This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 29 January 2015

A truth universally acknowledged: a rant.

One of the very best novels ever written* begins with one of the very best opening sentences:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

It's wonderful, isn't it? But look, writing something similar often only reveals the chasm between the copy and the original.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date. 

Elizabeth Eulberg, Prom and Prejudice

And sometimes the truth-universally-acknowledged doesn't actually even begin to pass for true. Like this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any diva worth her salt must record, at some time in her career, a Christmas album. 
Radar magazine 

Or this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every year since 2001 has been labelled the 'year of mobile'.

Anyway, look, if you must pinch the formula, then at least give us some added value in the form of a joke:

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. 
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graham-Smith.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a wife, must be in want of a good fortune. 

Pied and Prodigious by DM Andrews

But whatever you do, at least get the grammar right:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a TV Scheduler in possession of the daily audience figures that radio stations attract would be in want of a bottle of smelling salts.
Radio Times (I think, I can't find the cutting. I think I may have torn it into a thousand pieces and stamped on it.)

Finally, while researching this post I came across an essay titled with this quote on It has 82 footnotes and cites a host of authorities from Simone de Beauvoir to Max Weber. But it gets the quote wrong:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

And it gets it wrong twice. 

Heaven help us all.

Word To Use Today: pride. This word comes, rather sweetly, from the Old English prāda, and is related to the Latin prodesse, to be useful and the Old Norse prūthr, stately.  

*Pride and Prejudice, of course, by Jane Austen.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Nuts and Bolts: metro.

What does metro mean?

All sorts of things.

Metro itself, the small urban railway that sometimes runs underground, is short for the French chemin de fer métropolitain.

So how about metropolitan, then? That's from the Greek mētēr, mother, and means, literally, mother city.

In metrorrhagia, though, metro is from a different Greek word, mētra, which means womb. 

Metronome? From the Greek metron, which means measure.

Metronidazole? (It's a medicine.) Cobbled together from me(thyl ni)tro n (im) id (e) azole.

Metrongagen? (The phenomenon that the weather forecast is not necessarily to be relied upon.) From Met (Office is w)rong ag(ain) en.

Okay, I made that last one up. But why not? Everyone else seem to be doing it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Thing To Do Today: embrace

From the Telegraph on line 2/1/15.

'If, like me, you think something should be done about the social chasm that exists between state and private schools, you should embrace this guide [Tatler's Guide To State Schools] with open arms.'

Can you spot the difficulty in following that advice? 

It's a tiny thing, a mistake that anyone might make.

Still, it made me laugh.

What's wrong?

Well, go to the man you love best in all the world, and try 

embracing him with open arms.

File:Giulio Romano - Nude Child with Open Arms - WGA09624.jpg
Drawing by Giulio Romano

Thing To Do Today Though Not With Open Arms: embrace. This 

word comes from the Old French brace, a pair of arms, from the 

Latin bracchia, arms.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Spot the Frippet: roulette.

Photo by Uutela

So: am I encouraging gambling, here?

No, not really, but if you must gamble, use money you won't miss and throw it away in a good cause, whether a charity or a starving bookie.*

But where else can you spot roulette, apart from a casino?

Well, all over the place, actually, though in Britain not as all-over-the-place as a few years ago. 

A roulette is a wheel used to make perforations, and it's also the name of the small hole so made. So all postage stamps had roulettes until the fairly recent introduction to Britain of self-adhesive stamps.

Still, my teabags come in pairs so spotting a roulette is easy for me. In fact I've already seen some teabag roulettes this morning, or I wouldn't have the energy to write this.

Failing teabags, you can make your own roulette as long as you have two coins to rub together, because a roulette is the path taken by a point on a curve when it rolls against another curve. The illustration below is from wikipedia.

So all you have to do is get two coins, put them flat on a table, make a note of a point on the edge of one of them, and roll this coin round the other. The path taken by your noted point is a roulette.

Best of all, you get to keep all your money.

Spot the Frippet: roulette. This word comes from the French rouelle. a little wheel, from roue, wheel, from the Latin rota.

*Now spotting one of those would be a challenge.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sunday Rest: exurbs. Word Not To Use Today.

Sometimes you have no alternative but to use a thoroughly nasty word. One horror from a short time ago, ethmoid,  is sadly unavoidable if you need to talk about the sponge-like bit of skull that sits at the top of your nose.

Some revolting words, though, have plenty of alternatives. So why do people use them? Tin-ears? A distressingly small vocabulary? Sadism?

In the case of (brace yourselves) exurb, I wonder if snobbery might be a factor. Exurb is rather obviously a word with classical roots, and there's nothing a certain sort of person likes more than extruding a few classical roots for other people to fall over.

But never mind why. The simple fact is that anyone who uses the word exurb should be...I won't say shot, but certainly sniffed at, and probably shunned.

Why not say commuter town? Dormitory town? Bedroom Community (which is nearly as horrid as exurb, I admit, though it does sound a lot more fun)? Bedroom Town?

So, look, there's reason at all for using exurb, is there, now you have so many alternatives.

Unless it really is sadism.

Word Not To Use Today. Exurb is short for extra-urban, which is sort-of Latin and means out-of-town.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Saturday Rave: The Old Stoic by Emily Bronte

How much of a work reflects the writer?

Can we take a quotation from a writer's work and say that's what the writer believed?

Take Shakespeare, for instance. He wrote: "I love long life better than figs" (Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene II) but then he also wrote, in Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene I, "I am so out of love with life, that I will sue to be rid of it"  

Now, Shakespeare might have meant both of them from the bottom of his heart at some point of his life, but we can't say that, as an overarching principle, this is Shakespeare's point of view for either of them.

Which leads me to The Old Stoic. The OS has some unexpected ideas which I think that Emily Bronte the vicar's daughter would have been reluctant to acknowledge. Mind you, this may be why she put them in a poem narrated by someone else. But we just don't know.

The Old Stoic

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of Fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn -

And of I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is - 'Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty.'

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
'Tis all that I implore - 
Through life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure!

Word To Use Today: stoic. This word is, oddly, named after a porch - the porch in ancient Athens where Zeno taught. The Greek word was stōikos.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Sign of Four: Word To Use Today

File:Conrad von Soest, 'Brillenapostel' (1403).jpg
Conrad von Soest, 1403

It's a small word, is four, but it pops up bravely all over the place,  and half the time it's shouting I am not a number I am a free man!

Well, possibly not man...

For instance, a four-by-four is a car, and four-by-two is a size of timber. 

Then there's four-colour, which describes a printing system which produces an infinite variety of colour; four-eyed fish, which have two eyes (though they are divided so they can see both above and below water); and of course a speccy-four-eyes, who also has two eyes, in this case assisted by spectacles.

And it doesn't stop there. A four at cricket is a single stroke that sends the ball to the boundary after hitting the ground. In America a four-flusher is someone who is trying to deceive. 

In four-four time in music, although the first four means, well, four, the second doesn't. 

A 404 is a stupid or useless person, a fourpenny one is a powerful punch, foursquare means solid, strong, and forthright, and the fourth estate are journalists. 

Fourplay, just for the avoidance of doubt, is the supply to a customer of television, internet, and mobile and landline telephone services by the same provider.

What else is four? 

Well, the Word Den. It's four today.

Happy Birthday To Us!

Word To Use Today: four. The Old English for four was fēower, but its history can be traced right back to the Sanskrit catur.