This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 22 January 2018

Spot the Frippet: anchor.

There are more anchors about then you'd think. In Britain, brass buttons tend to display them in tribute to the uniform of the British Navy. In this case the anchor will be fouled - that is, tangled up in its rope - which is a thing an anchor should never be.

So why is a fouled anchor as a symbol of a proud navy? Probably because there was one on the shield of Lord Howard of Effingham, the commander of British forces against the invading Spanish Armada in 1588, and the Navy never got round to changing the badge after Lord Howard left. It's not as silly a symbol as it seems, because the fouled anchor is an old Christian symbol signifying hope in tribulation.

File:USNA, OCS, and NROTC anchor.png
(This is actually a United States Navy fouled anchor, which is probably a left-over from the British tradition.)

Where else might one find anchors? Well, on ships, of course, if you happen to have one handy. Round here The Anchor is a common name for a pub, and will quite often be found in Anchor Lane. The heavy men at the far ends of a tug-of-war competitions are called anchors (you could organise an informal competition in the classroom or office). An anchor ring is one made of any cylindrical bar of metal. The brakes of any vehicle are called anchors in moments of high drama: he slammed on the anchors.

Anything that provides steadiness and security in a mad world can be an anchor: a desk, perhaps, or a car, or a partner, or a faith.

But of course the easiest anchors to spot are the ones on TV sitting smiling at their desks or on their sofas, trying to be friendly but authoritative, and persuading experts to say what's needed as concisely as possible and then move on.

Mind you, that sort of anchor I do my very best to avoid.

Spot the Frippet: anchor. This word comes from the Greek ankos, which means bent.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Sunday Rest: pyknic. Word Not To Use Today.

Pyknic (yes, you say it the same as picnic) is an entirely useless word. Well, everyone will think you actually mean picnic, of course.

And pyknic is entirely different.

Pyknic describes someone squat and, well, fat. Someone broad and fleshy. Someone wide of chest.

Pyknic is basically a Greek word, and the unfortunate coincidence of pyknic/picnic would be much more understandable if the word hadn't been made up in the 1900s, when the word picnic was already in wide use.

I can only suppose the person who coined the word was either a) having a laugh; b) trying to show off; c) forgetful of the fact that Ancient Greek is not everyone's first language or, d) so firmly ensconced in an ivory tower that he'd forgotten that it was possible to take a feast outside.

Anyway, pyknic

I won't use it if you won't.

Sunday Rest: pyknic. This word comes from the Greek puknos, which means thick.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Saturday Rave: Carl Linnaeus the Younger.

Carl Linnaeus is famous throughout the world for developing a scientific system to describe all the variety of life on Earth.

He was a great and much-respected man, and from his work flowed a river of discovery that led to Darwin and beyond, right down to us in the present day.

Now Carl Linnaeus had a son, and to the resentment of many Carl Linnaeus had this son made a professor even though the son had passed none of the usual exams. The young man followed his father in making a career classifying the natural world, though the son is really only known nowadays for his book Supplementum Plantarum systematis vegetabilium, which consists mainly of an edited version of some of the work his father and his father's colleagues had already done.

In fact we should probably not have heard of this son at all, except that the elder Carl Linnaeus's fatherly pride and optimism led him to name the baby after himself.

Or was it pessimism?

Because I rather think it's mostly the case that Carl Linnaeus the Younger's life only looks a little bit of a failure because of his famous name.

Word To Use Today: ancestry. This word comes from the Latin antecēdere, one who goes before.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Word To Use Today: mottanai.

Mottainai (you say the ai bits like the word I) is a word of Japanese origin. It's to do with regret at wasting things, whether physical objects such as food, or perhaps time, or even thoughts.

Mottainai! as an exclamation means That's a terrible waste! 

In Japan, mottainai is part of a movement that encourages the mending of possessions so they can be used as long as possible, and now the word has moved out of Japan and has been taken up by environmental campaigners all over the world. It's even been used by anti-war campaigners, working on the principle that if we don't waste things there'll be enough to go round and we won't need to fight for what's left. 

Somehow I doubt war is quite as simple as that: but it can only be a help.

Word To Use Today: mottainai. This word has been around since the 1200s, and started off being to do with the sense of gratitude and unworthiness when receiving benefits from a superior. 

At root, it's a Buddhist idea. Mottai is to do with the sacredness and worth of a material object, and nai means lack of. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Kiribati: a rant.

