of hematite having a red colouring. However, according to Wiki, the word “heliotrope” is also associated with bloodstone; I’m unsure of the distinction, whether one of the words is superordinate. The classic bloodstone is opaque green jasper with red inclusions of hematite. Heliotrope is also the name of a flower, its etymology being a combination of Greek words meaning turning towards the sun. According to Wiki, the application of the name heliotrope to a mineral was associated with the writings of Pliny the Elder who mentioned its use by magicians as a stone of invisibility. In India it was thought good to staunch bleeding, the gnostics wore it as an amulet for longevity and the ancient Romans and Greeks as a charm against the bite of venomous creatures.

All this and more in “The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems, by William Thomas and Kate Pavitt, [1922]. This is the point at which my thirst for knowledge turns into slight nausea.

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