10 Nov 2016

Is it OK to feague a horse?

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:35 pm on 10 November 2016
Author, Nick Earls

Author, Nick Earls Photo: Candid Lane Photography

Australian author Nick Earls had long been obsessed with how certain words came about, and discovered that some words have fascinating stories behind them.

So he joined forces with illustrator, Terry Whidborne to create a series of children's books, The Word Hunters, about a group of kids on a quest through the past to hunt down the words that threaten to vanish from our past and our present.

The latest in the series is Top Secret Files has just been published.

Earls says the idea started when he became intrigued by the origin of words we use every day – for example ‘OK’.

“OK goes back to the US presidential campaign of 1840,” says Earls.

“It appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1839 at a time when that newspaper had a column where they were messing around with acronyms for things and came up with this kind of bumpkin acronym for out of town people Orl Korrect (OK)”.

Most such acronyms die a natural death, Earls says, but at this time there was an election and Martin Van Buren was seeking re-election.

Van Buren was born in Kinderhook New York State and he was known as ‘Old Kinderhook’.

“The campaign set up OK clubs to raise funds and support him and so those OK clubs kept the expression going.”

Later signing off legislation with him as president became giving it the ‘OK’.

After that a soap brand adopted it and that was that, the word ‘okay’ became official in 1929.

But what of the words we couldn’t save, the ones that have gone to the etymological gave yard?

A favourite of Earls is feague.

Which is to put ginger, or a live eel, up the fundament of a horse to make it seem more lively, and therefore more attractive to a potential horse buyer.

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