This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 25 September 2020

Skirmish: Word To Use Today.


Cavalry skirmish by Pieter Snayers

Battles involve pride and utmost force, which are neither of them safe things to trust to human hands. 

A skirmish, on the other hand, is a test of strength which results in a decision not to bother with a battle. This may be because it's obvious who's going to win (which saves loss of face - possibly physical as well as metaphorical - on the potentially losing side) or it may because it's decided that the argument isn't worth so much effort.

Sometimes a skirmish fails to develop into a battle because one of the contestants recognises the opponent's right to hold a different opinion. But this is very rare.

Especially, it seems, nowadays.

Oh dear.

Still, it's a delicious word to say: skirmish, skirmish, skirmish...

Word To Use Today: skirmish. This word doesn't look it, but it comes from Old French, from eskirmir. Before that it was Germanic and is related to the Old High German word skirmen, which means to defend.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Purely decorative: a rant.

 Walking (in my mask) along the High Street of my local town I saw a sign in a shop bearing a picture of a plastic camel.

Above the picture it said:

Ornamental Decorations

Well, they're the best kind.

Word To Use Today: ornamental. This word arrived in English in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin ornāmentum, from ornāre, to adorn.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigma.

 A paradeigma is a short story told to provide an example of good behaviour.

There are lots of examples in classical literature (obviously, which is why the Greeks had to come up with a name for it). In the Bible, parables are examples of paradeigmata

But they're still used by people to this day.

You don't hear the Queen moaning about having to wear heels.

You never saw Jason Statham in a toupee, did you?

Jack the Giant Killer didn't let the fact that he was an idiot stop him exploring.

In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if paradeigmata aren't the essential foundation of all discourse.

So if anyone's looking for a subject for their PhD...

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigmata. This word means pattern or example in Greek. It comes from paradeiknumi, to exhibit or represent, from para, beside or beyond, and deiknumi, to show.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Thing To Do Today: marinate something.

 The idea of a marinade is that you slop something vaguely runny all over something more solid, and then you leave it for a while so that the something solid soaks up the runny stuff.

A marinade was originally used for food, especially meat and fish, but nowadays it's not unknown for people to marinate themselves in sunscreen or moisturiser.

(I really don't think this lady is a cannibal.)

(It's got to be something that soaks in, or is supposed to soak in - you can't marinate yourself in water, or mud.)

Small children have a natural urge to try to marinate themselves in anything they can get their hands on, but this will only be tolerated happily by the most insanely besotted of parents.

I've just said that you can't marinate yourself in water. This is odd, because the word marinate looks very much as if it has some connection with the sea.

And it has, too.

Thing To Do Today: marinade something. This word came to English in the 1600s from France, and before that from the Spanish marinado, to pickle in brine. Before that it goes back to the Latin marīnus, from mare, which means sea.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: marzipan.

 There are two types of marzipan that I know about.

There's the paste made of ground almonds, sugar and egg yolk (250g ground almonds, 125g of caster sugar, 125g icing sugar, one egg yolk. You just mix it all together):

You can make marzipan into sweets:

File:Marzipan (8311107161).jpg

photo by Aurelien Guichard

You can use it to make the balls on a simnel cake:

Decorated Simnel cake (14173161143).jpg

by James Petts from London.

And you can use it to separate the smooth royal icing from the crumbly bits of cake:

File:Slice of Christmas cake (16119184262).jpg

This is by James Petts, too.

Then there's the other kind of marzipan layer, which describes the middle-managers in a financial (or any other) institution. You know, the ones that stick things together okay, but who no one especially appreciates and that most people suspect are largely unnecessary, and who definitely don't add much pleasure to the process or polish to the final product. 

Well, you can at least see why it's called a marzipan layer, can't you.

Try not to get too annoyed spotting one near you.

Spot the Frippet: marzipan. This word came to English from German from the Italian marzapane. Before we had marzipan we had marchpane. It's the same stuff, but that word came from France. The word marzipan might be something to do with St Marcus.

There are a couple stories about the invention of marzipan, one is that it was first made in a bad harvest year in Italy when almonds were the only grain available, and there's also a lovely Estonian story about a pharmacist's apprentice called Mart. A city councillor got sick, and the pharmacist promised him a cure. But the pharmacist himself was ill and he was sneezing so much he kept blowing all his powders away, and so the task of making a cure fell to the apprentice Mart, who, knowing that he was going to have to taste the stuff himself to prove it wasn't poisonous, made sure it was delicious.

The mixture was therefore called Mart's bread (Mardileib in Estonian).

And they all lived happily ever after.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Sunday Rest: nife. Word Not To Use Today.

 One obvious reason why the word nife is unusable is that everyone will think you can't spell knife - and then they'll realise your sentence doesn't make sense and assume you've gone mad, as well.

But there are yet other reasons to eschew the word nife. For one, do you say it to rhyme with life, or mighty?

Even the dictionary isn't sure.

Then there's the fact that nife is a scientific term but doesn't look like a scientific term - and that it's made up of one Latin and one German word, and yet it looks like a simple English one.

If we're having to cope with complicated words like that, well, I think we should be getting the credit for it.

Sunday Rest: nife. Nife is the Earth's metallic core. It's named on the assumption that this core is made up of Nickel and Iron, which have  the chemical symbols Ni and Fe respectively.

Nickel is a sprite in German mythology, whose mischief is thought to be the reason no one could smelt copper from nickel ore. The Latin for iron was ferrum.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Saturday Rave: Long Time A Child, by Hartley Coleridge.

 Literature is littered with excellent writers who were brought up in houses that contained few books. But still they wrote.

Hartley Coleridge was the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was given access to some very fine libraries from the earliest age, he was taken to the very best cultural events, and kept company with the great poets of his time. He went to Oxford University.

But his alcoholism soon lost him the university job he was given after graduating, and after that he frittered away his life and his talents. Mind you, they were his life and his talents, so he was perfectly at liberty to do so. He never had any family to support.

How did he feel, himself, about all the opportunities he didn't take? 

Well, he wrote a sonnet to explain just that.


Long time a child, and still a child, when years

Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I, - 

For yet I lived like one not born to die;

A thriftless prodigal of smiles and tears,

No hope I needed, and I knew no fears.

But sleep, though sweet, is only sleep, and waking

I waked to sleep no more, at once o'ertaking

The vanguard of my age, with all arrears

Of duty on my back. Nor child, nor man,

Nor youth, nor sage, I find my head is grey

For I have lost the race I never ran:

A rathe December blights my lagging May;

And I am still a child, though I be old,

Time is my debtor for my years untold.


For I have lost the race I never ran...

...poor Hartley Coleridge died at the age of fifty two, supported at the last by an inheritance from his dead parents.

Word To Use Today: rathe. This means ripening early, or blooming early. The word in Old English was hrathe.