Words that go back and forth

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Before I learned the meaning of the word “palindrome,” I thought it had something to do with merry-go-rounds. If you repeat the word out loud, you’ll hear those three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed. This kind of metrical foot, called a dactyl, comes from the Greek for “finger,” and in this case it pointed to a carousel and me sitting on a palomino with a wild eye and a dark gold coat. (Both the eye and the coat on the palomino, not me.)

 

Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. A palindrome is a number, word, phrase, or sentence read the same frontward and backward.

 

I don’t remember when I learned what the word actually meant, but I know I have enjoyed reading words backward since I was a young girl. Discovering that star talked back and said rats and that was said saw as soon as it turned its back on you seemed magical and subversive at the same time. If I paid attention, I could find enchanted words all around me able to say two things at the same time, and some of them sassy to boot.

 

People have been palindroming forever, or at least in Latin since the late first century, which seems forever to someone expected to live just eight or so decades. Although the inhabitants of Pompeii disappeared when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the palindrome Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas, known as the Sator Square, remained, scratched on a wall to perplex and delight the archeologists who discovered it and all of us who came after. No one knows exactly what it means, but a number of sites list the meaning as Arepo the sower works with wheels. Even if that’s not the exact meaning, it’s fascinating to see how you can read the words any which way.

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In Greek, palindrome means “running back again,” like an echo or a boomerang that comes whizzing back. The Greeks also wrote using a method called boustrophedon, which means “ox-turning.”

Boustro Oxen

 

In English, we read left to right, line after line, as if we were watching a knife-thrower at the circus. We watch throw after throw until somebody dies or the circus shuts down for the night. In boustrophedon, the Greeks read as if they were at a tennis match, watching the ball served from left to the right, and then hit back from right to the left until somebody won or got ejected from the game. Tennis hadn’t been invented yet, so they used the image of plowing with an ox, moving first down one furrow, then turning around to plow the next row.

If I were to write a blog using that writing method

morf enil tsrif eht gnidaer trats ot evah dluow uoy  

left to right, then turn your plowing eye at the end  

m’I .tfel ot thgir daer ot nigeb dna enil taht fo

afraid you would soon grow tired of it.

Some people find the above paragraph easy to read; others don’t. Of course, that’s true of everything on this blog. But be that as it may or may not, anyone can learn to read words backward. Apparently it’s good for the brain. According to this article at mirrorread.com, it causes new growth of gray matter and increased density. I personally could do with more gray matter, dense or not. I may not have a lot of brains, but people  have often remarked that what I do have is already quite dense; even so, I’m sure if I work on it I can get even denser.

 

So this year, I plan to get as thickheaded as possible, read more in both directions and teach my old ox of a brain new tricks, one furrow at a time.

 

 

Village vacancies

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They don’t make idiots like they used to. Once upon a long, long ago, in the late 1400s, an idiot was an ordinary person who lacked an education, someone without professional training, a layman in the church, or simply a private person. Clearly, idiocy was nothing to be ashamed of, and during the day the word hobnobbed with people like the author of the alliterative, allegorical poem Piers Plowman (who may or may not have been William Langland) and John Wycliffe who along with others translated the Bible into Middle English.

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After a hard day of being charitable, however, the word would head to the nearest pub, have a few pints, and start calling everyone in sight a fool. That’s how Chaucer uses the word in the Wife of Bath’s prologue in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer and others used the word idiot both in this sense and in the sense of being mentally challenged. These three meanings were used concurrently until the end of the 17th century when the kinder meaning moved out of town. From that time on, the number of self-proclaimed idiots decreased dramatically, until the advent of the Internet and YouTube.

 

From the beginning, the word worked as both noun and adjective. The highly quotable Victorian poet, Lord Tennyson, verbified it in the phrase “Much befool’d and idioted.” I rather like it as a verb because it expresses the feeling I get from my fellow-drivers who have an inordinate interest in my bumper and try to inspect it while traveling 60 mph or who pull in front of me, curious to know whether or not my brakes still work. After any time on the road, I come home feeling idioted out.

