Swiss rolls

It’s a rainy day today and I’m having a break drinking Earl Grey with a slice of chocolate Swiss roll. I love the BBC show The Great British Bake Off, so inspired by their Swiss Rolls last week I made one for myself on the weekend (if you want to see my post about it, you can on my crafting and baking blog here). I was going to write a little post on baking word etymologies, but then realised how many words just the Swiss roll has to describe it in English.

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

The name Swiss roll has its first recorded use in 1897 and the name might have originated in England. It’s an odd name choice as the Swiss roll isn’t from Switzerland. The OED describes it as “a ‘sweet’ consisting of sponge cake rolled up with a layer of jam”, although I’d probably use it to describe any sweet sponge roll around a filling and a search online seems to confirm this more general use.

The oldest name I could find for it in English is roulade, which was first recorded in English in 1702 and came into the language from French. This is a more general term and refers to savoury and sweet rolls. Apparently it was originally filled with meat.

If a Swiss roll is filled with jam I grow up calling it a (jam) roly-poly. But it seems that this term specifically refers to rolls made of suet and served hot. Roly-poly has its first recorded use in 1821 and according to the OED is also in extended use for other sorts of filling.

The word has other meanings, such as used to describe a plump person. While I imagine the pudding’s name came from the way it’s made by rolling up a filling, I’d quite like to think it was called roly-poly because of its satisfactory plump appearance! The roly part of the word likely comes from the verb to roll, meaning to sway. Poly doesn’t seem to have an inherent meaning and the OED says that apparently roly-poly seems to be formed from a reduplication of roll (with the -y suffix) with a p substituting for the r. In all the historical spelling variants listed (rowle-powle, roley-poley, etc) roly and poly are spelt the same except for the initial consonant. However the OED notes that in the first sense of roly-poly (a now obsolete meaning referring to a rascal) poly could come from the word poll (the part of the head on which the hair grows).

In America a Swiss roll seems to be commonly called a jelly roll. This term dates from at least 1895 – around the same time as Swiss roll – and is still used in America. Jelly roll is also now sexual slang, apparently. I’m guessing that the term jelly roll comes from the common jam filling, jelly being the American term for jam.

If made from chocolate and specifically eaten near Christmas it can be called a Yule log, whether decorated like a log or not. I’d also know it as a Bûche de Noël.

In this list there seems to be French-English alternatives: Swiss roll/roulade, Yule log/Bûche de Noël. I once talked to a French woman about what we traditionally ate at Christmas in our countries. She referred to something she said translated as ‘English cake’ (or something similar) and described it as a Swiss roll. I can’t seem to find anything about this online so I’m not sure if we’d become lost in translation, but I’d like to find out if this was true. With our borrowed French terms it would be strange if in France they actually called it something else!


Kine: an interesting plural

I read that the only plural in English which shares no letters with its singular form is ‘kine’, a plural for cow. I thought this was really cool until I was disappointed to be reminded that I/we and me/us also fits this description. But it’s still interesting. Plus I that the pronouns aren’t plurals in the same way … unless perhaps I clone myself and make two ‘I’s.

I’d never heard of ‘kine’ before and the OED declares it archaic, but my mother tells me it’s still often used in her cryptic crosswords.

Interestingly as well as not sharing letters with cow, it seems to have a double plural ending. In old English kine was originally ‘cy’ which became cȳna, the genitive plural of cū (cow). In Middle English this became kyn and now kine.

The Old English ‘cy’ seems to have denoted a plural, with another the pluralising ‘(e)n’ suffix added to this. This shows the same plural ending as other irregular plurals, such as children and oxen.

This TED video gives a short, simplified video about plurals which was a fun little watch:


Emoji and emoticon

Last week’s OED word of the day was emoji: an icon used to show an emotion in computer mediated communication. It’s apparently from Japanese emoji (pictograph) made up of e (meaning picture) and moji (meaning letter). I was surprised to read that its similarity to emoticon is a coincidence. Emoticon (a facial expression made up of keyboard characters to show emotion) is composed of emot- from emotion + icon.

