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 October 2020

Saturday Rave: The Shepherd's Calendar. October, by John Clare.

 Why do people write stuff?

Milton said Fame is the spur - and one must assume that, for him, that it was. Dorothy L Sayers describes a need to capture a thought or feeling on paper. 

Money is important, naturally (even poets can't live on air); and there's also the satisfaction of making something; and the generous desire to share a story; and the need to know what's going to happen next; and a love for your characters.

There are other, personal motives, too, of course, like I'll show'em; and there's also the joy of exploration; but underpinning all this is (often) a need to work out the truth and then say it.

The inly pleased tho solitary boy

Journeying & muttering oer his dreams of joy

Haunting the hedges for the wilding fruit

Of sloe or black berry just as fancy's suit

The sticking groups in many a ragged set

Brushing the woods their harmless loads to get

& gipseys camps in some snug shelterd nook

Were old lanes like the pasture brook

Run crooked as they will by wood & dell

In such lone spots as these wild wood roamers dwell

On commons were no farmers claims appear

Nor tyrant justice rides to interfere

This is the truth: a solitary boy mutters (perhaps he is mentally ill); the people gathering sticks are ragged and poor; gypsies need shelter from the cold; the legal enclosure by farmers of land long available to help poor people survive is the act of a tyranny.

But that's not any kind of truth the grand people who are going to be buying The Shepherd's Calendar are going to want to hear, so it needs changing. 

Forward with the editorial pen! 

The solitary boy is now journeying in rapture o'er their dreams of joy (much more romantic); the ragged groups vanish (unattractive); gypsies now merry...o'er their raptures dwell; and no farmer ever arrives, sheltered by the Law, to banish poor folk from the land.

I don't know how John Clare felt about these editorial changes, but he carried on writing all his life, whether published or not.

A brave man, John Clare, and as honest as he was allowed to be.

Poor man.

Word To Use Today: tyranny. The very first tyrants in Ancient Greece were just the people in charge, but for some reason their reputation was very soon darkened. The Greek word for a tyrant was turannos.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Word To Use Today: zucchetto.

 Once you know that the skull cap worn by various dignitaries of the Roman Catholic church (and colour-coded according to rank) is properly called a zucchetto, then I'm afraid it does make it slightly harder to take some important people entirely seriously.

Word To Use Today: zucchetto. This is basically the same word as zucchini (these are the vegetables we in Britain call courgettes). The word zucchetto comes from the Italian zucca, which means gourd or head, from the Latin cucutia, and probably before that from cucurbita.

photo by Chiswick Chap 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Omniscience: a rant.

 In some ways you have to blame the scientists.

We use the scientific method, they say, and that's the best and only certain way to discover the truth about the universe.

Now, in a way that's true (assuming there is such a thing as truth). But the statement above is still wrong.

It comes in the first two words: we use.

Scientific method takes you from a point of understanding A to a point of understanding B, and proves it by both logic and experiment. 

There's nothing wrong with that. You don't even have to be able to fit Point A onto other stuff you know. That doesn't necessarily make the science wrong, or not useful.

On the other hand, if you ask a scientist what will happen when you're dealing with an entirely new event - ooh, let's take as an example an outbreak of a new virus - then he or she will naturally not be sure of the way from any Point A to Point B, and so what he or she does isn't going to be science.

It'll just be the best-informed guess anyone can make, based on stuff that is science. In that case we aren't following science; we're following scientists.

And if everyone just recognised that, then perhaps we'd could all stop shouting at each other and get together to work out our best bet for survival.

Word To Contemplate Today: omniscience. Omni- means all or everywhere, from the Latin omnis, all. -science comes from the Latin scīre, to know.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the Massachusetts ꝏ


This is the title page of The Whole Holy His-Bible God, both Old Testament and also New Testament. This turned by the servant-of-Christ, who is called John Eliot.

John Eliot wanted to convert the native people of Massachusetts to Christianity, and to do that he decided they should have a complete version of the bible in their own language - in particular in the Natick dialect of those people who lived around him. He didn't speak Natick, and in fact Natick had never been a written-down language, but he set to work and managed to translate the whole Bible in about fourteen years. He was even sensible enough to enlist the help of Cockenoe, John Sassamon, Job Nesuton, and James Printer, who did actually speak the Natick dialect of Massachusett.