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I don’t consider myself an idiot driver; my skills in idiocy lie more in the why-did-I-wait-until-now-to-do-what-is-due-today type of situation, or the you-already-know-what-your-foot-tastes-like-so-why-do-you-keep-putting-it-in-your-mouth situation. Plenty of people have these problems, but the wise ones keep quiet about them. The others, like me, create blogs and wander around the Internet village broadcasting their idiocy. I am a private person by nature and back in the Middle Ages would probably have been called an idiot by my friends. At this point in my life I am advancing beyond my own middle age, wandering around the Internet village, unashamed, speaking to strangers and telling my secrets. Every village needs an idiot or two, and I’m here to fill the vacancy.

 

 

Addendum: No Comment

 

As a blogger, I’ve never wanted to be one of those drive-by likers, the ones who visit hundreds of blogs per day, indiscriminately liking posts in the hopes of getting liked back. I don’t always comment on posts that I like, but I occasionally try to write something that is spelled correctly, even if it doesn’t make sense.

 

These days, however, WordPress (which is easily flummoxed by what I write and thinks you will be too) will not let me comment when I want to. Over half of the comments I try to post are denied. I get the message that you see below.

 Sorry, this comment could not be posted.

If you are a blogger, you probably consider this good news. But I warn you, no system is idiot-proof. I will find a way to comment and flummox you again. Only because I think it’s good for you and helps build character.

 

 

If you can’t say something nice …

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Nice

Imagine you are at the Westminster festival in London in May of 1306 to watch King Edward 1 knight his son, Edward of Caernarfon. You need to be a man for this scenario to work, so if you are a female, imagine that your take-home pay is as much as your male counterparts.

Everyone imagined up? Good, let’s proceed.

 

While you are enjoying your third cup of ale, a big, burly man calls you nice. Enraged, you try to punch him in the jaw, which is both stupid and foolish because he is twice your size. Your aggression proves to everyone within bowshot that you are, in fact, nice. Back then, nice meant stupid or foolish.

But don’t feel bad. Edward of Caernarfon, destined to sit on the throne in 1307 as Edward II, was deposed after twenty years for being nice, too. The nice things he did included military defeat at the hands of the Scots, murderous revenge, scandals, plotting, and lavish living, among other royal entertainments.

For several hundred years, that four-letter word nice insulted and disparaged people by calling them foolish, wanton, lascivious, fastidious, cowardly, and showy. Then by the late 1700s, nice changed its wicked ways, stopped going into bars to start fights, got a respectable job as an bookkeeper, and starting calling people refined, cultured, and respectable. Suddenly nice was finding other people agreeable and pleasant.

Some words at 700 still look hale and hearty; nice does not. His hair is thinning, his belly’s thickening, and his feet are flattening. He mumbles a lot and has begun to call everything and everyone nice. It doesn’t feel right to me, however. It’s a little too nice, if you know what I mean (and I think you do). Do you hear that hint of sarcasm when he speaks? “How nice,” he says in his treacly voice, when he really means, “How mediocre or bland.” It’s a short road from bland to vapid to stupid.

Maybe he’s making a comeback as an insult instead of a compliment. It would make for what some may call “a nice story.”

 

 

 

In praise of

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In praise of

The prepositional variety

Of those that screw on, pop off,

Seal up, keep in

And shut out

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As well as those that

Require tools to remove

Whether bendable or breakable

Hinged or unhinged

Hard as roofs for the dead

Soft as tents for pies

Sturdy as helmets for pots

Or merely heaps of pot

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Atop the heads of rich and poor –

Who need to be warm

Or want to be cool

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Mighty eye shutters

Doors to dreams both night and day

Locking you inside nightmares

Opening up to set you free

Blink and wink makers

Whipping your forty lashes or more

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Pandora’s temptation

Flipping open angry and crazy

Keepers of secrets

Stoppers of talk

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Everywhere you look or don’t

Lids, lids, lids

In praise of

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Photos:   Commode lid     Orange lid      White coffin    Eye     Hinged chest    Decorative Lid

 

Unclichéd

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According to me, clichés, once très nouveaux, began life as bon mots, lighting up conversations like small flambeaux, small feathers in speakers’ verbal chapeaux, as tasty as escargots. But, alas, alack the day, they grew stale, worn, dim, left as empty shells on the conversationalists’ dinner plate, having had their meat carefully extracted years ago.

