This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Saturday Rave: typewriters.

Typewriters were always a pain. You had to be a skilled and experienced operator to work them effectively, and this meant that everyone who needed to send business letters had to have access to a specialist typist to type them.

This meant that no one in the days of typewriters could send the briefest business letter without first writing it down by hand, or else saying it into a recording device, or else dictating it to a shorthand-trained secretary. 

After that it would be given to a typist, who would invariably read or mishear epiglottic for erotic and then the whole page - the whole page! would have to be typed out again.

A typewriter, you see, doesn't have abackspace button.

But I have come to praise typewriters, not to bury them, and when I saw one for sale the other day in a second-hand shop I was strongly tempted to buy it. Yes, typewriters were heavy and noisy and very hard work. Yes, they'd only give you at most three smudgy and faint copies of your letter (and only then if you'd put the carbon paper in the right way). Yes, a single keystroke error took a couple of minutes to correct. Yes, they were horribly slow unless you were very skilled indeed. But...

Actually, my affection for typewriters may be entirely sentimental. They were dreadfully awkward machines, but they were much more legible (and in the right hands, quicker) than writing by hand. They also gave employment opportunities to many women in the early twentieth century who were too educated or refined to do heavy manual work.

Many designs of typewriter were invented in many countries before the first one was made commercially. The Hansen Writing Ball, above, invented in Denmark by Rev Malling-Hansen, was produced from 1870. The keyboard was arranged so that the most frequently used letters were conveniently placed, but it only typed capital letters.

The first typewriter to be commercially successful came along in 1878 and was invented by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W Soule, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Entertainingly, Sholes later decided he hated the thing and refused to have anything to do with it.) This was the first machine to be called a typewriter. It had a QWERTY keyboard, and the rest is history.

Despite everything, you know, I still feel rather sad that the rest is history.

Word To Use Today: typewriter. Well, it's obvious where this word came from, but it's quite interesting that to begin with the person who operated the machine was also called a typewriter

An earlier version of the machine, invented by John J Pratt, had the much more thrilling name of pterotype. 

It would have been nice if that name had been the one to survive, wouldn't it?

Pteron in Greek means wing or feather.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Word To Use Today: moai.

I was intending to write about the Japanese word moai, which means to come together for a common purpose, but when I searched for information about the word I was reminded that there are other moai in the world:
Like these>

photo by Aurbina

These moai all come from Easter Island.

photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen The moai on the second right has his hair, or pukao, on. The mana, or strength and prestige of a chieftain, was believed to reside in his hair.

This sort of moai is a relic of a country that was once forested but is now bare of trees; of a people that is now extinct; and of a culture finally destroyed and nearly obliterated by the slave trade and missionaries.

So it's a good thing we have the other sort of moai, the Japanese sort, to cheer us up. These Japanese moai consist of groups of people which meet to support each other socially, financially, spiritually, and in good health and bad. They started in Okinawa, when groups of farmers got together to discuss how to plant their crops in such a way that the effects of bad harvests could be minimised. 

Nowadays, as well as resource-pooling, planning and problem-solving, moai act as a supportive extended family. They provide trustworthy and reliable help in everyday life, in crises, and in grief.

As a bonus, evidence shows that moai are the reason the people of Okinawa live much longer than most of the rest of us do.

One word, two such different meanings: and which moai is the more wonderful? 

I leave it to you to decide.

Word To Use Today: moai. The Japanese word means meeting for a common purpose. The Easter Island word comes from the Rapanui language of the island and means statue.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Threatening Stars: a rant.

A film called Ocean's 8 has just had its British release. I understand it's a bit like Steven Soderburgh's Ocean's Eleven, but with a cheaper cast and a feeling it's not worth bothering to write out the names of numbers properly.

It also appears that none of it takes place under water. This is a disappointment, but not a huge one,because I'm no more likely to see Ocean's 8 than I ever was to see Ocean's Eleven.

But never mind the film, there's enough fun to be had with the reviews and the publicity. The i newspaper had a piece which particularly caught my eye. It said that one of the stars, Mindy Kaling, had been intimidated to work with Rihanna.

Well, I was terribly shocked. I mean, I know that Rihanna is a primarily a singer rather than an actress, but I wouldn't have thought intimidation was necessary to provide her with fellow actresses. 

What I wanted to know was, what did the casting director do? Did he whisper something in he ear about the poor quality of brake cables nowadays? Mention a potential fashion for concrete stilettos?

Did Mindy wake up with a dolphin's head beside her on the pillow? 

But upon further reading I was relieved to discover that the answer to all those questions is no. No one intimidated Mindy into anything. Instead Mindy had felt intimidated about working with Rihanna because she feels that music stars are starrier than mere actresses.

'They can do whatever they like and nobody thinks it's crazy or weird,' she said, rather sweetly, if erroneously.

