This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Sunday Rest: bauble. Word Not To Use Today.

File:Christmas bauble black and white.jpg
Photo: David Singleton

Christmas, Christmas...a time of comfort, joy, and, particularly, madness.

A time when people who make gingerbread villages are taken seriously.

A time when people believe that a festival where semi-drunken people will be lolling about all over the house munching chocolates is a good time to unveil a new sofa.

A time when people who loathe each other are deliberately invited to spend time together. 

A time when even the sanest of us is surrounded by baubles, whether we mean sparkly items of little use or value, or (as in Britain) we mean the usually spherical things we hang on our Christmas trees.


The word sounds like the slack-mouthed ravings of someone driven to utter gabbling madness.


Quite appropriate, really.

Word Not To Use Today: bauble. This word comes from the Old French baubel, a plaything.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Saturday Rave: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy.

One of the questions examiners like to ask about Thomas Hardy is whether he's a fatalist or a pessimist.

For myself, I rather think that Hardy-the-novelist was a rather different person from Hardy-the-poet; and Hardy-the-poet seems to have been quite a different person from Hardy-the-countryman.

Which Hardy is the one that matters?

Well, all of them, of course: all three wise men.

Here's one of Hardy's poems, where the poet and the countryman seem to be working together.

It's called The Oxen.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

File:Andrea Previtali - Nativity - WGA18404.jpg
Andrea Previtali

But then perhaps Christmas makes optimists of us all.
Word To Use Today: ox. This word comes from the Old English oxa, so it's been with us for over a thousand years.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Word To Use Today: wort.

Some words are just shimmering with charisma and glamour...

No, you're right, wort isn't one of them.

Wort (you say it to rhyme with dirt, curt and chert, which just goes to show how awkward the English language can be at times) is an earthy sort of a word, a bung-it-in-the-cauldron-with-the-eye-of-newt-and-see-what-happens sort of a word.

Having said that, the potions that have been made with worts have often been made with the best of intentions, as the names of many worts attest. We have liverwort, lungwort, spleenwort:

File:Spleene-wort, John Gerard, 1633 Wellcome L0007144.jpg

milkwort, woundwort, stitchwort, bladderwort, adderwort, birthwort, barrenwort, bloodwort, navelwort, throatwort, blushwort, bruisewort, cancerwort, feverwort, goutwort, kidneywort, lustwort (whether tending to encourage or discourage lust I do not know) nipplewort, pilewort, quinsywort, rupturewort, scurvywort, sneezewort, toothwort, and lastly the oh-so-delightfully named wartwort.

(As if that's not enough worts, there's also the sweet wort you get when you mix ground malt with warm water when you're making beer.)

Do any of these worts have the slightest effect on any of the organs, woes, or diseases with which they are linked?

Probably not. Some worts, indeed, are positively harmful and poisonous, such as the swallow-worts or dog-strangling vines:

File:Gigantic swallow wort (Calotropis gigantea) in Hyderabad, AP W IMG 7953.jpg
Gigantic Swallow-wort, Calotropis gigantea. Photo by J.M.Garg

Still, worts have been around for a long time, and none of us are dead yet.

Well, that has to be the main thing, doesn't it.

 Word To Use Today: wort. A word with the suffix wort is often very old. Wort comes from the Old English wyrt, root, and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European origins.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

cissies: a rant

What are you?

A man?

Ah, but have you always been a man? (Actually, come to think about it, no one has always been a man because the baby-boy thing always comes first. Unless, of course, you started off as a baby girl. In this case you are a transgendered man (though I wonder if it might be more logical to describe you as a transgendered woman).*)


Anyway, what if you aren't transgendered? What sort of a man are you then?

Well, in that case, apparently, you're a cis man. (It's all right: it sounds as if you're being called a sissie, but that's just an unfortunate coincidence.) If you've always been female then you're a cis woman.

The cis terms are presumably of some use to some people, though I think on the whole I'd rather not be called a cis woman. The thing is, I like to feel I can do a bit of carpentry or geometry from time to time without being untrue to myself... short, all this stuff is terribly complicated.

Apparently on Facebook there are about fifty different genders to choose from.

I think I'm down as female; but if mildly variable is an option, then perhaps I'll change it to that.

Word To Consider Today: cis. This comes from the Latin prefix cis, meaning on this side of, which is the opposite of trans. For instance the Roman word Cisalpine, meant on this side of the Alps.

*I refuse to get het-up about the muddle of the words gender and sex: they're past worrying about.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Nuts and Bolts: rhoticity.

The great thing is that it's all right.

Really, it is.

That pronouncing-all-your-rs thing. You can pronounce them and be rhotic - or not pronounce them all, and be non-rhotic. It's just a matter of geography.

For instance, do you pronounce the r in car?

You probably do if the word is followed by alarm (try it) but otherwise, if you come from England, you probably don't.

English-speakers from other places tend on the whole to sound their rs even when they come at the ends of words.

My Christmas cards, for instance, have only one r in them, after the Ch; my butter, when I talk about it, has no r in it at all unless it's in something like butter icing.

It doesn't matter. Usually.

Although I must admit that the Wicket the Ewok used to get in a terrible state when trying to say the word warrior, didn't he.

Thing To Consider Today: rhoticity. This word comes from the Greek rho, which is their name for the letter r.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: trouser something.

Britain and the USA, it has often been said, are two nations divided by a common language.*

You say pants (as the song might have gone) and I say trousers...
(though, to be pedantic, I say pants, too. It's just that when I do I'm referring either to rubbish, as in 'it was just pants', or to underpants.)

Anyway, trouser. This word, when used as an action, doesn't quite mean to steal, it's more in the region of grasping a dodgy  opportunity to increase one's wealth. As in 'we all put in a twenty pound note for lunch and he went and trousered the change!'

Or 'what happened to the collection for the orphanage?' 'I expect the council trousered it.'

I don't know why, but the use of this word is a source of deep personal satisfaction.

Sadly, though, I don't think the word is ever used of women.

Not even, in my experience, when wearing a trouser suit.

Velvet Trouser Suit

Thing Not To Do Today: trouser something. The word trouser comes from the Scots Gaelic triubhas, from the Old French trebus.

*Perhaps originally said by either GB Shaw or Oscar Wilde.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Spot the Frippet: trunk.

Photo: Stuart Bassil

Words jump. Last week's Spot the Frippet, galley, had leapt, quite sensibly and comprehensibly, from meaning a sort of a ship to being a name for a tray of type.

It's the same with trunks. Trunks may seem like very different things - what does a person's torso have in common with a long-distance telephone call, or an elephant's prehensile nose with what I here in England call the boot of a car? - but they've all grown from the same place.

It all started with the Latin word truncus, which means lopped. From there it's easy to see how it became the word for the main stem of a tree, and from there onwards to take in the main stem of a human body, a road, a railway, and a ventilation or telephone system.

But how about the box-like trunks, that take your holiday clothes? How about the trunks that men wear for swimming?

Well, the word seems to have jumped from meaning something strong that leads somewhere, to meaning something strong that encloses something (and also travels somewhere). That's how you get to trunk cabins on ships, and the trunkfish, which is enclosed in bony plates.

File:PSM V21 D612 Ostraciontidae horned trunk fish.jpg

Swimming trunks aren't usually strong, but their function is to protect something delicate and precious.

Or so I understand.

Spot the Frippet: trunk. Easiest spot ever. From the Old French tronc, from the Latin truncus, lopped.