A taliswoman, and how to remediate


My local BBC News programme yesterday included what were, for me at least, two linguistic oddities.

First a wheelchair basketball player was described as being a taliswoman for the British team. This word has not yet reached the OED, and doesn’t appear in the British National Corpus. Google brings up between 4000 and 5000 hits, many of them for the same item: a play called ‘Taliswoman’ by Diane Speakman. This is obviously dreamed up as the counterpart to talisman, but was its use yesterday the result of a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word, or a deliberate semi-facetious analogical creation to avoid accusations of sexism? In fact the etymology is, according to the OED, a little obscure, the final -an in particular causing problems. Whatever, the word is certainly not historically derived from ‘talis’ and ‘man’. The Greek {tau}{geacu}{lambda}{epsilon}{sigma}{mu}{alpha} is cited as a possible ultimate source.

Second, in a piece about land reclamation, the reporter used the phrase … to remediate the land. Once again, the OED fails to report this use of the word. Its definitions are “To provide a remedy for, redress, counteract; to take remedial action against”. The noun remediation is defined, with examples only from as recently as 1986, as “The process of restoring a site or a natural product by rendering harmless or removing pollutants and contaminants”, so here we have a new back-formation from the noun to the verb.


  1. I wondered if there was any evidence for a (non-jocular) case of Mussulwoman being spawned from Mussulman/Musulman/Musalman/Mussleman — and sure enough OED has quite a few citations. “Chiefly humorous. Now arch. and rare.”

  2. I saw the same folk etymology at work when I heard my son talking about “talismen” that you could collect in a videogame.

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