This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Moist: another rant

If you want to see some beautiful science, have a look at this article from PLOS ONE.

It's about the word moist, and particularly why the American public dislikes the word so much. 

Well, when I say the American public, an aversion to the word moist is apparently commonest among young, educated, neurotic and female members of the public.

(I should say here that I don't mind the word moist at all (and have already written about it HERE) but then I'm not American or young.)

Five scientific experiments were conducted by Paul Thibodeau from Oberlin College, and were designed to find out why people dislike the word moist so much. Is it the sound? Is it because it's the fashion? Is it because you have to screw up your face in a disgusted kind of a way to say it? Is it because the word might make you think about disgusting things? The results were many and interesting, and can be found by following the Plos One link above, but here are some of the answers.

Prof Thibodeau found that quite often people didn't actually know why they hated the word. People who thought they hated the sound, for instance, proved not to mind words like rejoiced or hoist.

The people who claimed to hate the word moist most violently also loathed words like phlegm and vomit, suggesting that perhaps all these words are avoided for reasons of hygiene. (It's difficult to say whether this disgust is instinctive or learned, until you remember that most people, even young, educated, female, neurotic Americans, don't have any great aversion to the word moist at all. So it's probably learned, then, isn't it?)

But whatever the reasons, think on this: an aversion to the word moist doesn't seem to be doing the sellers of moisturiser any harm, does it?

Word To Use Today Unless It Bugs You: moist. This word is related to the Latin mūcidus, which means musty, and mūcus, which, I'm afraid, means mucus. But then who doesn't have some dodgy relatives? 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: figuring the bass.

This being St Cecelia's Day, the patron saint of music, I thought it would be appropriate to have a look at something fundamentally musical. 

And there's nothing more fundamentally musical than bass notes.

The bass notes form the base of the music - and, yes, base and bass are basically the same word (see what I did, there?).

These low notes can be sung - by a bass, naturally - or played on a bassoon or a double bass or some other large instrument, like a contrabass tuba.

If you play the sort of instrument which can produce more than one note at a time, then you'll usually play the bass notes with your left hand (or your right thumb if it's a guitar-type instrument. In this sort of instrument the lowest notes are at the top of the instrument - a fact which makes more sense if you remember that the player views his or her strings upside down).

Anyway, how does a player know which bass notes to play?

Well, they can be written down in the same way as the higher notes, of course, but sometimes they're written as what's called a figured bass. This is when some of the bass notes are written down in, er, figures. Figures, that is, as in the numbers 2 or 3 or 4 etc.

The basic idea is that the figures tell you the size of the gap between the bottom note and the next one up (sometimes they tell you other notes, too, but let's not complicate things).

So, the music will have the lowest note written down as a musical note just like any other, and, underneath it, it will say 3, for example. 

Now, as must be clear to everyone, that means that as well as the bass note you also play the note two up from it...


...yes, well...

...I sometimes think that poor St Cecelia must get terribly busy, at times...

Word To Use Today: bass or base. These words comes from the Latin basis, which means pedestal (yes, the sort of thing you put a basin on, though sadly a basin is nothing to do with base).

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thing Not To Be In Today: in a state of latah.

Language is playfully bonkers, deadly accurate, euphonious, and a cacophony...

...but the reason it truly fascinates me is the way it shows us the world.

Latah is a psychological state you'll probably only have observed if you've been to Malaysia and spent time teasing women too old to have children.

It's when, after a shock (even something like being poked suddenly, or shouted at), a person (usually a no-longer-youthful, not-very-educated woman) begins to scream, swear, jiggle about, laugh uncontrollably, sweat, mimic the people around them, and do whatever people tell them to do, however embarrassing that might be afterwards (though they probably won't remember what's happened).

Why this happens is a mystery. Some other cultures exhibit something rather similar, but the state of latah is a purely Malay phenomenon. 

But...I don't know...I've never thought about it before, but the link between a shock and someone being suggestible is a real one everywhere. 

