This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Sunday Rest: keypal. Word Not To Use Today.

At first sight this word looks as if it might be something interesting. Keypal...could that be some exotic Indian fabric? An Iranian porridge? An Indonesian flying squirrel?

Nope. Sorry.

I'm afraid this word describes an electronic relationship. It's a computer-age form of pen pal

Yes, ouch.

Why is the word keypal so depressing? Is it because of the failure of our old-fashioned pen pals, who are generally doomed to fade away because so little that's interesting is important enough to dignify with the use of an envelope, a trip to a postbox, the shoe leather of a postman, and the cost of a stamp?

Of course email leaps gloriously over all those objections. An email can say Thanks! or Ant invasion! or I've just put the washing out and now it's tipping down! (and of course one can do the serious stuff, too). Online relationships with friends and relatives can be quite as important and engrossing as those we have with the people we meet.

Virtual or not, they're genuine relationships. 

So why should anyone dream of diminishing precious email friends by terming them keypals?

Word Not To Use Today: keypal. This word was made up in the 1990s. Luckily, it's never really caught on.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Saturday Rave: Misleading Cases/Uncommon Law by A P Herbert.

Why write fiction?

Well, for money, of course, but perhaps in your own case it might be that fame is the spur. Or you might want to work something out in your head, or you might hope it'll be fun, or you might want to tell the world what a genius you are - or perhaps you want to change the world.

The lawyer, writer, and Member of Parliament Sir Alan Herbert was I'm sure very glad to receive some money for his writing, but he was also out to change the world - and he wanted to have some fun while he was about it. And what gave him (and his readers) a great deal of amusement were the more obscure peculiarities of English Law.

His Misleading Cases, which first appeared as a series in Punch magazine, were explorations of some of the more amazing aspects of the Law, in which Herbert's protagonist Albert Haddock (or, as Haddock insists on appearing in one story about the iniquities of Copyright Law, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock & Co) appears before Mr Justice Swallow to argue his case.

What laws apply if a car collides with a boat? In law, are snails domestic animals or wild and ferocious beasts?

Among all the fun there are serious points to be made. A P Herbert was genuine in his desire to reform the law (though I shouldn't imagine he was too bothered about snails). He was an important campaigner for new laws on divorce (though his own, apparently very happy, marriage lasted fifty six years) and his Misleading Cases sometimes had pointed things to say about, for instance, defamation, liquor licensing, or the use of the police as agents provocateurs.

Delightfully, AP Herbert's Misleading Cases were several times mistaken for genuine cases by legal experts with no sense of humour; and, even more delightfully, because the stories are firmly based on real law, they have even sometimes been quoted in judicial decisions.

A great hero, A P Herbert, and his stories (and his more serious novels) are terrifically entertaining reads, too.

Word To Use Today: law. This word comes from the Old English lagu, from a Scandinavian word. The Icelandic lög means things laid down.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Word To Use Today: kibble.

Kibble is actually two words - or three if you count a linked verb-and-noun twice - and I can't think why we don't use it more often.

I mean, wouldn't you feel happier for saying the word kibble? You know you want to.


See? Happiness and satisfaction in a twitch of the tongue and a pout of the lips.


A kibble can either be a bucket used in a well or mine for hoisting things, or (especially in America) it can mean pellets used as pet food. 

Okay, I admit you might not come across either of those sorts of kibble very often, but kibbled wheat or rye can be found in some of the chewier types of bread, and kibbled onions are those dried onion pieces sold in tubs to people who don't really like the taste of onion.

Luckily we also have the verb kibble, which means to grind into small pieces, so anyone who uses a pepper mill, or cooks with whole spices, or makes real coffee, is having a jolly good kibble

Sometimes happiness can be found in the smallest things, can't it.


Word To Use Today: kibble. The bucket word comes from the German Kübel from the Latin cuppa, which means cup. Sadly, the origins of the pellet sort of kibble is a mystery.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Technicolors: a rant.

Look, if you want to sell something - a pair of boots or a sofa, say - and you plan to sell it by means of a catalogue, advertisement or website - then it's no good describing its colour as forest, mango, vole, cherry, or trout.

Sunrise will not relay enough information.

Neither will flame, calypso, festival or pony.

I mean, is forest green or brown? Is cherry red, or something nearer cerise (see what I did, there?)? 

Mango - is that yellow or green?

Is that pony a bay or a chestnut?

And, oh, good grief, and that's not a rainbow trout, is it?

Please, please, we can't be sure half the time from the pictures, so just tack a simple green onto the end of forest and we'll know where we are. 

