Words and Other Treasures

“The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. … A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.”—Mark Twain

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.”—Winston Churchill

“In the expression of the emotions originality merits the first consideration. … The words used, however, should be old ones.”—Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241)

Finding the right words for the Waterspell trilogy—words with the flavor of medieval speech and the patina of age on them; words possessing the virtue of brevity—became a great treasure hunt, luring me into hundred-year-old dictionaries, enriching me with the troves of golden synonyms that make English such a versatile tongue, and delighting me with the color and variety of the language as it once was used by native English speakers. Here is a Glossary of terms that you may find as intriguing, in their unfamiliarity or their long history, as I did. After the glossary is a list of the Sources from which I unearthed a good many of these treasures of a past age.


Key: Where possible, I’ve told what sort of word or phrase it is (dialectal English, old slang, archaic, chiefly Scottish, etc.) or named the date or the century of its origins in English (14c, etc.). Terms from the fictitious Ladrehdinian language (Lad) are boldface and italic, and you’ll just have to take my word that they mean what I say they do.

“You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.”—Robert Frost

arrah: Irish expression of surprise or excitement
bannock: a flat bread or cake of oatmeal or barley meal (British Celtic, before 1000)
bantling: a very young child (16c)
bedizened: dressed or adorned gaudily (1661)
betoken: give evidence of; show (15c)
betony: a plant of the mint family, used in medicine and dyeing (before 1000)
bindweed: a twining plant (vine) that wraps around and strangles whatever it grows upon (16c)
blackguard: scoundrel, villain (16c)
blackheart: warlock, witch, wizard or wysard, sorcerer (Lad)
blencathar: blind cave salamander (Lad)
bloodguilt: guilt resulting from bloodshed (16c)
bowstring: to strangle with the string of an archer’s bow (14c)
bray: to crush or grind, as seeds in a mortar (14c)
buskins: laced boots (16c)
byre: barn (before 12c)
cadger: one who gets what he wants by imposing on another’s generosity or friendship (Scots, 13c)
calendula: pot marigold; herb with showy, musky-scented flowers, used medicinally (1789)
callet-fish: cuttlefish (Lad)
caltrop: a device with four metal points so arranged that when any three are on the ground the fourth projects upward as a hazard to the hooves of horses (15c)
cant: lively, lusty (dial Eng, 14c)
cantrip: witch’s trick, magic spell (Scot—probably an alteration of “caltrop”)
carking: burdensome, annoying (16c)
casque-bug: insect of Lad. with a shape suggestive of a helmet (casque)
chalse: magical shackle or fetter (Lad)
chit: a pert young woman (16c)
clerestory: an outside wall of a building rising above an adjoining roof and containing windows (15c)
clewbird: a bird of Lad. with fluffy feathers that give it a rounded shape suggestive of a ball of yarn (clew–before 12c)
cockcrow: dawn (13c)
costrel: a water bottle similar to a canteen, flat on one side to nestle nicely against the body for easy carrying (14c)
cyhnaith: a powdered healing herb, bronze in color and hotter than hell (Lad)
darkling: in the dark; vaguely threatening or menacing (15c)
dhera: a tart, sweet liquor made from currants (Lad)
didnae: didn’t (Scots Eng)
farsinchia: netherworld of the damned; the infernal regions; hell (Lad)
faugh: interjection used to express disgust or abhorrence (16c)
fay: fairy, elf (14c)
fetch-life: wraith that fetches the soul of a dying person
feverfew: herb used as a remedy for fever and headache (15c)
fey: fated to die, or marked by an otherworldly air or attitude (Scots, before 12c)
fìleen: a term of endearment (Lad, akin to “filly” and the Irish “colleen” combined)
firedrake: a fire-breathing dragon (before 12c)
firestone: pyrite used for striking fire; flint (before 12c)
firkin: a unit of capacity equal to 1/4 barrel (14c)
firstling: the first of a kind; the first result; first offspring (16c)
footle: talk or act foolishly; waste time (1892)
footling: lacking judgment or ability; lacking use or value; trivial (1897)
forfend: ward off; prevent (14c)
fosterling: a foster child (before 12c)
: earth, ground (Lad, akin to Greek “geo”)
gillie: a (young) male attendant or servant (Scottish Gaelic and Irish, 1705)
glenondew: antacid (Lad)
hell-wain: hell wagon (before 12c)
hyweldda: potion for treating concussion (Lad)
jennet: female donkey (15c)
kitling: young creature (Brit. dial. 13c)
knacker: buyer of worn-out domestic animals or their carcasses to use as animal food or for their hides (1812–probably from Eng. dial. “saddlemaker”)
Lake Maidens: Welsh fairies of the underworld, whose entrance to the human world is by the lakes
lathy: thin and narrow like a lath (13c)
lay: a narrative poem (13c)
lurcher: one who lurks; spy (archaic)
Macassar-Oil: an oil used as a hairdressing (1800)
minx: a pert, impudent girl
numbles: animal entrails used as food (13c)
prise: British spelling of “prize”–to move with a lever; pry
quillwort: a fernlike, aquatic plant with quill-like leaves
ravening: rapacious; voracious (16c)
recto: right-hand page of an open book; on the right-hand leaf
reiver: raider (Scot–before 12c)
savitar: mythical monster similar to a dragon (Lad)
scrag: execute by hanging or garroting; wring the neck of; choke, manhandle; kill, murder (1752)
‘scried/’scrying: shortened form of “descried/descrying”—finding out; discovering (14c)
scurf: dandruff (before 12c)
skimble-skamble: rambling or confused; senseless (16c)
slipstone: fine-grained stone for putting an edge on a knife
smallclothes: underclothes
spade: a unit of length (dimension unknown; this use of the word “spade” comes from “The Banshee of the MacCarthys,” in Irish Fairy & Folk Tales: “My mother … asked Leary … how far we were from Mr. Bourke’s? ”Tis about ten spades from this to the cross [crossroad], and we have then only to turn to the left into the avenue, ma’am.'”)
span: the distance from the end of the thumb to the end of the little finger of a spread hand; equal to 9 inches (before 12c)
sprat: a small or young fish; by extension, a young, small, or insignificant person
starveling: one who is thin from lack of food (16c)
stone: a unit of weight, equal to 14 lbs. (before 12c)
strap oil, dose of: punishment (old slang, from “a flogging with a strap”)
tatterdemalion: a person dressed in ragged clothing (1608)
tench: a freshwater food fish (14c)
trull: loose woman, strumpet (16c)
unchancy: dangerous (Scot, 16c)
undercroft: subterranean room (14c)
varlet: a base unprincipled person; knave (15c)
verso: left-hand page of an open book
vetiver: long, fragrant roots of a grass yielding an aromatic oil
wencel: child, girl (Old Eng, giving rise to “wench,” 13c)
whiffet: a small, young, or unimportant person
wight: a living being; creature (before 12c)
woad: an herb yielding blue dyestuff from its leaves (before 12c)
woundwort: a plant of the mint family, used medicinally (16c)

