This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 18 July 2019

A flying buttress: a rant.

Relations between Great Britain and the European Union are a bit prickly at the moment.

It doesn't help that the present prime minister, who did her very best to please everyone, has resigned, and that her place will soon be taken by someone else whose main selling-point is not trying to please everyone.

To make things even worse (as far as the European Union is concerned, anyway) it's likely to be Boris.

Boris Johnson is an eccentric sort of a character, wild of hair and even wilder of metaphor. The word buffoon is often applied to him, not entirely unfairly; but then the British prize humour above almost anything else (and I think we have a point, here: on the whole, if it isn't true, it isn't funny) and so we're rather looking forward, I think (if through our fingers) to the fun.

But though Boris's use of language is captivatingly flamboyant it doesn't half make difficulties for the poor translators. His assertion, at a dinner in Bratislava, that Britain would become a flying buttress to the European Union cathedral:

File:Flying buttresses of the Freiburg Minster.JPG
photo of Freiburg Minster by Lutz H

- in plainer words, that  Britain would be supportive, but detached - would have ruffled fewer feathers if it hadn't been rendered by the hapless translator as flying bucket.

File:Buckethead Syracuse.jpg
photo of the artist Buckethead by dIPENdAVE

Still... long as he makes us laugh...

...I think...

Word To Use Today: buttress. This word comes from the Old French bouterez, thrusting arch, from bouter, to thrust.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Nuts and Bolts: the internet and encryption.

We send a lot of important information through the wild and dangerous forests of the world wide web.

We may check that the long string of characters along the top of the screen begins https (the s stands for secure) but the fact remains that if you are going to send a secret message to someone then, okay, you can use some clever kind of code, but you'll still have to let the recipient know what the code is by sending it through the said wild and dangerous forests of the world wide web, and this presents an opportunity to thieves to break it.

Doesn't it?

Well, actually, no.

Imagine you want to send the Rajah's diamond to someone. You put it in a box and close it with a padlock with a combination lock. 

Then you send it to the Queen of Sheba.

Now, the Queen of Sheba can't open it because she doesn't know what the combination is, so what she does is to attach her own combination padlock to the box and she sends it back to you.

And what do you do? You take off your own padlock and send it back again, whereupon the Queen of Sheba opens her own padlock, takes out the Rajah's diamond, and sends a polite letter to the Rajah to thank him very much indeed, and does he fancy dinner next Tuesday week?

See? No combinations or codes sent, and yet everything was secure throughout the whole process.

Clever, eh?

And as that is the case, now I'm going to order myself a nice pair of shoes.

Word To Use Today: encryption. This word has only been around since the 1900s. The Greek word kruptein means to hide.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: footling.

To be footling is to be trivial, silly, or petty.

A footling rule might ban men without ties from a bar (especially if you've turned up without one).

A footling rule might require you to remember a password containing twenty three random characters (including at least one uppercase, one numeral, and some other character) and not write it down anywhere.

It might refuse to serve the steak without the onions. 

Footling is word of exasperation. It expresses impotence, impatience and scorn.

(It's also, incidentally, a board in the bottom of a boat and a case of a baby who wants to be born feet first.)

Footling expresses the belief that the world is spiked with spiteful jobsworths intent on inconveniencing the honest man.

Ah well. 

It's nice to have a word for it, isn't it.

Thing Not To Be Today: footling. This word is connected to the verb footle, which probably comes from the French foutre, from the Latin futuere, both words being to do with the act of human reproduction.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Spot the Frippet: dark matter.

Here's something to keep us all occupied over the summer: can you spot some dark matter?

Probably not, as no one else ever has, but there's probably a Nobel Prize in it for you if you can, so it has to be worth a try.

The scientists say - most of them, anyway - that dark matter accounts for about 85% of all the stuff in the universe, and this dark matter probably consists of some very small unknown particles, quite possibly weakly-interacting massive particles (and if you're wondering why the word massive is in there when they're so small, then look at the acronym. Hilarious, yes? Well, there's particle physicists for you).

The reason the scientists think that the dark matter is there is because, if it isn't, then some of their theories, especially theories about gravity, don't work.

Why don't the galaxies and solar systems spin out of control? Why, it must be all the dark matter.

As I say, you can't see the stuff - but then you can't see the wind, can you, but even if you can't feel it you can still tell it's there.

Anyway, if it's true that 85% of the stuff in the universe is dark matter then presumably some of it is hiding inside you.

Where do you think yours is doing at the moment? Because it occurs to me that that thought could give rise to an excellent novel, if not an actual Nobel.

Spot the Frippet: dark matter. The Old English form of the word dark is deorc and is related to the Old High German terchennen to hide. The word matter comes from the Latin word māteria, which can mean cause or substance, especially a substance which produces something else. It's related to the word māter, mother. 

