Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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“incontinent varlets”

A colleague has a calendar of Shakespearean insults which he sometimes shares with us. One recent insult included varlet, which got me thinking about what that actually means. It’s a variant of valet, which comes from vassal + et (diminutive), which in turn comes from Latin vassus, servant. 

I had always pronounced valet to rhyme with ballet, so I was surprised to hear the characters on Downton Abbey pronouncing it to rhyme with ballot. That was the original pronunciation. I think the first pronunciation arose later when actual valets fell out of general use and people read the word rather than hearing it. Valet parking always rhymes with ballet, though. 

The Shakespeare’s Words website shows 27 uses of varlet and associated forms. Without checking each one, it is just possible that some of them mean manservant without any accusation of roguery. Varlets come in various flavours, from thou precious varlet (probably in the sense of flagrant, gross) and a good varlet, through a brazen-faced varlet, dishonest varlet, dissembling abominable varlet, incontinent varlets (that needs some context), male varlet (which seems to suggest the existence of a female varlet somewhere (compare female valets, which exist)), thou naughty varlet, the veriest varlet, varlet vile and wicked varlet to the shouting varletry.

Travesties and farces

One sports headline quoted someone calling the end of the Australia v China women’s basketball match, in which China was awarded a foul with with 0.6 seconds remaining, a “travesty”. Another quoted someone calling the end of the men’s high jump, in which Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi decided to share the gold medal rather than jump off for gold and silver, a “farce”. I’m not familiar enough with the rules of either sport to be able to comment on the sports angle, but I’m familiar enough with words to know that travesty and farce were both originally theatrical words.

Travesties (trans + vestire) were ridiculous parodies of serious works. The actors may or may not have cross-dressed (compare transvestite). Farces (farcīre, farsus, stuffed) were “fillings”, light, humorous plays between more serious works, or standalones (which sometimes made serious points about eg the relationship between masters and servants, or men and women). Farce still (possibly just) bears its original meaning (“My new play is a farce”), but travesty doesn’t (“My new play is a travesty”). 

This is another example, if one is needed, that the meanings of words change over time. People who say “This word means that (and can only mean that), because the etymology of X means that” are almost certainly wrong. Silly people. (I thought I’d blogged about silly before, but apparently not.)

“Swimming dancing to music”

Nine years ago I used the then-current London Olympics to talk about the Olympic Games, Olympic sports in particular and other sports in general, especially those popular in the students’ countries or which they played, which also gave a lot of opportunities for asking questions with who, what, where, when, how, how much, how many, how many times, how long and why. At the time, I had two students from Greece in my class, who actually lived within sight of Mount Olympus. One of them especially said “Oooh, is Greek word” any time we encountered a Greek word, which was obviously a lot during this class. The other one thought very carefully and said “swimming dancing to music” as an Olympic sport. With a little bit of knowledge of Greek I was able to guide him towards swimming with (σύν, sún, syn-) music and in time (χρόνος, khrónos, chron-) to it.

“Swimming dancing to music” is actually a very good attempt to communicate when he didn’t know the actual word.

A pane in the glass

A document referred to someone working as a panebeater. I speculated whether that had something to do with making glass, or breaking it. I had never previously considered that panes and panels are related, from Middle French pan and Latin pannus, a piece of cloth. Panels are, literally, little panes

Nowadays, a pane is almost certainly glass, though also records it in connection with wood panelling, while a panel can be wood, metal, plastic, glass or people. We probably say pane of glass and glass panel, though, while wood panel and panel of wood etc are probably interchangeable. (Note expert panel and panel of experts.) Panels overlap with boards, in referring to both the pieces of wood and the people who sit at them. 


A document referred to a circumstance stymying someone.

Stymying looks wrong, but so does stymieing. Stymie is by far the preferred spelling, but stymy is attested. Stymies and stymied look reasonable. Although it is more often used as a verb (1850s), it was first used as a noun (1830s). Its origin is uncertain, but, given its connection with golf, it is possibly a Scottish dialectal word. 


An article in one of Sydney’s Sunday papers anonymously interviews drivers for senior members of our governments, including examples of the things they see or hear in the course of their job. It explains that ministerial drivers are 

notoriously discrete

I would have expected them to stick together! 