My husband came down to dinner the other day with the exciting news that according to the quizmaster on Pointless the name of the Pacific island group of Kiribati is pronounced kirribash.

Here's Kiribati's very beautiful flag:

Flag of Kiribati

Well, that means I've been pronouncing Kiribati wrong all my life, but, hey, the ti in attention is pronounced sh, after all.

Just to be certain (the speakers on our flat-screen TV aren't very good) I looked up Kiribati on Wikipedia. 

The first pronunciation Wikipedia gives is kiribess and the second kiribartee

Does this mean I can carry on with saying kiribartee without people sniffing contemptuously and pulling their skirts aside whenever I enter a room?

Well, I consulted a third authority, my trusty Collins dictionary. And what did I find?

A choice between kiribass and kiribattee.

So what could I do? Use the original name of The Gilbert Islands and risk being thought colonialist?

No, I decided to consult a real expert.

The Kiribati Government website offers no opinion, but, ah, the tourist board says you pronounce the name kiribas, so that must be right.

Kiribas... you say that kiribaz? Kiribass? Kiribars? Kiribarss?



Word Probably Not To Use Today: Kiribati. This word is the Gilbertese pronunciation of Gilberts. The name was adopted at independence.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: dead posh colours.

In Keats' poem The Eve of St Agnes there's a particularly fevered bit where some light comes through a stained glass window and threw warm gules on Madeleine's fair breast.

It's a line that's been stuck in my mind for about thirty five years, so I should imagine it's there for good.

Gules (a horrid word) means red, though only usually if you're describing a heraldic shield or its accoutrements. (I imagine Keats was aiming to big up Madeleine's poshness, as well as her succulence.)

Heraldry employs a huge number of technical terms - there must be half a dozen words simply to describe the position a lion adopts on a shield (and even then the technical term for the lion is leopard) - but there are only seven colours (and two of them, yellow and white, count (again, technically) as metals).

Basically, we have:

Gules, vert, azure, sable, purpure, which are what we ordinary mortals would call red, green, blue, black and purple, respectively.

Then we have yellow and white, which are called or and argent, and which count as gold and silver.

There are also a couple of patterns, ermine and vair, which are called furs even though they come in colours and patterns never seen on any animal on Earth.

Here they are, first vair and then ermine:


See what I mean?

There are a few other variations in heraldic colours, but they're quite rare, so that's basically it.

Again, although there are many many rules of heraldry, with colours it's fairly simple: you can't put a coloured thing on a coloured background; a fur on a fur background; or a metal on a metal background.

Oh, and by the way, one other really useful term: if something on a shield is in its normal colours (like a kingfisher, perhaps) then it's called propre.

And thank heavens for that.

Word To Use Today: azure, perhaps, probably in its usual meaning of deep sky blue. It's come to us from Old French, from Old Spanish, from Arabic, from Persian lāzhuward, which means lapis lazuli.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Thing To Be Today: a pivot.

Changing direction is no problem if there's just the one of you (unless there's some idiot's wheeled suitcase just below your eye-line all ready to trip you up) but what if there are thirty?

Then, as armies and chorus girls have known for generations, you need someone to be a pivot. This is the person who stays on the spot while everyone else moves round them.

If you're a chorus girl you have to smile while you're going it:

File:Chorus line the Soubrettes at the Cremorne Theatre, South Brisbane ca 1944 (7946599326).jpg
Soubrettes at the Cremorne Theare, Brisbane, ca 1944.

 but in the military not so much:

File:Coldstream Guards by W.B. Wollen.jpg
painting by W B Wollen

...actually, in the military not at all.

(Hey, could we have one of those life-swap TV programmes where chorus girls and the Coldstream Guards do each other's displays? I wouldn't insist on the Guards wearing stilettos to do it.)

But being pivotal needn't involve any physical movement at all. It may be that some cunning wheeze such as digging up a road junction in the rush hour requires action from a host of experts and idiots (two categories not mutually exclusive) and someone is required to make sure no one goes off at a mad angle and wrecks the whole delicate operation. 

Yes, the pivot will be the essential bossy one who does hardly any work at all himself.

Well, I didn't say it was going to be easy or popular, did I?

Thing To Be Today: a pivot. This word might be something to do with the Old Provençal word pua, which means a tooth of a comb.