Word of the Week (206): TEMS (probability 1767), by David Sutton

A TEMS is an old word for a sieve or strainer; it is probably unnecessary to remind readers that there is no TEM*. It has a variant TEMSE, and can also be a verb: TEMSES, TEMSED, TEMSING.

In his book 'Thames' Peter Ackroyd says that one explanation for the curious phrase 'set the Thames on fire', as in 'he's not exactly going to set the Thames on fire', i.e. not create a great impression on the world, is that it was originally 'set the tems on fire', the point being that in the old days flour sieves could be made of wood and too vigorous a rubbing action might generate enough friction to make them smoulder. This sounds like folk etymology to me, but it's a good story.

Other old verbs for to sieve or strain include SYE, SEIL or SILE and SEARCE. Then there is BOULT, which means to sift through coarse cloth; a machine for doing so was called a BOULTER, and the participle BOULTING can also be a noun denoting a type of silk or nylon fabric with various mesh sizes used for boulting.

A CRIBBLE is a coarse sieve used for sand, gravel, corn, coarse flour or meal. It can also be a verb. This comes from the Latin word for a sieve, cribrium, which also gives us CRIBRATE, CRIBROUS or CRIBROSE, meaning perforated like a sieve, CRIBRE, which means covered with small dots (the e has an acute accent, and CRIBELLUM (plural CRIBELLA), a sieve-like spinning organ of certain spiders; this last yields an adjective CRIBELLAR.

It is worth mentioning that one can RESIFT or PRESIFT (but not RESIEVE* or PRESIEVE*).

Well, that's probably enough about sieves. I hope you haven't found it too much of a strain...


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