Word Soup: James Joyce

This Saturday, June 16 is Bloomsday, an annual celebration of Irish writer James Joyce and his novel, Ulysses.

Want to join the festivities? Follow in Leopold Bloom’s footsteps and take a walking tour of Dublin. Learn about the Irish capital through an app that “maps the locations of James Joyce’s modernist novel.” Attend a readathon with “more than one hundred Irish writers [reading] consecutively over 28 hours,” or listen to BBC Radio 4’s “five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the novel.” Read Ulysses in its entirety (finally) at the Irish National Library. Or just enjoy this roundup of ten of our favorite Ulyssesean and Joycean words.


“Like John o’Gaunt his name is dear to him, as dear as the coat and crest he toadied for, on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, honorificabilitudinitatibus, dearer than his glory of greatest shakescene in the country.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Honorificabilitudinitatibus means “the state of being able to achieve honors.” According to World Wide Words, Joyce borrowed it from Shakespeare, “who in turn borrowed it from Latin”:

I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

Love’s Labor Lost

But Shakespeare didn’t coin the word. Its first appearance, “in the form honōrificābilitūdo” was “in a charter of 1187 and as honōrificābilitūdinitās in a work by the Italian Albertinus Mussatus about 1300.” The word was also used “by Dante and Rabelais and turns up in an anonymous Scots work of 1548, The Complaynt of Scotland.”


“Speaking to me. They wash and tub and scrub. Agenbite of inwit. Conscience. Yet here’s a spot.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Inwit, meaning “inward knowledge; understanding; conscience,” was coined in the 13th century, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and comes from in plus wit. World Wide Words goes on to say that the word “had gone out of the language around the middle of the fifteenth century” and “would have remained a historical curiosity had not Joyce and a few other writers of his time found something in it that was worth the risk of puzzling his readers.”

The phrase agenbite of inwit echoes Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English “confessional prose work.” Ayenbite or agenbite is “literally ‘again-bite’, a literal translation of the Latin word meaning ‘remorse’,” says World Wide Words.


“At the carryfour with awlus plawshus, their happy-ass cloudious! And then and too the trivials! And their bivouac! And his monomyth! Ah ho! Say no more about it! I’m sorry! I saw. I’m sorry! I’m sorry to say I saw!”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Monomyth, a word that Joyce coined, is “a cyclical journey or quest undertaken by a mythical hero,” and today is most famously applied to Joseph Campbell’s concept in his writings about heroes, stories, and myth.

Mr. Right

“Be sure now and write to me. And I’ll write to you. Now won’t you? Molly and Josie Powell. Till Mr Right comes along, then meet once in a blue moon.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Mr. Right refers to “a perfect, ideal or suitable mate or husband,” and, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, first appeared in Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. However, we found Mr. Right in this context (not as someone’s name) in what appears to be a song from around 1826:

Mr. Right! Mr. Right!
Oh, sweet Mr. Right!
The girls find they’re wrong when they find Mr. Right
There’s some love the young, and the young love the old,
There’s some love for love, and some love for gold.
Many Pretty young girls get hold of a fright,
And all their excuse is – I’ve found Mr. Right.

If anyone has any additional information on the origin of Mr. Right, let us know!


“Florry whispers to her. Whispering lovewords murmur, liplapping loudly, poppysmic plopslop.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

Poppysmic refers to the sound “produced by smacking the lips.” The word comes from the Latin poppysma, says World Wide Words. The Romans used the word to refer to “a kind of lip-smacking, clucking noise that signified satisfaction and approval, especially during lovemaking,” and that “in French, it referred to the tongue-clicking tsk-tsk sound that riders use to encourage their mounts.”


“For your own good, you understand, for the man who lifts his pud to a woman is saving the way for kindness.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

A pud is a “a paw; fist; hand,” but is also apparently meant as slang for penis, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Pud is short for pudding, which originally referred to “minced meat, or blood, properly seasoned, stuffed into an intestine, and cooked by boiling,” also known as sausage. Pudding gained the slang sense of penis in 1719.


“— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Quark is a nonsense word that Joyce coined in his novel, Finnegans Wake. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, applied quark to “any of a group of six elementary particles having electric charges of a magnitude one-third or two-thirds that of the electron, regarded as constituents of all hadrons.”


“Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

While Joyce didn’t coin the word schlep, which comes from Yiddish shlepn, “to drag, pull,” its first known appearance in English seems to have been in Ulysses.


“In ‘Ulysses,’ Joyce follows Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman, around Dublin through the course of one day in 1904 – June 16, a date that is now annually celebrated by Joyce scholars and admirers as ‘Bloomsday.’”

Herbert Mitgang, “Joyce Typescript Moves to Texas,” The New York Times, June 16, 1990

Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, in Greek mythology, “the king of Ithaca, a leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, who reached home after ten years of wandering.” The Odyssey and Odysseus gave us odyssey, “an extended adventurous voyage or trip”, or “an intellectual or spiritual quest.”

Ulysses contract

“The new paper takes precommitment strategies much further, advocating, for example, a ‘Ulysses contract’ — or a ‘commitment memorandum’ that spells out what to do when the markets move 25 percent up or down.”

Jeff Sommer, “The Benefits of Telling the Ugly Truth,” The New York Times, April 30, 2011

A Ulysses contract, says The Wall Street Journal, is a promise

not to act hastily in volatile markets. Just as Ulysses had his crew tie him down so he could resist the Sirens’ deadly song, Prof. Benartzi…would have investors promise not to overreact to sharp market moves in either direction.

Erin McKean says that Ulysses’s wife, Penelope, “also lends her name to a number of objects, including Penelope canvas (used for needlework), and to the verb penelopize, ‘to pull work apart to do it over again, in order to gain time.’”

Still jonesing for more Ulysses words? Check out this list and this one, and for more nonsense words like quark, check out this one.

Lucky Words


Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, which has gotten us thinking about luck and luck words.

The phrase luck of the Irish is commonly thought to mean “extreme good fortune.” However, according to Edward T. O’Donnell, an Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College and author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, the term has not an Irish origin but “a happier, if not altogether positive,” American one.

During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth. . . .Over time this association of the Irish with mining fortunes led to the expression “luck of the Irish.” Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed.

The word luck is Middle Dutch in origin, coming from luc, a shortening of gheluc, “happiness, good fortune.” Luck may have been borrowed into English in the 15th century as a gambling term. (Draw an ambsace, or double aces? Then you’re S.O.L., or shit out of luck, a phrase which originated as World War I military slang.)

Luck gives us lots of words and phrases besides the familiar (lucky strike, lucky streak, tough luck, don’t push your luck, beginner’s luck). A lucky-penny is “a small sum given back ‘for luck’ to the purchaser or payer by the person who receives money in a bargain or other transaction,” as well as “a copper tossed overboard ‘for luck.’” A lucky-bag is “a receptacle on a man-of-war for all clothes and other articles of private property carelessly left by their owners,” so-called because these articles “were later auctioned off,” says A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, “thereby making those Sailors fortunate enough to obtain new items for relatively little money ‘lucky.’” Another definition of lucky-bag is similar to that of grab bag or goody bag.

A luckdragon, “a fictitious flying dragon with a wingless elongated body, possessing neither magical talent nor immense physical strength, but distinctive in its unfailing serendipity,” is a meme based on the character from the film, The Neverending Story.

Potluck, now mostly associated with “a meal consisting of whatever guests have brought,” originally meant “what may chance to be in the pot, in provision for a meal; hence, a meal at which no special preparation has been made for guests.” And while potluck bears a striking resemblance to potlatch, a Native American “feast, often lasting several days,” according to the Word Detective, “there is no actual connection between the words.”

Hap is older than luck. Originating in the 12th century, the word comes from the Old Norse happ, meaning “chance, good luck.” Hap gives us happy, as well as haphazard, “chance; accidental; random”; hapless, “luckless, unfortunate”; and mishap, “misfortune.”

