This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 1 September 2014

Spot the Frippet: platinum.

The metal platinum is rare, precious, and difficult to spot. But luckily a platinum blonde:

is pretty much unmissable.

Also numerous are platinum discs. There are lots of them, though just how many depends upon where you are. A platinum disc is a recording that's sold a million copies in the USA. In Britain, though, an album only has to have sold 300,000 copies (600,000 for a single) for it to be called platinum.

Then there's platinum metal, which anyone with any sense would assume to be, well, the metal that's called platinum, but probably isn't: it can be ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium or iridium, as well. 

So, anyway, where can you spot platinum? About thirty per cent of the platinum mined goes into jewellery, so you could scan people's fingers; about fifty per cent goes into the catalytic converters of vehicles.

Rather wonderfully, some of that platinum gets puffed out with the vehicles' exhaust fumes.

So the easiest way to spot some platinum is to find some dust on a road near you. A year's worth of dust from a kilometre of road might yield as much as a £1000's worth of platinum.

Good grief. That's even better than the streets being paved with gold.

Has anyone got a metal detector?

Spot the frippet: platinum. This word comes from the Spanish platina, little silver.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Sunday Rest: zamzawed. Word Not To Use Today.


It looks like an Arabic word, does zamzawed, or perhaps it might be Hindi. Or on the other hand all those zeds are irresistibly reminiscent of Zanzibar, so perhaps zamzawed is a Kiswahili word.

Wherever it comes from, zamzawed must surely mean something deeply mysterious. It must be an ancient wedding-custom, or a dish of golden spices, or a conclave of magicians.

Mustn't it?

(Oh, and by the way, how do you say it?)

Well, I've done the research, and I can announce that zamzawed is...

...deeply disappointing. In fact it's one of the most disappointing words in the English language.

For a start you say it ZAMzd; secondly it comes from England; and thirdly it describes tea that's been left stewing in the teapot until it's strong, bitter, and disgusting.

See? Not a houri, magic carpet, or smallest wisp of romance in sight.


Japanese Dragon Teapot Black White Line Art Coloring Book Colouring 555px.png

Sunday Rest: zamzawed. I can't find any details of where this word comes from, but it's used in the USA, too, where it describes food that's been cooked until it's dried up.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Saturday Rave: Peter Pan by JM Barrie

Some people hate JM Barrie's book Peter Pan (and I must admit it does rather horrify me) but no one, I imagine, thinks it dull.

Because, say what you like, Peter Pan is full of brilliant and original ideas. I mean, surely the ticking crocodile alone is enough to keep the story alive forever.

Peter Pan is also responsible for making the public aware of the name Wendy (some even say that Barrie made up the name himself, based on a young acquaintance's mispronunciation of "Friendy". Ouch!).

File:Peter Pan 1915 cover.jpg

Barrie's original 1904 stage play of Peter Pan was followed in 1911 by a version re-telling the story as a novel. In 1929, after what was probably a highly profitable delay, Barrie gave the copyright of the novel to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

There's no avoiding the fact that Peter Pan is a very strange book indeed. The hero is as psychopathic a character as I've come across in fiction, and although the book is far from loveless - three of the four main female characters are shown as intensely nurturing - the love that's portrayed does generally seem to be uncomfortably close to smothering tyranny and selfishness.

On the whole hatred comes across as a much more comprehensible and successful way of surviving than love.

So it's not an easy ride, is Peter Pan.

But it is an awfully big adventure.

Phrase To Use Today: Wendy House. The name Wendy was occasionally used before Peter Pan as a short form of Gwendolen. Gwen is Welsh and means white, fair, or blessed.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Word To Use Today: pantaloon(s).

What's the singular of pantaloons

Well, it's not Pantaloon, certainly. Pantaloon was quite, quite different.

Everything started with him, though, all the same.

Pantaloon was a silly old man who used to try to separate the lovers in English pantomime. He was the one who got all the tricks played on him. In Italy, in commedia dell'arte, he's a dirty old man, too, a merchant, who wears, yes, pantaloons.

Picture by Maurice Sand

So what are pantaloons?

Well, that depends on how old they are, because they've grown over the years - and, as with so many of us, they've mostly grown outwards. They started off in the late 1700s as tight-fitting men's trousers, as in the picture above, especially the sort with built-in stirrups.

Then they had a life as children's wear:

Picture from 1838. They're still trousers, but they're quite a bit baggier.

Nowadays pantaloons are a jokey name for any sort of trousers, but especially very baggy ones gathered at the ankle. 

File:Brooklyn Museum - Two Woman Posing in Provincial Costumes including Pantaloons Chaqchur One of 274 Vintage Photographs.jpg

Lately, in fashion circles, they're sometimes called harem pants.

