This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 9 October 2015

Word To Use Today: NOx.

We all now know that NOx chemicals are a really, like, terrible thing you find in diesel fuel, and we all know this even though most of us have only the vaguest idea what NOx chemicals are.

First, what they're not. They're not N2O, which is laughing gas: but this is only to be expected, really, because the x in NOx comes at the end of the word and not in the middle. 

No, NOx is either NO (nitric oxide) or NO2 (nitrogen dioxide).

You actually produce NOx chemicals when you burn most sorts of stuff, and in a city where there are a lot of vehicle engines burning fuel then the NOx chemicals can be seriously, well, noxious. They damage people's lungs and hearts, they tend to encourage genetic mutations, and they form smog and acid rain.

The good news is that NOx gases break up methane, so they are at least a force for global cooling.

NOx chemicals can also be formed by lightning, which is rather neat as a Nox is a unit of illuminance...through on the other hand, Nox is also the Roman way of spelling Nyx, who is the Greek goddess of the night.

Nox is a tiny place in Shropshire, England:

And, nearly as big as the hamlet of Nox, is Atrophaneura nox, the Malayan batwing butterfly:

Nox P3060010.jpg

As far as I know, the hamlet and the butterfly are both entirely harmless.

Word To Use Today: nox or NOx. The butterfly is presumably named after the goddess, and the hamlet is named after a family called Nock, who owned the local pub. The gas word is interesting, being made up of the chemical symbols for Nitrogen and Oxygen, plus the letter x, which is used in its mathematical sense of whatever.

The similarity of NOx (as in chemicals) to the word noxious is an accident. Noxious comes from the Latin noxa, which means injury.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Fascinating Weymouth: a rant.

A few weeks ago I visited The Tudor House in Weymouth. The house is small, but that afternoon, while just along the coast the tail end of a hurricane was succeeding in toppling an Antony Gormley sculpture into the sea, I spent an hour and a half completely fascinated by the stories and information of our lovely guide.

Three things she told us stand out in particular:

1. That in Tudor times the word carpenter was never used: in those days carpenters were called bodgers, instead.

2. That the bread in Georgian times was made on a metal frame called a harnen placed over the fire, and that while the sooty bottom crust was given to the poor, the house-holder ate the upper crust, hence the term upper crust coming to mean upper classes.

3. That the best quill pens came from female swans, which is why a female swan is called a pen.

See? Utterly, utterly fascinating. We had a terrific time, which I'm sure I shall always remember.

And the small matter that none of those 'facts' is actually, well, true?

Well, look, I know this is supposed to be a rant, but quite honestly I find it doesn't really matter all that much.

The Tudor House, Weymouth: 

I'd thoroughly recommend it.

Words To Use Today: pen. Or carpenter. Or harnen. Sadly, no one, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, knows why a female swan is called a pen, but it does seem to be a different word from the pen that sometimes means feather. The OED does know, though, that carpenter was used in English from at least 1325. Harnen the OED doesn't list at all, but the sort of bread you cook on a harnen stand is a flat bread, which won't really have crusts. To harn means to prop up the pieces of bread against each other so that the edges cook.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: explicits.

Oh, the joy, the absolute untrammelled joy, of an explicit!

I'm not talking here about explicit meaning clearly expressed or leaving nothing to the imagination: I'm talking about the absolute end.

Last week I wrote about incipits, which are the formal words a Mediaeval scribe quite often used to start a new manuscript. We don't bother with marking the beginning of a book with a particular phrase these days, but we do still like to do the sort-of-opposite.

The sort-of-opposite is called an explicit, a word that's come about mostly because it looks as if it should be the sort-of-opposite of incipit.

Mediaeval scribes would write the word explicit at the end of their manuscripts, but nowadays we'll write THE END, probably in capital letters, or perhaps ENDS if it's a manuscript going off to a publisher. The capital letters are a simple expression of joy, triumph and relief: the sort of flourish as one makes as one places the last piece into a jigsaw, or the last stitch into a quilt.

And, do you know what, here's another one:

File:Dean & Son Cinderella surprise picture book 2.jpg

And they all lived happily ever after.

Word To Consider Today: explicit. This word is probably short for explicitus est liber, which means the book is unfolded or complete. The shortened form probably arrived because it looks a bit like incipit.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Thing To Do Today If It Doesn't Make you Feel Like A Complete Dork: sabrage.

Sabrage is a newish word in English, and a newish thing to do. 

What is it?

Basically, sabraging involves knocking the top off a champagne bottle with the blunt side of a sabre. Napoleonic cavalrymen used to do it quite often, apparently.

Well, when I say one uses a sabre, apparently it's rather tricky with an actual sabre, so nowadays people tend to use a knife. But the knife does look quite like a sabre, all the same.

