This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts Anadalam.

I've been looking for the perfect opportunity to write about the extraordinary Sumatran language Anadalam, and here it is.

The Anadalam language is a fantastic piece of human ingenuity (as are of course all languages), a fabulously efficient language where a few sounds do service in a myriad ways.

When the researcher Marcel Appenzzell visited the Anadalam people (also known as the Orang-Kubus, or just the Kubus) he discovered a language consisting of so remarkably few sounds that he suspected that words were deliberately deleted from its vocabulary as each member of the community died.

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Fruitverkoper te Medan Sumatra TMnr 10002440.jpg

For instance, the word pekee can mean hunt, walk, carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my'am (a hot spice) forest, tomorrow, or dawn.

Sinuya means to eat, a meal, soup, gourd, spatula, plait, evening, house, pot, fire, fibula, comb, hair, and hoja (a cocnut-oil based hair-dye).

Appenzzell said it seemed to work in practice rather in the same way as when a carpenter, surrounded by specialist tools, says to his assistant 'give me the thingummy.'

As I said before, Anadalam is a fabulous pearl of the human mind... 

...and one that's to be found in many corners of the internet, too.

Word To Use Today: hoax. This word probably comes from hocus, as in hocus pocus. 

The Anadalam language appears in Georges Perec's book Life A User's Manual (La Vie mode d'emploi) and is in practice, of course, entirely non-existent.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Thing To Do Today: go on a spree.

Prudence is fine. Prudence is sensible, wise and dignified...

...but just sometimes you need to go on a spree.

File:Next - Oxford Street 1.jpg
Photo of Oxford Street by Edward 

You can have your spree in a Pound Shop if your finances are fragile. No, really, you can: if there's nothing you want yourself then buy some stuff anyway and give it away to people you...

...well, don't actually like.

If that doesn't appeal then indulge yourself. Buy a cake as well as a sandwich at lunch time. Two cakes!

Buy that pair of trousers. You know you'll regret it for the rest of your...week...if you don't.

Fill your house with flowers. 

I mean, have you really got enough lawnmowers? 





You have?


Oh well. Enjoy yourselves, anyway.

Thing To Do Today: go on a spree. This word might comes from the Scottish word spreath, which means plundered cattle, and before that from the Latin praeda, which means booty.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Spot the Frippet: springer.

You've probably heard of a springer spaniel

File:Welsh Springer Spaniel 1.jpg
Photo by Udo Tjalsma (Isn't he beautiful?)

but how about the sort of springer also known as a springing cow?

Hey Diddle Diddle 2 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg
Illustration by William Wallace Denslow

No, no, all right, the springing cow sort of a springer doesn't really jump over the moon: it's actually a cow that's about to give birth.

Even if you're living in a city - or indeed, in Autumn - then there are springers to be seen.

Here's a fancy once from Silvacane Abbey in Provence:

See? That sort of a springer is the first and lowest stone in the curvy bit of an arch.

Of course, if you greeted this Monday morning by leaping singing out of your bed then you yourself are springer.

But it's not likely, is it.

Spot the Frippet: springer. This word has been around since the 1200s. The Old English springan meant to spring, and there's a Sanskrit word sprhayati, he desires. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Sunday Rest: proustite.

Yes, of course proustite is named after M Proust - just not that one.

Proustite is nothing to do with memory or madeleines. It's nothing to do with very long works of fiction, or people being remarkably French.

A proustite isn't someone who always says, well, of course they doesn't hold a candle to À la Recherche whenever you ask them if they enjoy whodunnits.

So that's a relief.

No, proustite is named after Joseph Louis Proust (1754 - 1826) a chemist, who identified proustite, aka silver arsenic sulphide in hexagonal cystalline form.

The stuff is sometimes called ruby silver, which is less confusing for everyone, as well as being a rather good title for a song.

Here it is:

It's remarkable stuff. But I can't help but feel sorry for M Proust the chemist, all the same.

