Awesome words: rapscallion

Rapscallion: a mischievous person.

This is one of those words that conjures up a whole array of other, equally awesome words: rogue, knave, scoundrel, varlet, slumgullion.

This word seems to have first appeared in the late 17th century, and is closely associated with the word rascallion, which was an earlier elaboration of rascal.  gives it a specifically feminine parallel in the word rampallion, which is yet another awesome word and came from the Middle English word ramp, meaning a rude or boisterous girl or woman.

Now, I love a good, rude, boisterous woman, so I found this quite fascinating in itself. In Middle English the word ramp also referred to an animal climbing or standing on its hind legs (such as in rampant, used in heraldry to indicate a beast depicted rearing up). Ramp, as a perjorative term for a woman then later became romp in the 18th century, defined in Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755 as “a rude, awkward, boisterous,untaught girl.”

Here. Have a nice sea-dog rampant.
Here. Have a nice sea-dog rampant.

Awesome words: Palimpsest

Palimpsest: a page of writing, particularly on parchment, that has been erased or scraped clean to allow for new writing.

A palimpsest from the 5th or 6th century

This is another one of those words that is a whole story unto itself. What did the original writing say? Why was it erased? What was so important about the new writing that the old had to make way?

Palimpsest comes from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos which means ‘scraped again’. Cicero, the Roman writer and orator, used it to refer to the Ancient Roman practice of writing on wax tablets, which were then smoothed out to be used again. So the term is rooted in a practice of utilitarian necessity.

Even so, I find the idea of lost or hidden knowledge that the term palimpsest implies completely beguiling.


Awesome words: Incarnadine



Incarnadine: the colour of blood, or to bloody or stain with red.

This word comes from the Latin incarnare, which means to ‘make flesh’. It probably originally meant ‘flesh coloured’, however its current use stems from these immortal lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605), just after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, and he begins to apprehend the horror of the act he has just committed:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Macbeth, Act 2, scene 2

Why do I love this word? It’s so close to so many other great words dealing with the flesh that give it a range of delicious overtones and associations. Incarnate, for example. This association gives incarnadine a truly arcane sense, as though the colour itself represents something more amorphous, and has been imbued by some supernatural agency. Nothing ever starts out incarnadine. It is a colour that something becomes through some sort of Mephistophelean act.

Then there’s, carnal, which in my mind is quite a dark word and gives incarnadine an array of darkly sensual overtones. You can’t escape the fact that flesh is at the centre of incarnadine. The word has an ineluctable physicality about it.

And, of course, that slaughterous word, carnage, which is all about violence and blood and rent flesh. Incarnadine is not a quiet, demure colour. It’s the colour of vengeance and guilt and dark, terrible acts. It’s a colour with story.


Awesome words: Christmastide





What a delicious word. It has such a lovely Dickensian flavour to it. It has all the magic of Christmas, plus some tasty liturgical overtones.

This word seems to have entered the English language around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The ‘tide’ part comes from the Old English word ‘tid’, which means ‘period of time’ or ‘season’.

The season of Christmastide roughly covers the traditional twelve days of Christmas period, although different Christian Churches begin and end this period on slightly different dates.

I love this word because if its archaic quality, and all the traditional elements of Christmas it conjures up. Rich plum puddings, gingerbread, robin redbreasts perched on snowy twigs, holly, mistletoe and spruce. (Note: I’m Australian. So you can appreciate the irony of all this.) But I also love it because it sounds joyful. I associate the ‘tide’ part with all the good tidings and cheer in the carols. And, I have to admit, I also like the idea of stretching out the celebration of Christmas for as long as possible.

However you celebrate Christmas, or even if you don’t and are just enjoying the public holiday, I hope you are having a safe and happy one.

Awesome words: penultimate

Candle Flame by Simon Howden, courtesy of
Candle Flame by Simon Howden, courtesy of








Penultimate: second-to-last

This is an awesome word mostly because it sounds even more awesome than ‘ultimate’, to the extent that sometimes it gets confused with a non-existent word that means ‘even more ultimate than ultimate’.

Apparently the ‘pen-‘ comes from the Latin paene, meaning ‘almost’.

Awesome words: revenant

Les-SpectresRevenant: A ghost or returning spirit.

This word has been lifted as-is from French, and means ‘ghost’ in that language. It is related to the French word ‘revenir’, meaning to come back or return.

For me, the sound of this word evokes other other words that give ‘revenant’ a heightened sense of macabre loss. Such as:

Remnant: something incomplete. This makes me think of a ‘revenant’ as a shade, or a scrap of soul torn away.

Reave: an archaic word evoking unnecessary violence in times long past. From the Old English, reafian,  to rob, and related to the Old High German, roubon, to rob, and Old Norse, roufa, to break open. (Source:

Bereaved: deprived and made desolate by death.

These are my own associations; nothing I read in researching the origins of ‘revenant’ suggests any relationship between this word and any of the others I’ve listed above. In fact, the word ‘revenant’ literally means ‘return’ in French. But, even so, I love words that evoke others. For me, this add layers of meaning and richness to prose.

Awesome words: dreadnought

This first referred to a 41-gun galleon in the English Navy Royal, launched in 1573 (according to Wikipedia), and has since been used to refer to a number of things, including 20th Century battleships and acoustic guitars.

Literally ‘fear nothing’.

But, somehow, this word creates its own frisson of fear.

It’s probably a combination of the fact that something that ‘fears nothing’ is going to be a pretty big, scary thing itself, and the combination of the actual words dread + nought.

I mean, ‘dread’ isn’t just fear, it’s fear levelled up some.  And ‘nought’ is a nice, tasty, archaic way of saying ‘nothing’, which gives the term a certain historical weight.