Auspicious, “of good omen; betokening success,” comes from the Latin auspicium, “divination by observing the flight of birds.” In ancient Rome, an augur was “a functionary whose duty it was to observe and to interpret, according to traditional rules, the auspices, or reputed natural signs concerning future events.” An auspex was an augur “who interpreted omens derived from the observation of birds.” To auspicate means “to initiate or inaugurate with ceremonies calculated to insure good luck.”

Want to wish someone good luck? Prosit! you might say over drinks. Prosit means “good luck to you,” and comes from the Latin, by way of German, prōsit, “may it benefit.” You might tell a superstitious actor to break a leg (and if they’re in a certain play, definitely don’t utter the name of said play). The origin of break a leg is obscure and complex with many theories.

To bestow good luck on someone, give them a handsel, “a gift or token of good fortune or good will; especially, a New-Year’s gift.” A handsel is also “a sale, gift, or delivery which is regarded as the first of a series,” such as “the first earnings of any one in a new employment or place of business; the first money taken in a shop newly opened; the first present sent to a young woman on her wedding-day, etc.” The word comes from the Old Norse handsal, “legal transfer.”

Money Spider

Money Spider, by Silversyrpher

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Silversyrpher]

Need some extra luck? Aside from a rabbit’s foot, horseshoe, or four-leaf clover, carry a porte-bonheur, “a charm, an amulet, or a trinket carried after the fashion of an amulet, suspended to a bracelet or other article of personal adornment.” Porte-bonheur translates from the French as “bearing happiness.” (For more amulets, check out this list.) Also keep your eye out for a money-spider, “a small spider. . .of common occurrence in North America, supposed to prognosticate good luck or the receipt of money to the person it crawls on.”

To ward off bad luck, be sure to unberufen, or touch wood. Unberufen translates from the German as unbidden, or uninvited, perhaps with the idea of uninviting bad luck. World Wide Words says the origin may have to do with “pre-Christian rituals involving the spirits of sacred trees such as the oak, ash, holly or hawthorn,”; “an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck”; or the “belief that the knocking sound prevents the Devil from hearing your unwise comments.” The phrase is relatively modern with the earliest citation from 1899.

Or you could get your own mascot, “a thing supposed to bring good luck to its possessor; a person whose presence is supposed to be a cause of good fortune.” The word mascot comes from the French mascotte, “sorcerer’s charm,” which ultimately comes from the Medieval Latin masca, “mask, specter, witch.”

Phillie Phanatic at St. Patrick's Day Parade

Phillie Phanatic at St. Patrick’s Day Parade, by Mobilus In Mobili

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Mobilus In Mobili]

Hopefully all of these will bring you to mahurat, a Hindi word meaning “a time or moment considered lucky, often used to mark the commencement of a project.”

Have nothing but bad luck? Then you’re a schlimazel, “an extremely unlucky or inept person,” which is Yiddish in origin, coming from the Middle High German slimp, “wrong,” plus the Yiddish mazl, “luck.” (Mazel tov means “best wishes” and translates as “good luck.”)

(And for you Laverne & Shirley fans, a schlemiel is “a habitual bungler; a dolt,” while hassenpfeffer is “a highly seasoned stew of marinated rabbit meat.” Put it all together and you apparently have a Yiddish-American hopscotch chant, though we can’t find much evidence to back this.)

A jinx is “a person or thing that is believed to bring bad luck.” The word originated in 1911 as baseball slang and ultimately came from the Latin iynx, “wryneck,” a bird used in witchcraft and divination. A Jonah is “a person on shipboard regarded as the cause of ill luck; any one whose presence is supposed or alleged to cause misfortune,” perhaps due to the story in the Old Testament of Jonah and the whale.

To wish someone ill will, say with a wanion. The origin of wanion is unknown though it may have to do with the waning of the moon. You could also say a bad scran to you, with scran meaning “scraps; broken victuals; refuse,” or food in general. Scran may come from the Norwegian skran, “rubbish.” Bad cess to you also works, with cess possibly meaning “a rate or tax.”

