This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Taxing tax: a rant.

Fill in your tax form online, it said. It's quicker and easier.

Well, I'm not a complete fool: I ignored them for a decade or so, but then this year I decided the poor Government has enough to do and so I did decide to move online.

How long does the paper form take to fill in? 

About forty five minutes, including finding a stamp.

Online form?

Well, I started two weeks ago and spent four hours on it yesterday alone.

Still, it's all done, now. And, on the plus side, I've kept some tax-form people in jobs. But, good grief...

If you ask a question which begins If you were born before 1935...

then you can't require a YES/NO answer.

That's not tax law, that's logic. 

Or, as it used to be known, sense.


And I bet these tax-people get paid ten times more than children's writers do.

Ah well.

At least my job makes people happy.

Word To Use Today: tax. This word comes from the Old French taxer, and before that from the Latin tangere, to touch.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the FFF System.

How do you measure things?

If you're in Britain then you'll use Imperial Measurements for some things (distance travelled in a car will be in miles, the height of a person will probably be in feet and inches) and SI units for many other things (recipes are now usually exclusively in grams and litres).

But there are many other systems in use around the world. A recipe from the USA will use measurements like cups and sticks (butter comes in sticks). Distances over the sea, measured in nautical miles, will depend on the length of an arc subtended by a degree of...something or other. I sort of understand it, but it would take too long to write it down. 

Astronomy's distances are measured by the distance travelled by a particle of light in an Earth year (and how long, now I come to think about it, is an Earth year? Is it always the same?). 

And what about the FFF system of units?

I love this system. It's basically throwing up one's hands in despair and acknowledging that, as all systems of measurements are awkward, then we might as well be silly about it.

The FFF system depends on the Fathom, the Firkin, and the Fortnight. A fathom is usually used to measure depth of water, and is a bit less than two metres; a firkin is a barrel, and its size will depend upon how big it is, but in the FFF system its contents weigh 90 pounds, or about 41 kilograms; and a fortnight, or two weeks, is in Britain the standard unit of summer holidays (no, not really).

Is the FFF system used, except as a joke?

Well, some computer systems use micro-fortnights (a micro-fortnight is very roughly a second or so) in places where it doesn't really matter; and the expression furlongs per fortnight, or firkins per fortnight, is used as an expression to mean any obscure unit.

Ah well. 

I suppose these scientists and computer programmers don't get an awful lot of fun.

Word To Use Today: fortnight. This is a term still commonly used in Britain to mean two weeks. It has nothing to do with computer games. The word comes from the Old English fēowertīene, fourteen days.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Thing To Be Today: bewildered.

What happens when you get lost in the wilderness?

You become bewildered, of course.

The origin of the word bewilder is...well, bewildering, quite frankly, but be- means to surround completely, and wilder means to lead, or be led, astray, probably into the wilds.

(A wilderness, by the way, is a place of wild beasts: the word comes from Old English wildēor, wild beast. (Dēor, beast, and gave us the word deer:

photo by ForestWander (terrifying, isn't it?)))

The crucial two points to note: firstly, everyone in a wilderness is bewildered; and, secondly, everywhere is a wilderness.

So, if you feel pretty confident you know what's going on, then you're missing something.

Probably rather a lot, actually.

Thing To Be Today: bewildered. How about trying to think of something you definitely know? 

Monday, 3 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: something viatical.

Viatical means to do with roads and journeys, and it also describes plants that grow by a roadside.

What will you find?

It'll often be plants that thrive in an atmosphere a little warmer than the surrounding countryside, and in soil a little less fertile (because the verges are very often made up of the stuff that was dug out to make the road). Quite often the plants will be wanderers, their seeds brought along the road in the slipstream of lorries, or perhaps unintentionally planted by picnickers.

What will you find?

Whatever it is, it'll be an immigrant, or at least a survivor, and worthy of study and respect.

Though not, necessarily, nurturing.

File:Roadside verge near Alderton - - 1382104.jpg
photo by Trish Steel

Spot the Frippet: something viatical. The Latin word viāticus means belonging to a journey.

A viatical settlement happens when a company buys the life-insurance of a terminally ill person.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Sunday Rest: maskne. Word Not To Use Today.

What is maskne?

Apparently it's an attack of facial spots caused by having to wear a mask.

I can see what they've done, there.

But, oh, I do so wish they hadn't.

Sunday Rest: maskne. Mask comes from the Italian maschera, and quite a long time before that from the Arabic maskharah, clown, from sakhira, mockery.

The Greek word akmē means, well, acne (or summit). The swap from the m to the n was originally a mistake

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Staurday Rave: Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan.

There are many poems which ramble gloriously through the English language, but at the moment I'm more interested in the short stuff.

Strickland Gillilan's poem was composed in the early 1900s, and is also known by the alternative title Fleas.

I might as well quote it in full:


It's compact, it scans, it rhymes, it's funny, and it provides much matter for reflection.

Great stuff.

Word To Use Today: flea. The Old English form of this word was flēah: so presumably Edward the Confessor had them, too. 

Friday, 31 July 2020

Words To Use Today: lollipop man.

To anyone not from Britain, the idea of a lollipop man is probably strange and rather sinister.

And I hate to tell you this, but in Britain there are lollipop ladies, too, as well as men: loads of them, all over the place.

You won't see them for most of the day, but you'll find them loitering around school gates when the children are arriving at and leaving school.

Why are they called lollipop mean and women? Because they each carry a massive brightly-coloured lollipop. It might even be taller than they are.

And what do the children think? Do they have the wit to scream and run?

Nope. They're as helpless as Hansel and Gretel at the witch's house. The lollipop men and women herd the poor things together, order them to stand still, and stand over them until...

File:Wightbus 5804 HW54 DCO and Cowes Baring Road Solent Middle School lollipop man 2.JPG
photo by Arriva436's safe to cross the road.

Word To Use Today: lollipop man. The word lollipop is rather puzzling. To loll means to dangle, especially to dangle the tongue, and pop means (in Britain, where the term lollipop seems to have originated) to go somewhere close by for some trivial reason, or to put something down lightly. What shall I do with the eggs? Just pop them on the table.

Then there are some who argue that the word is Romany. The Roma have long sold apples stuck on sticks, and loli phaba means red apple in Romany.

What we do know is that the word lollipop seems to have originated in the late 1700s, when it described a sort of sweetmeat consisting of sugar and treacle with a bit of flour and butter mixed in. This would have been soft, and not the sort of thing you would stick on a stick. Lollipops weren't stuck on sticks until the 1920s.