This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

Spot the frippet: kilt.

Kilts used to be great, and now they usually aren't.

Kobziarzy w Kilts
It's all the fault of an Englishman.
The great kilt, or breacan, which was first worn during the 1500s, had enough fabric in the back of it to cast over a shoulder or pull up over the head. It was warm, but could get in the way a bit if you were working.

The philibeg, or walking kilt (the sort usually worn today) was invented by Thomas Rawlinson from Lancashire in the 1720s. His acquaintance Iain MacDonnell, chief of the MacDonnells of Inverness, wore it to visit his workers, and from there its use spread very quickly.
As for the kilt's traditional tartan fabric design, that has a special language all of its own.
Fraser of BoblainyThis is Fraser of Boblainy tartan, a pattern from the 1700s. You describe it as: B/4 R56 G28 B28 R/4.

B, R, and G are Blue, Red, and Green; the numbers are the numbers of threads of each colour, counting across (or down) the pattern; the / signs show the lines of symmetry.

 See? Simple, but brilliant.

So where can you spot a kilt? In Scotland, of course, but there are also Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Breton and Galician kilts.

Pipe bands wear kilts, too, though these are often plain in colour. You might see a pipe band more or less anywhere from the USA to Pakistan.

If you should come across some Lacrosse players then they may well be wearing kilts, too.

Goths quite like kilts; sci-fi loves them; even David Hasselhoff has been known to wear one.

For the rest of us (the ladies at least) we can kilt our own clothes by pulling the back hem of a long full skirt up between the legs and tucking it into the front of the waistband. It makes using a skipping rope much easier.

So there we are. The walking kilt: an English idea made beautiful by the Scots.

What a partnership, eh?

Spot the Frippet: kilt. This word comes from Scandinavia. There's a Danish word kilte, which means to tuck up, and the Swedish kilta means lap.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sunday Rest: blackmail. Word Not To Use Today.

'Blackmail?' said the villain, twitching a suave but deadly eyebrow. 'That's an ugly word.'

Despite those words having being spoken in almost every thriller made during the first thirty years of talkies, blackmail isn't a particularly ugly word.

Blackmail is certainly an ugly thing, but that's a different thing.

Mind you, blackmail used to be a different thing, too.

Blackmail started out in life as protection money. It was paid by the people of the English/Scottish Borders to the reivers in return for immunity from raids.

(Those riders are reivers on their way to raid a mediaeval family that hadn't paid its blackmail. I don't know where they are, not even which country they're in, because reivers were equally happy to raid homesteads on either side of the border.)

Anyway, why is it blackmail black? Well, the reason it's black is because it's not white. The white equivalent, 'white rent', was paid in money (silver); blackmail was paid in goods or labour.

Why is it mail? Male was the Middle English for rent or tribute.

So there we are. A shared culture of English and Scots criminality extending over hundreds of years.

Surely that's worth holding onto.

Isn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: blackmail. If the word isn't derived as I've described above then it might be from the Scottish Gaelic words blathaich to protect and mal tribute, payment.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

My Love is Like a Red Red Rose by Robert Burns

Some towering genuises have put words to paper, but I don't think that Robert Burns was one of them.

No, no, hold on! Come back!

The thing is, I don't really think that towering was what Robert Burns was about. Yes, he wrote about politics (and got into trouble for being too loud in his support of the French Revolution) but it's for Burns' poetry that he's honoured throughout the world.

If Jane Austen's genius was for painting life on a little bit of ivory, then Robert Burns' genius was for conjuring up life in his songs.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

Is there a more tender or a more hopeful love song in the world? It certainly charmed Robert Schumann, who wrote a setting for it; and yet another Robert, Bob Dylan, said that it had been his greatest creative influence.

(Gosh, thank heavens for Roberts!)

Here's My Love is like a Red Red Rose, sung most beautifully by Karen Matheson.

May love and roses sweeten your day.

Word To Use Today: rose. This word has hardly changed for thousands of years. It probably comes from the Greek rhodon.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Word To Use Today: Sassenach.

So who's a Sassenach?

If you're in Ireland then a Sassenach will probably be someone English.

File:1913, March 9, Man wearing bowler hat, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.jpg

If you're in the Scottish Lowlands then it will also probably be someone English.

If you're in the Scottish Highlands, however, then it will probably mean a Lowlander - though if the speaker is on the West Coast of the Highlands then it might mean someone from Inverness or the Black Isle, or even somewhere further north than that.

