This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Sunday Rest: leprose. Word Not To Use Today.

Leprose sounds as if it should describe something to do with leprosy, but it doesn't.

The word meaning to do with leprosy is leprous: leprose means to do with lichen.

But not any old lichen.

This lichen is leprose:

And so is this one, (it's a sort called Chrysothrix candelaris).

Gold Dust Lichen (3816260916).jpg

Now, although various dictionary definitions tell me that leprose means having a whitish, scurfy surface, the only instances of the use of the word I can find via Google describe, not the scurfy-surfaced lichens, but the powdery ones. And the images of leprose lichens I have found have all been yellow.

So, who is right about the meaning of the word leprose? Does it mean powdery, as the biologists seem to think, or does it mean white and scurfy?

The biologists may have taken a wrong turning somewhere along the line; but the dictionaries can't be completely right, can they?

Ah well, the confusion must be another reason not to use this word.

So that's good.

Sunday Rest: leprose. This word comes from Latin lepra, which means leper.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Saturday Rave: Blackadder by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson

There are rumours of a new series of Blackadder: hurray hurray!

(The third hurray will come if they start filming.)

I love Blackadder. It may be said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but if that's so then Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, manages to transform low wit into high art.

Blackadder Goes Forth

We've already had a hundred brilliant lines from the egregious Edmund Blackadder, but here's just one favourite to remind us how much fun he is. Here, Blackadder is addressing his dim, grubby and insanely faithful servant, Baldrick:

'Baldrick, does it have to be this way? Our valued friendship ending with me cutting you up into strips and telling the prince that you walked over a very sharp cattle grid in an extremely heavy hat?'

It would be greedy to want more: but I do, anyway. There can never be enough wit, and I, for one, are ready to embrace it - even when it's of the lowest possible kind.

Word To Use Today: adder. This word is a victim of false splitting: a nadder has become an adder. The Old English for snake was nǣdre.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Word To Use Today: porcupine.

Vintage horror film couple: Plan 9 From Outer Space/US

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

...but, this being basically a lighthearted sort of a place, I won't. (It's good stuff, though, isn't it. Shakespeare. A particularly articulate ghost, from what I can remember - much more gripping than all the usual chain rattling and moaning. Though even Shakespeare wouldn't get much of a porpentine-act out of that guy in the picture, above.)

Anyway, that porpentine is, obviously, what we would nowadays call a porcupine:


 but the real question is, why was it fretful?

Is it that the porcupine is being hunted so enthusiastically in Vietnam that its numbers are falling precipitously?

Is it that the porcupine's record for being the longest-living rodent has recently been overtaken by the naked mole-rat?

Is it that there's reckoned no finer dining in Kenya than a juicy porcupine steak?

Is it because a Native American "porky roach" headdress:

 is reckoned undressed without a crest of porcupine spines?

Is it because porcupine spines have backward-facing barbs that leave the poor porcupine with the choice of living with an enemy stuck to its backside or going rather bald?

Is it because the Old World and New World porcupines share a name even though they are really quite distant relatives, and Old World porcupines stay really, like, boringly on the ground while the New World ones plainly think they're flipping squirrels and spend their time clambering about in trees?

Or it might be because of their bad judgement: 

A man was in a cinema, and half way through the very bad film he looked across and suddenly noticed his neighbour. 'Hey, you're a porcupine,' he said. 'What are you doing in the cinema?'

'Well,' said the porcupine, 'I liked the book.'


Word To Use Today: porcupine. This word comes from the Latin porcus, pig, plus spina quill.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Personal Goals: a rant.

File:FA Cup.jpg

There's a sign above the ready-meals section of my local supermarket. It says:

Healthy meals, drinks and snacks to help you achieve your personal goals

Yeah, right. A mushy rectangle of mince will really be a significant help in winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine, an Olympic hundred metres gold medal, or the Turner Prize, won't it.

I mean, what else could you need but a dollop of watery mashed potato to fulfill an ambition to become a nuclear physicist, a brain surgeon, or a professor of classics?