Because of their similar meanings and initial spellings, I had assumed they shared the same formation. While the vast majority of the words beginning with ’emot-‘ are related to emotion, it seems emo-, without being followed by the letter t, actually isn’t linked to emotional meanings. The exception to this is the word emo, first recorded in 1988. 


Nocuous or noxious

This is why I keep a blog:

Me: “Mum, the OED’s word of the day is fascinating, it’s-”
Mum: “-Mhm, that’s nice.”

Apparently although I’m in my twenties I haven’t grown out of the 10-year-old me’s need to share ‘facts’ that other people don’t find remotely interesting. This blog is really in existence because I need somewhere to ramble about things I find cool.

The word of the day today is nocuous, adj: ‘Noxious, hurtful; venomous, poisonous’. (1627)

Nocuous comes from classical Latin nocuus (harmful) plus -ous suffix. Nocuus came from nocēre (to hurt, injure) + uus suffix. Innocuous developed later however I had only heard of innocuous, not nocuous.

Noxious stems from classical Latin noxius (harmful, injurious, guilty), from noxa (harm, injury).

Nocuous and noxious have similar meanings. The only difference I can see is noxious can also mean a guilty or irritating person. (Interestingly, its antonym, innoxious, no longer means someone who’s innocent). The earliest recorded use of nocuous is 1627, while noxious is over 100 years earlier. I’m guessing our favouring of one over the other is because they have such similar uses in common English so there was no need for such close synonyms in the language? However, it doesn’t explain why their antonyms don’t follow the same pattern: innocuous is more common than innoxious.

I used Google Ngram Viewer to have a look how often the words and their antonyms appeared in google books.


We can see that noxious is used far more often than the other three words, but it drops in usage until the 1930s when it starts slowly appearing again. Innocuous slowly increases in usage until it’s now used as often as noxious. Innoxious and nocuous are used a lot less often and so don’t show up well on the graph.

I took off noxious so the pattern of the others is clearer.


It looks like nocuous was never particularly commonly used in writing. While innoxious was more commonly used than innocuous at one point it drops steadily in the 1840s when innocuous gains usage.

The trends are similar when we look at just their uses in fiction, suggesting that a scientific use isn’t skewing the results. I wish I knew why we use noxious and innocuous, but not their opposites innoxious and nocuous. From the second graph we can see that noxious and innoxious were originally the preferred terms, as I’d expect, but that this changes in the 1800s.

I really love the inconsistency of language.


Etymologies of the sky

At Christmas I bought myself Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words by Paul Anthony Jones. It’s formed into sections of ten related words usually based around their etymologies and I’ve been enjoying picking it up and flicking though it. One of the ‘ten words derived from rocks and stones’ was to my surprise ‘cloud’. We don’t usually associate clouds with the heaviness of rocks, but apparently in Old English ‘clud’ meant a mass of earth or rock (as we can still see in the word clod) before cloud adopted its current meaning. The similarity between the dense, grey lumps is thought to have suggested the relationship.

I thought I’d look up a few other common sky-related words to see how they developed:

Snow: This is thought to have roots in the Proto-Indo-European form *sniegwh, which became the Proto-Germanic *snaiwaz and then Old English snaw. I still come across people talking about how Eskimo’s have X ridiculous number of words for snow, while actually Eskimo languages have probably about the same number of words for snow as English does. One of the reasons for the myth is the Eskimoan languages are polysynthetic. This means that while English might use separate graphological words to describe a type of snow (e.g. ‘thin ice’) Eskimo languages can express the same thing by deriving a word from a base form to make a single graphological word. Therefore it looks like there are many different words for snow. So instead of ‘thin ice’ being written as two words with a space between them, it would look like one. This is hugely simplified, but really it all just depends on how you count a ‘word’, if we count each instance of these Eskimoan derived forms it would make as much sense to count every individual case of derivation in English, such as ‘ice’, ‘icy’, ‘iced’, etc.

Sun: From Old English ‘sunne’ which is derived from Proto-Germanic *sunnon. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in Old English – when words were gendered – sun was feminine and a feminine pronoun used to be used to the describe the sun. In the 16th century a masculine pronoun began to be used, so today the song goes, ‘the sun has got his hat on’.