 

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The matrix.

According to reliable sources (not me), printers are responsible for the first clichés, French for the stereotype blocks used to make books, pamphlets, and advertisements. Cliché, past participle of clicher, is derived from cliquer, the sound you know in English as “click.” After setting type, printers used pressure or heat to create a copy on heavy paper, plaster of Paris, or felt. They placed this copy, known as a matrix or mat, in a casting box, poured molten metal in, and voila, created a stereotype that could print endless copies of the original.

 

The stereotype.

The stereotype.

 

If you’re like me (and if so, please send my condolences to your family), you read that last paragraph and something in you clicked. Cliché, stereotype, casting – are we heading into a post about Hollywood movies? No, not today.

 

 

I have a soft spot in my heart for clichés. They remind me of photos of people in Wal-Mart. With a haircut, more clothes, and intensive therapy they would look just fine.

 

So, without further hellos, or as Shakespeare would surely say, without further ado about nothing, or as so many Americans mistakenly say, without further adieu, here are my suggestions.

 

At the crack of dawn could be the dawn-crack (much like daybreak) or dawn’s crack. Example: The minute I saw dawn’s crack, I knew it was time to leave. (Note: If your name is Dawn and you visit Wal-Mart, I am not talking about you.)

 

 

Few people cry over spilled milk, but many parents cry over spilled red Kool-Aid.

 

 

Since people are busier these days than they used to be, help in your hour of need needs to be reduced to your half-hour of need. The internet-addicted could stand by people in their five minutes of need.

 

 

We could give last but not least a rest and start using first but not most.

 

 

Climbing the ladder of success could be restated for the rich and powerful as stepping on the escalator of success.

 

 

The two clichés using “sad” need antonyms. Sad but true provides happy but false, and sadder but wiser gives us happier but stupider. Example: Yearstricken lost hours of her life clicking on links to funny tweets and lolcats, leaving her happier but stupider.

 

 

And finally, when people are clearly not worth their weight in gold, we could at least allow that they are worth their weight in aluminum.

 

 

 

Photos:

Stereotype: http://digital.nls.uk/50years/pops/1971b.html

Matrix: http://the-print-guide.blogspot.com/2010/05/wayback-view-stereotype-plate-making.html

Word Flummoxery: lie lay lie

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The flummoxerization of the average native speaker of English who has unexpectedly wandered into grammar’s slough of despond is never greater than when he/she/they (you choose) have/has to deal with lie, lay, and lie. The three words sound deceivingly like musical non-lexical vocables, sounds singers make up when they can’t think of any more words.

 

 

The first lie in this triad is an intransitive verb, which means the action of the verb doesn’t go anywhere because the subject is resting, so please keep your voice down. The prefix “in” in intransitive means “not.” We can think of the subject as no longer in transit, unless they fly first-class and have grown indifferent to the plaintive cries of those in the second-class section, whose seats are marked with a button called “Recline,” which, if you look carefully you will see contains the wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap word of our trilogy. But more of that later, and hopefully less of these long, complicated sentences that are really just rants decked out in commas.

 

 

At this point, the reader may be thinking, “This is easy.” Think again. You’ve stepped into one of the muddiest parts of the slough.

 

 

Did you lie down in bed last night? Tell me about it. I lied in bed. Well, that may be true, but it’s not the past tense of the “lie” known as rest. Okay, I laid in bed. Laid what, my friend? You see how easy it is to get stuck in the mud. The correct answer is “I lay in bed last night.” Many people are disturbed to wake up and discover they slept all night with what can also be a transitive verb.

