Burnt Toast Editorial

The #NoBullshit Publishing Consultancy

Category Archive:Etymology

Pen, pluma, feder: etymology of the tools of a writer’s trade by our guest writer, Marius Gabriel 

How about a brief excursion into the etymology of the tools of the writer’s trade? The word “pen” is derived from the Latin penna, a feather – because, of course, for many centuries people wrote with quill pens, trimming and splitting the nibs with sharp little “pen knives”.

The German feder, Spanish and Italian pluma and French plume are all derived from the same etymological root. I’ve always found it an attractive idea that writing should be associated with wings, and that the same, proverbially light scrap of protein should bestow the power of flight on both birds and words. The plume should be ideally plucked from a nice fat goose, which could be paid for by exerting the feather, together with a little ink.

“Ink” itself has a very noble ancestry, being derived from encaustum, the purple liquid used by Roman emperors for signing. Ah, the power of the word! It’s related, of course, to “encaustic”, the technique of painting with melted, coloured wax, which produces vivid effects, but allows very few second thoughts. The artist has only a few moments before the wax cools, and so must get it right the first time – a lesson many writers might do well to learn, perhaps? 

An Abridged History of Writing Instruments, © G.D. Konstantine.

“Encaustum” is derived from Greek kaustikos, “burning”, because flame is needed to melt the wax; and the word is related to our “caustic”, meaning words or materials capable of burning, and also to “holocaust”, the burning of everything.

The great Holocaust in which twelve million human beings were consumed also began with a few words signed in ink.

Interestingly, the word “pencil” has a different derivation from “pen”, and comes from Latin “penis”, a tail. That this word also applies to the male sexual organ is one of those happy Freudian coincidences – or is it? Ay, thereby hangs a tale. It may be worth remembering that ‘author’ derives from the Latin verb augere, to make something grow, to originate, promote or increase.

These days, of course, pens and pencils have largely given way to keyboards. Although “keyboard” is a fairly recent coinage, dating to the early nineteenth century, the use of the word “key” to denote the striking lever of a musical instrument goes back to mediaeval times. The clavichord was a fifteenth century predecessor of the harpsichord and the piano, in which a string (chorda) was struck with a key (clavis).

This concept was transferred to typewriters and thence to the computers we now use. Once again, there is something beguiling about this association, the clicking of our keyboards translating into flowing music. It makes one wonder what the next tool of the writer’s trade will be?

© Marius Gabriel, 2021.

This post is by Marius Gabriel. He is the author of a number of historical novels, including The Ocean Liner and The Parisians, as well as the Redcliffe Sisters 2-part series, Take Me To Your Heart Again and Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye. 

His novel set in wartime Paris, The Designer, won the Romantic Novelists Association Prize for Historical Romance. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, with a recent three-year domicile in Egypt. He now lives in Lincolnshire and has three grown-up children. To view all of Marius’s books click here

© Marius Gabriel, 2019.




Irritatingly bumptious? The etymology of our #wonderword of the week 

The ABC of Bumptious Beasts. Poems, Gail Kredenser (Harlequin Quist), 1966.

I suppose if we’re being honest we would all confess to being a tad bumptious on occasion, say, perhaps when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. It’s also highly likely that we’ve encountered someone who is irritatingly self-assertive all the damn time: the sort of person who’s never wrong and is more than eager to let everyone know.

Certainly such characters are found depicted in novels by Dickens and Trollope or in Ealing comedy films of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and those of the Carry On comedies. Contemporaries which spring to mind as fitting the definition of the word are John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons), Boris Johnson (now British PM), Donald J. Trump (President of the United States of America), Morrissey (singer-songwriter, now turned writer of fiction), Kanye West (giant ego), Piers Morgan (another giant ego) and Ricky Gervais, who in real life and in fictional representation as David Brent, reveals an ego the size of a planet.

Synonyms of bumptious are equally splendid: swollen-headed, puffed-up, sententious, pontificating, overweening, strutting, cocky, snooty, uppity. You get my drift? 

Bumptious is as bumptious does: a word that perfectly signifies its meaning when pronounced. A compound of the words “bump” and “fractious” its etymological origin believed to be an expression coined by students at Cambridge University in the nineteenth century ¹ to denote those who were deemed “showy” – a social sin far greater than most in the best social circles. 

