This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Uniform children: a rant.

At my local Sainsburys supermarket, (which sells clothes as well as such necessities of life as scented candles and Lego) there is an advertising hoarding featuring children wearing school uniform. 

It has the strap-line: 



But who on earth do they think is going to buy school uniform for any purpose other than for school?

Good grief. 

What you need is a slogan that's something like:






Hey... you think someone in advertising might give me a job?

It has to pay better than writing children's books.

Word To Use Today: uniform. This word is from the Latin ūniformis, which means one shape.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Minced Oaths.

Well, I don't know about you, but my day is brighter just for the knowledge that there are such things as minced oaths.

We all use them. If you've ever said gosh or darn or sugar! or fudge! then you were using a minced oath, which is a swear word that's been changed a bit to disguise it.

They're used exactly like normal oaths, and, apart from being less rude than the originals they also mean you're safe from being struck by lightning by an enraged deity, because anything you swear by will be almost certainly non-existent (by Jove!). 

Mind you, you have to be careful. Saying of course I'm telling the blooming truth may seem safe enough, but blooming is a substitute for bloody, which itself may be a stand-in for by-our-lady...and no one wants to upset a lady.

In England, an impetus to create minced oaths came about in 1606, when there was a ban on swearing on stage - and a further, even stronger impetus arrived in 1623, when there was a complete ban on swearing. This is why so many seventeenth century gentlemen went about saying things like Zounds! (short for God's wounds) or Gadzooks (God's hooks, which were the nails on the cross) or Odds bodikins (God's dear body).

So minced oaths have a purpose. 

But be careful. Be very careful. Blimey, for instance, is a disguised version of God blind me.

And no one wants that.

Nuts and Bolts: minced oaths. These are also sometimes called Rhadamanthine oaths, after Rhadamathus, who forbade his subjects to swear by anything but the ram, the goose, and the plane tree. 

Oh ram it! still works rather nicely.

Mince in all its senses is to do with the Latin minūtia, smallness.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Thing To Do Today: join a ginger group.

Groucho Marx famously didn't want to join any club that would have him as a member (which is one of the worrying things about the idea of heaven: I mean, some of those saints...).

But what if you want something done, and the only way to get it done is to join in with a group of other people?

Well, the thing to bear in mind is that most of the energy of any group goes into maintaining its own structure. This will keep the majority of its members perfectly absorbed and happy, so if you want anything actually, you know, achieved, then it will gradually become clear to you (unless you allow yourself, like most of your colleagues, to be diverted by Rules of Procedure and Any Other Business) that you will have to Do It Yourself.

Now the problem with Doing It Yourself is that the reason for joining the group in the first place is that you can't Do It Yourself: and so you will have to gather together a few friends who are similarly frustrated and form a ginger group to gee everyone up.

Everyone else will profess admiration and support for you. They may even put your cause (rather a long way down) on the minutes of the next meeting.

So your best bet really is that some idiot will change the Rules of Procedure and get you a shot at power. And then you'll find out whether what you want to achieve is a good thing.

Mind you, by that time, you'll probably have got institutionalised by all the rules yourself, and won't want to change anything.

Ah well!

Thing To Do Today: form a ginger group. Ginger is spicy enough to wake up even the blandest meal, and that seems to be the idea behind a ginger group. The word ginger comes from the Latin zinziberi, from the Greek zingiberis, probably from the Sanskrit śrńgaveram, from śrńga- horn, plus vera, body, from the shape of the root.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Spot the Frippet: weasel.

How do you tell a stoat from a weasel?

Well, a weasel is weaselly distinguished, and a stoat is stoatily different.

All right, all right, please yourselves...

This is a Least Weasel:

Mustela nivalis -British Wildlife Centre-4.jpg
photograph by Keven Law

but exactly what a weasel is depends upon where you are. In Britain a weasel is probably something called a weasel, but in America and in academia weasel can mean any member of the genus Mustela, which includes stoats and polecats and mink. 

Depending on how you define the word, there are about seventeen species of weasel, and they're found in nearly all of Eurasia and in the Americas about down to the Amazon River. They're all small, and would fit comfortably on your hand (except for the fact that they'd probably be trying to bite your thumb off). They're fierce predators, and those slim hips are especially designed to follow their prey down tunnels.

