Cadger, cadge, and hawks.

Look up cadger in the dictionary and you will find its primary meaning has a very negative connotation. A cadger is someone who begs or borrows without any intent to repay the debt. Drop the trailing r and you have the verb cadge. Friends who do a lot of cadging are not the kind of friends we like to have around, especially at pubs and restaurants. As with many words in English, there’s more to cadger than your “friend” who habitually passes on the bill. A cadger is also a key member of a falconry hunting party, playing a role similar to a golf caddie.

Cadge took on the meaning of begging in the early 19th century. The verb likely derived from the Middle English cadgear, which in the mid 15th century, referred to an itinerant dealer in butter, eggs, fish, or poultry who carried his items for sale on a pack-horse. A cadger was a carrier and to cadge meant to carry. Some sources say cadger may be related to the Middle English caggen, meaning to fasten or tie. The cadger had to fasten his goods to the horse’s back. Over time, beggars who may have posed as peddlers came to be called cadgers and cadging transformed from respectable trading to suspect borrowing.

In falconry, a cadge is a wooden frame, padded on its upper side to provide a perch for the birds. This allows for several birds to be transported at once to the hunting field. The person carrying the cadge is known as a cadger. It’s not clear where cadge in the falconry sense came from. It may be a variant of cage or related to the old sense of cadge meaning to carry.

The job of cadger often fell to older falconers. Some claim that this is the source for the term old codger. Other sources insist that codger is a variant of the beggar form of cadger. The words cadger and codger were interchangeable in some parts of England and used separately in others. When used as distinct terms, a cadger was a beggar and a codger was a grotesque, old eccentric.

So to be a cadger may be good or bad depending on what you’re doing: in the pub welshing off friends or carrying birds on the hunting field. I suspect the hawks think we’re all cadgers living off the bounty of their hunting skills.

Attribution: illustration from The Ornithology of Shakespeare. Critically Examined, Explained, and Illustrated. By James Edmund Harting, 1871.

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Ariadne and Theseus by Niccolò Bambini (1651–1736).

Clue has undergone a radical transformation from its original meaning to its present day usage, and it’s all due to a famous story. If you asked someone in medieval England for a clue, they would not give you information to solve a mystery. Instead, they would hand you a ball of thread.

The modern word clue is a phonetic variant of clew which meant a ball of thread or yarn. Used in northern English and Scottish, clew derived from the Old English word cliewen, which meant skein or ball. The modern sense of the word clue developed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when the word clew became associated with the ball of thread that the Greek hero Theseus used to find his way out of the Labyrinth.

According to the ancient Greek story, the eldest son of King Minos of Crete was accidentally killed in Athens. Enraged, Minos attacked Athens and demanded a yearly tribute of seven young men and seven young women. The captives were taken to Crete and fed to the half-man half-bull Minotaur living in the Labyrinth under King Minos’s palace. Theseus offered himself as one of the captives.

When [Theseus] arrived at Crete, as most of the ancient historians as well as poets tell us, having a clue of thread given him by Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him, and being instructed by her how to use it so as to conduct him through the windings of the labyrinth, he escaped out of it and slew the Minotaur, and sailed back, taking along with him Ariadne and the young Athenian captives.

From John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Theseus.

So toss your cat a clue. Your furry friend will thank you.


Attribution: By Creator: Niccolò Bambini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. By Loliloli (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Union Graveyard in Easton Connecticut, home of the White Lady legend.

Like many words, the meaning of eerie has altered over the centuries. Ask anyone today and they’ll likely tell you it describes something mysterious, uncanny, or spine-chilling. We’re not quite sure about something eerie. We just know it’s strange, not quite right. The first evidence of that meaning—something evoking fear because of its strangeness—is from 1792. Previously, eerie meant someone was timid or affected with superstitious fear. Somehow usage transferred eerie from the victim to the object inspiring the fear. Both meanings are still with us today, though the original meaning lives on chiefly in Scottish areas. If you want to sound clever (or simply confusing), you can employ both meanings in the same sentence: The eerie boy hid behind a monument when he heard the eerie howl in the graveyard.

