This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sunday Rest: septicidal.

Some words spring traps for the honestly ignorant (which is, let's face it, all of us who are honest). There's autarky, for instance, which is nothing, despite the sound of it, to do with the rule of auts.

Septicidal is a particularly mean example of this sort of a word because not only is the -icidal bit is really nothing to do with killing, but the sept- bit is nothing to do with either decay (as in septicaemia) or the number seven (as in September),* either.

Septicidal is also a word where consulting the dictionary definition is almost certain to involve another search to discover what on earth it's going on about. Here's the Collins definition:

adj Botany (of a dehiscence) characterised by splitting along the sides of the seed capsule.

...and then, to make things even worse, you discover that dehiscence isn't in the dictionary

Anyway, this is septicidal dehiscence:

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

That picture is of the plant Ledum palustre, or wild rosemary (though it's really a rhododendron).

Anyway, as it happens the septi- bit in septicidal comes from septum, which is a dividing partition in a living thing. The -cidal bit does come from the idea of killing, though nothing at all hurt, let alone killed.

Ah well. Accusing botanists of being over-dramatic is a novelty, at least.

Word Not To Use Today: septicidal. The -cidal bit comes from the Latin caedere to kill. Septum comes from saeptum, a wall, from saepīre, to enclose.

*Okay, September isn't a great example, is it? Errr...septet, perhaps (which is like a quartet, but nearly twice the size).

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Saturday Rave: texting.

Happy Christmas!

Hm, yes, I know I'm early with that, but that was the message Neil Papworth sent on this date, 3 December, in 1992. In his defence, Papworth was a computer geek, and only twenty two, so sparkling small talk may not really have been his thing.

Neil was using a Vodaphone network to text his colleague Richard Jarvis, who (although he was also, I'm guessing, a computer geek) was at a party. Okay it was a works party, but hey, a party's a party - and there's nothing like receiving a text to prove you're not a johnny-no-mates after all.

I imagine it was a swish sort of an occasion, a bit James Bondish, with vol-au-vents and stuff with bubbles...

...lemonade, perhaps.

Anyway, Richard Jarvis was in Newbury, Berkshire, England, and the whole party had been organised to celebrate this event - no, not Richard Jarvis getting a text, but anyone getting a text, because that Happy Christmas message was the first text message ever sent, and has led to the great pleasure of hearing so many old folk harrumphing about text speak (which is, I fear, dying out now most of us have QWERTY keyboards on our phones) and has also led to so many messages lying completely unread and ignored on my phone until much too late to be useful.

Still, there's not a lot of things that aren't all the better for being ignored, are there.

Word To Use Today: text. I do sometimes wish people would remember that the past tense of text is texted and not text, but, hey, the easiest thing will be if I stop wincing about it, so that's clearly the way to go. The word text comes from the Mediaeval Latin textus meaning version, from the Latin textus meaning texture, from textere, to compose.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Blockbuster: word to use today.

It's time for the Christmas blockbuster, folks

But, the thing is, what is a block, and why should anyone want to bust it?

I've always vaguely associated the term blockbuster with memories of Saturday Morning Pictures, an all-morning entertainment at my local cinema for under elevens (and it really was all under-elevens: as I remember it there wasn't an adult in the place except for a slightly rumpled (and, as I see it now, heroically brave) man who made announcements). In my town the queue to get in would sometimes stretch, yes, right round the block.

Sadly, though, the word blockbuster begins nowhere so harmless.

A blockbuster started off as a nickname in the press for a World War Two RAF bomb of such immense proportions that...well, you can imagine. From there it began to be applied to any very successful or forceful person or thing; and from there it became a usually lavish and always very successful film, play, novel, or other piece of popular entertainment.

Well, when I say successful, I really just mean that people liked it enough to recommend it to their friends. It's a matter of money, not artistic value (whatever that might be).

Still, blockbuster: it's a word that's come up in the world, hasn't it. 

And we must be grateful for that.

File:Poster - Gone With the Wind 01.jpg

Word To Use Today: blockbuster. The first blockbuster bomb was dropped in 1943. Block comes from the Old French bloc, and bust is basically the same word as burst.

(Yes, all right, Gone With The Wind was technically made too early to be a blockbuster - but I'm not allowed to reproduce any Star Wars stuff here.)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Christmas Gift Service: a rant.

Looking for a gift for a loved one? 

Alternatively, are you looking for a gift for someone you don't even like all that much?

Well, you can't go wrong with scent, avoiding as it does most common problems involving sizing, allergies, sobriety, illiteracy, and diets. But do you go for Chanel or Gucci? Marc Jacobs or Hugo Boss? Gaultier or Laurent?

