WE’VE been well and truly wamble-cropped in our house lately. As if it isn’t bad enough that I’ve been battling an evil, recurring infection for months, the beloved’s just been felled by a different kind of bug.
I’ve been ducking and diving out of his germ-laden way as much as possible, but to no avail – as of two days ago, a painful, hacking cough has had me in its clutches.
Multiple sneezes and a fuzzy, aching head tell me a rotten cold isn’t very far behind.
Health-wise, it definitely hasn’t been the best of times chez Godson recently, but I’m happy to report that when it comes to words, there’s been a bonanza. I haven’t even had to search for them; they’ve come winging my way as purposefully as a swarm of bees.
Take wamble-cropped (as indeed I have, wholeheartedly!). Popular in England between 1485 and 1603, it means unwell, according to Paul Anthony Jones, a writer, musician and author of word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, who I came across on the Mental Floss website the other day. On its own, he explains, the word “wambles” was used more specifically by the Tudors of merry old England to describe queasy tummy rumbles, of which I’ve had more than my fair share lately.
They could also be described by another of Mr J’s obscure words – borborygmus, which derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word. “Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis,” he says.
I know them well after my ghastly preparations for a recent colonoscopy. Several glasses full of liquid laxative, as well as jugs full of water – not the best way to spend a day! – guaranteed the sensation for me.
Now, to add to my woes, there’s the cough and incipient cold.
Always on the lookout for a silver lining, and bearing in mind my late mother-in-law’s admonition to feed a cold and starve a fever, when I stumbled across an entry on the Macmillan Dictionary blog about “starve” and “cold” I thought I’d found a consoling wordy connection to that, too. I should have known better: Starved WITH the cold, the entry was headed.
Reading on, I discovered it bore no relation to the folk remedy at all. “In Ireland”, explains the blog’s Stan Carey, “… you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry.”
“Starve” derives from old English word “steorfan”, which originally meant “die”, albeit in an unspecific way. The definition narrowed in the 14th century to mean “die of cold”, later narrowing even more to its current meaning – to die of hunger.
Such narrowing – also known to linguists as restriction or specialisation – is a common semantic process, says Mr C, throwing in some surprising examples. “Accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something unfortunate that happens by chance,” he says.
Similarly, an undertaker was anyone who undertook to do work. Deer meant animal, and meat was any kind of food. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for right now. A tasty snack, that is, to feed my cold (but nothing so rich it will set those wambles off again). – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)
Photo: Lexical by Brett Jordan