This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Sunday Rest: nocebo.

A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo: a placebo is a non-active substance administered as a medicine that sometimes has the effect of curing illnesses because people have faith in it; a nocebo is a substance (often a real medicine) that causes unwanted side-effects because people expect to have negative side-effects. (A side-effect that is actually caused by a medicine isn't a nocebo.)

To make things more complicated still, expecting to have side-effects can cause anxiety, and being anxious can cause the body to produce hormones that make it more likely that the body will feel pain.

Now, as you will already have noticed, the thing wrong with the word nocebo is that it looks as if some ignoramus has come along and shoved no at the front of the end of the word placebo to make something that means the opposite. And this would indeed have been an offence against the English language.

As a matter of fact this isn't how the word was coined at all. Its origin is entirely logical and respectable.

But it certainly doesn't look it.

Word Not To Use Today If You Can Help It: nocebo. The Latin nocēbō means I shall harm, from noceō, I harm* (it's the first person singular future active indicative). The Latin placēbō means I shall please, from placeō, I please (ditto). The word nocebo was coined by Walter Kennedy in 1961. He was obviously too learned to guess what pain he was causing to all us ignoramuses.

*Some rather harmful things done as part of a treatment, such as applying a tourniquet, can be termed nocebos, too.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Ho mia kor! by L L Zamenhof

Ho mia kor! was written in 1887. It's one of the very first poems in the Esperanto language.

Esperanto was a brave attempt to invent a language that people of many nations would find familiar, and therefore easy to learn and use.

Read this short poem, and see if it works for you.

Ho mia kor', ne batu maltrankvile,
El mia brusto nun ne saltu for!
Jam teni min ne povas mi facile,
Ho, mia kor'!

Ho, mia kor'! Post longa laborado
Ĉu mi ne venkos en decida hor'?
Sufice! trankviliĝu de l' betado,
Ho, mia kor'!    

Did you understand it? Any of it? I thought I probably understood quite a lot, but then I've been delving into languages all my life - and, of course, probably understanding something is not much  good at all. Ĉu mi ne venkos en decida hor? was plainly about deciding something, but I thought it was something to do with wind (venkos). But it isn't. 

Here's a literal translation for you to see how you did.

Oh, my heart, don't beat untranquilly
Out of my breast! Don't now jump!
Already I cannot easily hold myself
Oh, my heart!

Oh, my heart! After long labouring
Will I not win in the deciding hour?
Enough! Calm the beating.
Oh, my heart!

Esperanto was, I think, worth a try, if only to discover that the easiest way for us all to speak the same language is for one extant language to take over.

At least, it makes it easy for some of us.

Word To Use Today: one not in Esperanto! Dr Esperanto was the pseudonym of L L Zamenhof, who invented the language in the late 1800s. Esperanto means 'one who hopes'. 

Bless him!

Friday, 14 December 2018

Word To Use Today: zarf.

The English language is vast and increasing, but there are still many potentially useful words that don't form part of its vocabulary.

What is the word for the condition of a piece of soap that has expanded into something that may, unless you're jolly careful,  disintegrate into scented slime when you pick it up?

What's the word for a spot of undissolved coffee floating in the top of a cup?

What's the word for the noise people make, something between delight and sympathy, when they see someone walk into a lamp post?

On the other hand, the English language does have zarf, a tremendously useful word that almost no one knows, but which we all nearly need fairly regularly.

A zarf is a holder to protect the hands from hot cups, especially coffee cups.

No, no, it's quite all right. 

All part of the service.

Word To Use Today: zarf. This is originally an Arabic word which means container or sheath. The plural of zarf can be, variously, zarfs, zarves, or, thrillingly, zuruuf.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Spaced out: a rant.

I rather like Twitter, but then my feed is full of poetry and images of ducks, dresses, and works of art rather than shengmus, spite, and self-advertisement.

I just wish my Facebook page was the same.

Even so, Twitter is a very new way of using words, and an amusing pitfall with the medium appeared recently.

Mr Rudy Giuliani, an American lawyer and politician, posted this message (look at the colours of the text):

The political implications of the Tweet don't matter for our current purposes (except to note the amazing amount of indignation it's possible to get into a single Tweet) but do you see the bit of text that's come out in blue? This is the result of a feature on Twitter which forms an automatic link to another web page if you type in that page's URL address.

