This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the diple.

Oh yes you do: a diple is one of these:  <

Sadly, it's not pronounced DI-pl, but DIPPlee.

I've only really come across the diple in maths, when it means is smaller than (eg 3<4), and sheet music, when it means make this note extra loud, but the diple has a long history. Sometimes it has been used of being used to draw attention to important bits of text, sometimes to serve as a sort of paragraph mark, and sometimes as the ancestor of the speech mark. (Speech marks are still sometimes nearly the same shape as a diple, especially in French).

The diple periestigmene:


or dotted diple was especially useful because it was used to mark dubious passages.

Good grief, we could certainly do with the dotted diple nowadays, couldn't we.

Bring back the dotted diple!

 >. >. >.  >.  >.  >.

Thing To Regret Not Being Able To Use Today: a diple, especially a dotted one. The word diple is the Ancient Greek word for double, because the sign is made up of two lines. It's sometimes also called an antilambda because it looks like a Greek capital letter lambda Λ turned on its side.


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Thing To Do Or Be Today: repent.

I wish I hadn't...

What? Adopted that tiger? Eaten those oysters? Replied honestly to the question how do I look?

If it's the how do I look? one then you'll get double value from repenting. Not only will repenting act as a useful reminder not to do it again, but it might prove to be a first step towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

Well, if you're lucky it might, anyway.

But what's to be done if you're consistently sweet, virtuous, wise, intelligent and reasonable? Or proudly evil, for that matter?

How can you repent then?

Well, by lying on, or creeping along, the ground. Repent is a botanical term which describes stems or shoots etc that travel along the ground rather than upwards. 

It means that today those among us who have nothing at all to repent (or feel no need to do so) can lie down and either contemplate our own perfections... 

...or plot our next evil deed, instead.


Don Giovanni, failing to acknowledge that repentance does have its advantages.

Thing To Do Or Be Today: repent. The feeling-sorry word comes from the Latin paenitēre, and the along-the-ground meaning comes from the Latin rēpere, to creep.








Monday, 23 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: garnish.

I might even be able to remember the first time I saw a garnish. It would have been a sprig of parsley, and it would have been on a piece of deep-fried fish.

File:Garnish (13952207466).jpg
photo by James Petts

It was a thrilling moment. A herb! Food, with a decoration! What sophistication!

(By the way, from the very earliest age I ranked restaurants according to whether they served chips, chipped potatoes or French fried potatoes, thus neatly demonstrating both my life-long interest in the mechanics of language and the sort of restaurants our family could afford to patronise.)

Anyway, a garnish. It's stuff you put on top of a meal and don't mix in. It might be ground nutmeg, it might be chopped coriander, it might be a scattering of violets.

File:Béarnaise sauce with Tarragon garnish.jpeg
photo of a bit of tarragon about to drown in some sauce by Alexander Guy

Some people look down on those who eat the garnish, but they aren't the sort of people worth bothering with.

There are other sorts of garnish, though they're harder to spot. One sort of garnish means to warn that a legal trial is going to take place, or (in previous times) to summon someone to a trial already in progress; another sort of garnish is a payment extorted illegally, as by a jailer from a prisoner, or by any bully from someone less powerful than they are.

Luckily I don't expect anyone to be demanding money from me, so tonight I'll just put some chopped dill on my salmon. 

Well, I will if I've got any dill, anyway.

And any salmon.

Spot the Frippet: a garnish. This word comes from the Old French garnir, to adorn, and before that from some German language, where it might have some loose connection with the word warn.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Sunday Rest: gules. Word Not To Use Today.

Gules is an absolute gargoyle of a word, which is actually rather satisfying because the words gules and gargoyle have a rather surprising thing in common.

File:Gargoyles (Notre-Dame de Paris - South-West).JPG
(Here are some gargoyles on Notre Dame de Paris. Their purpose is to puke rainwater away from the walls of the building.)

What do they have in common? 

It's throats, basically. 

It's like this: gules means red, especially if you're describing the colours on a shield.

File:Gules a fess argent.svg
(Illustration by OdejeaIn the language of heraldry you'd describe this as gules, a fess argent, which means red, with a white (or silver) stripe across the middle.)

But what has the colour red got to do with throats? 

It's all a matter of high-end fashion. In the 1300s in France wearing a bit of red fur round your neck was just the coolest thing ever, and this bit of red fur was called a gueueles, from gole, which meant throat. Before that it came from the Latin gula, which is basically the same word as gullet. 

The word gargoyle comes from the Old French gargouille, which also means throat, and you'd expect these two rather similar words to join together in meaning at some point - but rather annoyingly they don't. People guess that gargouille might be an imitation of a gargling sound.