So, who does all this sabraging

The Confrerie du Sabre d'Or, Brotherhood of the Golden Sabre. They wear green gold-trimmed cloaks and hats, and they've been a society in England since 1999, and in France, original home of sabraging, since 1986.

So there you are. If you like the idea of dressing up and using an illegal weapon to open a bottle of champagne, and you warm to the exciting chance of encountering some shards of glass in your drink, then sabraging is for you.

If you go to the right restaurant (in London, Smith and Wollensky) you can have a go. Once you've broken open your champagne bottle you get a certificate, get tapped on the shoulders with the sabre (yes, just like someone being knighted), and are proclaimed a member of the confrerie.

More senior members get to wear the cloak and hat, and, later on, after several years of practice, are allowed to open ever bigger bottles of champagne.

Now, I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, but...isn't champagne sold in bottle you can open with your bare hands?

No. No.

Surely not.

Thing To Do Today If It Doesn't Make You Feel Like A Complete Dork: sabrage. This French word comes from sabre, which itself might be from the Magyar száblya.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Spot the Frippet: sib.

I didn't have any siblings when I was young. Neither did any of my friends. In fact even at my Secondary School, which attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to civilise about a thousand people at a time, not one of us had a sibling until just before I left, when suddenly the a load of sociologists came along with their jargon and there were suddenly siblings everywhere.

Now, once you stop to think about it, a sibling is, obviously, a small sib. This means that, as one's ordinary siblings have a habit of taking up far too much space as it is, a sib must be enormous, and therefore very easy to spot indeed.

And as it happens sibs are easy to spot because a sib is any blood relative (though, come to think about it, I didn't have any visible blood relatives either until I was well into adulthood). A sib can indeed be a brother or sister (not, sadly, only a really hugely fat one) or a sib can be, and I quote the Collins English Dictionary here, a kinship group that is bonded by kinship through one line of descent only. Which, actually, I'm not sure I understand: something involving step-brothers? 

Other dictionaries suggest that a sib can be a) any relative of any kind, b) anyone you think is a relative, or, c) anyone who is reckoned to descend from the same mythical ancestor.

Well, if that includes old Adam then that makes this Spot the Frippet a very easy thing indeed.

File:Large family group, Chwilog NLW3363021.jpg
The Chwilog family. Photo by John Thomas, Wales, c 1885.

Spot the Frippet: sib. The Old English form of this word was sibb, and it's related to the Old Norse sifjar, relatives, the Old High German sippa, kinship, and the Latin suus, one's own. The word survives in the English word gossip, which started off meaning godparent, 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sunday Rest: cytoplastic. Word Not To Use Today.

It wouldn't be so bad if cytoplastic were some substance for filling in wounds, or sticking broken bones together.

It wouldn't be so bad even if cytoplastic were stuff for moulding nose-extensions. Or something.

But cytoplastic isn't anything like that because, annoyingly, cytoplastic is an adjective. It means to do with a cytoplast (which is, basically, the innards of a cell excluding the nucleus).

The really appalling thing is that you yourself contain a hundred thousand billion cytoplasts (and that's not counting the cytoplasts of all the bacteria who call you home - there are a thousand thousand billion of them).

The really really appalling thing, of course, is that I contain just as many cytoplastic bits, myself.

This is a Common Ringtail Possum. Why this image showed up on Wikimedia Commons when I Googled cytoplast I have no idea. But it's a cute picture, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: cytoplastic. The cyto bit comes from the Greek kutos, vessel or container, and the plastic bit comes from the Greek plassein, to form.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

The original Good Morning Midnight (at least, as far as I know it's the original) is a poem by Emily Dickinson, but it's inspired several other works which have been named after it.

Today's Good Morning Midnight is a novel by Jean Rhys. 

Jean Rhys is best known for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is famous as a prequel (horrid word, but you know what I mean) to Jane Eyre - and it might well be a prequel to Jane Eyre, though it doesn't work in the way one would expect a sequel to Jane Eyre to work. By this I mean that it's not really about the same characters as Jane Eyre, and it doesn't really set up the plot of Jane Eyre, either.

All Jean Rhys's novels are set in places she knows well. Wide Sargasso Sea is mostly set in the West Indies, but she wrote several in some ways similar books set wholly or partly in Paris: Good Morning Midnight is the last, and often reckoned to be the most successful.

Rhys's Good Morning Midnight is about a loneliness that's only made bearable by drink and destructive relationships...actually, relationship is probably too positive a word for the often cynical dealings that occur between this beginning-to-age woman and the men she encounters. It's a rather murky, desperately sad story, but it's beautifully done, too: sharp and funny and very moving. 

To give you some idea how very good it is, it's even made me wonder if I should go back and try Wide Sargasso Sea again.

Word To Use Today: cynic. This word comes from the Greek kunikos, from kuōn, dog. Cynic also describes anything to do with the Dog Star.