This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 29 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: gum.

Well, there's plenty of gum about, isn't there, and it's mostly dead easy to spot after you've ungummed our eyes in the mornings.

There's chewing gum (just look at any pavement) and the things that hold our teeth in. There's the Yorkshire gum, as in Eh bah gum! which is an exclamation of anything from mild surprise to extreme exasperation.

There's gum arabic, which comes from the tree Acacia nilotica:

(here it is excreting gum)

which is found in drink syrups, marshmallows, edible glitter, wine, printers' ink, medicines, cosmetics,, shoe polish, postage stamps, envelopes, lithographic prints, ceramic glazes and more or less everywhere, really.

In New Zealand gum might be Kauri gum, the fossilised resin of the Kauri tree, which can be carved into works of art: 

There's even a museum dedicated to the stuff.

When I was young we used to have plastic bottles of gum for sticking paper together. You squeezed the stuff out of a slit in a rubbery thing on the top, whereupon your fingers would go instantly filthy, it would make the paper very wet for several hours, and then eventually turn out not to have had the slightest adhesive effect on anything.

Then you were properly up a gum tree, I can tell you.

File:Flowering Gum Tree. (16439672775).jpg
Flowering Gum Tree, New Zealand. Photo by GPS 56

Spot the Frippet: gum. The Yorkshire gum is a polite form of god. The gums in your mouth come from the Old English gōma, which means jaw. The sticky stuff comes from the Old French gomme. from the Latin gummi, from the Egyptian kemai. The expression up a gum tree started off as like a possum up a gum tree (that is, safe from the dogs that have been chasing it) and seems to have started off meaning safe or contented rather than in trouble. A gum tree is so called because the various species exude lots of sticky sap.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Sunday Rest: gulosity. Word Not To Use Today.

Here's one of those old-fashioned words that surely not even a Regius Professor of Pomposity could bring himself to utter.


(Just to make it even worse you say it GYOOlossity.)

It means greed or gluttony.

Now, obviously gluttony in particular is a greatly satisfying word of enormous clattering charm and anyone in their right mind will much prefer it. 

Billy Bunter Chapman Portrait.jpg
Frank Richard's Billy Bunter, illustrated by C. H. Chapman

I suppose that there's something swollen and indigestible about the word gulosity that does echo its meaning.

It certainly echoes the state of the ego of any user, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: gulosity. This word comes from the Latin gulōsitās, from gula, which means gullet.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Saturday Rave: Payment Deferred by C S Forrester.

Payment Deferred was one of the most thrilling reads of my life, and, most annoyingly, it was written when CS Forrester was still in his early twenties. 

Good grief: such twistedness of character and plot, such command of tone, at such a young age! 

(By the way, CS Forrester's real name was Cecil Louis Troughton Smith. Would CL Troughton Smith have been less successful and famous than CS Forrester?)

Anyway, the set-up for Payment Deferred is that a rather unpleasant and resentful bank clerk and family man, William Marble, is visited by a young relation who brings with him an irresistible temptation. 

This thrilling opening ends with a body being buried in William Marble's garden where it gradually poisons the mind of the murderer and the lives of the resident family. Even longed-for wealth, which luckily comes along, can't draw the poison and increasing fear that rises from the hastily-dug grave.

There was capital punishment in England in those days.

There's something particularly horrifying about feeling the terror of an evil person, and this book brings that most vividly to life.

It also ends in the most terrible and haunting way.

Is justice done to the guilty? a way, yes. But it's a way you'll never forget.

Word To Use Today: guilty. This word comes from the Old English gylt, but where the word came from before that is a mystery.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Word To Use Today. Possibly. Although It Might Spoil Things A Bit: petrichor.

I have mixed feelings about the word petrichor. It describes something for which few English-speakers have a name, but at the same time it's a horribly heavy, stomping sort of word.

It describes a rare, effervescent pleasure of the natural world, but manages to sound like a waste-product of the mining industry.

What is it?

Petrichor is the scent of rain on dry earth.

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photo by Pratiksha Kothule

This scent is partly made by the oils that plants excrete to stop their seeds germinating in a dry spell (clever, huh?) and partly from stuff called geosmin, which is excreted by actinobacteria (they're the ones that break down dead stuff so that plants can get at the minerals in it).

