Hocus-pocus: tricks or treats?

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Not that the word hocus-pocus (мошенничество, надувательство, обман) is very commonly used in English these days.

Though in Russia its equivalent фокус-покус is still regularly in use – whether it’s due to Russia’s being a land of magic or a place where a lot of deception (= the act of making people believe something that is not rrue) happens we’ll leave to our readers to guess.

Anyway, it’s a word with an interesting history which I’d like to share with you.

The origins of hocus-pocus are still debated. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, it dates back to the seventeenth-century mock (= only pretending to be real) Latin phrase hax pax max Deus adimax used by conjurors (=a person who does magic tricks to entertain people) as a magical formula capable of putting a white rabbit into a previously empty top hat.

However, I personally prefer the alternative version. In the ceremony of Mass ( = the most important religious service in some Christian churches), the faithful ( = believers) are shown a piece of bread and a glass of wine which the priest proclaims ( = to say publicly that something is true) the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

In the past, all religious services were carried out in Latin, the language only the few initiated ( =those in the know) knew.

To the illiterate ( = those who can’t read or write) masses gathered around the God’s representative on earth, the sacramental blessing Hoc est corpus meum – ‘This is my body!’ – made no sense whatsoever, and due to their lacking knowledge of Latin got garbled ( =mixed up) into Hocus pocus!

Born as a magic formula, over time hocus pocus widened its meaning to any words or activities designed to trick someone or hide what is going on.

Example: In her opinion, homeopathy is nothing but a lot of hocus-pocus.

Hope you found this story interesting and added a few new words to you vocabulary!

Al fresco: a useful summertime word

British summers can be very disappointing, as it has been this year, but when it’s warm enough, sunny and dry, we just love eating and drinking al fresco, that is in the fresh air, be it in a pavement café, a beer garden at a local pub or the privacy of your own back garden or patio.

I had an al fresco lunch with my colleagues in Hyde Park.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

The phrase was adopted from Italian in mid-eighteenth century and has been in use ever since.

Funny enough, in its original Italian al fresco is a slang term meaning ‘in prison’, like the English phrase ‘in the cooler’. So if one day you find yourself in Italy in need of a table outside, to avoid confusion ask for one all’aperto. Unless you speak Italian, of course.

Freelancer: from a warrior to a nomadic employee

Image by Dorota Kudyba from Pixabay

What springs to your mind when you hear the word freelance? The usual suspects are likely to be ‘work’ and ‘self-employed’. Quite rightly so, as to freelance means being your own boss when it comes to choosing who to work for and for how long. In other words, unlike others who stick to their jobs for years and years, freelancers move from employer to employer selling their expertise to those who offer the best pay.

Continue reading “Freelancer: from a warrior to a nomadic employee”

Bully: from sweetheart to tyrant

No doubt, bullying is shameful and bullies are nasty. However, they haven’t always been so. When the word bully made its first appearance in English in the 1530s it meant ‘sweetheart’, ‘lover’.

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Then, at some point it took on an additional meaning of ‘protector of a prostitute’ and its fate was decided. Over time, the original meaning was forgotten leaving us with the current ‘harasser of the weak’.

Schmooze

It’s amazing how much meaning can be carried in just one short word. Take schmooze. Deriving from the Yiddish word for ‘to chat’, in English it’s got an extra layer of meaning. Schmoozing often implies not just a friendly chat but one that’s done to gain some advantage for the person who does it and is common at networking events.

An aspiring actress, she spent the entire evening schmoozing with TV producers and film directors.

Someone who’s good at this sort of chatting and practises it a lot can be called a schmoozer.

If you want to make it big in show business, you’ve got to be a schmoozer and a real charmer.

Enquiry Vs Inquiry

If you look up the word enquiry in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, you’ll see no definition but the following remark especially British English another spelling of inquiry‘. To find out what ‘enquiry’ means, you need to click on ‘inquiry’ in bold type.

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This is another curious case. Both enquiry and inquiry can mean question, inquest or investigation and be used interchangeably. However, in the UK there’s a slowly growing tendency to use inquiry to refer to the official process to find out about something,

e.g. The villagers are demanding a public inquiry into the fire that destroyed the local school.

whereas the use of enquiry is becoming preferable to mean a question as in

I’d like to make an enquiry about your language courses.

One day enquiry and inquiry are likely to start living their separate lives, but until then you can use whichever you prefer (inquiry is more widely accepted in American English).

Now you know!

Enfant terrible: more than just an ill-mannered child

Last weekend my husband and I went to the supermarket to do our weekly shopping and witnessed yet another unasked for and very unwelcome performance by a badly-mannered child, whose typical reaction to not getting what he/she wants is to throw tantrums.

Image by gfergu1 from Pixabay

You could call a kid that embarrasses his elders a terrible child, or you could use the French expression enfant terrible /ˌɒnfɒn teˈriːblə/ instead.

When the term first arrived in English in the mid-19th century, it was used to refer to unpredictable children who blurted out outrageous remarks that embarrassed their elders. By the 1930s, an enfant terrible could be anyone – regardless of their age – whose unconventional or shocking behaviour scandalised mainstream society.

Since his debut in the 1970s, he’s been the enfant terrible of British pop music.

These days the phrase is also often applied to young, successful newcomers who shock or scare old-timers with their new approaches, easy successes, or disregard for tradition.

Ad lib: two tiny words with a lot of meaning

Ad lib is one of my favourite borrowings, as it says in just two tiny words what English needs a whole sentence to express.

Ad lib (also ad-lib) derives from the Latin ad libitum, meaning ‘to (one’s) pleasure, as much as one likes’, and was originally used to indicate the points within a piece of sheet music or theatrical script where performers could exercise unrestrained freedom of self-expression.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Now we use this phrase as a synonym of the verb improvise, that is to mean ‘to speak or perform in public without preparation’.

I had to ad-lib as I’d forgotten my lines.

He ad-libbed his way through the entire speech.

Ad lib can also act as

  • an adjective: Ann had always been much better at writing than speaking, so when asked to give an ad-lib speech she was completely paralysed with fear.
  • an adverb: He spoke ad lib.
  • and a noun: I’m sorry to say this but your ad-libs sounded anything but spontaneous.

Pyjamas

What do you wear in bed? Do you sleep in your birthday suit (=naked) or do you prefer to have something on like a nightie (informal word for nightdress), a onesie (an all-in-one item of clothing that covers your body, arms and legs) or pyjamas?

Image by Наталья Данильченко from Pixabay

The word pyjamas derives from the Persian paijama. The original paijama are loose, lightweight trousers with draw-string waistbands worn in Asia by both men and women. In the UK, pyjamas are made up of two pieces – a pair of trousers and a top – and are worn in bed.

For British children, there are lots of pet abbreviations, among them ‘jamas’, ‘p-jays’, ‘jimmy jams’ and ‘jimmies’. They differ between families and whatever word you’re brought up with is correct and the other terms are weird.

Derriere, or the embellished behind

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How many English words for the part of your body you sit on do you know?

Well, the choices are plenty – bottom, rear (also rear end), rump, backside, buttocks, cheeks, hindquarters, bum, butt and arse (AmE ass) to name just a few.

However, my favourite is the French derrière.

If you’re proud of your derrière, show it off in these hot pants.

It arrived in the English language at the end of the 18th century as a euphemism for ‘behind’. Basically, the word ‘behind’, which already was in use to refer to the part of the body in question, was translated to derrière. How or why it happened remains unclear. Possibly, the French equivalent was thought to sound less vulgar and even kind of respectful in contrast to ‘arse’, ‘bum’ and ‘buttocks’. And so it does, don’t you think?