Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Last week the UK was visited by the beast from the east; this week it was the turn of the pest from the west, a weather system that briefly brought snow, ice and all the accompanying chaos to western parts of the islands. As befits its name, the second bout of bad weather was less disruptive and of shorter duration than the ‘beast’, which hung around for several days before skulking off. A pest in this meaning is a person who keeps annoying you, especially a child. By extension it also means an annoying task.

The other main meaning of pest refers to insects or small animals that damage plants or food supplies, such as aphids, snails or rats. A closely related verb, pester, means to annoy someone by repeatedly asking them for something, or to do something. Pester power is the ability of children to get their parents to buy something for them by repeated requests that wear the parent down. The adjective pestilential, meanwhile, can refer to a plague or pestilence, but is more often used as an exaggerated term of disapproval for someone or something that is very annoying.

All these words derive ultimately from the Latin word ‘pestis’ meaning plague and so, with the exception of the literal meaning of pestilential, have greatly weakened in force over centuries of use. Indeed the pest was at one time a name for the bacterial disease known as the bubonic plague, which created havoc across large parts of the globe in the medieval period and still occurs in some locations today. A far cry indeed from a seasonal bout of bad weather.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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