This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Saturday Rave: A Leave-Taking by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I've been on the Isle of Wight, speaking at the Literary Festival, so I thought I'd celebrate one of the Isle of Wight's literary inhabitants.
Actually, there wasn't a lot of choice. Some people visited and some people stayed, but the nearest I could find to someone who can be said to have belonged to the Isle of Wight is the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, though being born and dying in London and thinking of himself as a Northumbrian, was bought up and is buried in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.
The Leave-Taking is a poem about moving on after a love affair that never seems actually to have, well, got as far as happening.
It's full of sorrow, bitterness, regret, anger, beauty, despair and courage.
And the sea.
...Let us give up, go down; she will not care.
Though all the stars made gold of all the air,
And the sea moving saw before it move
One moon-flower making all the foam-flowers fair;
Though all these waves went over us, and drove
Deep down the stifling lips and drowning hair,
She would not care...
 If you're young and spurned, or remember being young and spurned, it's gloriously, terrifically, satisfying stuff.

Word To Use Today: foam. This word, like unrequited love, goes all the way back to the Sanskrit phena, and probably further.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Word To Use Today: knap.

Knapsacks are usually called backpacks, nowadays, but as a child I spent a long time wondering what a knap was.

knapsack backpack

I know, now. A knap can be the crest of a hill (though this dialect word is never used here in Hertfordshire) or knap can mean to hit, hammer or chip something.

The hammering knap is used a lot in Hertfordshire because the ground is full of flints. Indeed, in parts of our garden you don't even try to push your fork into the ground, you wiggle it in (if you can) between all the knobbly bits of stone.

Their abundance means that flints are used a lot for building, even though they naturally come in amoeba-like shapes that have to be knapped - that is, have the bulgy bits knocked off - if you don't want the wind whistling in and blowing out the candles.

The other local knap is knapweed, rather a lovely flower that copes very well with poor soil full of stones.

knapweed, flower, flora, plant, blue, bloom

So there we are: three sorts of knap. Unfortunately none of them have anything to do with the knap of knapsack, but, hey, I'm sure all the wondering is good for the synapses of the brain.

Or perhaps it just encourages them to run screaming round in circles before screeching to a halt in utter bewilderment.

That would explain a lot.

Word To Use Today: knap. The knap of knapweed comes from the Dutch cnoppe, bud; the knap meaning hill comes from the Old English chæpp, meaning top; the chipping-off-stone meaning might be something to do with the Dutch knappen, to crack; and the knap of knapsack probably comes from the Low German knappen to bite or snap.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

The female of the species: a rant

I don't often rant about things I read in newspapers. Journalists are often writing under pressure and, well, we're all human, aren't we, and I'm far from being in a position to cast the first stone about grammatical and spelling errors.

On the other hand, sometimes something so truly horrible appears, something nestling so snugly - and probably smugly - within a determined wooliness of the brain, that howls of incredulous anguish burst from my soul.

This is from the online version of the Daily Telegraph of 7/10/14*:

The problem is that both phones seem to be designed without the female specie in mind.

Oh good grief.

Look, species isn't a plural...well, at least, it is a plural, but when it's a singular it looks exactly the same.

Specie is something entirely different from species (it means coin money as opposed to paper money or bullion. The almost-Latin phrase in specie means in coin, in kind, or, as a law term, in the actual form specified, which usually means not in coin).

Apart from that, a species is (pretty much) one of the taxonomic groups into which a genus is divided. Most species don't go in for male and female at all - and some members of some species change sex as they go along - but however a species produces new members, whether using male, female, transgender, bisexual, cloning, budding, or whichever resources, the species consists of all of them.

Female isn't a specie, or a species, but a sex. Got it?

And don't start me on the word gender, whatever you do.

Word To Use Correctly Today: specie/species. In specie and specie both come from the Latin phrase in speciē, which means in kind. Species is the Latin for appearance, and comes from specere, to look.

*English date: ie seventh of October.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: register.

The young man in the cardigan had just told us that, hi, he was Chris, when his telephone rang. Chris picked up the receiver, listened briefly, and then told the person at the other end he was cool.

That was a surprise, because the hospital seemed decidedly stuffy to me.

The second surprise was that Chris turned out not to be one of the cleaners, but was actually a senior doctor, or registrar. Chris was polite, concerned, thorough, and knowledgeable as far as I could tell. A lovely man.

