The Accidental Dictionary by Paul Anthony Jones

If you like Mashed Radish, then you’ll love Paul Anthony Jones’ latest book, The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2016, £12.99 hardback/ebook).

With intelligence and wit, Jones offers the surprising origins and developments of 100 everyday words, from affiliate to zombie. Each selection is pithy and engaging, making The Accidental Dictionary an ideal book to pick up whenever you need a funny yet informative break or burst of inspired word-nerdom. But I think you’ll find, like me, that the word histories Jones’ has curated – and his infectious enthusiasm for them – are hard to put down.

Once you finish The Accidental Dictionary, check out some of his other books like Words Drops (2015) and Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons (2013), keep up with his blog, and follow his delightful Twitter account, @HaggardHawks, for more lexical curiosities and delights.

Haven’t ordered it on Amazon yet? Here’s a sample, on the really astonishing etymology of alcohol (copyright © Paul Anthony Jones 2016, published with permission of Elliott & Thompson). Drink up:

ALCOHOL originally meant ‘eye shadow’

There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.

When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.

Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.

But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.

The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.

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Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.


Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

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How were the “pyramids” built?

Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has been under a lot of scrutiny recently for a number of questionable statements he’s made, past and present. One has concerned the Egyptian pyramids, which Carson believes were constructed by the Old Testament patriarch, Joseph, to store grain.

Experts have thoroughly dismissed Carson’s notion. But some scholars, ironically enough, have claimed that the word pyramid does store an ancient word for “grain.”

"Pyramid." Doodle by me.
“Pyramid.” Doodle by me.


Coming into English via French and Latin, the ultimate base of English’s pyramid is the Greek πυραμίς (puramis), which named the Egyptian funerary monuments we still marvel at millennia later. This Greek word came to name other structures of pyramidal shape, a sense development also observed in Latin (pȳramis) and French (pyramide). The stem of the Greek noun was πυραμίδ- (puramid-), which is ultimately why the English word features a d.

As far as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can tell, pyramid reached English as early as 1398, when, appearing in the late Latin form of piramis, it first referred to pyramids in the context of geometry. The word doesn’t explicitly refer to the Egyptian structures until the 1500s, at least according to the OED’s account.

So, how did the Greeks construct their word for pyramid? This question has sent many digging, including even the scholars of antiquity themselves.

Some have suggested the Greek puramis derives from πῦρ (pur), “fire,” due to the shape of the structure’s apex. Others have proposed a root in a similar word, πυραμίς (puramis), a kind of “cake,” whose shape resembled pyramids, apparently. Now, this puramis is derived from πυρός, (puros), meaning “wheat” or “grain.”  Other efforts have broken this puramis down to Greek words for “to measure grain” or “to collect grain.” Could the word even be connected to a Semitic root for “hill” or “fruit measure,” as has been speculated?

These explanations are really digging for it. As 19th-century American Egyptologist Lysander Dickerman sums it up in his discussion of the origin of pyramid: “To what straits we are driven when we become slaves to a theory!”

Other etymologies excavate in situ, linguistically speaking: Egyptian roots. One explanation claims the word is from the ancient Egyptian for “ray of the sun,” referring to the pyramid’s kin, the obelisk. Another, more common explanation posits an origin in the Egyptian piramus, among other forms, claimed to mean the “slant height” of the structure.

Alas, the ultimate origin may just be lost to the, er,  sands of time. But the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology does have one theory that’s pretty ‘far out’: “of alien origin.”

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