To help you climb a mountain, write a novel, play some Chopin?

Decorate the living room, knit a mitten, grow some tomatoes?

Healthy meals, drinks and snacks to help you achieve your personal goals

Your personal goals...they're assuming our personal goals centre round being a bit thinner or fatter, aren't they?

And, quite honestly, I wish the people who came up with that sign would go off somewhere a long way away and patronise someone else.

Word To Use Today: achieve. This word comes from the Old French achever, to bring to an end, from a chef, to a head or conclusion.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Nuts and Bolts: tell it to the birds.

Birds sing. Well, some birds sing. Some croak (crows), burble (turtle doves) belch (capercaillie) squeak (many birds, including starlings), and some sound as if they're being painfully murdered (water rail).

But when the singing birds sing, are they really singing, or just making a noise that sounds like singing?

Well, a bird that's producing a long-lasting series of sounds is most probably showing off to attract a mate - so that's very like human song. 

Bird song is also to do with maintaining territory - as are the chants men sing at sports events. 

What about other noises birds make?

A bird's contact note is used when in a flock, especially in places where vision isn't easy, such as in woodland or while flying in the dark. 

Humans tend not to go into woodland in large numbers (and neither do they fly around much in the dark). But if they do, you may have observed that they're generally unusually noisy.

A bird's call note is a simple sound to indicate what and where they are, and what they're doing. Nowadays humans have developed a tendency to outsource these functions to electronic devices, but they still sometimes use Hey! or Hi! or even the more musical Yoo-hoo! from time to time to announce themselves.  

Finally, birds will have an alarm note - a hasty squawk of some kind.

And an alarmed human, as you will have observed, makes pretty much exactly the same noise.

Word To Do Today: sing. This word is ancient. The Old English form was singan, and so was the Old High German.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Thing To Do Today, Possibly, If It Helps: socialise.

The experts keep telling us that socialising is one of the two most important things we can do to ward off dementia.

So how come, if that's true, that when I'm in social situations I so often hear my brain cells sobbing with boredom as they commit suicide by throwing themselves off some towering mental cliff.

Just tell me that, okay?

Now I'm going to go for a nice long interesting walk.

It's supposed to ward off dementia, you know.

File:Windsor Castle-Long Walk.jpg
Photo by Gambitek at Polish Wikipedia

Thing To Do Today, Possibly, If It Helps: socialise. This word comes from the Latin sociābilis, from sociāre to unite, from socius, an associate. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Spot the frippet: strontium.

Strontium? But that's radioactive, isn't it? Surely there isn't any of that stuff laying around?

Well, I don't want to worry you but there's some strontium very close by: in your bones, in fact (though I hope very much you're not going to have a chance to spot your bones except perhaps in an x-ray). As it happens the strontium in bones is very interesting because an analysis of it can give you an indication of where someone's lived.

So where can you spot strontium?

There's a lot of (non-radioactive) strontium in toothpaste for sensitive teeth, and also in the glass screens of old-fashioned cathode-ray TVs and monitors.

Acantharia, tiny protozoa that are found throughout the oceans of the world, make their skeletons of strontium sulphate. Acantharia are astonishingly beautiful, like living snowflakes,* though sadly they're almost too small (0.1 - 0.2 mm) to spot:

Haeckel Acanthometra.jpg

Strontium oxide is used to make glazes for pottery; strontium ranelate is used to treat osteoporosis; and strontium barium niobate is sometimes used to make holograms.

And those bright red fireworks? They're strontium, too.

The radioactive stuff, strontium 90, forms a part of nuclear waste. It's sometimes used in radiotherapy, and research is being done into using it in space ships and even cars.

Though personally, I have to say, given the choice I think I'd rather walk.

Spot the frippet: strontium. This element was named after the village of Strontian in Scotland, where it was discovered in 1790 by Adair Crawford and William Cruikshank.

*For all the pedants out there, yes, they do have the wrong number of points for snowflakes. Sorry.