Lord Kelvin came up with the idea of dark matter in 1884, but the first person to come up with the words dark matter was Henri Poincaré in 1906; though, being French, he called it matière obscure.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Sunday Rest: brick. Word To Use With Care Today.

The Word Den plays host to readers from all over the world (people from the ten countries in which The Word Den is most popular included, last week, at least one from every continent of the world*) and this means that there must be a lot of people all over the world who speak, or are learning to speak, English.

The other day I was talking to a group of friends, one of whom spoke Shona as her first language. All was going swimmingly until someone told her she was a brick.

I do hope she knew that this was a good thing, expressive of reliability and stability and comfort, and nothing at all to do with being built like a brick outhouse**.

Mind you, in America this would mean she had a fine and shapely figure. In Britain it would mean she was just...massive.

As I say, a word to use with care.

Word To Use With Care Today: brick. This word comes from the Old French brique, and is related to the Old English brecan to break.

*Except, as my husband insists on pointing out, Antarctica. Hmm...must do some more posts on penguins...)

** Okay, the word isn't usually outhouse, exactly, but this is a family blog, and you get the idea.  A search for "built like a brick" will provide more information.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Saturday Rave: writing history. The die is cast. Julius Caesar.

To be a historian is to be given an opportunity to manipulate the past. That's quite an advantage.

Gaius Julius Caesar wasn't actually a caesar (a word which has come to mean emperor). That's the first thing to know about him. He lived in a republic, so the position wasn't available. Caesar was merely his last name, but Julius Caesar was so successful in amassing power that later chief Romans, who were emperors, borrowed his name. (In more modern times, Kaisers and tsars did the same thing.)

So when was Julius Caesar's die cast?

In 49BC the general Julius Caesar invaded Gaul. He did this against the orders of his bosses in the senate, and his action started a civil war, so it was a brave-to-the-point-of-foolishness move.

The boundary between Roman lands and Gaul was a river called the Rubicon - so, yes, that's where the phrase crossing the Rubicon, meaning taking an irrevocable step, comes from.

Now, Julius Caesar, with his eye on history, wanted a memorable phrase to point out how brave and marvellous he was being, and obviously crossing the Rubicon wasn't yet available for this purpose, so he used another.

'Let the die be cast,' he said, (a die being the singular form of the word dice).

We still use the phrase the die is cast more than two millennia later, so I think we can say it was an effective line.

There are those, enjoying their classical languages or wishing to show off, who will give the phrase in Latin as alea iacta est (though the earliest Latin version of the phrase we have has the word order iacta alea est. It means more or less the same thing, except that it gives emphasis to the casting part).

I don't think that anyone says the phrase in Greek, where it is anerriphthō kýbos.

But, as a matter of fact, Julius Caesar did.

Word To Use Today: die. It's actually almost impossible to use this word as a singular of dice without looking a bit of an idiot, except in this phrase. Still, the word comes from the Old French de, and before that from Latin. The Latin word dare means to play.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Word To Use Today: maskanonge.

You say this word MA-sker-LONJ, and, yes, it does look a bit funny. If it wasn't for the k it might be French, and if it wasn't for the pronunciation it might be central African.

And though it might be, it isn't. Well, not recently, anyway.

This is a maskanonge: 

Esox masquinongyeditcrop.jpg

Photo by Engbretson, Eric / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - [1], Public Domain,

Luckily for France and Central Africa, perhaps, it lives in the northern parts of North America. It can grow up to 1.8 metres long and weigh up to 32 kg. I's an ambush feeder which can take prey - usually other fish, but it won't say no to the odd frog or musk rat - up to two thirds of its body length.

That makes me quite a bit too big for its supper. Phew! Mind you, I'm rather attached to both my legs, so I won't be swimming in company with one, just in case it fancies a snack.

I read on Wikipedia that a reliable method to distinguish between a maskanonge and a northern pike is to count the sensory pores on the underside of its jaw; but while this may be reliable it is, obviously, far from sensible, unless you've got the thing high and dry and dead.

I like the word maskanonge, but there's no doubt it's difficult, and this is why the thing also goes by the names of muskellunge, muskalunge, muscallonge, milliganong (that's my my favourite), muskie or musky. Or, indeed, by its Latin name Esox masquinongy.

The trouble is that now I'm wondering what Esox are. Footwear made of atmospheric CO2 and fully recyclable, presumably.

Word To Use Today: maskanonge. This word comes from the Ojibwa word maashinoozhe, which means ugly (or some say big)pike. Or perhaps it's Algonquian. Before that, curiously, the word may have come from the French masque allongé, which means long face.