 

 

To avoid disturbation, use a synonym like “recumb.”

 

Harold: (at the dinner table) Excuse me, Lydia. I’m not feeling well. I think I need to recumb.

 

Lydia: (running for the bucket) Here, use this.

 

Harold: No, dear, I need to find a place to support most of my body in a somewhat horizontal position.

 

Lydia: That sounds supine.

 

 

Lay, the second leaf on our word shamrock lie-lay-lie, means to place or put something somewhere, often in a place you have completely forgotten about. Since it’s perfectly acceptable to lay your head on your pillow, people often say, “I’m going to lay down.” Unless they are planning to lay down their burdens, this is incorrect. If they are planning to lay down their burdens, perhaps you could show a little sympathy and not try to correct their grammar.

 

 

The ubiquitous “people” that we have all heard so much about often point to Bob Dylan’s song “Lay, Lady, Lay” as the first of many songs leading to decline of the English language. What these “people” don’t know, and I didn’t know myself until a few minutes ago, was that Dylan’s favorite hen, Lady, was one of the most productive hens ever not recorded. When she hit a rough spot in her career, Dylan wrote this song to encourage her. He thought a change of venue, his big brass bed, would do the trick. Apparently, many chicks were laid there.

 

 

That little known “fact” brings us to our third word “lie.” As far as information goes, this is dis- or mis-. A lie is to the truth as a politician is to his or her campaign promises: there is no connection. Many people lie; I lied once myself, but I didn’t inhale.

 

 

Quibblers may squabble or prattle or babble over exceptions, other meanings, and other uses of  lie-lay-lie. Brabble on. The English language is full of exceptions, ergo ipso facto hokey pokey, it is an exceptional language.

 

 

 

 

 

Image courtesy: Flickr by graymalkn at http://flickr.com/photos/22244945@N00/3565234041.

 

 

 

Cavort

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Cavort: to prance; to frisk; to caper about

 

Since the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is not sure where the word “cavort” comes from, it throws up its mighty dictionary hands and declares that the etymology is uncertain.

 

Other sources are not so sure of that uncertainty. The Slang Dictionary suggests that it comes from cavolta, Lingua Franca for “prancing on horseback.” (If your poem about John Travolta has been languishing in a drawer somewhere for lack of a proper rhyme, let it languish no more. According to me, cavolta rhymes perfectly with Travolta, who is best known for prancing on dance floors.)

 

Other than its rhyming potential, why should we give any credence to the suggestion by The Slang Dictionary? Aren’t slang words, words without a high school education? And does this have anything to do with rabbits?

 

Those are all good questions. Let’s start with the first. The original publication of The Slang Dictionary appeared in 1891 and was aptly named Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of all Classes of Society for More than Three Hundred Years. With Synonyms in English, French, German, Italian, etc. Any book with a title like that deserves our trust, so I’m happy to give it all of my credence, if necessary. (Seven volumes were published, and Volume II is free to read at Google Play. You can learn what “can’t see a hole in a ladder”1 and  “to have no milk in the cocoa-nut”2 mean.) Its entry for “cavort” also offers other proposed etymologies, including curvet, French for a certain style of horse leaping, and the Spanish word cavar, which refers to the pawing of a horse. The OED reluctantly admits that “cavort” could be a corruption of curvet, but stresses that John Russell Bartlett, an American, said it, and you know how the Americans are and what they’ve done to the King’s English. Then, the OED curtly dismisses the idea that “cavort” is related to the Spanish by saying it “has nothing to recommend it. So there.” Those last two words aren’t really in the entry, but they are implied.

 

The second question about slang is complicated and deserves more discussion. For now, let’s just say that I think of slang as street poetry. The best and brightest slang words end up making an honest living in the mouths of most Americans, and many go on to make it big, appearing in poems, novels, and the mouths of politicians, educators, and commentators.

 

The answer to that last question is so important and of such a personal nature that it deserves quotes. “Yes, this has everything to do with rabbits.” And let me say thank you for asking, because I could have spent the entire day talking about words, when all I really wanted to do today was post a video of some of my yard bunnies cavorting outside my window.

