This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 24 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: kaleidoscope.

It's Autumn here in England, and the leaves are beginning to change colour. Soon, the gales will tear them from their branches and turn the whole world into a whirling kaleidoscope.

The original kaleidoscope was the toy, a rotatable tube containing mirrors that turned fragments of glass or beads into an infinity of patterns. It was invented and named in 1817 by the Canadian Sir Eoin Cusson. He designed his kaleidoscope as a scientific instrument, but the two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes that were sold in three months in just London and Paris made it clear that it wasn't just scientists who were fascinated by the kaleidoscope's possibilities.

The word kaleidoscope soon extended its meaning, so that now any frequently changing and complex pattern is called a kaleidoscope. It might be a crowd, perhaps: 

File:Shatin crowd 1.jpg
photo by KTo288

or a roundabout: 

File:Carousel longshot Philly.JPG
The Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, photo by Smallbones

or even a roundabout:

The Plough 'Magic' Roundabout, Hemel Hempstead

Nowadays the word has been stretched even further, so that any rapidly moving and complicated set of circumstances is a kaleidoscope. It often describes a group of people jostling for position, such as a government, army, war, office, or coffee group.

Personally, I think I'm going to go for a walk in the woods.

Spot the Frippet: kaleidoscope. This word comes from three Greek words: kalos, beautiful, eidos, form, and skopein, to examine.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Sunday Rest: orthogonal. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, ortho is boring: it means straight, right, or upright. And gonal presumably means having a certain number of sides or angles (as in octagon or hexagon).

So, as well as sounding like the death-groan of something ancient and hopefully extinct, the word orthogonal is clearly going to be far too tedious to bother with.

Or is it? Perhaps it really describes something marvellous, like the path made by an enchanter's wand, or a type of gold-encrusted biscuit eaten by enclosed nuns at Septuagesima, or the soft first fur of a young wombat.

And does it?


Sorry, orthogonal is just what it sounds like, only, if anything, worse. It means to do with right angles or uprights. Unless, that is, you're doing maths, when it describes a pair of vectors that have a defined scalar product equal to zero, or a pair of functions that have a defined product equal to zero.

I don't know about you, but neither of those definitions is going anywhere as far as I'm concerned.

While I'm here, an orthogonal projection isn't something to hang towels on, but a way architects can draw buildings. If they so wish.

But, I mean, who would?

File:Orthogonal projection envelopes 24-cell.png
Image produced by Robert Webb's Stella software :

Word Not To Use Today: orthogonal. The Greek orthos means straight, right, or upright. The Greek gōnia means angle.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Saturday Rave: The Ussher Chronology.

It's time to cast a kind eye over the critics who help us understand difficult works of art. Well, one critic, anyway.

According to James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh (1581-1656):

James Ussher by Sir Peter Lely.jpg

the world was created at approximately six o'clock in the evening on October 22nd, 4004 BC.

Ussher worked this out from the bible, of course - well, not from the old Greek version called the Septuagint (people tend to live a lot longer in that one) but from the Hebrew bible.

It's quite an easy calculation to make as far as the oldest part of the story goes because the Bible tells us who everyone's dad is, and how long people everyone lived (though the date of the birth of Abraham is still hotly disputed). After that there are gaps in the record, so Ussher had to work the chronology out using externally verifiable dates (importantly, the date of the death of King Nebuchadnezzar).

Once Ussher had done all the reading and thinking and sums the answer came out as about 4000 BC. Unfortunately that doesn't quite work because that means that then Jesus Christ wouldn't have been born until after Herod died, so in the end the date 4004BC for the creation of the world was the best Ussher could do (he decided to believe Matthew and not Luke about the date of Jesus' birth (it's jolly tricky to believe both of them)).

Ussher deduced the time of year for the creation from the fact that the Autumn Equinox is the date of the Jewish New Year, and the creation must have been begun on a Sunday because the seventh day, the day of rest, must have been the Sabbath. The time of day was indicated by a reference to the evening and the fact that in many ancient (and modern) calendars, the day starts at dusk.

But what sort of a man devotes so much time and ingenuity to a piece of literary criticism? 

Well, a man who lived in dangerous and confusing times, that's who. Ussher was a puritan, a monarchist, and an Irishman with an instinct for conciliation who was living through a very bloody Civil War. (He was also a historian with a natural reluctance to dismiss stories for want of hard proof, as he showed in his history of Christianity in Britain, Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, where he devoted a whole chapter to the entirely fictional adventures of the entirely fictional King Lucius.)

I can see why poor Bishop Ussher might have been glad to retreat to his study to work out the date of the creation of the world.

And I'm not entirely sure why, but it's also rather a source of comfort, in some strange way I don't really understand, that he did.

Word To Use Today: creation. This word come from the Latin word creāre, to produce or make.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Word To Use Today: clint, clinting, Clintonite.

I wrote about the word trump some time ago, so it seems only fair to feature the word Clinton, too.

