This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Sunday Rest: coiffure. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is fine if you're French, or speaking French (though do say it the French way. It shouldn't rhyme with manure).

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - La Coiffure.jpg
La Coiffure by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. PD-US

Otherwise, the word coiffure, meaning hairdo, can only really be used with enormous amounts of irony, probably heavily infused with camp.

Actually, that sounds quite fun. It's vital to use it only in the presence of those with a sense of humour, though. 

Still, if you fancy a bit of danger, and a challenge...

Word Not To Use Today: coiffure. This word is French, and is basically the same word as coif. The Latin cofea means helmet or cap. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

There's one huge problem with the novel Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: it's nearly twice as long as War and Peace.

Actually, now I come to think about it, I can hardly imagine two more different books than Clarissa and War and Peace. W&P takes you across half of Europe and manages to be about...well, about bits of more or less everything that was happening (or not happening) to Russians in the time of the reign of the French Emperor Napoleon...and Clarissa is about the fate of one young lady. Yes, she's called Clarissa. In fact she's called Clarissa Harlowe, which turns out to be quite interesting.

The plot of Clarissa could be summarised in a few sentences - which, obviously, I'm not going to do - but it's a book that's haunted me for decades. Yes, Lovelace the protagonist is a poser who gets very dull and annoying at times, but, gosh, you don't half get involved with the characters.

Oh, and I'll tell you what: I'd say that Clarissa has the most searing death-scene (not, as it happens, of a main character) in the whole of literature.

And the book starts with a duel.

I mean, what more could anybody want?

Well, stronger arms to hold the flipping thing, for a start.

Words To Consider Today: Clarissa Harlowe. Clarissa comes from the Latin clarus, which means bright, clear or famous; Harlowe is originally a place name from the Old English hoer, a pile of rocks, and hlaw, a hill. 

Harlowe is also reminiscent of at least one unfortunate female epithet.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Words To Use Today: pteropod/sea butterfly.

Which do you like best pteropods or sea butterflies?

Which do you imagine you'd like most to see

Pteropod sounds scientific and has an exciting echo of pterodactyl (dactyl means finger, by the way); sea butterfly has a whimsical charm which some might consider veers towards the sickening.

Is the choice is between science and fantasy? Between danger and delicacy?

Here's a picture to help:

What do you think now?

Sea butterflies or pteropods mostly eat algae, and they range in size from a lentil to an orange. This doesn't sound too threatening until you discover that they trap the algae in a sticky web. 

Sea butterflies/pteropods live near the surface of the water of all the seas. The 'wings' (which are really, unromantically, a modified foot) flap to propel the thing along just like real wings.

Most pteropods/sea butterflies don't have a shell, and if they do it's very small and thin.

I'm afraid they're molluscs, like an octopuses or a slugs.

So, now what? Sea butterfly or pteropod?

Well, it might depend on who you are.

I'd imagine a male-female bias if I dared...

...but I don't.

Word To Use Today: sea butterfly/pteropod. The pod comes from the Greek pous, foot. Ptero- comes from the Greek pteron, wing or feather. The word butterfly is discussed HERE.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

To coin a phrase: a rant.

Good grief this is a mess.

To coin a phrase means to invent a new one - except, of course,  when it doesn't. Nowadays this is most of the time.

It's supposed to be an irony thing. People have started saying to coin a phrase when they're about to use a cliché. I think they're signalling that they know it's a cliché and that they wouldn't dream of using it except as an oh-so-sophisticated joke.

But look, the thing about jokes is that they need to be a) funny and b) surprising (unless, like a catch-phrase, they're conjuring up some memory of ancient joy). The ironic use of to coin a phrase isn't either of those things, and, anyway, employing a cliché to mock using a cliché is, frankly, nuts. 

It also (though this, obviously, is a matter of minor importance) irritates the heck out of me.

So just stop doing it, okay?

Phrase Not To Use Today: to coin a phrase. Just to make this phrase even murkier, a coiner can be someone who makes fake coins, though whether this has any relevance here, I don't know. The word coin comes from the Old French word for stamping die, from the Latin cuneus, wedge.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: acrophony.

Acrophony is when the name of a letter begins with the letter itself. For example, the word dee is the name of its own first letter.

It's a great help in remembering which letter is which.

The idea's been around pretty much since there have been letters to name. Proto-Sinaitic emerged from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where the picture of an ox, or 'alp, eventually turned itself upside down and became our capital letter A, also originally called 'alp.

Acrophony has turned out to be such a good idea that it's found all over the place. The Greek letters alpha, beta, gamma, delta, are an obvious example, though not as obvious as our own English a, bee, cee, dee, e...after which it goes a bit haywire, the next letter being, of course, eff, but never mind. French operates on the same principle, but goes off track even earlier, with the letter c being called seh.

Cyrillic and Old Irish, ancient runes, and Thai all use the principle of acrophony - and good for them.

And, do you remember the radio alphabet? Alfa, Bravo, Charlie Delta...

Just think, modern telecommunications systems still rely on the Proto-Sinaitic word for ox.

I told you it was a good idea, didn't I?

Word To Use Today: well, how about alpha?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle.

Scuttling is defined in my Collins dictionary as to move about with short hasty steps, but surely there's more to scuttling than that.

Crabs scuttle. Spiders scuttle. There's something furtive about scuttling, something predatory or fearful.

Someone who's scuttling is trying, for one reason or another, to avoid notice.


I definitely don't plan to do any scuttling today. Stately as a galleon, that's me...

...except that galleons remind me of the other sort of scuttling, which is actually even worse than the spidery kind. If you scuttle a ship you let water into it so that it sinks; scuttling a plan stops it for ever.

Ah well. At least we have coal scuttles...though even they are heavy, black and dirty.

I think all I can do with this word is to suggest giving thanks for strolling, dry land, and central heating.

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle. Scuttle is at root really three words. The coal scuttle word comes from the Old English scutel, trencher, from the Latin scutra, platter; the running-about word might come from scud, but made to sound a bit like shuttle; the sinking-a-ship word comes from the Spanish escotilla, a small opening, from escote, an opening in a piece of cloth, from escotar, to cut out.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: something pomaceous.

Something pomaceous is, obviously, something that relates to, or bears, pomes.

Bears what?

Pomes. You know, fruits like apples, pears, medlars:

photo by Takkk 

and quinces. Basically, a pome is any fruit that has juicy flesh and a core in the middle where you find the seeds - though when I say juicy, I don't necessarily mean edible by humans: the fruits of cotoneasters and whitebeam, for instance, are pomes, but tend not to feature in recipe books. 

Still, makes an apple sound all the juicier, doesn't it.

File:Big red apple.jpg
photo by Paolo Neo

Spot the Frippet: pomaceous. This word comes from Old French from the Latin pomum, apple.