This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Against Voltaire: a rant.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote under the name S G Tallentyre, came up with the line 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'.

Yes, that's right, it's usually attributed to Voltaire, but this is fair enough, really, because that quotation is Hall's summing up of Voltaire's attitude to free speech. It appears in her 1906 book The Friends of Voltaire.

I think that most of us will agree with the sentiment. 

I do wish, however, there was some equally famous line which says:

I approve of what you think, but for heaven's sake keep quiet about it until we get home.

It would make get-togethers of friends, family, and work mates so much easier, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: approve. This word comes from the Latin probāre to test.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Zipf's Law.

Zipf's Law of Abbreviation we've already looked at and admired, but how about the other Zipf's Law? The one, that is, that's simply called Zipf's Law?

George Kingsley Zipf was a great man. He was such a great man, indeed, that he resisted any temptation to claim to have made up Zipf's Law himself (as it happens, the French stenographer Jean-Baptiste Estoup seems to have got there first, and the German physicist Felix Auerbach seems have been second. But, hey, it was Zipf who did the publicity, wasn't it?).

Zipf's Law works for quite a few different things, but for our purposes the main idea is that the most common word in a (substantial) text will be twice as common as the next most common word, and three times more common than the next commonest word after that, and so on.

The commonest word in the English language is, unsurprisingly the.

Zipf's Law seems to work for all languages, and no one has come up with a theory that's been generally accepted as to why languages are constructed in that way. It might be partly that the commoner a word is the more likely other people are to choose to use it; but no one really knows.

The question you will be asking is, of course, what's the second commonest word in the English language? 

Well, it's be, and then, in order, to, of and and

The commonest noun (not counting pronouns, and not counting the word make, which is often a verb) is...can you guess?*

A list of the one hundred commonest words in the English language can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today. Well, why not see how long you go without using the word the? The Old English form of this word was thē.

*It's people, which comes in at about number sixty one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Thing To Be Today: as pleased as Punch.

To be as pleased as punch is to be thrilled to bits, to be utterly gleeful, to be completely delighted.

It's just a slight shame that the Punch in question is a serial murderer.

Still, never mind, he's a serial murderer designed to amuse small children. So that's all right, then.


Here he is, in case you've never come across him:

For the information of those too busy to watch, I'm afraid the reason Punch is so pleased (That's the way to do it! he squawks) is generally that's he's killed another of his victims with his club.

till, as I say, small children love him.

For anyone t
o be as pleased as punch something surprisingly wonderful must have happened, so I'm afraid it's not something that can be planned.

Still, we can all hope, can't we. 

And look out for delightful things:

File:Puggle puppy.jpg

photo by Jennagu

Word To Use Today: punch. Punch started off as the puppet Polichinello in the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell'arte. Usually the phrase as pleased as punch no longer uses a capital letter, perhaps because few of us want to associate ourselves too closely with serial murderers.

Even though this obscures the history of the phrase, this is almost certainly a good thing.

The Latin word pullus , which forms the basis of the name Polichinello, means a young animal.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Spot the Frippet: the readies.

Have you got the readies?

Probably not, nowadays, because most of us are using cards instead of real money - and to make things even worse the cards aren't even made of card, but plastic.

It may be convenient, but think: what is a miser to do?

Or the tooth fairy?

Money has been round longer than there have been any history books to record it. It probably started off with clay tokens issued by warehouses in China, India, Babylon or Egypt, but the idea of money didn't spread steadily around the globe. The trouble is that money depends upon there being someone you trust to issue the stuff - and that isn't a given even nowadays, as can be seen with the rapidly increasing worthlessness of the currencies of countries such as Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

If you do have someone trustworthy in charge, then what is likely to happen about money is this: you start off by giving someone a block of something valuable, like metal, in exchange for goods. The block of metal gives you a bad back, and so the trustworthy person in charge puts his mark on smaller pieces of metal and tells everyone that counts just the same as a bigger bit. Everyone is dubious, but they're all fed up with having bad backs and so they try it out, and on the whole people find it works.

What the money has looked like has varied over the years. There were cowrie shells, of course, and, later, bronze copies of cowrie shells. There has even been money in the shape of small spades; but in the end the bad-temper of the people who had to mend people's worn-out pockets tended to encourage coins to be made as small flat discs.

It's been lovely to carry small but exquisite works of art around with us for thousands of years:

File:GREAT BRITAIN, VICTORIA 1889 -CROWN a - Flickr - woody1778a.jpg
British crown (quarter of a pound sterling) photo by Jerry 'Woody'

Ah well. Perhaps soon our plastic cards might start being beautiful.

