This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 12 February 2016

Word To Use Today: cakewalk.

What's a cakewalk? It's almost easier to say what it isn't.

It's probably not a walk, and it probably doesn't involve cake, for a start.

A cakewalk may have developed from the dances of the Seminole Native Americans, it may have developed as American slaves copied and made fun of the airs and graces of their owners, or it may even have started with women competing at being the most elegant and efficient at carrying buckets of water on their heads.

The cakewalk, however it started, gradually became more exuberant (cakewalks were often performed in competition, and yes, sometimes the prize was a cake) and eventually quite athletic. It moved away from the slave quarters and went, taking its habanera rhythm with it, onto the stage.

And as it did the old accompaniment of banjo and fiddle changed to piano and then even to orchestra.

In the end everyone was cakewalking:

So: was this an example of black people mocking white people and then leading on the white people to mock themselves?

Perhaps: but while the cakewalk led to so much happiness all round, to so much joy and ingenuity (improvisation was vital to the cakewalk), such a sharing of cultures, then it's hard to see that it mattered all that much.

Word To Use Today: cakewalk. This dance started off as a dignified walk and sometimes the prize for the best walk was, indeed, a cake. Cakewalk meaning an easy task came from when the cakewalk was indeed a walk, and not the high-stepping dance it became.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

An epic rant.

'And here he is, coming round the last bend and this has been an epic run!'

'Last night's party? Yeah, it was epic!'

'Oh no, I forgot the oregano. Talk about an epic fail!'

Well, all right, then, if you insist, I will talk about an epic fail. How about Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition dying of hunger and cold just a few miles from safety? Or The Charge of the Light Brigade? 

The Battle of the Somme?

Or how about a straight-forward epic? Originally that was a long poem relating in elevated language the deeds of a hero or two. 

Homer was quite good at them.

(That's Horatius, of bridge fame, engraved by Hendrick Goltzius (yes, I know he's nothing to do with Homer, but I thought you'd enjoy seeing how gloriously ill-dressed and camp he is).)

But, hey, you know something? This need to narrate one's life in terms of imperishable heroism... some ways it's actually quite sweet, isn't it.

Word To Use Today But Only Either Accurately or Ironically: epic  This word comes from the Greek epikos, from epos, speech, word, or song.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The Language of Barbie

Barbie's getting a new body. Well, actually she's getting three new bodies: one extra tall, one short ("petite") and one curvy.


The fact is that mums don't like Barbie very much. People have worried for a long time because Barbie doesn't have the proportions of a healthy human being (Yale academics have estimated Barbie's vital statistics as 36, 18, 33 inches, and eighteen inches is under forty-six centimetres). People have also criticised Barbie for lacking aspiration and having far too many clothes.

The shape – and size – of Barbies to come: dolls petite, curvy 
and tall flank regular Barbie

But hang on, Barbie is...plastic. She's a doll. How can a lump of plastic have any aspirations at all? All Barbie can hope for, surely, is to be recycled into something elegant by Philippe Starck.

Well, Barbie may be voiceless but she's still giving her young owners messages: or so, at least, her owners' mothers believe.

The trouble is that mothers at the moment are apparently all for social justice (not that I disapprove) and Barbie, with her wardrobe the size of a medium-sized dictatorship, is seen to be encouraging selfish consumerism.

Will making Barbie taller, shorter or chunkier help? Will her new seven skin tones come over as more aspirational? More responsible? Will we see Barbie in thrift-shop chic? Will she be allowed back into Saudi Arabia, where she's been banned as a bad influence since 2003?

I can't answer any of those questions, but this is a fascinating example of mass communication. The mums and dads disapprove of the message they're receiving, they stop sponsoring the product, and so the manufacturers, Mattel, have to work out why and then fix it.

And pretty much all without a word being said.

Word To Use Today: Barbie. Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. Barbara comes from the Greek barbaros, which means foreign: the word is an imitation of stammering speech. The Sanskrit barbara means stammering or non-Aryan.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Thing To Do Today: flip.

If you're French then today is Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), if Dutch, conversely, then it's fast night (vaste avond) and if Croatian then today is carnival Tuesday (pokladni utorak).

For English speakers today is either Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday (the day to have our sins forgiven). The two names are linked: tomorrow Lent begins, and during Lent the custom is to stop eating some sorts of the nicer foods. To avoid waste, all the nice left-overs are traditionally mixed up in pancakes for a final gorgeous feast.

In some places in England and America, though, instead of eating their pancakes people run about with them:

English pancake race

I know the story of how this is supposed to have begun - with a lady late for church - but, even so this is deeply odd behaviour. Still, as long as everyone's happy.

Making pancakes is a long, hot and rather fraught business, but, to be clear, the sort of flipping The Word Den is recommending involves making pancakes turn somersaults in the air rather than flipping your lid, that is, indulging in a burst of out-of-control rage.

To do one without risk of the other, I would recommend flipping your pancakes over a clean table.

Thing To Do Today: flip. This word is probably an imitation of the flipping process.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: perch.

A perch can be more or less anything a person or animal sits on, as long as its feet are off the ground. 

Bar stools are bafflingly popular at the moment, so you may even have a perch somewhere in your own home.

A perch is also a measurement, either of distance (sixteen and a half feet (or 5.03 metres in your money)) or, if you're measuring stone, of volume. This sort of a perch is sixteen and a half feet by one and a half feet by one foot, which is the same as 0.700842 cubic metres or, if you want to keep things simple by carrying on working in imperial measurements, 0.916667 cubic yards.


A perch is also a pole joining the two axles of a carriage together, a frame for inspecting cloth, or, of course, quite a lot of different sorts of freshwater fish.

File:White Perch.jpg
This very beautiful fish is a white perch, Morone americana.

The fish word is completely separate from the others. It is also very seldom to be seen inhabiting bar stools.

Spot the Frippet: perch. The fish word comes from the Old French perche, and is probably something to do with the Greek perkos, which means spotted. The other sorts of perches come from the Latin pertica, which means long staff.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Sunday Resy: nyctinasty. Word Not To Use Today.

At dusk the flowers close
And keep their sweets 
For butterflies.

Okay, okay, I don't pretend to be much of a poet, but even that's better than: here's an example of nyctinasty, isn't it?

Honestly, some scientists...

File:Oxeye Daisy during the Spring.jpg
Photo of daisy (day's eye, geddit?) by Clément Bardot

Sunday Rest: nyctinasty. Nyctinasty is a term used by botanists with no souls to describe a movement, such as the closing of petals, that occurs in response to the change from day to night and vice versa. It comes from the Greek nux, night, and nastos, which means pressed down.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Saturday Rave: To Winter by William Blake.

There are many wonderful things about William Blake's poetry, but one of the best is that most of the time no one's sure what they're about.

This one, To Winter, seems pretty straightforward to me: it's about the weather. That hasn't stopped a lot of words being written about To Winter, though, especially as Blake later constructed a whole mythology, of which this poem was perhaps part of the beginning.

To Winter is one of a set of four poems (I'll leave you to guess the subject of the others). It's magnificently mighty, mesmerising stuff.

O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car*.

He hears me not, but o'er the yawning deep
Rides heavy: his storms are unchained, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear'd his sceptre o'er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal'st
With storms, till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla**.

January 2015 nor'easter 27 Jan 2015 Suomi NPP.png
Satellite image of a winter storm.

Word To Use Today: adamantine. Adamant is an Old English word and comes from the Greek daman, to tame or conquer. In this case the a- bit at the beginning means not.

*Car is a word for chariot quite often used in poetry of this sort of age, ie, long before cars. 

**Mount Hecla, a volcano in Iceland, was thought to be the gate to Hell. An odd location for Winter to dwell: I would have thought: uncomfortably hot. wonder he was so cross.