It's jolly useful.

But you see what's happened here? Mt Giuliani has neglected to type a space. That's all he's done (twice, but the second time doesn't matter). He meant to type the harmless words for G-20. In July, but he's missed out the space after the full stop. And to the Twitter system G-20.In looks like the address of a web page in India.

Most entertainingly, once the Arizona-based website designer Jason Velazquez had spotted Mr Giuliani's error, it soon was the address of a web page in India.

The webpage G-20.In apparently has a message on it very annoying to Mr Giuliani, and so far it's been seen by over 16,000 people.

And so now poor Mr Giuliani is now even more full of indignation than he was to start with. 

But as for the rest of us...

...well, you really have to laugh, don't you?

Word To Use Today: indignation. This word has been around in English since about 1325. The Middle English form was indignacion, which is almost the same as nowadays, as is the Latin form, indignāri, to be indignant.

Which just goes to prove that there's always something, doesn't it.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: isogloss.

An isogloss is a line on a map which marks the boundary between one linguistic feature and another.

It might mark a boundary between two different pronunciations (grass to rhyme with crass and grass to rhyme with farce, perhaps); or two different meanings for the same word (canny can mean either kind or knowing, depending on whether you're in Northern England or Scotland); different ways of saying the letter r; or even two quite different languages.

Here's a map of Germany from Wikipedia.

Public Domain,

This map shows the division of High German into Upper and Central German (green and blue, respectively) as distinguished from Low Franconian, and Low German, which is shown in yellow. The black lines show the famous Benrath and Speyer lines which divides the languages (which just goes to show what an interesting word famous is).

Of course what we really need is a three-dimensional map that shows us the effect of time, as well. Then we could see how everyone stopped saying dear meaning expensive, and when the word often had a sounded letter t.*

It could show us what effect the advent of literacy, radio and TV had on language, too.

Whether wisdom would emerge from such a device I do not know. Probably we'd be left with a puzzle that makes a Rubik's cube look like a one-piece jigsaw. 

Still, that's what academics are for, isn't it.

Word To Use Today isogloss. Iso- comes from the Greek isos, which means equal or similar; and glōssa is Greek for dialect or tongue. 

As the intelligent reader will have spotted, an isogloss shows, not similarities, but differences, and this is why some people point out that it would be more logical to call it a heterogloss. (Hetero means other.)

But then, what has logic got to do with language, eh?

*In the mid-twentieth century, I'd guess. It was part of the speak-as-you-spell movement.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid.

The British aren't all that good at being perfervid.

In fact, in Britain to be perfervid will probably be seen as embarrassing, or even bad form. 

To be perfervid is practically a sign of unreliability or even madness.

The thing is that we tend to be a rather laid-back lot in England, and perfervid describes someone who's extremely enthusiastic or zealous. It describes someone who has a passion for some cause: whereas in England we most admire a person who casts a cool eye over a situation and then makes a joke about it.

It's very hard to be both perfervid and funny; and round here funny wins every time.

In Italy, I understand, being passionate is perfectly acceptable. In Eastern Europe to be zealous seems to excite high admiration.

Here, though, if you work eighty hours a week then I'm afraid the thing to do is treat the activity as a mild inconvenience.

Still, who really wants passion?




Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid. This word comes from the Latin per- which makes words more intense, and fervidus, which means fervid, which itself means intensely enthusiastic and passionate.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: zareba.

Technically, a zareba is a stockade or enclosure of thorn bushes around a village in northern East Africa. It can also be used to describe the area so enclosed.

Obviously for most of us the chance of having one of those to hand is fairly remote, but whenever I see the word zareba I don't think of East African hedges, I think instead of the magnificent PG Wodehouse story The Clicking of Cuthbert, which features (wrong word, as you shall see) the great Russian literary novelist Vladimir Brusiloff.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best of motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair

I shall be looking out for beards, today...

...and wondering what motives each man has for growing the ridiculous thing.

Spot the Frippet: zareba. This word comes from the Arabic zaribah, cattlepen, from zarb sheepfold.

Edward Lear limerick

illustration and verse by Edward Lear