In non fashion circles, pleasingly, they've taken themselves back to the pantomime, when you can sometimes see them worn as underpants by the more ladylike sort of dame.

Word To Use Today: pantaloon. This garment is named, improbably, after a saint. San Pantaleone was a 4th century saint from Venice. Pantalone became an Italian nickname for a Venetians, who were famous merchants, and hence for the merchant in commedia dell'arte.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ahead of the game: a rant.

Yes, yes, I know, I know! Language changes.

As if has now more often than become like, as in it looked like the flowers were weeping - and it doesn't really matter...except in that example, obviously...still. A few deep breaths and perhaps a short meditation course and I lurch on through life practically unscathed.

But even so...

I got this the other day from the Kindle people:

Dear KDP* Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book.

Now I know that nowadays a lot of the time ahead of is used instead of before. Ahead of can mean in front of, too, and that's not a problem. But if something happens ahead of something else then the two things have to be connected in some way. You do x ahead of y because otherwise y won't happen.

We erected the marquee ahead of the wedding is ghastly, but it does at least make sense (though, please note, in a ghastly sort of a way)...

...actually, do you know something? I'm not even convincing myself. Before. Use before. I mean, it has fewer letters. Fewer words, too. It takes up less space.

And it will make people much much less likely to let out an anguished gargling scream and press DELETE when they come across it in an email.

Well, it'd work with me, anyway.

Artwork by Jon Bogdanove. If Superman's tights go on ahead of his underpants doesn't that mean they should arrive first?

Word To Use Today As Long As You Do It Properly: ahead. The head bit of this word comes from the Old English hēafod.

*Kindle Direct Publishing.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Nuts and Bolts: pirate words.

William Dampier wasn't a pirate.


#5 William Dampier
First person to circumnavigate the world three times. He knows how to get around curves.
A pirate AND a scientist. Arrrr, I’d let him research me all day long…
Coined the words ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, and ‘chopsticks’ Mmmm.
Inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe.

I read the book, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.  Very good read, this guy was amazing.  I’ll read just about any book about pirates.

 Not exactly.

He sailed the Spanish Main trying to capture (and sometimes succeeding in capturing) merchant ships, but quite a lot of the time he was licenced to do that by the British government. So that makes him technically a privateer.

The British government thought so much of Dampier that he was eventually given command of a Royal Navy ship. Mind you, it was such a wreck of a ship that it sank under him - and then when he finally got home he was court-martialled (for cruelty) - but that doesn't mean he was anything like a pirate. Does it.

Dampier had very many adventures on the seas. He was the first person to sail round the world three times; he made some of the first notes about the plants and animals of what later became known as Australia (and drew some of the first charts of Australia, too); he rescued Alexander Selkirk, who inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe; he was known to Johnathan Swift, who put Dampier into Gulliver's Travels.

In 1697 Dampier wrote a book himself. It was called A New Voyage Round the World, and he publicised it by showing (for profit) the tattooed Prince Jeoly and his mother, both of whom he had purchased on his voyage.

Now tell me: does that sound like a pirate to you?

As well as slaves and stories and science and sensation and spoils, William Dampier brought words back with him from his travels: sub-species, avocado, breadfruit, caress, cashew, chopsticks, petrel, posse, snug and barbecue are all words that he seems to have been the first to write down.

And the words, at least, must have been acquired honestly, too.

Word To Use Today: one of Dampier's. Cashew, for example, comes from the Portuguese cajú , from the Tupi acajú.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thing To Have Today: a globus hystericus.

I went to The Tower the other day.

Which Tower?

Well, if you're English then The Tower will always be the Tower of London. Going to The Tower still sounds dangerous and horrifying to us, kindling a fear of being imprisoned for a long time in horrid circumstances with small chance of ever getting out in one piece.

And when I say one piece I mean that quite literally.

The Tower (which isn't a tower at all, but a castle) contains the Crown Jewels, a thousand years of history, and, at the moment, a remarkable work of art.

In the grass surrounding the outside walls are planted china poppies, one for each British or Colonial person killed in the First World War. There are great swathes and hosts of them, flowing like blood.

The poppies keep coming!
Oh, but look at how many there are. How many! Could anyone see them and see the crowds around regarding them, and not get a lump in his throat?

Not me, for one. Not me.

Thing To Have Today: a globus hystericus. This is the medical term for a lump in the throat. It's odd, because while globus is the Latin for a round thing, hystericus comes from the Greek hustera, which means womb. Which is obviously in a different part of the anatomy entirely.

The Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red exhibition, by artist Paul Cummins, involves 888,246 ceramic poppies.