The only trouble is that the source of the name Clinton seems to be either the river Glyme in Oxfordshire, England:

River Glyme, photo by Motacilla 

or the Middle Low German word glinde, which means an enclosure or fence. Neither has, as far as I can see, left any trace on conversational English (the ton bit comes from tun, the Old English word for settlement).

However, I can give you Clintonite:


which is a brittle mica with the chemical formula Ca(Mg,Al)3(Al3Si)O10(OH)2.  If Clintonite is any use for anything then I'm afraid I don't know what it is, but it's found in Orange County and is definitely not radioactive.

If Clintonite takes us nowhere very much, then there's always the word clint, which can be either a hard sticking-upwards rock, or a rough stone used in the sport of curling. Sometimes clint has been used as a verb in the place of the commoner words clinch, clink or clench, too.

Clinting is the making of a subdued sound. Thackeray describes horses' hooves in his poem Peg of Limavaddy as making a dismal clinting

I'm afraid I have to admit that none of this is tremendously inspiring... 

...but then...

Word To Use Today: one with clint in it. Clintonite was named in 1828 (or 1843, depending on whom you believe) after the American statesman De Witt Clinton (1769 - 1828). Clint comes from the Danish and Swedish klint, rock.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Two countries united by a common laughter: a rant.

People complain about Americanisms creeping into British English, because...oh, for the usual reasons. 

There is one good reason for regret, however, that no one seems to consider.

A friend phoned the other day from Gulfport, Florida. Although he's lived in America for several decades his accent has never moved further west than Yorkshire, and I think this is the reason I expect to understand him. This being the case, when he told us they were having an addition at home then naturally I understood that his living-at-home unmarried daughter was expecting a baby. 

I wasn't immediately sure exactly how much to celebrate.

As it transpired, however, congratulations and commiserations were both unnecessary. 

Apparently the addition was just an extra bathroom.

A universal language would deprive us of a lot of joy, you know.

Word To Use Today Just For Fun: addition. Or extension (though heaven knows what an extension is in the USA). Addition comes from the Latin addere to add, from ad, to, plus dere to put; extension is also Latin and comes from extendere to stretch out.

PS The said daughter may not have a baby on the way, but she does now have a job with benefits. Apparently in Florida this doesn't imply a job so lowly paid that the state is obliged to give her a top-up.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Evolution or Revolution?

'The moment an Englishman opens his mouth,' says Professor Higgins in GB Shaw's Pygmalion, 'another Englishman despises him.'

But despises him for what? 

Well, for having been born on the wrong side of town, or for having gone to the wrong school, most probably (though wrong in this context might mean absolutely anything).

Still, Shaw was writing a long time ago, and things are different, now. Nowadays, every time an Englishman opens his mouth another Englishman despises him for something quite different. 

And what's that? Well, for being the wrong age, most probably.

The thing is that English pronunciation is changing fast. Estuary English, which just a couple of decades ago was predicted to take over the whole country, is now spoken only by rather old people.* Young fashionable people now speak MLE, or Multicultural London English, which is heavily influenced by Black and Asian speech - and where London leads the country follows.** 

Dr Dominic Watt of the University of York has been studying these accent changes. He expects words to carry on becoming simpler and shorter and easier for non-native speakers to say. He thinks thick will become fick and this will become dis, and cute will become coot

Will it really happen? Perhaps. But I note something else reported by Dr Watt, which is that the dropped h (as in 'ouse of 'orror) of Estuary English is becoming rarer.

I also note that there are a lot of very small people running about the streets of London, and I'm pretty sure the last thing they'll want to do when they start growing up is to speak like their currently oh-so-hip parents.

And how will the now-small people speak? 

Well, I have no idea; but if tweed can make a comeback then I refuse to despair even of the subjunctive.

Word To Use Today If You Are Grown Up: one that isn't slang will probably be safest.

*The really old folk speak cockney - well, apart from the Queen and high-budget film villains they do, anyway.

** Or so Londoners tell us.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something.

Want to get a pay rise, an extra helping of pudding, or a discharge from the army?

Well, you're not likely to be able to get one through official channels, are you, and of course you don't want to be dishonest. I mean, you wouldn't dream of doing anything criminal or selfish, would you, and you're definitely not a cheat. 

As for doing someone down, well, it's just not in your nature.

And so you wangle it.

Wangle...such a silly, undignified sort of a word. There couldn't possibly be any harm in it. No, wangling something is just a bit of mischief, a chance to display your charm, cleverness, man-of-the-world knowledge of human nature, and powers of persuasion.

Isn't it.

Well, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something. This word was originally 1800s printers' slang, and even now wangle sometimes implies some entirely innocent piece of cleverness. One might wangle it so you can make a dress from a slightly smaller than recommended piece of fabric, for instance. The origin of the word isn't clear, but it may be a blend of waggle and wankle, a word which has mysteriously gone out of fashion but which means wavering. It comes from the Old English wancol.