Friday 11 May 2012

Hard Graft, Grafting and Calligraphy

Once upon a long time ago there was a Greek word graphein that meant write. When you wrote yourself that was an autograph, when you wrote on something that was an epigraph, when you wrote about prostitutes it was pornography and when you wrote beautifully it was calligraphy (presumably if you wrote about beautiful prostitutes it would be callipornography).

Anyway, the result of all these graphs was that the Latin word for a stylus (or sharp writing implement) was a graphium, and the result of that was the the Old French for a sharp instrument was graife. Therefore, when you cut off a shoot from a plant with a graife and attached it to another plant this was known as grafting.

None of which has anything to do with hard graft, which goes back to graft meaning dig, which goes back to graff meaning dig, which goes back to grave meaning dig, which is where we get the grave that was dug. Which leads inevitably to the question of what you call a man with a spade in his head.


Hard graft


  1. So graphite presumably was "that stuff that's handy for writing" and thus from the Greek?

  2. Wonderful - I recommend your book to all my students

  3. That joke will never be funnier than it is right here at the end of your post. Revisited anywhere else, it will now seem a little... well... Douglas.

  4. Does the French graife then have any links with the grave accent, I wonder? Any idea?

  5. Beware of Doug

  6. The Antipodean11 May 2012 at 14:27

    Then, of course, there's callipygianography, which you are occasionally prone to.

  7. New Kid on the Block11 May 2012 at 15:44

    @Wynn: Yes! graphite = γραφίτης (graphitis)
    Also: γράφημα (graphima)= graph

  8. What a shame! I was hoping that writing was etymologically connected to hard graft. It feels as if it should be!

    Katie k, you've almost beaten me to the following question: what do you call a man with half a spade in his head?


  9. There are dozens of these, but the Doug/Douglas one particularly chimes with these two:

    What do you call a man with a plank on his head? Edward ("[h]ead wood").

    What do you call a man with three planks on his head?
    Edward Woodward.