Luckily all such problems are solved by a headline I saw in the Telegraph newspaper a while ago:

African elephants have the best smell in the animal kingdom

it said.

I admit the wrapping might prove a slight problem, but you'd get full points for originality and surprise, wouldn't you.

African Bush Elephant.jpg
photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Word To Use Today: scent. This word comes from the Old French sentir to sense, from the Latin sentīre, to feel.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Dyirbal

Dyirbal is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by about twenty nine people in North Eastern Queensland. (And if that doesn't sound desperately fragile enough for you, there are eight recorded dialects of Dyirbal.)

Dyirbal is an extra precious and extraordinary language. For one thing, nouns are divided into four groups consisting of a) most animate objects and men; b) women, water, fire, violence and exceptional animals; c) edible fruit and vegetables; d) everything else.

The thing for which Dyirbal is most famous, however, is its taboo, until about 1930 when it died out, on speaking it to your mother-in-law. In fact it was worse than that because actually the taboo included speaking your own language to a child-in-law, father's sister's child, or mother's brother's child, as well. 

At least, when I say you couldn't speak your own language, you could use the same grammar, but you couldn't use any of its words - except for the four different words that describe your grandparents.

The special language you had to use if one of these taboo relatives is listening is called Dyalŋuy (the ordinary form of Dyirbal is called Guwal). 

Dyalŋuy is only a quarter of the size of Guwal, but there are various tricks that you can use to get round any lack of vocabulary. You can use altered forms of Guwal words, for instance, and you can also borrow words from neighbouring languages. It's thought that all Dyirbal-speaking children would have ben fluent in at least one neighbouring language and so the switch to using a mixture of the two language would be fairly easy.

And, do you know what? 

I say to myself, as so very often, what an absolutely gob-smackingly wonderful world...

Word To Use Today: any you like, but only very polite ones, please, to your mother-in-law and cousins.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Thing To Do Today: scour something.

All the Black Friday stuff may be over (hurray!) but here, nevertheless, are two words for the price of one (and, let's face it, the price of one is, well, nothing, so what sort of a bargain is that?).

Ladies and Gentlemen,* I present to you the word scour.

Now, the oldest meaning of scour is to do with getting rid of muck. Most usually we scour saucepans after they mysteriously go and boil dry (I blame the weather/varying chemical composition of natural gas) but a riverbed can be scoured by the force of flood water, and (I hope you aren't eating) scouring a cow is designed to give its insides a good clear-out.

On a gentler note, washing raw wool for the first time is also called scouring.

But what about when a whole countryside is scoured for an escaped villain? And what about when you're trying to find a dropped earring? Or a baked bean on stripped pine floor? 

It's rather nice to think of someone scraping up every clump if heather on a moor to find the villain (or, even more thrillingly, a completely innocent man-who-knows-too-much). It's satisfying, too, to imagine someone scooping up every fluff of dust in the hope of scooping up the earring/baked bean with it. Sadly, though, this scour is a completely different word.

At least, it started off as a completely different word - but nowadays both sorts of  scour are pretty-much meshed in my mind, at least.

Thing To Do Today: scour something. The cleaning meaning comes to us through the Middle Low German schūren, from the Latin excūrāre, to cleanse, from cūrāre, to attend to or to heal. The searching sort of scour comes from the Old Norse skūr.

*Can one say that nowadays without offending the LGBTTQ+ people? Hope so!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Spot the Frippet: bottle.

No, no, people have told me all my life: you don't search for a needle in a bundle of hay; you search for it in a bottle of hay.

Really? Personally, I search for a needle in a needle case. Still, never mind, if that's what people want to do...

Anyway, bottle. An easy spot, this one, especially when you consider that in Britain bottle means courage, in Australia to be full bottle is to be knowledgeably enthusiastic, and that more or less everywhere to be on the bottle means to be habitually drinking alcohol in an uncontrolled way.

Then there are bottle banks where you recycle old bottles, bottle brushes, bottle gourds

Courge encore verte.jpg


File:Bottlenose dolphin with young.JPG
photo by Peter Asprey

bottlers (in Australia and New Zealand anything or anyone excellent or outstanding), bottle trees:

and bottle washers (which are people in such menial positions that they might be required to wash the yes, bottles).

A magnetic bottle is a way of containing plasma using magnetic fields, and a bottleneck is a similar sort of thing, only using badly adjusted traffic lights instead of magnets.

And then, of course, there's all the bottles...

File:Coke bottles with names.jpg
photo by Doorknob747

Spot the frippet: bottle. The container word comes from the Old French botaille from the charming Latin word butticula, a small cask. The bottle-of-hay word is also from an Old French word, botel, from botte, which means bundle.