I’m now dipping into a book called By Hook or by Crook by David Crystal. He’s a linguist, and this book describes his travels around the borders of England and Wales, musing on regional accents, place and personal names. It’s very entertaining, reminiscent of Bill Bryson.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist noting some of the interesting little nuggets of information he comes up with. The area he is exploring is sometimes referred to as the ‘Marches’. I had always assumed that the word was something to do with marching across the border, or the marching distance between a town on one side of the border to one on the other – but it doesn’t. It comes from the Old English mearc, which means boundary. The word ‘mark’ also derives from it.
Many of you writers will know that publishers call what’s written on the back cover of a book the ‘blurb’. I thought it was just a made-up thing like ‘blah, blah’. It is a made-up word, but there is a story behind it. An author once decided that the jacket of his new book was too boring, so he rather randomly invented a buxom blonde who could go on the cover to attract attention, and decided to call her ‘Belinda Blurb’. The idea of putting a ‘Blurb’ on the cover to grab potential readers gradually came to refer to the tantalising description of the storyline rather than the picture itself.
Finally, another Old English origin. Some Saxons had an alternative name called an eke name – an also name. Somehow, as people became more literate and it came to be written down, the n of ‘an eke name’ got shoved onto the beginning of eke, and the term became a nekename – a nickname!