This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: ignotum per ignotius II

Last week, under the heading ignotum per ignotius, I was having a minor stress about the way some dictionary definitions leave no one any the wiser.

Too late for that post I remembered dear Dr Johnson, who is, if not quite the ancestor of all writers of dictionary definitions, then surely an adored great uncle.

Statue of Johnson

Dr Johnson was the first person to write a comprehensive dictionary of the English language as it was used. Perhaps because he was writing something new, he remained keenly aware of his audience (which isn't the rule with the masterworks of very clever men). 

And always bubbling away was a fine relish for sending himself up:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

He also found himself much amused by the idea that he, as the writer of a dictionary, should be the fount of all knowledge: 
Pastern: The knee of a horse.

(The pastern is actually part of a horse's foot. When a lady asked Johnson why he'd defined it as the knee, he replied, with breathtaking candour:  'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.')

Not only was Dr Johnson fully aware of his own ignorance, but he was keenly aware of ignotum per ignotius, too. Here's his mischievous definition of network:

Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

And just in case a reader wasn't familiar with the word reticulated:

Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.

Interstitial vacuities...who could fail to love a man who step aside from his serious work to come up with something like that?

Word To Use Today: reticulated. It comes from the Late Latin rēticulātus, made like a net.
The definitions quoted are from the first edition (1755) of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Thing Almost Certainly Not To Do Today: be fearful.

Here's a strange word.

It not only means two opposite things (making it a contranym), but manages to mean something horrible in both of them.

Fearful means full of fear: fearful means frightening.

Fearful also has a meaning which falls in between its two opposite meanings. If you have a fearful cold then it's not a scary cold, nor an intimidating cold. It's just a severe and annoying cold.

To make things even more complicated we have the word fearfully, which, yes, can mean in a frightened way, but can also just mean extra. If you say I'm fearfully sorry it's nothing to do with being either afraid or annoyed.

(Mind you, this use of fearfully is fearfully out-of-date, so it's probably best avoided unless you are old enough to have used a wind-up gramophone and have fought in at least one World War.)

Anyway, fearful. Don't be it. Be brave. Be kind. Own up to your misdeeds. Stand up to the bullies.

It's not easy, but it's the price of a civilised world.

Thing Almost Certainly Not To Do Today: be fearful. This word is of course to do with fear, which comes from the Old English fǣr and is related to the Latin perīculum, danger.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Spot the frippet: something murine.

No one could pretend that murine is a nice word. How you think about murine creatures - well, opinions vary.

They have a habit of sneaking onto property that does not belong to them and doing their best to establish a permanent presence.

They have a habit of bringing with them dangerous items liable to harm, or even cause the death of, the inhabitants of the place.

They never ever accept any responsibility whatsoever for any damage they've caused.

They've been seen on every continent except Antarctica, are serious pests, and have killed off several entire populations.

They have a habit of eating their own young if disturbed.

They tend to be not quite hairy enough, often having naked tails.

Yes, that's right, you've got it. Something murine is a rat or a mouse.

Well, what else might it be?

Norway Rat
This is a Norway rat.

Spot the frippet: something murine. This word comes from the Latin mūrīnus, to do with mice, from mūs, mouse.

PS Adèle Geras has alerted me to the fact that Murine is a sort of eyedrop. Still, I don't suppose it could be made from rats, could it.

No. Of course not...

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sunday Rest: hysterical. Word Not To Use Today Except Wrongly.

Words, like guns, too often come loaded.

If someone is hysterical then they are liable to insane outbursts of emotion. This is, by definition,* impossible in a properly manly man.

Recently, though, hysterical has started to mean something quite different. 

It was hysterical, people say, meaning it made them helpless with laughter.

The dog came out of the clothes basket wearing Dad's pants on its head. It was hysterical.

Even more recently, it's started being used as a way of disguising the dullness of a story.

I was in the supermarket and my shoelace came undone. It was hysterical!

In these cases hysterical can mean more or less anything from mildly inconvenient to rather embarrassing.

The good news is that this new use of hysterical is at last taking the bullets out of it.

We hung round the bins and shared a drink. It was hysterical.

Because at last it means that men can be hysterical

Which, obviously, they often are.

Bless them.

*Word Not To Use Today Except Wrongly: hysterical. This word arrived in English in the 1600s from the Latin hystericus meaning of the womb, from the Greek husterikos, womb. The idea was that hysteria was caused by disorders of the womb.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Saturday Rave: The Specialist by Chick Sale.

The Specialist is a rather odd thing: it's a very good book written by someone who was never a writer.

How come? Well, Charles (Chick) Sale was what we'd nowadays call a stand-up comedian. In 1930, as now, copyright laws were under strain and there was nothing to stop anyone from copying Chick's most popular act, which he did in character and went by the title of The Specialist.

This state of affairs was obviously a huge threat to Chick's livelihood but there was nothing anyone could do about it until someone came up with a cunning wheeze. If the act was written down, it was reasoned, it would be protected by the copyright laws for printed matter, and this would mean that no one could steal Chick's act.

So Chick got his act printed (it was only 3,000 words), sent off a few copies to the relevant authorities, and offered the remainder for sale.

Ten languages and a million copies later, it's still going strong.

So what sort of a specialist is The Specialist?

He's the champion privvy builder of Sangamon County.


Here he is advising a customer on why not to site his facility at the end of a bendy path:

'Take your grandpappy - goin' out there is about the only recreation he gets. He'll go out some rainy night with his nighties flappin' round his legs, and like as not when you come out in the morning you'll find him prone in the mud, or maybe skidded off one of them curves and wound up in the corn crib.'

And excellent advice it is, too.

Word To Use Today: specialist. This word comes from the Old French especial, from the Latin speciālis, individual, special, from speciēs, appearance, from specere, to look.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Word To Use Today: sonsy.

Here's a word to cheer up some rather troubled times. It's used in Scotland, Ireland, and some Northern parts of England and it means all sorts of good things: comely, curvy, cheerful, good-natured and lucky.

As if this isn't comforting enough sonsie can also mean large, as in a helping of food, or hefty, as in a knock on the head... That's possibly not quite so much fun. Not unless it happens to someone else, anyway.

And even that's not the end of sonsie. It can mean sensible (this can apply either to people, or to an easily-tamed breed of animal).

See what a wonderful word it is? Why, sonsie has over the years been used to mean pretty much anything admirable. Robert Burns even used it to describe a haggis, though what a haggis has to be cheerful about I cannot for the life of me imagine.

I'll leave you with a sonsie blessing: sonse fa ye. 

It means good luck.

Word To Use Today: sonsie or sonsy. This word comes from the Scots Gaelic sonas, which means good fortune.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

keen as mustard: a rant

Around the lid of our mustard jar is this legend:


Now, call me soft-hearted if you like, but I think that's cruel.

Word To Use Today: reject. This word comes from the Latin rēicere, to throw back, from jacere, to hurl.