This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 28 May 2015

the curate's egg: a rant.

Do you know the story of the curate's egg?

It was told in a Punch cartoon of the 1890s:

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones"; Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

(The writer of that cartoon was George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne.)

I've been thinking about curates. They're junior priests, and historically they haven't had anything like the social standing or income of their seniors.

They do have a splendid title, though: the word curate comes ultimately from the Latin cūra, to care. Curates care, about and for, people.

Curators have a similar job, though what they care for, and about, are usually precious museum or gallery exhibits. 

This, below, was sent me on 15/5/15. It's from a firm called One Regent's Place. 

Fallen Fruits offers a range of unique gifts inspired by nature. We have carefully curated a small range of their best selling items which are destined to add interest to your garden this summer.

Curated? Curated??

They're not curating anything, they've just got the stuff in to flog off quick.

Curating...good grief.

And I'll tell you something else: the stuff isn't destined to add interest to my garden, either.


Word To Use Today: curate. But only if you really do care.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Nuts and Bolts: albatross to zebra.

Crème caramel.

English is a magpie, avidly seizing on anything shiny or pretty and gleefully flying with it back to its home.

Doesn't this make English a bit of a mess?

Well, you could call it a mess...or a glorious muddle...or a clutter of curiosities. Chacun á son goût.

What's certain is that English is full of plundered treasures. Like these:

Albatross, albino, banana, baroque, breeze, buffalo, caramel, coconut, commando, embarrass, fetish, junk, molasses, pagoda, serval, tank, veranda, yam and zebra.

What do all those words have in common? Well, they've all arrived to delight speakers of the English language from, or via, Portuguese.

Oh, and has anyone ever stolen anything more elegantly covetable than the word caramel?

If they have, it's hard to know what it was.

Word To Use Today: caramel. No one's really sure where this word ultimately comes from, and some say it came via Spain rather than Portugal. Ah well, thanks a bunch anyway. Caramel probably has something to do with the Latin callamelus, little reed, which referred to sugar cane.  

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Thing To Make Today: an opuscule.

Are you going to start your novel today?

Thought not.

Are you going to start building your dream house, then? Painting that fresco? Designing the costumes for the ballet? Planting up the palace garden?


No, neither am I. The trouble is that these projects are so vast the mere thought of them is enough to grind any burgeoning shoots into the ground.

But how about making an opuscule?

Yes, I know that opuscule is a thoroughly nasty word, but it's still a very nice idea: an opuscule is a tiny work of art.

So: why not arrange the left-overs from your dinner absolutely beautifully? Why not arrange that pile of books into an architectural delight?

A loaded dishwasher or draining board can be a lovely thing, you know - and so can a coaster on a table, if it's in exactly the right place.

It's all good practice for that major work.

And it will make the world just a slightly better place, as well.

Thing To Make Today: a opuscule. This word comes the French from the Latin opusculum, from opus, which means work.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Spot the frippet: mint.

Well, there's mint and then there's mint.

There's the herb, excellent with new potatoes and in a mint julep:

File:Skylon, South Bank, London (3315229761).jpg
Photo by Ewan Munro

and in mint jelly, mouthwash, and sweets; and then there's a place where you make money:

File:EH1079134 Bank of England 06.jpg
That's the Bank of England. Panoramic photo by Katie Chan

Something in mint condition is as good as new. A shiny new mint condition coin should be easy to spot - and surely will always give pleasure: humans do like shiny things!

5th-century gold coins via Saharadesertfox at Wikimedia Commons
(These coins are from the 1400s, but still look in mint condition to me.)

Perhaps this is why in Britain something that's mint is something that's excellent.

And even on a Monday morning, you should have no problem at all spotting one of those.

Spot the frippet: mint. The herb word comes from the Old English minte, from the Latin mentha, from the Greek Minthē, who was a nymph who was turned into a mint plant.The money-making place comes from the Old English mynet, coin, from the Latin monēta, money, mint, from the Temple of Juno Monēta (Juno meaning something like the one and only, and Moneta meaning either instruct (if it's Latin) or alone (if it's Greek)). The temple was used as a mint in Roman times.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sunday Rest: flu-flu. Word Not To Use Today.

A flu-flu...well, it's going to be something ridiculous, isn't it, like a poodle's hair-cut, or the feeling of panic you get when you open your wallet and discover your credit card isn't in its usual slot.

But it's nothing like that. A flu-flu is an agent of death.

Here's its tail:

Can you guess what it is? 

It's the curled and cut (usually turkey) feathers on an arrow. They're treated in this way to reduce the arrow's range. 

This sort of arrow has a blunt tip, so it will kill small animals and birds, but is unlikely to plunge itself inconveniently into the ground or a tree.

Flu-flu arrows might be bad for birds, but they've saved quite a lot of human lives. You see, in England in the Middle Ages you were allowed to shoot birds anywhere, but if you were caught on someone else's land with a sharp arrow suitable for killing deer then you'd probably be executed.

Flu-flu arrows are used by children, and also in flu-flu golf, where you keep shooting from the place your last shot landed until you reach your target.

Honestly, flu-flu golf... still sounds like something you'd play accompanied by a lilac poodle, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: flu-flu. I can't find any information at all about the derivation of this word. I suppose it must have been made up by an archer. The mind boggles.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Saturday Rave: The Pelican by Dixon Lanier Merritt

Pelikan Walvis Bay.jpg

The pelican is an ancient and famous symbol of suffering and generosity. It is said to wound its breast with its beak and feed its young on the blood thus produced. Like this:

To the Ancient Eyptians pelicans were goddesses who were dab hands at prophesy and guiding people safely to the underworld. 

So, when a poet sits down to encapsulate the essence of one of these remarkable, important birds, he has millennia of mystery and belief to distill.

Of all the pelican poetry in existence, surely Dixon Lanier Merritt's 1913 composition is the one we cherish most.

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His beak holds more than his belican.
He takes in his beak
Food enough for a week.
But I'm damned if I know how the helican.

It's the one I remember, anyway...

...I don't know whether that's depressing, or not.

Word To Use Today: pelican. This word comes from the Greek pelekān, which seems to come from  from pelekus, axe. Why? Well, the Greek for woodpecker was pelekas, and perhaps the Greeks didn't think the difference between woodpeckers and pelicans was all that important.

Ah well!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Word To Use Today: purfling.

Here's an enchanting word.


You're bound to have seen some purfling, but perhaps not known what it is.

Here's some, done by the man, Andrea Amati, who was possibly the inventor of it:

See the decorative dark line round the outside edge of the front of the violin? That's the purfling.

Here's some purfling in the process of being inserted onto a cello:

The purfling can be made of wood (sometimes dyed) or mother of pearl. It tends to make the edges of the violin more flexible, and this can change the sound of the instrument (not necessarily for the better).

Still, it looks jolly nice - so nice that in a cheap instrument the purfling may be made of plastic, or even just painted on.

And why not. It's enough to make the hours of practice worthwhile just to hold some purfling in your hands, isn't it.

Well, possibly.

Word To Use Today: purfling. This word comes from the Old French purfiler, to decorate with a border, from filer to spin, from the Latin fīlum, thread. English also has the lovely purfle, which is a decorative ruffled or curved band on a piece of fabric, or it can even mean to decorate something with such a band.