And without that Malay word (which English has borrowed, though it's rarely encountered) I probably wouldn't have realised it.

It's certainly something to bear in mind if you have a shock.

Thing Not To Be In Today: a state of latah. This word is Malay.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: latex.

The real reason The Word Den featuring latex is really to share the thrilling news that the plural of latex is latices.* 

The sad thing is that The Word Den can't imagine any circumstance in which anyone would need to use a plural of latex.

Ah well.

Latex is the milky-looking fluid that oozes out of about 20,000 different types of plants, including the rubber tree, whose latex is used to make, yes, rubber:

photo by Jan-Pieter Nap

Latex usually appears when a plant is wounded, when it acts as an insect repellent. In fact, the latex of the Sandhill Milkweed is more than a repellent because it kills nearly a third of the baby Monarch butterfly caterpillars that try to feed on it.

Where to find latex? Well, apart from in the garden it's used to make balloons, gloves, mattresses and chewing gum; latex from poppies is the basis for morphine and codeine; it's used in paints (when you scratch a scratch card, you're scratching away latex), and it's found sometimes in cement, and often in glue.

All that, and it has a ridiculous plural, as well.

What sort of brilliant stuff is that?

Spot the Frippet: latex. This word comes from Latin, where it means liquid or fluid.

*Though you can say latexes, instead, if you're boring.)

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Sunday Rest: latifundium. Word Not To Use Today.

A latifundium is a large agricultural estate:

File:North Central Pennsylvania Farm.jpg
This one is in North Central Pennsylvania. Photo by fishhawk

Yes, that's quite a nice thing to know, but, however much you may wish to share this knowledge, I must warn you that the uttering of this word will make you look like a total poser.

And the reason it will make you look like an total poser, I may add, is because it will be true.

Word Not To Use Today: latifundium. Originally this was a Roman estate worked by slaves. The word comes from the Latin lātus, broad, and fundus, farm or estate.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saturday Rave: A plum of Plum.

The world is awash with creative writing classes. I've attended several, usually as tutor, but once quite recently as a pupil. 

Well, I wanted to find out what I was supposed to have been doing all this time.

Creative writing classes can be both interesting and fun, but they don't provide what people need to become writers - what people really need - which is a stubborn ability to carry on, probably through years of neglect, and to keep on carrying on no matter how little notice people take.

And then, in the end, if you can manage to die, minimally published, starving, and broke, in a garret, you might even be awarded the status of genius. 

So anyway, creative writing classes. The very best of them you can get for free from your local library in the form of other people's, yes, creative writing. Sadly this does mean you'll have to work out the lessons the books teach you all by yourself, but, look, the creative thing does imply a bit of doing-it-yourself, doesn't it?

So have a look at this. It's from PG Wodehouse's Mulliner Nights

Then see if you can work out how he did it.

Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.

Yes, it's pure and absolute genius.

And PG Wodehouse, let me tell you, didn't even die in a garret.

Word To Use Today: Egbert. This name comes from the Old English ecg, which means sword, and beorht, which means bright.

Nowadays the impression given by the name is sadly less heroic.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Word To Use Today: garnet.

The garnets you see in jewellery are usually red:

File:WLA hmns Garnet and Diamond necklace.jpg
(necklace designed and created by Ernesto Moreira and to be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science)

 though they can be yellow or green:

photo by Arpingstone 

Garnets are classed as semi-precious (which doesn't imply they're less beautiful than precious jewels, it just means there's enough of them about to be useful. Garnet paper, for instance, has powdered garnet stuck onto it and is used as sandpaper, and garnets are also used to cut steel and to filter water).

There is another sort of garnet, which is a device for lifting cargo off ships, but that's a quite different word.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this word, though, is its derivation.

Word To Use Today: garnet. The loading-cargo word probably comes from the Dutch garnaat. The jewel word comes from the Old French grenat, red, from pome grenat, which means pomegranate, which comes from the Latin pōmum, apple, and grānātus, full of seeds.