This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Sunday Rest: Greferendum. Word Not To Use Today.

The horrid words Grexit and Grexident have been around for some time, and now today, oh joy, we have a Greferendum.

It's a hideous word for a hideous situation. Will oxi* prove to be Scylla or Charybdis for the Greek people?

Painting by Henry Fuseli

I have no idea what is going to happen either way, and I don't believe anyone else does, either.

All I can say is, Heaven save Hellas.

Word Not To Use Today: Greferendum. This is a nasty mixture of Greek and referendum, and I suppose its coinage was inevitable. 

As far as I can see, though, it wasn't widely used before this last week.

*Oxi is the Greek for no. Yes is nai.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Saturday Rave. Song of Myself 35. Walt Whitman

It's the 4th of July* and HERE is a poem from the USA's National Poet.

Well, one of the USA's National Poets...

Walt Whitman finished his formal schooling at the age of eleven, and then became successively (more or less) a printer, teacher, printer, teacher, journalist, editor, poet, military nurse, poet, civil servant, journalist and poet.

He described himself as: "Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no slander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest."

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpg

He hasn't described himself as a poet, there, has he. 

I really think he should have.

Word To Use Today: walt. This word can either mean beaten clay, or it can describe an unsteady ship or something else to do with falling over, throwing, or tottering. It comes from the Middle High German walzen, to roll or revolve.

*The reason we in England don't celebrate the USA's Independence Day is that, if you consider its history, it would be really rather rude. Wouldn't it?

Friday, 3 July 2015

Word To Use Today: children's word of the year.

Children's word of the year?

What's that all about, then?

Well, according to the Oxford University Press's analysis of the 500 Words Short Story Competition, the children's word of the year is hashtag (that's the # sign. It's used to group Tweets). 

Lots of the children writing short stories for the competition used the hashtag sign as an ironic comment on the action.

This is the example that's been published to illustrate its use:

the cave exploded and she didn't look back at it exploding, she just kept on walking forward#super cool.

Commentators have remarked on how inventive and creative children are, and it's true: children are both inventive and creative - though probably not in this case. This use of the hashtag symbol has been around for ages #solastyear, and has been used by all sorts of attention-seeking idiots #justsohip.

Does the hashtag sign have a place in serious literature? I expect so, briefly, though I should imagine it'll have been abandoned by...ooh, at a guess, 2017.

So perhaps we should seize our chance use it while you can.

Word To Use Today: hashtag. The # sign was called a pound sign in the USA, but in Britain, which already had a computer key with a pound sign on it (£) it became known as a hash. When it began to be used to tag Internet Relay Chat channels it became a hashtag. Chris Messina suggested its use for Twitter in 2007.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Roger and out: a rant.

England's premier Children's literature award, The Carnegie Medal, has been won by Tanya Landman's book Buffalo Soldier.

I haven't read the book, so I can't tell you what it's like. Tanya herself seems to be lovely, and many congratulations to her. 

Luckily, we do have some information from someone who has read it - or who should have done, anyway. This piece by Emily Drabble appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 22 June 2015:

The book exploring the brutality of this dark period of American history, including rape, racist atrocities, hanging and genocide - think Mulan meets Cormac McCarthy.

I've written before of my ridiculous nostalgia for a Carnegie Meal winner that might be suitable to be read by, well, children, but how about this: just three days after this piece was published it's been reported that in the BBC's new version of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons the character Titty is going to be renamed Tatty.

They are leaving Roger as he is.

Oh dear. I just hope that everyone else isn't quite as confused as I am, that's all.

Especially the children...

...but then what do they matter?

Word To Use Today: genocide. This is a word from the 1900s. It comes from the Greek word genos, which means race.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts: how many letters?

How many letters are there in the alphabet?


All right, all right. Sorry. 

In English there are twenty six letters in the alphabet (although a few hundred years ago & was counted as a letter - and J wasn't).

The first alphabet system in the world was probably what's now called Proto-Sinaitic, but there aren't enough examples to be sure how big its alphabet was. The slightly later cuneiform and Phoenician alphabets had thirty and twenty four letters, respectively.

It all seems quite reasonable and straightforward so far, doesn't it. 

File:Georgian Alphabet Letters.jpg
This is the Georgian alphabet. Image by GeorgianJorjadze

How about some modern languages?

Welsh, say the Welsh (who should know) has twenty nine letters, though those include LL and PH, which in English don't count as single letters at all. Hungarian has forty four letters, including SZ, ZS and Ő.

Arabic gets by with twenty eight letters, and Hawaiian uses only thirteen.

Chinese doesn't really use letters at all, though it has a system of thirty seven signs that come in useful for telling you how to say stuff.

Russian uses thirty three letters, though two of them (strangely to an English writer) don't represent a sound; Hindi has forty six letters, of which officially eleven are vowels. Traditionally, though, Hindi's vowels number thirteen (and there are two fewer consonants).

Italian has twenty one letters, except that it's quite happy to use j, k, x, y and w if it feels it needs them.

So, has the alphabet system of writing led the world into a glorious hodgepodge or a bit of a mess?

I'm going for the glorious hodgepodge, myself.


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: scoff.

You, write a blog? Huh! Does anyone ever read it?

That dress? It makes you look like a fairy elephant.

You're only up to level eighty-six?


You don't have to be clever to scoff. You don't have to be clever to be unkind and contemptuous. 

How horrible it must be to harbour such a desire for cruelty.

As it happens there's another sort of scoff, a mostly British and comparatively lovable thing. It means to eat greedily.

That sort of scoff  has a really interesting derivation, too.

Still life by Pieter Claesz 1627.

Thing Not To Do Today: scoff. The word meaning to jeer probably comes from Scandinavia (there's an Old Frisian word skof which means mockery). The word meaning to eat greedily is a variant of scaff, food, which is related to the Dutch schoft, quarter of the day, and hence one of the four daily meals. 


Can I be Dutch, please?

Monday, 29 June 2015

Spot the Frippet: whiffletree.

Oh, come on, no day is complete without the word whiffletree.

Yes, yes, I know it's a term for part of a draft horse's harness, and that few of us go to work in a horse-drawn carriage, but it's still too good a word to ignore.

What is it? Well, it's basically a bar with a ring facing forwards on either end, and another ring in the middle facing backwards.

If you have three horses pulling a load, this is the way you'd link your whiffletrees together:

The idea is that the arrangement evens out the pull that comes first from first one side of the animal and then from the other.

Luckily, if you don't often see a horse pulling a load on your daily commute, then here is a similar arrangement on a more modern form of transport:

See how the windscreen wiper works in just the same way? Neat, huh?

Now, I don't want to leave anyone out, and so this example of a whiffletree-type arrangement is especially for the Martians among you. 

These are the wheels of the Mars Pathfinder vehicle:

It's jolly good for bumpy ground - though personally it makes me feel seasick.

Spot the Frippet: whiffletree. This word seems to come from the words whip and tree (in its meaning of a post or bar).