This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Saturday Rave: The Name, by Steve Wadsworth.

Selby is a town in North Yorkshire, England.

It was founded by the Vikings (as you can tell from the by at the end of its name) on the banks of the River Ouse.

Selby has a magnificent abbey:


and, although Selby may not have made the biggest impact on world affairs, don't be deceived into thinking it's a sleepy backwater. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Selby District Council (Your 'Excellent' Council) is building a new Leisure Centre.

Now, the old one was called after the abbey (see above), but obviously some new and thrusting appellation was required for the new building, and so a competition was launched to find one.

The excitement has been intense, but now I can bring to you the result of the competition, as announced in Selby District Council's newsletter.

'The winner of the exciting competition to name the new leisure centre in Selby has received the prize of a year’s free membership from leisure provider WLCT.

Steve Wadsworth chose the name Selby Leisure Centre for the facility, which is set to open in Spring 2015.'

So there we are: concise, clear, and comprehensible.

I vote for Steve Wadsworth as a Language Hero of our time.

Word To Use Today: leisure. This word comes from the Old French leisir, and before that from the Latin licēre, to be allowed.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Word To Use Today: phoenix

Ah, yes, the phoenix, that mythical bird reborn from its own ashes. The word is used figuratively to mean that which rises again after being destroyed, like the city of Phoenix, Arizona, which was founded in 1867 on the site of a settlement of the Hohokam Indian people who populated the land from 300 B.C - 1450 A.D.

Now, the probability is that the phoenix was named because of its looks, which is odd, because of course no one can actually know what a phoenix looked like.

Pliny described it as having a crest, and Ezekiel the Dramatist said it looked a bit like a cockerel: but according to Tacitus the thing that really made the bird stand out from all others were its colours, which according him and various other Romans were either a bit like those of a peacock, or bright red (which included what we'd today call purple) and yellow.

In size they say it was somewhere between an eagle and an ostrich's big brother - but then those Romans would say anything.

Anyway, as time went on and nobody managed to get hold of an actual live phoenix, gradually the phoenix began to be put together in people's minds with a similar word, one that described a whole people: that is, Phoenician.

To encourage the confusion between the purple phoenix and the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians were great traders and tended to be regarded as coming out of the red-purple sunrise; they also tended to have purple stripes on their sails, which were dyed with stuff from the murex shellfish.

To make things even more complicated, Dido (the one who threw herself on a funeral pyre because her boyfriend decided to go on a sailing trip) was herself a Phoenician - though as far as I know no one has ever suggested poor Dido rose again.

Word To Use Today: phoenix. This word comes from the Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix which means Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix. The original sense might be purple.

Isidore of Seville in the 600s said that the word comes from the Arabic word for singular, but most people don't agree.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Boring Poisoner: a rant.

I know the world is big, but it hadn't occurred to me until recently that it's big enough to contain millipede enthusiasts.

Where they meet, and what activities they indulge in when they do, I do not know; but what I do know is that they're seriously upset.

It's the fault of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust charity based in Cambridge, England. Buglife does all sorts of things to raise awareness of the plight of animals without backbones, and one of the things they've done is to give English names to some animals previously known (to humans, at least) only by their scientific names.

But what has Buglife done? It's gone and named a flat backed millipede, Polyzonium germanicum, in fact, one of only three millipedes in England with its own biodiversity action plan, the Boring Millipede.

Boring? But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to flat backed millipedes. I mean, some species of flat backed millipedes, when annoyed, give off raw cyanide: it is said that if you put a flat backed millipede in a jar with other bugs, within an hour all the others will be dead.

Boring? Good grief, Agatha Christie made a fortune from plots more likely than that.

All right, it may be true that the Boring Millipede does, well, bore its way into...well, whatever it is that millipedes like to bore into.

But to call it a Boring Millipede is a foul slander, and those millipede enthusiasts, in whichever phone box they happen to be holding their convention, really do have my sincerest sympathy.

Mind you, they want to call the poor thing the Pinhead Millipede.

And, quite frankly, with friends like those...

Word To Use Today But Not About Millipedes: boring. This word comes from the Old English borian and is probably something to do with the Greek pharos, ploughing, and phárynx, meaning throat.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Nuts and Bolts: phonoaesthetics.

JRR Tolkien said that the most beautiful word in the English language was cellar-door.

This wasn't, as far as I know, anything to do with his ever being stuck in a cellar and all hope of rescue focusing on the said cellar-door. No, Tolkien was taking a purely phonoaesthetic approach. He often did, as you can tell if you read his works of fiction.

For him, cellar-door had the loveliest sound of any word in the English language.

I certainly share Tolkien's views on the importance of phonoaesthetics. As a child I remember crying bitterly because our holiday was to be in Exmouth, which sounded frowning and fierce; but later being completely reconciled to the idea of the holiday when I discovered that we'd actually be staying in a village a little way outside the town called Lympstone. Lympstone sounded charming. And, as far as I can recall, it was.

