This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Saturday Rave: Ken Dodd's jokes.

You probably won't have heard of Ken Dodd, who's died recently aged ninety.

He was a mad-looking scarecrow of a man:

File:KEN DODD.jpg
photo by DAVID A ELLIS

He had a good singing voice, as it happened, but he was famous as a comedian.

He used to appear on TV, long ago, but it was in a theatre that he was happiest. That's why, unless you've visited a British theatre, you won't have heard of him. His stand-up sets would routinely last for hours, until his audience were so weak with laughter they couldn't have walked out even if they wanted to.

It's no good going home, he'd tell them. I'll come and shout jokes through your letterbox.

And his act was mostly jokes. Thousands upon thousands of them. 

It's a privilege to be asked to play here tonight on what is a very special anniversary. It is a hundred years to the night since that balcony collapsed.

He got into serious trouble for tax evasion at one point, and he even told jokes about that.

I told the Inland Revenue I don't owe them a penny. I live by the seaside.

But mostly he skated around the edge of a sort of bright madness, a slightly horrifying joviality.

The man who invented Cat's Eyes got the idea when he saw the eyes of a cat in his headlights. If the cat had been going the other way he would have invented the pencil sharpener.

I don't know if his humour travels beyond the shores of Great Britan. I don't think he would have cared all that much. He died in the house in which he was born, having spent a lifetime coaxing theatres into warm bowls of helpless laughter.

What a lovely day for walking up to a sea gull, chucking a bucket of whitewash over it, and saying how do you like it?

I'm not sure anyone can ask more of anyone than that.

Word To Use Today: joke. This word didn't exist in English until the 1600s. It comes from the Latin jocus.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Word To Use Today: levirate.

English is the biggest language in the world, but that means that there are a lot of words which serve very little purpose.

Such a one is levirate.

I suppose one might say the practice of levirate is enough to fill any thinking man with horror. But that's about it.

So what is levirate?

Levirate is the law, as described in the Old Testament of the Bible (Deuteronomy 25) whereby a man is obliged to marry his brother's widow. (Mind you, to be fair, there's also a bit in the same book (Leviticus 18) which says he mustn't.)

Well, the imposition of a law like that would have changed the course of the English novel, wouldn't it? 

Sons and Lovers, anyone?

It'd certainly make this house a bit crowded.

Anyway, levirate. A word to be glad is no longer of any relevance whatsoever, I think.

Word To Use Today: levirate. This word comes from the Latin lēvir, a husband's brother.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Say cheese!: a rant.

There are ever such a lot of vegans about.

I don't mind - after all, you don't have to listen to them - but their spelling is painful.

I've come across chease, recently. And cheeze. And even sheeze.

Ah, yes, you will say (for you are always wonderfully forbearing), but if it's vegan then the stuff doesn't contain anything actually, well, cheesy, does it? And the spelling alerts people to this.

Well, there's something in what you say, and I can admire the frankness with which the makers of MozzaRisella admit that their cheese-type stuff has been mostly grown in a paddy field; but there have long been cheeses that haven't emerged from the teat of a mammal. 

There are fruit pastes called cheeses made of sharp-tasting fruits such a rosehips or medlars; there's the revolting-sounding head-cheese, which is a sort of pate made of meat from, yes, the head of a pig.

But even people who are prepared to boil a whole pigs' head complete with reproachful eyes have too much delicacy of soul to call it cheez

I mean, it just shows you, doesn't it.

Word To Spell Today: cheese. The Old English called this stuff cēse, and the Romans cāseus. But even that wasn't as bad as the Old Saxons, who called it kāsi.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Nuts and Bolts: peripetia.

Peripetia is the bit in a story where everything suddenly goes horribly wrong.

It's the moment when the hero - or villain - having cleverly evaded capture for months and years, is nabbed as he crosses the border to freedom.

It's the moment when the person you've murdered turns out not to be dead, after all.

It's the moment when the jewels turn out to be fake, or your husband turns out to be your brother, or the person you are fighting turns out to have been born by cesarean, or a woman or a shaved orangutan or something, and so you're not protected by that prophesy after all.


...sometimes I wonder why we put ourselves through all this fiction stuff, you know.

File:Young orang utan.JPG
photo by Michaël CATANZARITI

Word To Use Today: peripetia. This word comes from peri-, which means around, plus piptein, to fall.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: mop.

Even those of us who would feel happiest surrounded by layers of history - the coffee slopped onto the table after tripping over Grandma, the spatter of blood stains after the wrestling match trying to open the sardine tin, the fine all-over dust laid down the day the vacuum cleaner got whooping cough - can hardly avoid the occasional bit of mopping, whether it's the tears of a child or the ketchup on a tie.

If, however, your child is permanently contented, and you cunningly wear a ketchup-coloured tie, then to mop also means to pull a sad face.

photo by DodosD

That sort of mopping won't do anyone much good, though, will it?

Thing Not To Do Today: mop. The cleaning word comes from the lovely English word mappel, from the Latin mappa, which means napkin. The sad-face word appeared in the 1500s and might come from the Dutch moppen, to pour. Also possibly relevant is the fact that the Dutch word mop means pug (as in dog).

Monday, 19 March 2018

Spot the Frippet: ear.

It always surprises me that when two spies meet to exchange secrets in the middle of a field of wheat they never notice they're surrounded by millions of ears.

File:Ears of Wheat just before harvesting - - 1440344.jpg
photo by Chris Reynolds

Yeah, okay, okay...sorry...

It's easy enough to spot an ear - or, at least, the outside flap of the ear, which is designed to funnel the sound into the ear hole - but some ears are harder to spot than others. 

A cricket's ears are on its front legs; a grasshopper's ear:

File:Grasshopper 2.JPG
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Photo by Ryan Wood

 is on the side of its abdomen; a spider doesn't have any ears at all.

An owl's ears may seem easy to spot in comparison:

Asio otus -Battlefield Falconry Centre, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England-8a.jpg
long-eared owl, photo by angusleonard 

 but don't be fooled because those aren't really ears at all, but tufts of feathers for display purposes. (Owls' ears are actually very interesting. In many nocturnal species one ear is placed quite a lot higher than the other, which helps the owls with locating the squeak of a juicy bit of dinner; and although owls don't have officially have any outer ears at all, their flat faces act in the same way:

File:Female Barn Owl 2 (6942362843).jpg
Barn Owl, photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK

funnelling sound into their ear holes. Owls can even alter the shape of their faces to tune in the sound).

Of other remarkable ears, otters have valves in their ears so they can water-proof them:

File:Sea-otter-morro-bay 13.jpg
"Mike" Michael L. Baird [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

And some bats:

File:Northern long eared bat (15357713259).jpg
Northern long-eared bat. Photo by Keith Shannon/USFWS

 can dislocate their ear drums so they doesn't have to listen to the sound of their own screaming.

Whichever sort of ear you see today, I invite you to admire...perhaps not its beauty, if the ear belongs to a human; but at the very least its totally amazing design.

Spot the Frippet: ear. The hearing word comes from the Latin auris. The corn word comes from the Latin acus, chaff, from the Greek akros, pointed.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Sunday Rest: dysprosium. Word Not To Use Today.

Strangely enough, dysprosium isn't an annoying tendency to burst into very bad verse, but a chemical element.

Word Not To Use Today: dysprosium. This word comes from the Greek dusprositos, difficult to get near, with -ium added on to make it look more like the name of an element.

Dysprosium is a metal, Atomic Number 66, symbol Dy. It's used in lasers and nuclear control rods.