One thing John Eliot did was to introduce a new letter, 

to reproduce the long oo sound of the word food, as opposed to the short oo of the word hook (although John Eliot seems to have used the two different ways of writing these sounds interchangeably).

Sadly, the Natick language is no longer spoken in America, but since the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project began in the year 2000 the double oo ligature: 

has been used, though turned on its side so it can be typed as a figure 8.

Yes, this story of dedication and eccentricity is completely useless information for almost all of us.

But it's a precious thing, all the same.

Thing To Wonder At Today: the Massachusetts 

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Thing To Be not Do Today: fast.

So, what's the connection between fasting, as in not eating for a period of time, and being fast, as in Usain Bolt?

Um...well...they're spelled the same way...the other links might be older than the English language itself.

Anyway, while fast, as in not eating, has hardly changed its meaning for a thousand years, fast, as in moving quickly, has sprouted in all sorts of interesting ways. If you think about it, a door that's fast is very difficult to get to move at all, let alone quickly; someone who is fast seeks constant pleasure, but they might not move very far - and probably not at any sort of speed - in order to find it; a colour that's fast is staying the same and not going anywhere; and neither is someone who's fast asleep. A fast talker is probably playing fast and loose and pulling a fast one; and at archery a cry of fast! means stop!

But as I say, the roots of all this mess started a long long time ago.

Thing To Be Or Do Today: fast. The modern word that gives some clue about this divergence of meaning is steadfast, because fast started off in Old English as fæst, which meant firmly fixed, enclosed, strong, a word which probably goes right back to the Sanskrit word pastyam, which means dwelling place. From the idea of a strong runner, fast came to mean quick (though this didn't happen until the mid 1550s); and from the idea of a strong will, or strong discipline came the idea of not eating.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Spot the Frippet: enzyme.

 Okay you can't actually point to something and say Look! An enzyme! But then you can't point upwards and say Look! A sky! either, can you, but you still know it's there.

(I'm making the assumption that the sky hasn't fallen where you are, despite the constant predictions of the twenty-four-hour news media.)

Anyway, enzymes. You get them in biological washing powders and dish-washing stuff. They eat dirt if the dirt has come something alive, and you don't even need very hot water for it to work. They're used in meat tenderisers, too. They're wonderful things, enzymes, and that's even before you consider that they are keeping you alive.

Yes, you contain thousands of enzymes, and if even one of them is missing or a bit dodgy then it can cause really serious problems. You need enzymes to operate at every level. Every living cell in your body relies on them to send signals. They help your muscles contract and your gut digest food. Sometimes missing enzymes can be replaced: for instance, someone lactose intolerant can take some tablets containing the lactase enzyme and, hey presto!

Without enzymes there'd be no naturally-occurring alcohol. Fireflies wouldn't shine. Cows couldn't eat grass. There's be no cheese, biscuits, clear fruit juice - and your contact lenses would be really itchy and dirty.

Let's make today a day to appreciate them.

Illustration: crystal structure of bovine chymotripsin by 

Spot the Frippet: enzymes. This word was coined by Wilhelm Kühne. He got the word from the Greek enzumos, which means risen (as in bread).

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Sunday Rest: nocturn. Word Not To Use Today.

 To be honest, I think it unlikely that many of us were even thinking of using the word nocturn today.

We might know that a nocturne (with an e) is a work of art giving some impression of the night (or it can be a ripply dream-like piano piece); and we might know that a noctule is a night-flying bat; and that something nocturnal is active at night; and, given all that, we can probably take a guess that the word nocturn is something to do with the night-time.

And we'd be quite wrong.

nocturn is any of the sections of the Roman Catholic church service called matins.

Yes, that's matins as in morning service. From the Latin mātūtīnus, which means of the morning. From Mātūta, goddess of the dawn.

Personally, I think that's just perverse.

Sunday Rest: nocturn. This word comes from the Latin word nox, which means night. (The service of matins can be very early indeed in some religious communities, but I'm afraid that's just transferring the essential difficulty elsewhere.)