Who are you calling a dunce? The fascinating origins of words

From the very literal origins of ‘limelight’ to the squeamishness that led to ‘bowdlerise’

Faint of heart: Thomas Bowdler

Faint of heart: Thomas Bowdler

 

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous play, and she goes on to make the valid point that, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. But there is something in names – quite a lot in fact. For a start, it is fascinating to discover how things got their names.

Take the word “limelight”. At the start of the 19th century, gas lighting was introduced. But gas flames, with their glowing carbon particles, weren’t much brighter than candle flames. What was needed was some material that would shine with special brilliance when heated in a gas flame. Such a material was calcium oxide or lime, which shone with an intense, greenish-white light when heated.

In this way, “limelight” was discovered in the 1820s and was used to light up the stages of theatres for a long time. We still use the phrase “in the limelight” although we don’t use lime any more for illumination.

The word “dunce” comes from the 16th century and was used as a derogatory name for a follower of the 13th-century Scottish theologian John Duns Scotus. The word was used by humanists to ridicule followers of Duns Scotus as enemies of learning.

The word “ostracism” comes from the Greek word for a shell or piece of pottery on which names were written to vote to banish unpopular citizens.

Names of people are full of interest as well. The names of some unfortunates became new words in the English language. The word “boycott” came from Capt Charles Cunningham Boycott, land agent on Lord Erne’s Mayo estate, who was – that word again – ostracised by the community there in 1880 after refusing to reduce rents following a bad harvest as the Land League had requested him to do.

Thomas Bowdler gave us the word “bowdlerise”. He was a 19th-century English doctor who published The Family Shakespeare in which he removed passages he considered inappropriate for young and delicate eyes and ears. Dr Bowdler was a philanthropist and did a lot of good work on prison reform but his name will forever be associated with a type of squeamishness.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.