Eerie (also spelled eery) derives from Middle English eri, which is a north England and Scottish variant of Old English earg, meaning cowardly. Earg comes from Proto-Germanic *argaz, which has cognates in Old Frisian erg (evil), Middle Dutch arch (bad), Old High German arg (cowardly), German arg (wicked), Old Norse argr (unmanly), and Swedish arg (malicious). Interesting how the meanings of the cognates range from something cowardly to something wicked.

The name of the city Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania or the great lake have nothing to do with things mysterious or uncanny. Both names are shortened forms of Erielhonan, a Native American people that lived in the area. The Erielhonan were decimated in wars with the neighboring Iroquois during the 17th century and were eventually absorbed into the Seneca nation.

Photo Attribution: By Karl Thomas Moore (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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European Magpie.

It’s Burns Night, the anniversary of the birth (January 25, 1759) of Robert Burns. Let’s celebrate with something Scottish. Haggis, a traditional Scottish dish and a must-have for a Burns Night meal, is a type of sausage made from sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs that is minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt. Traditional recipes call for this mixture to be simmered in a sheep’s stomach or intestine for a few hours. Commercial haggis is usually prepared in a casing. Robert Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis” raised it to the status of Scotland’s national dish.

Is there that ower his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit:
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
Oh how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his wallie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

from “Address to a Haggis

Now that we know what haggis is and what it can do for you, we ask why is it called haggis? Why not something like “sheep stuff sausage” or “mutton offal” or something more descriptive, though less appetizing.

The first recorded usage of the word dates to the fifteenth century. There are two theories on the word’s origins. The first posits that the Middle English word hagese derived from the Old English word haggen, which means to chop. So, haggis refers to chopped up stuff. The second theory traces haggis to the Old French word agace, meaning magpie. In this case, haggis is analogous to the hodgepodge of items the birds are believed to collect for their nests. While the chopping theory sounds more likely, I’m cheering for the bird.

Attribution: By Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Illustration for “Childe Rowland” from Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales, 1895.

Ever had a clock that runs widdershins? Ever run widdershins around a church or ring of toadstools? If you’ve ever seen the sun going widdershins, you’re either in the Southern Hemisphere or you need to return your compass. It’s defective. Widdershins (also spelled withershins) means to move counter-clockwise or in the opposite direction of the sun, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. In English folklore, to move widdershins around something is considered unnatural and unlucky. It might even bring out the fairy people.

Widdershins is a chiefly Scottish word. The first recorded usage is from the early 1500s. Widdershins derives from weddersinnes, a Middle Low German word meaning to go against the normal way or in the opposite direction. The two parts of the word come from Middle and Old High German: wider, meaning against, combined with sinnen, meaning to travel or journey.

Running or dancing widdershins around something, particularly a church, figures in many English folk tales. One of the best known is “Childe Rowland,” popularized by Joseph Jacobs in his English Folk and Fairy Tales. Based on a Scottish ballad, Jacobs’s telling alternates between poetry and prose. The story tells how Rowland rescues his three siblings who have been imprisoned in the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower. The first sibling to be taken to Elfland is Rowland’s sister, Burd Ellen, who runs widdershins round a church when chasing a ball.

Childe Rowland kicked it with his foot
And caught it with his knee;
At last as he plunged among them all
O’er the church he made it flee.

Burd Ellen round about the aisle
To seek the ball is gone,
But long they waited, and longer still,
And she came not back again.

They sought her east, they sought her west.
They sought her up and down,
And woe were the hearts of those brethren
For she was not to be found

So at last her eldest brother went to the Warlock Merlin and told him all the case, and asked him if he knew where Burd Ellen was. “The fair Burd Ellen,” said the Warlock Merlin, “must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church ‘widershins’—the opposite way to the sun. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland; it would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.”