Map of Scottish Highlands

Sassenach is a lovely word. All right it's an insult, and most commonly as insulting name for an English person like me, but in the past (and I hope still) it's been described as a friendly insult.

Is there anything more characteristic of fellowship than a friendly insult?

Whether there is or not, here's to fellowship: may it endure forever!

Word To Use Today: Sassenach. This word comes from the Scottish Gaelic Sasunnach from the Latin Saxones, Saxon. It came into English in the 1770s. The Irish plural is, bafflingly, na Sassaniagh.

The Saxons may have derived their name from seax, a kind of knife.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Long to reign over us: a rant.

Who should run your country?

Old people? Young people? Women? Men? Right/Left/Centre/Out-in-the-car-park people? God? The high-born? The low-born? Clever people? Average people? Stupid people? Strong people? Weak people? Computers? Lizard people from the planet Onk? (Lots of people believe this is already happening.)

In Britain, the Electoral Reform Society has published a list of the most common Christian names for British Members of Parliament since 1945.

The commonest name is John. So far, so boring, but one statistic that did stand out was the information that there have been eleven Percys in Parliament since 1945.

I didn't know there had been eleven Percys in Britain since 1945.

Still, at least we know where they all ended up.

It isn't clear from the Electoral Reform Society's website whether it is campaigning for more or fewer Percys in Parliament (though they're certainly campaigning for more Margarets and Annes).

But it made me wonder who should be running my country. Kiwi and Pippin (both girls born in 2013) would be jolly fruity. But perhaps what we really need are some heroes.

Sherlock would do.

Or Boudicca.

Or Tin Tin.

Let's face it, Snowy might be an improvement on some of them.

Come to think about it, though...

Percy: that's the family name of those great rebels the Dukes of Northumberland. The warrior Harry Hotspur is probably the most famous of them:

Henry Hotspur Percy.jpg
The death of Harry Hotspur.

And then there's Percy Blakeney aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescued all those French people from the guillotine in Emma Orczy's novels.

A hero's know something? Perhaps Percy is the right stuff after all.

Word To Use Today: percy. As far as I know this isn't used as a vocabulary word much, but pointing percy at the porcelain is a very old-fashioned euphemism for doing a wee.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Taxus* and taxonomy.

O tempora o mores?

The International Botanical Congress noticed a little while ago that Latin isn't the most widely-understood language in the world, and so from 2012 it has been acceptable for the scientific names of plants to be written in English as an alternative to the previously obligatory Latin.

This might seem a shame - those Latin names were so...exotic...but the Latin requirement was never merely a matter of bunging a label on a new weed. A new scientific name for a plant before 2012 had to have the proper Latin grammatical components linking the words. And that wasn't all: when, for example, the botanist Jim Miller discovered a new tree Cordia koemarae in Suriname, the description of it entered in the official International List had to be in Latin (of a kind) too:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis, 7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.
There are still thousands of species of plants waiting to be named so they can be studied, used, admired and protected, and  botanists plead that they have more urgent things to do than compose passages in Latin.

Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London, says: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

Latin is a glorious language, and it would be a tragedy if it were entirely lost; but for the poor botanists, it's hard to think they've made the wrong decision.

Word To Use Today: taxonomy. This word comes from the French taxonomie, from the Greek taxis, which means order.

*Taxus is the scientific name for the genus of plants containing yew trees.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: be territorial.

Look to the natural world.

A brown anole, boasting. That's a pouch, not a slice of orange.

Most animals don't bother to defend a territory. They don't need to. Of those that do, most do so by marking their boundaries (a rhino's heap of scented poo can reach a metre high and five metres across).

A few animals engage in some sort of boasting to maintain their territories. They might try to make themselves look bigger by puffing themselves up, or they may sing (as cats do). Ring-tailed lemurs have "stink fights" which involve getting their tails as smelly as possible and waving them at animals in the next territory.

Some animals (red squirrels, badgers, beavers) bother less about their neighbours than complete strangers; a few animals (striped mice, weaver ants) are more bothered by their neighbours than strangers.

Sometimes, rarely, some types of animal will fight over territory. This is plainly very foolish indeed as it makes everybody concerned less likely to survive.

Luckily most creatures have long-ago worked this out.

Not quite all of them, though.

Thing Not To Do Today: be territorial. This word comes from the Latin territōrium, which means land surrounding a town.