Sky: The word is thought to be originally derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *(s)keu, meaning ‘to cover’. This became *skeujam (also meaning cloud or cloud cover) in Proto-Germanic before coming into English from Old Norse ‘sky’ meaning ‘cloud’. The word came to mean both sky (with or without clouds) and heaven. The native word meaning the physical space above us as well as a spiritual place was ‘heofon’ (an earlier version of ‘heaven’). According to one of my university books, ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ were in use at the same time and were synonyms. So close synonyms that it is unlikely that both would be needed in the language. In this case, sky become primarily associated with the physical space and heaven with the spiritual one.


Favourite word: Zephyr

Actually, I lie: this isn’t one of my favourite words. It’s one of my boyfriend’s favourite words and the name he gave to his university computing project (a chess engine). I thought I’d look it up. I knew it was related to the name of the Greek god of the wind (I can’t hear the word without seeing Zephyrus from Bottecelli’s Primavera, pictured) and could guess it had Latin roots, but I didn’t know much more. To be honest, I didn’t expect the etymology to be that exciting, however it turns out that there was more to the word than I first thought.

Botticelli’s Primavera

While it has meanings relating to the wind, it also refers to a type of butterfly, a soufflé type dish and some light fabrics. Really lovely to discover! I guess the common theme is lightness. Thinking about it now the word itself even kinda sounds light and breezy. A few of the derivatives I liked were zephyret, which is a gentle zephyr (I’m really quite fond of diminutive -et suffixes in general!*), zephyrless (adj.) and  zephyry. Zephyry is all the way from 1791 and I feel as though I’ve missed out on using it all this time, that’s going to change! I also like the use of zephyr as a verb, the OED gives the example “the breeze zephyred in”.

I absolutely love how when I find out about the backgrounds of words it makes me see them in a new way. Now when I hear the word zephyr the image of it will be tinged not only with an image of Bottecelli’s Zephyrus, but also butterflies, fabrics and soufflés. And the boyfriend’s chess engine.

* zephyret encouraged me to do a quick search to find out about the -et suffix. Apparently the -et suffix is often found in words derived from French and makes them diminutive. For example, sonnet (from the Italian word for song). I’ve always liked its diminutive powers: you’re not having a little snack, you’re having a snack-et. It’s the linguistic equivalent of the ‘drink me’ bottle in Alice in Wonderland. I became excited when I found out that crochet – one of my hobbies – was formed this way from the French for hook. Crochet just became cuter.


Favourite words: Nipple

Finishing my final year of university has made me realise that soon I will no longer have university access to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online. So, I have decided to make the most of it and will be looking up the etymologies or morphological composition of my favourite words.

Today, I am starting with ‘nipple’. I am starting with ‘nipple’ because it’s the place of the body I start with when I do a life drawing. Yes, I know it sounds immature or just plain odd to have ‘nipple’ as a favourite word, but I think that it is pleasant to say and to me just sounds exactly like the thing it denotes. Not onomatopoeia exactly, but just sounds right. I think it’s a perfect term.

The OED puts the first recorded use of the word as around 1510 and suggests that it was originally composed from the stem noun ‘neb’ plus the suffix ‘-le’. I won’t list all the meanings, but in general ‘neb’ seems to mean a protruding part and has been used to refer to the nose as well as to the nib of a pen or pencil. The suffix ‘-le’ can infuse the noun it’s attached to with a diminutive sense or give it the the sense of being a tool or appliance. The OED also suggests a possible link with the word ‘nap’ meaning ‘to suck’.

I’d prefer to think that the ‘-le’ suffix is adding the sense of diminutive and not of being a tool, although if you see ‘nipple’ as a way to get milk to a baby then I guess this might also be apt. I like that my objective feeling that the word means what it sounds like is very slightly supported here with the morphological composition giving the meaning of small protuberance. And the word ‘nipple’ has something in common with the nib of a pencil. I can’t help but like that!

Pencil nibs and nipples. This is why I love the OED.

Today I saw that Ted talks have posted a link to some videos of word etymologies. They are nice light bites of etymology and are only a couple of minutes each.