This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Sunday Rest: sextuplicate. Word Not To Use Today.

Long words can be lovely and luxurious and fun. They can be diamonds on the tongue, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark, shooting stars in the drear darkness.

On the other hand, however, sometimes long words are the lead shot in the breast of the pheasant, the poo on the pavement, or the traffic hump on the way home.

Such a one is sextuplicate.

The only reason anyone would use the word sextuplicate would be to show off. Or possibly to make a member of the opposite sex feel uncomfortable.

It's both pompous and obvious. And horrid. Using it will make people hate you.

But then, if you're the sort of person who even think of using the word sextuplicate, they probably do already.

Word Not To Use Today: sextuplicate. This word is a 1900s mixture of sextuple and duplicate. 

Worse things happened in the 1900s, I admit, but there was really no need at all to add to them.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Saturday Rave: Right Said Fred by Bernard Cribbins

I've been helping a daughter move house, and it reminded me of this brilliant song.

Bernard Cribbins is best known as a comic actor (you may have seen him in the film of The Railway Children) but he's a wonderful writer, too, and this is an utterly wonderful song about - well, in the way of masterpieces, it's about several things all bound up together: workmen, problem-solving, leadership, a central mystery (just what is it the men are trying to shift? I'm almost sure)...

...oh, and it's very funny, too.

Then there are the rhyming and scansion, which are themselves things of shining beauty:

Charlie had a think and he said look Fred, I've got a sort of feeling
If we remove the ceiling, with a rope or two we can drop the                                                                           blighter through

See? Genius.

And here is the genius himself performing his brilliant song.

(We did quite well with moving my daughter, thank you: the only real problem was not being able to find the headlight switch on the hired van in the dark...still, we managed to find somewhere to buy a torch without too much trouble... 

...luckily, my daughter left the piano at home.)

Word To Use Today: rubble. This word arrived in English in the 1300s. Then it was rubel or robil. It might be something to do with the Old French robe, which means spoils.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Word To Use Today: dodo.

Pigeons don't have much of a reputation for brains, and as for a pigeon that's forgotten how to fly...

Painting of a dodo head from the chest up
(The last painting of a dodo from life, 1638. By Cornelis Saftleven)

...oh dear, the poor dodo. It was so stupid it couldn't even learn to be afraid of the people who ate some of them and then destroyed their forest home, which finished off a lot more. It couldn't even learn to hate people when the people's domestic animals yummed up the dodos' eggs. And then there was a big flood, which probably finished the job of destroying the dodo - of which there probably weren't ever very many. 

A few bones and feathers remain, but most of the dodos you see in museums are models.

Skeleton and model of a dodo
This one is in Oxford.

Breaking every rule of publicity - no dodo, as far as I know, had Facebook, or even kept a vlog - it died so quietly that no one noticed for ages that it had gone.

Still, at least the dodo has become famous in death. Any person who refuses to stay up-to-date is called a dodo (though I think that is a bit unfair because all you have to do is wait five years and the chances are that most up-to-date stuff will itself be as dead as a dodo).

They talk of resurrecting the mammoth and various types of dinosaur, but I think the world would be all the finer for a big (a metre tall) fat fluffy friendly waddly bird.

And I won't care if it is stupid.

Word To Use Today: dodo. No one is quite sure where this word comes from. The Dutch dodoor means lazy person, but then dodaars means fat-bottom or knot-bottom (the dodo had a rather pert and fancy tail). There's also a Portuguese word doido which means fool or crazy, but then the Portuguese don't seem to have noticed the dodo much, so it's most probably nothing to do with that. 

Dodo does sound quite like a pigeonish sort of a call, as well.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Rough butter: a rant.

Look, I'm not prepared to shame a fellow writer, but You Know Who You Are.

Yes, you. The one who had a book published as a World Book Day freebie.

Yes, I know we're supposed to avoid cliches like smooth as butter because we've processed them so often they've beaten shortcuts through our brains: smooth as butter now just means smooth because the brain doesn't bother to imagine the butter any more.