So, what are the most beautiful-sounding words in the English language? It's partly a question of taste, of course, but there's also the difficulty of separating a word's meaning from its sound.

If you ask an American what is the most beautiful word in the English language it seems there's quite a high chance that the answer will be mother. Personally, though, I'm yet to be convinced that mother really does have a very pleasing sound to it.

Does smother?

How about a lovely word like melodious?

How about a horrid one like malodorous?

It's not easy, is it.

Anyway, here are some words that have all been suggested as the most phonoaesthetically pleasing in the language: mellifluous, delicious, diaphanous, shimmering.

Here are some more: plethora, silhouette, salamander, percolator.

And how about these? Avarice, melanoma, clandestine, fallacy.

So there we are, wherever that is - which is quite possibly Exeter, which I visited later in life and found absolutely charming.

File:Archway, Fleming Way, Exeter - - 686551.jpg
Photo by Derek Harper

Thing To Consider Today: phonoaesthetics. This word comes from phōnē, sound and aisthētikos, perceptible to the senses.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Thing Not To Do Today, Probably: ululate.

To howl, to wail, to yell, to cry, to scream,
To crack through heaven's gauzy shell with pain,
And pierce the angels' songs with grief and rage.

Unfortunately, being English, the nearest people here generally get to a good ululation is an uneasy clearing of the throat as they prepare to sidle from a scene.

Ah well.

I suppose if we're desperate to have a good ululate we could always have a game of Cowboys and what are now known as Native Americans...except that I suppose even that can't be done, these days. I mean, it'd have to be a game where neither side was allowed to win.

So what chance do we have of ululating? Not much.

And I suppose that explains why at the moment everyone seems to feel the need to join a choir.

Thing Not To Do Today Probably: ululate. This word comes from the Latin ululāre to howl, from ulula, which means screech owl.

Eastern Screech Owl.jpg
This is an Eastern Screech Owl, which you find in America and so isn't the sort of screech owl the Romans would have been talking about. But, hey...


Monday, 24 November 2014

Spot the Frippet: vacua.

American cockroach. Photo by Gary Alpert

Nature may abhor vacua, but on the whole they're an inoffensive sort of thing.

Yes, vacua is the plural - one of the plurals - of vacuum. The most widely-used and sensible plural of vacuum is vacuums, of course, but vacua is a pleasing conceit for private moments.

But how on earth can we spot vacua? Aren't they invisible?

Well, spotting a vacuum flask is easy enough, and there are vacuum cleaners all over the place. It's admittedly unusual to find either of these devices nowadays with any sort of a vacuum anywhere about its innards, but you might have some food about the place that's been vacuum-packed.

On the whole the best way to see a vacuum is to do a simple but satisfying experiment. First, find a thin empty plastic bottle such as a water bottle. Fill it up with hot water (but not boiling water, or you might melt the thing); after a few moments empty the water out and quickly screw the cap on tight. Wait.

Soon the sides of the bottle will begin to make nice cracking sounds, and soon after that they'll collapse inwards quite spectacularly. 


Well, the air inside your container was quite warm when you put the top on, because it had been heated up by the container's water-heated surfaces. Soon, though, the air cools down, and cool air takes up less space than hot air. This means you have a lower-than-normal volume of stuff in your bottle, which is what a vacuum is, and so the bottle collapses until it's the right size for the amount of stuff in it.

(Some people will insist that a vacuum is somewhere with absolutely nothing at all in it, but without the use of a brain-scanner and a career politician that's much harder to demonstrate.)

If you are a cockroach, all such experiments are unnecessary because you have a vacuum-detector in your bottom. This detects any sort of pressure wave (such as is generated by a descending foot) and allows you to take instant evasive action. 

Unfortunately the same principle encourages you to run straight into the nozzle of any vacuum cleaner. 

Spot the Frippet: vacua. This word comes to us from vacuum, which is Latin for empty space, from vacuus, empty.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sunday Rest: twee. Word Not To Use Today.

The trouble with dictionaries is that they're too interesting. I mean, it's impossible to look up a word without being caught by at least three others on the way.

At least, it is for me.

Here's a case in point. The other day I was writing about Twitter, and in the dictionary I came across the word twee.

Now, I can't decide if twee is truly a horrible word. It means a horrible thing, i.e. something sick-makingly prettified or sentimental; but is the word, in itself, a shocker?

If I didn't know what it meant, would I dislike it so much?

If I didn't know where the word came from (see below, but only if you're feeling strong) would I dislike it so much?

I suspect are the answers to those questions are no, and no, but it's too late, now. I can practically feel my teeth rotting if the word twee passes my lips.

Still, I suppose that lonely dentists might have an affection for it.

Word Not To Use Today: twee. This word comes...are you ready, because this is truly horrible...this word came into being in the 1800s and is a baby-talk version of sweet