Feel bad for an unfortunate someone? Say hard cheese. The phrase has its origins in the literal, “cheese which is old, dried up and considered indigestible.”

Of course we only wish everyone good luck , and so we raise our glasses (or coffee mugs): “Prosit!”

[Photo via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 by John]

Happy Bloomsday!

Every June 16, James Joyce fans everywhere celebrate the Irish writer’s mammoth tome, Ulysses.

Serialized from 1918 to 1920, Ulysses was first published in its entirety in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, who started Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Deemed “obscene” due to a passage that included the main character, Leopold Bloom (for whom the holiday is named), masturbating, Ulysses was banned in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom till the 1930s.

Bloomsday began in 1954 “on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel, when John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Flann O’Brien organised what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route.”  Now 57 years later, Ulyssean festivities are still going strong.

The little bookshop that started it all is displaying artwork from artist Stephen Crowe’s “Wake in Progress, his ongoing project to illustrate every page of [another Joyce novel] Finnegans Wake.” In Dublin and New York, Joyceans celebrated with Bloomsday breakfasts. Broadway is putting on a daylong, celebrity-studded marathon reading, while tweeps are attempting to tweet all 256,000 words of Ulysses in 24 hours.

Meanwhile, author Frank Delaney is deconstructing one line of Ulysses a day; photographer Motoko Fujita put together a book of Joyce-inspired photographs; and Rory McCann, an Irish software developer, created an algorithm to solve the Ulyssean riddle, can you cross Dublin without passing a pub? (The short answer: yes but it’s not easy.)

Feeling less ambitious? You can see the what, where and when of 16th June 1904, as well as just the where.  Or if you’ve always wondered what the entire text of Ulysses translated in 2D barcodes looks like, you’re in luck. Of course we at Wordnik aren’t empty-handed – we have lists for this, Ulysses, Ulyssean, and Joycean.  And with the end of the Ulysses copyright next year, who knows what will happen (Bloomsday flash mob, anyone?).

Whatever you decide to do (or not do), you have 365 days to read, or re-read, the novel for next Bloomsday.  Or you can watch the movie.  We won’t tell.

75 Years Later, Joyce Obscene Again

Every Bloomsday for the past 27 years Symphony Space has done a program of readings from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and every year those performances have been broadcast on WBAI, 99.5 FM in New York.

Tonight, though, according to The New York Times, WBAI will be parting ways with Symphony Space due to “apprehension about obscenity and government regulation.” Symphony Space will be reading the racy* “Ithica” episode, while WBAI will be playing it safe with other passages.

This immediately got my Irish up: how dare our government censor great literature! Then I read the article more closely, and it doesn’t actually say anything about government censorship. Symphony Space and WBAI censored themselves “to avoid concerns at the radio station about some of Joyce’s words and descriptions.”

How gutless! In 1933 a federal judge ruled that Ulysses was safe for public consumption, and what was deemed acceptable then has to be infinitely more so in this lurid age, when hair-palmed teenagers have so many better options for making themselves blind. It’s disappointing that Symphony Space and WBAI lack the courage of their convictions. The government rarely displays either**, but you expect more of great cultural institutions.

That said, I bet they both put on a good show. Genteel readers can listen to the family-friendly WBAI production, while you pornographers out there can enjoy the Symphony Space slimefest.

* Kidding. It’s not half as racy as this.

** Though it makes me think maybe the Bush administration might be right after all that industry can regulate its own CO2 emissions. If the culture industry can do such a good job regulating itself, why not coal-fired power plants?

Pòg mo thoin

It’s been a while since we’ve had an installment of the Weird International Dictionary Series, so forthwith, I present MacBain’s Dictionary, aka An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, which was apparently “keyed in” by one Caoimhín P. Ó Donnaíle. To be specific, this is an html edition of a 1982 photo reprint of the 1911 2nd edition of a Gaelic dictionary originally published in 1896.

Somehow along the way all the words beginning with H, J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z seem to have gone missing. Or perhaps Gaelic doesn’t have any such words.