Friday, May 22, 2015


Recently there have been a spate of, well, spates coming across my path. I know what it means, of course. It means, "quite a few," or, as I seem to visualize it, "a downpour of", possibly because of the frequent use of spate in  reference to rain. But what was a spate originally? This I do not know.

The Feugh in spate, apparently

Although times draws a rather misty curtain over its origins, "spate" makes its way into English, or really Scottish and Northern English, in the early fifteenth century according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It refers to a sudden flood, caused by heavy rains or snow melt. It may be related to such words as the Old French espoit, or "flood", the Dutch spuiten, "to flow or spout", and of course our own English word spout. 

It's a watery word, then. But as is the way of all words it eventually took on figurative meanings, recorded in print in 1910. 

It's funny to me, though, that it's the undesirable aspect of the word that seems to have clung, rather than the water or weather references. It's the suddenness or too muchness of the word that seems to have spread to other meanings. A spate of killings, or of burglaries, both of which come up at the top of my Google searches. 

As an antidote, the Free Dictionary gives us  "It issues a spate of words from the loudspeakers and the politicians", attributed to Virginia Woolf. 

But perhaps the most amusing one for me was a headline cited at Word Reference Forums. The questioner is worried that the sentence "(the) U.S. govt forced to deny (the) existence of Zombies after spate of cannibalistic attacks" was missing a "the" before spate. I have to say that if I read that headline, I would be worrying about a few other things--zombies, cannibals, government denials--before I worried about that.


  1. Spate? Next you'll be discussing plethora.

  2. Well, I might have, except luckily I remembered that I already did.

    Glad to see you've made it back over the Atlantic and over jet lag.

  3. I vaguely recalled that you had, actually. And who says I'm over jet lag?

  4. Well, getting there. If I only vaguely recall that I've written about things here, I can hardly expect anyone else to do better.

  5. I should have conducted my research before publishing my observation. I am not a product of the illiterate Internet age, you know.