This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: isogloss.

An isogloss is a line on a map which marks the boundary between one linguistic feature and another.

It might mark a boundary between two different pronunciations (grass to rhyme with crass and grass to rhyme with farce, perhaps); or two different meanings for the same word (canny can mean either kind or knowing, depending on whether you're in Northern England or Scotland); different ways of saying the letter r; or even two quite different languages.

Here's a map of Germany from Wikipedia.

Public Domain,

This map shows the division of High German into Upper and Central German (green and blue, respectively) as distinguished from Low Franconian, and Low German, which is shown in yellow. The black lines show the famous Benrath and Speyer lines which divides the languages (which just goes to show what an interesting word famous is).

Of course what we really need is a three-dimensional map that shows us the effect of time, as well. Then we could see how everyone stopped saying dear meaning expensive, and when the word often had a sounded letter t.*

It could show us what effect the advent of literacy, radio and TV had on language, too.

Whether wisdom would emerge from such a device I do not know. Probably we'd be left with a puzzle that makes a Rubik's cube look like a one-piece jigsaw. 

Still, that's what academics are for, isn't it.

Word To Use Today isogloss. Iso- comes from the Greek isos, which means equal or similar; and glōssa is Greek for dialect or tongue. 

As the intelligent reader will have spotted, an isogloss shows, not similarities, but differences, and this is why some people point out that it would be more logical to call it a heterogloss. (Hetero means other.)

But then, what has logic got to do with language, eh?

*In the mid-twentieth century, I'd guess. It was part of the speak-as-you-spell movement.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid.

The British aren't all that good at being perfervid.

In fact, in Britain to be perfervid will probably be seen as embarrassing, or even bad form. 

To be perfervid is practically a sign of unreliability or even madness.

The thing is that we tend to be a rather laid-back lot in England, and perfervid describes someone who's extremely enthusiastic or zealous. It describes someone who has a passion for some cause: whereas in England we most admire a person who casts a cool eye over a situation and then makes a joke about it.

It's very hard to be both perfervid and funny; and round here funny wins every time.

In Italy, I understand, being passionate is perfectly acceptable. In Eastern Europe to be zealous seems to excite high admiration.

Here, though, if you work eighty hours a week then I'm afraid the thing to do is treat the activity as a mild inconvenience.

Still, who really wants passion?




Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid. This word comes from the Latin per- which makes words more intense, and fervidus, which means fervid, which itself means intensely enthusiastic and passionate.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: zareba.

Technically, a zareba is a stockade or enclosure of thorn bushes around a village in northern East Africa. It can also be used to describe the area so enclosed.

Obviously for most of us the chance of having one of those to hand is fairly remote, but whenever I see the word zareba I don't think of East African hedges, I think instead of the magnificent PG Wodehouse story The Clicking of Cuthbert, which features (wrong word, as you shall see) the great Russian literary novelist Vladimir Brusiloff.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best of motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair

I shall be looking out for beards, today...

...and wondering what motives each man has for growing the ridiculous thing.

Spot the Frippet: zareba. This word comes from the Arabic zaribah, cattlepen, from zarb sheepfold.

Edward Lear limerick

illustration and verse by Edward Lear

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Sunday Rest: neonate. Word Not To Use Today.

A neonate is delicate and small and helpless and beautiful and full of promise - and it is the most precious thing on Earth.

And it's also what anyone with an drop of humanity in his veins would call a baby.

File:Baby (4396868797).jpg
photo by Dylan Parker

Word Not To Use Today: neonate. Yes, neo- is to do with being new (Greek neos, new) and -nate is to do with being born (Latin nasci, born) but, good grief...

Mind you...

The creature also needs inconvenient amounts of attention.

You can't store it in a safe, a fridge, a greenhouse or a museum.

It gets between you and your sleep.

It's unreasonable and very messy.

But even so, calling it a neonate is just making it obvious to the world you really don't care. 

Isn't it.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Gentle Desdemona by King Charles II

No, okay, it wasn't King Charles II who wrote about Desdemona, that was Shakespeare, but on this day in 1660, after The Return of the King (no, not Tolkien's Aragorn, do keep up at the back, there) either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall became the first woman to play a role on a public stage in England, and her role was Desdemona in Shakespeare's play Othello.

We no longer have actresses, of course, only actors of various and infinitely varied sexes.

But it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?

Word To Use Today If You're Brave Enough: actress. This word stretches back further than you'd think, right back to the 1580s when, however, it meant a woman who did something. The stage sense appeared around 1700, so Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall were actually actors. 

The word actor started off with the idea of being someone who manages some activity (particularly, oddly, driving sheep). An actor was also the accuser in a court case. It started to be applied to stage actors about the time the word actress first appeared, in the 1580s. The Latin word agere means to set in motion.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Word To Use Today: venom.

'But I don't come here for venom!' you may be thinking, quite reasonably enough. 'I get enough of that at home!'

(And at work, and, heaven help us, constantly on the news.)

But the thing is that I can't resist featuring the word venom because it has such a neat derivation.

Still, it does give me the chance to tell you something cheering. I came across a beautiful story recently of a Chinese spider (it goes by the daunting scientific name of Toxeus magnus) that produces milk and suckles its young. It carries on feeding the young spiderlings until after they are are technically independent, too. And it might have as many as thirty six kids.

There. That's rather lovely, isn't it. The details can be found HERE, but I wouldn't recommend them. They don't give that good an impression of those 'higher' and also sometimes venomous life-forms, humans.

Word To Use Today: venom. This word comes from the Old French venim, from then Latin venēnum, which means poison or, astonishingly, love potion. The word is related to venus, which means sexual love.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Out of this World: a rant.

Yesterday was World Soil Day - and as if this wasn't enough of a delight for one week, tomorrow International Civil Aviation Day is coming along to add lustre to our existence. 

As it turns out, every week is scattered with celebrations. November the nineteenth was World Toilet Day, for example, and June the fifteenth was Global Wind Day.

Now, these are all things worth celebrating. I mean, without soil and civil aviation where would we get the beans with which, I assume, we should celebrate Global Wind Day?

But, I don't know. I'm having trouble with September the thirteenth. September the thirteenth is World Sepsis Day. And who on earth would want to celebrate that? 

I mean, World Anti-Sepsis Day I could understand.

But never mind, we have a real treat to which to look forward soon. On December the twentieth we shall all wake up to World Barking Day. The idea, apparently, is to celebrate our inner dog...'s the lamp posts I feel sorry for, myself.

Word To Use Today: soil.This word comes from the Latin solium, which means a seat. This would be very puzzling if it weren't for the fact that some of the Anglo-Normans were a bit rubbish at Latin, and the word they were actually meaning to borrow was solum, which means the ground.