Lest enthusiasm run away with me, another line of good advice is: “In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.”—Sydney Smith, Lady Holland’s Memoir (1855)


The Puzzle-Book

Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Meridian/New American Library, 1960.

If it’s been a while since you read the Alice books, revisit Lewis Carroll’s twin masterpieces with the aid of Martin Gardner’s running commentary and you’ll understand, at last, what it all means: from the weird language of the “Jabberwocky” to the profundity of Humpty Dumpty’s philosophy, to the moves in the chess game that are legal and those that aren’t. Fascinating reading that makes the “very curious, complicated kind of nonsense” in Alice accessible to the modern reader.

All Things Celtic, Medieval, or Magical

Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. [[Pub. info TK]]

The mother lode. I read it from cover to cover, and came away with a vastly enriched vocabulary (cantrip, darkling, gillie, and noddle don’t appear in my day-to-day conversations, I must confess). I also learned more names for fairy-folk and night-fears than I imagined existed in the universe. (See under “Denham Tracts, The.” Everybody is there, from breaknecks and boggy-boes to nick-nevins and spoorns.)

Briggs, Katharine. British Folktales. Pantheon, 1977.

For vocabulary and everyday ways of talking, almost as rich a source as her encyclopedia (see above) and a tad more readable. The tale of “The Boggart,” who takes up residence in the house of an honest farmer in Yorkshire, had me mumbling for days, in me best Scottish accent, “Aye, Georgey, we’re flitting, ye see.”

Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. The Illustrated Book of Signs & Symbols. DK Publishing, 1996.

Did you know that the yew tree, grown in Celtic sacred groves, was used in the Middle Ages as an antidote to enchantment? Ever notice that the Star of David is made up of two triangles? —the upward-pointing being the sun, fire, and masculine energy; the downward-pointing the moon, water, and female energy. Combining, as it does, the alchemical signs for fire and water, this six-pointed star is one of the most powerful magical symbols of all time, says this fascinating and beautifully illustrated book. If you’re interested in how the language of symbolism is used to represent the mysteries of life, you’ll find this book worth your time.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Wordbook. Facts on File, 1996.