Hmmm... from now on am I going to be taking a deep life-enhancing breath on a showery day and saying to myself, oh, the scent of plant family-planning oil and bacteria poo!

Well, rather unfortunately, I think I am, now.


Word To Use Today. Possibly. Although It Might Spoil Things A Bit: petrichor. This word in 1964 by the Australian scientists Isabel Joy Bear and Richard G Thomas in the journal Nature. It comes from the Greek words petra, which means stone, and ichor, the golden fluid that is said to flow through the veins of the gods.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

A fashionable bank: a rant.

What do you want from your bank? A safe place to stash your cash? A reasonable return on your money? A convenient way of dealing with invoices?

I recently got a letter from a large respectable bank (it was founded in 1765 and since the 2008 crash has been partly owned by the British people). The headings on this letter were as follows:

i'd like to save on what i owe and on what i buy

how can i save on what i owe?

and how can i save on what i buy?

what else do i need to know?

do i get anything else?

Do you see what they've done, there? They've noticed that a lower-case letter i is associated with glamorous modern devices as made by Apple, and so they've used it to try to sprinkle some fairy dust over their bank.

Ah, but did fairy dust appear on the list, above, of what people want from a bank?

No. And that's one reason why there's no way I'm going anywhere near them.

Mind you, another is the sheer illiteracy of it.


Word To Use Today: I. In Old English this word was ic. It must have sounded as if everyone had hiccups.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: where the wild words are.

Oh, heavens to Betsy, this is incredible.

Jack Gallant (could there be a better name for a hero?), a neuroscientist at the University of California, has been mapping words to particular parts of the brain.

His aim was to show how words are physically linked, if at all, by meaning. It turns out that different small areas of the brain (he looked at up to 80,000 of them) are associated with groups of related words.

Basically, this means that your brain doesn't contain a dictionary so much as a thesaurus.

One of the most extraordinary things is that all the people studied (they were all English speakers) seem to hold the same groups of words in the same place in the brain. This means that one day a scanner might be able to read minds (though admittedly there were only seven people scanned, and two of them were the authors of the study, so this wasn't really a representative sample).

How did Alexander Huth, the first author of the study, (another hero's name!) make his map? Well, he scanned the brains of people listening to radio short stories and then matched how neural responses matched the words.

Actually, as you'd expect, it's not quite as simple as words having their own places in the brain. Victim, convicted, murdered and confessed are close together, as are wife, husband, children and parents. But a word like table might appear in several places, depending on whether you were talking about an item of furniture, a statistical device, or a geological feature.

The most marvellous thing is that you can see this brain map for yourself and see the word-links HERE.

This is amazing, but I want to know much more. I want to know if a great writer tends to move within the groups of words like an average person, or moves more frequently between them. I want to know if a French speaker groups the same meanings as an English speaker. If there's a difference between the storage systems of men and women. How the words of a second language are grouped.

Oh, but there's just so much more I want to know!

Word To Use Today: link. This word came to us in the 1300s from Scandinavian, but where Scandinavians keep the word link in their brains, and whether it's the same place as I do, I don't yet know.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: secrete something.

Here's another contranym - that is, one of those words which mean both themselves and their own opposites.

So, what sort of secreting shall we do? Shall we ooze moisture, like a maturing cheese? Or shall we, instead of revealing our innards in this way, hide ourselves (or something else) from view?

I suppose the most ambitious of us could run up sweatily up a mountain with a spade and use it to bury something at the top (most sensibly the spade itself, to lighten the journey home) and thus do both at simultaneously.

Anyway, secreting things is good exercise, whether it's the oozing physical sort of secreting or the mental where-on-earth-did-I-put-that? sort.

Just don't blame me when you're trying to find your car keys, that's all.

Thing To Do Today: secrete something. The oozing sort of secrete comes from the word secretion, which comes from the Mediaeval Latin sēcrētiō, a separation.The hiding sort of secrete comes from the word secret, from the Latin sēcrētus, concealed, from sēcernere, to sift. So both are to do with the idea of separation and distinguishing between things.