 

You’ll have to wait a few seconds for the high jumps. Enjoy.

 

 

1highly intoxicated

2to be insane

 

(Note to reader: Any connection to any definitions on this blog to anyone who writes on this blog is tenuous, possibly serendipitous, and highly irregular.)

Twee

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Words are like people. Some of them look alike because they come from the same parentage. Both “sanguine” and “sanguinary” are adjectives and were born from sanguis, Latin for blood. So, after learning that a sanguine person is cheerful or optimistic, you might run into the word “sanguinary” while reading a text, look at its ruddy face, and expect it to tell you a joke or recite an inspiring quote. Don’t be surprised if it pulls out a knife and threatens you. The only thing it’s cheerful about is bloodshed and cruelty.

 

Other words, like the nouns “desert” and “dessert” look so much alike, people can hardly tell the difference. If you look closely, you’ll see that “dessert” looks more curvaceous. It’s that extra “s” in the middle. They’re not related although both words have ancestors who came from the Latin. Other than that, the only similarity is that desert is a waste place, and dessert goes to a waist place.

 

The other day I ran into “twee” online. It was modifying a noun, music, and speaking in a colloquial accent telling everyone who would listen that the music was sickeningly sweet.  I’ve heard it say things like that before. It also has the remarkable ability to make bird sounds. You may have heard it imitate the wren by saying twee-twee-twee.

 

1916 cover (Wikipedia)

 

Twee in its original sense of sweet or dainty first appeared in print in the British magazine, Punch, around 1905. Someone heard a children pronouncing “sweet” as “tweet,” then took the word and dropped the “t.” It was the linguistic form of stealing candy from a baby. Now it disparages music and people by calling them mawkish or overly sentimental.

 

I like how the word sounds. Twee rhymes with glee and whee, words of enthusiasm and joy. I’ve heard birds chirp it, and I’ve had small children answer “Twee” when I asked their age. Elmer Fudd climbed twees looking for that wascally wabbit, Bugs Bunny. “Be vewy, vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits,” he used to say. Twee is a word that fits in your pocket, a small joke of a word, a word with punch.

 

When sister was twee, she stood front of a twee. You can almost hear the birds singing, "Twee, twee, twee."

 

 

Even though the masters of irony and sophistication have forced twee to make disparaging remarks about other people, I won’t abandon it. That’s just its corrupted twin. Elmer Fudd and I know the real twee, and any word that is a friend of birds, Elmer, and three-year-olds is a friend of mine.

 

 

Portrait of Elmer J. Fudd courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

More flounce

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Flounces made of words. Dress is duct tape and pages from the telephone book. Source: The Jolis Paons Flounce Dress

 

 

Jenny saw snow for the first time a few months ago. She came to Wisconsin from Central America with a dozen other students to enter a two-year program for agricultural development.

 

The students have had one semester of intensive English; and now, in this second semester, they have a mixture of program classes and English classes. Jenny is in my reading class.

 

At the beginning of the semester, I asked each student to write personal goals for the class. Be specific, I told them. Don’t just say you want to improve your reading ability; tell me how many books you are going to read each month.

 

Most of the goals were specific, but a few general ones slipped by. My favorite came from Jenny. “I want more flounce in my English,” she wrote.

 

Jenny’s first language is Spanish, so when she wrote the word “flounce,” she was pronouncing it as if it were a Spanish word: flow-oon-say. Say that a few times and you’ll see that it is close to how speakers of American English pronounce “fluency.”

 

A flounce is a sassy ruffle that waves at everyone when it enters the room; it calls attention to the body part it encircles or adorns. A flounce lives to flutter and give fabric a way to flirt. You can live without flounces, but why would you want to?

 

Adding a flounce requires altering a plain design and sewing on twirls and winks of cloth. The word itself is an alteration of an earlier word “frounce,” which meant “wrinkle.” Word spellings and word meanings are often redesigned to fit the fashion of the day.

