This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Saturday Rave: By The Sea by Emily Dickinson

It's summer here and people are flocking to the seaside. What will they find?

It all depends upon whether they are geniuses or not.

Here's a poem about a visit to the sea by Emily Dickinson. 

It has a much-quoted first line.

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me.

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as the dew
Upon a dandelion's sleeve - 
And then I started too.

And he - he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, - then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

If the purpose of Art is to show you something you thought you knew, then these are valuable lines.

Now, some clever people may say the poem's about something else entirely.

But it doesn't have to be, does it?

Word To Use Today: sea. This is a word of the northern lands. The Old English form was .

Friday, 17 August 2018

Word To Use Today: shenanigans.

Shenanigans are the sorts of things you don't want on your CV. The sorts of things you don't want your mum to know about. Or your teacher. Or your boss, or your priest.

Shenanigans aren't necessarily bad, exactly - or, at least, the point of shenanigans isn't usually to hurt anyone. No, it's to have a good time, or a profitable time, albeit in a way of which the authorities would probably not approve.

These things may have a victim, true, but if they do then the word shenanigan is really very effective at casting an aura of innocent fun, or minor mischief, over the whole affair.

(And some shenanigans are affairs.)

There can also be hint of secret plans about shenanigans; of bribes, perhaps, and favours called-in, but, as I've said, the main thing is that the word itself is a construct of such charm and easy humour that even the most nefarious of activities comes over as little more than harmless mischief.


Word To Use Today: shenanigan. This word appeared in the mid 1850s and seems to be connected with the American Gold Rush. Where the word comes from is a matter of argument, but the Irish sionnachaíonn has the meaning foxy, so it may be something to do with that.

It's possible, though rare, to have a single shenanigan: but, let's face it, when someone gets up to mischief he or she seldom wants to stop.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Sorry Is Not The Hardest Word: a rant.

About four times a week I go past a garage with a sign outside it which reads:


File:Hammock nap on patio.jpg
photo by Michael Nutt 

I don't believe them, you know.

Word To Use Today: sorry. This word comes from the Old English sārig. It's connected to the word sore, which is connected to the Latin saevus, which means angry.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: baby talk.

I mean, what do generations of parents and grandparents know?

All that silly baby-talk - saying doggy instead of dog, and choo-choo instead of train, and using all those silly high voices. Why on earth have parents all over the world and in every language on earth done that for so many hundreds of years?

Well, obviously, it's because they're uneducated, because otherwise they'd have read the books by the academics and they'd know that such a thing is, not only ridiculous and illogical, but positively harmful.

Except...hang on...

...the academics (or, at least, some of them) have changed their minds. They've found out that using words ending in a ee sound, like tummy or bunny, enable children to learn all sorts of new words faster. Reduplication of sounds, like choo-choo, helps, too (though using words where the sound of the word is connected to its meaning,like crash! or bang! didn't give the same result. The author of the study, though, Dr Mitsuhiko Ota of the University of Edinburgh, wonders if enough data were collected in the study to be sure of this, and also wonders if the study's definition of this sort of word was really properly rigorous in relation to very young children).

The study found that even though special baby-talk vocabulary only makes up about five per cent of speech, it still has a measurable effect on the number of words used by children at nine, fifteen, and twenty one months.

"Even though words such as choo-choo and bunny appear superfluous, they may play an important role in bootstrapping the development of the lexicon as a whole," the study says.

Which leaves me wondering if, instead of using the word bootstrapping, the study had said boot-boot or bootstrappy then somehow I might have understood what it means.

Word To Use Today: bootstrap. I looked this up in a dictionary, and apparently this refers to a way of advancing oneself or accomplishing something, as in, presumably, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Adult vocabulary increases in different ways from those of small children!

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: grill.

The fashion in cookery at the moment seems to be for recipes without nearly enough food in them. 

(Note to food journalists: lettuce, however ornamented, is not enough!)

Still, fashions come and go. A little while ago we were being asked to put chilli in absolutely everything, and before that (when fat was the enemy) we were supposed cook everything under the grill.

But grilling things is a nuisance. Half the time the flame on a grill is too far away from the food for it to be much more than a sun bed (even when the grill pan is propped up on two chopping boards) and apart from that you can't see what's going on, you can't get to your oven without doing contortions, and the washing up is horrendous.*

In any case, the fat's the best part.

A barbecue grill, I admit, is a slightly more convenient. It does at least incinerate the flies to something that can pass as charcoal.

There is another sort of grilling, one which involves asking searching, inescapable questions. It's occasionally permissible, and even charming, in a really curious three-year-old. 

Otherwise it's the realm of policemen, inquisitors, and tax collectors, and best avoided.

Thing Not To Do Today: grill. This word comes from the Old French gril, gridiron, from the Latin crātīcula, fine wickerwork.

*This may be just my cooker. 

I'm getting a new one.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: hottie.

In Great Britain it's not at all remarkable for even quite old people take a hottie to bed with them half the nights of the year.

File:Helen Kane and Betty Boop - Photoplay, April 1932.jpg

Mind you, in Great Britain a hotty or hottie is a hot water bottle.

Spot the Frippet: hottie/hotty. This word comes from the Old English hāt. The Gothic heito means fever

photo by Peng

(In the USA a hottie is a fanciable person.)

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Sunday Rest: exude. Word Not To Use Today.

It's possible to exude a sense of optimism, but there's something about the word exude that reminds me, even in this instance, of horrid things like diseased and depraved clowns.

Most other things people exude I really don't want to think about. 


Still, it's a horrid word for a horrid thing, so I suppose at least it's honest.

Sunday Rest: exude. This word comes from the Latin exsūdāre, from sūdāre, to sweat.