¹ Bristed, Charles Astor, Five Years in an English University, 3rd ed., (G. P. Putnam & Sons), 1873, p. 193.


Know someone who boasts, puffs themselves up or is tight with their money? Then you have our #wonderword of the week 

Puckfyst – a crazy word you might say. Is it even a word? In fact it’s an Old English word that like many have now slipped out of common usage. Its etymological root is the noun puck (a mischievous nature sprite) + the noun fist or fyst (the fungus known as puffball). 

Lycoperdon bovista, “Flora Batava of Afbeelding en Beschrijving van Nederlandsche Gewassen, IX Deel”, Jan Kops (1846). Illustration by Christiaan Sepp.

Puckfyst has three definitions 1) relating to the fungi Lycoperdon Bovista that contains dusty spores which when disturbed allow the fungus to distribute into the wind allowing reproduction; 2) a term of contempt for a braggart; 3) a niggard, someone who is mean and close-fisted. So should you meet or know a person who boasts, puffs themselves up or is tight with their money, then you have found yourself a puckfyst.

The first published record of the word is 1598 in the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonsons Every Man In His Humour: “To be enamour’d on this dusty turf, This clod, a whoreson puck-fist”.

He uses it twice more in his work, for example in 1601 in Poetaster (a poetaster being an inferior poet with artistic pretentions, first coined by Erasmus in 1521): “I’ll blow him into aire, when I meet him next: He dares not fight with a puck-fist.” 

Not so surprisingly puckfyst or puckfist is found in books on farming, the earliest record being 1766 in The Complete Farmer: “The narcotic, or stupefying fume, is made with the large mushroom, commonly known by the name bunt, puckfist, or frog-cheese.” ¹

In writings on bee-keeping it is first mentioned as early as 1609: “Next vnto Brimstone [for smoking bees] is the smoake of Bunt or great Pucfists, Tuchwood, or Mushrums.”

¹ Miles, W. J., The Complete Farmer: or a General Dictionary of Husbandry, The Society of Gentlemen), 1766.



Hugotontheonbiquiffinarians is this week’s #wonderword. Or is it? 

Having set myself the task of choosing a #wonderword of the week, I discover the hardest part is deciding which one?

In my search for this week’s little humdinger I stumbled across two very rich sources of the etymology of the English language – both focussing on the historical development of slang or indeed “vulgar”, “canting”, or what we might consider today to be “urban”. There are subtle differences.

These sources are The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, ¹ and the “Dictionary of Cant and English Slang. A Collection of the Canting Words and Terms, both ancient and modern, used by Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifters, Foot-Pads, Highway-Men, &c;” in The Universal Etymological English Dictionary, by N. Bailey, London, 1737, Vol. II. ²

I was toying with the idea of selecting the word Hugotontheonbiquiffinarians which interestingly has the same number of letters as the alphabet, but decided rightly, I think, that as I can’t even pronounce the word adequately much less find any more information other than it was a Society that existed in 1748, it was best not to tread any further.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to know that Hugotontheonbiquiffinarians is mentioned in an academic paper entitled ‘Third Edition of Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Bookseller’s Hackwork or Posthumous Masterpiece?” given at a Lexicography conference at the University of Leicester in 2002. ³

What about the word I finally plump for? It’s Hum Box. Quite simply it was the slang word used in the eighteenth century (and possibly earlier) for the pulpit, and its origin is closely linked to the word “hum”, the plural of which (“hums”) was used to describe large numbers of people congregating in a church. 

The Pulpit © Dave Walker. 2019.

Therefore to describe a pulpit as a Hum Box was surely not just a description of the place from where sermons were delivered nor the sound emanating from it, but also, perhaps, a humorous or even derogatory swipe at the English clergy of the eighteenth century?

Nowadays, a Hum Box has a different meaning and application. Mostly connected to electronic sound equipment, alas.

¹ See here.

² See here.

³ Coleman, Julie, & McDermott, Anne, (eds), Historical Dictionaries and Historical Dictionary Research: Papers from the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, at the University of Leicester, (Walter de Gruyter), 2004. See here