In Greece weasels also, it is said, prey on wedding dresses, an unhappy bride having once turned into a weasel and still apparently on the look-out for revenge.

Weasels aren't all bad luck - we're just past the lucky weasel-killing season in Mecklenburg, Germany (it ended on Sept 8th) so you won't be able to make a lucky weasel amulet from one, as in times past - but mostly weasels do seem to bring misfortune.

Still, seeing a Mustela weasel isn't easy (unless you're talking about a sly or treacherous person: they get everywhere) but weasel words are common. These are deliberately misleading or evasive, and spotting them is essential.

You may also spot a weaselling out, which is an avoiding of responsibility in a really inconvenient or despicable way.

If you're in America you might spot a truly useful weasel if you're in the far north, where it is a truck with caterpillar tracks designed for use on snow.

Spot the Frippet: a weasel. The Old English for this was weosule. Weasel words originate in the belief that a weasel could suck the contents out of an egg without piercing the shell.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Sunday Rest: zucchetto. Word Not To Use Today.

You'll probably have heard of zucchini, the small vegetable marrows that we in Britain usually call courgettes.

Well, as you'd expect, zucchetto is basically the same word as zucchini, and they both come from the Italian zucca, which means gourd.

So what does zuccetto mean?

I'll give you a clue. It's a badge of rank, and they come in black, violet, red and white, with white the highest.

(It means little gourd, remember.)

Got it, yet?


Well, it's the skull cap worm by an official in the Roman Catholic church (white for the pope, red for a cardinal, purple for a bishop, and black for a priest under that rank).

So, why not use the word zucchetto?

Well, how could anyone use it without sniggering once he or she knows the derivation?

Word Not To Use Today: zucchetto. This word comes from the Latin cucutia, which means gourd.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Maxims of Francois de la Rochefoucauld.

François de La Rochefoucauld was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Most unusually for a writer, it stayed there: so there was no filthy impoverished garret for the Duc de La Rochefoucaud (he was Prince de Marcillac, as well, for a while, but then, finding the title was cluttering up the place he gave it away to his son).

It's not that I'm bitter, or anything. As the Duke said in the book he called his Maximes The truest mark of having been born with great qualities is to have been born without envy.

And how did he know that? I mean, as he also said in the same book Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.

Anyway, the Maximes aren't just a list of how to be good. Old François had a good line in viperish wit, too:

Old people love to give good advice; it compensates them for being unable to give a bad example. 


And sometimes he was genuinely wise:

Sincere enthusiasm is the only orator who always persuades. It is like an art the rules of which never fail; the simplest man with enthusiasm persuades better than the most eloquent with none.

...though admittedly only sometimes:

Flirtatiousness is fundamental to a woman's nature, but not all put it into practice because some are restrained by fear or by good sense.

...and there are times when he's frankly nuts:

Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely an excuse that we say things are impossible.

...there speaks a man who's never tried to get a live eel into a jam jar.

Still, sometimes there's a small but glorious gem that shines a light through the nonsense and right out the other side:

Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire.

...and I'm happy to be grateful to the Duke for that.

Word To Use Today: maxim. This word comes from the French from the Latin phrase maxima propositio which means basic axiom.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Word To Use Today: wayzgoose.

You've heard of a hen night, but how about a wayzgoose?

It's a word from Lincolnshire, England, and it's an annual works outing made by a printing works. 

I accept that this is probably something to which you are seldom invited, but its meaning could easily be extended to cover any celebratory trip taken by workmates.

It might even encourage people to go further than the restaurant or the pub.

After all, how much more revealing of your colleagues' inner souls would it be to have a stroll across the downs, or a sail across the lake, or a stagger up the hill? How much better for the health and wealth of all participants.

How much more fun to see them clambering over styles, or dealing with picnic wasps. In unsuitable shoes. And a thunderstorm.

Mind you, once you know them properly it's quite possible you'll be too frightened ever to go back to the office. 

But at least it'd dissipate the boredom for a bit.

Word To Usr Today: wayzgoose. I think this might be the only word in the English language with the letter-string yzg in it. The word comes from the 1700s, when it was waygoose, but before that its origin is unknown. It started off as an Autumn meal given by an employer at the time when printers had to start working by candlelight, but later began to describe a works' outing. Traditionally a wayzgoose took place on August 24th, St Bartholomew's Day (he's the patron saint of bookbinders) but it can happen on any date around this time of the year.