This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 18 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: pleat.

Pleated skirts are back in fashion, especially mid-calf-length ones which make people look at least fifty years older than their actual age (and a stone heavier, too).

This pleated smock is called a rochet. Still, it probably wasn't particularly intended to be flattering. Photo by Carolus

Some pleats are genuinely useful in allowing freedom of movement:

File:Norfolkjacket 1906.jpg

But many are simply for decoration:

File:Official with Pleated Costume MET LC-65 119 EGDP024372.jpg
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egyptian, about the year zero.

and all are a pain to iron:

portrait by Benjamin Greenleaf

It's an odd thing, fashion.

Still, pleats mean you can fold things:

or unfold them, for that matter, a trick that Nature discovered millions of years ago:

File:Pleated Inkcap - Parasola plicatilis (29783391482).jpg
pleated inkcap, Parasola plicatilis. Photo by AJC1

File:Fresh green horse chestnut leaves - - 789803.jpg
photo of horse chestnut leaves by Andrew Hill

Then you can find pleats on lampshades, and furniture, and pie-liners, and probably other places, too.

What's the purpose of the first one you find?

Word To Use Today: pleat. This word is basically the same word as plait and ply (as in plywood). It comes from the Old French pleit, from the Latin plicāre, to fold.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Sunday Rest: virago. Word Not To Use Today.

I daren't use this word. It's too much of a risk.

There have been so many campaigns against using insulting words to describe woman - words such as scold or shrew (and ruder things) - and there's no doubt that virago is certainly insulting, meaning as it does a loud and violently ill-tempered woman.

But still, when you look at the word's origin..., perhaps it might be possible, after all. 

After all, it's not only women it's insulting.

Sunday Rest: virago. This word has been around in English for about a thousand years. Before that it came from Latin, where it meant a manlike young woman, from the word vir, man.

I think that makes it a dual-sex insult...

..not that I'm saying there are only two sexes...

...I think I'd better keep quiet, now.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Iceland by Jonas Hallgrimsson.

Jónas Hallgrimsson (1807-1845), the son of an Icelandic curate, discovered in himself a great interest for the history and natural history of his native country. 

He lived for much of his adult life in Denmark, but he returned home regularly, and wrote for the pro-independence magazine Fjölnir, which he had helped to found.

He was a poet, too, rather a romantic one (there was unrequited love in his past which would have helped with the wistful-longing side of things). He wrote about the Icelandic natural world movingly and beautifully, and experimented with forms new to Icelandic literature.

Here's an example of his verse:


Charming and fair is the land,
and snow-white the peaks of the jokuls.
Cloudless and blue is the sky,
the ocean is shimmering bright,
But high on the lava fields, where 
still Osar river is flowing
Down into Altmanna gorge
Althing no longer is held,
Now Snorri's booth serves as a sheepfold,
the ling upon Logberg the sacred
Is blue with berries every year,
for children's and ravens' delight.
Oh, ye juvenile host
and full-grown manhood of Iceland!
Thus is our forefathers' fame
forgotten and dormant withal.

(translated by Gudmund J Gislason)

Since 1996 November 16, Jónas's birthday, has been recognised as the national Day of the Icelandic Language, and today the Jónas Hallgrimsson Award will be given for outstanding contribution to the Icelandic.

Word To Use Today: icicle, perhaps, as a the word jokul means glacier and is basically the same word as our word icicle.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Word To Use Today: lavabo.

What's the connection between Psalm 26 and a wash basin?


Word To Use Today: lavabo. This is the ordinary French word for a wash basin, but it is used in English, too, though more often than not (which is still not very often) in the phrases lavabo towel or lavabo basin

Dorothy L Sayers used the word lavabo to mean downstairs loo, but that was a while ago.

Lavabo is rather more commonly used to describe the part of the Roman Catholic Mass where the priest washes his hands. In a convent or monastery a lavabo might be a washing trough, but it's the same idea.

And the psalm?

Psalm 26 verse 6 begins (New King James version) I will wash my hands in innocence, and it describes one of the religious rites of the ancient Jewish Temple. In Latin that's Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas... 

Obviously saying the whole line would have been a bit of a mouthful, so people must have decided to stop after lavabo, which means I shall wash.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Woman's stuff: a rant.

A survey has claimed...

...sorry, have you lost the will to live, yet?

I know, let's start with who paid for the research (Kelloggs, and especially their diet cornflake brand Special K) and the survey's sample size (2,000).

I can't find any information on peer-reviewing, or on who conducted the survey, or by what means, so let's get on to what the survey was aiming to show. It was that women feel belittled by certain words.

The survey has produced a list of twenty words that it claims that women would like to see banned (though in fact, if you read the actual results which disclose what percentage of the respondents wants each word banned, you'll find that it's done nothing of the kind).

The words which a majority of women who took part on the survey really would like to see banned are hormonal (68%) drama queen (56%) bitchy (53%) and high maintenance (51%).

Hysterical comes next at 50 per cent, so that's a maybe.

I don't know how the survey was conducted - whether the words were suggested to the respondents, or whether the words were volunteered by the respondents themselves (unlikely, given the results, but I don't know). Whichever it was, of equal interest are the words which nearly everyone, even out of this sample of women who agreed to answer a survey linked to a diet cereal about discrimination against women, don't mind.

They are difficult (21% objecting) sexy (20%) aggressive (10%) sassy (16%) and feisty (14%).

I volunteer this information as a public service. 

My own opinion is that using the words in the second list rather than those in the first might well save a lot of people a lot of grief.

Well, it has to be worth a try, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: hormonal. This word comes from the Greek word horman to stir up or urge on, from hormē impulse or assault.

It might also be worth bearing in mind that testosterone is a hormone

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: melic.

Melic poetry is the carefully-structured Greek verse of the seventh and sixth century BC.

Yes, it is rather a minority interest, but luckily the word has extended its meaning to mean to do with song, or intended to be sung (especially when you're talking about poetry).

Melic is a rather beautiful word, and we still have melic poetry all round us.

One of my longest-term favourites is this one:


What's yours?

Word To Use Today: melic. This word was first used in English in 1699. It comes from the Greek word melikos, from melos, which means song.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: fiddle.

You can be on the fiddle, which involves minor stealing by dodging your way through administrative systems; you can play fiddle, which will involve a violin and a folk tune:

File:Fiddlin Bill Henseley, Mountain Fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina by Ben Shahn, 1937 LOC 290626613.jpg
Fiddlin' Bill Henseley. Photo by Bill Shahn

 and you can fiddle about, which means being busy doing nothing very much, especially if it involves struggling with something small.

Some connections to playing folk music are easy to see - such as having a face as long as a fiddle:

File:Britannica Fiddle Minnesinger.png
Minnesinger, 1200s, Mannesse Manuscript

and it's easy to see the link between violin playing and working with something small or fundamentally not life-threatening.

As for the committing-fraud sort of fiddling, there are theories linking the word to the Emperor Nero (who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned) and also with the sort of fiddle which is the rim of a sailor's plate. Sadly, though, sailor's plates have never had rims called fiddles (though their work surfaces have had) and Nero neither had a fiddle nor stooped to indulging in petty crime (he was a man for an grand evil gesture).

What we do know about financial fiddling is that it started in America in the second half of the 1800s, and that from the beginning it had the dual meanings of swindling and attending closely to small non-essentials.

A man trying to steal small amounts of money is likely to be doing a lot of attending closely to apparently small non-essentials, and this, I suggest, is how fiddling the accounts probably began as an expression.

Thing To Do Today Possibly: fiddle. This word comes from the Old English fithele, probably from the Latin vītulārī, to celebrate: