This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Saturday Rave: The Spring by Thomas Carew

We're still too early for this poem, really, but it's a truly glorious thing and the sun is shining like mad, here, so here it is.

Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
His snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
And makes it tender, gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour,
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal'd, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made 
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she does carry 
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

Thomas Carew, as you will have deduced, lived in a time before the seasonal migration of birds was understood.

Well, it still doesn't seem that likely, does it.

Word To Use Today: swallow. The Old English form of this word is swealwe.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Word To Use Today: glacier.

What are glaciers made of?

photo by Paxson Woelber - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Yes, ice, that's right, well done, but what's the ice is made of? No, it's not actually made from frozen water, but from compressed snow.

Now, if you think of glaciers as smallish things a long way away then consider this: ten percent of the Earth's land surface is covered by glaciers (you don't get them on the sea). Glaciers are so heavy they carve the rock underneath them as they go, and they're the largest source of fresh water on the planet.

Glaciers move slowly, under the force of their own weight - either outwards from a central mass if it's a continental glacier (which contain 99% of glacial ice and form the ice sheets of the polar regions), or down a valley of it's an alpine glacierAntarctica's 13.2 million square kilometres of continental glacier have an average thickness of 2,100 metres.

So, you know, they may not be next door, but they're still really quite big and important. Aren't they?

photo, Pakistan, by Guilhem Vellut

Word To Use Today: glacier. This word comes from French - from dialect of Savoy, probably - and is derived from the Latin glacia, and before that from glaciēs, ice.

Something that's glacial, by the way, is very slow or very cold. For instance, a glacial look is extremely chilly, and glacial progress nicely describes the course of any government project anywhere in the world.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Absolutely clear: a rant.

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May (and please don't call her Prime Minister May, because it's wrong and annoying), has a habit of saying let me be absolutely clear...and then going on to say that the thing is everything will be fine once she can just get everyone to agree with her.

Which, of course, isn't clear at all. Let's face it, it's not even politic.

Clear has become a word, like undoubtedly, which signals opacity and doubt. This is clearly the case is, perversely, about something less clear than this is the case.

He's undoubtedly a villain has a faint feeling of uncertainty that he's a villain doesn't possess.

Both clear and undoubted move us gently from the realm of fact to the realm of perception. It's really rather clever.

Anyway, there was a recent example of the use of the word clearly in a piece about Alexa-type devices in the Daily Telegraph. You know the sort of thing I mean: those machines that listen to your activities so they can tell burglars when you've gone out. The piece said:

It's clearly convenient to be able to turn on your bedroom lights from your Amazon Echo speaker in your kitchen...

And I was pleased to discover in this a statement so bonkers that even the word clearly isn't crafty enough to obscure it.

Word To Use Today: clear. This word comes from the Old French cler. The Latin clārus means clear, bright, brilliant or illustrious.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Verspätungsschal.

Claudia Weber works in a travel agent's office in Munich.

Unfortunately, her own attempts at travel were often sadly inadequate. Frau Weber's commute to work went wrong a lot - which, really, is enough to make a person wonder if he or she is in the right job.

So after a while Frau Weber decided to make a Verspätungsschal, a delay scarf, as a brilliant and original way of illustrating what was going wrong.

She knitted one row of the scarf for every journey she made to work. If her train was on time she knitted a blue line; she knitted a grey one if the train was five minutes late, pink for a half hour delay, and red if the train was even later than that.

For an entirely new way of communicating it didn't half strike a chord among German commuters, to the extent that when it was auctioned on ebay it made 7550 Euros for the charity Bahnhofsmission.

Here's the finished scarf, from a post about the auction on Twitter:

All hail Frau Weber, I say, for finding a truly universal language, and I hope she now feels quite happy in her profession.

Word To Use Today: Verspätungsschal. As in I'd make my own Verspätungsschal, except that I support Manchester City, perhaps.*

(By the way, as it happens Germany's railways, Deutsche Bahn, are state-owned.)

*Geddit? Manchester trains are famously late, and so the scarf would turn out mostly red, the colour of Manchester United.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered.

Bouldered means high on drugs.

It's a good, vivid expression. The person in question will be sensible as someone who's been hit on the head by a boulder; as clear-thinking as a boulder; and will walk as steadily as if the floor is strewn with boulders.

There are a dozen unanswerable and excellent arguments to be made against being bouldered, many of which concern the cost to health, wealth and society, and of course you've heard them all.

But it's worth mentioning because the word bouldered has a rather satisfying derivation.

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered. This is like being stoned, but even worse.

Neat, huh?

The word boulder probably comes from Scandinavia. There's a Swedish dialect word bullersten, from the Old Swedish bulder, rumbling, and sten, stone.

Stoned, as in under the influence of drugs (or, to begin with, alcoholic drink) refers to being so drunk as to be as as lively as a stone.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: mask.

I hope the mask you see isn't being worn by a surgeon, that's all. 

File:UW surgery and residents.jpg
University of Washington, Seattle.

I hope instead that any mask you see is being worn by a fencer (a sword-fighter, I mean):

File:Romania v France EFS 2013 Fencing WCH t163933.jpg
photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

or perhaps an ice hockey player. 

Or, if you happen to be Ancient Greek who's reading this via some sort of time-slip worm-hole type thing (you never know) an actor:

File:Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy (Thermae Decianae).jpg
(though this mosaic is actually Roman. It's in the Hall of the Doves, Palazzo Nuovo.)

Or perhaps your nearest mask being worn by someone spraying paint or sawing chipboard.

Of course if you're in Venice then masks are everywhere, on every other street stall.

File:Venetian Carnival Mask - Maschera di Carnevale - Venice Italy - Creative Commons by gnuckx (4820456037).jpg
photo by gnuckx

but if you are somewhere else then you might be able to find a dragonfly larva or a fox: their faces are called masks, as are the faces of Siamese cats:

File:Siamese cat.JPG
photo by Achileos

Or perhaps, in your quest for eternal beauty, you are wearing this sort of mask:

photo: By Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

The question always to ask with masks, of course, is: what is the wearer hiding? 

And, even more importantly, why?

Spot the Frippet: mask. This word comes from the Italian maschera, from the Arabic maskhara, a clown, from sakhira, mockery.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Sunday Rest: the B word. Word Not To Use Today.

I have written about this as a word to be avoided before, but since then things have got worse: now any mention of it in Britain is reckoned to be so much a matter of tedium and despair, a word inducing so many winces of pain and crippling embarrassment from those on both sides of the question, that even on national media it is as often as not referred to as the B word.

On the whole, for this people seem to be grateful.

Word Not To Use Today: the B word. This Initial-Word formula has until now been only usually been used for swear words so offensive that they cannot be spoken out loud. 

I have once heard it used, though, ("the C word") by a publisher referring to the name of a rival organisation.