So, look, if you'd changed smooth as butter to smooth as warm butter, or smooth as cold butter, then that would have been fine. A hair gel as smooth as warm butter...I can imagine that. A table with the sheen of cold butter...that's actually quite vivid.

But the version you used in your book, smooth as churned butter: good grief. For one thing all butter has been churned: I mean, if butter hasn't been churned it's still, well, cream. 

And, in any case, churned butter is quite knobbly.

Ah well. At least you've made me think, and you've also made me think of two rather useful similes: as smooth as cream and as knobbly as churned butter.

I suppose that's something.

Word To Use Today: churn. The Old English form of this word was ciern, which is related to the German dialect word Kern, which means cream.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Nuts and Bolts: narrowcasting.

Size doesn't matter.

If you were to start a blog to record...ooh, the number of times you scratch your head, for example, or the registration numbers of all the red cars you see driving past your house, or the size of your bananas, then you might find you're attracting a very limited number of readers. You'd be broadcasting your blog all the same, though, because you'd be trying to reach the whole world with it.

To make it narrowcasting you'd have either to get people to subscribe to your blog before they read it (good luck with that, folks) or you'd have to use some other method of avoiding the casual visitor having access to the information.

You might, for example, be aiming to communicate specifically at Catholics, under-fives, or the people who work in your office - or, for all I know, you might have a personal message for Robinson Crusoe. To reach these groups you might narrowcast by means of a pulpit, a television programme, or a noticeboard; as for getting through to Robinson Crusoe...a message in a bottle, perhaps? 

Narrowing down your audience in this way can save money and effort. If you're watching a football match, for instance, the advertisements will be carefully directed at football fans: there won't, I should imagine, be images of sewing machines strewn around the stadium.

Nowadays, with so many ways of communicating open to us, narrowcasting seems to be the future, and extremely ugly it looks, too. For instance, my local town centre has just sprouted a large TV screen. I don't know what it says or shows because I resent it so much that I've never either looked at it or listened to it. It engenders in me a similar fury as the small screens you get in taxis, planes and trains. I have made a vow never ever to buy anything advertised on one of those, but presumably occasionally they succeed in persuading some fools to buy something.

Still, even narrowcasting has its joys. I'm not very flattered to be thought the target audience for all those incontinence pad catalogues, but the thought of all the trouble someone's taken to offer me the chance to spend £1500 on a pair of jeans can't help but conjure up a wry smile.

Thing To Watch Out For Today: narrowcasting. This is the opposite of broadcasting, which originally meant chucking seeds about as widely as possible in order to sow a large area. The term was first used of radio programmes in the 1940s, but it became commonly used after JCR Licklider used it in a 1967 report, in which he claimed to have coined it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: play Follow My Leader.

Words are necessary and amusing in a million ways.*

They're fallible in just about as many.

As you will have noticed, the world is full of people arguing, and mostly they're using words to do it. A lot of what they're arguing about is words, too. Yes, it's the bombs and bullets that cause the physical damage, but behind them are the words, words, words. 

Look: all language systems are ambiguous and inadequate. Just think, you can't get a gorilla down on paper, let alone a god. No one, however important, can say exactly what they mean - and even if they could then the chances are that some people are going to misunderstand them.

Which makes makes playing Follow My Leader a very very dangerous game indeed.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: play Follow My Leader. The Old English form of this word was lǣdan, and is related to līthan to travel. 

*No, not literally a million ways: it might only be one hundred thousand three hundred and forty nine ways. Or two million and six, for all I know. 

Do feel free to start a numbered list.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: garth.

A garth is three lovely things: a courtyard surrounded by a cloister:

(that's Santo Domingo de Silos, in Spain)

 a yard or garden; 

File:West Dean House gardens.JPG
(West Dean garden, West Sussex, England. Photo: Charlesdrakew)

and a child's hoop, often made of the rim of a bicycle wheel:

After the horrors of Flight 9268 and the Paris attacks it's good to come across words made by good people to describe beautiful things.

It's a small gift of hope to us all.

Spot the Frippet: garth. The word meaning garden or yard comes from the Old Norse garthr and is related to our English word yard. The word meaning hoop is entirely different. It's used in the North of England and is a variant of girth.