On the way out I mentioned the registrar's surprising linguistic register to my companion, who was Chris's patient.

'But he was speaking like that because he was talking to a young person,' she explained.

She might have been right, but having had plenty of chance that morning to inspect the other patients in his waiting room I'm now left wondering if he greets most of them Good morrow, gentle mistress...

Anyway, register. No one's quite agreed on what register is, but it's certainly noticeable when something unusual occurs in the register line.

Martin Joos splits language into five styles (style in this context is more of less the same thing as register) and according to him Chris was using a casual [amongst friends] style when a consultative [teacher/student, doctor/patient] style would (obviously) have been usual.

Does it matter?

Not to me.

Does it matter to him? Well, he's got the job, so perhaps not.

Will using a casual register put Chris at a disadvantage when he's trying to persuade a patient to have some inconvenient or unpleasant treatment?

Well, now, that is something it would be very interesting indeed to find out.

Word To Use Today: register. In its linguistic context this word was first used in 1956 by the linguist Thomas Bertram Reid. The word register comes from the Latin regerere, to transcribe, from gerere, to bear.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: pop.

You have to be American to understand cricket.

All right, all right, that's an exaggeration. But there's a grain of truth in it, all the same.

Pop is one of those words which causes havoc amongst the English-speaking peoples. If an English person pops a man in his wheelchair they are putting him in lightly and without fuss. If someone from the US pops a man in his wheelchair, there's a good chance the poor man is getting punched. 

But where does the cricket come in?

Well, in cricket a batsman waiting to hit a ball must stand in an area of the pitch delineated by a mark called a popping crease. An English person will probably shrug and accept this as one more peculiar cricketing term to go with with googly, Baggy green, and donkey drop; but an American will understand at once that it marks the place where the batsman hits - pops - the ball.

With this exception, round here in England just about all pops are quick and light. If we pop round to see someone we are making a quick uninvited visit; if we have a pop at something we are having a go at it in a non-committed sort of a way; if we talk of popping the question then we are pretending that asking for someone's hand in marriage is a cause of no anxiety at all; someone who pops his clogs is dying without causing the least amount of sorrow; someone who pops his shirt is pawning it; someone who drinks pop is imbibing some fizzy non-alcoholic substance like ginger beer.

Harmless stuff, ginger beer - though not to be recommended if you're got to go out and bat after your lunch (yes, cricket is the game where everything stops for lunch. And afternoon tea).

All that gas might be enough to make you pop.

Thing To Do Today Or Possibly Not: pop. This word is an imitation of the sound something makes when it pops. My Collins dictionary dismisses pop in the hitting sense as obsolete or dialect.

But it's not, is it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Spot the Frippet: scuttlebutt.

Here's a word to add a dash of delight to a Monday morning.


What's a scuttlebutt?

A scuttlebutt is a drinking fountain, although of course nowadays, with our finicky modern distaste for contracting lethal diseases, we tend to have water-coolers instead. Still, I don't see why a water cooler shouldn't be termed a scuttlebutt - in fact, if you think about it, a water cooler is a butt (well, it is in England, where a butt is primarily a barrel for storing rainwater).

If further argument is needed, a scuttlebutt started out in life as a cask of drinking water.

Most elegantly, the water cooler analogy goes even further. Scuttlebutt is (mainly US) slang for rumour or gossip. So water cooler gossip can, and this is glorious, be termed scuttlebutt scuttlebutt.

And, I mean, what more could anyone possibly ask for than that?

Spot the Frippet: scuttlebutt. This word comes from the Old English scutel, trencher, from the Latin scutella, bowl, and is related to the lovely Old High German word scuzzila.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sunday Rest: lobule. Word Not To Use Today.

Last week's Word Not To Use Today, lobe, was bad enough. But this is even worse.


The only good thing about a lobule is that it's generally smaller than a lobe.

The dreadful thing is that you have them inside you. In your brain:

Sobo 1909 624 - Paracentral lobule.png

(that one, the paracentral lobule, controls the movement and feelings in the lower limbs, and also peeing and pooing); in your liver, your kidneys...

...basically, eeerrrgghhh...

Word Not To Use Today: lobule. This comes from the Greek lobos, which means lobe. And, oh, I do wish it hadn't.

PS Apparently there's also something to do with machines called a lobular drive, but sheer horror prevents me from investigating it.