And, really,
why shouldn't they be round, as well, and made of something precious?

Spot the Frippet: the readies. This is short for ready money. The Old English form of the word ready was rǣde.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Sunday Rest: mutule. Word Not To Use Today.

This horrid word is all the more annoying for having a vastly unhelpful dictionary definition: one of a set of flat blocks below the corona of a Doric cornice.

Did you understand that? I was fine until the words started having more than one syllable - but it's all right, I've done the research so you don't have to.

A corona (in architecture) is the flat vertical face of a cornice just above the soffit. And a soffit is...

...oh, blow this for a lark. Let's find an illustration.

1. Tympanum, 2. Acroterion, 3. Sima, 4. Cornice, 5. Mutule, 7. Frieze, 8. Triglyph, 9. Metope, 10. Regula, 11. Gutta, 12. Taenia, 13. Architrave, 14. Capital, 15. Abacus, 16. Echinus, 17. Column, 18. Fluting, 19. Stylobate

Illustration by Napoleon Vier.

So there we are. There's a mutule at Number 5. The corona, in case you're wondering, is the lower piece of the cornice.

A mutule still sounds like something you'd find in a far paragraph of an insurance contract, or else something lurking in some deep crevice of the human anatomy, though, doesn't it.

(And it doesn't look that much like a flat block, either.)

Word Not To Use Today: mutule. This word comes from the Latin word mūtulus, which means modillion...

...oh all right, I suppose I'll have to look that up, now!...

A modillion is a thing holding up a cornice. Here are a row of them.

But if they're less chunky they're called dentils, apparently.

Anyone out there still got the will to live?

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Saturday Rave: Ach, wie nichtig by Michael Franck

Michael Franck was born in Schleusingen, in Thuringia, Germany, in 1609. He was a baker.

He seems to have been quite a good baker, though sadly he wasn't much cop at the business side of things: basically, he never found a way to stop people breaking in at night and nicking his stuff. In the end, completely broke, he abandoned his business and started up a new line as a teacher, with a bit of poetry thrown in as a side-line.

Perhaps surprisingly, the poetry was fairly successful, and his verses were set to music by both J S Bach and Telemann.

Here is some of Franck's poem Ach wie flüchtig,
ach wie nichtig which Bach used in his 1724 Church Cantata BMV 26. 

Ach wie flüchtig,
ach wie nichtig
ist des Menschen Leben!
Wie Ein NEBEL bald enstehet
und ach wie der bald vergehet
so ist unser LEBEN sehet!

Ach wir nichtig,
ach wie flüchtig
sind der Menschen Sachen!
Alles, alles was wir sehen,
das muß fallen und vergehen,
Wer Gott fürcht', wird ewig stehen.


Ah, how fleeting,
ah how insubstantial
is man's life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life, see!

Ah, how insubstantial,
ah how fleeting
are mankind's affairs!
Ah, all that we see
must fall and vanish.
The person who fears God stands 
firm forever.

Word To Use Today: fleeting. Ironically, no one is sure of the derivation of this word. It might be something to do with the Old English flēotan, to float or glide rapidly and before that to the Latin pluere, to rain.

The rest of this wistful but lovely poem (these are just the first and last verses) can be found HERE.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Word To Use Today: walnut.

Walnuts don't grow on walls:

File:Juglans regia autumn 2009.jpg
photo of a walnut tree by JLPC

 so what's that all about?


Word To Use Today: walnut. The Old English form of this word is the charming wahl-hnutu, which means foreign nut. The Old French (that is, the language spoken in France before its inhabitants got so polished and eternally youthful) form of the word was noux gauge, which probably comes from the Latin nux gallica, or Gaulish nut. This implies foreign, too.

photo of unripe walnuts by George Chernilevsky The French tend to pickle their walnuts at this stage. They're delicious.

So where do walnuts actually come from? The two commonest types are the English walnut, Juglans regia:

File:295 Juglans regia L.jpg
illustration by Amédée Masclef 

 which comes, obviously, from Iran, and the black walnut, Juglans nigra, which comes from the eastern parts of North America. The sort commercially available are of the English type because the black walnut, though tasty, has a very hard shell which means it's hard to get the meaty bit out in one piece. 

Final fact: the brown skin on the surface of a walnut kernel is full of stuff that stops the nut inside going off.