This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 25 July 2014

Word To Use Today: sonsy.

Here's a word to cheer up some rather troubled times. It's used in Scotland, Ireland, and some Northern parts of England and it means all sorts of good things: comely, curvy, cheerful, good-natured and lucky.

As if this isn't comforting enough sonsie can also mean large, as in a helping of food, or hefty, as in a knock on the head... That's possibly not quite so much fun. Not unless it happens to someone else, anyway.

And even that's not the end of sonsie. It can mean sensible (this can apply either to people, or to an easily-tamed breed of animal).

See what a wonderful word it is? Why, sonsie has over the years been used to mean pretty much anything admirable. Robert Burns even used it to describe a haggis, though what a haggis has to be cheerful about I cannot for the life of me imagine.

I'll leave you with a sonsie blessing: sonse fa ye. 

It means good luck.

Word To Use Today: sonsie or sonsy. This word comes from the Scots Gaelic sonas, which means good fortune.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

keen as mustard: a rant

Around the lid of our mustard jar is this legend:


Now, call me soft-hearted if you like, but I think that's cruel.

Word To Use Today: reject. This word comes from the Latin rēicere, to throw back, from jacere, to hurl.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: chimp chat.

There are rather a lot of dictionaries in the house.
There are several English dictionaries on every floor, and then there are the foreign dictionaries (which include Hungarian and Ancient Greek).
Not quite fitting into either the English or foreign categories is the Klingon dictionary: I'm not sure I'd class an extra-terrestrial humanoid as merely foreign.
Anyway, now someone has produced another uncategorisable dictionary, and I don't have it. It's very frustrating.
It's a dictionary of chimp.

Young chimpanzees
It only contains sixty six entries consisting mainly of signs.

It was written by Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, and is published, not as a book, but as an article in the Current Biology journal.
It's the result of the study of eighty Ugandan chimps (so is this purely a Ugandan chimp dictionary? Would a Rwandan chimp speak the same language? I want a whole set!)

 Prof Byrne has said that although it's been known for thirty years that chimps communicate by gestures, this is the first time anyone's bothered to work out what they're saying.

According to Dr Hobaiter, the gestures have the same meaning whoever uses them, which means they work like a conventional human language.

There is still, however, work to do. The some of the gestures seem to have several different meanings, but this might be because there are subtle differences that haven't yet been spotted by humans.

Here, as a public service, are a few bits of chimpanzee.

Groom me - big loud scratch.

Move yourself - directed push; beckon.

Move away - arm swing; hand fling; jump; object shake; punch object or ground; punch other; slap object. know something? That all sounds very like human to me.

Perhaps I don't need a chimpanzee dictionary after all.

But I still want one.

Thing To Do Today: say something in chimpanzee. The word chimpanzee comes from a dialect of Congo.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: sneap.

I'm reading the Clayhanger trilogy* by Arnold Bennett (first volume terrific, second surprisingly modern) and people keep sneaping.

I'd assumed sneap was a word of the Potteries, the famous group of towns in Staffordshire, England which is the setting for Clayhanger. But if I'd been paying more attention I'd have noticed that Shakespeare uses sneap, too. But then Shakespeare came from Stratford (that's Stratford upon Avon: it's nothing to do with either London or the Olympics), which isn't very far away from the Potteries.

It turns out that there are two sorts of sneap. One means to blast with cold (this isn't easy in England at the moment. Actually, though, come to think about it, putting a dahlia in the freezer would sneap it. Though such an action would admittedly be completely bonkers).

This use of  sneap is from Shakespeare's play Love's Labour's Lost**:

FERDINAND: Biron is like an envious sneaping frost,
That bites the first-born infants of the spring.

The second meaning of sneap is to rebuke, and that's the meaning that is still used today in the Potteries.

Shakespeare uses this meaning, too.

This is from Henry IV Part 1:

Lord Chief-Justice: Pray thee, peace. Pay her the debt you owe her, and unpay the villainy you have done her: the one you may do with sterling money, and the other with current repentance.

FALSTAFF: My lord, I will not undergo this sneap without reply.

