We all know that language is an instrument for communication. How we use language affects the effectiveness of our communication and so, the more words we have at our disposal the more likely we are to successfully communicate exactly what we mean. During my years of teaching English, I regularly encouraged my pupils to read widely – both in print and online – and to try and incorporate newly discovered words in their speech and writing. They usually found the latter is usually easier to do than the former.

My general experience has been that it is by exploring the words – rather than merely looking up their meaning in a dictionary – that they become more meaningful and more useful and thus easier to use. In August 2014, for example, I posted an entry on MARTINET as an example of where an exploration of the etymology of words can lead one to.

Two words struck me during the course of my reading this morning:

GOBBET: Dating back to C14, this word has come into English via Old French and can refer to a droplet of liquid, or more commonly to a small chunk of food – usually applied to raw meat. In the context I found it, the word referred to a fragment of text or information. Again, harking back to teaching I could have set a gobbet from Hamlet for an examination i.e. a short extract of the play. Interestingly, upon further investigation, I find the word can also refer to a short commentary given on an assigned primary source – presumably that could refer to the answer to the question set on the play mentioned above. It is not a word I can recall hearing in conversation, but it sounds so good that it must be worth finding a reason to use it in the future.

MARE’S NEST: This is sometimes written as a compound word with a hyphen, but more frequently without and dates back to C16. Clearly the meaning of the word is idiomatic for mares do not make nests in the literal sense. It was originally used to describe a discovery that was thought to be important, but which proved to be worthless. In his book Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis says that “’Brilliant’ explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest.” He is referring to the way we might interpret the meaning of words without truly understanding the context of them – or how they might have been used in ages past. Since C19, however, the meaning more frequently refers to a confused mess i.e. you may describe your desk or bedroom or wardrobe as a mare’s nest that desperately needs tidying.

Then, serendipitously as things often happen, while I was penning this an e-mail arrived directing me to a collection of old British dialect words to incorporate in our conversations. Of the fifty of them, these are the ones I like the sound of:

CLOMPH: To walk in shoes which are too large for your feet. (Central England)
FLENCH: When the weather looks like it’s going to improve but it never does, then its flenched. (Scots)
FLOBY-MOBLY: The perfect word for describing the feeling of not being unwell, but still not quite feeling your best. A Scots equivalent was atweesh-an-atween. (Central England)
SLITHERUM: A dawdling, slow-moving person. (East England)
I wonder which ones you will choose.


I am sure you have often heard of someone being described as a martinet. My fascination with the etymology of words led some time ago to query the meaning and origin of the word. Dictionaries define it as referring to one who demands that rules and orders are obeyed – even if it is unnecessary or unreasonable to do so under certain circumstances.

The word has been used in this sense since 1670 for it is derived from the last name of General Jean Martinet, who served under Louis XIV during the Dutch campaign.

A resourceful fellow, Martinet was responsible for several important innovations. For example, he introduced the use of the bayonet into the French army – an idea based on an old tactic used by hunters in Bayonne. This revolutionary weapon allowed the French armies to dispense entirely with the pike men that had had to be included in all groups of musketeers for protection while they reloaded. He also devised pontoon bridges and developed the depot system, a system of storehouses, placed along the sides of roads, which would supply armies on campaign to put a stop to them having to feed off the enemy land.

By 1779 Jean Martinet’s name had become synonymous with the severity of discipline. His military training policies set the pace for the armies of the late 17th-18th century and he is credited in part for transforming the French Army into a fairly effective fighting force through being a severe drillmaster. This naturally made him unpopular among his troops – especially as he was best known for going to the extreme of ordering executions for even minor infractions.

He was killed by friendly fire while leading an infantry assault at the Battle of Duisburg in 1672; perhaps inadvertently killed when he entered the line of fire of his own rear ranks or “accidentally on purpose” in a situation known as fragging – a word that comes from the Vietnam War, meaning that an officer was killed on purpose under cover of an accidental death – for it is possible that someone had simply had enough of his strict training methods!

Gilbert and Sullivan immortalised the behaviour of a martinet in their ballad of the same name. “Sir Berkley was a martinet / A stern unyielding soul / Who ruled his ship by dint of whip / And horrible black hole.