Discrete and discreet are often confused. I was surprised to find that they share an etymology in Latin discrētus, separate (and are also related to discern). has a usage note (scroll down) which I won’t reproduce here.

Google Ngrams shows that discrete is most often used to describe time, event, Fourier (transform), values, set, points, units, particles, steps and components (all things), while discreet is used to describe man, person, silence, manner, men, persons, woman, use and management (all people or their behaviour).

grave adultery

English (and I suspect every language) has pairs of words which look, sound and mean like they are or might be related, but actually aren’t. I encountered two pairs this week. After work on Monday I had to attend to an official task, so in my last email to my colleagues I said I was going “to adult” after work. The next morning I said that that result of my adultery adulting was that I have to pay more money for an official task than I thought I would. 

So are adult and adultery related? I had vaguely assumed that adultery is something which adults do, which is kind of true, but … ummm … no. Adult is from Latin adultus, grown and adolēre, to make grow, and adultery is from Latin adulterātus mixed, adulterated and adulterāre, compare English alter, change and Latin alter, other. Adultery and adulteration are related, but the former now refers only to sexual activity outside marriage and the latter most often to food(s), milk, goods, article(s), samples, drugs, butter and liquors. I pondered whether the biblical commandment also refers to the latter meaning, given so many other laws against mixing things, but Wikipedia’s article only discusses the first meaning.

One of my colleagues expressed puzzlement at my use of adult as a verb, but it’s reached major dictionaries:

Informal. (of a young person) to do things and assume responsibilities that are associated with being an adult; act like an adult (usually used facetiously about minor accomplishments):

(not necessarily of a young person!)

The internet is full of words and images along the lines of I don’t want to adult today. I don’t even want to person. I want to cat or dog or goat. (Note that in the sense of follow someone or something, dog is a perfectly good verb.)

I’m not sure how I got thinking about the word grave, with its two meanings of a burial hole and solemn, which could be related: a grave mistake is one which will put you in a grave, and your friends will stand around looking grave. But, again, no. The burial hole is from Old English græf, cognate with German Grab. The solemn mistake or looks are from Latin gravis, heavy. But the first meaning is related to engrave and a graven image.

I am in the middle of a burst of activity in researching family history. I have a moderately large amount of material already, so my first task is collate that, but in confirming that with official sources, I have found a lot more. One of my ancestral families has the surname Grace. Along the way, I have found the website Find a grave. Now, I keep mis-typing the two words, especially because c and v are next to each other on the keyboard.


I was using Google Maps to look at a medium-sized city in Nigeria (because work) and spotted Absorption Cathedral. I tested it out on six browsers on two computers at work and home. Microsoft Edge, Google Crome for Windows at work and Google Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer for Mac at home call it Absorption Cathedral. Internet Explorer for Windows at work calls it Assumpta Maria Cathedral (as does Bing Maps for Mac at home). The diocese’s own website call it Assumpta Cathedral (as do Wikipedia’s pages for the diocese and the cathedral) and there are results online for Maria Assumpta Cathedral

I can understand that Google Maps displays differently on different browsers, but would have assumed (<haha) that it uses the same data for each. The Roman Catholic Church is a major international organisation, so the information must be readily available. A number of travel websites show accommodation near Absorption Cathedral

Absorption and assumption have similar meanings (ab- sorbēre to suck in, swallow and ad- + sūmere to take up). Assumption has been given a theological meaning, but absorption hasn’t. 

PS The Borg on Star Trek was/were at the back of my mind, but the word used there is assimilation.


Musicians in the English-speaking often use Italian musical terms instead of the English equivalents. Somehow they sound more musical, or maybe we think they are more musical because we usually encounter them in musical contexts. One of these is ritardando, which I’ll explain more in a moment. Some composers, most famously the Australian-American Percy Grainger, preferred or prefer English, specifically Germanic, terms. In Grainger’s case, unfortunately, this was specifically related to his ideas about racial purity.

A few days ago, one of the choirs I sing in sight-read a work by the American composer Leo Sowerby, whose name I knew but whose music I had never encountered. Scattered throughout is retarding, the direct equivalent of ritardando, but still Latinate. Grainger probably used the undoubtedly Germanic slowing. (I don’t know what Sowerby’s motivation in using the term was.)

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