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’.

Parsley tongue

So today I went to add “parsley” to the shopping list on my phone, and autocorrect (or “Auto Percy” as it apparently likes to be called – another autocorrect, um, correction) changed it to “parseltongue”.

So now I have another castle-in-the-air writing goal: to one day have one of my made up words enter popular usage to the point where it is added to a mobile phone autocorrect (sorry, Auto Percy) dictionary.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/

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.


Making up words

Want made up words? Lewis Carroll got made up words!
Want made up words? Lewis Carroll got made up words!

In 2011, when I decided to ‘get serious’ about my writing, one of the first things I did was book myself into a Year of the Novel course with the very knowledgeable and generous Craig Cormick, through the ACT Writers Centre. One of the very first exercises he got us to do, was describe our favourite kitchen appliance in one sentence, without mentioning what it is. I came up with:

When it’s packed, the mess is gone, and I can go and write.

(Can you guess?) Then, of course, we had to condense it down to one word. One word? The man is crazy, I thought. Then he uttered the magic phrase… “If there isn’t a word, you can make one up.” (Or something like that.) Awesome. It came to me almost straight away.


Now, I could have gone with ‘neat’ or ‘clean’ or something like that . But none of those words conveyed the sense of satisfaction I have at achieving a kitchen that doesn’t have dirty plates and used saucepans scattered over every surface. For some reason, if my kitchen is messy, I feel like my mind is cluttered. Words like ‘tidy’ give you a sense of the end product, but they don’t describe the journey. My word conveys (to me, anyway) a sense of my active participation in achieving that state. And there’s the rub.

If you’re going to go making up words, you run the risk of creating something that’s meaningless to other people.

Words like ‘squared-awayness’ probably don’t carry that kind of risk, because I’ve picked something that already carries meaning and just levered it into a grammatical convention that makes it one word instead of two. But, especially if you write speculative fiction like me, which often involves making up worlds and cultures, you might want to make up new words, just coz they sound cool, or there isn’t quite the right word to convey what you want. In this case, you’re going to have to rely heavily on context to get across your meaning, or you can leverage off existing words that sound similar. ‘Frack’ as a pseudo-swear word is a good example of this, although thanks to the Australian coal-seam gas mining industry, that word now has a boring and slightly depressing, well-understood technical meaning.

So there’s your second risk. You might end up with a word that means something different to other people, to what it means to you. Here’s a couple of examples from one of my works in progress. This has a late-medieval-ish setting and a lot of the characters are peasants, or common household or forest-dwelling fairies loosely based on various bits of British folklore. I’ve tried to create a kind of vernacular for the story to give it a certain feel. But, here are two of the inadvertent missteps I’ve made along the way.


What I meant: a variant of lumpy, but with a more colloquial sound to it.

What it actually means:  (according to of or pertaining to disenfranchised and uprooted individuals or groups, especially those that have lost status. It can also mean stupid or unthinking (how’s that for irony?) and comes from the German word for vagabond.


What I meant: something daft or stupid. I totally made this up. I just liked the sound. I think I derived it from whelk, which is a hilarious-sounding shellfish. (I don’t think you get whelks in forests, though.)

What it actually means: the sky. From the Old English welcn and related to the German word Wolke, which means cloud. Who knew?

Well, one of my sharp-eyed, German-speaking beta readers, that’s who.

Obviously, I should have done a bit more due-diligence. I remember reading about J K Rowling Googling the term ‘Horcrux’ when writing the 6th Harry Potter book.  (Now there’s a woman who’s great with made-up words.) She says she was so relieved to find no Google matches on it at the time, because she really liked the word and desperately wanted to use it. (Try Googling it now!)

So the moral of this story is: be creative! Make words up. But you might want to double check to make sure you’re using something that, well, means what you think it means.