Something this week put into my mind once again, that remark which Norman Nicholson – unarguably the best Cumberland poet since Wordsworth, at least that we know about – which Nicholson made when I interviewed him back in the 1970s (You can read a transcript in Norman Nicholson at 100, edited by Stephen Matthews & Neil Curry and published by – and available from – Bookcase in Carlisle). What he told me was that he was ‘an entertainer.’

This is somewhat of a loaded word for someone of my education and upbringing. I went to a grammar school that had given up on erudition and learning in favour of pretension and appearances – at least from the corner I was standing in. So, ‘entertainer’ has for me the ring of ‘time waster,’ however entertainingly accomplished.

Good old BGS for Boys, however, by virtue of a trio of dedicated English teachers, did give me an interest (I wrote ‘love’ first, but decided against it) in words, and the itch to burrow my way into them from time to time. What does, I ask myself, ‘entertain’ mean? Travelling once in Scotland, within sniff of a distillery, I did ‘enter Tain,’ but that’s not what we’re looking for. There are other words, though, that might be worth recalling: Detain, Attain, Retain, all spring to mind. What is this thing called ‘tain’ – queue for a song (OK, cue for a song if we must) – that can be at-ed, de-ed, and re-ed?

Detain – to be held against your will? Retain – to be held where you are? Attain – to get to the place where you hold something? You’ll see where I’m going. Is ‘taining’ something to do with holding? Up here, oop here, if you like, in the north ‘ta’en’ with the throttled ‘k’ means taken. Am I on to something? Or off my trolley?

Some more ‘tain’ words: Obtain, Contain, Pertain. And again, there is that concept of holding common to all three (OK, at a stretch with the third!).

Time to look at the dictionary.

The best I have is the Shorter Oxford – though I have some interesting older ones – Blounts Glossographica of 1659 has gone missing, but it was interesting rather than useful. I rather liked the fact too, that in my poor copy, some eighteenth or nineteenth century re-binder had tried to get the long title word across the spine, and failed, despite having a go with a couple of smaller letters before dropping down on to a lower line! The good old OED tells me that all these words can be traced to a Latin root, each with a prefix. What the rootin’tootin’roots are, is interesting.

Attain   AT+tangere (to touch)

Detain   DE+tenere (to hold)

Retain   RE+tenere (that’s the one)

Obtain  OB+tenere (holding again!)

Contain CON+tenere (hold on there)

Pertain  PER+tenere (Well held, sir)


Which makes me wonder, if they’re right about the first one!

There is of course, the word I began with still to look up, and yes, you’ve guessed it. That’s the ‘holding’ root too. The prefix, ‘enter,’ entre nous, is interesting too. It means, ‘among,’ which is like being ‘between.’ If this has entertained you so far, you might want to go on and see for yourselves what the other prefixes mean, and imply. Then there’s the word ‘interesting’…….

I think Norman was telling me that he was a poet who held people, in the middle of other things, like, say, their lives. And, of course, it goes perhaps without saying, that he held them by their interests!

You wanna loyn sumpin. about ya etymology why not a looksee at Kowalski’s page on ya link:

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