Vocabulary Rocks! I is for…

Vocabulary Rocks! I is for…

Moving along in the alphabet to the letter I… more fascinating history lessons in etymology and strange words for your enjoyment! For previous entries on this topic, a blog category search for “vocabulary” will bring up the archived posts. I LOVE vocabulary!


Insouciance (in-SOO-see-uhns)

Nonchalance, indifference, lack of concern.

This word and its adjectival form insouciant, comes from French words that literally mean "not caring."


I StatesThe state of Illinois is a French version of the name of an Algonquin Indian tribe, the Inini, or “accomplished men.” The French altered the name to Illini and added the -ois suffix to refer to the tribe. The name is akin to the Miami alänia and the Shawnee hilenawe, meaning “man or person.”


Indiana is simply a Latinized form of Indian, meaning roughly “land of the Indians.” The name appears as early as 1768 and in the early years applied to a number of western regions of the North American continent. The Indiana Territory was formally organized in 1800 and this particular territory is what eventually became the state in 1816.


Iowa, the Hawkeye State gets its name from the French version of a Dakota Sioux tribe. The Dakota spelling varies, being given as Ayuhwa, Ouaouia, Aiouez, and Ioways. The name means “sleepy ones.” The tribe bequeathed its name to the Iowa River and the river in turn gave its name to the territory.


Idaho may be the only state whose name is based on a hoax. In 1860 the name was first applied to the town of Idaho Springs, located in what is today the state of Colorado. In that year an effort was made to organize a territory in the Pike’s Peak region and the name Idaho and was one of the leading contenders, but Colorado eventually won out. Many years after the fact, in 1875, George Willing, a supposed delegate to Washington from the territory and notorious self-promoter, claimed to have invented the name after a conversation with a young girl named Ida. He translated the “alleged” Indian name as “gem of the mountain.” Willing is a very untrustworthy source, to put it mildly, so how much credence one should put in Willing’s account is highly questionable.

In 1861, the territory of Washington created Idaho County, which would eventually become the state we know today as Idaho. Poet Joaquin Miller was an early popularizer of the name and claimed it came from Shoshonean roots: ee (down) + dah (sun or mountain) + how (exclamation), or literally something along the lines of “light coming down the mountain!” or “sunrise!” Many accepted Miller’s explanation uncritically, but if true, no one has authoritatively identified the native language from which it comes. Bottom line, no one really knows where the name Idaho comes from.


The ancient legal institution of the grand jury now continues only in the USA, but it was once the standard way of deciding whether a person should be charged with a crime. It was called a “grand jury” because it was made up of 24 men, twice the size of a petit jury or petty jury as is normal in a trial. Grand juries were originally called from among local men who were expected to act on personal knowledge. If they felt the evidence was too weak their foreman wrote the Latin word ignoramus on the back of the indictment. This literally meant “we do not know” from the Latin verb ignorare (to be ignorant). In practice it meant “we take no notice of this”, the opposite of declaring the indictment a true bill and sending the accused person to trial.

How this abstruse foreign form from the specialized language of the law became an English word is due to George Ruggle. He wrote a play called Ignoramus, mostly in Latin, which was performed on March 8, 1615 at Trinity College, Cambridge, before an audience of some 2,000 which included King James I of England and the future Charles I. It featured a rascally and ignorant lawyer, the Ignoramus of the title, who used barbarous law Latin of a kind deplored by the university’s academics. The king loved the play but his judges and law officers hated it. It caused a huge controversy that led to the name of the play’s chief character entering the language.

Inurnment and Interment

urnInurnment means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the process of placing the ashes of a cremated body into an urn.” The original sense of urn was specifically “vessel used to preserve the ashes of the dead,” and the word, derived from the Latin urna seems to have been rooted in the Latin verb urere meaning “to burn.” Urn first appeared in English in the sense of keeping the ashes of the deceased in the 14th century, and would not refer to the general-purpose receptacle for miscellaneous items sense until the early 17th century.

Urn, therefore, is an ancient word. Inurnment sounds like a modern word concocted by a crafty funeral director. However, inurnment first appeared in print in 1602 and once again we can thank William Shakespeare! In Act One, Scene IV of Hamlet, when the hero first encounters and speaks to his father’s ghost:

“Why the Sepulcher Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d,
Hath op’d his ponderous and Marble iawes [jaws],
To cast thee up againe?”
(“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead. In a tomb. In a jar.”)

Beware because some versions of this scene render the unusual “inurnment” as “interment,” but that’s an entirely different word. Inter, meaning “to deposit the body of a deceased person in the ground,” first appeared in English in the 14th century based on the Latin interrare (combining in with terra, or earth). Muddying the waters further, the OED also says the verb inter, dating back to the early 1300s, means “to deposit (a corpse) in the earth, or in a grave or tomb; to inhume, bury.” Since a tomb does not have to be underground – the OED defining tomb as: “A monument erected to enclose or cover the body and preserve the memory of the dead; a sepulchral structure raised above the earth.” – the word interment is appropriate for ashes in an urn placed into a tomb.

Today both terms are used by the funeral business and cemeteries. For example, a publication called “Administrative Guide to Information and Burial at Arlington National Cemetery” uses the terms inurn and inurnment for placement of urns into niches at the Columbarium, and inter and interment for burials in the ground (of either caskets or cinerary urns).


In Old English the adjective ilca meant “same” or “like” and survived in mainstream English until the sixteenth century, in the end being supplanted by same, from Old Norse. The word survive in the Scots tongue, especially in the phrase of that ilk. The meaning was, and still is, of a person whose family name is the same as that of the place he inhabits. Most strictly it indicates that the person is the proprietor, or laird, of the place.

The field and ground was chosen in St. Andrews, and three landed men and three yeomen chosen to shoot against the English-men, — to wit, David Wemyss of that ilk, David Arnot of that ilk, and Mr. John Wedderburn, vicar of Dundee. ~The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott, 1810. Wemyss and Arnot are indeed places in Scotland, both in Fife.

Scots also used it to refer to the head of a clan, even if the clan name wasn’t derived from a locality, such as in a 1539 trial in Scotland referring to “Duncane Macfarlane of that ilk”, where Macfarlane isn’t a place name. This eventually led to ilk weakening its sense to mean people who had the same name because they were related.

Ilk later weakened still further to include people of the same class or who had some characteristic in common. This much broader connotation annoys language purists, though it has long since become common and is now regarded as standard English.

Weird Word - INFUCATE
Infucate (in-FYOO-kayt)

To apply cosmetics; paint the face.

From Latin fucus, which originally denoted "a kind of red dye obtained from lichens." Later this name was applied to "rouge" or "face paint" made from such a source.

English speakers borrowed fucus (rhymes with "mucus"), and actually used it quite often in the 17th century. ("Heere is an excellent Fucus to weede out Freckles," declared a writer in 1607.) Its linguistic offspring, infucate, isn't used all that often today, of course--but then again, perhaps it's just as well.



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