Arika Okrent (LH’s favorite invented-language maven) alerted me to the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, whose theme is “Means of Communication.” Not only does it have her own piece, “Body Language” (“From the wave to the shrug to the digitus impudicus, Arika Okrent breaks down the history and the subtleties of the ways we gesture”), which I urge you to read, but there’s plenty more (including Ben Zimmer’s “Word for Word” on Roget’s thesaurus and, alas, the egregious Simon Winchester on the Dictionary of Regional American English); Maria Popova, at her blog Brain Pickings, has excerpted a couple of nice bits from the printed version, How Famous Words Originated, According to the Historical Oxford English Dictionary and Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts. Enjoy!


  1. It’s a little sad that the marginal notes sidebar in Lapham’s did not trouble to mention that these all come, as far as I can see, from Irish manuscripts; and that the MS illustration they use is therefore way off the mark.

  2. “In the Low-Country the Cakes are called Cookies”: does he mean the Lowlands or the Low Countries? (My mother used “cookies” as a familiar term for her brats, as in “you are a silly cookie”, “what a bright cookie” and so on. But what Americans call “cookies” we called “biscuits”.)

  3. mollymooly says
  4. Dearieme: The full OED citation is “1754 E. Burt Lett. N. Scotl. II. xxiv. 272″. This is Edward Burt’s Letters from a gentleman in the north of Scotland to his friend in London; containing the description of a capital town in that northern country, with an account of some uncommon customs of the inhabitants; likewise an account of the Highlands, with the customs and manners of the Highlanders. To which is added, a letter relating to the military ways among the mountains, begun in the year 1726. Volume II of the 1818 edition is online at the Internet Archive; I have pointed to the relevant page, though it is folioed 164.
    The gentleman is in the Highlands, but not of them; he is plainly an Englishman, and by Low-country he means the Lowlands of Scotland. In full he says:

    As the Lowlanders call their part of the country the land of cakes, so the natives of the Hills say they inhabit a land of milk and honey.

    P. S. In the Low-country the cakes are called cookies; and the several species of them, of which they are many, though not much differing in quality one from another, are dignified and distinguished by the names of the reigning toasts [women who are commonly toasted, he means], or the good housewife who was the inventor, — as for example, Lady Cullen’s cookies, &c.

    Indeed, the OED2 (almost certainly unmodified OED1 text) defines the first part of sense 1 as “In Scotland the usual name for a baker’s plain bun”. James Murray, a Borderer, presumably knew what he was talking about when he wrote that back in 1891. I presume the OED3 will eventually remove the Scottish quotations to a separate obsolete sense. The only other one is Scott, The Antiquary (1816): “Mickle obliged to ye for your cookies, Mrs. Shortcake.”
    The etymology is also interesting, and does indeed mention the Low Countries: “probably < Dutch koekje /ˈkuːkjə/ diminutive of koek cake: this is apparently certain for U.S.; but for Scotland historical evidence has not been found.” Still, it’s hard to believe that the word doesn’t have the same ultimate origin, whether separately borrowed from the Dutch in North America, brought Over the Water by Scottish settlers, or both. Unsurprisingly, the word is also in use in Canada and South Africa.

  5. A mention of what’s the source for each marginalium would be good. A quotation in the original language, even better. But what I would really like to see would be a source with scans of the actual mss in question.

  6. Thank you both.

  7. The marginal note that seems to delight most readers of Lapham’s is “The parchment is hairy.” The original (or actually, one of the originals, since the quality of parchment and ink were often remarked on) is “Is finnach in membrum.”
    I’ve provided photos and discussion of a fair number of Irish marginal notes on my blog over the years. One of the first ones I posted was “Tá mé tuirseach inniu idir cheann is chois. = Today I am tired from head to toe.” This is in Modern Irish, from ca. 1410. The URL:

  8. I’m a bit confused: how do you get “Tá mé” out of “Isam”? The -am sure looks like Old Irish am ‘I am.’

  9. Sorry, my fault. I did that in haste and copied my Modern Irish translation of the scribe’s “Isam toirsech indiú eter chend is choiss.”
    “Isam,” by the way, is not really Old Irish for “I am”, which is simply “am(m)”. It’s an Early Modern Irish concoction.

  10. I know, which is why I said “The -am sure looks like Old Irish am ‘I am.'” I wasn’t sure how to take the is- part.

  11. I’m reminded of the article about ogam in The World’s Writing Systems (Daniels and Bright, eds.) in which one example is a scribe’s weary marginal note, “latheirt“. The word literally means “drinking”, but is here interpreted as “hangover”. Poor guy.

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