A different sort of dictionary; not for bedtime reading, but the book’s intro tells truth when it calls this “a word treasury for people passionate about the Middle Ages” and “an adventure for those who love words.”

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

A great romp through the history of English, with chapters on Old English, Middle English, and Scots English that provide excellent background for us word-loving readers who are fascinated with the beautiful older forms of our mother tongue.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lots of history and archaeology, not much magic or mysticism, but it has one passage that I found hauntingly beautiful and remarkable. As Cunliffe quotes Lucan (Roman poet, A.D. 39–65) in his poem Pharsalia:


A grove there was untouched by men’s hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above …

On those boughs … birds feared to perch; in those coverts wild beasts would not lie down; no wind ever bore down upon that wood, nor thunderbolt hurled from black clouds; the trees, even when they spread their leaves to no breeze, rustled of themselves.

Water, also, fell there in abundance from dark springs. The images of the gods grim and rude were uncouth blocks formed of felled tree-trunks. Their mere antiquity and the ghastly hue of the rotten timber struck terror. …

Legend also told that often the subterranean hollows quaked and bellowed, that yew trees fell down and rose again, that the glare of conflagrations came from trees that were not on fire, and that serpents twined and glided round their stems.

The people never resorted thither to worship at close quarters but left the place to the gods. For, when the sun is in mid-heaven or dark night fills the sky, the priest himself dreads their approach and fears to surprise the lord of the grove.


Shivery! Two thousand years old, and it has lost none of its power to conjure up the mystery of an ancient Celtic sacred grove.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Eerdmans, 1994.

A scholarly but readable exploration of the Druids of ancient Celtic society, what we know of their teachings, and how they kept their knowledge to themselves by not committing it to writing. The chapter on “The Wisdom of the Druids” (including “Druids as Magicians”) is fascinating stuff for a sword-and-sorcery enthusiast.

Langley, Andrew. Medieval Life. Knopf, 1996.

Finely detailed information about the clothes people wore on their backs, the pots they had in their kitchens, and the goods they sold in their shops.

Matthews, Caitlín and John. The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook. Element Books, 1994.

An extensive and accessible selection of Celtic texts, traditions, and myths.

The Editors of Time-Life Books. What Life Was Like in the Age of Chivalry: Medieval Europe AD 800–1500. Time-Life Books, 1997.

Gorgeous photos, with captions that provide details useful to a writer wanting to furnish a medieval-style manor house.

Walkley, Victor. Celtic Daily Life. Dove Tail Books, 1997.

Loaded with details: what the ancient Celts had in their homes, what they ate and how dishes were prepared, how they dressed, how they fashioned their jewelry, and what faeries, gods, and spirits shared their world.

Yeats, William Butler. Irish Fairy & Folk Tales. Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.

This facsimile edition of the 1892 original is a great introduction to the world of Irish fairy tales, where magic is part of everyday life. Yeats’ collection captures “the very voice of the people,” and there are perhaps no better story-tellers on the planet than the Irish.


Masters of Style & Atmospherics

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. 1837, 1842.

If all you remember about this writer is being forced to read The Scarlet Letter for English class, get your hands on this collection of exquisite short stories and see if you don’t agree that they’re as deliciously dark and haunting, melancholy and mystical, as the more familiar stories of Poe. Poe himself wrote of these stories: “The style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page. Mr. Hawthorne is a man of the truest genius.” Read ’em!

Poe, Edgar Allan. Everything he wrote.

During a summer’s stay in Mexico that was devoted to writing Waterspell, I stumbled across a five-volume collection, in the Lake Chapala Society library, of everything Poe ever wrote: poems, book reviews and essays, short stories and long tales. The set was published by Dana Estes of Boston in the late 1800s, and would probably have been under lock and key in the “Rare Books” section of any big-city library. Prefacing Vol. I was a brief biography written by Richard Henry Stoddard, in which he says of Poe’s work: “There was genius in every [tale]; there was no uncertain grammar, no feeble phraseology, no ill-placed punctuation, no worn-out truisms, no strong thoughts elaborated into weakness. Logic and imagination were combined in rare consistency; and the world which the writer sometimes created in his mind was so weird, so strange, and so wonderfully graphic that it seemed for the moment to have all the truth of a reality.” What’s left to be said? To many readers and writers, Poe remains the master and the inspiration.



Medieval Domestic Life.

Interesting series of short articles on a wide range of topics including marriage in the Middle Ages, clothing, manners, taverns, games played, forbidden sex, and contraceptive methods.

Medieval/Renaissance Food Homepage.
Medieval and Anglo Saxon Recipes.

Two starting places for the many Medieval recipes online. From these two resources come many of the dishes Myra serves up.