So be careful you don’t go walking widdershins, and if you do find yourself in Elfland, don’t eat the food.

Attribution: By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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European SquirrelVair is a little-used word that will give squirrels nightmares. It means squirrel fur, specifically the white and bluish-gray fur of the Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). In Northern and Central Europe, the Eurasian Red Squirrel’s winter coat is blueish-gray on the back and white on the belly. In medieval times, this fur was used as a lining for expensive cloaks in which alternating pieces of blue and white fur were sewn together to create a variegated pattern. The word entered Middle English circa 1300 from the Old French vair, an adjective for mottled or variegated, which derived from the Latin varius meaning variegated or various. Obviously the word is more associated with the pattern created from the fur than any properties of the fur itself. Vair also signifies an alternating pattern of blue and white used in heraldry.

Vair-lined mantle
depicted on the tomb of Geoffrey V of Anjou.

Once upon a time vair played a role in a controversy regarding the source of Cinderella’s glass slippers as described in Charles Perrault’s version. There are well over a hundred versions of the Cinderella tale from various cultures. Only a few versions mention glass slippers. In the majority of cases, the shoes are made of gold or not described. In the Grimm’s version, for example, Cinderella goes to a ball on three different nights. On the first night, her shoes are “silk slippers embroidered with silver”, undescribed on the second night, and “pure gold” slippers on the third night. Some scholars propose that Perrault had meant “une paire de pantoufles de vair” which through printing and translation errors became verre, the French word for glass. The problem with this theory is that Perrault’s original text contains pantoufles de verre and the glass slippers are mentioned three times. Another explanation says that the oral tradition used vair, but Perrault, perhaps unfamiliar with the little-used word, misheard and recorded verre. Glass slippers or gold are not practical footwear. The point of the substance of the shoes is to emphasize their magical quality: the more brittle the substance, the more magical the slippers. It appears the glass slippers are Perrault’s contribution to the Cinderella story.

Attribution: A European squirrel, by Matti Parkkonen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Geoffrey V of Anjou image, by Original creater of enamel unknown. (Photograph of enamel on tomb.) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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“Hobgoblins” from Francisco Goya’s
Los Caprichos (1799).

Goblins abound in fantasy literature, from Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market to George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but where does the word come from? And what is a goblin?

Goblins come in many shapes and sizes and temperaments, ranging from grotesquely evil to mischievous and annoying. Tolkien’s goblins, later rechristened orcs, lean in the evil direction while MacDonald’s goblins lean the other way. Goblins are typically small, ranging from a few inches to the stature of a dwarf. They’re not much to look at either. In some stories, they possess magical abilities. No matter their form or temperament, these ugly fairies are not good to have around.

I assumed the word had a Germanic or Norse origin but it’s antecedents are not so easily traced, which seems strangely appropriate for such a creature. One line dates the word’s first recorded usage to the fourteenth century and traces it to the old French word gobelin derived from Gobelinus, a spirit said to haunt Évreux, a region in Normandy in northern France. Another theory relates goblin to the German word kobold—meaning household goblin—derived from the Medieval Latin term cabalus from the Greek words kobalos—a rogue or knave—and kobaloi—the wicked spirits that rogues invoked. Kobold was also used by silver miners in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany to refer to rock containing arsenic and sulfur. The contaminants degraded the ore and made the miners sick.

The word hobgoblin dates from the 1520s, combining hob with goblin. Hob derives from Hobbe, a variant of Rob, which is a short name for Robin Goodfellow, a mischievous elf better known to Shakespeare fans as Puck. Hobgoblin might also mean the goblin of the hob. When fireplaces were used for cooking, a hob was a shelf at the back or side of a hearth to keep food and utensils warm. What goblin could resist making mischief with unguarded food?

Attribution: Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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