Well, I wish Mindy a long and distinguished career. 

But most of all I'm glad, poor love, that no one sent round the mob.

Word To Use Today: intimidate. The Latin word timidus means fearful, from timor, fear.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton.

The original idea of hyperbaton was that you drew attention to a word by sticking it into the middle of a phrase where you weren't expecting it. 

But different languages are struck together in different ways, and for this reason the way hyperbaton works changes a bit as you go around the world.

If you are speaking a language like Ancient Greek (unlikely, I know) where the order in which words come along in a sentence isn't necessarily all that important as far as the basic meaning of the sentence is concerned, you can easily alter the order of words to give emphasis without changing the essential meaning of what you're saying. 

In the English language this is just a bit more difficult - though not difficult enough to stop people doing it. 

We might say diamonds, I love, which expresses the force of a passion for diamonds more strongly than I love diamonds.

Verse is full of hyperbaton. Apart from anything else, it helps with the rhyme and rhythm of the stuff. In amateur hands I admit this usually ends up a horrible mess (I once wrote the line And through my mind the dreams do creep. I was only nine years old at the time, but I knew even then that it was truly horrible). In expert hands, though, hyperbaton can be powerful and glorious. His coward lips did from their colour fly, reports Shakespeare, via Cassius, of a poorly Julius Caesar, making it very plain that the cowardliness of Caesar is the important thing he wants to get across.

But there's a fly in the ointment - and it is, of course, called Yoda. 

Powerful you have become works as an example of hyperbaton. It makes the word powerful important. But what about The dark side of the Force are they? Is that hyperbaton, or is it just that Yoda's English is a bit rubbish?

Ah well. Having a Greek label to stick on our mistakes does give them a sort of dignity, so Yoda not bothering me is.

Though I can't say that The wisdom of Yoda I really admire, all the same.

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton. This word comes from the Greek word which means stepping over, from hyper, over, and bainein to step.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate.

I always thought that to pullulate meant to make a Native American Indian war-cry sort of a noise, but apparently that's some other word.* 

Still, do feel free to let loose a war-cry if it would make you happy - though possibly not when in a meeting with your head teacher/most important client.


To pullulate actually means to produce lots of young: to breed like rabbits, in fact. 

File:Southern swamp rabbit baby.jpg
young Southern Swamp Rabbit, photo by Mike Perry

If this isn't in your current life plan, then it can also mean to teem or swarm, so a crowd pullulates. This is much cheaper than doing the constant-breeding thing.

If you're a plant (yes, it's unlikely, I know) but if you are a plant, then pullulating means to bud, sprout, or germinate. So that seed tray full of young beans? They're all pullulating like mad.

photo by KVDP

So on the whole it's a good job that pullulate doesn't mean to emit a war-cry, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate. This word comes from the Latin word pullulēre, to sprout, from pullulus, a baby animal.

*I just looked it up and the war cry thing is ullulate. So I was close.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: fizgig.

File:Rotating green fireworks in a wheel spinning Holland.jpg
photo by Peter van der Sluijs

A fizgig is a frivolous or flirtatious girl. 

Now flirting, in these serious times, is an activity fraught with peril, but observing from a safe distance a girl intent on idle and/or lively pleasure can only add to the gaiety of the world.

File:Friends having fun! (5867333292) (2).jpg
These lovely girls are in a State Park in Virginia

If you dare not do even so much as that, then fizgig, helpfully, has other meanings. It can be a be a fizzing firework; a spinning top which makes a similar noise; it can be what's usually called a fishgig, that is a pole with barbs on the end for spearing fish; or it can be (especially in Australia) a police informer.

You could hardly ask for more variety in a word.

Fortunately, I think, my own best chance of one of these is the frivolous girl.

Spot the Frippet: fizgig. It seems likely that this word comes from fizz, which used to mean to fart, and gig, which used to mean girl. 

Fishgig is mysterious, but might comes from the Spanish fisga, which means harpoon, and so originally had nothing to do with the word fish.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Sunday Rest: obnubilate. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is marked as literary in the dictionary, but surely no one with any literary taste at all would consider using this monstrosity of a word.

(You say the second syllable nyoo, by the way. Yes, that does make it even worse, doesn't it.)

Apart from the hideous sound of the thing, obnubilate presents other obvious disadvantages to the user: there's the no-one-has-a-clue-what-you're-going-on-about thing; the this-person-is-showing-off thing; and, worst of all, the this-person-is-trying-to-make-me-feel-small thing.

In fact the only even slightly positive aspect to the word obnubilate is that it means to darken or obscure, and so it's one of those autological words which are examples of their own meaning.

But still, that's not nearly enough of a reason to justify anyone's using it.

Word Not To Use Today: obnubilate. This word comes from the Latin obnūbilāre, to cover with clouds, from nubes, cloud.