Sunset orange. Festival red. Pony brown.

You never know, I might even buy something, then.

photo by Ken Hammond/USDA

Word To Use Today: trout. This satisfying word comes from the Old English trūht, from the Latin tructa, from the Greek troktēs, which means sharp-toothed fish. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the Law of Naming.

Why shouldn't you call your child Cupcake?

Well, for several reasons, but in England none of them are legal. Some other places in the world, however, have naming laws. The justification for these laws is sometimes social, sometimes grammatical, and sometimes practical, religious or political. Portugal has forty-one pages of banned names (which include all shortened forms of names as well as nicknames).

Kind Italy, full of pity at the thought of a poor child saddled with a stupid name, bans ridiculous and shameful names, and a similar feeling is presumably behind Sweden's decision to ban the names Metallica and Ikea. Germany insists that a child's name should not lead to humiliation (Germany also bans non-sex-specific names, surnames-as-given-names, and proper nouns). In Mexico the same sort of principle of avoiding humiliation has led to a ban on literary characters and film franchises (so presumably James Bond is a double no-no (a no-no-no-no?)).

Grammatical reasons limit Icelandic names. You can only have a name that can be written in the Icelandic alphabet (so no Cs, for instance) and it has to be convertible into Icelandic genitive form. Danish names must follow standard Danish spelling (so you can't have a Hannns, for example). 

There's a ban on Hebrew spellings in Morocco, and Tajikstan is thinking about a ban on Muslim names. Saudi Arabia bans names such as Nabi (prophet) and Jibreel (Gabriel) which are seen as contrary to religion. Saudi Arabia also bans foreign names such as Maya and Linda, a presumably political principle shared with Kyrgystan, which is proposing a ban on Russian ones.

From a practical point of view, California bans diacritical marks (ie what are usually called accents, as in José) because they're a nuisance on computers. Other states of the USA ban pictograms and numerals for the same reason, and New Zealand bans names which are unreasonably long. China also bans names which can't be entered into a computer, which apparently, astonishingly, has meant that one Chinese couple were unable to call their child @.

Lastly, Malaysia bans the names of animals, fruit and vegetables. 

Oh dear...and I have so wished for a Malaysian grandchild called Warthog Banana Turnip, too.

Word To Use Today: a name that's banned in some other country. Like mine, perhaps (presumably banned in Portugal because it's a shortened form of Sarah).

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Thing To Do Today. Possibly: be jaunty.

An odd word, jaunty. It means sprightly in a cheerfully self-satisfied sort of a way. 

Is this a good thing? 

Well, a jaunty salesperson will be full of information and impervious to disappointment, and to see a jaunty stranger must evoke a certain wondering amusement (what's he got to be so pleased with himself about?).

And what has he got to be so pleased with himself about? Well, if it's his own beauty and intelligence (and it's quite easy to tell) then all we can hope for is a happily-placed banana skin. But if it's the glory of the world and its inhabitants that has filled him with enthusiasm and joy then he'll be bringing a bit of sunshine with him.

And we'll all flock round him, to bask in its rays.

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: be jaunty. This word comes from the French gentil, which mean noble. In English the word started off meaning well-bred, then changed to meaning elegant and smart before moving towards the sort of jaunty we know today.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: something primeval.

Something primeval (or primaeval) originated so long ago that it comes, or seems to come, from the very origins of the world.

Humans being of such recent manufacture (only about a quarter of a million years) and even shorter memory, primeval is however used to mean more or less anything older than that.

So, mountains can be called primeval, even ones like Everest that are so young they're actually still growing. (If you want to see really old rocks then you must go to the Acasta River in Canada, where the gneiss is thought by some to be four billion years old. Mind you, even that is half a billion years younger than the Earth itself, or, to put it another way, two thousand times longer than humans have existed).

A landscape without plants might be called primeval - well, unless it's all tarmac and skyscrapers it might, anyway.

Dinosaurs would probably count, too. I know they're not around much, but any reptile would probably count:

File:Cordylus niger - Black Girdled Lizard with millipede on its nose.JPG
photo of black girdled lizard with a millipede on its nose taken on Table Mountain by Abu Shawka

 as would some of the spikier birds, like herons:

File:Great Grey Heron.jpg
Great Blue Heron: photo by Scott Bauer

But, having said all that, the fun of a word like primeval lies in its invitation to sarcasm. So, if you know anyone with an three-year-old mobile phone...

Spot the Frippet: something primeval. What I really like about this word (all right, I admit it) is that although it means really really old, it comes from the Latin prīmaevus, which means youthful, from prīmus, first, plus aevum, age.