 

I write the way I dress: plain and simple. But sometimes I get dressed up, and then I like a little flounce. And sometimes, I want more flounce in my English. Now and then I like to add words that ruffle around an idea, to braid thoughts together just for show, to stitch in rows of phrases like colorful ribbons that delight the eye, and to hand-sew the  hem of the page, embellishing it with tiny scalloped jokes.

 

When Jenny turned in her goals, I had to correct “flounce” to “fluency,” but now I think that first goal was a good one. Correct pronunciation and syntax are important, but so is getting more flounce in your English.

 

 

 

 

Some words

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Yesterday I interviewed the word “some.” Today you’ll see why I was impressed.

 

The Anglo-Saxons, those lovers of sturdy, compact words, spelled “some” with just three letters, sum. When you are a warrior, you can’t go into battle with extra gear, so you like your words spare and without extraneous letters. They bog you down. Anglo-Saxon warriors invaded and settled much of Britain, with simple spears, throwing them at their enemies until they got the point that this was more than a road trip. The ships the Anglo-Saxons came in weren’t going back. Those warriors also sent their words out to conquer hearts: read Beowulf and be prepared to submit. Today, when we want to make a point, we often grab some of those well-honed Anglo-Saxon words and throw them at our listener or reader.

 

First page of Beowulf manuscript from Wikipedia

 

Although “some” has been working for writers since the 9th century, including King Alfred the Great who translated of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, it still looks great. I think it’s because it gets so much exercise.

 

Some use it as a pronoun. As I just did. However, some people prefer it as an adjective. Like me, in that last sentence. Back when “some” was starting its career, it worked as both. Then in the late 1500s, it applied for a job as an adverb, pairing up with comparative adjectives, to say, “I’m feeling some better now.” Once it got used to being an adverb, some Americans asked it to work with verbs so they could say, “I think some about retiring from my job, so I can read blogs all day.” You might use it as an adverb, too, when you write your mother and say, “I’m sorry I haven’t written in the last six months, I now read some 200 blogs a day. I promise I’ll call at Christmas.”

 

Even though “some” likes being its own word and going out alone, it’s not a loner. In fact, it likes nothing better than going places with other words. After years of appearing in public with words like “one,” “body,” “where,” and “time,” it agreed to give up its autonomy and become one word, with the stipulation that its name appear first. It’s the only evidence of self-promotion that I discovered about “some.”

 

Since “some” rarely calls attention to itself, I’m inclined to look kindly on its desire to appear first because I admire its willingness to serve a suffix. As you well know if you read this blog, a suffix is like a dog’s tail. Had you bought my Dog and a Half kit (now marked down 85%!), which you didn’t, you would have been able to create a lot of words with the suffix –some. That should give you pause.

 

Back in the early 900s, “some” joined hands with “love” and produced that most lovable word, one of my favorites, called “lovesome.” Around the same time, it joined up with the word wyn, which meant “pleasant” or “agreeable” and gave us the word we now spell as “winsome.” It worked as a suffix for several hundred years, but for some reason, words like “whosome,” “whatsome,” and “wheresome” never caught on. I like them and think we should try to revive them.

 

In the middle of the 1400s, “some” became interested in numbers. Writers could now speak of a “twosome” or a “threesome.” Today, we have dozens of words – nouns,  adjectives, and verbs -  that end in the suffix –some. Some are regional, but they belong to all of us who love words. Here are some of my favorites:

 

  • Blithesome – cheery
  • Bunglesome – troublesome
  • Chucklesome – amusing
  • Delightsome – pleasing
  • Fulsome – abundant; plenteous
  • Fretsome – given to fretting
  • Irksome – wearisome
  • Meddlesome – given to meddling
  • Toothsome – pleasant to the taste
  • Ugsome – loathsome
  • Woesome – woeful

I could go on, but that would be tiresome and boresome. Have a heartsome day – one full of gladness and cheer.

 

An extract from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 636, fol. 62v.