File:Grützner Falstaff mit Kanne.jpg
Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner

So there we are. I've learned a new word. Am I going to sneap myself for not noticing it before, even though I studied Henry IV Part 1 for A Level?

Nope. These discoveries give one an illusion of increasing wisdom, after all.

Thing Not To Do Today: be sneaping. This word is probably from Scandinavia. It's quite like the Icelandic sneypa to scold.

*By the way, Clayhanger is another trilogy consisting of four books.

**The title in the First Folio doesn't have any apostrophes. Or, actually, a u in Labour.



Monday, 21 July 2014

Spot the frippet: croft.

This is usually a Scots word, but the Scots will surely be happy to educate us in the use of their English tongue.

So, croft.

It's a sort of small farm. It will have a house attached to it, and the family of the house will be the ones who work the land.

Strictly speaking, the only true crofts are found in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (65% of the households on Shetland live on crofts). The system requires a group of crofters, each farming 2 - 5 hectares of crops, and the hills around being held in common for grazing for their animals.

The Shetland Crofthouse Museum

Yes, yes, you will say, but this is a spot-the-frippet, and strangely enough I don't have time to get to Shetland in my lunch-break, so how on earth do you expect me to spot a croft?

Well, because luckily there's another sort of croft - a Lancashire croft, in fact.

This was originally an area used for bleaching cloth in the sun, but now a Lancashire-type croft is a patch of wasteland.

And that's a much easier thing to spot.

Having spotted one, though, you might find that the croft isn't really wasted at all.

You could make a list of uses your croft has.

1. Feeding place for butterflies.
2. Playground.
3. Dumping ground for mattresses.

Spot the Frippet: croft. This word has been around for over a thousand years. The Old English word was in fact croft. It's related to the Middle Dutch krocht, hill or field, and to the Old English creopan, to creep.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sunday Rest: suffragan. Word Not To Use Today.

This word has been annoying me for decades. 

A suffragan bishop (officially the g is pronounced as in get, but people quite often say it as in genius) is an assistant bishop.

But why call him a suffragan? I mean, it sounds far too much like a suffering bishop (and, although he does probably think he should be a proper bishop with his own cathedral and everything, that sort of whingeing does him no favours at all).

The other reason for not using this stupid word is that, as well as sounding like suffering (what with, I wonder? Ingrowing toenails?) it also sounds far too much like sufferance.

And, okay, people do take suffragan bishops on sufferance, because, let's face it, if you're going to see a bishop then obviously you want to see a proper one with a throne and everything, otherwise it's like turning up to see Batman and being fobbed off with Robin.

But there's no need to make that quite so clear in the poor man's name. Is there.

(I don't think the bishop in this picture is actually a suffragan because no one seems to bother to draw pictures of them, poor dears. But they look much the same.
They don't always have the halo, though.)

Word Not To Use Today: suffragan. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin suffrāganeus, from suffrāgium, assistance.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Special Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter translated by JF Nunn and RB Parkinson.


This little book is a treasure.

Yes, every copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a treasure, but this one is extra special because it's written in Classical Ancient Egyptian. That is, in hieroglyphs.

It's all been done with such scholarship, and so much thought and care.

Here's an extract from the translators' notes:

'The only related species [in Ancient Egypt to the rabbit] was the desert hare (Lepus capensis) for which, fortunately, the Egyptian word (skhat*) is well attested, and this appears...terminated by the unmistakable determination of the desert hare. However it must be stressed that the same hieroglyph is widely used as the bilateral phonetic 'wn' and is, in fact, the first hieroglyph to appear on page 7. The word so formed is nothing to do with Lepus capensis.'

The notes go on to discuss the tricky word wheelbarrow, which has been translated as sledge (wenesh), wheels at the time of the  Middle Kingdom only appearing on chariots.

I find the conjunction of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and so much  scholarship completely charming, and the translators' notes raise all sorts of interesting questions.

I'll leave you with this one: as the Eygptian week lasted ten days, was it right to translate fortnight as twenty days (herew 20)?

Do say if you know!

Word To Use Today: one in Classical Ancient Egyptian. The  phrase used for potato in this book is depehew-ta, which means apples of the earth, presumably following the French pommes de terre.

*Because they ran away so quickly?