Word Not To Use Today: proustite

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Saturday Rave: Girls and Boys Come Out To Play. Anonymous.

One of the great things about being a writer for children is that you arrive first.

What I mean by that is that as far as your audience is concerned your story is the original. You might have written a rip-off of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (only disguised by the fact that in your version Dr J and Mr H are both hamsters) but for your readers it'll always be Robert Louis Stevenson who's the plagiarist - and the sad dearth of hamsters in his book will always be a slight disappointment.

The Nursery Rhyme Girls and Boys Come Out To Play has a nice little jig of a tune:

Girls And Boys Come Out To Play

(though I think it runs better in 12/8) and it gave me my first taste of adult-sanctioned (by virtue of being printed in a book) anarchy.

Girls and boys come out to play
The moon doth shine as bright as day
Leave your supper and leave your sleep
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop, come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A halfpenny roll will serve us all.
You find milk, and I'll find flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.

Now, obviously it's terrible that children should be lured out of their beds (quite possibly, one fears, on a school-day) and encouraged to climb down a ladder that has never so much as sniffed a Health and Safety check, to run about the streets for no better reason than eating lactose and gluten engorged food...

...and, er, enjoying themselves.

Good heavens. I mean, that's the last thing childhood is for or about.

Still, hope is a precious thing, and the hope implied in this rhyme has been with me all my life.

I'm afraid I've never made a pudding over a fire on the pavement of my local street, but perhaps one moonlit night I should.

Milk and flour...I suppose it'd be some sort of a blancmange.

The irreversibly grown up part of me can't help wondering how on earth I'd eat it.

Word to Use Today: play. The Old English form of this word was plegan.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Word To Use Today: distemper.

So what is the connection between a disease of dogs and a type of paint?

It's all to do with the mixing.

Distemper the paint comes from the Mediaeval Latin distemperāre, which means to soak, which is in turn from dis-, apart, plus temperāre, which means to mingle.

19th-century Mongolian thanka in distemper

Distemper the disease comes from the Late Latin distemperāre, to derange the health of, from dis-, apart, plus temperāre, which means to mix in correct proportions.

Neat, isn't it? The same Latin words, borrowed at slightly different times, have given us quite different words.

I especially like the disease derivation because it shows how people thought in the past. For them health is a balance, whereas for us in the West health is nowadays usually seen as a sort of perfection.

Distemper has also meant disease, disturbance or discontent.

And so, full of wonder and perhaps even a little wiser, we go on our temperate way.

Word To Use Today: distemper. Of which you already know two derivations.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Lost in Translation: a rant

Isn't it nice when people write offering to help? I've received this from someone called Nareen.

Dear Respected Team  Thank you for giving me the excellent opportunity to serve your revered organization.

Revered organization...well, it's just me, really, but hey, being revered is fine. Great, in fact.

We have set ourselves a goal to continuously challenge ourselves and contribute towards good language help - a linguistically better tomorrow.

Yes, the lady clearly means well. Pity about the split infinitive and the prepositions. Still, you can tell what she means, can't you.

With extensive research, creativity and experience, we present a whole new range of linguistic support in various foreign languages. Our services can meet all your interpreting needs including but not limited to the following situations:  " Conferences  " Depositions  " Hearings  " Client Meetings  " Arbitrations  " Medical Appointments  " Employee Interviews  " Recorded Statements  " Trainings  "

And, after all, what does punctuation matter? As she says, her organization is creative, right?

Um...what is a training, exactly?

Hey, but they're offering Creative Workshops in Dramatics Dance, as well as translation. How very kind. I think I might enjoy a bit of Dramatics Dance.

...We are ready to be test freely...

Ah, good.


...Regards, Ms. Nareen Alnahal Project manager.

There. Isn't that kind? Thanks, Nareen.

I certainly won't forget you.

Word To Use Today: translate. This word comes from the Latin translātus, which means transferred or carried over, from transferre to transfer. The ferre bit means to carry.