Ah well. It just goes to show what horribly annoying words they both are, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: gules. Keats talked in The Eve of St Agnes of a stained glass window which threw warm gules on Madeleine's fair breast. But I'm not sure if even he completely got away with it.


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Saturday Rave: The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.

Alexander Pope, whose three hundred and twenty eighth birthday it is today, was a brave little man. I mean little quite literally. He contracted tuberculosis in childhood, and the damage it caused to his bones meant he had a severe hunchback and grew to be less than 140 cm tall.

As if this wasn't enough of a disadvantage, he was a Catholic at a time when Catholics were seen as a grave political threat. They were banned from universities or holding public office, and when Alexander Pope was about twelve years old they were banned from living in London, so he and his parents had to move to the countryside.

Illness, political disadvantages, and a lack of schooling might have suggested a life in quiet retirement, but instead Pope got himself an education by reading all the books he could find, made friends wherever he went - and set out to make as many of the powerful people in England look ridiculous as he possibly could.

This wasn't the safest way to live, and for a time he wouldn't take a walk without his Great Dane at his side and a couple of pistols in his pockets.

So, did he leave us a record of the great bitterness this sadly afflicted and persecuted genius must have felt?

No, not at all. His writings are an absolute blast.

The Rape of the Lock is a Great Epic Poem about a True Incident when a Man Cut off a Lock of his Girlfriend's Hair without Permission. Part of the fun comes from the fact that the Great Tragedy was nothing very important at all, and part from describing the lifestyle of the In-Crowd at the time.


('The Cave of Spleen' from The Rape of the Lock, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley)

Here's a passage about the young lady's preparations for the day ahead.

Unnumber'd treasures ope at once, and here
The various off'rings of the world appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glitt'ring spoil.
This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breaths from yonder box.
The tortoise here and the elephant unite,
Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.
Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.
Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,

A delicious feast of right-minded waspishness, I'd say, and hurrah for the magnificent Alexander Pope.

Word To Use Today: the word pope comes from the Old English papa, from the church Latin for bishop, from the Late Greek papas, father-in-God from the Greek pappas, father.

PS: The Rape of the Lock was a huge hit, and three of Neptune's moons are named after its characters.



Friday, 20 May 2016

Word To Use Today: hunky-dory.

If everything is hunky-dory then everything is fine.

Hunky-dory is marked as informal in my Collins dictionary, and in Britain I'd expect to hear it from someone who might also use Cockney Rhyming Slang.

But, hey, why shouldn't the rest of us be allowed to have some fun?

Word To Use Today: hunky-dory. Hunky-dory is one of those words people enjoy squabbling about. It's definitely American - or, if it's not American, then it's definitely Scots. Or Japanese. Or Latin. Or it comes from a native Alaskan language. 

Or possibly somewhere else.

Anyway, if it's American it might come from hunk, from the Dutch honk, meaning a goal or a 'safe' area in a game. The dory bit in this case is there just to make the word jollier.

The American George Christie's song of 1862,  Hunkey Dorey, began:

One of the boys am I,
That always am in clover;
With spirits light and high,
'Tis well I'm known all over.
I am always to be found,
A-singing in my glory;
With your smiling faces round,
'Tis then I'm hunkey dorey.



On the other hand, if hunky-dory is Japanese then it's perhaps from Honcho dori the name of a street in Yokohama well-known as a place of entertainment for sailors.

The Scots theory is based on unco' dour: but as that means strangely sullen it's hard to see what it has to do with hunky-dory.

The Latin sporting hero Hunkous Dorius, which I found cited on-line, is, I'm pretty certain, nothing but a figment of the imagination of the anonymous poster.

The idea from Irving C Rosse, in his 1883 The First Landing on Wrangel Island with some Remarks on the Northern Inhabitants, that a Bering Straits native language of the people he calls Nakoorooks, gave rise to hunky-dory (un-gi-doo-ruk apparently means huge) is so charming that I really wish it were true.

But I'm afraid I doubt it.



Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Democratic Godfather: a rant.

We've had elections in Britain for various local councils, national assemblies, city mayors, and Police & Crime Commissioners.

Not many people bothered to vote in the Police & Crime Commissioner elections. Various theories have been put forward as to why this might be, such as that P&CC is a newish post, or that people don't understand what a P&CC is supposed to do.

But, hang on, it's obvious why people didn't vote, isn't it?

I mean, who would anyone want to elect someone to commission crime?

Word To Use Today: commission. This word comes from the Latin committere, to commit. 

Which, actually, just makes things seem even worse,